Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.
Read a tale of endurance, will & a daring fight against Covid. Click here for "The Stalwarts" by Soni Shalini.



22 mins

I remember the first time I saw him - standing in the middle of the floor, talking to people he barely knew. Yet, one would get the impression he knew them for ages. He laughed, jested and teased as if they had been friends forever. He took measured sips of his drink and nodded at their anecdotes as well - the perfect listener, the enthusiastic talker. His hair flopped carelessly on his forehead - a style I had always secretly admired.

He noticed me observing him and raised his glass gently - a gesture worthy of a Hollywood film.

I turned red with embarrassment and pretended to look at my phone nervously, not daring to look up for a while.

After a few seconds, I looked up and found that he had walked up to me, with a rather curious expression on his face.

“Hi!” he said cheerfully and extended his hand. I shook his hand and immediately withdrew rather shyly. I almost wished I could have held his hand for a while.

It was a firm and strong grip. It hurt my hand a little. I had rather strange fragile hands, I supposed.


“Sanchi,” I said, with a smile.

“So how come you’re here?” he asked.

A straightforward direct manner. I appreciated that.

“I’ve known Sagar since childhood…so…that’s why I’m here,” I said rather awkwardly.

“Oh wow, that’s nice. Where is he though? He seems to have gotten lost in the party,” Neev said looking around.

“Yeah, he must be busy with his guests.”

“You want to go outside for a walk?” Neev asked suddenly.

Another direct question which threw me off.

I barely knew him.

And yet I automatically I mumbled a yes.

There was something about his eyes. One couldn’t just break away from them.

And he took my hand and led me out. People tried not to stare, but their confused glances said it all.

He didn’t know me, and yet he had taken me by the hand into the garden.

We walked around the garden. He spoke about his family, his life, and his job. I was starting to fall in love with his voice, so I rarely interrupted. And he didn’t seem to expect me to either.

He casually asked about my family. He “hmmed” at points but didn’t question much. He never asked about my life. Yet I knew all about his.

We spent an hour on the garden bench. There were gentle silences at points, punctuated by the quiet rustling of the trees.

“It’s been a beautiful hour, Sanchi,” he said, and turned to me. When he said my name, the whole garden seemed to resonate with it.

“I’ve had a lovely time too.”

I was convinced that I was telling the truth.

“We must go out for a coffee. A bit late, as I finish work only by evening. I hope that’s okay.”

“I’ll try…my parents-”

He laughed outright and said, “Don’t tell me that. I must continue meeting you.”

I looked into his eyes - they seemed full of a strange fire.

For a second, I was frightened. He gently pushed my hair back - another gesture I would have been usually uncomfortable with. I can’t say I wasn’t completely comfortable either. But I seemed powerless.

“We’ll meet tomorrow then,” he said. That was settled.

“You seemed to be having a good time with Neev,” Sagar said after the party.

“He is quite an interesting person. He asked me for coffee tomorrow,” I said, helping him put away the glasses.

Sagar raised his eyebrows and said while wiping the plates, “Careful, Sanchi. Don’t be…you know…you.”

“Is there something to be worried about?” I asked, putting the food back in the refrigerator. If there was a person’s opinion I usually valued more than other’s, it was Sagar’s.

“He seems a nice person and is a lot of fun to be with. But…I don’t know….” Sagar ‘s voice trailed off, as he wiped the same plate again.

“There is something very compelling about him,” I said remembering those eyes.

“Oh for god sake Sanchi. Don’t get carried away,” he snapped, shoving the plates back inside the cupboard.

I met Neev for coffee. He seemed more at ease. The more he talked about his life, the more involved I felt. He asked for my advice about problems he had with his job and life, and to my surprise I was able to give him steady advice and solutions.

“Talking to you is like writing in a diary, Sanchi,” he said, and held my hand.

He played with my fingers. He held them, let go, and held them again. When he almost let go again, I held on, almost as if in fear.

“You won’t leave me like everyone else has?” he whispered. I was at first surprised. But I didn’t even ask what he meant.

Again…I automatically said, “I promise.”

He held my hand in a firm grip. It hurt again. I tried to loosen his hold.

“Sh. Don’t let go,” he said. And I didn’t even though I it made me wince.

I continued meeting him for coffee regularly. The conversations became more intense - sometimes exhausting. I didn’t want to use the word drained. I believed I was happy that someone had taken such an interest in me, and considered me worthy of having these long and intense discussions about life, family, and parents.

Except it wasn’t a discussion. It was him talking, and me quietly slipping in advice, which he would smile at and appreciate. That appreciation I took for affection.

There were noted occasions when he would ask me about my life and experiences. He expressed a little sorrow at my previous failed relationships.

“Oh, that’s sad,” he said while sipping on his coffee. And that was all. In contrast to the lengthy advice, I had given him.

Yet I craved his attention, I looked forward to his messages and his calls and eagerly awaited the next time he would ask me to meet him.

“Dinner, tomorrow,” he would say that, and I would spend the week scrambling for excuses to stay out that late. When he said something, it had to be done.

Sagar remained dubious and became even more skeptical as time passed by. He didn’t say much though. But I had known him too well and knew he didn’t trust Neev.

Neev, on the other hand, made strange excuses to avoid meeting Sagar which strengthened Sagar’s belief that there was something wrong.

“I don’t want to hurt you. I might hurt you, and then Sagar might be after my life. I respect him too much,” he said with his usual laugh.

He was jesting as usual, I again convinced myself.

“You can’t hurt me,” I said holding his hand and putting my head on his shoulder.

He gave a rather forced smile and then wrenched his hand free. And held it gently again.

“I need you. And I do love you,” he said one day at one of the dinners.

“You won’t leave, like the rest?” I said, throwing his question back at him.

He took a while to answer, but he finally replied in affirmative, and I heaved a sigh of relief.

He held my hand and said in the caressing voice which I loved so much, “You’re mine.” He played with my bangles. He told me how much he liked the colors.  He held both my hands in his.

There was a hint of a steely note of aggression in his voice, and I couldn’t say no. Yet, I didn’t say that I was in love with him. I didn’t know what it was.

I wore the bangles the next day and rushed to his place, even though I was supposed to meet Sagar.

He seemed preoccupied and was reading a book. He would occasionally look up at me and smile. He noticed my bangles. I was feeling happy with the expression in his eyes, till he said coolly, “Why did you wear them today?” He then went back to his book. There was a subtle disdain in his voice.

“I’m with Neev - officially,” I told Sagar, rather awkwardly. Sagar remained rather expressionless. He gave me a gruff hug and said, “I’m happy for you.”

“I knew you would be,” I said, smiling through the tears. He walked away whistling and then turned around and said, “Don’t get hurt again, Sanchi. Please.”

I spent all my time with Neev after that. I reveled in those stolen moments. Though there were times when he held back and would ask, “Is this right?”

“It feels right,” I would say rather nervously.

“I’m afraid it won’t last long,” he said, staring into the distance. And the next day he would bring me flowers.

“I’m a little crazy. Are you sure you want to be with me?” he would say playfully.

“That’s why I like you,” I would answer with a laugh.

“You’re very easy to hurt. That’s what scares me,” he once said softly.

“You can’t hurt me.”

“I hope not. I’m afraid of that.”

I didn’t know what to say. He laughed at my expression, and I joined in.

The memories of those months are etched vividly in my head. I remember stretches of worry and anxiety, and intervals of beautiful moments. I remember walking with him in rosy gardens one day, and him saying things, which would make my heart beat queerly, and the next day he would be indifferent.

One particular scarring incident was when I met his friends at a party of his. Sagar wasn’t there, as he was out of town. I heartily wished Sagar had been there.

I didn’t know anyone, even though Neev kept pushing me forward to talk to people. I panicked, as I couldn’t relate to many of the topics they were discussing.

They were discussing the brilliance of a certain kind of beer whose name I can’t remember. Not that I was against alcohol at all, I just hadn’t heard the name before. So when one of his friends cheerfully brought it up in conversation, I replied with a smile, “Oh…I haven’t heard of it.”

There was a slight pause and he looked rather blank. Neev shuffled his feet and seemed embarrassed. “How is that possible?” He said with a cool laugh.

“I don't know,” I said rather nervously as their five pairs of eyes bored into me. Neev gave one last look of disgust and changed the topic of conversation hastily.

“Neev has a lot to teach you,” his friend laughed.

“Very different from the girls Neev usually dates,” another said.

Neev laughed and said, “Oh yes. Very different. She even has a curfew.”

My face grew hot and my eyes started. Yet I pretended to laugh, along with everyone else.

“Well, honestly I haven’t liked most of your previous girlfriends. Except Diya,” one said with a roguish laugh.

“Oh, she was beautiful, and quite the charmer. I took such a long time to get over that one. Not too sure, if I have. I miss her parties,” Neev agreed and laughed.

“Ah well, I suppose Sanchi has a certain sweetness about her,” he seemed to add as an afterthought.

When he drove me home, he said rather quietly, “I’m not sure if you should meet my friends that often. You…seem to stand out.”

“I quite liked them…thought I got on fairly,” I said.

“Well, they weren’t comfortable. I could see.”

“Were you really so upset about Diya?” I asked rather shakily.

He looked exasperated and said,

“She was beautiful. Sanchi, when she talked everyone would just listen enthralled. No one has had that grasp over me ever since her. Too bad she went abroad, otherwise we would still be together.”

“Was she really that beautiful?”

“The most gorgeous girl I’ve seen, Sanchi.”

He then smiled and said, “You’ve got pretty eyes.”

The knot in my chest tightened.

A strange heaviness settled on me like never before. Even my previous failed relationships had never caused this peculiar strain. I stopped trying to tell Sagar because I realized I didn’t know exactly what to tell him.

I was sleeping at odd times after talking to Neev- or rather just constantly providing advice and support to Neev while he would bring up problems he had with life, his profession and family.

“I need you, Sanchi. Can’t you postpone your plan with Aisha today?” and I did, because that’s all I could provide to the relationship.

Even though Neev had categorically stated that I shouldn’t meet his friends, he still pushed me into that crowd.

His friends were not the problem- on the face of it, they were jolly and friendly albeit confused that there were certain films of popular culture I had not watched, or places that I had never been to.

They clearly did not share my love for old Hollywood films, and Neev emphatically changed the topic when I brought it up. The feeling, which had once spread through me like warmth, had now turned sick and cold.

One particular rainy evening, I had come over to his house to cheer him up because 'he felt low, and he didn’t know why.'

“I’m so glad you came,” he said.

I entered the house gladly. The raindrops thrashed against the windows.

“Draw the curtains. And switch on that light,” he sat on the couch and ordered.

I went to pull the curtains. He said in a low voice, “That’s not how you draw curtains in my house.”

I fumbled with the string and drew the curtains. My fingers were shaking. There were thunders and lightening as well, and doors banged wildly.

He sat calmly on the couch, put his earphones in, and listened to music. I felt like a fool.

“Feeling better now?” I asked.

“Sh. Listening to music,” he said, and put his finger to his lips.

“What happened though?” I tried again.

He looked irritated and signaled that he had put the volume on full and that’s how we sat for one hour.

“You can make some tea right? You can make for both of us,” he said suddenly.

I don’t know what came over me, but I said, “No, I can’t. And I think I should head leave…it’s late.”

I didn’t feel sorry.

He usually offered to drop me home, but he shrugged this time. “Okay, there’s no driver, and I don’t want drive in this rain.”

“It’s around nine…it’s really late.”

He sighed, “Alright, I’ll have to drop you.”

“No. It’s fine. I’ll take an auto,” I said shortly.

“Okay let me know when you get home. Thanks for coming though. I can’t tell you how much it meant,” he said.

Words, which usually would have made me, blush and smile now just made me curl inside.

Sometimes, no matter how hard and painful it might be, you just can’t let go of a relationship. You hold on to it with every bit of strength and fight for the inevitable dead end, which might have already arrived. Yet you don’t want to see or agree that there is no hope left. You can always convince yourself that there is something worth fighting for and that the relationship is special after all and all that jazz.

One reason is that you don’t want to be cold and lonely again - a reason which you can’t admit to anyone but yourself. A reason which I knew and acknowledged, but had buried deep away in the recesses of my mind.

Months dragged by and I had forgotten the last time I was completely happy. I just knew I wasn’t myself anymore.

He seemed tired and irritated with me sometimes. He stopped holding my hand during films and in fact once snapped at me for it.

“You don’t always have to hold my hand, you know.”

I was so scared of his reaction that I didn’t make the first step forward ever. He held my hand when he felt like it; he left it when he wanted.

“You’re very needy,” he once said laughingly. He always said the most maddening things in the sweetest way possible.

Sagar noticed my strain and tiredness and tried to guess the cause. But I didn’t say much, even though I knew he would make the right conclusions. So one day he took me out for ice cream, and we sat on the rocks at Marine Drive, enjoying the gentle breeze.

“You still can’t eat ice cream in a cone, Sanchi?” Sagar laughed, as he saw me struggling with the cone as it made a gooey mess on my hand. - the most genuine laugh I had heard in a while. He offered me some tissues.

My phone beeped. I had received a message. It was Neev, asking for help regarding some birthday event he wanted to plan for his sister.

“What’s up?” Sagar asked, noticing my change in expression.

“Nah, Neev needs help with some event planning.”

“Let him do it himself. And for these two hours, Sanchi try not to look at your phone?”

I smiled.

We spoke of childhood memories and little anecdotes. We spoke of things, which had no relevance. I was happiest with this kind of conversation.  He spoke of a girl in his class, which he had fallen in love with.

We had a pebble throwing competition, just like old times and of course he won. We walked along the sands and watched the darkening sunset together. The water swept the shore and tickled our feet gently. For the first time in months I felt peaceful and at ease.

When I checked my phone again, I had a dozen missed calls and several messages. I answered cheerfully that I was with Sagar.

There was no reply.

I called, and he said coolly,

“Yeah, Sanchi?”

“Hi, did you manage to find a venue?”

“Yes, no thanks to you of course. Where were you? You know I need your help. Too busy with Sagar I suppose.”

I was taken aback by his tone.

“I hadn’t met him for a while…”

“Oh okay. I’m off to have some coffee with Rhea. Though unlike you I’ll at least keep you updated. She will probably be the one I date after you.”

“Kidding!” he added after a few seconds.

For four months, I had been dull and tired. How could I explain what was wrong? He was the perfect companion in front of everyone else. He bought me things, showered love on me in front of others.

The wonderful couple, everyone would say.

He surprised me with a beautiful birthday. In moments like these, I would question myself and wonder what was making me so upset.

And in the next few moments I would know why.

He presented me with a dress as a gift. I was quite happy, even though I didn’t exactly have the figure for dresses.

“You should try wearing dresses more often. At least, try to act like girls your age,” he said with a laugh.

The dress didn’t fit me, of course.

“You’ll need to lose weight for this,” he said wryly and I ran home and flung the dress in my wardrobe in burning resentment.

The final straw was on his birthday. We had gone to some elaborate club to celebrate. There were around twenty people there. Some of them were people I hadn’t seen before.

I had a deadline of eleven, and I needed to get back home. I had made another flamboyant excuse that it was one of my female friends parties and that I would, of course, be dropped home.

Neev had promised that.

He was in high spirits and was having a good time. He tried to drag me into the middle of the floor, and I complied. Even though I felt awkward. I had a forced smile plastered on my face so that no one would guess.

I whispered in his ear, “Neev. I have to get home. It’s ten thirty.”

“The party’s just started, what are you saying?” he said through gritted teeth.

“Yeah, but I promised my parents…it’s just ten minutes away.”

“I’m not leaving now, to drop you home,” he whispered back.


“Go get a drink, and enjoy yourself.”

And with that he turned away.

It became eleven. My parents called, and I lied frantically about traffic. They guessed I was lying in seconds, and told me to get home quickly.

I hated this. I hated myself.

The air in the club seemed to close in on me and I felt suffocated. Neev was irritated when he saw me sit on the couch and have a soft drink.

“Can you stop behaving like this perfect good girl and enjoy yourself a bit?” he said coldly.

“I have enjoyed myself at this club many times…it’s just that parents are getting worried, and I’m really late. I’m not feeling too well, either,” I said, speaking rather feverishly.

“It’s not that far anyway, you can go.”

There. Dismissed. He went back to his friends.

I sat on the couch, looking more foolish than ever. One of his friends told him rather nervously, “It’s not a particularly safe lane.”

“She lives fifteen minutes away, she’ll be fine. You can run home, Sanchi,” Neev said with a laugh.

And that’s what I did. I got to my feet rather unsteadily and left the club. My eyes were searing, and the heaviness in my chest became worse. I called Sagar, and he said he would be on his way and to stay put.

I didn’t even listen to that. I kept walking. It began to rain. It poured, and in my eyes the rain seemed to thrash me vindictively. It seemed to be hitting me mercilessly for being such a weakling, and for completely losing my identity.

It seemed to mock me for being so pale and lifeless. I was a puppet. A puppet in someone else’s hands, and I wasn’t doing anything to stop it.

I had just let it happen. The same way he had tightened his hold over my hands, the same way I could feel an invisible grip around my throat.

I was finding it hard to breathe. It wasn’t just one incident. It had been five months of tiny subtle incidents, which I could never explain. If someone asked me, “So what’s wrong in your relationship?” I would never be able to answer.

Who would understand, who would believe?

My head swayed.

And then I slipped down the manhole along with the water, slush, and rain.

I felt myself submerging into the water. I tried holding on to the ground, but in vain.

I could have climbed out, but I didn’t. I tried putting my hand out and clutching on the rough ground, rather half-heartedly.

The rain kept pouring down on me, and I found it even more difficult to breathe.

I decided to let my hand slip and sink. I was tired, and I couldn’t fight. I was dying and yet I felt more alive. This would be the best, I thought. I was weak and would never be able to leave Neev.

Why should I leave Neev?

He’s good to me. So what if he gets angry with me at points?

Then why doesn’t he let me go?

Why has he held on to me?

Just for these quiet cool insults? Slipped into everyday conversation?

Why didn’t he let me go?

Why was he still telling me that he loved me and that he needed me?

There. The word need.

He needed me.

That’s it.

A crutch. A life support.

I was there be humiliated on all occasions, but as long as I gave him unconditional support - I was the perfect girlfriend.

The doormat.

Subtle, and quiet humiliation.

I just wasn’t myself anymore.

Let me drown.

This world is no place for a weakling.

I felt a sudden strong grip on my hand while I was flailing.

It was Sagar who looked aghast.

I was hanging to a little rock. How symbolic!

 “Sanchi! Sanchi!” He said, trying to hold my hand and pull me up.

But I wasn’t listening.

Then he said in a tone, which I had never heard before.

“Why are you hanging on, Sanchi? Go, drown. It’s not like you want to live anyway.”

“I can’t,” I sputtered.

He let go of my hand.

“I don’t know you anymore.”

I desperately lunged at the falling bits of rock, as I again found myself going underwater.


“You’re going to get out of this on your own,” he said, a blaze in his eyes I had never seen before.

The little pieces of earth gave away and I fell into the water for a few seconds. I heard Sagar shout something, but I couldn’t hear.

Neev hadn’t done this to me. I had done this to myself. I had allowed him to take such rigid control over my mind, that I had stopped fighting.

He had taken away…a part of me. And I had willingly let him.

Not with actions, but with quiet, cruel words.

If I had done this to myself, I had to find a way to escape.

Those few seconds seemed like an eternity. My life with Neev flashed in front of my eyes like a film. I looked at the pale lifeless protagonist in the film.

He was upset. She ran to him. He needed support and advice - she changed her plans instantly so that she could run over to him. He needed her, she lied to her parents to be with him. And she hung on to him for sparing words of love and affection - a farce, a complete farce.

How long could he be blamed?

And then I caught hold of the ground with a firmer grip and managed to climb out shaking. Sagar tried to help me out, but I pushed him away gently.

I was alive. Again!

“Sanchi, Sanchi. Wake up!” I heard voices all around me.

I woke up, to find myself lying in a bed at home. My parents were standing around worried, and Sagar was pacing up and down.

“You were found lying in the middle of the road…with a high fever. Sagar found you in time. I thought you said, you would be dropped home?” my father said sharply, strain clearly sounding in his voice.

“I decided to walk…” I said rather hoarsely.

The drowning had never happened. I had just fainted. It was all in my head. Yet, it was the most real thing to have happened in the last five months.

My parents scolded me, which I listened to without even trying to reply.

When they left the room, Sagar asked rather harshly, “Why didn’t Neev drop you home?”

“I don’t care anymore. I’m done. I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?” he said concerned.

I wanted to tell him that he was the best friend I had ever had and I felt awful for the times I had put him second to Neev. I was idiotic for ignoring the most special friendships by thinking of the farcical perfect relationship. I had never told him so, and probably such words were clichéd between two close friends. Besides he would think that the fever had gotten to my head. I was too tired and overwhelmed to speak as well. So I just hugged him. He looked rather surprised; as such physical contact was rare between us as well.

“Idiot!” he said, shaking his head.

Neev came to see me, two days later.

Before I knew it, he took out a ring with a flourish and asked me to marry him. He held my hand again in that hurtful grasp.

His proposal was perfect. The words he had chosen were beautiful, and anyone’s heart would melt. Mine almost did.

He looked at me with the most adoring and loving eyes, the way I had always wanted to be looked at.

I said no quietly. He looked shocked.

“I’ve been so good to you. I’ve always put you first before anyone else, I’ve not even thought of another girl-”

But I had stopped listening.

I wrenched my hand free and said, “It’s hurting me.”

I had said so at last.

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