They were young and very much in love. Two lovely people from different parts of the country, knit together over the years, by a long epistolary bond that could have claimed a mention in the Guinness Book of Records. Arvind was a ship’s engineer. He had sailed the high seas for well over a decade. Rani was an English teacher in a convent. Arvind needed a good pen friend to fill the hours between his maritime duties. Rani needed a sympathetic listener to whom she could confide her secret dreams and ambitions. They found each other through the columns of a woman’s magazine.
It was a long and happy romance, an exchange of confidences, a burgeoning love affair that was at once so intense, so tender! Arvind forgot his loneliness; Rani was oblivious to her restrictive surroundings in the convent hostel.
Three years went by before they could meet. Arvind’s ship touched port after a marathon run, and was to be in dry dock for at least three months. It coincided with Rani’s summer vacation.
“I’m finally going to meet her. Will she be as lovely as I imagined?” ruminated Arvind.
“I’m getting butterflies in my stomach. Will he be all that I have longed for?” sighed Rani.
They met at a cosy little café in suburban Bombay . After the initial shyness, Arvind flung his arms around Rani.
“Gosh! You’ve exceeded my wildest dreams,” he whispered.
“I could have spotted you in a crowd. You’re just as I had imagined,” she said.
The evening sped away like a dream.
“ We’re made for each other,” chuckled Arvind.
“ It had to be this way,” crooned Rani.
A fortnight later, they were married in Rani’s hometown. Arvind had limited time and would have to get back on ship as soon as it was ready. Time was precious, and they wanted to spend every minute of his leave together. They chose a small hill station for their honeymoon.
“If there’s a heaven, it is this….. it is this….” muttered Rani, as she snuggled close to Arvind on the pillion of his motorbike, and clung on to his midriff. People smiled indulgently at this young and lively couple, who were very much in love.
It was the last day of their honeymoon.
“Tomorrow we will have to go back to the city. My parents will be anxiously awaiting our return. Let’s have dinner out tonight. I want you to look your charming best. So bring out your glad rags my dear, and do me the honors.”
“Good enough?” she asked, as she pirouetted around for his inspection.
“Gorgeous!” he whispered, as he took her in his arms and gently brushed her lips.
What an unforgettable evening that was! They had so much to talk about, so much to laugh over, as they held hands and gazed into each other’s eyes.
“Tomorrow we will be surrounded by people. There’ll never be a free moment,” he lamented.
“Arvind, isn’t it time we got back to our cottage? The restaurant is almost empty. I’m sure the waiters will throw us out, if we hang around any longer.”
The distance back to the cottage was fairly long. The road was winding, and poorly illuminated.
“Hold on tight,” Arvind cautioned, as he maneuvered a bend in the road.
A lorry approached, its headlights turned directly on them. Arvind blinked and moved to the side. A car was following them and also had its bright lights on. It happened in a split second. The car following them rammed into the motorbike. Rani was catapulted on to the bonnet and hit the windscreen. The motorbike was dragged for a few yards before the car broke free and vanished into the night.
It must have been a long time before another motorist passed that way, and saw the crumpled figures of Arvind and Rani lying at different places on the road. He got to the nearest telephone and dialed the police. The closest government hospital was a good twenty miles away. The doctor on duty panicked.
“We can’t do much for them here. They both appear to have severe head injuries. Why not move them to Bombay straight away?”
Arvind was in a state of shock for several days. He had multiple bruises all over his body, as though it was crushed under a steam roller. A large gash on his scalp was sutured, after his head had been tonsured. But investigations showed no major injuries.
With Rani, things were pretty bad. She had suffered severe head injuries and was in deep coma. There were multiple fractures of her lower limbs.
“Where is she?” was the first question Arvind asked when he regained consciousness.
“I want to see her.”
“She’s in Intensive care, and nobody is allowed inside.”
Arvind hovered outside the ICU. Hours turned to days and days to weeks. There was no change in Rani’s condition. She had to be put on a ventilator, as her breathing grew labored.
“God, let her live. She’s too young to die. We’ve only known each other for a few days. Give her a chance,” Arvind tearfully implored the Almighty.
But nothing changed. After more than a fortnight, the doctor summoned Arvind to his room.
“I’m sorry I have to give you bad news. You must pull yourself together. I’m glad that your parents are here to give you the moral support you need.”
“Is there no hope at all, doctor? You know we were married for just a fortnight. I can’t take it. I feel guilty about all this. If I hadn’t insisted on staying out late….”
“Stop blaming yourself Arvind. It won’t bring you solace neither will it do you any good. We did an EEG this evening. It’s almost a straight line. Do you want her to linger on like a vegetable?”
“You’re not God, doctor. While there’s life there’s hope. She may yet recover. Let’s wait for some more time.”
“I know it’s a heartless thing to say. But I’m a doctor, and it’s my business to save lives that can be saved, and not prolong lives that can’t.”
Arvind glared at him angrily. The doctor continued speaking.
“In this hospital, there is a young girl called Rita, who is desperately in need of a pair of kidneys. We cannot find the right donor for her, though her father is willing to spend all his wealth.”
“I know what you’re getting at. You want my Rani’s kidneys.
He was up in a flash, with his hands around the doctor’s throat. A wild gleam shone in his eyes.
“Don’t ever talk about it again. I’ll wait, no matter how long, for Rani to recover.”
“Cool down, Arvind. No one can touch Rani unless you agree. Now go back to your room and rest.”
The next day, the doctor approached Arvind’s parents.
“Be reasonable,” he said, “ Rani is dead for all practical purposes. If in her dying, she could help another girl live, would it not be a wonderful gift of life? Time is running out for the girl. Do help Arvind to see reason.”
News about Rani spread through the hospital. The parents of Rita heard about it too. Now it was their turn to beg and cringe before Arvind and his parents. Arvind could not hold out against their tears and ravings. Finally, he gave his consent.
Arvind was a changed man. Deep sorrow at his bereavement, and guilt that he had authorized termination of life support to his wife, plunged him into depression. For months he languished at home, unable to apply himself to anything. But the care and counseling of a learned psychiatrist, and the love and support of his parents, eventually enabled him to tide over his depression. The psychiatrist advised him to join his ship and keep busy. Time alone would heal his deep sense of loss.
It so happened that on the very day Arvind flew to Southampton to rejoin his ship, the newspapers carried the story of the hit and run car, that had caused the accident. Rita’s father had gone down to Pune on business. He had taken a few extra pegs at the Club, when news reached him that Rita was sinking rapidly due to renal failure. Of late, the exacerbations of her illness had become more prolonged and frequent. The man had got into his car, and driven like one demented. He was shocked out of his drunken stupor only when the accident took place.
Not wanting to get tangled up with the Law, he had abandoned his car at a small roadside garage in the ghats , and borrowed another from the sleepy owner, who had never seen so much money fall into his lap in a lifetime. It was certainly the irony of life, that the daughter of the man who caused the accident, had received his victim’s kidneys.
Arvind did not see the papers and was spared the agony of knowing what happened.
For more than three years, Arvind did not come home on leave. He was summoned by his mother, on the pretext that his father was ailing. His parents had settled down in Nagpur , with his younger brother.
There was the usual hassle at the Indian Airlines counter. Arvind had an unconfirmed ticket and was desperately anxious to get home.
“Please do something,” he told the girl at the counter.
She had a cheeky little face, with an upward tilt to the tip of her nose, and her ponytail swished from side to side as she moved her head.
“I’m sorry. We are overbooked already. I can’t even put you on the wait list. The earliest would be a week from now.”
“Listen young lady, I know you’ve got a few seats reserved for VVIPs. Can’t you accommodate me on one of those? My father is on his deathbed. Don’t you Indian Airlines people do anything on compassionate grounds?”
Her mischievous eyes twinkled as they said, “You are by no means a VVIP, and how do I know you’re not pulling a fast one on me about your father? Do you have a medical certificate to prove that he is ill?”
Arvind gave her a dirty look.
“I might as well take a train. But if anything happens to my father by the time I get home, you bet you’ll be seeing me again.”
He stomped off angrily. The girl had a mischievous smile as she called him back again.
“No need to be in such a huff, Sir. Just hang around for a few minutes, and I’ll see what I can do.”
There was nothing seriously wrong with Arvind’s father. He was merely suffering from old age, and eager to see his son settled before he closed his eyes.
“You know I’ll never love anyone as much as I loved Rani,” protested Arvind. “ It wouldn’t be fair to marry just to please you.”
“You are a young man, son. You can’t go through life grieving for what can’t be undone. We’ve found a nice girl for you. You’ll grow to love her as time goes by.”
A week later, Arvind was to meet the girl at the airport, and bring her home. When the same saucy Indian Airlines counter clerk stood before him, he brushed her aside.
“Excuse me Ma’am, I’m looking for my visitor.”
“I am your visitor, Arvind Kher. Now you can take me home.”
“You? You’re the girl my parents have chosen for me? You better take the next flight back.”
“I’m not maimed or blind. I could fit the bill if you would only come out of your stupor, and get some life into you.”
“What do you know about me?”
“All I need to know. You’re as warm hearted as the inside of a refrigerator.”
“And you still want to marry me? I couldn’t love you as much as I loved my Rani.”
But grudgingly he acknowledged to himself that while Rani was like a blossoming rosebud, this girl was like an Easter lily, charming, poised, and with a will of her own.
“Let’s go home,” Rita said.
Ever since her remarkable recovery after the kidney transplant, Rita had kept in touch with Arvind’s parents, and won her way into their hearts. She wanted to make amends for the accident caused by her drunken father that had deprived them of a daughter-in-law, and almost cost Arvind his sanity.
“I will marry Arvind,“she announced one day unabashedly. “I will care for him and love him as much as Rani did. It’s the least I can do in return for the Rani’s gift of life to me. But there’s one condition I insist on. He must not know my identity. Someday, when he loves me for myself, I will let him know. But not yet.”
As Arvind circumnavigated the marriage fire his hand firmly in Rita’s, he said a silent prayer that this cheeky girl with the upturned nose, who was a total stranger to him, would help him break out of his shell of loneliness in which he had incarcerated himself since that fateful day.
“Help me,” he muttered.
Rita squeezed his fingers in assent.