Jugnu stood staring at the painting taking the pride of place in her latest exhibition. Had it once again failed? This portal to the past she was banking on to set straight her present. She sighed, defeat settling on her soul like a tangible weight.
Does the past have a hold on our choices and actions or is it we who refuse to realize that we are the architects of our future, holding onto the past for sentimentality?
The clicking sounds of heels intruded upon her thoughts and she found her secretary, Sarika, standing beside her.
“There’s a gentleman interested in buying this painting. But he wants to meet the painter.” She informed.
Jugnu found hope coursing through her defeated soul, discarding the shroud of despair. She felt like running straight to this stranger to ascertain if it was Him! If not, it would break her heart to declare the painting ‘not for sale’ once again.
“Bring him to my office.” She proceeded towards the small cubicle at the back of the exhibition hall. Moving around inside was impossible without bumping into something so she sat down and contented herself with tapping her feet.
She heard Sarika lead someone, their feet moving in tandem. She turned to her drawer, rummaging inside in an effort to quell the wild beating of her heart.
She was still looking down when Sarika knocked and ushered him inside. She could hear the stranger stand there, still, unmoving, as Sarika withdrew.
“Jugnu..” the whisper was like an explosion in her expectant ears. She looked up and there he was, the search of long lonely years finally at an end.
Her hands went to her throat and found the firefly-shaped locket, hanging over her heart, rising and falling with her heartbeats. The shimmering spark of memory, very much like that of a firefly, led her down the memory lane to the time when she’d been in love and happy.
It was April and the new academic year had begun. The avenue was a melee of hurrying students and parents, rushing to the school. Jugnu however, was standing under the golden boughs of an amaltas* tree, completely oblivious to the bustle around her. She held her bicycle, her eyes were closed and she was gulping in lungfuls of the fragrant spring air hungrily, like an addict.
It was a beautiful spring day. The red and yellow Gulmohar trees lining both sides of the road groaned under exuberant blooms. The heady fragrance of mango blossoms rode the sweet breeze like a soft whisper. Birds chirped loud, almost drowning the commotion around her. All was right with the world. Her idyll was broken by the distant pealing of bells.
She was going to be late on the first day. She hastened to the school-gate where suddenly, a jeep appeared out of nowhere. She swerved, lost her balance, and tumbled to the ground.
Her chagrin was greater than her injuries and she bounced back like a jack in the box. However, before she could, two hands picked up her cycle and someone said, “I’m sorry. Hope you aren’t hurt.”
He was tall and handsome, the uniform declaring him a student. Creases in their proper places and not a strand of his straight hair out of place. Jugnu couldn’t help blushing at the intense scrutiny of those eyes. Her hand went self-consciously to her rebellious curls which were out of control on normal days.
“No. Now I’ve a valid excuse for being late.” She assured him and proceeded inside. The snaking lines of students were making their way to the classes. She decided to freshen up first. When she reached her class, all the seats had been occupied, new friendships forged, and battle lines drawn for the year ahead.
There was only one seat left towards the back. Someone familiar was sitting there, someone who’d just seen her sprawled, like an egg on the asphalt. He smiled in welcome but to Jugnu, it was a jeer at her expense. Her composure left her like rats deserting a sinking ship.
Now he knows how clumsy I am even before the session has begun. Did this have to happen on the first day, God?
She dragged herself to the empty seat, took out her book, and put her nose inside as the class began.
Everyone was required to introduce themselves and mention a few lines from their favorite poem. Most of them knew each other, being from the same school. The usual suspects, Ozymandias and Abu Ben Adhem were recalled by most. Jugnu took recourse in If by Kipling.
She waited for his introduction, staunchly looking in the other direction and found that he was Shishir, a transfer student, the son of the new Superintendent of Police. As he recited his favorite lines, goosebumps rose on her skin. His voice was like caramelized sugar. She felt herself melting in their gooey golden warmth.
“A few lines from the poem Fireflies by Rabindranath Tagore.
My fancies are fireflies, —
Specks of living light
twinkling in the dark.
In the drowsy dark caves of the mind
dreams build their nest with fragments
dropped from day’s caravan.
Spring scatters the petals of flowers
that are not for the fruits of the future,
but for the moment’s whim.
My words that are slight
may lightly dance upon time’s waves
when my works heavy with import have gone down.”
She used to wonder later if that was the moment she fell in love with him.
Once he had finished he turned towards her and smiled. Her pretense of detached unconcern had been dropped by then, and she was caught full on by eyes full of hope. Feeling unsettled, she spoke up,
“Hi. I’m Shahana. Everyone…”
“It’s a beautiful name,” he rushed in. “What does it mean?”
Irritated, she replied, “It means bridal.”
“It has a beautiful meaning. You were saying something?” he inquired.
“Nothing.” Telling him her pet name seemed too much information.
“Please,” Shishir implored. “I’ve behaved abominably with you. First I rushed your bike in the morning and now I’ve bludgeoned you midway. Usually, I don’t behave like a total idiot. Maybe because it’s my first day and I’m nervous sitting next to someone so beautiful….ly named.”
She couldn’t help smiling. “Shahana is old-fashioned. Call me Jugnu.”
“Oh!” his eyes went round as he made the connection. “That’s some coincidence.” He wanted to say something more but thought the better of it.
They found that having the same starting initials they had ended up as lab partners too. Soon almost all their time was being spent together. Jugnu found he was thoughtful, studious, and helpful. She loved listening to him recite poems in his deep mellifluous voice. His favourite was the Hindi poem Ho Gayi Hai Peer Parvat Si by Dushyat Kumar.
“This is my father’s favourite too. When he participated in the Students’ Movement, this poem was almost their anthem,” he told her once after having thrilled her with his recitation once again.
Shishir admired his father tremendously. He’d inherited his passion for social work and helped his father whenever he could. Jugnu found herself drawn towards the dreams he had and shared her own with him. Of being a painter someday, able to etch a living, breathing moment onto canvas for everyone to see.
Shy, soft-spoken Jugnu, didn’t feel the lack of friends anymore. Kids can be cruel to someone who isn’t confident and Jugnu felt limited by her clumsiness keenly. She preferred not to mingle too much. Instead, her time was spent with books and nature. And getting the beauty of nature onto the canvas.
One day in Chemistry Lab, she swiveled and almost swept away their titration apparatus. Shishir anticipated the tragedy and saved the setup. The snickers that followed hurt her enough to bring tears into her eyes. She hurried out, and he too followed her. As she sat on some unused steps at the back of the lab, he sat with her and held her hands in his. Jugnu felt her heart flutter. She’d imagined this moment for so long, but not like this. With snot running down her face and tears streaking down reddening cheeks!
“What happened?” Shishir inquired gently, his voice making the hurt melt into something warm at the bottom of her tummy where butterflies were doing cha-cha-cha.
“I’m so clumsy. I’m not good at anything,” she sniffed, her head down, scared to face him with her messed up ugly face.
“Jugnu, look up,” Shishir commanded, still holding her hands. She looked up into warm, concerned eyes. There was so much love there for her, she felt she was drowning in their depth. Her breath caught as he cupped her face in his broad palms and said,
“You don’t have to be good AT anything. Being good is enough, something you excel at. I’ve never met someone more warm, caring and compassionate. You’re beautiful both in and out. Don’t let these morons put you down. It’s their loss they don’t know what a wonderful person you are.”
Jugnu hardly heard anything. Her heart was doing somersaults at the rough feel of his fingers on her soft cheeks. Her pulse quickened anticipating his next movements.
“Now wipe your face or you’d like a snot facial?” Shishir smiled and dropped his hands. Every nerve in her body screamed silently, wishing them to stay. She’d felt warm and wanted, his hands a cocoon of acceptance and understanding.
She sniffed a last time, wiped her face and said, “Snot facial? Thank you. I prefer my rough cheeks to the alternative.”
The days continued as usual but something had now changed between them. Their friendship had found a new resonance. A tension simmered under their casual banter, like words on the tip of the tongue not given voice. She would catch him staring at her when he thought she wasn’t aware and his glances would feel like warm honey dripping down her skin.
Summer vacations were approaching. Jugnu wondered how the two of them were going to stay apart. The notice gracing the bulletin board one week before school’s close was like God’s answer to her prayers.
A week long cultural competition had been organized in the state capital. Jugnu and Shishir both were being sent as school representatives for art and elocution respectively. Jugnu was so happy she hardly read the names of the other students going with them.
Their trip proved successful. Their school was declared the winner overall with both of them bagging prizes in their respective categories. A happy group of students boarded the train for the overnight return journey and soon fell asleep. Jugnu found that sleep eluded her. She kept tossing and turning on her berth.
When Shishir’s voice whispered into her ears, “Come, let me show you something,” she got down and they got comfortable on his side lower berth. He closed her eyes gently with his hands. She sat there thrilled, numerous thoughts running through her mind, some nice and some not so nice.
“Open,” he whispered, his breath warm against her cheeks.
Jugnu gasped. She beheld a mesmerizing sight. They were passing through a wooded area. The world outside was silent, washed in silvery moonlight. The trees seemed to have been painted in shades of navy and prussian blue, and stood still and patient, witness to the magical night. Flickering through the somber night, were a thousand, maybe a million fireflies, making it seem as if the fabric of reality had shimmered and let in something from the world of fairies and fauns into that silent vista.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, lest the magic be broken, with loud words. As she turned, Shishir leaned forward and kissed her. She welcomed his lips on hers, their kiss a seal on this moment, to be forever etched onto their souls.
She didn’t remember what happened later. She vaguely remembered breaking away after an infinity and tumbling back to her berth. Morning saw them greet each other, the knowledge of the night simmering in their eyes. And then they were home, with the summer stretching between them like a yawning chasm.
The first day after school reopened, Jugnu rushed to the class only to find the seat next to her empty. Then she heard the news. The SP had been caught in a nexus with contractors and transferred. His family had gone ahead of him.
She ached with a pain, the intensity of which she couldn’t fathom.
Why couldn’t Shishir contact me before going? Couldn’t he trust me with his pain? Is trust too great a price to ask for love?
She learned to exist. Earlier she didn’t know what loss was. Now she had loved and its pain was her shield against the world.
A month later, a package arrived for her in the mail. It contained a letter with a filigreed gold firefly shaped pendant. The letter was just a few lines from his favorite poem.
Mind’s underground moths
grow filmy wings
and take a farewell flight
in the sunset sky.
The butterfly counts not months but moments,
and has time enough.
Let my love, like sunlight, surround you
and yet give you illumined freedom.
My offerings are too timid to claim your remembrance,
Leave out my name from the gift
if it be a burden,
but keep my song.
April, like a child,
writes hieroglyphs on dust with flowers,
wipes them away and forgets.
There was nothing else. She clutched the two to her heart and let the tears come.
His eyes traced the pendant, clutched in her delicate fingers, the only tangible thing she had to remember him by.
“So you got good AT something. I’ve followed your exhibitions over the years. You’ve made quite a name for yourself,” Shishir remarked.
“You gathered the courage to come? Why didn’t you…” her voice broke. She couldn’t trust herself to speak further.
“I was ashamed. You didn’t deserve someone tainted like me. You were made to fly. I would’ve pulled you down.”
“Wasn’t that for me to decide? You didn’t even give us a chance. Why did you come here today?” Jugnu asked.
“It was that painting. The most beautiful moment of my life, immortalised. Every exhibition you held, I expected the masterpiece to be sold. And then realized that it wasn’t, ever. I realized it was a message, the flickering flame of a firefly, calling me and here I am.”
“I won’t sell it to you. It’s the most beautiful moment of my life also.” Jugnu exclaimed.
“How about we put it in our living room? That is if you’re willing to have a common living room with someone who spews poems at the drop of a hat?” Shishir opened his arms tentatively and Jugnu ran into him, almost knocking him over.
“How about I order a million hats?” She whispered as she nuzzled her head under his chin, cocooned once more in his warmth. All was right with her world.
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