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20th September, Delhi 2020

My Mornings are beautiful, they begin with the bright sunshine entering my room through the narrow slits between the curtains, gently kissing the philodendron sitting on the window sill, the same sunshine that sometimes damages the other plant, Dracaena, on the other side of the window sill. That’s the philosophy of life, someone’s light is the other’s night. I begin my day by greeting Glenn, my piano, that I named after Glenn Herbert Gould. I have a name for all my belongings, my bed- Rock, my car- Skye, the bracelet that my Grandmother made for me- Heather. These things mean more to me than anyone I have known, for they listen without ever asking me to stop, they talk back, they validate my thoughts.  My parents dwelled in every morsel of grandeur, sophistication, splendor and were too embarrassed of me to present me in front of their friends from the stupid, rich corporate world.  I realized it when I was fourteen and was sent to a hostel in Shimla so that my family could indirectly avoid the unspoken embarrassment, and the burden of my reckless, seemingly messed up thoughts that I was never afraid even as a child to say out loud. I remember my last conversation with my mother. I held on to her mulberry silk saree and asked her to take me back, “We love you Zaina,” She claimed as she shook of my little fingers and headed back without taking a last look at me. But there’s one person who savors the rashest pieces of my thoughts and tells me, “Zaina, imperfection is the dearest, the most prominent and boldest bit of perfection, the remnant of all the dreams that we dared to dream regardless of their certainty, imperfection is the proudest resident in the country of truth, for nothing is truer, braver, more real, more naked than an imperfection, and so imperfection is one of the most beautiful things to exist.” Arhaan the author of those words, is just as precious as the words that effortlessly drip like honey from his lips. Maybe my love is the semblance of insanity but sometimes it is the only thing that lets me stay sane.  

It’s Thursday night finally and we are leaving for our college reunion cum corona getaway. Well that’s where adulthood comes to play. Money, ambition, ineffable desires rule your world, there’s no time for sleep, for food. A stupid college reunion is far behind on the list. But I am so grateful for this trip,probably the only good thing about 2020, not only do I get to meet my friends after so many years and escape the files that sit on my desk every morning at work, but I also get a chance to get away from the man in black who is everywhere, in the office, in the library, in the park and told me last week that he wants me, he wants me dead.

We are going to Ladakh for a camping escapade. It was Arhaan and Heer’s plan that we go to Nubra valley which is surrounded by starkly beautiful slopes and is the perfect destination to witness the magic of the stars. And well is faraway from the clutches of covid. Neil, Heer and Rihan will be joining us too. It’s funny how it all seems a matter of yesterday, we were young, full of fresh energy with a newfound sense of freedom and independence, seeking that one opportunity to lose all our sanity and be mad, wild and free and were courageous enough to dream and hope.  Our mornings would begin with Rihan narrating a new story of his roguery, he was the most mischievous one and I guess that is why he was the most loved one in the group. It is almost hard to believe that he is a successful financial broker now. Arhaan was passionate about psychology since college, he was the best person to have meaningful conversations with for he always offered an understanding ear and it is no surprise that he has offered his insight and knowledge for so many research papers and saved so many lives. Heer was the kind of girl I aspired to be, her confidence, her boldness captivated me and she was the president of the debating society in the college. I always knew she’d make a great lawyer. Seher, was the kindest shoulder one could lay their head on.  Her passion to help others made her start many NGOs and I know she won’t stop for her desire to help is limitless. I, I was just a mad poet whom Neil rescued from some lone corner in the college. Neil, one name, one person, endless memories. He was my first encounter with love, my first encounter with passion. I’d write in my diary, “If I knew how to paint, I’d paint him with every color of passion, with every color of madness.”  He made me see what it is to be free, he taught me the difference between living and surviving.  In his love was insanity, in the ground of his love, the boundaries between all societal concepts like right and wrong blurred. Yeah, I am sure it was nothing short of love, even though childish, it was love, for I read in a book, “Love doesn’t need to last a lifetime for it to be real. Everything dies, love included.  Sometimes it dies with a person, sometimes on its own. Just because a love ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t real.”  I don’t know how the person who taught me how to live forgot to live himself. I am still trying to figure it out what had happened in the last year of college that Neil left everything, his music, his friends and me. However, I am happy that he held the courage to pick up all that had slipped from his hands. He is a renowned singer now and does many shows with his band even internationally. He contacted everyone in the circle and tried to amend his relations with everyone and everything is great now even if not perfect.

“So, what about that man in black? What are we gonna do about him?” Arhaan asks, as we steady ourselves on the seats and wait for the airplane to take off.  He slides his fingers between mine to comfort my uneasiness at the mention of that man in black. I love the “we” part though. I might have fallen in love before, but in this moment I realise that I have risen in love. “What do you think I carry a knife in my bag for? I am not scared of him, one move from his side and I’ll chop his hands. I filed a report against him last week, let’s see now.” I say, without any fear in me. To be chased by your potential killer should worry you, but to me it simply didn’t matter. I guess I have lost my ability to feel anything, I didn’t even shed a single tear at my favorite aunt’s death last month, nothing seems to matter. “Wow, I have fallen in love with the most perfect woman.” Arhaan says proudly. “I have more things to worry about anyway, my boss doesn’t want me at work. He says I just zone out while talking to him or anyone at work, it has been three months since I started so many projects but never completed one.  He never has the time to talk properly and now he decides to declare his employees mad. How convenient on his part to blame his inefficiencies on me.” I had to blurt out this anger somewhere. “ I think you are just really stressed right now, I am glad we decided to come on this trip.” Arhaan tucks my hair behind the ear, caressing my forehead.   

-x-x-x-

“Yeah mom, we just reached. The weather is lovely and we all are safe, don’t worry, love you, bye!” It’s almost surprising how my Mom has started to be sweet, all caring and showering her love on me since last few months. It’s better late than never.  I don’t know what’s more beautiful, all of us being together after all these years or Nubra Valley. The serene air of Nubra Valley is adorned with the scent of some cherished memories today.   The rugged slopes, the dark grey rocky ridges of the enormous mountains, and infinite stars bathing the valley creates an amazing visual hard to describe. I have never seen so many stars in the now polluted skies of Delhi. I lie down under the sheet of stars and with Bonfire, the echoes of laughter of my favorite people and Neil’s guitar, I feel peace tramping on each part of my body. “So, when are the two lovebirds getting married?” Seher asks, grabbing her fifteenth piece of pizza. No love can beat Seher’s love for pizzas. “Next Oct…” Arhaan replies but is interrupted by Neil who has stopped playing the guitar. “ If I knew how to paint, I’d paint you with every color of passion, with every color of madness, mix a hundred different shades to form the amalgamation of all perfect proportions, for I am passionate about you in more than one color , I am passionate about you in black, for I love you not for your perfect brightness but at some places between your shadow and soul. I am passionate about you in red, the red of – “Neil recites few lines from the poem I wrote for him years ago but stops as he can’t seem to remember the rest of it. “like the red of the fire”, I help him out. He continues, “like the red of the fire that ignites in me at your sight, like the red of the rose whose thorns I’ll bear just to hold it a little longer.”  He looks at me with a reflection of fire in his eyes, literally and metaphorically. “Too late now, Neil” Arhaan laughs and points at the ring on my finger and grabs me in for a brief kiss. “Love is an unruly state, mate. There’s neither a right here nor any wrong.” Neil winks at Arhaan.  “Here, I made you your drink” It scares me to think sometimes how much Arhaan knows me. What I like, what I feel, what I think.

“GUYS, now is the time to heat up the fun, I just borrowed that baby from a local here. Let’s go to Shyok valley, it’s not very far from here. Right now, get up, you lazyheads!  “Rihan points to a parked car and pulls Heer from one hand and me from another. I don’t know where this is going because I have heard the roads to Shyok valley are one of the most treacherous in India. “Wait I want to grab some of my stuff from the hotel.” Arhaan heads inside and so does everyone because Ladakh is a place where you might need anything under circumstances of emergency. Seher has been carrying a first aid kit and extra masks everywhere with her ever since we landed here.

“Do you know Shyok is called the valley of death.” Arhaan teasingly whispers in Neil’s ear, as he seems lost in his own thoughts while the rest of us are busy looking for a place to set our bonfire and camp at.  I can barely enjoy anything anymore because my head seems to be spinning, however I never want to lose this moment. This laughter, this craziness, this madness, this togetherness. I don’t want to lose any of this.  “What a sexy place to die at, man” Neil laughs back at Arhaan’s comment. They used to be best friends in college, I am happy I didn’t cause any differences between them.  We finally find the perfect place with a stunning view and the hubbub continues. Rihan and Heer start dancing at the tunes of Neil’s guitar. I wish I could be a part of this happiness too. I am here, with them, but I am not. I am here in my body, but I am not. “Whoa it’s getting cold here, I’ll go and get my hoodie from the car.” Neil gets up and heads towards the car. “Don’t you all feel sometimes that we take life for granted, for a man know not his time, like a fish caught in a cruel net or birds trapped in a snare, so men are ensnared in an evil time that suddenly falls upon them.”  We are all laughing at Heer because she is totally drunk and has no idea herself of what she is speaking but I can’t stop thinking about the truth that her words hold.  “Argh, my hand. Zaina, can you get me the first aid box, please?” Arhaan accidentally broke his glass and now his hand is not only bleeding badly but few small glass pieces are stuck between his skin.  “It’s in the car Zaina pleaseeee get it, I am too cozy in my blanket.” Seher requests. I myself feel too weak and drowsy to get up but I can’t bear to see Arhaan in this state so I gather every ounce of my strength and head towards the car. Neil is standing there, looking at the view. I pretend to almost ignore him but he comes and slowly holds my hand, carefully entwining his fingers with mine. That touch, I remember that touch so clearly. “So, Zaina Malik, how have you been.” He is close, he is so close that I can feel the warmth of this breath on my skin in this freezingly cold weather. “Neil, please don’t do this.” I speak with half shut eyes; it is taking a lot to keep them open. “Oh, those half shut dreamy eyes, how can I ever learn to unlove them?” He hugs me tightly. “Neil, Arhaan is in pain, I have to go, please.” I push him away. “Arhaan.”  he scoffs. “Go wherever you want to, but of all the moments in my life I will be the most thankful for this brief union.” He moves away, not moving his gaze from my eyes. I take the first aid box from the car and turn around to go back to the camp. Until an icy horror grabs my heart. He is here again. The man in black is here again.  I scream with every power of anger inside me, “WHAT DO YOU WANT?” That scream consumed every bit of energy that was left in me, there was blackness all of a sudden, numbness, oblivion and echoes of Neil yelling, “ZAINA!”

-X-X-X-

“Zaina! Zaina, wake up! Are you alright?” It is all very blurry and my head feels heavy. Arhaan holds my hand and helps me get up. What I see next holds my heart at the sickle of its terror. My left hand is soaked in blood and there’s the same knife in my hand that I had been carrying in my bag for my protection against the man in black. Had I really killed him? Had he really come all the way to Ladakh chasing me? My mind feels too numb to feel anything, effortless tears roll down my cheeks. I throw the knife into the Shyok river, the river of death. I don’t even remember walking this far from the camp “Arhaan, Zaina where have you been, Seher and I are tired of listening to Rihan speak. Please shut him up. We have been loo…looking for you guys everywhere, come dance with me Zaina.” Heer says, laughing and swinging her head obliviously, she is drunk, we all are. “Oh God, Zaina did you hurt yourself too? Why is there so much blood around me today? Arhaan you haven’t even taken out the glass pieces from your hand and can’t you see how badly your hand is still bleeding? Move away losers, I’ll look for the first aid kit myself.” Seher, is barely able to walk and stumbles on her own foot and falls and starts laughing at herself. “Wait, as far as I remember there were six of us. Where’s Neil? Who takes one hour to grab a hoodie from the car?  Pretty sure he fell asleep there.” Rihan says, looking for Neil. It isn’t just Neil who has disappeared but the car too. “NEIL” We all look for him, everywhere. It is very irresponsible on his part to leave this way, without a text message even.

-x-x-x-

“I still can’t believe that he is not with us anymore. He left too soon. Neil Malhotra, 28, was found dead in a black hoodie this morning. The body was spotted by a local in the woods near Shyok valley in a crashed car. He was supposedly stabbed multiple times and then pushed along with the car deep into the woods. According to some sources and his social media he was in Ladakh with his friends for a college reunion. It would be interesting to see if his band “Mi$placed” will still continue after the death of its star singer and guitarist. Who killed him and why? Was it one of his friends or someone unpredictable? Whoever did it is a very clever killer for he made it sure that the body shouldn’t be found. However, sometimes when destiny comes to play, even intelligence is helpless. Keep watching for more updates.” Horror. Lie. This is a lie. It can’t be true. It shouldn’t be true. Black hoodie, knife, was it me who killed him? Did I mistake him for the man in black? God, please. No. Please. “Zaina, it is okay, it is okay you didn’t kill him. Your illness did. It’s not your fault.”  Arhaan hugs me tightly. I push him away with as much force I am capable of pushing him away with. “What illness? I don’t have any illness! WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”  Everyone too starts questioning Arhaan. “Zaina, please sit down. There’s no black man. I followed you multiple times to find out who it was but it turned out that there was no man in black, but your hallucination. There’s no phone call from your mother, she still doesn’t give a damn about you, I checked it multiple times, you talk to no one on the phone. See, this is a video of you alone in your room, you talk to your bed, you talk to your piano, you don’t just say things to them, you reply to them. You have names for all of them. It only worsened during the period of lockdown. Your fatigue, your Boss’ complaints about you zoning out and not being able to concentrate, your mood swings, your delusions all of it is true. I discussed your case along with your audio and video recordings with my senior psychiatrists as well and it turns out you are schizophrenic. I had planned on telling you and starting your treatment as soon as after this trip but I guess I am late, I am too late.”  None of my friends is saying anything, there are just tears and mad stares. They all leave the room without saying anything. We all head to Delhi with Neil, with his dead body.   

                                                                                         -x-x-x-

Neil’s body had been sent for autopsy and DNA test and it was found out in the report that the blood on Neil’s hoodie was not only Neil’s but belonged to two different individuals which changed the course of investigation. And so, we all have been asked to come for our DNA tests. Heer says I won’t be punished because I am mentally unsound, but I want to be punished, even if I am not a criminal in the eyes of the law, I will be nothing else in my eyes. A murderer. A life taker. Someone else’s potential killer.

The reports came after 3 days. The blood stains didn’t match my blood. They matched Arhaan’s. More lies. More horror.

“This going to be a long story, take your seats. Gosh now that you all know, can I tell you I haven’t felt this peaceful in years.” Arhaan’s smile is full of his pride and comfort.

“Arhaan, come home please. Your father is very critical. He just met with an accident. It is a hit and run case. He has lost a lot of blood please just come quickly.” It was 25th December 2012. I was with you all at the college Christmas party when I got a call from my mother. As you all might remember we couldn’t save dad. It was too late. He died. Everyone attended his funeral, said a word or two to comfort me, but Neil didn’t even show up for my dad’s funeral. He had stopped attending college and stopped replying to our texts. I don’t think he even knew that my dad had died. Two months later he showed up at my house. “Arhaan I need your help. I am ruined.” He told me how he had accidentally hit a car on 25th December. It was the same location and same time as that of my Dad’s accident. He didn’t know that but I did.  He told me how he was so scared to stop, to look back, to save that man’s life. The most convenient way for him was to run away. The most convenient way out for any coward is to run away. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t even tell him that the man he had killed was my father. It was no accident for me. It was a brutal murder, had he stopped there and helped him out, my father would have lived. He wanted to live. All I knew was my best friend had killed my father. Don’t call my act revenge, call it justice. From that day on, I had been waiting for that one opportunity to help my father get justice and I finally got that when Neil came back in our lives eight years later and I planned our sweet little college reunion. Zaina was the best scapegoat ever since I got to know that she was schizophrenic. I know how this society looks at people with mental illnesses so she was the most perfect killer in their eyes. I drugged her that day, at the camp due to which she was feeling drowsy and texted Neil from her phone to meet her near the car and broke a glass on my hand so that she would be compelled to go to the car for bringing the first aid box and be present at the crime scene. Thank God for her obsession with the man in black and the coincidence of Neil wearing a black hoodie which I had deliberately kept in the car. After five minutes I went after Zaina and waited until she lost her consciousness. I finally got my chance. I got my chance after eight long years. And that day, justice was served. My father’s killer was finally dead.” Arhaan is laughing, madly. I don’t want to stay here and watch the consequences after Arhaan’s confession. The man I loved betrayed me, my closest friend was dead. I had been living with an illness I did not know about. The trip that was supposed to be a sweet escape from reality turned out to be our worst nightmare, well not for Arhaan. Someone’s light is the other’s night. All I know is one wrong can never be corrected by the other.

My treatment will start from today. I see, I see a lot. I want to stop seeing it all now. I hope to get better, I know I will get better. I sit in the car and turn the radio on. “In memory of Neil, we present his favorite song by him,’ If I knew how to paint’. Hope you enjoy our show.”

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