The Accidental Apprentice (8 page)

BOOK: The Accidental Apprentice
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‘And what will Papa say when he finds out about your little romance?'

‘He won't find out. I know you will keep my secret,
You are the only person I trust with my life.'

‘Then you have to trust me when I tell you that what you are doing is not only irresponsibly wrong, it is incredibly stupid as well.'

Despite using every argument, every threat, bluster and influence, I could not persuade Alka to end her liaison. She was as obstinate and headstrong as I was insistent and persuasive. Eventually we reached a compromise of sorts. I extracted a promise from her that she would temporarily suspend her relationship with the boy. In return, I would not tattle about this to anyone, least of all Papa.

Though I trusted Alka, I started monitoring her discreetly from that day, even rummaging through her things when she was not in her room. Two weeks went by without further incident, and then one night I discovered a small package she had secreted inside the toe of her shoe. It was a rolled-up manila envelope. Inside it was a clear plastic packet containing a brown powder-like substance. It looked like a sachet of brown sugar, but I had seen enough films to know it was high-grade heroin.

I called Alka into my room and closed the door. ‘How did this come into your possession?' I asked her coldly, holding aloft the sachet.

‘Where did you find it?' she asked in fearful agitation.

‘Answer my question. Who gave it to you?' I repeated sternly.

‘My boyfriend,' she replied with downcast eyes.

‘I thought you had broken off from him.'

‘I tried to but I can't,' she moaned. ‘He's my oxygen. I'll die without him. And he'll die without me. He almost cut his wrist the day I told him I won't see him any more.'

‘It only goes to show that he is a sicko, besides being a drug dealer.'

‘He's not a drug dealer. And I am not doing drugs. We tried it just once. And that, too, only as an experiment.'

‘An experiment that might make you an addict, even end up taking your life.'

‘Why do you have to take everything so seriously,

‘Nothing can be more serious than drugs, Alka. You betrayed my trust. The water has now passed over my head. I'll have to report this to Papa.'

' she said vehemently, clutching my arm. ‘I swear I'll kill myself if you breathe a word about this to Papa.'

‘Drugs will kill you before that, Alka,' I said and brushed her aside.

Papa was engrossed in a newspaper when I barged into his study. ‘Your daughter Alka has started doing drugs. Please deal with her,' I said without preamble, dropping the plastic sachet in his lap like a discarded banana peel.

That night there was the mother of all showdowns in the house. Papa was notorious in the Academy for his strict ethics and discipline. I consider myself lucky that I inherited only his dark skin, not his dark temper. Papa always believed he was meant for higher things, that teaching school kids was beneath him. And he took out his frustration on them. Stories were still circulating about the time he flogged a student who had made the mistake of bringing a bootlegged copy of
to class, until the boy was reduced to a quivering mass of lacerated flesh. The students used to cower in his presence. His tests could reduce anyone to tears. The school was aware of his combustible emotional state, but tolerated it because he was quite simply an outstanding maths teacher, perhaps the best in the country. He could do calculations faster than a computer, solve any equation, prove any theorem.

What he didn't know was how to deal with the stresses and anxieties of a fifteen-year-old teenager. I thought he would have a heart-to-heart chat with Alka, instil some sense into her through the sheer moral force of his personality. Instead, their confrontation quickly degenerated into a street brawl, full of belligerent theatrics, yelling and screaming.

‘I can have you sent to jail for possessing drugs,' Papa said, trying to frighten Alka.

‘Then send me,' Alka gave him right back. ‘I will be happier there than in this prison called home.'

Many things were said in the heat of the moment that shouldn't have been said. Father accused Alka of being a spoilt brat who was a blot on the family's name. Alka labelled him a bully: ‘Your expectations are unrealistic, your tests impossible.' The unkindest cut came when she denounced him as a coward. ‘The entire school laughs at you behind your back. You are nothing but a perverse, pathetic loser, undeserving of any respect,' she shrieked.

It was as if a volcano had erupted. ‘How dare you!' Papa thundered, blood rushing to his face as he suddenly sprang to his feet. ‘How
you!' he repeated, and slapped her across the cheek, knocking her to the floor.

Ma, Neha and I stared in stunned horror. This was the first time Papa had raised his hand on any of his daughters.

Alka picked herself up from the floor. There was a great red welt on her cheek and a scratch on her arm. Her dark eyes glittered with an incandescent fury that would have melted rock. She looked at all of us, before settling on me. I felt a laser beam of pure, unrestrained loathing boring into my soul. ‘I hate you, I hate all of you,' she hissed through clenched teeth. Then she ran to her bedroom and bolted the door from the inside. I pleaded with her to listen to me, tried desperately to get her to open the door, but she stubbornly refused.

I deserved her hate. I deserved everything she threw at me that night.

‘Let her rot in her room,' Papa said disdainfully. ‘Our overindulgence has brought matters to this pass.'

None of us had dinner that night.

*   *   *

The next day was 26 January. India's Republic Day. The school wore a transformed look with bunting in saffron, green and white strung all around the campus. The tricolour fluttered proudly from the tall poles in the sports field. I could hear the students rehearsing patriotic songs from early in the morning, their hearty voices adding to the festive fervour. Alka, however, had still not emerged from her room and I was getting just a little worried. I knocked on her door several times but there was no response. So I crept in from the back garden. The first thing I noticed was that the window of her bedroom was open. My instant reaction was that Alka had run away. In the background I could hear the hum of ‘Hum Honge Kamyab' being sung by the boys in the open assembly area: ‘We shall overcome … We shall overcome … We shall overcome some day…'

I parted the heavy window curtain a crack and a shaft of sunlight spanned the dim penumbra of the room. In its piercing beam I saw a sight that chilled me to the bone. Alka was dangling from the ceiling fan, with her head hanging to one side. There was a yellow dupatta knotted around her neck. The small wooden chair in her room lay upturned on the floor.

I felt a wave of dizziness assail me. ‘Papa!' I screamed and stumbled back away from the window.

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand,

We'll walk hand in hand someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We'll walk hand in hand someday.

I remember everything else happening in slow motion through a veil of tears. Papa kicking open Alka's door, gasping and writhing like a man on fire. Mother climbing up onto the bed and holding Alka's limp body to take the strain off the piece of cloth she was hanging from. Neha fetching a knife with which we cut her down.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,

We are not afraid today;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We are not afraid today.

It was too late. Life had already ebbed away from my beautiful sister. We laid her on the bed and untied the yellow headscarf from her neck. I had never seen it before. Her face was pale in repose. Her bare feet were tinged bluish purple, due to all the blood pooling there – a coloration known as postmortem staining or hypostasis. Another thoroughly useless piece of information I had picked up for my general-knowledge bank. In her right hand, she clutched a piece of paper. I gently pried it from her cold fingers. Written in her charming, childlike scrawl was the inscription, ‘Love never dies. It just acquires a new form.' I recalled it as the tagline of a Hindi film we had seen recently on TV, a modern-day tragedy. Then there was a final line: ‘I forgive you all.'

I cradled my dead sister in my arms, shoulders hunched, as I succumbed to the cruel reality that our paths would never cross again on earth. Her heart was almost too big for this world. In life, she had touched us all with her radiant presence, her kindness and her grace. And even in death she had chosen to forgive us. As Sister Agnes used to remind us about Jesus, Alka had redeemed us through her blood. We never fully understood her, and now she was gone for ever, making us feel so small.

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free,

The truth shall make us free someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

The truth shall make us free someday.

The police came, and an ambulance, which took away Alka's body. Neighbours gathered and spoke in sombre tones about the inevitability of fate. The headmaster also arrived, having cut short his Republic Day speech. He seemed more concerned at the disruption in the day's programme than at our loss. Mother and Neha took no note of him. They were busy wailing. I did not cry. I just sat there like an immobile rock, my face frozen in a twisted rictus of absolute shock mixed with overwhelming pain. The final image of my dead sister seared into my memory for ever.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,

We shall live in peace someday;

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,

We shall live in peace someday.

There was no peace. There was only guilt in the stunned aftermath of the tragedy. First came the nightmares, when I'd wake up in the middle of the night covered in sweat and gasping for breath. Then came the panic attacks, caused by the festering wounds of memory. Reality became a psychedelic film, full of jittering cuts and freeze-frames of Alka's dead body swinging in the breeze. Matters reached such a point that I couldn't look at a ceiling fan without suffering a gag reflex. The sight of any piece of yellow cloth gave Ma anxiety attacks.

Alka's ghost stalked us every hour of every day. House Number 17 was drenched in her smell, filled with her presence. Every little thing in her room reminded us of her. Every old photograph prompted a new bout of self-flagellation. Eventually we couldn't take it any longer. Since history could not be altered, we decided to change geography.

It was Neha who suggested the move. ‘Let's go someplace far away from Nainital. I'll die if we stay here.' Papa accepted the suggestion almost with relief. The taint of scandal that he had always been so careful to avoid had spread far beyond the campus, tarnishing his career and eroding his self-esteem. Even he longed to be free of the daily humiliation he faced in the censorious stares of his fellow teachers and the sniggering malice of his students. So we locked up our belongings in four trunks and left the cold comfort of Nainital for the warm humid air of Delhi, 320 kilometres away.

Liberated from the incestuous claustrophobia of smalltime Nainital, we sought to rebuild our lives by grafting onto the coarse anonymity of the metropolis. Alka's death had taught me the meaning of life, how fragile it is, and how blithely we take it for granted. I woke up many mornings with the chilling certainty that this very day might be my last on earth. And, once you start living with the consciousness of death, it brings urgency, intensity and focus to life. It teaches you to live a less trivial existence, impels you to seek the greatest possible value for your actions. I started donating blood regularly to the Red Cross. After my first donation I learnt that my blood type was one of the rarest ones, known as the Bombay blood group. Only four people in a million have it. Now, if ever there is an emergency requirement, the Red Cross rings me, sends a car to fetch me. I am its most prized donor.

I also used to volunteer at the Blind School, till I got the job at Gulati & Sons. Now I have free time only on Sundays, and I utilise it to teach English to a group of slum kids who live near our colony. Which means very soon, Suresh, Chunnu, Raju and Aarti will be knocking on my door.

As the flood of memories abates, I start hunting for
The Simple English Reader,
which I use as an informal textbook for my small class. It turns out the book is with Neha, being used as a coaster for the glass of Diet Coke she is gulping down with great gusto. She does not seem weighed down by the occasion of Alka's birthday. Far from feeling gloomy, she is positively bubbling with excitement. ‘Just read this,
' She thrusts a letter in my hands.

It is from the organisers of
Popstar No. 1,
a popular musical talent show she has auditioned for. Out of 500,000 candidates, she has been selected for the final audition in Mumbai, where twenty of the best singers will be chosen for the actual contest on TV. Four top music directors will be the ‘musical gurus' judging the show.

‘This is the chance I have been waiting for all my life.
I'm going to be a star now, you'll see,
' she squeals.

I give Neha a wan smile, marvelling at the beauty of chance, the tricks of fate. Alka dazzles me again from the centre wall. Perhaps she is orchestrating all this from wherever she is, still redeeming us, giving us second chances. I look into her warm sparkling eyes. ‘
Kamaal ho gaya!
It's incredible!' I can almost hear her lilting voice ringing in the room.

The dead don't die. As long as we remember them, they remain alive in our hearts.

*   *   *

It is a crisp Monday morning and there is a chill in the air, with the temperature hovering around ten degrees centigrade. It is the sort of weather that makes you wish you were still curled up in bed. Instead, I am at the Maharana Pratap Inter-State Bus Terminal at Kashmiri Gate, which everybody refers to simply as ISBT. The place is teeming with people from all walks of life – executives, students, pilgrims and tourists – about to embark on journeys to destinations all over north India. My destination is Karnal, as there is no direct bus from Delhi to Mr Kuldip Singh's village of Chandangarh.

BOOK: The Accidental Apprentice
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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