Ten years later….
“And the student of the year award goes to Ms. Kajal Manohar Shinde, final year BA-literature. Not only has she excelled in academics, but she has been an allrounder. She has actively participated in various intercollegiate competitions and has brought accolades to this institution. We are proud to have her as our student.
We would also like to announce that Ms. Kajal has been one of the few fortunate from the country to be selected by the reputed University of Winchester for their renowned Master’s program in the literature that would commence next year. We have enrolled her for the bridge course in our college for the upcoming year and the subjects are of her choice.
We congratulate her on behalf of the management, staff, and students and wish her a bright future….” The emcee announced, and the auditorium roared.
Kajal walked up to the dais amidst the shower of claps and hoots. Holding the corner knot in her modest faded cotton dupatta, she blinked back tears, remembering her mother, who had always been encouraging irrespective of their dire financial status. This was her dream!
Aai, where did you go?
There was a shrill whistle jostling her to the present. She looked below to see Rahul dressed in his blue checks shirt neatly tucked into his trousers. He was the most decent guy in college and every girl’s dream boyfriend to introduce to their parents. But Rahul liked her, and she knew it though she hadn’t reciprocated. At 21 years, she had loads of responsibilities on her tender shoulders and didn’t have the time to invest in a relationship.
She sniffed and walked towards the dignitaries and accepted the trophy and the certificate.
She was asked to say a few words, and she nodded, walking towards the mic.
“Hello everyone….” Everyone roared, and it took enormous efforts on teachers and other staff to bring them to silence. Kajal smiled and continued.
“…First of all, I would like to thank my teachers and my batchmates, as well as the seniors and juniors, for having supported my endeavors. My life in these five years in this esteemed college right from 11th grade to date has been a dream… a dream from which I don’t want to wake up.…” there was giggling and murmur
“…I thank the management for the opportunity of doing the year-long bridge course, but unfortunately I will have to decline…” the auditorium was now silent with soft murmurs.
The teachers and the principal looked at each other. Kajal paused, giving everyone time to assimilate what she just rendered.
“…I am sorry I won’t be able to join the University of Winchester either… So, the upcoming final exams next month will mark the end of my studies. Thank you, everyone, once again….”
The auditorium was now in complete silent mode. Kajal bowed to everyone, and picking up her trophy; she turned to leave the stage.
As she walked outside the auditorium building, she was surrounded by her close friends. She wiped her calmy hands to her simple lemon-yellow salwar-kameez her only good outfit that she had reserved for events. She tried to plaster a smile even as tears threatened.
“What is this Kajal…?” Her best friend Raina asked huffing. “…this was an opportunity of a lifetime…Come on, yaar!” The stubby girl stood with her hands on her hips.
It was then that Kajal saw Rahul navigate the crowd and move towards them. That was the last thing she needed, a confrontation with him. So, she dragged her friends away, and they ran till they reached outside the vast campus. It was lunchtime, so the campus was filled with a sea of students loitering around.
They moved under a tree to escape the wrath of the afternoon sun.
“Now shoot Kajal…” This time her other friend Shivani spoke, annoyance dripping from her voice. “… this was an opportunity to escape your crappy life. Why did you decline? You would have received a modest stipend for a year….”
“Look, Raina, Shivu… you know my situation. I am in the dumps, just a little away from hitting rock bottom. Baba’s medical expenses are now getting tough to bear with… as I had told you, the savings are all exhausted, and so have all the severance pay he got six years ago. I sold all the jewelry left behind by aai… I have nothing left, and baba still needs care. Besides, Krunal is now in the 9th grade. I haven’t paid his fees installment…It’s tough. Forget the stipend, I can’t afford the education even with a scholarship. And what will happen to Krunal then?” her voice choked, thinking of her younger brother, who had matured up far ahead of his 14 years.
Her friends only stood watching the crowd move.
“Kajal seems like Rahul is looking for you. By the way, he had proposed, right? So why don’t you accept? You can eventually get married, and he is fine with Krunal living with you as well. He is OK with you going abroad for studies, ready to wait… you like him too, right?” Raina spoke calculatingly.
Kajal sighed. “It doesn’t matter if I like him or not. Marrying just because I want something from him is wrong. It’s not that at all. He is a great guy, but I can’t burden him or anyone else with my problems. I have borrowed money from mama for the next couple of months and hopefully will get a job after exams.”
“What about that part-time work in the café next to your home?” Raina asked
“I had to stop. I couldn’t spend more time because Krunal was getting neglected… He had to give up on tuition for that… He says he doesn’t need it, but I know its tough for him to manage… I feel so helpless at times.” This time she couldn’t keep tears at bay.
“I wish I could help you, Kajal, but besides moral support, I can’t do anything….” Shivani lamented.
“You two are my pillars of strength. Without you, I don’t think I could have lasted this long.” Kajal squeezed their hands grateful for the sprinkle of blessings in form of her friends.
Kajal escaped Rahul and hurried to the bus stop. She had switched off her phone hours ago to escape the texts and calls form her batchmates and teachers. She just wanted few moments of solitude to gather her thoughts. Her repaired footwear bit into her ankle, but she didn’t have a choice now; every penny mattered. As she waited for her bus, her life flashed before her eyes.
They had been a happy family where her father, a sub-inspector with Mumbai Police, and her mother, a homemaker, doted on her. They lived in the police quarters at Andheri, and she had been well provided for. Her baba especially treated her like a princess even after Krunal had arrived when she was 7. Her aai was a beautiful woman who had eloped with her baba when she was barely 20 and had never looked back. Aai wanted to become a fashion designer but had given up on her dreams.
But aai never seemed unhappy, so eleven years ago, when she suddenly disappeared, it came as a shock to all of them. Baba had been excessively preoccupied in a classified case and was never home. Was aai, a staunch devotee of Lord Ganesha, feeling neglected? Kajal had always wondered. But at ten she couldn’t fathom the turn of events.
Baba was never the same again. He had taken to the bottle and was always angry, taking out his frustration on Krunal and her. Finances were tough, but she somehow managed so far. She never had a proper childhood or fun moments like children in her class, but she didn’t complain. She had to look out for her brother.
Then that horrific day ten years ago, her father was grievously injured in the line of duty. It was devastating for them, and they came over to stay with her mother’s brother to save on the costs. Since then, her father was almost vegetative and after months of hospitalization his permanent address was now, the tiny storeroom in her uncle’s modest home.
Kajal had tried her best to make him comfortable, but the treatment costs had skyrocketed beyond their capacity. Her uncle wanted to help, but he wasn’t well off either…
Kajal’s mami wasn’t happy with the intrusion in her tiny gamut. Kajal’s cousin, brother, and sister were much older and weren’t happy to share their rooms and things. But her uncle had been firm, so they had relented. Form the go, it was a life filled with mocks and insults every step of the way. Kajal tried to keep Krunal away from everything, but she had to bear the brunt of the constant taunts thrown their way.
Being good in studies, she took up home tuitions for younger kids in the neighborhood, earning their keep in the house.
She had tried her best to juggle the expenditure and also tried looking for her mother, but there was no trace of the woman. Was her aai so unhappy that she didn’t even miss her children?
There were talks at home, where her mami often spoke about the wastage of money on the vegetative man. She had even contemplated sending Kajal and Krunal to an orphanage.
Her uncle had stood by the kids much to the chagrin of his wife and had put his foot down. Once eighteen, Kajal had withdrawn their meager savings nominated to her, and her aunt had been pacified. She sold off aai’s little jewelry, but nothing ever sufficed.
Her college had been kind enough to wave off half her fees given her scholastic abilities. She was the recipient of a philanthropist’s generous program throughout college. She hoped to meet the person someday to thank him/her for saving her life, in a way.
Did you see aai? I belive in Ganesha too… just like you taught me…
Kajal had spoken to a kind neighbor who had promised her a job at his PR firm right after her exams. Despite her situation, she had been an ace student and hoped her accolades would help with the job. That would take a load off her uncle’s aging shoulders.
Throughout her journey homewards, she was lost in thought about spending the upcoming two months in deep turmoil. She was tired of facing the curveballs life threw at her and hoped to get a respite.
Aai where are you when I need you the most?
As she walked towards her home, she saw a small crowd that had gathered outside the flat. Everyone moved as she approached. Her heart stilled, wondering what had happened.
Just then, Krunal saw her and rushed outside, hugging her, crying into her shoulder.
“Tai, why did you switch off your phone…? baba died… an hour ago….”