Tall, dark-haired, wheatish, clean shaven, a thin-framed spectacle on my aquiline nose, very Indian in my looks and an attitude of an ‘ass’ is how any of my closest chums would describe me. I pass off as handsome for those who don’t think ‘fair is beautiful’!
 
Personally speaking, I don’t believe in love. I don’t believe in feelings except for the sheer pleasure of doing things and creating a name for myself. I would not toss away my life over a few moments of pleasure. I planned my life at every phase. I knew I would be an Engineer way back in my primary school. Machines were for me what a night sky meant for a writer or a moonwalk meant for a couple. For me staring at the sky meant, pointing out clear blue patches, wondering why some clouds chose to pass and why others took a little longer. It was never about noticing silver linings, making out different shapes and figures the clouds formed nor counting stars! For me, everything followed logic and I had to know the ‘why’ of things in order to figure out what I could or could not do about them. My ‘thinking’ is what fuelled me and my life.
 
Having said this, there is another side to me, where I am not all ‘nerdy’ as people believe me to be. I have this small inner circle and four of my friends are part of it. The four who accepted me for what I am. I could just sit in their company and not say a word for days and yet feel I mattered. They didn’t mind my quirks and likewise, I didn’t mind theirs. I could snatch their lunch, eat it with no guilt, hand over an empty box and they would put the whole incident to rest with one whack on the head. Nothing said, no explanations needed and no hard feelings stored. It’s always about moving ahead – together. I would always be there for them as much as they would be there for me. This was the only space in my life where I let logic take a pause. Everywhere else, my head always rules.
 
And in my head, I always have this one sharp voice which critiques me when I am head over heels over ‘myself’, the voice which holds me back when my impulses take the driver’s seat and often nudges me on when my I drag my feet over self-doubt. This inner voice was my closest friend and my truest ally and a ruthless critique. I fondly call this inner voice of mine ‘My Cop’. Because many a time the Cop has kept me from going astray. Like in a confession box, I unload my shitload of crappiest thoughts and experiences alongside the several ‘aha’ moments to my Cop every night. A regular habit of mine right from childhood. My Cop knows me ‘in and out’…literally speaking that is.
 
Am a straightforward simpleton whose head is right where it’s meant to be – on my shoulders – Always!
 
I heard the tiny voice in my head retort – “Always?” That was my Cop on its nightly rounds.
 
“Ok. Not always…Mostly!”, I conceded.
 
“There are many things which are beyond what your head can grasp. Let’s bring this discussion back when you get there”, jeered the Cop.
 
“Ya sure! Whatever!”, I snapped back.
 
Today was the last day of the calendar year. I don’t believe in making wishes or resolutions for the new year. I know the coming year would be a remarkable year. The seeds were already sown. All I had to do was reap the success and the glory. This chapter of my life is called ‘New Beginnings’. I was all set for my first job. I was going to be a Design Engineer at a prestigious and reputed firm in Space Research. Right now, I would reach the skies. And from there on, I had my sight clearly set on the space beyond the skies. I was preparing for a career in NASA. Little did I know that life had planned a surprise for me, a rendezvous of sorts with an experience
so totally alien to me, ways that would turn my life upside down and changed me at my core.
 
It was one of those evenings with my close-knit group of friends, yes my inner circle – Vicky, Roshan, Imran, Danny. And me Vivaan, Viv as my friends call me. We are ‘The Infamous Five’! The “Bro-Gang” as we called ourselves. We literally grew up together, went to the same school, laughed together, cried together and shared the dirtiest of secrets with each other. Today was Danny’s birthday. We went pub hopping and got insanely drunk celebrating our silver jubilee. For us, it was earmarked as our entry into adulthood. Why 25 and not 21?! For no particular reason except that we thought 25 should be it! And since we have heard tonne loads of advice from parents and senior adults, we figured adulting doesn’t come easily. We would have to work towards it and so we had an entire checklist drawn up on all the to-dos of adulting. And no, there were no NOT-to- dos. We saved that for our 60s!
 
On the top of the checklist was Vicky’s dare on losing our ‘virginity’ on the same night. And to answer the question that popped in your head – ‘Yes’, we are these nerds who had decided to wait until 25 to unzip our manhood! To get back to the juicier part of the story, Vicky, the daredevil and the ace-schemer amongst us, found this brothel in one of the busiest shopping areas in the city. We sobered up a bit with a few cups of caffeine after the barrels of beer and whiskey we had downed. All of us had a strange, unfamiliar swagger when we walked into this darkly lit place with a riot of dark colours and hues everywhere. A shady joint indeed! I really thought it’s only the movies where they showed these places so. And it had a name – ‘Mannat’! We burst out laughing. When we got back our composure, Vicky and Danny walked towards the grotesque looking hulk of a woman who needed no introductions as ‘The Aunty’! A few green notes were exchanged and our deal was sealed. For a minute there, Roshan and I exchanged this most intense glance which meant ‘vamoose’ but before actioning our thought, Danny did this very Bollywood style entry scene walk. Along came two other girls, one as slim as a pencil, with blazing highlights of blue, red and golden in her hair, loud makeup holding a blatantly enticing smile. I was more drawn to the girl behind who was more demure, surprisingly dressed modestly that went perfectly well with her tiny small figure. Something about her demeanour kept me captive. I instantly felt like this little kid who is shown these colourful balloons tied up with beautiful ribbons. All I wanted was to just grab and keep them to myself. I saved the violins for a later date.
 
I saw Roshan walk towards her and in that instant, my heart stopped. The many years of friendship didn’t make an ounce of difference to what I did next. I stepped on the accelerator and with a fully fuelled pace, I brought my leg in front of his. He tripped over and fell. It was just what I was aiming for. I looked at him, he looked at me and was about to say something nasty in his usual sarcastic way but something in my expression made him go silent instead.
 
Go Viv”, he nudged after a while.
 
I gave him a flying kiss and brought my attention back to her. She gave me a shy smile. If this was meant to entice, I must admit I was already deeply entwined in those shallow dimples on both her cheeks. I walked behind her as she led me into a cosy little room. I went in and sat on this obviously laid bed at the centre of it, a dream catcher dangling over it. As I sat, I felt something under me. I got up a bit and pulled out an old, torn book of English poems. Intrigued, I simply looked at her. She immediately grabbed that book and placed it on a side table next to me.
 
She sat next to me and took my hands in hers inviting me to devour her. Somehow, I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to possess her soul, not her body. And for starters, I wanted to know what a book of poems was doing in her room. When I broached that topic, she looked into my eyes surprised. Wonder what she saw in them, I saw her get up excitedly and grab the book again. She turned to a page there and asked me to read it. It was the poem ‘The Road not taken’ by Robert Frost. It was one of my favourite poems too, something that always inspired me to chase my dreams and trust my choices right from childhood. We read the last stanza together and when we finished I just stared at her in silence as she held my gaze. It was the most beautiful pause in my life. And it felt like I had lived my entire quota of happiness in those few moments.
At some point, I found my tongue and asked her how she could read. And she told me her story.
 
“My name is Asma. My Mom was a sex worker who spent her entire life here. I cajoled my mom to let me go to school. I was the only anchor in her life. She convinced Aunty and promised to stop my schooling the day I attained my puberty. I was to be trained to follow suit after that. I went to a local school and I loved to learn. My identity was protected and I was sponsored by Aunty’s contacts who agreed to be my legal guardians on paper. Somehow studies took over my life. I even began to believe that my life had changed. I devoured books. The Principal who knew my real background was very supportive and believed that education would be our redemption. She bought me several books. This is one of them. My thirst for literature and languages at a very young age was commended by my teachers. I had to give that all up when I attained puberty. My Principal tried to help, but Aunty chose to remain rigid. For her, I was a source of income and therefore an investment for her future. And here I am.”
 
As I heard her story, I could not help think of what life meant for her and many like her. Servicing clients who meant nothing more than a source of livelihood. People who would never remember her name nor know her for what she was, what she could be or what would become of her.
 
And right then Aunty walked in and signalled to us that my time was up. I left promising Asma that I would return. I could see her eyes going glassy at that moment. It felt like someone was wringing my heart right then.
 
And I went there again the next day, and the next and the next…Suddenly life without her started to feel empty and I felt like a fish out of water. I realised I could breathe only when I was around
her.
 
This chapter of my life is called ‘space’ exploration’. ‘Suddenly ‘space’ took on a whole new meaning in my life. It was no longer about NASA or ISRO. I could not help but connect to what Nicole Krause wrote in ‘The History of Love’ – “If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.”
 
I locked myself in my room, I opened my Journal and started writing.
 
Was this me, I wondered. I realized I now stop by the garden in front of our house and notice those little flowers and smell the roses along the way. Olfactory was never my strong suit before! Only factories were!
 
And now what were these words that my heart was stringing?!
 
Why do these stars look so bright?
Why do these fireflies hover over my head?
Why does this breeze whisper your name?
Why does music make me cry?
I don’t feel comfortable in my own skin
My thoughts no longer seem to fuel my life
I am with my friends, but I don’t hear them
I walk, I eat, I sleep but I am not myself
My dreams, my wants, matter no more
What I yearn for is that smile on your lips
The one that lights up my heart
The heart that wants to unload the weight of the longings you stirred in it!
~ By Yours truly
 
For someone who prepared for the English exams like one does for Math – by writing and practising from old English Exam Question Papers, I noticed I had just written verse! And they didn’t seem bad at all!
 
And just then I heard the Cop chuckle. I dropped my pen down and snapped back, “It’s your day today Cop…laugh all you want. Go ahead say what you are itching to say!”
 
“I told you, didn’t I?!” said the Cop.
 
“Touché”, I said.
 
“Who knew that Viv, the man of machines would one day write verses”, pointed out the Cop.
 
“Ok, stop it, will you”, I commanded, my face adorning a million shades of pink all at once!
 
A few months went by. Asma had now become part of my daily routine. The Aunty wasn’t ok with my daily visits but the stack of money I paid her eased her nerves. I had just bought a book for her – ‘A Collection of poems by Langston Hughes’. I had never heard of him before, I simply went with Vicky’s recommendation. He swore to me that Asma would love it.
 
Asma gave me a bear hug when I gifted that book to her. She pulled me next to her on the tiny worn out couch in the room. My mobile beeped just then indicating a WhatsApp message in my Bro-Gang Group. I casually looked at it and saw it was Vicky asking if Asma liked the gift. Friends and their sense of timing, I cursed. I quickly replied with a thumbs-up. Asma was turning the pages swiftly like someone with a parched throat gulping a gallon of water at the oasis.
 
I realised she hadn’t read his poems before. She brought my attention to a page titled ‘Dreams’.
 
The prep guy that I am, I had done my homework. I knew for a fact that this was a poem which encourages readers to hold fast to their desires and goals because without them, life is bleak and without hope.
 
She read it aloud –
 
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
 
Asma turned to me smiling and asked – “Viv, do you have a dream for your life?”
 
“Yes”, I said. “I hope to make it to NASA someday. What about you?” I asked.
 
“I dream of a day when I would be free to do what I want. I want to learn and make a name for myself. I want to someday free several others like me, educate them. I dream of a world where no woman or girl has to trade their body for their next meal.”
 
I was lost for words. I felt so privileged all of a sudden. Life is clearly not a bed of roses. My heart went out to those many like her who were not so lucky with life after all.
 
I hugged her and assured her that someday her dream will surely come true. 
 
I left from Mannat and texted the Bro-Gang that I had something to talk about and we were to meet at our usual haunt at Imran’s backyard shed.
 
As soon I walked in I shared the details of my conversation with Asma with them.
 
“I want to marry her guys”, I pronounced.
 
“Have you gone mad?”, countered Imran.
 
And from there they all tried to talk some sense into my head. I was probably the only one who was still a ‘virgin’ in spite of a zillion visits to a whorehouse. I was steadfast in my love for Asma. Even the Cop could not talk me out if it. The only other place that I was regular to was my workplace. There again I found myself feeling shallow, my dreams and aspirations a thing of the past. I performed but machines didn’t matter as much as my feelings for Asma did.
 
“If you feel so strongly about her Viv, we will make it happen for you. Am not the one who would advocate abducting her from there. I would suggest we talk to Aunty and buy Asma her freedom first.” That was Vicky again with his master plan.
 
I agreed. We were all in it together.
 
My Cop only said – “Listen to your heart!” That was permission enough for me to face any challenges that get thrown in the process. My parents, society, I would deal with them later.  And I had no idea if Asma felt the same way about me. Her freedom was foremost for now. I would bring this up with her once I cross this hurdle.
 
This chapter of my life is called ‘Star Wars’. More like a war between my stars and Asma’s. If you have read this line from ‘Submarine’ by Joe Dunthorne, you would understand how I felt –
I took a photo of us mid-embrace. When I am old and alone, I will remember that I once held something truly beautiful.” ‘Asma’ means beautiful, a name I knew she was completely entitled to – In and Out. Vivaan means rays of the morning sun. And all I wanted was to light up hers and mine.
 
What followed thereafter was months of struggle. I would need pages and pages to describe how these days were. I could see the ice melt little by little with every passing day. The Aunty finally succumbed. I don’t know what struck the chord in her, she decided to let Asma go away with me. She knew that we were in love. She was taken aback that I had never once exploited her physically in all the zillion visits I had made there. The day came when Asma bid good-bye to all her friends who were her family and had replaced her mother who had died years ago. We thought it wise to have it all legally cleared. The paperwork was done and Asma’s destiny was rewritten on different terms.
 
We had also arranged for a place to stay for Asma. Somewhere safe and close by.
 
That day I officially took Asma out on a date. A date by the sea. For a very long time, we sat holding hands as wave after wave kissed our feet. As the moon was making its presence felt with every passing minute and I could hold on no longer, I said the words I had been meaning to say for a long long time.
 
“I love you Asma. Will you marry me?” Asma looked at me and kissed me on my lips. A kiss that lasted for eternity. When her lips parted eventually she spoke with a tremor in her voice.
 
“Marriage or no marriage I am yours forever Viv”, she said. “But before it all, I have one last wish to fulfill. I want to pursue a course in literature and learn at least 5 more languages. I want to know Shelly from Shakespeare and Wordsworth from Premchand. I want to go to a college and add a few degrees to my name. I want to see if I can make a living on my dream and not my body. I want to give life a chance before I choose love. Would you hold my hands till I make it happen? Could you help me reach out for those stars which I always hoped to make mine? Could you help me take the road not taken so that someday I don’t look back and sigh with regret.”
 
And somewhere in those words, I found my life’s purpose. Her dreams were suddenly mine to own. I let her find her wings with the hope that she would one day find her way back to me. And today, I knew what my Cop meant, that love has different shades and one of them is the love for life, for dreams. In helping her chase her dreams, I knew my life had taken a new turn.
 
“She will come back”, said the Cop. “Until then, keep the faith!”
 
******
 
(Inspired by the hope that this would be a true story or would become one somewhere sometime)