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Maybe a little darker. Kajal hesitated and he took the seat before she could respond to the question. Rude, she thought. She liked that. The girl dies and everyone cries. All his books are the same book. She started reading, mindlessly. She forgot which paragraph she was on. That is why I read all of them. Well, initially I just read one because I saw you reading it and thought we would have something to talk about.
He nodded approvingly. Dushyant had always been more interested in books that took him beyond the realm of the obvious. A memoir of a serial killer. An out-of-print trilogy about a deranged doctor. And more. Her eyes roved around nervously as an uneasy silence hung between them.
He looked sturdy, the veins in his forearms were consistently thick and they disappeared inside his Tshirt, which fit him snuggly. He was undeniably muscular. He could have shaved, at least! He retracted it, blushing.
She could tell he was nervous. His legs shook. Kajal started reading again. The same paragraph, over and over. Dushyant sat there looking at her, and at his palms, rubbing them together, looking here and there, shifting his feet and fidgeting with his phone. Or … really sweet? Dushyant had turned beetroot red. Instead, he gazed at his own weathered palms. He looked vulnerable, embarrassed and needy. Maybe even a little high. Kajal let a little smile slip. Dushyant caught that and blushed a little more.
Two years? Dushyant smiled, and his eyes lit up like the fourth of July. Quite frankly, his choice in books scared her. They dated for eight months.
They had come a long way from the time they had first met in the library and had talked about books, his waning obsession with weight training, her growing dissatisfaction with her career choice, his problems with his parents, her loving sisters, and last but not the least, his enduring fixation with her.
Dushyant was never the perfect boyfriend. Her friends hated him with all their heart, but not as much as her sisters. One could imagine a news presenter for an idea of what she looked like. Her clothes, understated, were always perfectly matched. She aimed to soothe. Her fair skin, the defined nose and the confident walk meant business. Dushyant was abrasive. He was quarrelsome. He was possessive. It took Kajal one month to realize that Dushyant was beyond obsessive, almost to the point of being schizophrenic.
He drank too much, he smoked too much, and he loved her too much. He had waited two years to tell her he loved her.
He swore he would spend a lifetime doing it. Sometimes, it was sweet. It looked to her like he cared; on other occasions, she was scared. Not scared that they would break up and never see each other again, but scared of what he would do to her. At first, Kajal used to like the little tabs Dushyant kept on her. He used to get jealous at the mention of her ex-boyfriends, fume at her for spending more time with her friends, chide her for staying out till late, and ask her to not to drink in his absence.
Kajal found it thoughtful. Dushyant made her feel wanted. He never let go of her hand, hugged her whenever she needed it, and made love to her like no one else had.
Kajal felt like she was enveloped in a protective bubble wrap, something that would absorb anything with the potential to harm her. But soon, the bubble wrap would become suffocating. Kajal loved Dushyant with whatever she had. When they lay on the open grounds of their college late in the evening, his rough, gym-scarred fingers wrapped around hers, she felt complete. As evenings turned into nights, nights into days, and days back into evenings, their love for each other grew.
Dushyant always said Kajal had none. Kajal always smiled, even when she felt pushed to the edge by her control-freak boyfriend. He had done that many times since the first occasion, but Kajal still felt the chills run down her spine like the first time. But he was the one she would remember forever; she was sure of that.
His touch, the things he said in her ear whenever they were in the back alley of the dark library, the lingering feeling of his hands on her bare stomach, his loving fingers on her creamy inner thighs, the wet, gentle touch of his tongue on her ears … she would never get over them.
The conviction in his voice was very unsettling; it often made her wonder what would happen if, God forbid, they ever broke up. It will take time. Kajal never liked to talk about his drinking problem. She loved him, so she had to. But she had had enough. The steroids he took as bodybuilding supplements, the marijuana, the never-ending cigarettes … his addictions kept piling up.
I hope you understand that. I have nothing to gain out of restricting you from your addictions. I will stop smoking. I am addicted to my cigarettes. It sounds fair to me. I have never pointed my finger at that. I never call her anyway. But you do call Varun. There are times you put my call on hold to pick up his. Sometimes you talk till the dead of night or early morning. What do I make of all this? If you need more friends, why not someone else? Why do you have to be friends with your ex-boyfriend, of all people?
I have told you a million times that there is nothing between us. She thought about all the times Dushyant had got drunk and harped on about how he hated Varun with every cell in his body. Kajal knew he did. He is a friend. How can I just stop talking to him? He dumped you. He was dating someone else while he was still dating you.
How could he do that to you? The movie ended and they exited the movie hall. You spent days crying for him. I felt alone and lonely. Not because I missed him as a boyfriend but because I missed him as a friend.
I had no one to go to.
How does that work? You have a boyfriend. The waiter promptly rushed towards them and Dushyant swatted him away rudely.
The shocked waiter lingered on. Believe me. He is just a friend. I love you and nothing changes that. I am fine. You talk to him, you sleep with him. The rest of the evening, he was rude to her. Dushyant was rough with her that night. There were no intermittent, passionate love-yous exchanged during the course.
There were just grunts and groans. It was almost like he wanted to hurt her physically. Kajal hoped he would be okay the next day, but it only became worse. The next evening, Dushyant was drunk out of his wits again. Old Monk. Chivas Regal. Nail-polish remover. I will never quit drinking or smoking! He had passed out and was frothing at the mouth. Kajal filled out the paperwork in the hospital the next day and got him back to the hostel. Within that month, it happened thrice.
Each subsequent time, it was worse. By now, Kajal was used to his druken tantrums. The abuses, the name-calling, the threats—she had become used to everything. It was the price for true love, she told herself. She vowed she would never go back to him. Kajal lay with her head on the pillow, her thoughts going back to every time Dushyant had said they would last and that he would never hurt her.
She believed in him. It was all lies. The memories of the day they had broken up were imprinted on her brain, and she knew she would never forget what had happened. He had not reacted at first. But as the night progressed, he started to get drunk. And angry. Shot after shot was downed. His eyes were bloodshot. Later that night, after an argument, he had struck Kajal on her face while he cried and howled like an animal.
Everyone, friends of both Dushyant and Kajal, had watched helplessly as she fell and hit the chair, reeling from the impact of his heavy hand on her face. He had locked himself in a room. All his friends had banged on the door relentlessly, scared that he might overdose inside. Kajal had pleaded with him to open the door.
He had let her inside. There were no words exchanged. For the first time, Dushyant had forced himself on her. He had treated her worse than a whore and violated her repeatedly. Once done, he had rolled over, drunk from the bottle of vodka, and passed out. A crying Kajal had left the flat and gone back home. She had texted Dushyant telling him they were over and he was dead to her.
For the next six days, he had kept calling her. Her decision to stay away from him had strengthened. Tired and angry, she had told him that she had never loved him and that she was thinking of getting back with Varun. The calls had stopped immediately.
Again, she had no one to talk to. Long time. Where have you been? I dropped you about a million texts. I never liked him either. That narrowminded bastard. No boyfriend likes the exboyfriends of their girls. He is immature and hot-tempered. Kajal choked on her words. That bastard! How could he? What else did he do? He texted her to ask whether she was at her college hostel or home. A little voice inside her wanted to ask Varun to stay away, but it was silenced by the tears that trickled down her face.
Kajal needed her best friend. Her pale-white skin still bore the marks of his rough hand. She saw Varun park his car in the parking lot of the Defence Colony market. Varun belonged to a family with means. His father owned one of the biggest printing presses in Delhi. Varun had transformed a lala-type family business into a seething, angry corporate giant. He was ambitious and cut-throat. He worked eighteen hours a day, travelled extensively for business and took his work very seriously.
Kajal liked that in him, but it was also the root of discord between them. The meetings, the late-night flights, the investor presentations, the bank-loan agreements— between all this, he never had time for Kajal. For the major part of their relationship, Kajal was too awestruck to notice his absolute lack of commitment to the relationship. Kajal had always wondered what he saw in her. They broke up when he slept with someone on a business tour to Shillong.
They had drifted apart long before that. What surprised her was her indifference to his betrayal. Without waking anyone, Kajal sneaked out of her place. He looked as if he had aged ten years in one. Long hours in the office, she guessed. He had even lost some hair. He has asked me to start exercising too, but who has the time? You look like you have a couple of kids already. Kajal narrated her side of the story.
She broke down a couple of times and realized that everyone had turned towards them. He listened patiently, ignoring all the uninvited looks from the nearby tables. Varun finished the salad and they walked towards his car. A girl like her, pretty and docile, why did she have to cry at all?
And wept. Before this, he used to shout at you and threaten you. Now he has hit you. If you let him get away with this, he will keep doing it. First to you, then to the others he dates after you. You have to realize that he is mentally unfit to be in a relationship. He has no sense of boundaries.
The sooner you do, the better it will be for you. Varun hugged her, and told her that everything would be all right. She wanted to believe him like she had believed him earlier, like she had believed Dushyant. For the next few days, Varun often dropped in after college timings to check in on Kajal.
She was doing better, but she still missed Dushyant. She felt bad for herself that she did. Dushyant, on the other hand, tried his best to apologize and make things better.
He called her that night, abused her and called her a slut. He told her that she must have cheated on him, that she was sleeping with Varun all this time. Kajal spent the next day crying. Varun was there to hold her hand. And to kiss her.
She kissed Varun back. She was no longer in a restrictive, abusive relationship with a guy with an appalling lack of respect for her. She had broken free and walked right back into her past.
Broken arms, sprained ankles, torn ligaments, et cetera. Usually interns worked in pairs, but Arman was never a big fan of rules.
No one knew what he enjoyed more, flouting them or challenging the hospital authorities afterwards. Zarah had not been able to forget those words. She used to check every medicine thrice, sometimes even more, before administering it to any patient. Even if it was just cough syrup. Though Zarah usually worked in the opulent office of her boss, his overbearing presence used to made her jittery. The presence of any man made her feel jittery. She clearly remembered her first day in the hospital, with men crawling everywhere.
Ward boys. Their eyes like slithering snakes on her body—undressing her, violating her and rubbing their naked, sweaty, hairy bodies against her in their heads. In those moments, all her latent hatred for men bubbled over and she had a severe mental breakdown. Zarah had never been in a co-ed school or college and it was on her insistence. Staying away from men was the only way she could banish the horrors of her past.
Ever since she had started her internship, an alarming number of interns, resident doctors and senior doctors had showered her with attention.
It fuelled her need for sleeping pills and antidepressants. His searching eyes made her feel uncomfortable, like she had been doused with a bucket full of rotting maggots. Or was it lust? Maybe he was trying the primal, old-fashioned way to get her into bed. Zarah wanted to run away. Like every rape victim, Zarah, too, had read all the books, documents, reports and guides that helped victims move on with their lives.
He wraps up the most number of cases. If other doctors are men, he is God. Plus, he now has me for filing his reports. She was agitated. She could sense him licking his lips greedily. The maggots had entered her clothes. They were everywhere. Small, slithering and slimy. She could feel his hands on her thighs.
The maggots reached her face. They entered her nose, her ears. She was losing it. Want to go for lunch? She wanted him dead.
The maggots were gone. She still felt filthy. Zarah had lunch with a girl intern that afternoon, like the many afternoons before that. She liked her. She was sweet, caring and very hard-working. Multi-organ failure. A nerve-related problem. Why are you asking?
Do you have a patient? First year, Maulana medical school. Zarah handed over the file to the girl, who pored through it from behind her blue-rimmed spectacles. She is getting admitted here. It says here she experienced a lack of sensation during an examination. I just googled her name. She was All India Rank 3 this year. It was no secret that the patient was dying.
I hate these diseases. No underlying cause and absolutely no fault of the patient.
Remember what Dr Mehra taught us. Be emotional about the disease, not the patient. She spotted something very uncommon, if not downright strange. None of the effects of ALS on the body are reversible, but Pihu had regained some use of her hands, and her speech had become clearer over the last few months. How can that be? Can that be the reason why Arman is trying to treat a person whose death sentence has already been written? Is she the answer to the disease? She knew that Arman was on the research panel of doctors looking for a cure for ALS.
She made a mental note to ask him. After all, he did admit to being an external consultant to the patient. There was something definitely amiss with this situation. Just as she finished eating, her phone rang.
Dr Arman is not available. Should I put the call through? I wanted to know about a patient admitted in your hospital. Dushyant Roy? He has a liver problem. Are you a relative?
May I know who you are? The room on whose walls she had always imagined she would hang her diplomas and degrees. She looked at the photo frames with pictures of her as a toddler, the bedsheets and the tonnes of books she had so lovingly arranged. She wondered if she would get to read even a third of them. She was distraught. For all the times she had craved to be in a medical school, she got only three months.
It had been nine months since then. The loss of sensation meant she had to drop out of medical school as soon as four other hospitals—one in Delhi, two in Bangalore and one in Mumbai —gave the same verdict, each one with more finality than the last.
Her disease had progressed faster than anyone had anticipated. Within two months of detection, she had trouble walking without crutches. Fifteen minutes of activity made her breathless and tired. Her muscles were slowly losing their strength and integrity.
The paralysis slowly set in. Life for her became a constant battle for survival—to see the next morning. To see her parents around her, to hold their hands and recount memories till it felt like she had lived them twice. It became a constant struggle to forget what was coming for her.
She had committed herself to her impending death sentence. She had just a few excruciating months to live. All this while, she made sure she sent across a mail every day to the young doctor, who was a part of the research team looking for a cure for ALS, in New Delhi. Sometimes, it was about the pain of being an ALS patient. On other occasions, it was something interesting she had read in a medicine book. His mailbox had become like a personal online blog-cum-punching-bag-cum-stress-ball for her.
She knew for sure that he must have marked her mails as spam after the third one. Dad is a lot better. I got myself checked again. Six months, they say. Give or take a few months. But I am crying. I think of all the bad things that are going to happen to me. Neither did my parents. I just … I am sorry. Wish I was in the lab and could see the carcinomas myself. I envy my classmates. They must be having so much fun. I wonder how Venugopal is doing and whether he still misses me. And I hope he has made good friends there.
I wish I was there. I am sorry to disturb you again. I am sorry. I see a shining new wheelchair in the corner of the room. I want to stay in bed. I am scared.
I also choked on my food once. People say I am dying. They tell me time is running out. Why does it feel that time has slowed down? Every moment lingers like it will never pass. It feels like death is moving away from me and I am running to get there soon. The sooner it comes, the better. I just want to be put out of my misery. Is a dead daughter better than a dying daughter?
Regards Pihu Malhotra The mails never stopped. It was like a vent for her frustration and her growing anger. She jumped at the sight of it! And had wondered later why she had done so. Arman Kashyap was a handsome man, tall, fair and with rimless spectacles that made him look very intelligent. But the short-cropped hair made him look like a badass and he stuck out like a sore thumb in the group photograph of all the doctors at GKL Hospital.
There was no formal introduction, no asking how she was or even who she was, instead there were a set of questions he wanted her to answer. She had answered them to the best of her ability, like she would do as a student. Along with her answers, she attached a report on what she thought about the various researches that had been done on ALS.
She wondered if she was being a smart-ass, but then thought she had too little time to care. To her surprise, Arman had replied almost immediately. The language of the mail suggested he was impressed, but it was cleverly concealed. It was late in the night and Pihu typed out a long mail. It took her four hours to type it, one slow clumsy letter at a time. She had to take breaks because it was hard for her to sit up straight for that long.
Minutes after she had hit the send button, exhausted, she crawled to her bed and drifted off. The next morning, the first thing she did was to log into Gmail and refresh it till her fingers hurt. Inbox 1. The mail contained just one line. It was a link to a website and beneath it was a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. She clicked on the link, which took her to a zealously protected website, and punched in the combination in the field that asked for a password.
In the next few hours, she had devoured whatever she could find on the website. They were only moderately successful. Just as she was reading through it, she received another mail that explained how she was ineligible for it.
Section 5. Para 6. I apologize. Her face drooped. Since it was a disease which only inflicted older people, clinical-trial permissions had not been granted for anyone below the age of thirty.
She had slumped in her chair and switched off the computer. She was tired.
Her condition had been worsening steadily, her spirit and body slowly dying. She and her parents had braced themselves for the inevitable. She was going to die. Her parents were going to cry and lament for the rest of their lives. There was nothing that could have changed that. She was in a wheelchair. Only liquids were allowed, chewing food was out of the question. There were times she had tried to eat solid food and had choked on it as the muscles in her food pipe gave way.
She wanted it to be a long mail, but her body gave up within half an hour. To you or to anyone. The disease has progressed to its last stage. It took me twenty minutes to type this. I am constantly exhausted. I need assistance for everything now. I am sure you know what happens.
My parents are being brave. I spend my hours sleeping or smiling at my relatives. They know I am dying too. I am scared at times.
Sometimes I think about how I am going to die. Will my lungs collapse?
Or my heart? And then I am relieved at times. I ask my father to read me my books from medical school. Maybe I will be a doctor in some other life, if there is anything like that.
I just want to thank you for replying to my mails and showing me your research website. It meant a lot. Thank you. I need to go now. Best of luck. During those days, her relatives and cousins had started to drop in to see her for the last time. Pihu, confined to her bed, would smile at them. And cry when she would be alone. For the most part of the day, she would sleep. Her body, whatever was left of it, was constantly tired and exhausted.
She began to get bedsores. Her mom would spend hours shifting and rolling her on the bed to prevent the infections from the bedsores from spreading. They only became worse. She would stay up and cough for hours on end. Day after day, she would spend all her time lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling as her father read to her from medical books and journals.
She could only talk in mumbles; her tongue had become weak too. She was trapped in her dying body, waiting for death to come. Her father clicked pictures of her every day, trying to capture his daughter for the last few times.
Visiting doctors always left the home with their heads hung low.
They knew the next time they could find her dead. Her father opened the box gingerly. There was a spiral-bound file of papers and a box with syringes, bottles of coloured liquids and capsules. She shook her head and looked at the letter that lay with everything on the bed. Her dad read the letter, which stated in clear, simple words that these were the medications they were trying out on the clinical-trial patients at GKL Hospital. Dear Pihu, Follow the instructions as written in the file.
Keep it to yourself and your family. The drugs have a reasonable success rate at our hospital. They stall symptoms in some cases. They reverse the effects in others. Think before you decide. Her father looked at her for an explanation and she told him about the mails and the website. She asked her dad to read the file that had all the details about the progress of the patients the medicines had been tried on. They spent the whole night reading through every case, every patient and every dosage that she had to take.
Whether she should take the medication or not was a no-brainer. She was dying. She had just three months to live, give or take a few weeks. A 20 per cent chance of living was an infinitely better option than to continue living like the undead for the next few months, and then, in any case, die.
She made her father learn how to use the syringes. After a few times of puncturing his own veins, he got the hang of it. From the next day, she was on the medication. And then it became easier. Slowly, things changed. Two months later, she mailed the doctor again. It is working. For the first time, I took solid food. Regards Pihu Malhotra With the mail, she attached a report she and her father had maintained for tracking her progress.
The experimental drugs were working on her. She could sit up and read on her own. The sensation in her hands was coming back, though they were still far from being perfect.
Her parents were happy they were getting their daughter back. A month later, Dr Arman asked her father to get her admitted to the hospital. The symptoms had shown relapse in the case of many patients in the clinical trials. Her parents were waiting outside, their eyes hollow and devoid of hope. They held hands. Occasionally, a teardrop streaked down their cheeks. For the last two months they had been the happiest they could have ever been. They had watched helplessly as their daughter almost died lying on her bed, and then saw her gain her strength back.
Now, they were scared she would go back to her previous condition. The drugs, after the initial promise, had stopped showing combative properties against the disease.
As a result, all the symptoms were back in the case of a large chunk of clinical- trial patients in New Delhi. Dr Arman had asked them to admit Pihu into the hospital too. Her mom held it with both her hands and caressed it. They got into the car they had hired to take them to Delhi.
Her father had taken a transfer to Delhi. His boss, for the first time, was sympathetic. The taxi reached Delhi at eight in the morning. They went straight to the hospital instead of the apartment they had rented. Dr Arman had scheduled some tests for her. By midafternoon, they were done. She also selected a room which she would move into later that night.
Her parents wanted her days in the hospital to be comfortable, but she still chose a double-bed room. She kept weeping and mumbling in sobs till the time they reached home. The taxi driver unloaded the boxes and carried them to the apartment. He was instructed to keep the boxes near the door itself. Her dad went back with the driver to get some food and check in with the hospital about the arrangements.
Pihu felt bad for her dad. Not a single teardrop had escaped his eyes. He knew it would make his wife feel worse. But Pihu had noticed every time her father tried to look away from her. He did his best not to make any eye contact with her, to stem the barrage of overwhelming feelings he had held back behind those stoic eyes.
She hated the false hope the experimental drugs had momentarily generated. She wanted to crib and cry and shout at how unfair it was. They smiled at each other. Do you think the new treatment will help? Has anyone been cured? How many patients have shown signs of relapse?
The next stage has not been tried on anyone else. They might start with a few patients next week. Even though her daughter was to be a doctor a few years from now, she never believed a word other doctors said.
She always viewed them with piercing suspicion. Her mom stayed quiet for a while. We have never cheated anybody.
You have been such a good girl. I pray every day.
Then why us? Why my little daughter? Pihu tried hard not to cry. But she had asked these questions a million times and had never got around to finding an answer. It was time to stop asking.
Your wedding, your kids, my grandchildren. What had we ever done to deserve this? Pihu knew she would not come out of her room before she cursed God countless times for their pain.
But she would still pray, and light diyas and incense sticks. She felt sorry for her mother. Though she wanted to hug her and assure her, she wanted her mom to prepare for the worst. She concentrated on the food instead. A little later, the bell rang and her father brought in twenty more boxes of their stuff, which were unloaded in her room.
Then once again his world turns upside down when he sees the gorgeous Shaina. He instantly falls in love but she keeps pushing him away. What is stopping them from having their fairy-tale romance? What is Shaina hiding?
Durjoy Datta Author Durjoy Datta was born in New Delhi, and completed a degree in engineering and business management before embarking on a writing career. His successive novels- Now That You're Rich. Durjoy also has to his credit nine television shows and has written over a thousand episodes for television.
Durjoy lives in Mumbai. For more updates, you can follow him on Facebook www. She has also contributed to the books in the Backbenchers series.
She was born in Patna and grew up in Indore, from where she graduated in pharmacy. She is currently based in New DElhi, where she works as an editor at a leading publishing house. Nikita receved a live India Young Achivers Award in