The Penance8 mins 381 8 mins 381
"Where do you go every Saturday evening, Atul?" Neha frowned, "and why do you switch off your phone?"
Atul looked at the flushed face of his beautiful wife and chuckled as he realized that her querries bore a heavy scent of doubt.
"Are you suspecting me of having an affair?" Atul gulped down laughter and looked straight into Neha's eyes.
"It's not that," Neha kept her ashamed eyes low as Atul had read her mind, "I become worried for you."
"Do you want to know the truth about my furtive Saturday evening trips?" Atul drew Neha close to him and wrapped his arms around her.
"Hmm," Neha couldn't help looking into his eyes as she nodded.
"I go to PVS Hospital."
"But who's there?" Neha's surprised eyes turned to him.
"Someone, towards whom I am indebted for a lifetime. Who has made me the person that I am today? I go there to meet the person who has inspired me to become an IAS officer."
"Who is that, Atul?" Neha's eyes were still fixed on Atul as they disengaged. "As far as I know, it was your late father who wanted you to join the administrative service."
"It's a long story, Neha," Atul sighed as memories flooded his mind, "do you want to listen to it?"
"Yes!" Neha passed a cup to him, "over a cup of coffee."
"The story began some 10 years ago when my father compelled me to join a civil service coaching institute. At that time, I was a spoilt brat of a rich businessman who was repugnant towards studies and hard work. As the only heir to my father's vast business empire, I was used to luxuries and lead an extravagant lifestyle. It was during those days that I befriended Vivek who was my roommate at the institute's hostel. I liked him very much for his innocent nature, polite demeanor, and exemplary benevolence. The circumstances in which he was brought up were poles apart from mine. He had lost his father when he was 12 years old. His father was a peon and the family hardly made both ends meet with his meager income. After his father's death, it was Vivek's mother who toiled day and night to provide for his studies. Vivek was a brilliant student who worked really hard to crack the entrance examination. He used to work at a school as a part-time teacher to earn some extra money to pay his fees.
I grew fond of Vivek within a few days of befriending him and we became close friends. But I hated the way he kept himself buried in books all day long. I wanted him to bunk classes and join me for a movie or an outing. Whenever I asked him to indulge in things that the 'normal' boys of our age do, he used to make me listen to his long and boring speeches on the importance of having a career.
"Don't you have dreams of achieving something in life?" Vivek asked, "like my dream is to become an IAS officer someday so that my poor mother doesn't have to toil anymore."
"Why should I?" I smirked at him, "I have everything. I am rich. My family owns a huge business empire. Then why do I need to work day and night like a donkey?"
"It's all your father's, Atul." Vivek threw his hands up in the air, "you haven't achieved anything on your own."
"Yes, but what belongs to my father is going to be sooner or later mine. So what difference does that make?" I shrugged nonchalantly.
"You haven't faced the harsh realities of life yet, Atul." Vivek sighed as he gave up. "You are living in an illusional world. You can never understand what real life is until you get to see it with your own eyes."
As Vivek became determined to turn me like him I made my mind to pull him away from the boring pile of his dear books. Chance favored me when the most gorgeous girl in our batch, Tanya came to ask for Vivek's help in studies. Being a kind-hearted guy, Vivek readily agreed to help Tanya who was weak in studies. I found a perfect chance to divert Vivek's attention from studies. I whispered into Vivek's ears that Tanya had a huge crush on him. Seeking his help in studies was only an excuse that Tanya was making to get close to him.
Initially, Vivek laughed at me and shooed me away by saying that it was all an imagination of my 'over creative mind'. With each passing day, I became even more determined to make him fall into the trap of my lies. I used to describe him at length about the ecstasy in Tanya's eyes whenever her eyes met Vivek's, the melodious tinkling of her laughter when he cracked jokes with her and the tinge of crimson on her dainty cheeks whenever he applauded her. How long could a man resist the charms of a girl as beautiful as Tanya. Gradually, Vivek began believing my lies and started falling for Tanya. My sole intention behind all this was only to vanquish the bookworm within him and turn him towards the worldly pleasures. But I was not at all prepared for what the future had in store for both of us. I had no idea how the twist of fate was plotting to change our lives forever.
One day we were sitting on our bench adjacent to each other in our classroom. I was tapping on the bench with my hands while humming a song and Vivek was, as usual, revising the lessons. Tanya came to us and held out a notebook to Vivek.
"Thank you so much, Vivek," she said with a bright smile, making a few heads turn towards her and stare at the average looking Vivek with jealousy.
"You are welcome," Vivek took the notebook from her and smiled back casually.
"I'm ready to bet anything you say, dude," I murmured to Vivek after Tanya was gone. "She loves you for sure."
"Stop talking rubbish, Atul!" Vivek said and I assured that there was a hint of a smile in his denial of my accusation.
"She is waiting for you to propose to her." I challenged him. "If you are a man enough then go and open your heart to her right away."
I had expected him to shrug me off and get back to his books. But I got the shock of my life when I saw him get up and walk towards Tanya. I wanted to rush behind him and pull him back but it was already too late for that. As he confessed his love to her and I could see Tanya's pretty face turning dark with agitation.
"I never expected such a thing from you!" Tanya yelled, firing a tight slap on his face that drew the attention of the entire class, "how could you even think that I would fall for a grizzly bear like you? I don't wish to see your ugly face ever again!"
For a moment, there was pin-drop silence in the classroom as a dejected Vivek walked away. I sat glued to my desk in a shell shocked state for a while but then ran out searching for him. I was at the end of my wits as I couldn't find him anywhere. Finally, a classmate told me that he had seen Vivek board a bus to his home. I sighed as I thought that it would do him good if he spends a few days at home. I walked back to my room with a heavy heart.
"Wake up Atul!"
The next morning I was woken up by a pale-faced Sumit.
"Why?" I asked rubbing my eyes, "it's so early."
"Don't you know?" A terrified Sumit struggled with his breaths, "Vivek had tried to commit suicide yesterday. His condition is still very critical. We all are going to meet him."
Vivek had jumped from the terrace of the building where his family used to live in a small flat. The doctors were able to save his life but he was rendered paralyzed due to a grievous head injury. I used to visit him every day at the hospital and then at his home afterward. During those days, I learnt what hardships, poverty and miseries are. And how bitter the 'real-life' that Vivek used to make me understand seemed. I held myself responsible for poor Vivek's plight and made my mind to fulfill his dream of becoming an IAS officer on his behalf.
I gave up the life of luxuries and never touched my father's money that was being transferred to my bank account every month. I took the job of a part-time teacher for paying my fees and spent the rest of my earning for Vivek's treatment. I worked hard the way Vivek used to do and as a result, topped the civil service examination. That proud moment aided a bit in relieving the burden of guilt.
"After joining duty as an IAS officer I took charge of taking care of Vivek who was left alone in this world after the demise of his mother. No matter what, I make time from my busy schedule and go every Saturday evening to meet my dear friend to whom I owe everything that I have achieved." Atul stared at the horizon and wiped his tears, "And even if that offends you Neha, I dedicate a whole evening to no one else but to my best friend. And that' s why I keep my phone off. In a way, I'm paying penance for what I had done to my friend. And I hope you all will forgive me for being such a nasty imp."
"It is not your fault, Atul!" Neha cuddled him in his arms, "it was fate."