I was again stuck in the same narrow roof. Looking down, I shivered. The world looked minuscule from this height. Some footsteps could be heard. They are approaching. And approaching fast. A cold wave swept through my spines. There was nowhere to hide. I was cornered. They are almost here. Nervously, I took a step backwards, but stumbled upon something, lost balance and started falling.
The ominous fall jolted me out of my abysmal nightmare. My cheeks were wet and the body was bathed in a cold sweat. Heart pounded against the chest, rapidly. The room was entirely dark. No light anywhere. I was still trembling. The remnants of the nightmare refused to leave me. It would now haunt for the rest of the night.
With shaking hands, I turned on the night lamp. The timepiece on the bedside table was ticking at 1 am. Gulping down water from the bottle breathlessly, I realised the dream has left me thirsty.
Sleep will be hard to tame tonight. After tossing and turning for a few more minutes I gave up trying.
Lighting a cigarette I went to the balcony. A gush of fresh wind steadied me a little. Staring up at my eleventh-floor balcony was my dream city. New York. The city that never sleeps. The journey from a small town in India to the Big Apple was not easy. Looking back, the journey was as unbelievable as fantasy tales. But I am one with the city now. So much so that it is making me insomniac like itself. The very thought was quite amusing. But I was unable to push the dream out my mind. The same dream. Chasing through the years.
As the sweet smoke curled through the thin fabric I travelled back to another era. This same dream had startled me awake. Mathematics exam was due the next day. Numbers were never my best friend. I was numb with fear. Being the daughter of the senior Maths teacher of the school and sister of the topper only worsened my situation.
Chhaya, my sister, was sleeping blissfully beside me. If only God had given me half the blessings He showered on Chhaya. She was intelligent, great in studies and so fair in complexion. I could never fathom which one I envied more, Chhaya’s intellect or her complexion. Thinking today, maybe I was actually jealous of the glitter in my mother’s eye whenever someone mentioned my elder sister.
A siren from the distance broke my chain of thoughts. I stared at the cigarette between my fingers. It was almost short enough to burn my hand. With an effort, I tried to crush it out, like life had tried to crush me for years.
“Fail! You failed in maths, Maya? Have you ever thought how am I going to face everyone?”
The despair, dejection and embarrassment were showering from her eyes. I wanted to cry, I wanted to hug my mother and say I tried Ma, I tried my best. But I could not utter a word.
Sima Aunty, a distant cousin of my mother, staying with us then, chipped in.
“Didi, you are really unlucky with this girl. Who will say she is your daughter? So inattentive in studies. Adding to the glory, her dark complexion. God knows how you will marry her?”
My ears were red in shame. I wanted my mother to protest. Tell Sima aunty that her daughter is beautiful anyway. And she need not worry about my future. But no, my mother kept mum. She did not speak a word in my favour. What the red marks on the report card could not do, her silence did. It broke my spirit.
It was getting chilly outside. I went back to bed. Tomorrow is the most important day of my life. I am going to sign a modelling contract with the top fashion house in the USA. I would be soaring high in the clouds. But that is for tomorrow. Today, a little rest would have helped. But where was sleep? Memories play the cruellest tricks in these sleep-deprived nights. The past that I had buried long ago kept creeping back to haunt.
“Girls of a good family do not do modelling. And have you ever looked at yourself? Who in their good mind would sign you up? These people, the modelling agency, they are nothing but pimps. They will lure you to a darker alley where you will be trapped forever.”
My mother was fuming. Dad was unusually silent, hanging his head in shame. Chhaya was hiding behind the curtain. Literally shaken by my mother’s fury. But I was adamant. This time I won’t bow down to her tyranny.
“But this is what I want to do. And who are you to judge? You have never found anything good in me.”
“If you choose this career you will be dead for us.”
“Oh! So I was alive for you all these years? Did you even remember you have another daughter?”
“Don’t test my patience, Maya. My words are final. You have to leave us if you decide to have your own way.”
The phone ring brought me back to the present. I looked at my watch. 2 am. I decided to ignore the call.
Must be Orlando. Guys after few days become so clingy. That is why I never commit to any long-term relationships. I made the mistake once in my younger days. Never again. The deep cut on my wrist will be a constant reminder of that failed trust, the futile attempt of suicide and the unborn baby.
At last, the ringing stopped. Only to resume the next second. Someone was desperate. Irked, I, at last, took the phone. The number on the screen was from a distant land. Homeland. India. An unknown fear started creeping in.
“Hello,” I answered in a trembling voice.
“Hello Maya, can you hear me? It’s me Chhaya.”
For a few moments, I could not respond. When did I last heard her voice?
“Hello, hello, am I speaking to Maya? Hello!”
“Didi”, I managed to say at last.
“Maya, where are you? We have been trying to contact you for weeks. At last, managed to get this number from your college friend Riya,” she spoke in a single breath.
Somehow I had gathered my composure.
Adding some artificial gravity in my voice I replied, “So How are you?”
“We are not good sis. Not good. Ma had a cerebral attack two weeks back. Doctors are telling, she does not have much time left. She is very critical.”
Then pausing for a moment, lowering her voice she said, “Ma is waiting for you, Maya. She only calls your name. She fails to recognize me now. Calls me Maya all the time. Can you come for once?”
Her last words were submerged in sobs.
For a moment I was numb. The stern, strong woman I have known all my life can never match an image of a helpless, old woman lying in a bed, counting her last days.
“Hello, Maya, can you hear me?”
“I will try to come, Didi. I will try.” I managed to say. My ego did not allow me to say that I am dying to come back.
“Please come, we will be waiting. And by the way, happy birthday, my little one.”
Long after the phone call ended I still sat, holding the phone to my ears. Waiting for someone to talk. Someone to console. Someone to be my strength.
When was the last time I spoke to my once closest confidante? Maybe three years back.
After that day’s heated argument Ma had stopped talking to me. Didi was my bridge to all the family affairs. I was determined to pursue the career of modelling. But I knew it would never be accepted by my conservative parents. I was planning to shirk away from home. Didi may have guessed it.
“Sis, I know, you think we do not love you. But that is not true. We only want to save you from any untoward incident. Always remember that, Maya. Do not take any decision in haste.”
Chhaya had been always the mature one. The golden daughter. And I the black sheep of the family.
Then at last one night, I fled. My parents severed all ties with me. The fact that I stole fifty thousand cash from father’s locker before leaving, only fuelled to their detest. But Chhaya never stopped contacting me. She used to meet me secretly, call me up from public telephone booths. Begged me to return home. Described how still every night Ma brings out four plates for dinner instead of three. But I remained unperturbed. She was still my fall back for cash whenever I needed. In the meantime, I had bagged some modelling contracts. The future was looking bright. Then three years back Chhaya called me from home.
“You actually did a naked photo-shoot!”
“Didi, do not act so hyper. It’s just a photo-shoot.”
“Never call me Didi again. You are such a disgrace to the family. I am ashamed to call you my sister anymore. Our relatives, society, everyone is avoiding us. Even…” Her voice broke down.
I waited patiently for her to complete. She was sounding exactly like my mother. The same fury was evident from the other side of the phone also.
“You are one selfish girl, Maya. You knew I was engaged to Varun. We were about to get married next year. Now everything is finished. You tell me, who will marry their son in such a disgraced family?” Chhaya was crying uncontrollably.
Varun. No, he cannot leave Chhaya. They have been together since school. They were perfect together.
“Do not cry Didi, I will speak with them. There is no fault of yours.”
“It’s all our fault. We are doomed since the day you were born into our family. Why did you come? Why was God so unfair?
Just do us a favour. Never ever try to contact us again. You have done enough damage already.”
With that, she banged the phone, without giving me any chance of explanation, never to call again for three years.
Outside, the outlines of the houses were becoming clearer. Besieging the stars, the sun victoriously rose like a flower opening, gifting its petals unto the world. Ribbons of golden sunlight slowly spilt into the city. The light was consuming the dark sky with ferocity. I sat on the rocking chair in the balcony. The air felt fresh and new.
“Ma is waiting for you, Maya. She only calls your name. She fails to recognize me now. Calls me Maya all the time.”
These words continued to reverberate in my ears. A cruel satisfaction filled my heart without my permission. I tried to shake it away. But, could not. How I loathed myself?
An alarm was ringing. I had planned last night to wake up now. It was time to get ready. Today is the D day. I am about to reach the zenith I always dreamed. The biggest fashion house in the modelling industry is about to introduce me as their new supermodel. Career had never been better. But taking up this contract would mean I cannot go to India now.
Until yesterday I never thought I can be in two minds about this lucrative proposal. But a phone call has changed a lot.
Reluctantly I got up from the chair. I needed to decide and decide fast.
After two hours when I was boarding the cab, the decision was already made.
“Think about it again, Miss. We are really impressed by your portfolio. It’s not every day that we offer an opportunity to outsiders like you.”
The word ‘outsider’ did hurt me a little, but I braved a smile. My decision was final. I cannot take the offer now. After all, maybe this is what destiny wants. Alas, only if I had known what destiny actually wants.
I was about to leave the office. Something about this office on the 95th floor was reminding me of yesterday’s dream. I wanted to get rid of the malefic feeling at once. But God had some other plan.
Suddenly a tremendous explosion shuddered the gigantic building. I felt a violent jolt and then a falling sensation. Something has hit the building. The impact of the crash was so violent that the building swayed some seven or eight feet. For a moment I thought that the building would tip over, but instead, it simply swayed back the other way. Much of the ceiling had come down. When the swaying stopped I tried to make my way to the staircase. Smoke was coming up the stairs from the lower floor. I tried to make my way down, but swarms of people were coming up to escape the fire below.
A huge jet plane has crashed on the right wing, someone was shouting.
Desperate to save myself, I tried to go up. But the plane had hit the tower just above my floor and that part was on fire. There was no way to proceed upwards. On the other side, billowing smoke was climbing up the staircase like a smokestack.
A sense of doom descended on everyone around me. We wanted to get out of this mess, but there was nowhere to go. There was a ton of dust and debris around and the electricity was out. As time elapsed it was becoming harder to breathe. The black smoke was slowly engulfing the area.
Everyone around me was in shock. Bewildered by the sudden shift of events. Out of desperation, I tried to climb down using a piece of drywall as the shield. I had to live. I was just giving myself a second chance. I needed to see my ailing mother for the last time. At least for once, I wanted the four plates again on our dinner table. I needed to hug Chhaya and confess how I have always envied her perfection, yet how thankful I am to have her as my sister, my hero. Apologise for all the misdeeds. Embrace everything I took for granted. One last time I prayed to the Almighty for another chance.
But the heat was becoming unbearable. My shield was not sufficient to save me from burns. My contact lenses were melting in my eyes. The vision was getting blurred. All my prayers went unheard. Roaring, bright flames approached us like a great famished beast devouring everything in its path.
The bright turned black and ascended in the air in dark grey plumes of darkness. Carrying my dreams and lives of many to another place far beyond the stars. I could not run, nor could I scream. Helplessly, with the image of my family in the heart, I waited for the mercy of death. My apology remained due for another time, another life. Because today doomsday has arrived. 9/11, was my birthday.