Second Chances: Best Non-Fiction?

Something interesting just happened. A story that I had written more than four years ago just won the APAC Regional Literary Award for best non-fiction. I don’t get any money, its just a recognition. And I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was completely fictitious. Anyway, here’s the story.

PS: Special thanks to Shruti Srivatsan for the nefarious idea and the inspiration.

SECOND CHANCES

“Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing.”

 – Elie Wiesel
American Author
Nobel Peace Prize 1986

second chances One of the greatest attributes of life is its ability to deny us what we really want and give us what we really need. My life has been a constant game of badly-played chess, with every move as unplanned and sometimes, as stupid as it can get. Talking about friends and how they helped me reconstruct a broken foundation takes me back three years – a time when I almost convinced myself that I was a burden to everyone around me and decided that there isn’t anything else that I can offer to the world.

My time here was up, and I had to make a quick exit – to end my life and escape to that blissful afterworld where there’re no more complaints, no more angry glances, no more walking into a room filled with people who stop in mid-sentence and look at me as though I’m an unwanted piece of garbage, no more hints and subtle suggestions about me being a loser – and I chose the tried and tested path of a blade to the wrist in a bathroom alone at night.

It was in my second year of undergrad course that I found out I was really a loser. The faculty treated me with disdain as if they were teaching me only because they were forced to, and my classmates never even acknowledged my presence, let alone talk to me. What was the point to all this, I thought. Why am I here? I don’t belong here because I am not wanted.

The situation at home wasn’t any different as my parents never really had the time to sit with me and talk about anything. There was a big pile of unopened progress reports on the refrigerator, and every day I looked at them in the hope that at least one of them would be opened. My grades were good but not great, and I just wanted my parents to know about the time I got a 25 on 25 in math or the time when I cleared the physics paper. I wasn’t asking for a pat on the back and I wasn’t asking for a present in return. All I wanted was for them to smile at me occasionally, or at least look at me. I returned every day to an empty house and an emptier home. My time was up.

There was only one person in whom I could confide everything and he was the only one whom I could call a friend, in the truest sense of the word. Aziz was a fellow undergrad in my school and we’d met each other during the first semester in the English class. He was also an introvert and this is what drew me to him. I looked at him and realized that we had a lot of things in common. He never spoke in class and was always very calm and quiet and kept mostly to himself. The friendship began with a mutual smile and a lunch.

We talked about school work and girls and chess (we both had the dream of playing for the school chess team) and how we never could muster the courage to enroll. We became good friends and met up as often as we could and as frequently as our very different class schedules allowed us. I could call him a friend.

There’re times in life when we expect something, and something totally different happens. A better way to put it would be, “Things never happen as planned.”

After a month of fighting with myself, I finally decided to confide in Aziz. I picked up the phone and called him. It was perhaps the most important phone call I’d ever make. Holding the blade tightly in my hand, I was crouching in the corner of my room, and watching the thin rivulets of blood dripping through my fingers from the force with which I clutched the blade, when the call went through and he answered.

Today, as I sit here in Buffalo, NY and write about this, I feel tears weighing my eyes down. The journey from being a hopeless loser to crossing the Atlantic and arriving in USA for a Masters has been entirely due to that phone call. Aziz spoke to me over the phone for three hours even though it was almost two in the morning, and spoke to me about things so important that I’d never really considered. Being twenty-one years of age and ending my life would never allow me to discover myself. There’s a solution for every crisis, and it’s not suicide. Life has so many things to show us and teach us and it will, only if we give it a chance to do so.

Ending one’s life is so easy, but re-building it isn’t.

Aziz died on June 27th, 2006 in Bangalore, India, after being diagnosed with a malignant type of blood cancer. I held his hand in the hospital on the 26th and told him that I’d got an admission into SUNY Buffalo to do my Masters’. He smiled through his pain and squeezed my hand tightly. He had lost his speech a week ago, but I knew what he wanted to say. “You’ve given life a chance to show you the world; don’t take that chance away.”

It’s been almost a month since I’ve come to the USA and every minute I spend here, I owe it to him. In a strangely ironic twist of fate, I landed myself an on-campus job at the Roswell Park Cancer Center. There’re people like Aziz in all of us and there’re people like the old me in all of us as well. It’s important that we make the right choice.

I did, and I’m thankful for it. It’s worth these tears. He’s worth it.

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Calvin And Hobbes: The Last One

He opened his eyes to darkness. He felt around with his hands and found the wall to his right, along which his bed lay. He groped around until he found a switch and flipped it on. Harsh white fluorescent light filled the room and hurt his eyes. Reflexively, he closed them and groaned. His head hurt – no, pounded from within, and it felt like a million sledgehammers threatening to break open his skull. He turned on to his side and winced as sharp points of pain pricked his joints and when he couldn’t take it anymore, he sat up. Still dressed in his clothes from the night before, he looked down at his hands and feet, wondering how he ever got home. The last thing he remembered was his tenth beer. There had been a lot of shouting, a lot of music, loud music, and a lot of dancing. He vaguely remembered throwing up somewhere, and sure enough, he saw the dirty yellow stains on his white shirt and blue jeans.”Shit,” he muttered, and swung his legs off the bed.

Standing in the middle of the room, he stretched himself and took a step towards the bathroom when he stepped on something soft and furry. He looked down at the old stuffed tiger he used to play with as a kid, and kicked it under the bed in anger. He had suffered enough because of it, and he had no intention of ruining his life further.

“Twenty years,” he said to the bit of furry tail still visible from under the bed. “Twenty years of my life ruined because I thought you were real. They stuck me in a nut house and asked me to swallow pills every two hours. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Then, calming himself, he took a few deep breaths and said, almost chanted, “You’re not real. You’re not real.”

He walked into the bathroom, showered, shaved and came out feeling refreshed. As he stood looking at his thirty-year old beaten, worn-out, pot-bellied frame, he thought back to the day in his youth when he had burned his parents alive. The tiger had asked him to do it. The tiger had said it would be a good idea. He had listened to the tiger and killed his parents. Pain wracked through his mind and he shut his eyes tight as tears rolled down his wet cheeks. “I’m sorry,” he said to no one in particular.He was different then, before the medication, before the doctors, before the black-outs…

When he turned away from the mirror, he was about to reach down to grab a shirt from the floor, when he stopped dead in his tracks. The stuffed tiger that he had kicked under the bed was now back where it had been. The single remaining beady eye and the empty socket where the other bead had been looked up at him in a cold stare, unflinching, as if daring him to talk. As if daring him to scream, to shout, to say something. He stared at the tiger, frozen in mid-step and too scared to do anything. He swallowed a large gulp of fear and said, “You’re not real. You’re not real. You’re not real.”

He turned away closing his eyes and shut both his ears with his hands, still chanting his mantra. When he stopped to catch a breath, he heard someone call his name from behind him.

“Calvin,” the voice said. “Why won’t you talk to me anymore?”

“No!” he screamed. “Don’t talk to me! You’re not real!” He still was turned away, now crouching near the wall, his head resting against the corner. “Shut up!”

“You think I don’t miss you, Calvin?” the voice asked.

“You’re not real. You’re not real…” he continued in monotone, rocking back and forth, drowning out the tiger’s voice.

“Of course I’m real. I’m right here. Turn around, Calvin.”

And he didn’t know why he did it, but he did. He turned, opened his eyes and saw the tiger standing there in the middle of the room. The tiger was smiling at him, standing on its hind legs, holding out its hands as if waiting for an embrace. Calvin took a tentative step towards the tiger, still confused and the madness showing on his face with no inhibition. “NO…!!” he screamed. “You are NOT real!” and he ran towards the bed-side drawer, pulled out a gun from inside and put it in his mouth.

He looked at the tiger’s eye and saw the tears rolling down to its cheek and forming tiny puddles on the floor. He was crying himself. He couldn’t stop the tears.

“Don’t do it, Calvin,” said the tiger, stifling a sob.

“I’m sorry, Hobbes,” he said and pulled the trigger. As the last shard of life left his body, he thought he saw a stuffed tiger lying at his feet. He tried to smile and tried to tell himself that the tiger was not real. He tried, in vain.

Second Chances

“Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession, friendship is never anything but sharing.”

– Elie Wiesel,
American Author,
Nobel Peace Prize 1986

One of the greatest attributes of life is its ability to deny us what we really want and give us what we really need. His life has been a constant game of badly-played chess, with every move as unplanned and sometimes, as stupid as it can get. Talking about friends and how they helped him reconstruct a broken foundation takes him back three years – a time when he almost convinced himself that he was a burden to everyone around him and decided that there wasn’t anything else that he could offer to the world. His time here was up, and he had to make a quick exit – to end his life and escape to that blissful afterworld where there’re no more complaints, no more angry glances, no more walking into a room filled with people who stop in mid-sentence and look at him as though he’s an unwanted piece of garbage, no more hints and subtle suggestions about him being a loser – and he chose the tried and tested path of a blade to the wrist in a bathroom alone at night.

It was in his second year of undergrad that he found out he was really a loser. The faculty treated him with disdain as if they were teaching him only because they were forced to, and his classmates never even acknowledged his presence, let alone talk to him. What was the point to all this, he thought. Why am I here? I don’t belong here because I am not wanted.

The situation at home wasn’t any different as his parents never really had the time to sit with him and talk about anything. There was a big pile of unopened progress reports on the refrigerator, and every day he looked at them in the hope that at least one of them would be opened. His grades were good but not great, and he just wanted his parents to know about the time he got a 25 on 25 in math or the time when he cleared the physics term paper. He wasn’t asking for a pat on the back and he wasn’t asking for a present in return. All he wanted was for them to smile at him occasionally, or at least look at him. He returned every day to an empty house and an emptier home. His time was up.

The person who helped him get through his hurdles – Aziz – died on May 4th, 2006 in Bangalore, India, after being diagnosed with a malignant type of blood cancer. He held his hand in the hospital on the third and told him that he’s going to live in San Jose, California, and that he owed his life to Aziz, because if it weren’t for him, there would have been no second chances.

This post is in memory of Aziz Muhammed, who celebrates his 2-year death anniversary today – a fact I was reminded of by an email from San Jose this morning, an email that gave me the permission to write these words and make his story known to the world. I had had only one cup of tea with Aziz, three years ago, and at that time, Chuckie, who was with me, said, “Life has so many things to show us and teach us and it will, only if we give it a chance to do so.”  Aziz smiled and made me smell the hot steam rising from the cup of tea. I dismissed him as a junkie at that time.

Now, I always smell my tea before drinking it.