Vinod and Rukhsana walk up the steps to the bridge over the railway tracks, not talking. Vinod is three steps ahead, his long legs carrying him along faster, though he’s careful not to go so fast that she can’t keep up. Rukhsana knows what he’s doing and tries not to hurry, but her anxiety carries her along anyway.
The crowds are thick on the bridge – it’s six in the evening, and people are rushing home, eager to catch their commuter trains. There’s a real chance they can become separated, but Vinod waits, his height marking him clearly in the mass of hurrying people. Rukhsana dodges around a fat bald man carrying a bulging rucksack and comes up to him.
Vinod glares at her. “Why are you following me? I didn’t ask you to follow me.”
“I do as I choose,” Rukhsana snaps back. “If I want to follow you that’s my right. Why are you waiting for me, anyway, if you don’t want me to be with you?”
“Who says I’m waiting for you? You’re just like your family – stubborn as mules, the lot of them.”
“Like your family’s any better.” They’re standing face to face, like rocks in the stream, the crowd flowing around them. “What do you have against my family? They haven’t done anything to you.”
“What about your brother then? Each time I see him, he looks at me as if he wants to tear my heart out.”
There’s a brief pause, as if they’re both shocked by what he’s just said.
“Majid’s...” Rukhsana hesitates. “He’s just gone a bit religious. I told you, he wasn’t always like this. My parents say it’s just a phase.”
“Yeah, right, and meanwhile he’s grown one of those beards and spends half his day at the mosque.”
“So?” Rukhsana turns away, turns back. “He’s not done anything to you, has he? He doesn’t even talk to you.”
“Do you imagine I want him to talk to me?”
“And do you want me to talk to you? If you don’t, just leave me alone, why don’t you?”
“You know that isn’t what I meant.” Vinod looks away from her and shakes his head. “You’re playing games with what I say.”
“And you? You’re talking about my family, but your family won’t even admit I exist.” Someone in a hurry bangs against Rukhsana and knocks her off balance. She clutches at Vinod for support. They stand for a moment, holding on.
“We’ve already missed the train,” Vinod says, glancing down at the platform below. “If we’re going to catch the next one, we’d better hurry.”
“You go,” Rukhsana says. “I think I’ll go back, visit my cousin, go home later. Bye. See you around sometime, maybe.”
He turns a face full of acute unhappiness to her, begins to say something, thinks better of it, and turns away. She watches him walk down the stairs to the platform. The train is coming in, a green metal snake winding past the far end of the station, and she has a sudden fear that if she lets him get on it alone, this time it will really be over, for good, and she won’t get back with him again.
“Vinod,” she calls, suddenly. “Wait.” Of course he can’t hear. She can still see him, though, his height marking him out among the bobbing heads on the platform, his red-clad shoulders and the green straps of his backpack. “Wait,” she still calls, and begins running down the steps, knowing she won’t be able to reach him before the train comes in, but rushing anyway.
The train is already at the platform, and he’s up ahead, waiting for a clot of people to get out so he can get in. This is something he always does, though he often misses trains because of it, and for once she’s grateful. She’s running as fast as she can through the crowd, and he’s just ahead now, stepping forward to try and get on, though the train’s already beginning to move, and she reaches out, her hand brushes the sleeve of his shirt, and she screams at him to wait, wait for her.
The next moment a giant hand picks her up and flings her to one side. She has a brief glimpse of light and shade whirling around her head, and then it hits her hard and she can’t see or hear anything more.
There is a distant roaring noise, like a waterfall far away. She tries to open her eyes, but they won’t open. She doesn’t know where she is, and when she tries to sit up there’s a heavy weight across her hips. She pushes with her hands, and the weight rolls away.
The distant roaring noise is getting louder, and turning into a babble of voices, though she still can’t hear any words. She turns over to her side, and manages to push herself up. Finally she can open her eyes, but all she can see is a blur. She grows dizzy and begins to fall back again.
Someone shakes her by the shoulder, a face leaning over her, shouting something. She struggles to understand what he wants. “Miss?” she hears faintly. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she mumbles. Her lips are stiff, they won’t move normally. “I’m all right.”
“Are you sure?” She can see slightly better now, and the face has a thick moustache above a khaki policeman’s uniform. “You were close to the bomb.”
“Bomb?” she repeats. Bomb, she thinks. Of course it was a bomb. Someone set off a bomb.
“Vinod?” she whispers to herself. Vinod, he must be somewhere, close by, and if she was close to the bomb, he was too. “Vinod,” she repeats, but the policeman has gone. Slowly, she gets to her feet. Her vision is wavering, and the air is full of smoke and dust. She can’t really feel the ground with her feet. She looks around – there are people everywhere, lying on the concrete, some of them sitting up, clutching bloodstained faces and arms. There’s a smell of burning. “Vinod?” she asks for the third time.
Then she sees him, or she sees his shirt, the bright red T shirt and the straps of his backpack. There he is, by the pillar, but surely the T shirt wasn’t that shade of red, and the backpack’s straps were green, not stained dark with blackish blood, and she tries to run to him, but the ground melts away beneath her feet. There’s a startled shout from somewhere as she tumbles into darkness.
Then there’s nothing at all.
Later, much later, she goes to the hospital to see him. She’s late, the visiting hours are already over, but she manages to get in through the door anyway. His parents are in the corridor, outside the ward, talking with a couple of other people. She recognises Vinod’s cousin, whom she’s seen in a Facebook photo with him. The fourth person is his married sister. Varsha, her name is. Varsha.
Suddenly unsure, she hesitates, not knowing what to do. There’s not enough space in the corridor to get past them without squeezing, and the hospital smells make her nervous. Her throat’s dry with tension. She wants to turn away, to go back, but can’t move.
The sister notices her first, and nudges the dad. She can hear a flurry of whispers. “That girl,” she hears. “It’s that girl.”
The dad seems to have reached a decision. He turns towards her, eyebrows lifted enquiringly. “Yes?”
“Ah,” she says. “Namaste, Uncle. I’m Vinod’s friend, Rukhsana.”
“Yes, we know who you are. What can we do for you?”
“I just came to see how he is,” she says.
“You’ve got a nerve!” the cousin snaps. He’s short and broad, his black eyes blazing with aggression. “It’s because of you that he’s in this condition, and you dare come here.”
“Because of me?”
“You Muslims – it’s you who blew up the train. It’s all you Muslims’ doing.” His voice is climbing with excitement, and he starts towards Rukhsana. The dad grabs him by the arm and the mum tries to shush him.
“I was hit by the bomb too,” Rukhsana says. Her arm is still bandaged heavily under the sleeve, and he surely can see it, but he’s too angry to care. “I could’ve been killed too.”
“But you didn’t, did you?” the cousin is yelling now. “And you Muslims, you use suicide bombers, you don’t care if you get killed yourselves if you can kill others. We know you.”
A nurse sticks her face round the corner of the door to the ward, signalling, probably for quiet. “Shh,” Varsha says. She turns to Rukhsana. “It’s not that we blame you, personally,” she says. “It’s just that – this has been a traumatic thing for everyone, you know. It’s probably better if you left now.”
“Could I see him? Just for a moment?”
Varsha glances at the father, who shakes his head. “He doesn’t want to see you,” he says.
“Yes,” the mother repeats. Her eyes are like wet black stones. “He doesn’t want to have anything to do with you.”
“You understand,” Varsha says. She seems to want to say something more, to come to Rukhsana, but hangs back at the last moment. “Please, leave now.”
Rukhsana nods. She turns away without saying goodbye. By the time she’s half way to the lift her eyes are so blurred with tears she can’t see where she’s going.
She’s sitting in the cafeteria, listening to the traffic outside, staring at the patterns she’s stirred in her coffee. In these last weeks she’s been doing this sort of thing a lot, looking for relief in little, meaningless, actions. So far it hasn’t helped.
A hand falls on the table by her coffee cup. A familiar hand, with a small brown blotch on the back of the thumb.
She looks up. Even though she knew he was coming, her heart skips a beat.
“Hi,” she says. It seems inadequate. She tries to smile. “How are you?”
He shrugs with one shoulder. The other is still encased in plaster. “I’m mending. It’s quite painful.” He looks at her. “How about you? Were you hurt badly?”
“Not too badly,” she says. “I’m all right.”
“You’ve lost weight. It suits you.”
“Um. Are you planning on having anything?”
“No. These medicines have taken away my appetite.” He turns slowly, looks around the room, but nobody’s taking any notice of them. “Do you come here every day now?”
“Pretty much. Did Varsha tell you I would be here?”
“Of course, otherwise how would I know where to find you?”
“Yes, well, I was surprised when she called me last night. She wasn’t exactly nice to me the other time we met, in the hospital. None of them were.”
There’s an uncomfortable silence. She breaks it at last.
“The police arrested Majid, you know,” she said.
“Arrested your brother? Why?”
“They picked up a lot of Muslim boys, from the mosques, on suspicion of being involved in the bomb thing.”
“Is he still in there?”
“No, they let him go after two days. My father called people he knew, pulled strings.”
“What about your brother? What does he say about it?”
Rukhsana shrugs. “I don’t know. I couldn’t ask him. Now he hardly ever comes to the house, and when he does, he doesn’t talk. I’ve no idea what he plans on doing.”
They sit across the table. She stirs the coffee, watching the swirls in it.
“They used to say you can predict the future in tea leaves,” she says. “I wonder if it’s possible with coffee.”
“It isn’t possible at all.”
“Yeah, I know. I was just wondering.” She hesitates. “Do you really hate me?”
“Do you really have to ask?”
There’s a long silence. She doesn’t want to look up.
His hand falls on hers, his fingers sliding over hers and holding her.
“Perhaps you can read the future in there, after all,” he says.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014