Gauri had joined the college late in the first semester.
She was strange - at least that's what her roommates in the hostel gathered. Otherwise, why would a girl wake up in the middle of the night and scream her brains out? And why would she wash herself five or six times in a day?
No one had seen her going out anywhere on weekends or holidays. She went to the canteen for meals and to the class room for lectures. Those were her only outings. Despite all this, everyone around her was conscious of her razor sharp intelligence. It was a treat listening to her in the class during a discussion. Though she would never volunteer herself, the lecturers, knowing her calibre, always coaxed her to participate.
And she was pretty.
In fact, Rahul thought she was gorgeous. He studied in the same class. For him, it was love at first sight. Whenever he saw her, his heart skipped a beat, he forgot where he was or what he was doing. He would sit alone, smile, gape into infinity and to the great amusement of his friends, mix egg curry with ice cream in the canteen.
Literally, she possessed him.
On a number of occasions, he tried to talk to her but her reclusive nature never drew him a response. But on that pleasant afternoon, he had decided to encounter her, come what may.
He found her sitting on a corner bench in the palm grove behind the library, a comparatively isolated part of the campus.
Streaks of pale yellow sunlight tried to break through the strands of hair that covered her face. She was deeply absorbed in her books. He took a deep breath and approached her quietly.
She gave a start.
'I hope I am not disturbing you.'
She picked up her books.
'Please, don't go away like this.'
He blocked her way.
'What do you want?'
She was stern.
'I just want to talk to you.'
'Why, why do you want to talk to me?'
'I want to tell you something.'
'Then, tell it fast.'
He took a step forward and dived straight in to her large hazel brown eyes. It was for the first time that he was so close to her. Surprisingly, he realized that the only thing her whole being communicated was pain. But he could not allow this moment to dribble away.
'Gauri, I love you.'
She stepped back.
'How dare you speak to me like that?'
She almost shouted. Rahul was astounded.
'I know guys like you very well. For you, a woman is just an object of desire; nothing else.'
'Gauri, what are you saying? You don't know how much I...'
'I know everything.'
She cut him short.
'You are all perverts. Love, trust, being human - all these are alien to you. Come, you want to touch me.'
She took hold of his hands.
'Come on, don't be shy. I can see it in your eyes. You dirty...'
He could take it no longer.
He yelled, at the same time, breaking free of her hold with a sharp jerk. Gauri fell on the ground with a loud thud, her books flying in the air. Rahul held his head between his hands, trying to cool down. Gauri breathed heavily. She gathered her books and turned to depart.
'Wait. You can't push off like this. You have to tell me what's bothering you. Why can't you trust anybody?'
'It won't help.'
'Still I want to know.'
She ambled up to the bench and sat down. A moderate wind played with her hair.
'Please pardon me. I was out of my mind.'
She kept her eyes riveted on the ground.
'I belong to Lucknow. After my schooling, I had taken admission in a local college in first year. Everything was going well till one day friends decided to go for a picnic. While returning we got late. The bus dropped us at the city mall from where we were supposed to be on our own. Aditya-'
She swallowed a lump in her throat.
'That was his name. I met him for the first time that day. He seemed to be a nice person. He offered to drop me home. I agreed as it was getting late. During the drive, he offered me a coke. Immediately, I started feeling drowsy and my head ached terribly. I asked him a couple of times where he was going but he just laughed it off. After a while, he drove into an old garage at a deserted place and dragged me out of the car. It was dark inside. He said he wanted to have some fun and tried to overpower me. However, drugged though I was, I managed to push him away and ran out. But I slipped on the oily floor. He caught up with me, picked up an iron rod and rammed it into my torso. I just crashed on the floor. As blood gushed out from my belly, I lost consciousness. When I regained my senses, there was no one there. As I tried to get up, an acute pain seared through my body. My clothes were all torn up. I got hold of an old rag and covered myself. I don't know how I reached home but as my mother opened the door, I just fell in to her arms.'
She wiped a tear from the corner of her eyes and continued.
'My father was terribly angry with me. He said that I had brought disrepute to the family and if the news leaked out, no one would ever marry my younger sister. He decided not to take me to the doctor or report the matter to the police. Instead, he bundled me out to Mumbai by the next train. I was too shocked to react to all this. A distant relative helped me with my admission here. No one from home ever spoke to me. For the last six months, I have been living with this poison inside me. If I happen to meet God someday, I would ask Him only one thing – why me? Why?'
She looked up; her eyes full of hurt and indignation.
'So mister, do you still love me after hearing my story?'
Rahul could not meet her gaze.
'You are a good man. I don't want to spoil your life. Just forget about me.'
She moved out of the palm grove; the dusk had ushered in.
Two days later, as Gauri sat near the window in her room and stared out, her mobile rang. It was her father.
'Gauri, one Mr. Rahul Kapoor is here with me. He says he wants to marry you. Can you come over?'
She boarded the night train. When she reached home next day, Rahul was already there. An eerie silence prevailed in the drawing room. Her father touched Rahul's shoulder gently.
'We are very thankful to you. Otherwise, what would have become of this girl?'
Rahul slowly strolled up to Gauri.
'I want to marry you not because I pity you but because I love you...from the bottom of my heart.'
Her lips trembled.
'But I cannot marry a coward. And I know you, Gauri; you are not a coward. From here, we will both go to the police station and lodge a FIR against that beast.'
Her father intervened.
'Rahul, a promising life awaits both of you. Why do you want to spoil it? What is the need?'
'The need is for Gauri to reclaim her honour and that can happen only when she gets justice.' He turned towards Gauri.
'Are you with me?'
She nodded silently. Rahul faced her father. 'Uncle, I want to ask you just one thing. I am an outsider, a nobody. But she is your own. Did it ever cross your mind how Gauri will cope with a disaster like this on her own?'
The old man kept quiet. They both bolted out.
As they reached the police station, Gauri halted. 'I want to do it alone. It's about me.'
'I understand. I will wait here.'
The inspector listened to her attentively.
'You said twentieth August. Aditya, is that right?'
'Wait a minute.'
He got up, opened an almirah and returned with a file. He took out a photograph and showed it to her.
'Do you recognize this boy?'
'Yes, that's him.'
The inspector let out a deep sigh.
'You know Gauri, Aditya is dead.'
'He was heavily drunk that day. After he left the garage, he met with a serious accident. He died on the spot.'
She sat motionless.
'Do you still want to file a FIR?'
The inspector picked up his pen.
When she emerged out of the police station, it was raining heavily. Rahul stood there; completely drenched. As she approached him, he knelt down and took out a diamond ring.
'Ms Gauri Mehta, though you have driven me mad, I still have no idea what you think of a fool like me. Do you love me?'
She smiled. 'Yes I do.'
He slipped the ring on to her finger. She put her head against his shoulder and cried uncontrollably.
As the rain reduced to a trickle, last rays of the evening sun penetrated through the clouds and embraced the earth.
Together, they walked into the sunset.