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“Stop playing that song.” Geetali fumed and turned around to see the six faces staring quizzically at her. She had just started doing her Thermodynamics assignment, but they could never leave her alone! “You are so weird. This is the latest dance track.” Geetali had known them since the beginning of college; they also stayed in the girl’s hostel, like she did.
“We are going for a movie, you want to come?” “No, I have to finish some work.” “You are so boring Geetali, you never make it to any of our lunches or the movies. Have some fun, college is the only time you can!” And she gave a high five to the others. The lecture hall roared with their laughter and it withered her ears.

She picked up the pile of books and adjusted them in her bag. “There goes the book worm.” Geetali was pretty to look at, big brown eyes and sharp features. A pair of black square rimmed spectacles resting on her perfect long nose, shoulder length hair which she always tied up in a ponytail. But one look at her and the emptiness was apparent. Not just the bare ears or the absence of any piece of jewellery, but the sad face and the missing zeal for life.

She had not been like that in the first year of college. She had been the stereotypical spoilt brat. When her trunks were brought into the hostel, everyone had come out to stare! The enormous pink trunks had carried her clothes, accessories and shoes. She had made friends instantly. They frequently borrowed her handbags or shoes and gave her all the admiration and attention in turn. She thought she had found true friends at last!

But then things changed course, and she stopped taking them out for big lunches, throwing them parties or lending her clothes. The hostel mess food, which she had sweared never to touch, was her staple diet now. Gone were the high heels and in their place came the chappals. Gone were the fancy clothes and out came the ordinary ones. People were quizzical, aghast but not at all invasive. They asked her questions, but she withdrew. She stopped speaking to anyone. Studies became her focus and one could always find her either in lecture halls or the library, her nose buried in the books.

It was only at night, when she ate her food, locked the door and switched off the lights at 9, did people hear a sobbing sound. Was it real or imaginary, nobody knew. One day, Meeta had knocked at her door several times. But after ten minutes of rejection, she had given up. Nobody had ever tried again.

It came as no surprise when she topped the result list and was nominated for the President’s gold medal. But she didn’t respond to the endless congratulatory messages. People had cut her out too, now she was on her own! But the fact that she had barely passed in the first year, and she was the topper now was a cause of concern to some. She had stopped sharing any emotion and was careful enough not to allow it to creep into her face in any form.

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It was the second time in the day she heard that song. But she could not run away from it or ask them to stop playing it. Holding back her tears, she looked at the men that surrounded her – middle aged, balding men, with pot bellies and drool which was starkly visible; even in the darkness of the place with disco lights beaming at her. She adjusted the piece of jewellery on her forehead which sparkled in the light. Drops of sweat broke on her face where soft skin had been smeared with heavy makeup.  She had always imagined a grand wedding with couture wear, in the presence of hundreds. But she never knew that reality would make her dress up as a bride every night, in the presence of a drooling audience, whose eyes were bloodshot and full of lust! Who were her father’s age but did not shower blessings or  even a pinch of sympathy. Who were ready with bundles of money to shower on her skirt as she danced to the same song…..

She was tired today, but she knew she had to do it each night, at least for the two years to come. She had tried to offer tuitions to juniors, but she had never had time during the day, and the pay was too less to cover the costs of her studies. Her parents had always wanted her to be an engineer, even when they had boarded the cursed flight. They said they had only found the burnt bodies, she couldn’t even see them for the one last time. She had not understood why they had taken away their house, and sealed it with a red tape. The assembly of people had bid large amounts to buy the house. She had turned away before she could see someone else walking on the floors of her childhood memories.

A fat man tugged at her skirt. She looked at his two missing front teeth. She snatched away her skirt and started following the beats. There were others like her on the stage, but she had never spoken to them. The fat man climbed the stage and held her waist. She tried to push him away, but he gripped her closer. Her screams were lost in the loudness, and it was ages before the security guards came and took him away. She looked at her arm in horror. He had scratched her skin so hard that it looked like an animal attack! She rushed to the green room and locked it.

The next morning when she woke up, her arm ached excessively. She wiped some iodine on it and covered it with bandage. She carried her bag with her left arm now. She wore a full sleeves top to cover up the wound, but the pain was bitter. Late in the afternoon, she took another pain killer tablet. She had no money to go the doctor. She had been saving up all her income for her fee and hostel charges. She had minimized all other expenses, she always walked to travel, always ate what they served at the mess. She had given away her belongings to a store which sold women’s shoes and clothes on the Internet, for a decent amount. She had no family now, and her only goal was to become an engineer, like her parents always wanted!

Her head burned with fever. She dosed in the last lecture, trying hard to keep her eyes open.  At night, as she climbed over the wall and paid money to the hostel watchman, she felt dizzy. As she dressed up for the dance, she could barely find strength to stand up. She took an energy drink and went on to face the lights and the ghastly men.

A minute passed before she fell. All felt numb and she felt nothing. When she woke up, she was in an autorickshaw with her fellow dancer. She had been asked her to drop Geetali home. The rickshaw stopped at her hostel gate and she climbed out. “Thank you so much, I will manage.” “Take care..bye.” The security guard rushed to her side. “I will never let you go out now. I will lose my job. I don’t need the money.” She could not answer him. He helped her to the stairs and left her there.
Meeta saw her, struggling to climb up. She ran down and took her by the arm. Geetali gave out a cry and tears poured from her eyes. “What happened to you? What’s wrong with the arm?” “Please don’t tell anyone. They will not let me stay here.” Meeta quietly took Geetali to her room and helped her lie on the bed. She uncovered the shawl to see the bright and sparkling attire. But to Geetali’s surprise, she said nothing. She helped her change and bandaged her arm. She bought her some food from the mess and gave her medicine. She sat by her side the whole night, checking her temperature at small intervals.

When Geetali woke up in the morning, she saw Meeta asleep by her side. She didn’t understand why she was helping her. Was she not like the others who had been by her side when she had money! Meeta awoke and said “Don’t you worry, we will go to the doctor today.” “No Meeta, I will be fine.” “Geetali, look at yourself. I won’t hear a no.” The sobs could not be held in any longer, “but I have no money.” “Don’t worry, I am here for you.” “But why are you helping me? I mean nothing to you.” “You remember the time when I asked you for money? And you said take it from my purse. My mother was unwell and it really helped a lot. I will never forget that.” And the hug Meeta gave her brushed away her emptiness and gave way to a long lasting bond.

 


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