“eureekaaa Divyaaa, look at these will you??” cried Zahra running into the hostel room like she had just won the state lottery. Her voice was high pitched, embossed with the kind of excitement that could thrill a dead man. She came inside and half jumped on Divya’s bed with enthusiasm.
“You look like you just won the world cup for India! it’s just movie tickets!” remarked the latter without looking up. She had her reading glasses on and wore a loose shirt over a salwaar. On her right wrist was a red thread, for she had fasted the entire navratras. The room was a small one, housing two beds and a pair of rickety chairs joint with wooden desks. It had a small window that overlooked the college premises and a unsewn curtain was hung on the windows with the help of drying clips that partially eclipsed the view.
It had been a month since their exams had got over and both were putting up in private hostels for the sake of their tuitions that were yet to continue for another fifteen days. The bi monthly break from college came as a relief to their hectic medical study schedule and neither was in a mood of studying the vacations. Whilst Zahra had left no restaurant nor theatre in the city unvisited, Divya found solace in her novels. Despite the contrast in their personalities, where one was a fearless extrovert and the other was born with a self imposed cocoon of coyness, both had been best friends since school times, Their families residing in the Una district in Himachal Pradesh.
Zahra had a slim contour, her body was lean and yet to blossom. She had shoulder length hair and a fair complexion. Divya on the other hand possessed full grown feminine attributes for her age. She had thick eye lashes and long, winsome tresses that she had messily tied into a bun. Hailing from a small town in Himachal, she was a typical “keep-to-herself” type. Had it not been for Zahra’s coaxing, her parents would have never allowed her to move outstation for studies. Zahra on the other hand, had moved to Delhi leaving her hometown and family after her 10th Standard for further education. Both her parents taught in HimachalUniversity and had a broader outlook than Divya’s conservative lot.
Despite them being similar like chalk and cheese, they rejoiced in each other’s company. It were their differences that kept them glued to each other. Though Divya was no ardent fan of cinema, she had promised Zahra that she would catch this particular movie with her. Zahra was pleased that she could finally convince her friend to dig out her nose from her books and at the prospect of their spending some girl time together.
“We can leave an hour after the lunch and then can hire…”
“What!! An hour after lunch? “ Divya interrupted Zahra before she could complete the sentence. She looked at her in bewilderment with accusing eyes. Zahra stopped the sentence mid way with an equally confused expression.
“What do you mean an hour after lunch? It’s a three hour movie! Do you plan to return after seven?’’ Divya glared at her for she knew her eve serene voice could never accomplish that threatening pitch.
“Well of course, until you plan to leave after interval” Divya replied nonchalantly, not still comprehending her friend’s objection. For her, Divya was a “crybaby “, a term she often teased the latter with. In the past one year, that bewildered expression on her friend’s face seemed to be the characteristic of being Divya and she was almost used to it. It was always the same fight. Divya worrying about everything and Zahra worrying about nothing.
“No!!” Divya squeaked. She put the book aside not caring to mark the pages with her self crafted bookmark and faced Zahra. “it’s not safe. Besides, I promised mapa I wouldn’t stray outside after dark. Delhi isn’t safe at such an odd hour. Don’t you remember that rape case where..”
“Cut the crap Divya!” Zahra shouted. “I’m not asking you to accompany me to a disc at midnight. We will be back by seven thirty. Half the world is on delhi roads in the evening. Stop being a fuss pot. And for heavens sake, stop cribbing of the promises you made to your mapa and citing these ghastly events! It’s been an year and you are out of that small town but never got that town out of you.”
“but..you could, you can change the timings” Divya stuttered.
“No I can’t. Besides I’m busy with coaching classes in the morning. you promised me!! I have spent money on these goddamned tickets!” Zahra shouted, her voice ridden with anger.
Divya stared at the distant wall. She knew she wouldn’t have her way with Zahra. She remembered the last time she had quit out of a movie outing with her classmates for there were boys in the group. She was reminded of the awkwardness hereafter between her and the rest of her friends including Zarah who accused her of being primitive in her approach. It wasn’t the first time Zarah had reminded her that she was an orthodox villager at heart despite being a student in a metro city. Everything, right from her clothing to her english accent stood out like a blot of blue on white. Whilst Zahra could easily adapt herself to college life after two years of her schooling stint in delhi, for Zahra, it was still like she would wake up and find herself on her bed in her native, staring at the ceiling of her room with yellowed walls whose plastered was uneven and dull, somewhat like her life.
Divya’s silence was approval for Zarah. She busied herself with her chores while Divya went back to her book. They didn’t argue on it again, for neither wanted an ugly fight .
Zahra turned her cupboard upside down to hunt for her favourite pair of jeans. She slipped out of her pajamas, her legs neatly shaved and red nailpaint adorning her long toenails. She took of her slip and wore a round neck tee shirt, not choosing a fancier blouse with the neck exposed for she knew Divya would look down upon it. She let her shoulder length hair fall messily around her oval face, giving it volume. Divya on the other hand wore a pink printed kurti with a nehru collar and a white salwar. It took a lot of pleading and badgering from Zahra to make her abandon that duppatta and let her tresses open.
After lunch, they caught a rickshaw from the market near the hostel .Both had long forgotten the last argument and even Divya seemed upbeat. Both the girls chatted cheerily on their way to cinema. They reached the theatre on time and took their seats on the second last row. The seats were foldable by the top, made of plush red velvet cloth and opened only once one was seated. They settled and watched the movie commence. For a change, Zahra could see that the worry lines on Divya’s forehead erased. She sniffed around, for it seemed someone was smoking. She made a mental note to report it to the guard once outside and settled back on the chair, trying to enjoy her day out.
The movie had just begun to make sense, for the protagonist was just about to declare his feelings to his ladylove. The star actor moved closer, holding the pretty damsel’s hand and they stood in a trance for a while, their eyes locked in each other’s. The actor, then leaned forward towards the lady’s face, his lips brushing with the pink of the lady’s mouth.
Somebody hooted at the back.
Zahra was brought back to reality and Divya who seemed red faced after the intimate scene on screen looked backseat. It was then, they noticed that the last seat was occupied by a group of boys and what followed next made Divya cringe and Zahra boil with fury. As the intimacy on screen progressed , lewd comments and obscenities rained backseat. Finally, unable to bear it anymore, Zahra looked back and shouted “shut up, will you. We are also watching the movie” Divya froze in her seat and she grasped Zarah’s hand tightly.
There was a lull for a moment. Then came a male voice, hoarse and bawdy “of course madam, my shirt is up if you are willing” Zarah was about to rise in fury when Divya clung on to her to keep her seated .However she couldn’t for the very instant, the lights turned on for interval.
It was then Zarah saw the delinquents .They were the typical street hooligans, their expressions crude and malicious. On seeing her someone, she couldn’t make out who , whistled and then there was muffled laughter. One of them stood up, his shirt open to bare his hairy chest and looked menacingly at her. Zarah at once knew that she wouldn’t be making a right choice if she argued with such ruffians and held Divya’s hand and pulled her out of the seat , exiting the row in a half run. Their seats snapped shut. There were jeers and cat calling from the back,”maam when will you shirt up!!” followed by incessant malicious laughter , but both of them exited towards the theatre food stalls, not daring to look back. Zahra’s face was flushed red with anger and Divya was fighting back tears.
They reached the food stalls. Neither had the will nor the reason to converse with other. Zahra was fighting back her own thoughts crammed with helpless fury. The anger seemed to be working like a mite, which rendered her confidence and self assurances hollow. Divya was too numb, to think or act. Her eyes were cast low, fixed on the ground , her mind juggled between fear and regret. Their eyes met and in an instant, the barbed wires of all differences found a common land, that made them both, equally and impartially vulnerable.
“Let’s go back” Divya managed to utter the words, her voice seemingly shaky.
“It’s not a big deal! We’ll just change seats. There were plenty of seats in the founding rows.” Zahra said her back to the door of the cinema hall, holding Divya’s hand who stood facing the entrance.
She was just about to convince Divya further when she someone gave her a shoulder push from behind. Divya’s eyes widened and she let out a gasp. Zahra had been intently pushed by one of the boys and before the girls could react or defend the whole group came out at once. As they girls tried to make there way aside, Zahra felt a painful pinch on her arm and Zahra let out a squeal. They boys quickly left , like a swarm of stinging bees from fire as the ruckus created other people to look that way. Zahra, stumped ran to Divya, whose eyes were welled up with tears and face exhibited grimace.
“What happened, you all right” Zahra shook her and asked
“They, they ..” Divya’s voice quivered and then broke into sobs
It was then Zahra noticed her friend neck had a small red burn.
“This!??” Zahra questioned
“the..guy..cigarette!” divya moaned and then broke into sobs again
Zahra wasted no time. She gathered her wits and made her way through the crowd towards the security guard at the entrance of the hall.
“what are u standing here for? I just got a bloody pinch by some rowdy boys and my friend got a cigarette burn.” She screamed, losing her patience and calm.
“Which side did they go memsahib. Inside the hall?” asked the ruffled nepali, woken as if from a deep trance
“Outside. They ran outside!” Zahra pointed at the door. “Outside? I can’t, I’m not, I can’t leave my post here memsahib. Outside I’m not allowed to” the guard stammered.
“Oh shut up!! You eunuch!” Zahra shouted, running towards the door , unaware of the crowd that gathered to enjoy a scene that staged a drama superior to that in the movie. There was a small throng of people around Divya, who stood there, her sobs subdued, her eyes watery read and a heart that seemed to have started thumping in her throat. She shivered, as she watched Zahra running to the door. Her burn mark was now bright red, a tell tale evidence of the scar that fear had just inflicted on her heart.
Zahra ran shouting behind the boys, once she was outside the theatre. They had mounted motorbikes, ready to make a slithery escape before the girl behind them creates an ugly scene. They had not anticipated such an aggressive reaction, they had thought they could have a little fun with the seemingly meek girls.
However Zahra ran, screaming at her loudest pitch “stop them! Stop you bastards!”
The crowd looked at her, as if she spoke an alien tongue!
The boys exited the cinema campus walls! Zarah looked around, her teeth chattering with infinite fury.
“There’s a police control vehicle outside” she heard a voice from behind.
Zarah ran out as fast as she could, her lungs ready to burst.
“Which way did they go?” inquired the burly policeman. He was sitting on the backseat of the PCR, his shirts first few buttons untied and his dirty feet clad in dirty socks sprawled on the opposite seat. There was another sitting in the driver’s seat, in his vest. Apparently the two weren’t really ready for a chase.
“They took to the left” Zahra said and in one breath narrated the entire incident.
“That girl, whom they touched the cigarette, where’s she?” he asked once she was finished.
“Inside the theatre” she asked and it struck her that she had left her friend alone in her tempest.
“Get her, then we can follow the boys.” He replied tying his shoes
“But why! I’m here. They must have made headway by now”
“Madam, we need to verify with her.”
“Verify what?!!” Zahra shouted and then noticing the policeman’s stern eyes, calmed down. “Why would I lie?”
It was then she heard Divya calling her name in a feeble voice. On seeing the PCR, Divya stopped and stood there dumbstruck. The policeman thankfully did not take much time to notice the revealing, red burn on her neck and asked the two girls to get in the car.
“for what!??” Divya quizzically looked at Zahra
“We need to catch those bastards!” Zahra said, her voice audible to the policeman.
“Did u notice the motorcycle’s number?”asked the policeman on the driver’s seat.
“I didn’t. But one of them was a Yamaha, red coloured and the rider had a black helmet..i was too far away to notice the number. There were three bikes”
“That’s not enough” he said lazily.
“I’m not going. No lets head back…you know it’s not.” Divya’s voice trailed off as she watched Zarah climb swiftly on the back seat of the PCR. She had no option but to follow suit.
It took an hour and a half of clueless wandering and bystander quizzing for the policemen to realize they had acted late. They dropped the girls back to the hostel at eight thirty. Both the girls got off the PCR, Zarah feeling like a defeated warrior and Divya still fighting back tears. The policemen had given up on the chase for lack of information. Zarah wondered observing their complacent attitude if even having the number would have done them any good. The ruffians could have crossed borders by now if they so wished and it wasn’t a matter grave enough for the pot bellied policemen to sweat upon.
The hostel guard opened the gates, gasping at the girls being dropped by the PCR. Divya ran to her hostel room. Zarah stood there, unsure of what to do next. It seemed to her like her ideal world she was so sure about a few hours ago, was going whirlwind.
“What happened baby ji ?” asked the old guard.
Zarah opened her mouth to explain, but she felt emotions bottling up her throat for the first time. She ran to her room, fearing an outburst of weakness, an emotion she had rarely encountered.
Both the girls were summoned by the warden, who was duly informed by the guard of the incident. The warden criticized Zarah’s impulse on accompanying the policemen on the PCR. She didn’t miss the occasion to narrate accounts of how policemen have molested girls and how insecure the city is. Despite of Zarah’s infinite beseeching, Divya’s parents were informed. The story spread like fire among the other girls, they had finally got a subject for eternal gossip in the dull hostel life.
Divya is now pursuing her studies through correspondence. She didn’t consider it necessary to maintain contacts with Zarah any further after that ill fated day. Zarah’s parents neither approved nor objected to her actions. They are planning to move abroad so that she can get a better environment for her studies.
The wild boars roam free, relentless, brazen and bold as ever. Turns out the much needed winds of change will take longer to arrive, much longer than kinds of Zarah could await.