He hid it behind a smile (part 2)


I woke up panting and drenched in sweat again. I closed my eyes shut trying to regain a normal breathing rhythm. It was still dark outside. I turned to the side and glanced at my clock realising it was only 2 a.m.

It was disheartening.

There was a major part of night that I still had to survive. How would I? I wondered.

I walked up to the window, taking in the darkness of the night into my eyes. The darkness seemed to resonate with my soul. The wind blew my hair and the memories of the good times threatened to form a smile on my face.

But I knew better. There was no hope for me. The darkness was so mighty, my mistakes were so heavy that I wasn’t worthy of a smile.

I let myself wander into thoughts. Something I did for a pass time since two years. Thinking. Overthinking. One thought leading to another and finally coming down to suffering.

However, today it came down to empathy.

Dad would say, “There are three levels of care. The first one is pity. The second one sympathy and the highest one, empathy.”

“Don’t they mean the same?” I had asked.

“No, they’re similar. Not same. Pity is superficial. It will never lead you to care deeply. The farthest you’ll go with it is help people if they ask for it. Sympathy is a deeper emotion. You will like to help them and bring them out of their misery; but since you wouldn’t know how bad it is, you’ll never be able to help them completely. However, if you empathise; you will understand their pain because you’ll be able to put yourself at their place and feel it. Hence, you’ll stick along till they’re fine again…”

Dad’s words made little sense initially. But as I tried to apply them in real time, I realised how superficial I was. I let empathy nourish inside me, recognising pain where ever it was felt immensely and doing my best to reduce it.

But it wasn’t always possible to stick along people till they were fine again. At times, it wasn’t even possible to offer help. It was when I realised that I cannot help everyone. Yet there was something I could manage to do, I could pray for them. And that’s what I usually did when it was beyond my power to make something right in someone’s world. I gave away that responsibility to the one who had all the power in the world. The Almighty.

But all this was when Dad was with me, by my side, to guide me, appreciate me, criticise me. I don’t know if I had lost my faith in love and care after him. I hadn’t even prayed for myself these two years. I didn’t even think I was worthy of it.

Karan Sharma shook me and woke me up from my daze. I claimed to understand people, and even though I was the one who had shut down on every person I knew; I expected someone to realise how I was suffering and put me out of my misery. For the first time, I was expecting some empathy to come my way.

But when it did, I felt guilty for not seeing his pain earlier. I felt selfish and weak. So stuck up in my own agony that I was blind to others’. Ignoring Dad’s another lesson!

After a lot of tossing and turning, thinking and overthinking, morning did arrive.

In two years, I was stepping out of the house for a purpose other than work for the first time. It was an alien feeling. I opened my closet and realised my wardrobe consisted of only two extremes of clothes; office wear and pjs. No casuals at all. I skimmed through the bottoms to find a pair of jeans and settled with a decent t shirt that actually belonged to my nightwear but it seemed to go well.

Ready for the said hang out with my boss, I sat like a statue on my bed, waiting for my phone to vibrate and put some life into me.

I might have waited for like ten minutes, staring dead at the wall when he called.

“I’ll pick you up in 10.” He said skipping unnecessary small talk.

“You can tell me where to reach, I’ll come,” I say, not wanting to bother him.

“No, I am on my way already,” he said.

“Okay,” I give in.

As we rolled out of the building in his car, he was his jolly self again, beaming at me and everything.

I wondered how does he manage this? How does he smile no matter what?

“Earth to, Isha!” He snapped me out of my thoughts.

I smiled in response.

“It is nice….” he trailed away.

I waited for him to finish his sentence.

“It’s nice to have a friend after a long time,” he finally finished.

This surprised me.

“Come on, YOU don’t have friends??”

“Everything on the outside isn’t exactly the same as everything on the inside. I guessed, you had figured that much out,” his tone was sardonic.

I nodded. “A little later than I should have, but I did figure it out.”

Curiosity was building inside me. I wanted to know who Neelam was. But his reaction from last night compelled me to know better.

“Yesterday when you asked who Neelam is, it caught me off guard. I didn’t expect you to even realise that she meant something to me. I am sorry I was a little rude but I couldn’t help it.”

I tried to interrupt, saying it wasn’t important to explain it to me but he didn’t let me. Instead he continued.

“But I realised that, and I was sort of overwhelmed because in so many years I found a person who saw through my facade. It had been a while I wanted someone to understand, to be able to hear me out.”

Overwhelmed. Yes, I was overwhelmed too.

“I know this feeling. Hiding everything from the world yet hoping that someone could come and rescue us from the pain.”

“What’s your story?” He asked.

“I thought we were going to hang out and you were going to tell me about Neelam,” I frowned. Talking about Dad was the last thing I wanted to do.

“Yeah, I know and I fully intend to. But I really want to know why are you so anxious and mechanical all the time?”

He got me at ‘anxious’ because I had attempted in the best way possible to hide my anxiety. I found myself telling him everything about Dad and Anirudh. He listened patiently without interrupting me. He didn’t make it awkward when I was choking with emotion. He let it pass, he let me cry. By the time I finished, I was holding back nothing. My eyes were flowing like rivers and my speech was slurred with hiccups. We were still driving.

He offered me his handkerchief.

He didn’t try to console me. He didn’t tell me I should move on. He didn’t tell me I shouldn’t feel guilty. He didn’t quite say anything. But his face, his expression made it evident that he understood. And that was what I needed. I needed to be understood.

We were now waiting in a parking space. The serenity in our silence was palpable.

He finally turned towards me, “you wanted to know who Neelam is, right? I thought you should meet her. And then, maybe you’ll want to call Anirudh.”

This surprised me, intrigued me!

He walked me into a small campus. There was a board I didn’t read in my anticipation. But as we walked in I saw gardens and row houses and nurses and care takers. It took me a while to realise it was a mental asylum.

My heart sank.

Karan was speaking to one of the head nurses I suppose and after a while a woman escorted another reluctant looking woman to him. Her face brightened the moment she saw Karan.

I stood at a distance, looking at Karan and Neelam. Who else could she be?

Her hair was shabby and her clothes were soiled but her grin was genuine. He hugged her tight and she let him. He combed her hair with his fingers and caressed her face with his hand. He playfully stroked her nose and she smiled. His eyes were a sight to behold. He looked at her like an artist looks at his painting.

He was asking her something, still holding the small of her back and she answered enthusiastically with a tinge of paranoia evident even from afar. He finally kissed her forehead and she blushed!

She. Actually. Blushed.

What love must it be? That even in this state, it made sense to her!

I found the corners of my eyes threatening to flow. I blinked back my tears and smiled. I smiled because if Karan could, so could I. The person he loved with such an intensity was right in his arms yet far, far away. It worse than losing someone forever, once and for all!

He introduced her to me.

“Neelam, meet Isha, she is a friend!”

“Hi Neelam!” I offered her my hand.

“Hi friend!” She responded.

“She likes you. I knew she would like you!” Karan cajoled.

“Even Vai likes her!” Neelam said!

“Wow! Even Vai likes her!” Karan was his bright self with her.

I felt like breaking down.

“Vai says she has big eyes! Karan should forget Neelam. Karan should go with her!”

I was a little taken aback.

Karan just laughed in response.

“Tell Vai, Karan loves Neelam. Karan can never forget her!”

“Vai is angry! Vai is angry!” Neelam kept on repeating.

“Karan can give Vai an ice cream. And Karan would treat Neelam too!”

“Friend will also eat ice cream?” Neelam asked me.

I could only nod in response.

We went to the nearest shop and Karan got us ice creams. Neelam was a chirpy little thing. And beautiful, very, very beautiful. Even in her shabby attire she managed to strike me with her beauty.

We spent two hours with her, talking about buses, birds and dolls. To Neelam, Vai’s opinions were very important. I didn’t quite get her condition but Vai seemed to be a part of her existence.

Visiting hours ended and we headed back to her car. Neelam had hugged me in the end, shown me her dolls and given a hand-made card to me. It read,

To friend,

From Neelam and Vai.

I kept looking at these words and found myself at a loss of syllables.

He sighed audibly, sitting next to me.

“She suffers from schizophrenia. Doctors say it is hard to categorise it. But it is mostly paranoid schizophrenia. It got triggered when we lost our child five years ago. Ours was a cliché college romance. We went to college together; both were bright, we studied together. Our parents agreed willingly and right after we finished our bachelors we were married,” a small smile danced on his lips as he spoke about the happy times.

“And then, the miscarriage happened. She was standing at the threshold of the kitchen while I was boiling milk for her; and she saw my shirt had caught fire. She tried to rush to me and fell face forward against the counter. And just like that, my world turned upside down!”

He didn’t even fight back his tears.

“She didn’t speak for a year. The doctor says it was some phase of this disease. And when she did, she had these delusions. We were very keen on having a daughter. In fact she was sure of it. She wanted to call her Vaidehi. It was her granny’s name. Neelam lost her granny when she was a child, and she was very attached to her. So now, she thinks Vai is still inside her.”

His words made me shudder!

“She can never recover?” I asked hopefully.

“Can’t predict. She did once. But the moment she caught the insight of her disease, she became suicidal. She thought she wasn’t worthy of me anymore and I should move on and when I didn’t, she tried to kill herself…”

This explained why she said he should be with me.

“She almost killed herself two years ago and since then I realised it was not safe to leave her at home while I worked. Her parents are no more and mine shun her. There is no other way for me than to leave her here. At least until I earn enough to give her all my time and manage a peaceful living.”

I was still unable to speak. I was still trying to comprehend all these emotions running through me.

“How do you manage to smile? Everyday? Like it’s a flower bed for you?”

“Happiness is a choice, Isha! Even I could drag through my day and be grumpy. But instead of dwelling upon the inevitable, I choose to look life in the face and smile. It gives me hope, it makes me feel worth-while. A smile is contagious, Isha. So many people smile because I do. So many people are at ease because I don’t make their day difficult. It helps me fight. It helps me win. I win each day, Isha. I win every time I smile!”

All I could do was gape at him.

“Now, tell me one thing. Is Neelam right in asking me to leave her alone in this situation? How much ever she wants me to be happy, will I be able to achieve it without her in my life?”

I shook my head. I knew where this was going.

“So don’t you think you need to go back to Anirudh?”

He said no more. He didn’t need to. After all, who was I to deny unconditional love? Who was I to decide whether I was worthy of it? I had been blessed with it. Who gave me the right to disrespect that blessing?

However, it all came down to the fact that Dad didn’t want me to marry him.

“I can’t, Karan. Dad didn’t approve of him!”

“It’s not that, Isha. You yourself have admitted that your Dad was afraid to lose you. And that was justified. You were all he had. Fate took your Dad away. Just like it took away my child. It wasn’t your fault that you had fought with him. It wasn’t my fault that I was on fire. Things happen. People die. But those who are alive cannot pretend to be dead. You cannot punish yourself for fate’s games. This is how the world works and you have to deal with it!”

He made sense. After two years, something other than pain made sense to me. I decided to forgive myself. Dad would have. If he had been alive. And I would have wanted Dad to forgive himself, had I been in his place.

I couldn’t wrong further. I had inflicted a lot of pain on Anirudh. And I always knew he wouldn’t quit. I had been selfish again. I had ruined another life. The realisation hit me hard and I agreed to give it a try.

That day, our said hang out extended to a small cafe. We poured our hearts out about everything we couldn’t bring ourselves to tell anyone since our lives became epitomes of suffering.

By the end of the day, I had managed to earn a genuine smile on my face.

Maybe all this while, all I needed to do was talk.

I headed home in a bus. I kept thinking about our day. How in the very first attempt of knowing each other we had confided so much. I told him everything. He not only did tell me, he even took me to meet her. Why? How? We weren’t even such good friends.

The answer was right in front of me.

Because we understood each other’s pain even before knowing each other’s story.

It wasn’t friendship. It could hardly be love. It was more than humanity. It was empathy….

Things are taking a better turn for me now that I have embraced Anirudh’s love. Now that I have started considering myself worthy of love. Yes, Dad has left a void inside me that cannot be filled. But I don’t feel completely empty. My depression and insomnia will take time to go. I am rehabilitating into life again. I can think of a future now. A future full of love, life and happiness. A future where I am surrounded by my children, telling them the tales of their grandfather. A future that would always keep me indebted of a certain person’s empathy, and a certain woman’s madness and I would always remember the two in my prayers….


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