We were put up at the American College, which back then was considered a cradle of innovative education among academecians of merit. There were abut a score of us and we had gathereded for evaluation of the semester papers. To be specific we were on the proverbial busman`s holiday.

During the lunch break as you may suppose, many buried stories surfaced. Every person worth his salt came up with a story and at last it was Dr Gunamalai`s turn. “This is an incident of which, he said, ‘I would not be a part again even if I am proffered a place in heaven by lord himself.”

Everyone sat up at that for dr Gunamalai was known to be a pious man, willing to do anything to please the unseen but much heard of. The doctor, knowing that he had touched the right chord, lossened up a bit and lit a Marlboro – his favourite. Here is the tale, which I suggest you digest with a pinch of salt for it is pretty much as the Doctor said.

It was around twenty eight years ago. I had just finished my post-graduation and had got appointed as a temporary teacher for the higher secondary at a reputed school. Now-a-days you very often see students behave the way they should just because their parents and their schools wants them to. But in our days, it wasn`t so. Once inside a class you could see only dedicated students who cared about their behaviour.

To tell you the truth, I myself learnt a lot from them. They took advice from anyone who knew better and practiced to make themselves perfect in anything worth mentioning. You may chuckle, but its true. It is your bad fortune that you have not come across such students.

I would have had no tale to tell if it were not for Shalini Kadam. Shalini was a very pretty girl of sixteen with very bold eyes, apple-red cheeks and an air of authority in whatever she said or did. Though she had spent most of her days in the school hostel, under the vigilance of the sisters, Shalini had the mannerisms of a family-bred child. She was a student of grade 10, incidently the class I was chosen to look after.
Within a few days I came to know what this girl Shalini was actually made of….sheer stone I should say, if I have to be honest enough to go by what I saw.

One day I had gone for a stroll early in the morning and the high ascent on the way back was forcing me to breathe heavily with a shrill grunt. All of a sudden I saw a frail figure in track suit jogging towards me. The heavily built mist was adding a sinister touch to the fast approaching figure. As we neared, I relaxed a bit for it was Shalini and I thight she must have noticed me exactly at the same moment for I had caught a sudden jerk in her smooth striding motion which has given her that extra second to recognise me …all bundled up in wollens. Apolite good morning was all she said after slowing down a bit and then went on her way.

You may take this to be quite common, but young men, when I walked downhill towards thje school two hours later she was still running. Later, on enquiry, one of the sisters told me that Shalini was a middle distance runner wnder whose glory the school had been basking for the last three years.

I myself being an athele, took a liking for her and thus came to understand her better. The magic of her presence was such that I unknowingly but openly started giving special attention towards towards her, which was quite uncommon in those days. It is only today that. That you see biased teachers, but then, ours was supposed to be the noblest  profession. Everything went on well for a few months during which she was crowned the best middle distance runner of the district and I was promoted as a permanent teacher. I told you…didn`t I, that mine was a temporary appointment earlier.

One evening when I was about to take a sip from my coffee cup, a student of mine rushed in with a  facial expression that suggested that he was trying to escape Godzilla`s grip. He had coem to convey a message. Initially, he fumbled for the right words but by the time he made any sense..I had got the shock of my life. Shalini had been hit by a speeding lorry while on her way to the stadium and had been admited to the Intensive care Unit of a nearby hospital.

I remember, I had left my apartment door ajar and had rushed towards the hospital. A small crowd had already gathered which eased me a bit. We human beings find solace in a crowd and maybe that is why we have learnt to live together. Stony expressions greeted me even as the assembled students surrounded me. I felt their warmth and it was reassuring. After a few hours of deliberations among ourselves and the advice of the doctor, we all returned.

My life had changed. It had never been so deppressing. I took a few days leave and started spending my time at the hospital. If I am not wrong, I think it was one week. On the third day, Shalini regained consciousness and on the fourth she was able to talk. The first thing she asked was wheather we  had informed her mother or not. I told her that the school authorities had informed her mother and that she was expected soon. I knew nothing about the steps the school authorities had taken but to reassure her I had taken the positive stance.

After a few minutes, I could see that she was straining herself to bring outthose feeble words. It did not appeal to me that such a beautiful girl should undergo this agony just to oblige my presence. I remember, I had then advised her and after promising to be back in the evening, bade her farewell.

As promised I met her in the evening. You would not believe me but I am bound by the responsibilities of a true narrator to inform you of each and every trait of my protagonist. As soon as she saw me, she adjusted her pillow and sat upright. The saem girl who had earlier struggled to bring out wordswas shifting position as a mark of respect. You may find it difficult or rather impossible, but its true.

I pulled a three-legged stool towards her and sat down comfortably. The blood stained bandages made me stir uneasily and to hide my nervousness I asked her wheather anybody else had dropped in. Her eyes were crying for help as they drowned in a sea of tears as she looked up to answer. After a long pause she broke the silence. Soon after I had left, the principal of our school had visited her. Later he had met the doctor and both of them had had a long discussion in the corridor. I know that this part seems like fiction but its true that she overheard them and came to know of her medical status. The doctor, a highly acclaimed and respected person in his circle had said that she would not see the next Sunday.

Initially, I thought she was making a fool of me…actually this girl was capable of doing it..but my brain did not betray my heart. Now the dark circles under her eyes, the blood stained bandages and the subtle expression on her face meant something to me. I remember caressing her hair, not out of sympathy but out of love. She was too young to bear the pain God was inflicting on her, but then love in tjose days was always better than sympathy.

I knew somethinmg had happned to me. Something different – for I was ready to do anything for this girl. I would not like to give ostentsible reasons for thsia ffection of mine. Being a chaste man I would accept that I wa in love with her..in fact it is easier to accept after 18 years of silence. By this time she had dozed off and I remmember being startled by the doctors arrival.

How can I forget the cripsness of the 100 rs note that I gave the doctor to ensure good nursing for my shalini. This was sort o a bribe, for in those days a hundred was no less than a jackpot. I am not sure..but I think I went back to the school; though I could not do justice to my profession. By five in the evening, I would be at the hospital caressing through her hair or talking to the doctor about her recovery. But as fate would have it, one day when I was teaching the Theory of relativity to grade 12 students, the attender barged in, apologetically.

He was not sure about the reason but said that I was wanted at the hospital immediately. I excused myself from the class; not forgetting the basic ettiquette even at that juncture. Defying the fact that I was a novice as far as driving was concerned…even today I have  an irrefutable reputation…I reached the hospital in ten minutes time. I had literally spirinted into the hospital. But then, I had my motivation.

Gentlemen, I do not know how many of you have fallen in love but if you have, you will understand what I mean. It looked as if she was waiting for me. With watery eyes she motioned me to sit beside her. I pulled up a stool and sat down in the pious belief that this was just another passing phase that would soon be over. In a few minutes, I was proved wrong.

She had closed her eyes forever after giving me a small piece of paper. To cut the long story short – I did not know how to react. I just did not know! I was holding my ground untill I felt a few eyes fixed at me. My eyes betrayed me and there I was siting, crying like a baby. That day, I came to know that I was good in controlling myself but as would be expected of a sentimental guy like me, I fared badly when it came to with-holding ones tears. They just rolled down my cheeks and I was a mere spectator.

A few of them even came to me and said that they understood my plight – they having lost their loved ones at one point of their life or the other. Rankly, it took me more than a week to get over the shock and after a fortnight or so I realised that I was in a dilapidated state. I had not shaved at all and if you guys can excuse me, I hadn`t even taken a shower – such was my love towards her.

Now, you all would like to know about the secret behind the crumbled piece of paper my Shalu…that`s how I called her..had given me as a parting gift. Well, her mother who was staying in Nilgiris happened to be a Leukemia patient waiting for her imminent death and my Shalu did not want her mother to know about her fate. Shalini had written that her mother was not aware of the fact that she ie, Shalini knew of her mother`s disease. She wanted me to continue writing to her mother as shalini herself would have done, had she been alive. Her reasoning was that her mother would not be around for long and thus she needed to be happy during the last few days  of her life.
I could not but help praise this girl who at this young age of 16 was called back by God. If  am not wrong, it was the third week after my love`s death when I met the school principal. He being as pious a man as I am, he obliged my request for Shalini`s English answer sheet.
I practiced her writing style over a period of three or four days during which I also got a letter from her mother. This was the motivation I was looking for and the very same day I reciprocated. In the letter I struck on to the basics and when she replied, I would take cues from her letter and write back promptly.
This went on for about a year during which I was promoted on the basis of my popularity amongst the students. The frequency of exchanges had increased. So much so, I was writing every week. In fact, I was getting a bit apprehensive too, for Shalini, If she had been alive, would have finished her grade 12 in two more months. In my heart of hearts  had a feeling that after all this trouble on my part, I will have to stand before her mother and tell her that I was an imposter. How could I have told her that I was ona  mission?

Being the right hand man of the Principal had its own problems. One day I was summoned and asked to represent my school at a meeting of reputed educational institutions in the state. In those days, we had such meetings and we learnt from each other. Its only now that the premier educational institutions don`t see eye to eye. Guess what? The meeting was in Nilgiris!

I planend to meet Shalini`s mother under one pretext or the other, once the meeting was over, and with this mind I set out on my journey. The first day of the meet did not have much to offer and in the evning, still undecided on how and when to meet Shalini`s mom, I went to a garden top restaurant to have tea. Nilgirs boasts of some very good roof-top restaurants in the country.

It was the tourist season and almost all the table except for one two-seater were occupied. I took one of the chairs and was pondering over themenu already placed on the table when a beautiful lady strolled in and occupied the chair opposite me. I gave a cursory glance and found her to be beautiful enough to bring about another Clinton impeachment.

Shortly, the waiter came and to my surprised announced that they had special offers for couples. He then turned towards the lady and asked her if she would like to go thro the offers. She burst out laughing and mind you she was in tears when – a solid ten minutes later – her adrenaline had drained out.

Courtey the waiter we both struck a conversation which saw two cheese sandwiches washed down our throats with cups of tea. She was pening up with each passing minute; guess that is what all of us do, when our cup of woes is filled to the brim.

So much for our common interests, that we decided to take a stroll when on the street she said that she had a problem which had been bugging her for quite some time. I asked her if I could be of any help. Initially she refused but on my insistence she was moved a bit and blamed it all on her profession. She was a nurse at the ramakrishna Misson hospital in Nilgiris. I don`t know if that hospital exists now, but then it was very famous in this part of the country. She continued her saga – about an year ago she had nursed an old lady, a leukemia patient and just before her death the lady her handed her a small piece of paper.

My world froze and I did not hear what she said thereafter. Today the nurse is Mrs Gunamalai and I have never told her about Shalini.

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