आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

अंक 13 / Issue 13

Silvat… The Folds: Neeraj Pande


(The First Fold)

I was in the first year of my graduation at the Aligarh University. English Literature, Honors. It was a wrong decision. Science and Commerce were simply out of the question. So it was Arts. Chaucer and company were making life miserable. The first-hand hostel experience was doing no good to my spirit. The unending ragging had already driven my roommate back to his home town. I was living alone in a two-seater.

If I was known to exist in the hostel, it was chiefly because of two reasons. Watch and Pen. I was one of those few students who used to carry both. With no friends around, I was having a torrid time. The winter vacations had started but I stayed back. Since my arrival six months ago, I had had only one reason to feel cheerful about.

This girl was too good. One look at her meant that life was making some huge reimbursement. She was always alone with a notebook in her hand. Her eyes had met mine. Initially, whenever I saw her looking at me, I used to shift my focus above her head. Then, gradually, the duration of these looks increased. She used to sit at a very secluded spot in the campus. That was a sacred spot. Someday, I will buy that piece of land and construct a Temple. And a Mosque. And a Church.

I had been seeing her since the last couple of months. Well, not ‘seeing’ exactly. Just watching. From a particular window in the canteen, I watched and watched her.

One similar visual broadcast was in progress. Then suddenly I saw her get up. I started getting nervous. She was heading for the canteen. My heart skipped a beat. She entered. I wanted to get out. She came and sat in a vacant chair right before me. This was December and I was sweating. I was within shooting range and she fired.

‘You want to speak to me?’


‘…Then why do you keep looking at me?’

‘I want to speak to you.’

I was shaking. There was no one in the canteen and I could hear my heartbeat.

‘Yes! Go ahead….’

I really wanted to go.

‘What is your name?’


Got the name. Now?


‘I am relaxed.’ I was still shaking.

‘You want to know anything else?’

‘Your name….?’

‘You are nervous.’

‘Hell! I’ve been watching you these last couple of months, trying to figure out how to speak to you, and suddenly you walk up to me one fine day, sit here within killing distance and ask me if I am nervous… I am nervous.’

‘You do speak the truth at times. You should be ready for the unexpected.’

I smiled. The ice broke. My heartbeat was back to normal. I stopped shaking.

‘My name is Sohail. I am doing English Honors.’

‘Which year?’

‘Third year. What are you doing?’

‘English Honors. Third year.’

‘I am in the first year.’

‘Is lying a habit with you?’


Of course, it was.

‘There you go again.’

‘Can I see you tomorrow?’

‘What for?’

‘I don’t understand Chaucer.’

‘You should have told your Professor.’

‘I don’t think the Professor understands.’

‘And what makes you so sure that I do.’

I liked those last two words: ‘I do.’ The canteen became a church for an instant.

‘Gut feeling ….’

Well my gut feeling paid. I started seeing her regularly. We would meet in the deserted canteen. She was punctual. Ten o’clock always meant nine-sixty to her. Soon I started feeling strongly about her. She was two years my senior, but looked like five or seven. I was nineteen and already had quite some white hair on my head. So, we looked a rational pair. Well, almost. She was too beautiful, too good and everything was secondary. The desire to touch her, hold her in my arms, kiss her… There was a limit to my desires.

Then the day came when some old scores had to be settled.

Arun was my archrival. That bastard had a way with girls. This was one reason why he didn’t go home during the vacations. I was tired of showing his room to the girls who came to look for him. One day, I invited Shalini to my room. I told her that it was my birthday and it would be wonderful if she joined me for dinner. ‘Six o’clock,’ I told her and gave her Arun’s room number. When I reached the hostel Arun was in his room. With a girl. I told him that if he finds anyone looking for me, I was in my room.

Five to six. I had cleaned my room. I was looking at my watch. I was timing her. At precisely six, my watch stopped. No amount of shaking and wishing could start it. I was busy with the watch when she knocked. I opened the door. I was holding my watch.

‘Happy Birthday!’

‘It’s not my birthday.’

‘I know.’

‘You are late?’

‘No I am not. Anything wrong?’ She was looking at my watch.

‘Yes! It’s dead.’

I looked at my watch and found that it was ticking. Ten seconds past six. I asked her to come in. We took our time and drifted from one topic to another between rounds of snacks. I made sure that she did the talking. The plan of action was that, as soon as she would be in the middle of something very irrelevant, I would interrupt and surprise her by proposing to her.

‘… and there is this allergy of mine which starts troubling me whenever I have…’

‘Shalini, I want to tell you something….’

‘…same old shit about Love I guess.’

Someone was surprised for sure.


‘The dinner, I guess, is over.’


‘I am getting late.’

‘Shalini… I will drop you.’

‘No! You don’t have to.’

‘I have to.’

‘Well ! If you insist.’

A few moments later, I was taking out my bike with the thought of Love flushed down the toilet. I was in no mood to persist with my dinner plans. She showed me the way as I took her home.

Her house was a simple place. The flat on the third floor of the last building on Clive Row. It took us around twenty minutes to reach there. It was eleven o’clock now.

‘You want me to come in?’


‘I want to.’


Dammit. Why didn’t she understand?

‘I will help you.’ She was carrying a small purse.

‘Well ! If you insist.’

Moments later she was opening the lock. The room was as clean as it could be. Books were placed on the rack as neatly as they could be. Everything was fresh like her. I went inside the room and sat on the empty chair.

‘Your folks?’

‘They live in Bombay.’

‘You live alone?’

‘Yes! Now do you want to kiss me?’

Man! I was starting to believe in God now. I jumped up from the chair and held her. She was Fragrance. I kissed her in whatever way I knew. My pen fell from my pocket but I didn’t care.

‘Shalini… I… Lo…’

‘I am tired….’

I kissed her once again. With more passion.

‘Good night.’

‘Bye,’ she said, finally.

I was on the road. My watch was still ticking. When I reached my Hostel, I saw Arun sitting on the hostel-steps.

‘Nice girl… Looking for you….’

‘…Went to drop her.’

‘Getting me introduced….?’

‘I will see.’

I didn’t see her the next day. And the next day. I became restless. I was missing my pen. I had to see her. I dressed up and was walking towards the bike-stand, when Arun called my name.

‘Going somewhere?’

‘To her place.’

‘Give me her address?’

‘Fuck off.’

Shortly, I was at her place. It was locked. I waited for some time on the third floor and then came down near the building-gate. I saw the watchman watching me very seriously from a distance. I still hung around. After another twenty-odd minutes he came up to me and asked, ‘Looking for someone?’

‘Yes! Shalini … Third floor’

‘I thought so… She left… Around two years ago….’

I thought I didn’t hear him clearly.


‘She is gone… Dead… Two years ago.’

‘You’re mad. I met her two days ago.’

‘Don’t worry. You’re not the first one… She is the harmless kind… Poor soul. Was studying somewhere when, suddenly, she died. She was allergic to something. Nice girl. Parents feel sorry, but don’t sell the flat… They say she comes in dreams and says, ‘Don’t sell the flat!’ People see her… Poor soul… People come here, but don’t find her… Nice girl…’

There was a bitter taste in my mouth.

‘I was here on Saturday night. In her flat.’

‘Really? That’s a new one… She is not known to bring them home.’

‘What’s your name?’


‘You were not here then?’

‘She makes sure I’m not around when she comes. Besides, on Saturday, my house was on fire.’

House on fire. I was beginning to understand.

‘I want to see the room.’

‘It has closed since then.’

‘You have the key?’

‘I have and I don’t.’

I gave him a fifty. He had the key.

The flat was opened for me. There was dust, stench, and spider-webs everywhere. The flat smelt of trapped air. Books were lying everywhere. I remembered that I was here two days ago. I was sick. I wanted to get out. Fast. As I turned, I saw my pen lying on the thick coat of dust. But I couldn’t dare to pick it up.

My mouth was still bitter. The sun was setting. I saw her everywhere. Prominently. She had read my mind every time. I remembered my watch stopping till the moment she arrived. The bitter taste in my mouth intensified. She was the lamppost. She was the road. She was the bike. I could not dare to ride it. I pushed it till my hostel gate. Thousands of thoughts were crossing my mind at the same instant.

‘Give me her address?’ It was Arun.

‘Clive Row, last building on the right, third floor. Have some money?’

‘How much?’

‘Fifty, would do.’

‘She is cheap for that kind of quality.’

I looked at him. He was gone.

I went to my room and straight to the toilet. I had no sense of time. The thought that I had been spending the last nine days with someone – with no one – was making me sweat profusely. Sometime later, I emerged all wet. I think I took a shower with my clothes on. She was there in every frame that my mind could perceive. Her voice was echoing, ‘You should be ready for the unexpected.’

Sometime later, I heard a scream. I looked out the window. Someone was screaming hysterically and running like a crazy dog on the hostel lawn. It looked like Arun.


(The Second Fold)

I slipped into some kind of screwed-up delirium. According to my warden, I kept myself locked up for more than 72 hours. I just remember that I was sleeping under the cot most of the time. I had chewed up my clothes when I felt hungry. Drank just a pitcherful of water over three days. And a bottle of cough syrup. And the bottle of Rum kept in case of National Emergency. And I broke the mirror that showed Shalini whenever I looked in it. I tore Sharon Stones’ poster which had started resembling Shalini. I tore all the posters because all of them looked like Shalini. Even Osho’s. I broke my chair and my table because Shalini just came in whenever she felt like and started explaining Chaucer and Shakespeare to me. I broke everything because everything connected itself with Shalini in some way or the other.

God knows why, but I tore every article of clothing I had into two neat pieces.

And I even pulled the fan down from the ceiling.

When the warden broke down my room’s door with the help of another eight men, he found me coiled against the ceiling fan. What I saw was nine Shalinis breaking open my door and running towards me with unadulterated lust in their eyes.

Then the nine Shalinis made Love to me all together.

This was when they had got me admitted in the hospital for my treatment and the doctors and the nurses kept examining me.

I was kept under Medical supervision for two consecutive weeks. Slowly, the ‘Shalinis’ made way for Dr. Batra, Dr. Mukherjee, and nurses Laxmi, Parvati and the cute chick whose name escapes my attention right now. With the care of these people I was grounded back. I started remembering and identifying people and objects.

In short, the trip was over.

The first thing that I asked after coming to what generally is referred to as ‘senses’ was, ‘How is Arun?’

‘He was last seen at the New Delhi Railway Station trying to catch a train…’

My warden replied, and added poker-faced, ‘…in his briefs.’

On the day I was supposed to get discharged, the Doctors Batra and Mukherjee called me to their cabin.

‘And how is the young man feeling today?’

‘The young man is feeling fine today.’

‘And where is Shalini?’

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘And when did Shalini die?’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘And what happens to the dead?’

‘The dead are gone.’

‘And do they return?’

‘No! They don’t.’

‘And do you see Shalini now?’

For a moment I thought that I was speaking to Shalini.

‘No! I don’t.’

‘And you are discharged, son.’

‘Thank you, Father.’

I was back at my hostel. The college was scheduled to open in another two days. A couple of my friends were already back from their vacation. I was welcomed like a soldier just back from war. They were offering me shoulders. Then there were concerned looks and questions. There were also some ‘cheer ups’.

I opened my room. I had a feeling it would be wrecked, but the way it looked, I really had to strain my vocabulary.

Someone helped me. ‘It’s looking fucked.’

That was something close to what I had in my mind.

‘You guys fine?’

‘Yeah,’ they replied in chorus.

‘Then stop staring at me.’

‘Relax Sohail.’

‘I am not a loon.’

‘We are going.’

‘You all are still standing.’

They were gone. I closed the door behind me and looked around. My favorite extra large pin-ups were reduced to pint-sized litter. I looked at the door. It was repaired. Every article depicted struggle. Struggle to forget. Perhaps. And Fear. Fear of Return. Perhaps. I stood where I was for quite some time.

And then I found myself babbling at random:

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘The dead are gone.’

‘No! They don’t return.’

‘No! I don’t see Shalini now.’

I checked myself. I thought of my family. I started to clean the mess. They had put the ceiling fan back where it belonged. I thought of the promise I had made to my father in terms of my career.

‘Shalini is dead.’

I thought of all the good times I had had with my family.

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

I thought of my mother and all her concerns for me.

‘The dead are gone and they don’t return.’

I had finished cleaning the room. I took the rubbish and stepped out of my room. I saw a couple of seniors hanging outside my door. As soon as they saw me they held out a packet containing fruits.

‘For you.’


‘Heard you are not feeling well.’

‘So you sponsor fruits for people who don’t feel well?’

‘Take it easy Sohail.’

‘Leave me alone goddammit.’

I moved away from them. After throwing the rubbish I was about to enter my room when someone shouted, ‘Call for Sohail….’

I froze for a moment. I started walking towards the public telephone and I was hearing odd statements.

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘The dead are gone.’

‘No! They don’t return.’

‘No! I don’t see Shalini now.’

I checked my babblings once again.

I saw the receiver off the hook and waiting for me with a promise. As I walked towards it I comprehended the Power of Fear.

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘And the dead don’t make calls to the living.’

I picked up the receiver.

‘And how are you, bastard?’

I heard myself breathing. It was a male voice.

‘Come on, answer me.’

I recognized the voice.

‘You are….’

‘Alive! Yes, Sohail, I am alive. I am calling from the airport. I will be there with you in a couple of hours. You really took my ass, buddy. Even the best Psychiatrist took two weeks to pull me back. He advised me that all I needed was an air trip.’

‘I’m sorry, Arun.’

‘Never mind. My Psychiatrist told me you don’t really have to fear the dead. I got news of your hospitalization and I got worried. So I called. You relax… Nothing’s going to happen. I am on my way. My Psychiatrist told me you don’t really have to fear the dead. I’ll try and arrange an air trip for you too.’

‘Thanks for calling.’

‘You don’t worry… Relax.’


The phone line went dead. I walked towards my room.

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘The dead are gone.’

‘No! They don’t return.’

‘No! I don’t see Shalini now.’

I found a dozen of bananas, some oranges and a couple of apricots lying on my table. I told the fruits, ‘Bastards… They think I am just ill. I am screwed, man.’

I took a couple of campose and checked my watch. It was nine p.m. I switched off the light.

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘The dead are gone.’

‘No! They don’t return.’

‘No! I don’t see….

The drug was working. I dreamt of myself standing before a huge door. I peeped through the crack in the door. I saw nymphs that were more beautiful than Shalini. Much more beautiful. I knocked at the door. My knock remained unanswered. I knocked once again and kept on knocking.

I heard someone knocking. My eyes opened.

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

I looked at my watch. It was eleven p.m.

‘The dead are gone.’

‘And they don’t return. Especially at eleven o’clock in the night.’

It must be Arun. The heart volunteered an answer to the knock. I switched on the broken lamp.

Knock! Knock!

I got up from my bed and went to the door and tried to see through the crack. The blasted repairman had repaired it too well. I waited.

‘Shalini is dead.’

‘Shalini died two years ago.’

‘The dead are gone.’

‘And they don’t return.’

Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock!

‘Who’s that?’


Knock! Knock!

I opened the door.

It was Shalini. She walked in as if this was the place her father had bought her on account of her graduating as a Ghost. Carrying a suitcase that looked like Dracula’s.


She looked around.

‘Ummm… Times have changed. Shut the door please.’

The door was shut. I realized I had a hand in it. She was sitting on the bed.

‘You look pale. Everything’s fine?’

I kept looking at her. She was looking beautiful. She looked around.

‘You know… I like your room this way. Looks Oriental.’

‘Some ghosts have tastes.’

‘Come again please?’


She got up from the bed and walked towards me. She came close to me and whispered, ‘You don’t have a clue how much I missed you.’

She was looking at me with what is generally referred to as ‘love in her eyes’. She stood close to me and stretched out her right hand and ruffled my hair. I could feel the blood trying to ooze out of every pore of my body.

I whispered, ‘You are dead. You died two years ago… And the dead are gone. They don’t return to scare first year English Honors students.’

She looked at me blank-eyed. ‘What bull-shit!’

I carried on. ‘Tell me the way to bring your soul to salvation.’

‘You’ve had booze?’

‘Shalini, there must be some way to put your troubled soul…’

‘Hang on. Here I am, coming straight from the station carrying my luggage; meeting you after two and a half weeks and I find you searching for marbles.’

‘You people even carry your luggage up there.’

‘We people carry our luggage down to Bombay. I don’t know about you people. What’s the matter Sohail? You look like you have traveled a long way. By foot.’

‘Right. But a short one. To your house. Just two weeks ago. Found out you were dead. Two years ago.’


‘Tell me the way to bring your soul to salvation.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Your watchman.’

She burst into a 70mm laughter. I was in a bad state. The laughter worsened it. It appeared sinister.

‘You mean the watchman.’

‘Yeah. He told me everything.’

‘Sohail, we don’t have a watchman.’

‘Now tell me you don’t even have a room.’

She grew serious.


‘He showed me your room… spider webs… dust…’

‘I must have let the window open.’

‘And my pen.’

‘How can that be? You dropped your pen all right but then I took it with me to Bombay. Look?’

She took out my pen from her purse.

‘The watchman even told me of your allergy and how you died of it.’

‘Sohail! We don’t have a watchman. Ever since Dharampal died, two years ago…’

I was vibrating like a tuning fork. Somehow I managed to squeak, ‘But I met Dharampal.’


We kept silent for some time.

‘Then whatever I had heard is true after all… His ghost loves to scare the shit out of people who hang around our building trying to act romantic.’

I was a study in ‘Aerodynamics and the Spiritual Connection’ for a moment. I tried to register that I was facing a living being. She looked at me again and spoke worriedly, ‘Oh, Sohail! If only I could have delivered the message that I was going out of town for a few weeks.’

She sighed. I didn’t believe in penitent ghosts.

She was looking beautiful in the dim light that emanated from my broken table-lamp. She stretched out her hand. I took about two hours to reach out for it. It was alive.

‘You look so tired.’

‘I am screwed up sweetheart.’

‘Let me repair you.’

I hesitated and then surrendered.

‘Shalini, you aren’t dead.’

‘No! I am not.’

‘Shalini, you didn’t die two years ago.’

‘How could I die without falling in Love with you?’

‘I see Shalini now.’

‘You are going to see her for all the rest of your Life.’

I surrendered once again.

The door opened with a jolt.

‘Hi! Sohail I am back. Look what I ha….’

He saw us in each another’s arms. His eyes grew wide on seeing Shalini. They kept growing wider. And wider. And w i d e r

Sometime later, we heard a scream. We looked out the window. Someone was screaming hysterically and running like a crazy dog on the hostel-lawn. It looked like Arun.


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