|Photo by Junaid Ahmad Ansari on Unsplash
Chapter 1: Daydreams in the school bus
Krishna was not part of the in-crowd at school. Her name had never entered the What’s Amazing This Week list. She never had access to news about who was hooking up with whom. But she was president of the debate club, which was a big deal because the Nanamoria High School Debate club had won every single inter-school debate in the last five years. She was also head of the girls’ cricket team, and the school captain. Her parents were proud of her. She was proud of herself. In general.
She wanted to kick herself today. When Sia from 12B had coyly sidled up to her as they worked together in the chemistry lab, and asked (in her much-practiced trademark husky whisper) — “Are you and Kabir seeing each other, Krishna?” — Krishna had felt her face burn. This was a first — the sense that her ears were on fire and her tongue was stuck to her mouth. It didn’t help that she had been daydreaming about Kabir all through the lab class, and Sia’s question had interrupted a particularly detailed fantasy. But maybe she had taken my red face as a sign of anger rather than shame, Krishna hoped, squirming in embarrassment as she remembered.
When Krishna did not look up from her slide, Sia had hurriedly continued. “Look, Kay-Kay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I reeeeeally like Kabir, you know, and I was thinking of telling him how I feel. But I don’t want to do it if you guys are together. A lot of folks in 12A say that you are? That’s why I wanted to ask you before I say anything?”
Krishna had pulled herself together, shrugged and gone back to adjusting the microscope. “Nope, we’re just friends. You should definitely ask him out.” Then, forcing a smile, she had even thrown in a “you guys will look super cute together,” hoping it didn’t sound as fake as it felt.
Sia had seemed to believed her. “I know! All my followers say I should date someone with hair as curly as mine. We would look sooooo good together! I cannot wait to add Kabir into my display picture. Everyone will go nuts! Thanks so much, Krishna! You know I was really worried, because you guys are super close, but I guess you’re more like brother and sister. You’ve been friends since first standard, no?”
No, we’ve actually been friends longer than that, sighed Krishna as she replayed the conversation in her mind. She looked fixedly out of the bus windows, glad that no one had come to sit next to her. She didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Krishna could not remember a time when Kabir had not been a part of her life. He was always there, part of every memory. Their parents had been friends and neighbours before Krishna or Kabir were born, within a few months of each other. Their mothers had bought them matching bags for their first day of pre-school. She smiled as she remembered those bags. Bright red bags with the “KN” monogramed in large yellow letters. Krishna Nagarkar and Kabir Niyazi. They had been best friends their whole lives, talking to each other for hours each day, never running out of things to discuss, ending and starting the day with each other. They often fell asleep chatting with each other, and restarted the conversation as soon as they woke up.
Sia was wrong about the other thing too. Krishna did not see Kabir as her brother, especially not over the past year. She had no idea when their friendship had started to change. Was it when he sent her kisses GIF with his goodnight message a few months ago? She had been surprised to feel a strange constriction in her chest in response to that message. No, even before that. Was it when they had collided into each other in the stairwell? He was flushed from playing football, pushing his damp hair away from his eyes. They had swayed in each other’s arms for a moment, trying not to fall, then separated, giggling. She had not been able to concentrate on a word in her class that evening, unable to push Kabir out of her mind.
She wondered if he knew that she had feelings for him. All their lives he had been able to understand her feelings before anyone else did. When they were in class 9 and she had a secret heartache over Ishan who was with Pari and did not even know that Krishna existed, Kabir had noticed. Could it be that he knew this too? And maybe he liked her back? She had caught him smiling at her in a different sort of way recently. Maybe.
Should she tell him? What’s the worst that would happen? It wouldn’t spoil their friendship; she was sure of that. If he didn’t feel the same way, he would sweet about it. He always was. It would be horribly awkward for her though. But what if he did like her and was waiting for her to say something? How wonderful would that be! Best friends turning into a couple. Suck on that, Sia.
By the time the bus pulled up in front of her apartment complex, Krishna had worked herself into a fever of excitement. She was going to tell him. Today. Right now. Before she lost this sudden bout of courage. Before Sia asked him (if she hadn’t already).
It was nearly four PM. Krishna knew that her parents, and Kabir’s, would not be back from work for another three hours at least. His sister would be at college too, with any luck. Kabir had skipped school to work on college application essays and he would be alone at home. She waved hello to the building guard, entered the lift and pressed the seventeenth-floor button. Kabir’s home was on the floor above hers. There must have been hundreds of times when she had gone to his house before going to her own, but today it felt like she was going there for the first time. As she got out of the lift, her knees had a slight tremor, the kind that came just before she got on the stage during a debate. The same mixture of fear and excitement.
Calm down, Krishna, she said to herself. If it does not feel right, you can just ask for his Physics notes and come back. No, I won’t be a chicken, I will tell him how I feel, she resolved. She rang the bell at the door marked Dr N. Niazi.
Chapter 2: Kabir and Krishna
Kabir’s face broke into a happy grin when he saw Krishna.
“Dude! When the bell rang, I was like oh god please let be Krishna! I hit submit on MIT just about ten minutes back and my brain feels fried. I thought I would do the crossword to unwind but I absolutely cannot focus! Did you do it today? Did you see the clue for six down? What the hell is it! Are you hungry? Let me see what Auntie has made today. There was some talk of fish curry. Or do you want a milkshake?”
He had taken her bag as he talked and put it on one of the chairs around the dining table. He was now peering into the fridge. Krishna stood next to him, staring at his profile. Had he always been this good looking? Tall, muscular. Large brown eyes. Curly hair that all the girls wanted to sink their hands into. He was wearing his football shorts with a yellow T shirt. Krishna felt like she wanted to look at his legs for hours. It was strange to think that she had known him forever. She had never been this aware of him.
He turned around. “We have rice and fish-curry and raita. You hungry?”
Krishna shook her head. “Maybe later,” she said. She sat on the couch and picked up the newspaper. “Six down is ‘jointly’,” she smirked. “I got it in literally one second, Kabi.”
“Fine, smartypants. But I was trying to do it after writing a 3000-word essay on my life purpose.” He sat next to her and their legs touched. Krishna’s breath felt stuck in her chest.
“Yeah, that MIT essay was a pain, I agree,” she said with an effort.
“Hey, are you okay? You look so weird. Did something happen at school?”
His face was inches from hers. She leaned over and kissed him. She was surprised at herself, but it seemed like it happened on its own, without her thinking about it. Kabir jumped back as though she had hit him.
“Krishna! What are you doing?”
She searched his face and saw only shock. And fear. Tears came into her eyes. She stood up.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did that. I’m sorry. I thought-” She rushed to pick up her bag. All she wanted now was to get to her home.
“Krishna, wait!” He called as she walked to the door. “Wait just one minute, please.”
He ran into his room and came back with a notebook in his hand. “I need to show you something. Please don’t go before you’ve seen this. Please?”
He had opened the notebook and was holding it out to her. It was his diary. He had titled the page “Plans for 2018” and underlined it. The rest of the page was a list.
1. Start college at MIT
2. Tell K about feelings
3. Drive to the Yosemite
She looked up at him, unable to speak.
“I like you too. I was going to tell you after I go to college. After we’re both there I mean.”
“Why?” She asked, angry. “Why are you planning your life like a stupid to-do list? First MIT, then feelings. Such a goody two-shoes. Why?”
He looked away. “Because it’s not safe here,” he said to the fridge.
This was unexpected. “Not safe? What does that mean, not safe?”
Kabir tugged at his hair and took a deep breath. “Okay I’ll try and explain,” he said. “Can you please come back and sit down? Please? Just try and listen to me for 5 minutes.”
He took her hand and pulled her to the couch. Krishna felt some of the awkwardness ebbing. This was the two of them, talking the way they always did. Kabir sat next to her on the couch. Then, as though he was uncomfortable by their closeness, he turned around to sit cross legged, facing her. He picked up the newspaper, then put it back. He then picked up his phone and put that back too. Krishna was curious to see this fidgety side of him, curious about whatever he was going to tell her. Underneath the curiosity, she had a glee-filled voice that kept saying – he likes you! Kabir likes you!
He took a deep breath. “Can you promise me you won’t roll your eyes? Or judge me? Or think I’m a coward? Or laugh?”
She giggled. His discomfort was making her feel better by the minute. “I promise,” she said, counting on her fingers, “no eye-rolling, or laughing, or judging. Done.”
He looked at her. “Have you read about, umm, “love jihaad”?” He put the phrase in air quotes, and made a face.
She raised her eyebrows. “Yes, I have. But – what?”
“If you and I date, people will say it’s love jihaad and we’ll both be unsafe.”
“Kabi come on! That’s such nonsense.”
“Really? How many Hindu-Muslim couples do you know, Krishna?”
“I don’t know any. You know that – you and I know the same bunch of people. But that doesn’t mean anything. We live in Saket. Not in a village in Haryana. No one can tell us what to do! Now I know why you asked me not to roll my eyes. Why are you imagining these weird things?”
Kabir was silent for a moment, looking at his hands. He looked up again, and he looked miserable.
“I’m not imagining it. Last month, Abhinav Bhaiya stopped me after the football match,” he said. Abhinav Chaturvedi was the secretary of the youth club in their residential complex. His father was an MP. “He asked me if you and I were dating. He said I shouldn’t even think about it. He said he didn’t want to see any love jihad in his neighbourhood.”
“What the actual fuck? How dare he? Did you tell your father? This is plain and simple bullying, Kabi!”
He looked at her steadily, not answering.
Krishna’s voice rose. “What? See, I’m not judging or eye-rolling, but I’m angry. You did not tell me to not get angry. How can he speak to you like that? And why are you listening to him?”
In reply, Kabir leaned over and kissed her.
They heard footsteps outside the door and pulled away, afraid that Fiza had returned from college early. The footsteps passed to the house next door. Kabir and Krishna looked at each other and laughed. Her heart was beating so loudly that she was sure Kabir could hear it. But she didn’t feel shy or awkward anymore. They liked each other and nothing else mattered.
Kabir brought her back to earth. “Krishna,” he said taking a deep breath, “this is why I said don’t judge me. You know, we live in a bubble and we don’t realise that this religion business is actually a lot closer than we think. Saket is not that different from a village in Haryana. It’s not just Abhinav bhaiya, other people have said things to me too. Although he was the most direct. I feel like things could become difficult for my family. I’ve started to notice so many things. Have you seen that all my cousins have dated and married only Muslims? 90% per cent of Abbu’s patients are Muslims, I can’t believe I’ve only recently realised that. Like there is a massive invisible line between Hindus and Muslims and now that I’ve started to see it, I see it everywhere.”
Krishna was silent. What a day of firsts, she was thinking. First time we kiss, first time we talk about religion.
Kabir continued to speak gently. “Krishna, I like you a lot. I’ve had feelings for you forever. Even when you liked Ishan, even when you were with Rohan. I’ve never liked anyone else.”
Krishna wanted to dance. She kissed him again. He pulled away.
“No, let me finish. This is very difficult to say. We can’t see each other – like that – while we’re in India. In a few months’ time, unless we’re very unlucky, we will be in the US. That’s when we can be together. I’m sorry if this sounds crazy, but that’s how it has to be.”
They talked for hours. It was the first time that Krishna was not able to change Kabir’s mind.
Chapter 3: Dr and Mrs Nagarkar
When Krishna unlocked the door and saw that her father was home already. He had been playing a game but he put his ipad aside when he saw her.
“Hello, baby Kiki!” He smiled and opened his arms for a hug. “I was so sad when I came home early and you weren’t here yet. Then I saw your phone location and figured you must be studying at Kabir’s. I was going to give you ten more minutes and then come up looking for you. So glad you saved me the trip.”
Krishna had been putting away her shoes and bag. Now she turned around and he saw her face. “What happened, bacche? Rough day?”
Krishna walked into her father’s arms and cried the all tears that she had been holding back for the past hour. The day had been a rollercoaster of emotions for her, and it felt good to let it all out. Her father held her close, one arm around her shoulder, the other cradling her head.
Dr Naresh Nagarkar was a very anxious man who had learned to hide his fears around his children. He felt terrified right now, imagining one horrible scenario after another, forcing himself to stay calm, reminding himself that teenage lives are filled with dramas that can seem overwhelming, but are often manageable. It’s probably nothing, he said to his heart, over and over.
He let her cry. When the sobs finally ended in a noisy sniff, Naresh put a smile in his voice and said, “I made you mango milkshake. Want some?”
Krishna pulled away from his chest and nodded. “Excellent, and do you want to go settle down in your room? I’ll bring you the milkshake and then we’ll talk about this. How’s that?”
Krishna nodded again. She was feeling better. Her father would fix this. He was the nicest, smartest man in the world. He would tell Kabir to stop getting frightened by silly things, and he would speak to Abhinav Bhaiya too.
So it was hard for her to believe her ears, when, having listened to her quietly, he said in a sad voice, “I’m sorry Kiki, but Kabir is right. Things are crazy right now. Riots happening at the drop of a hat. It’s best to not provoke people.”
Krishna looked back at him, dumbfounded. She felt like her world had turned upside down. Her parents talked constantly about freedom and rationality. They never said random things about rules and “shoulds” like other parents did. Why was her father talking like this?
“I know this is hard for you, baccha,” Naresh continued. “We’ve protected you from a lot of political stuff because it seems so pointless. But I also don’t want you to be naïve and be blind to the realities of the world we live in. It’s not a village-city thing. The most educated people talk about “us” vs “them”, and there’s a lot of anger on both sides. You cannot date Kabir while you live in India. I’m sorry.”
Krishna continued to be silent. Naresh, worried he had been too grim, tried to speak lightly. “But hey, can we focus on the fact that my baby is in love? I’m going to pour myself some single malt and celebrate. Sadly, you can’t join me, because we’ve promised dadi we’ll wait until you’re eighteen. Hey, is this the first time? No wait, there was that boy Rohan for a few weeks, although that never made you cry. Hey, did you guys kiss? Okay, okay don’t tell me if you don’t want to. He’s a good boy. I’m happy you guys like each other. It’s just a few more months, sweetie. Don’t worry about anything. Even if MIT doesn’t come through, we’ll figure out a way to get you to the US. I promise you that. Okay?”
“Okay, Pa. Thank you, I guess.” Krishna said. She was so tired. She did not want to talk any more. “I still don’t get it, but I can’t think about it anymore. I’m going to sleep. I’ll wake up early and study.”
“Alright,” said her father, patting her cheek. “We can talk about this again tomorrow.” He turned around at the door and looked at her. “I’m always on your side, you know that right? Excellent. Sleep well, darling”
Krishna did not sleep well. She woke up a few hours later and saw that it was 11 PM. She heard voices from the living room. Her father had said her name, and that must have been what woke her up. She crept out of bed, careful to not make any noises.
The balcony in her bedroom was connected with the balcony in the living room. Her parents did not know this, but there was a spot right next to the big jasmine pot where she could sit quietly and listen to conversations in the living room. She had done this many times. She had learned many amusing things about her parents and their friends through these Friday night eavesdropping escapades.
The balcony was in darkness. She inched closer to the living room until she could look into a part of the room. She could hear voices very clearly now. She saw her mother sitting on the couch, with one hand hugging her knees, and other hand on her forehead. A wine glass stood on the table next to her, half empty.
“This is terrible,” Krishna heard her mother say. “But I suppose we should have been prepared for it. I kept wishing that their friendship would either fizzle out or settle into a brother sister bond kind of thing. Ugh! What did you say?”
“What could I say? I just said it was a good idea to not do anything until they are both able to leave the country. And I told her we’ll always be on her side, no matter what.” Her father’s voice was low. Krishna could not see his face from where she sat but she could see his arm around her mother’s shoulders.
Her mother sighed a large audible sigh. “Yeah, that was probably the best thing you could say. With any luck, it’s just a crush, and she’ll meet someone else at college.”
“Well….I mean, he’s a nice boy. He’s ambitious, he’s sensible. Isn’t it nice that he decided that they should not see each other?”
“No, I agree, that was a nice thing to do, I’ll give him that. He’s a good person. But I don’t want her to be with him. God, no”
Her father laughed. “Really? What if she meets and falls for a hippie in the US? Any random person vs Kabir Niazi? What’s your choice then, Dr. Nandini Nagarkar? Think carefully.”
Nandini did not need to think. “I will take my chances on a random person. As long as it’s not another Muslim.”
“Hmmm…” Naresh’s non-committal response seemed to irritate Krishna’s mother.
“What, Naresh? Don’t you agree with me? Do you really want our baby to marry into those people? They’re different people yar. You know how they oppress their women? We’ve brought her up to be so strong and independent. What was the point of all that if she goes into a family that will shut her inside a house?”
“Arey, arey, arey! Nandini, breathe! Wait, let me refill your glass. First, she’s 17, she’s talking about dating only, why jump into marriage and all? And second, well, Mrs Niazi does not seem oppressed, does she? Their daughter is even more outgoing than our Kiki. They don’t look like they can shut anyone anywhere.”
“You’re just basing your opinion on what you see. What do we know about their family? Their extended relatives?” Nandini asked harshly.
“What do we know about anyone’s extended family?”
“Okay, Naresh, I don’t have energy for this. I spent seven hours in the OT today. You’re trying to be all modern liberated Indian, and I cannot get into a political debate at midnight. You just answer one question — are you okay with Kiki marrying a Muslim? I know she’s only seventeen, and this is a purely hypothetical question. But answer it anyway. Are you okay with your daughter marrying a Muslim? Just give me a yes or no.”
“No,” her father said.
Krishna did not want to listen anymore. She crept quietly towards her bedroom, and got into bed. She felt like she was Coraline. The two people who had been her closest friends had disappeared. And had been replaced by these two new people that she could hear in the living room — they were still talking. She felt frightened and lonely.
Her phone vibrated and her heart leapt in hope. There were about half a dozen exceptions to her no-notifications-after-ten-PM-setting, and she wanted it so badly to be a message from Kabir. It was.
“Kish. You awake? I’m sorry.”
“I’m awake. What are you sorry for?”
“Because I was being a complete idiot and a coward. I don’t want to wait until we go to the US. Can I see you tomorrow?”
“Yes. Want to go play tennis in the morning? We can go to CP after that.”
Krishna felt a warm glow of happiness in her body. She was already thinking about about what dress to pack for changing into after tennis. They had made plans like this dozens of times, on dozens of Friday nights. She had never thought about her clothes with this intensity.
Kabir replied instantly. “Can’t. It’s Eid tomorrow. Family trip to the mosque. Back by ten. Ammi-Abbu and Fiza will go to Nani’s house for lunch, I’ll come back home. I told them I need to work on my essay. Didn’t tell them I’ve already submitted it.”
“Oooh. Clever. #chalu”
“So you’ll come home? 10 AM? Please?”
“Yes. I’ll come.”
“I’ll ping you when I get into the metro.”
“I love you.”
This is interesting, Krishna thought as she put her phone away and closed her eyes. My chest hurts when I feel happy.
Chapter 4: Waking up
She saw the ambulance before she saw the police car. They were both blocking the entrance to the building compound and a minor traffic jam had resulted. Krishna got down from her bicycle and wheeled it in between honking cars until she reached her building gate. A policeman stopped her.
“No outsiders allowed, madam.”
“I live in this building, sir. What happened?”
He did not answer her question. Opening his notepad, he asked, “Which floor? What’s your name?”
“Krishna Nagarkar. Sixteenth floor. Flat number 16-D. What happened?”
He hailed a colleague. “Priyanka madam! This girl is on the 16th floor. Can you take her please?”
As a woman police constable walked towards them, he said, “One request, madam?”
“We can’t stop you from doing anything. Apka fundamental right hai. But I request you to not talk to any press people until we have backup. Right now we’re only four police staff here and if a big crowd comes, it will be very difficult for us to manage. Give us about one hour to get manpower, okay?”
Krishna nodded slowly, feeling bewildered. She had an increasing sense of being in a frightening dream. The woman constable’s name, she read, was Priyanka Khanna. “Come madam, I will drop you to your floor,” she said.
They walked together. “Ms Khanna, please can you tell me what’s going on? I’m really scared. Did something happen in the building?” Krishna asked.
The constable was as reticent as her colleague. “No need to be scared madam. Nothing happened in your building. But something can happen, and we’re just taking precautions.”
Krishna put her bicycle on chain and quickly took her phone out. “News- Saket” she typed with shaking fingers. The page loaded with recent news of municipal elections.
“Madam!” The constable was waiting for her in front of open elevator doors. “Chalo!”
Krishna walked towards her and typed further. “Saket Mountview complex-police”. The elevator doors closed before the search results could load.
“Ms Khanna, please tell me. Hua kya hai?”
The constable looked at her silently as the lift climbed upwards. Then she looked away and said. “Hua ye hai madam ke is desh ka hindu khatre mein aa a gaya hai. Bas yahi hua hai.”
The elevator stopped, the doors opened and Krishna stepped out. The door to her apartment was open and her father was standing at the door. There were tears on his face.
“She’s here!” he shouted and walked towards her. “Oh, thank God!” said her mother’s voice from inside the house.
Krishna’s feet were frozen. Behind her, the constable’s voice spoke to her father as the elevator doors closed. “Saab, please stay on your floor,” she said. Her father nodded. There was snot on his face. Why was he crying so much?
Krishna looked at her phone to see if there was any news that would make sense of the madness. There was.
17-year-old Muslim boy killed in Delhi Metro.
Kabir Niazi, a 17-year-old boy was killed in a scuffle in the Delhi metro in the early hours of the morning. The assailants, Pinku Sharma (28), Manu Yadav (21) and Jitendra Kumar (19), have been apprehended. The victim and his his father, Dr Nasir Niazi (51) were going to Jama Masjid for Eid prayers and were dressed in traditional clothes. According to eyewitnesses, the attackers told father and son to take off their caps, and when ignored, forcibly removed their caps. Upon this, the victim pushed one of the attackers, leading to a brawl that ended with the victim sustaining a head injury. Passengers caught the attackers and called the police at Green Park station. The victim was taken to the Max General Hospital where he was declared dead on arrival. The victim’s mother and sister were traveling in the ladies’ compartment and were unhurt. Dr Niazi is a leading orthopedic surgeon at Josh Hospital and a resident of Saket Mountview Complex.