The Monk by Prashila Naik
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Nial's eyes shone with goodness; not that she ever found herself close enough to judge, but she still knew. She'd also never heard his voice. But she knew that he couldn’t possibly say anything obscene or cheap, like the other boys in college. This boy was different and she was in love with him. A love that was as indescribable as it was obvious. As long as he was around, the love was enough. It set her apart. It set him apart.

 

The evenings he travelled back home from his hostel were difficult. It was one thing to have him occupy the private spaces of her mind. But in the close confines of the bus, she noticed his smiles, his swept-back brownish black hair, the way he looked straight out of the window with his head held perfectly still. Each of these sightings filled her with such unexpected joy, such longing, that when he'd at last get off his seat and out of the bus, she'd feel her heart sink into a pit of loss so strong, she'd have to hold her breath to stop herself from doing something silly like crying.

 

Even as all the other boys around him made sure to expose everything that made them ordinary, he remained a wall, impermeable. Her only avenue into his world was through his friends, who seemed to use him as a prop to enable conversations with girls who, like her, were interested in knowing more about him. ‘Nial can be a monk.’ ‘He knows exactly what he wants.’ ‘Of course all girls like Nial, but he doesn't like any of them back.’ This last bit, she knew, might have been meant to dissuade the girls, to make them aware of how they would never have a chance with Nial, and so would be better off accepting the interests of boys who were less monkish, and less in tune with what they wanted out of their lives. She liked listening to these tales. They seemed to carve in so much insight and yet seemed to mark out what she thought she already knew. These nights were also the most beautiful, for her dreams acquired a form that made reality seem redundant.

 

Sometimes though, Nial's proximity to his friends bothered her, because she was not as blessed. She found it increasingly difficult to make new friends, and her interactions stayed limited to the exchanging of study notes and other matters that made the arduous engineering journey a little more bearable. She wished she could share her euphoria with someone. She wished she could employ a close confidante's help in boldly imagining a future, for sometimes it was all painfully lonely. Her parents would never understand, and frankly she did not want them to understand. Their role in her life was different. The very fact that they managed to have her semester fees every month and then spare her daily pocket money to ensure she travelled well, ate well and on occasion, even drank a bottle of soda, was sufficient. What she really missed was a decent conversation where she could just express the turmoil inside her head. She had tried writing a diary, but the experience had been singularly dissatisfactory. There was no validation of anything, for anything.

 

Nial’s presence in the bus was as regular as clockwork. By now, she remembered all his shirts, the exact manner in which he'd lift himself off the seat and walk towards the door, the sweep of his hair everytime he stepped off the bus and onto the road. She felt she was bound by a cosmic connection to him. With one more quarter of her second year closing, she began to feel a terrifying anxiety. One evening she decided to avoid him by skipping her regular bus and waiting for the next one.

 

She xeroxed some pages of the new Data Structures text book as she waited, even though she was certain she would never get around to reading them. The sodawala watched her, hoping for a customer. She longed for a lime soda but, already over her quota of two for the week, she could no longer afford the indulgence. So she left the area and took a stroll along the adjoining street. The owners of the small stores were enjoying a brief lull before the evening rush. She thought she would not mind a life like that, even if at times she could not wait to get away from this very sheltered existence. She brushed aside the contrasting thoughts, worried that they would yet again leave her only more bothered about the complicated person she was growing into.

 

The bus arrived later than usual. She touched her neck and realised she was no longer sweating – it was cooler, she was more relaxed. Maybe from now on she could spend some time in the library and switch to this bus for good. But when the bus arrived, she wasn't so certain. The conductor was a gutkha chewing fellow who seemed the kind who would always insist on the exact fare. The seats in the bus were torn in most places and the floor littered with peanut shells and dried orange peels. She picked a window seat in the second row and, dreading the mosquitoes that would eventually show up, buried both her arms under her backpack. She was struck by how depressing the surroundings were around her. She closed her eyes and recollected a scene from a Yash Chopra movie – she wasn't certain if it was Switzerland or Scotland, but the place had seemed like a dream. She held onto the image as if in desperation, but was interrupted when someone occupied the seat next to her. She quickly opened her eyes.

 

For a second, she was certain she was in the midst of another dream. She’d turned her head slightly to catch a glimpse of who it was and then instantly sprang back towards the window. It was him! It is him, her mind seemed to be screaming. She pulled out her hands from under the backpack, foolishly touched her hair to ensure there were no flyaway strands, and then realising what she was doing put them back under the backpack. Nial seemed to hardly notice any of this. He sat like a gentleman, ensuring that he was comfortable in his place and yet making sure that she had her side of the seat exclusively left to herself. His head, she could see through her side glance was held perfectly still, and there was nothing that suggested he had recognised her or even if he had, if he intended to acknowledge that recognition. And yet she could not stop herself from wondering how he had picked this particular seat when the rest of the bus was largely unoccupied. That had to mean something, did it not?

 

Soon she had begun fidgeting with her fingers, and then as if stuck by a brilliant idea, she pulled open the zipper of her backpack and pulled out a file which had a logo of their college placed right in its center. He had to spot the logo and maybe that would give way to a conversation. But after some more minutes with the file sitting on her lap in various closed and open positions, Nial's neck stayed remarkably straight, not once concerned with or interested in the movement around him. She gave up at last and stuffed the file back into the backpack. There was nothing more left to do than to close her eyes and rest the back of her head against the seat. At least sleep would bring mercy for a while. But sleep completely eluded her, and the journey proceeded with the tiny gap in between them continuing to thrive.

 

Even this proximity, she soon discovered, was filling her with hope, and a strange desire. She shifted slightly away from the window. The gap between them reduced a little. She could almost feel a part of her forearm brushing against Nial's sleeve. She felt a flutter of excitement as she let her feet spread out and then instantly pulled them back together. Nial's sleeve though was stubbornly brushing against her skin every time the bus driver braked or changed gears or even slowed down. She stole a glance at the sleeve and was surprised to find that some of the stitches were loose. Her own mother would never let her leave the house with such loose stitches. She felt protective of Nial.

 

She stayed seated in the same position for the rest of the journey, although the right side of her back had begun to get extremely uncomfortable and her left knee had to be raised at a level higher than the right one. She was vaguely aware of this discomfort, but was also more than aware of the diminishing distance. Nial's stop was just a couple of minutes away and this time with him was now coming to an end. She slid closer to the window again and pulled her backpack closer to her chest. Nial on the other side had begun to gather his bag and his jacket. Any second now, he'd stand up, and in his place, one of the three men standing next to their seat would sit down next to her. Her arm would brush against these men now, and if they were anything like the perverts she often encountered on these journeys, there would be other parts of them that would brush against her too. The thought at once disgusted and depressed her. She wished she could stop Nial from leaving. She wished she could tell him ... tell him what. As he stood up and one of the three men positioned himself to occupy the vacant seat, she realised she had nothing to tell him. There were no words, just the smoke inside her head. But as Nial reached the bus exit and the man sat down next to her, something inside her snapped. She stood up too, pushed past the man next to her, ignoring how he refused to pull his legs back to let her pass. The bus conductor looked at her in a funny manner, as if he was privy to her secret. She ignored him too and followed Nial out of the bus.

 

Nial had not noticed her, and she made sure he would not, as she maintained a careful distance between them, even as her eyes were fixed on his back. Every few seconds, she let herself take in the sights of this small town she had never visited. She was amazed by the wideness of the open space. The few houses she encountered on the road had a quaint design. This is the kind of Goa that must fascinate tourists, she decided. She could not deny she was mildly fascinated too. Her parents who were born and raised in the neighboring state of Karnataka had no opinion of Goa beyond it being their workplace. Her father moved here when he was twenty and after a series of odd jobs found his calling driving a rickshaw that he lovingly named ‘Vijay Deewar’ after his favourite movie character Vijay from the movie Deewar. His life revolved around survival and ensuring his wife and daughter were well fed. There was the occasional indulgence in the form of expensive whisky, much to the chagrin of her mother. Her mother had once dreamt of being an actress! But then had resigned to her fate and accepted marriage with a rickshaw driver and, as her father liked to say, ‘made his life’. If the woman was not her mother, she'd even be mildly in awe of her efficiency, of how she refused to look back at her life with any kind of regret. What she felt for these two people, she could never tell.

 

She sighed as she turned to look at Nial and realised with a shock that she had lost him. Stuck in the middle of a road, in a town she barely knew, she was horrified by her own stupidity. What was she even trying to achieve by setting out on this journey? And how was she going to get back home? She desperately fished into her purse to count the number of coins. 10 rupees, but would that be enough? Just when she decided to turn back, she noticed Nial emerging through the dull dusk-coated evening, from an adjoining lane. He had resumed his walk along the road now. She fidgeted with the straps of her backpack, as if her life depended on them. She let go off the straps and as if convincing herself, she stepped ahead. Nial walked for a long time, or were those merely a few minutes she could not tell. Now, refusing to look away from him, she noticed many things that she had never noticed before. Like how he did not wear shoes, but sandals that exposed the backs of his feet, how his legs were much longer than the rest of his torso, or how his walk was slightly stilted, like he wasn't really interested in lifting his feet one after the other. By now her own feet had begun to tire and for her sake, she wished he would stop walking, and as if he'd read her thoughts, he stopped.

 

The very first thing she noticed about his house was its size – with two large floors and a huge porch where two dogs lay. There were no people around even if the front door was open. She watched as if it were a scene from a movie, only mildly aware of the darkness settling around her. It made sense to head back home and remind herself of her stupidity, and yet, as she saw Nial stopping by the dogs and patting them, one by one, she felt a form of happiness she had never known herself capable of experiencing. She stood right there, watching him put his bag down and let the two dogs throw themselves on him, a smile beginning to form on her face, till one of the dogs spotted her.

 

It was too late to turn around. She could not make sense of the expression on his face, but she saw his hands move down to the two dogs, and his mouth uttered something that calmed them down. And then, with a slow measured stride, he walked towards her. When he stopped a few steps away from her, the evening had completely dissolved. Her eyes were focused on her own nails desperately in need of a trim.

 

‘Do you have any work here?’ Nial asked in a voice that took her by surprise. It was nothing like what she had expected, and yet not entirely unpleasant. ‘Do you need to see someone here?’

 

She lifted her eyes up, despite finding herself scared of him and everything around him. A part of her was sad that his face or his tone showed no recognition of her. This brought her close to tears, and she looked away.

 

‘Wait a minute. Are you ... you study in CE college right? I think I have seen you in the bus.’

 

For a second, she wanted to celebrate. He had seen her, and more importantly, noticed her. She turned to tell him that, yes, she studied in the same college, was junior to him by a year, and that she liked him enough to follow him to this unknown place with just 10 rupees in her purse and all kinds of fears. But suddenly she was very very tired and his face seemed as inscrutable as the Bengali movies she tried watching without reading the English subtitles on Doordarshan on lazy Sunday afternoons.

 

‘I need to get to the bus stop. I think I am lost,’ she said at last, her eyes still stuck on his face and yet not registering it.

 

Nial seemed unconvinced, but moved closer and stretched his hand out to tell her to turn around and walk straight till she came to a dairy booth where she would turn right, walk straight, and then take a second left turn which would take her to the highway. He stopped here and lowered his head to ask her where she was headed. She almost mumbled, ‘Vasco’ but quickly said ‘Margao’ even as she wondered if the direction made sense.

 

Nial seemed to wonder too, for she watched him scrunch his eyes. ‘You’d still need to cross the road, take a bus to Cortalim and then take one more bus to Margao,’ he said at last.

 

She nodded, and then with a passing glance at his dogs who were back on the porch, walked away from there. After a few steps she realised she had not thanked him. Nial had turned back and was walking towards the door. ‘Thank you,’ she called in a voice loud enough for him to turn back. ‘Thank you,’ and he waved back.

 

*


Prashila Naik's work has been published in various online literary magazines from India and elsewhere, such as Muse India, Jaggery, Papercuts, Bombay Literary Magazine, Bewildering Stories, Spark and Indian Review among others. Her work is forthcoming in Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature and the Fellows of Nature Short Story Book. She is presently based out of Bangalore.