Noor’s kohl rimmed eyes followed Haider everywhere. He would get up early at dawn for his work. Her furtive gaze was interspersed with blushes as he made his way around her palatial house to the artisan’s camp. Haider knew Noor was a woman any man would dream to be with. Her sublime beauty can only be rivalled by the purity of her heart. He knew in his heart that he loved her. However it was a desire beyond his reach. He was a bonded slave who pledged his life and work to the emperor. Love and marriage are seen as deterrents to his work and are forbidden. Ever since he turned down her advances, their love was reduced to silent gazes and an unfulfilled dream.
Haider was exceptionally gifted with a prodigious talent for architecture and design of forts and monuments. He earned a high reputation among his peers and worked directly under master architect of the Royal Emperor. He was present in the Court hall on the day when the Emperor unveiled his grand plan and vision for a new monument in the capital city. It was unprecedented and required the best artisans and craftsman of its times. Haider saw it as an opportunity and worked on it sleeplessly for months. The designs were personally selected by the Emperor who was impressed with Haider. He granted him a direct audience one day and appreciated his work. However the Emperor said that his designs were inspired and wanted something original and breath-taking. He was given a month to complete this task.
Haider was disappointed and spent several days at his study working on the new design. After a few days he knew he was struggling. He would hide himself in his house without food or water for days. He teared apart his designs which were either inspired or clichéd and was desperate looking for new ideas. Time was running out.
Noor couldn’t see Haider for many days and was worried. One day when she saw him in the bazaar, she went quickly and confronted him. His face was pale and lifeless. She asked what is bothering him but he wouldn’t answer. She kept following and pestered him with questions. He then pulled her into a desolate street and warned her not to look for him again. She exclaimed that she loved him and will continue to love him. He saw her fierce and deep gaze and was astounded by the intensity of her love. He then steadied himself to tell her the truth. “I am a Hindu by birth. I was an artisan in the neighbouring kingdom which was annexed by the Emperor. I was enslaved and was forced to convert to Islam”, he said controlled his anger and tears. “I cannot afford to love and live a life of my own. Now tell me if you still love me?” She was stunned into silence with tears running down her face. Haider left her and walked in dejection to his house.
The last day approached for Haider to prove his worth. Disillusioned by his failure and devastated by his love, he was spiralling into self-destruction. He drank all the opium he could get and his head was spinning beyond control. He dropped down in his study, shut his eyes and ears and tried to block his pain. Just when it was becoming unbearable, she came like a dream. Noor’s uncovered face was shining like moonlight and her eyes were like the deep recesses of the night. He never saw her this close and was enthralled by her pristine beauty. She lifted him out of his darkness and placed him on his bed. She laid beside him and kissed him gently on his head. He took her into his arms and they made love to each other passionately. He wasn’t sure whether this is a dream. The experience was transcendental taking him into the very edge of light and darkness. He remembered his work suddenly. In a flash of brilliance her hand joined his and the design drew itself on paper. Ideas were flowing like a river from their confluence and could not be contained by the limitations of his mind. He then fell into a dreamless sleep.
Haider woke up next morning hardly remembering anything. To his shock there were the design of the monument hand-drawn during the night. He studied it and was shocked by the beauty of the design. He rushed to the palace chambers. The Emperor hailed his extraordinary vision and brilliance. He claimed that this would be an unparalleled wonder in history and would make him immortal for ages to come. He then decided that the building of the monument would begin immediately. The best builders, artisans and masons from all over the world were brought in to work for this monument.
Haider’s popularity grew and he became a legend across the kingdom. However all this unwanted attention made him lonelier by the day. His heart was beating for Noor and he was longing to see her again. He was ordered by the Emperor to stay at the camp site of the monument and oversee the construction. However he had made up his mind. One night he sneaked into Noor’s house and woke her gently. She was startled to see him by her bed and cried with joy. They hugged and comforted each other. He exclaimed that they will have to leave this place if they wish to live together. Both of them agreed and he made an elaborate plan to escape from the city. He asked her to meet him on the next full moon night at the dungeons on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile he would make arrangements for their travel. He kissed Noor goodbye and left.
The full moon was up and high by the time Noor slipped out of her house. Her heart was beating loudly with hope and trepidation as she walked to the edge of the city. She found the narrow passage way and went down the stairs like he told. She carried a torch aloft as went further into the dungeons. There she waited for Haider to come. Hours passed without a trace of him. She searched for him in the tunnels calling out his name in vain. Soon her torch went out and she lay in pitch darkness. Her thoughts ran wild and anxiety overcame her senses. She did not know how she had ended up in this place. She had done everything right and she did not deserve this. Yet, here she was, in the dark dungeon that stank of stale urine and sweat. She never thought he would betray her like this. Then she broke down and cried her heart out. After a while, dawn broke through and beams of light showed the way out. She regained her composure and walked out of the place. She looked around for him one last time and went back desolately to her house.
Noor waited as days passed by without a word from Haider. She was held captive by her thoughts. “Did he betray her? Did something happen to him?” She couldn’t dare to face that reality. She withdrew herself into a shell and hardly smiled or spoke. Clinging on to hope she went again to the dungeons on the next full moon night but couldn’t find Haider. She returned crestfallen and the cycle repeated every month. She waited stubbornly drawing strength and resolve from her love. Months and years passed. Time marched on relentlessly. Yet there was no sign of respite for the pain and longing of Noor. She refused to get married and joined an orthodox religious sect. She spent her days in prayer and reflection. But she never gave up hope. For twenty years, Noor went to the dungeons every full moon night and waited for her love in vain. Haider seemed to have belonged to another life now. Her days of happiness were a distant dream. She was now old and withered and was slowly passing into memory.
However one full moon day when was about to turn back she heard a faint sound in the dungeons. She walked further hoping against hope. She turned into a corner and saw an old emaciated man lying on the floor. She quickly ran and turned him over. She saw Haider and yelled in shock. His thickly bearded face was covered with wounds and wrinkles. His legs were bound by chains. She held him close as years of pain melted into tears. He saw her face and smiled weakly. Each breath of his was taking its toll on his body and he knew he was dying. He summoned his strength and told her that he was imprisoned the day he met her 20 years back. The Emperor decreed that an architect like Haider cannot be left free to design any other monument in the future as it would belittle his present creation. He then sentenced Haider to life time imprisonment turning a deaf ear to his pleas for mercy. His life was wasted away in prison for two decades. Yet he stayed alive hoping for one last chance to meet his love. He was released as neared his end and he struggled his way to the dungeons which stood directly beneath the prison. Saying this he went quiet. Both of them shared a moment of peace and happiness together. Then Haider asked Noor to take him outside to see his creation before he died.
Noor steadied herself and helped him out of the dungeons. They slowly made their way to the banks of the river Yamuna. The now finished Taj Mahal stood on the opposite bank resplendent in all its glory. It shone pearly white under the full moon adding to its aura and magnificence. Haider and Noor looked at it in awe. “If there was ever a heaven, this is it.” whispered Haider as he breathed his last in the arms of Noor.
“Hi, I'm Arjun.”
“Hey, you can call me Panda.”
“Yeah, white and black colored, bear like animals…..”
“Yeah. Yeah..I know pandas.. Nice to meet you Panda.”
[This was how our conversation started. We met each other online through some random chatting app and then it was magical, not magical in a way that you might think that it’s a love story, but this isn’t. This is about myself This is my story.]
Panda: “Hi, Arjun! I’m impressed by the way you talk to me. You give respect and space to me. I’d like to talk more with you if you wish so too.”
Arjun: “Hey Panda, definitely man. I’m glad that you liked talking to me.”
Panda: “You’re so nice buddy. Okay, I wasn’t named Panda. I’m Sneha.”
Arjun: “Nice to meet you Sneha, nice name. Sneham means love/friendship, i’m sure you’d be a very good friend to anyone.”
Sneha: “I might be become a good friend to someone but I don’t have any good friends, not anymore. I hate people nowadays.
“Look Arjun, I’ll tell you only if you wish to listen to it completely.”
Arjun: “I promise I will listen to it completely without judging you. You can be open and assured with me.”
Sneha: “It’s been quite sometime, since I’ve been suffering all this and the first time I thought of telling it to someone, it was one of my closest friends, “ I am a not so desirable person. I’m not so fair and I’m definitely not slim. People just can’t stop body shaming me wherever I go. Once or twice it’s fine. But it’s not okay to comment on someone when they’re not taking it in the funny sense that you’re trying to ridicule them” I was laughed at by my own friend who heard the whole story and started calling names and making even more fun along with the others, in fact more than the rest. I hated myself for telling that to him, but can’t help it na.
Sneha: “I go to a place near my house wherein I carry a book and a couple of cigarettes. They serve nice chilled beer, best vegetarian starters and i enjoy my company the most, because no one’s ever heard me.”
Arjun: “Is it Sneha Verma? Your name?”
Sneha: “Come-on dude, here I am telling you my life story and you ask me my surname… Not cool and yeah, it’s not Verma.”
Arjun: “Okay, I’ll guess it and yeah, I’m all ears to everything you say. I understand that body shaming is so prominent in our culture that no one ever cares to talk about it. Even talking about people’s color is so in the trend that we call everyone with names based on their size, shape and colors. Sad but that’s the truth. Can’t help but bring it to more people’s notice.”
Sneha: “Yeah, true. An year later, i was just moving on with everything life has thrown at me. I was being forced to look good for my marriage and I needed to be in shape to my own people to even consider me for my marriage. I started gymming, running, playing some sports and tried whatever I could do to reduce my weight. I consulted my cousin who was elder to me thinking that she would at least help me out of the this little depression and my relatives’ excessive obsession that weddings are only for perfectly shaped chicks and not for the others out here.
I went up to her ”Yaar, i can’t do this anymore. I’m not able to do anything. Its not working and I am not ready for marriage yet. Why’s everyone forcing this on me about my weight and my shape? Don’t you know about my PCOS issue. It’s something that i wish would go away, But God doesn’t want me to solve already piled up problems.. He gives these chronic disorders too”
Sneha: You know what she said Arjun?
“Come on Sneha, people should look at you na? In the wedding hall. You can’t come this way. You have to stop eating rice and stuff, work in the gym for an extra 2 hours it will help you. You know? Sapna ji’s daughter she was 57 a few months before her marriage.. She reduced her weight to 48 because she wanted to be slim and moreover 3 was her lucky number. You have to get inspired by them. PCOS should not be an excuse ma.”
Sneha: “What bullshit man? What is she talking? Is she really in her senses? I do everything to get out of it man. But unfortunately nothings working.”
Arjun: “Sneha Mishra? Is that correct?”
Sneha: “Oh! Seriously man? You’re so immature Arjun. It’s not Mishra too. It starts with ‘A’. Try your best.”
Arjun: “You’ll know how intelligent I am when i guess it correct.”
Sneha: “Every single day after that Arjun, I cried myself to sleep. I don’t have friends who understand me nor the family that understands me. They don’t care about what i want. All they want is their daughter to look slim and sexy to all the random unknown guests when they get me married to some random 10L package IT guy. This is what they expect. They want me to be the Alia Bhatt for the Big Fat North Indian Wedding that they arrange to boast themselves in front of their contemporaries. Duck this shit man.”
Arjun: “It’s quite obvious na, nowadays, the marriages are not for the kids, it’s for the parents to show off how much they have and what all they can do. Total crap with drones, sangeets, hundreds of sweets, a grand set, live streaming. I feel like all these preparations are pretty similar to an IPL match arrangement. The spyder cams, cheergirls, food and drinks, a big ground, live streaming on Hotstar and Sony Six. Woww.. superb. Is it Sneha Arora?”
Sneha: “NO. Not Arora. This is too much. Are you even listening?”
“But i’ve been doing things man. I started working out a lot. Play badminton, do Zumba dance, walking while on the phone, running while not on the phone. Cut out my food cravings, prepared a diet. I want to prove this to every person who ever questioned me and my figure. I want to give tight slipper-slap to all these people with my transformation. I'm doing this for myself even though they want it too, but this is for me and I'm not marrying anyone yet”
Arjun: “Yes, I’m just taking time to process things and don't know what else to reply to you. But whatever you’re doing, I wish you the best in that. Hope things better soon. Is it Ahuja?”
Sneha: “No man. Not Ahuja. It’s not your thing dude, leave it.”
“Thank you for hearing me out Arjun. I never thought someone could care this much. You haven’t talked much about the issues nor try to ridicule me while listening. I now feel better, because it’s been quite sometimes since I’ve told this to someone.”
Arjun: “Nevermind buddy. Anytime for you. In fact, i loved talking to you. Can we meet at the Chitrangada Cafe tomorrow? I’ll tell your surname there.”
Sneha: “Haha, that’s my favorite place, I don’t want you to come there and ruin that feeling for me. And ha, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Arjun: “It’s not for coffee. Are you fine with that?”
Sneha: “Who drinks coffee with friends anyway? Always up for a pint of beer bro. Hifi.”
Arjun: “Hifi. See you tomorrow then.”
[Arjun, I saw him for the first time, he was looking cute, a normally built guy was sitting inside the cafe reading the book “The Girl I’ve met on the App” by Rajiv Nair.]
Just before me walking in to the cafe, he looks at me, comes up to the door and opens it for me, Sneha: “ Quite chivalrous, you are man, Arjun”
Arjun: “I know Ms. Sneha Aishwarya. That’s what we do. We pack in the best possible way and transport it to you in the best possible way.”
“AISWARYA PACKERS AND MOVERS” ( Doing a publicity gig for my DAD’s business)
Sneha: “ HAHA!!! That’s not my name bugger. You’re so crazy. Crazier than I thought”.
Arjun: “I know that’s not your name, but I just wanted you to feel for a split second that I couldn’t find it out. But you’re wrong buddy”
“Your name is Sneha Acharya and I know I am 95% right. Am i not?
Sneha: “What? How the hell did you do that?” Yes I am Snehaa Acharyaa. With an extra ‘A’ at the end of the two names. Interesting.
Arjun: “Because you said vegetarian starters. Who the hell eats vegetarian with Beer? And you said Big Fat North Indian Wedding. I clubbed them both and did some permutations and combinations and then found this. Just kidding, I found your profile using gmail id on Linkedin.
Sneha: “Man, Arjun!!! You’re an impossible retard”
Arjun: “ Yeah.. i know”
[And that’s how I found someone who could listen to my problems and laugh at it when I cry about them.]
Arjun: “Hey, cheers mate Sneha, Can i ask you something? I always wanted to ask.”
Sneha: “Yeah, cheers to you too. Go on and ask.”
Arjun: “What’s your weight dude?”
Sneha: “Piss off Arjun. I’m not talking to you anymore.”
I woke up as my smartwatch vibrated indicating the alarm. I tried double tapping it in an attempt to turn it off but my effort didn’t payback. Giving up, I woke up and sleepwalked to the window near my bed. The sound of water dripping from clouds felt refreshing as the cold breeze tickled me. I wished it was weekend today so that I could stay back and enjoy these little pleasures; the earthy smell of rain, the rhythmic pitter-patters with a cup of hot coffee.
Like a rejection of my wish, a sudden shrill of Rihanna’s ‘Work’ came from my phone. Peering towards the phone, I hesitantly picked up Arun’s wakeup call.
“You woke up buddy?” he asked.
While I replied, “Yes.”
He continued, “Okay, start early then! It’s raining and you could get late due to a surge in traffic. See you at the office.”
Before I could even respond, he had hung up.
I quickly rushed to the main door only to realize that the road in front of our porch is fully covered with water. I collected the newspaper which was dropped outside the main door and rushed to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
The kitchen was all messy with a lot of unwashed utensils in the sink. I cursed myself for skipping the task of cleaning the dishes last night. Letting them wait a little while longer, I went to Ritu’s room to check if she had woken up.
As soon as I entered her room, I could see her sleeping in her minion printed night suit while holding her new teddy bear, with her loose curly hair. Looking around, I could see all her toys and Peppa Pig books lying on the floor.
After arranging all of her books in a two feet height rack and placing her toys in the mesh hanger, I could see the Sun paying a visit after the early morning showers. In an attempt to not let the rays disturb Ritu, I closed the curtains in her room and I hoped to ensure that I did not make noise. To my disappointment as soon as I turned around after closing the curtain, I could see Ritu sitting on her bed, with a puzzled expression. Taking her in my arms, I asked while caressing her forehead, “Why did my Ritu wake up early today?”
She closed her eyes and placed her head on my shoulder. There was no reply and I was concerned. Her gloomy face said something was wrong and as usual, I took her to the garden where she spent most of her time playing; with a hope that it might boost her mood.
As we stepped out to walk into the wet garden, Ritu turned to me before saying, “Momma, I saw...”
Holding her face between my hands, I curiously asked, “My sweetling, what is it?”
As I felt her cold face, Ritu replied, “I saw Papa but when I opened my eyes, he is not by my side. Why is he not beside me?”
While I was bereft of speech, she said, “I am bored without him.”
It was just a week ago that her dad had left for his onsite project and Ritu was already missing him. I cursed myself for insisting that he signed the new project agreement. Had I anticipated the impact it would have on our baby girl, I wouldn’t have. I walked back home to video-call him. After all, a sleepless night for his daughter will be worth it.
I wish the next few weeks roll by soon and Ritu hugs her favorite teddy as soon as possible.
This short story is dedicated to Venkat Kadimisetti. Add your opinion on the short story in the comments and thank you for your time - WP Team.