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The Last Three Seconds

21

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The first time he thought of the idea was the last time he thought of it. He never had to think again. He never had to convince himself that it was the right thing to do. He never had to justify his decision. He knew it was what he needed to do. It was the necessary evil.
Ekanth had always known what he wanted to do in his life.
‘But storytelling can wait,’ his father had said.
‘Why?’ Ekanth had asked.
‘Because,’ his father said, ‘it doesn’t make you any money. You need security in life. Writing doesn’t give you that.’
‘But I don’t care. All I want to do is tell stories. I’m good at it and you know it.’
‘Of course I know. I’m not asking you to stop writing. All I’m asking you is to keep it aside for a while. And you may not care about security, about your wellbeing. I do. Tomorrow, your wife and kids will want that, too.’
‘So what should I do?’ Ekanth said. ‘I’m not interested in anything else. Literature is all I care about. Let me pursue that. There is stability in that, too. I can become an academic.’
Ekanth’s father shook his head. ‘You don’t get my point, my boy,’ he said. ‘You are good at mathematics. Why don’t you go for commerce? You can keep writing stories in your free time.’
For want of something to say, Ekanth breathed heavily and turned his face away. When he had to make the final decision, he chose Electrical Engineering. His father heaved a sigh of relief.
R.V. College of Engineering, Bangalore, was big and elegant. And the first day of college – in most students’ opinion – was colourful. Ekanth stepped inside the campus without a smile on his face. He was eighteen and he was silent. Eighteen, silent and without a smile.
That night he made an entry in his diary – the only entry he ever made: Deciding to become a writer is like jumping off a cliff deliberately, all the while believing you’ll somehow grow wings before hitting the bottom and fly up to heaven. I don’t like engineering and I don’t care. It’s only for “security” – whatever that means.
Ekanth spent most of his first year in the college library. When the exam results came, his father was happy, his relatives showered praises upon him. Ekanth’s only reaction to all this attention was a shrug.
He smiled, probably for the first time, when he met Anukruti. A year junior to him, he met her during a college fest. She sat next to him in a creative writing competition.
‘That was interesting,’ she said to no one in particular when she was done with the submission.
Ekanth looked at the girl in green salwar. ‘Sorry?’ Ekanth said.
‘Oh no. I wasn’t talking to you,’ she said, brushing her curls to the back of her ears.
‘Okay.’
‘“Infinity” is quite an interesting topic, isn’t it? Quite challenging, too’ she said.
‘Yes,’ Ekanth said, ‘Big canvas, that. How did you do?’
‘Okay, I guess.’
‘Want to have some coffee?’
‘Sure. But not in our college canteen. It’s not made for humans.’
Ekanth smiled. ‘I know just the place.’
Friendship that began over a cup of coffee took a new meaning when they tied the knot seven years later.
Four years went by in library, in classrooms, in movie theatres and in coffee shops. Ekanth started a new life as a junior systems programmer. The pay was good, the opportunity to grow was always there and moreover, the security that his father had once mentioned was there – it was visible from a distance, at least.
Ekanth got promoted to senior developer three years later. His boss was happy with his performance, his father and Anukruti were proud. And yet again, Ekanth’s only reaction was a shrug, nothing else.
He had diligently kept up with reading and writing all through his college life. He had happily created and destroyed worlds that never existed. But then his new job and new responsibilities yanked him out of his fugue. Solid work schedule made sure there were only two days in a week, not seven. Life became rote. Writing took a beating and moved to a corner, accepting defeat. ‘It’s not the end. It’s just that I’m hiding my dream away for now,’ Ekanth convinced himself. Or tried to convince himself, to be specific.
The higher Ekanth climbed up the corporate ladder and became more successful, the happier his family got. By the time he thought about the dream he had hidden away in the deepest corner of his heart, little Jhanvi was three years old. And at thirty-three, Ekanth was a successful team lead in his company.
One day when he was thinking of a book he never wrote, he held up his hands and noticed his fingers and cringed. A thin layer of dust had formed on his fingers. Did I dust my computer today? He wondered. He went to the sink and washed his hands thoroughly. The dust remained still.
‘You are doing fine, my dear,’ Anukruti said every time she heard his silence.
He had heard the stories of many successful writers: keep your day job, work on your book at night. It was what Ekanth had planned to do. But ten years had passed by without a written word. Office and Jhanvi demanded more attention than his pen and paper did. Jhanvi grew up faster than he imagined. Birthday celebrations looked like they happened every week.
‘How do I look?’ Anukruti asked Ekanth when they were getting ready to go to a party.
Ekanth cupped her face in his hands, kissed her forehead and said, ‘Beautiful as always.’
Anukruti smiled and turned to face the mirror, adjusting the pleats of her sari. ‘We have grown old, aren’t we?’
Ekanth didn’t say anything. Anukruti answered her own question. ‘Of course we are. After all forty is not twenty. Wonder how I put up with you all these years.’
For the first time Ekanth contemplated on quitting his job. I’ve made enough money that should keep us comfortable for a couple of years. Time to write. He requested a meeting with his boss. And before he opened his mouth, his boss said, ‘Congratulations, Ekanth. Or should I say, “Vice President”?’
Ekanth went back to his cabin silently, switched on his computer and glanced through his agenda.
The more Ekanth spent his time in front of the computer the more silent he grew. He stopped thinking of writing. He had fallen prey to the grand delusion of inspiration.
It was Ekanth’s 44th birthday. One of his relatives greeted him with the news of his father’s passing. He spent the next three weeks inside his study, coming out only when necessary. ‘You are behaving like a teenage kid,’ Anukruti said. ‘Come out of it, already.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Ekanth said.
Anukruti went and sat next to him and ruffled his hair. ‘He was proud of you, you know.’
‘I know.
‘Were you angry with him?’
Ekanth thought about his father’s advice on life security. He smiled as a tear rolled down his cheek. ‘It was my responsibility to strike a balance, but I failed. And no. I was never angry with him. I loved him very much.’
Anukruti wiped his tear, kissed him on the cheek and said again, ‘You are doing fine, love.’
Ekanth’s routine never changed and he didn’t bother anymore. But with each passing day he went deeper and deeper into his shell. On the morning of his 45th birthday, while showering, a line from Atlas Shrugged came swooping into his head: “The most depraved type of human being is the man without a purpose.” Do I have a purpose? He asked himself. And it was when he answered it in the privacy of his mind did he get the thought for the first time.
He got dressed, breakfasted, kissed his wife and daughter goodbye and stepped out of home, vowing not to return.
And now, Ekanth stood at the top of Nandi Hills. The evening was young, he was younger still. But it didn’t matter. The surrounding was as silent as a dead man’s thoughts. The sun had gone down, leaving behind smudges of orange across the sky. He climbed the low wall of Tippu’s Drop, looked down, closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
*********
Ekanth climbed down the hill, cursing himself. It was a bad decision. Forty-five is not the end, for heavens’ sake. It could be a beginning. A nice beginning. Many bestselling novelists started in their forties. Irving Wallace, for example. Damn it. I should have at least thought about Anu and Jhanvi.
It was nine o’clock when he reached home. ‘Where were you? Why didn’t you pick up my calls?’ Anukruti asked.
‘Dad! You promised we’d go out for dinner,’ Jhanvi said.
‘I’m so sorry, darling. I left early, but then I got a call. One of my friends had had an accident. I went to see him.’
‘Oh,’ Anukruti said. ‘Anyway, dinner?’
‘Yes, please. I’m famished,’ Ekanth said. He turned towards Jhanvi. ‘We’ll go out tomorrow, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Jhanvi said and hugged him. ‘Happy birthday once again, dad.’
For the first time in several years Ekanth slept peacefully. The following day he informed his boss that he was leaving. ‘But why?’ his boss asked. Ekanth just smiled. Thus began his new routine.
Every morning he helped Anukruti in her chores. And when she left for work, he settled down in his study and read novels. “Studied novels” would be the correct phrase. Starting with three novels a month, he came to a point where he got by with at least seven novels a month. If you are not a good reader, you can never be a good writer. Simple as that.
He wrote very little in the first six months. Then he designed his writing schedule: 1,500 words a day. He worked only on short stories in the beginning, experimenting with different genres and narrative patterns. Although he was a natural, he had to get rid of the fear. He had to find his style, his voice. For that he practiced hard.
A year later, on February 9th, Ekanth called Anukruti into his study and asked her to type the first sentence of his novel. Anukruti typed as he dictated: “The day was hot and bright, and the men inside the car silent.”
 Anukruti looked up when she was done. ‘Happy Anniversary,’ Ekanth said.
‘Happy Anniversary to you too, darling. And good luck!’ Anukruti said and gave a peck.
Ekanth took six months to finish his first draft, a further two months for the second and a month to polish. Finding a publisher was not difficult. Having worked in a prestigious IT firm as a Vice President had its advantages. His debut novel (Chase, a story about two high-class thieves) hit the bookstores eight months later. It didn’t even sell a thousand copies. A dud.
By the time Ekanth realized that the novel was not doing well, he was already halfway through his second one: Shadows. A complex psychological thriller about three young women.
The novel didn’t move well during the first few months. It, however, increased its pace with each passing day. Ten months later, Ekanth was a well-known name among readers. Book signing events and interviews followed smoothly. ‘I never wanted to be an engineer in the first place,’ he said in an interview, ‘I’ve always wanted to be an imagineer and that’s what I am now.’
It didn’t take Ekanth long to sneak back into his study. Away from all the attention, he settled down to write his third book. He wrote on and never took a break. With more stories came more popularity and more money.
Six novels and two short story collections in ten years. Although he continued to experiment with narrative patterns, he kept his plots simple, his prose clean. Shadows was even translated into Hindi. Readers loved him, critics admired him, Jhanvi (now married to a doctor) and Anukruti were proud of him. He enjoyed his success and the attention he received, but he kept his feet firmly on the ground and his fingers on the keyboard. His biggest reward was his stories, not the glitz and the glory.
On his grandson’s second birthday, Ekanth planned a short trip with his family to Nandi Hills. Ekanth himself drove them to the top of the hill. The weather was cool and the surrounding calm. The place brought back a memory he wasn’t proud of. Twelve years had passed by in a jiffy. He smiled at the thought. ‘What is it, dad?’ Jhanvi asked.
He put his arms around her and said, not taking his eyes off the world below him, ‘This place taught me something valuable once.’
‘And what is it?’
‘That one should appreciate life,’ Ekanth said.
‘Careful, dad, careful. Careful with the obvious. That’s bad writing,’ Jhanvi said.
They looked at each other for a second and then broke into a prodigious peal of laughter. ‘You are good,’ Ekanth said. ‘You should give writing a shot.’
‘I will certainly do it one day. Maybe when Aadi grows up, when I have all the time in the world,’ Jhanvi said.
Ekanth looked away, his facial muscles tight. He breathed heavily once and turned to his daughter. ‘If you really want to do something, now is the time.’
‘Relax, dad. You look like you just drank a glass of groundnut oil.’
‘You don’t understand, Jhanvi,’ Ekanth said. ‘I almost gave up once. Not just writing. Everything changed here, in this place.’
‘What are you talking about? With whom had you come here, anyway?’
‘I was alone.’
‘Huh? What were you doing here all by yourself?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Just remember. Don’t give up on your dreams. Now is all you have.’
Jhanvi stared at her father for a while. ‘It was on your 45th birthday, wasn’t it? The day your “friend” had had an accident?’
Ekanth kept mum. He dropped his eyes.
Tears welled up in Jhanvi’s eyes. ‘I knew something was wrong that day. I was really scared. How could you even think of it, dad?’
‘It’s been twelve years already, Jhanvi. But everything turned out be good, right?’
‘Does mom know about this?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘And she doesn’t have to.’
Jhanvi stood silently, looking away from him.
‘Hey, come here,’ Ekanth said, taking Jhanvi in his arms. ‘It’s all right. It was just a weak moment. Look at me now. I have realized my dream, haven’t I? It’s all about striking a balance, you know. Just promise me you won’t give up.’
Jhanvi snuggled in his arms. ‘I promise.’
‘That’s my girl.’
Jhanvi wiped her tears and said, ‘Come, let’s go to them. Your son-in-law is acting like a monkey with that new camera.’
Ekanth looked at his achievement – his family. Anukruti was cuddling her 2-year-old grandson as Satya took pictures of them.
‘Yes. In a minute,’ Ekanth said.
Jhanvi knew he needed some time to gather himself. She nodded, smiled and left. Ekanth stood staring at the city below him. He was at the peak of his literary career. He crossed his arms, closed his eyes and shook his head, remembering the day he almost …
‘Hey, what are you doing there?’ someone shouted.
*********
Ekanth opened his eyes slowly. All this had happened in three seconds. In his head. Twelve years of success and happiness and popularity – all in three seconds. He looked towards his left and found his family gone. His wife and his daughter were still waiting for him to come home. He had promised he would take them out for dinner. It was his 45th birthday. He was younger than his future self. He still had some hair left on his head. He still had enough time to fulfill his dream. Or so he thought.
Contrary to the popular belief that your whole life flashes before you in your last moments, Ekanth had seen and lived his future.
‘Hey!’ someone shouted again.
Ekanth turned round. A police constable was running towards him. Ekanth smiled and waved at the constable as if to say that everything was all right. Everything will be all right.
It was six-thirty in the evening. Darkness had already come to dissolve the colours of his life. Only he didn’t know it yet. No sooner had he thought of getting off the low wall than a gust of cold breeze hit him furiously. He slipped, his legs in a tangle, and went down, bouncing off the boulders.
Deciding to become a writer is like jumping off a cliff deliberately, all the while believing you’ll somehow grow wings before hitting the bottom and fly up to heaven.
‘You are doing fine, love,’ Anukruti would never say again.
Ekanth had lived his life to the fullest. In three seconds. But no one would know.

********************The End********************
Copyright © Karthik 2013

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