First Runner Up (Story) - The Year that Wasn't
The Year that Wasn’t
~By Nishita Singh, 20BT10020
“Are you done packing?”
“Yes, almost. Those bags are full, ”she said as she pointed towards two huge trolley bags and a jute tote bag “and these stacks will have to be tied together and dumped in the car trunk.”
I helped her in grouping and tying up the stacks; stacks of textbooks, stacks of exercise sheets with glossy cover pages decorated by the yellow-red institute logo and pictures of all those who had made it, stacks of four separate mathematics books, stacks of routine tests, and their solutions — the ones that we ideally should have sold to the street food vendors who sold pohe and kadhi kachori on formula sheets — but didn’t, because we were so certain that we would look through them again for a thorough analysis.
Kritika wasn’t the first one that day packing up for her journey back home. We had had two families in the last 24 hours who had arrived and left with their daughters, and there was a third, waiting in the hostel reception for the warden to bring them their receipt of cleared dues.
My friends and I stood against the railing of our common balcony and gazed at the unpleasantly quiet city. I remember thinking to myself “So, this is what it takes — a probable pandemic — to quiet Kota’s hustle-bustle.”
“Nishita” I heard a fellow hosteller’s voice from an audibly distant window. “Are you also going back home?”
“No, I’m not.”
I used to take a condescending amount of pride in the fact that my parents had no dominion over me or my decisions. You have to understand that being a teenage woman in India, having autonomy over oneself is indeed a big deal. It was this very autonomy that had me believing that I wouldn’t have to leave Kota if I decided not to. I was so certain I was going to stay.
The next morning I woke up to my ringing phone. I reached for my glasses and saw my mother’s name pop up on my phone screen. My sleepy head used half a vocal chord and somehow managed to blurt out a “hello”. It didn’t take me more than five seconds to come to my senses because of what followed next.
Beta ghar aaja.
“Come back home,” my mother said in a seemingly soaked voice “Your dad and I couldn’t sleep last night and we’ve lost appetite. I have been watching the situations in China since November and I have a feeling that the upcoming lockdown is only going to extend. Please come back immediately. You can go back when your classes restart”.
My mother’s frail voice carried a worry with itself that I had trouble associating her with. This is the same woman who had somehow managed to gather enough strength to not shed a tear when my father was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was throwing up blood. But this time, there truly was nothing to worry about. I was so certain she was wrong. I didn’t object, however, because no amount of autonomy or defiance lets you argue when your mother sounds like she’s going to take ill if she doesn’t see you within a day.
The coming hours were chaotic. You see, the body that was carrying me had slept at four in the morning and the mind that was supposed to be exhibiting decisiveness had woken up at eight with a shock. The next few hours are a very blurry memory. I vaguely remember stuffing all my books and clothes to the best of my ability and leaving my winter wear and blanket at a relative’s place because certainly, I would be back by winter at most. I remember walking down to my mess for lunch. A pang of bizarre guilt trailed along with me. After all, I did tell all my fellow hostellers just yesterday that I will be staying. The guilt didn’t stay for long, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who had received a shocking call from home.
So many mothers, so, so wrong.
By evening I had called up all my friends who were in Kota to inform them of my departure later that night. The public transport restrictions were already in place which is why I could meet none of them. None of them, but one. Chhaya had to come to see me because she needed to return the belt that I had accidentally left at her place. Rare times like these are what make you thank your clumsiness. I decided not to hug her, for that would have been an irresponsible thing to do. So, I settled with what was a squint above my mask and a smile beneath it.
We’ll meet again, soon.
I left the city like one leaves a pet at home — with a silent promise of return. I watched the trees and the buildings shrink in my rearview mirror. I watched the empty malls pass me by as my car left tire trails on the deserted streets. I crossed the border of the city and I didn’t care to bid it goodbye.
I was so certain I was going to return.
After a five-hour-long ride to Jaipur airport and a two-hour-long flight to Kolkata, what started was a thirteen-month-long purgatory. I watched masks and frequent sanitization encouraged and I watched hundreds ignore the same. I watched a virus as it brought down first-world countries to their knees and crippled the third-world ones. I watched California and the conflagration. I watched all of the world from a 6ft distance.
I cleared a twice-postponed entrance examination. I took admission in a detention-camp-turned-biggest-technological-institute, and I decided to pursue a degree that would make me a biotechnologist. This pandemic-struck world, I thought, could use more of those. What followed next was an era of online friendships, of bonding over zoom calls, of attending classes in pajamas, and of submitting assignments.pdf.
Today, I lay as I stare at my capacious immobile square room and my square room stares back at my immobile self. I watch the sun as it sets and the shadow of my window pane lengthens and touches the mask that I’m wearing indoors. The mask keeps my foul hot fever breath to myself. My face ferments underneath it. I have lost weight but my lethargic body feels ten pounds heavier; my head accounts for nine of those.
In the bed next to mine, lies my chronically ailed mother who must be saved at all costs. In my right hand is a phone that has my covid-positive reports. The reports that I have been sending my professors in exchange for mercy and deadline extensions.
I hear the distant chirps of children playing in the streets. I think of the winter wear that I have left in Kota, along with a part of myself. The part that now haunts the silent nooks of my coaching institute where I sat and ate off my best friend’s tiffin box. The part that is waiting for the attendance machine to beep as it punches my id card against it. The part that looked over the city from the seventh-floor balcony and felt magnificent. The part that never ran out of genial hugs to spare. The part that was still on her feet.
The part of myself that is here has to watch ephemeral shards of sunlight leave her bedside. What is left of me is pale skin and dry bones. What is left of me is shrunken cheeks and sunken eyes — eyes that have to watch dust collect on my bedsheet, my books, and my adjourned plans. What is left of me is a naivety that somehow hasn’t been crushed hard enough just yet. The naivety that never could sense an insinuation in the first place. The naivety that sings off-key in my head-
I am so certain this will be over soon.