The new house looked warm and welcoming and so did the neighbourhood. They had shifted to a big two-storied house with a lovely terrace surrounded by a small garden. She looked around her room, planning how to decorate it. She was very fond of reading. Her room had a nice verandah. Soon her room was ready and she sat in an armchair in her verandah, sipping coffee.
"Aarti!" her mother called, "come down, child". In the living room, were seated some ladies. They all smiled as she came down. Her mother introduced her to them, "She’s Aarti, our only daughter. And Aarti, they are our neighbours. They’ve come to help us in settling down."
Aarti smiled and sat down. Her mother went on chatting. Those women told them a bit about all the families residing there. She listened to them with curiosity. A new place always meant new challenges. Adjustments were needed from both sides.
After almost two hours of chatting, the ladies got up and were about to leave when suddenly one of them turned towards Aarti and said, "Listen Aarti. You’re a grown-up girl of 17. This neighbourhood has people of different communities. You’ll come across a group of boys whose leader is a reckless boy Azhaan, a college drop-out. He’s 24 now but does nothing except roam about the streets. Stay away from those hooligans." With this, the ladies went out.
Aarti was a little shocked and scared. But she remained composed and went inside her room. By then, it was dark outside. She heard the sound of the ‘azaan’ coming from a distant ‘masjid’ while the evening ‘aarti’ was being performed at her house. As she strained her eyes holding on the railings of her verandah, she saw a group of boys sitting on a nearby rock, chatting merrily.
Aarti kept on looking until her father’s call broke her trance. Next day, she went to her new school. Everything was new to her – classes, teachers, students. She sat in one corner of the class when two boys entered and sat behind her. They were constantly grinning amongst themselves. After sometime, one of them approached her for friendship which she rejected blatantly.
They kept on nagging her. Though she felt uncomfortable, she kept quiet. After school she was hurrying back home when to her utter surprise, she saw those two boys following her. She ran as fast as she could. Panting and sweating profusely, she entered her neighbourhood looking back scared out of her wits and bumped into someone. She looked up slowly to find a tall boy standing in front of her with a curious expression.
"Hey, are you alright? Be careful", he said.
Aarti just hurried towards her house without any further eye contact. Next day, she again found that tall boy looking at her strangely. As Aarti was running, the tall boy stopped her.
"Excuse me. What’s wrong with you?" he asked her.
"N…n….nothing…" she stammered.
"Hey, don’t be afraid. You can tell me. Come on." He insisted.
"Actually, in my new school there are two boys who follow me every day. So I need to run home" she looked scared and out of breath.
"Which school do you study in?" he asked.
After knowing the name of her school, he went away. Aarti felt astonished. But she felt relieved after sharing her problem. Next day, after school she saw that tall boy yet again. She moved towards him and pointed out to the two boys. He went up to them and what followed was a big fight. He brought them in front of Aarti and made them apologise. She smiled faintly.
After that they started walking home together. Aarti, after a lot of hesitation finally blurted out "Thank you". The boy smiled and said "I did my duty. There’s nothing to thank me about. If your brother had been in my place, he would have done the same thing. Isn’t it?"
Aarti smiled with tears brimming in her eyes, she said, "My brother passed away three years ago in an accident".
"Oh. I am sorry. But you can call me ‘bhaiyya’ from today", he comforted her.
"Okay bhaiyya. But what is your name?" Aarti asked. "Azhaan" he said and smiled.
Aarti looked bewildered and worried but she kept her agitation to herself and kept walking with him. From that day onwards Aarti and Azhaan met several times at different places. She knew her problems were over as her ‘bhaiyya’ (brother) would sort it out for her.
Two months passed by and it was time for Rakhi. Aarti had never celebrated Rakhi since the last three years. But this year she rejoiced at the thought of having a brother.
Aarti got up early and went to meet Azhaan with a rakhi. Azhaan was already waiting there for her. He wore a nice white kurta and pajama. Aarti tied the rakhi on his wrist and fed him his favourite sweets. Azhaan, in turn had brought for her a pair of silver earrings. Aarti was happy beyond words.
With each passing day, they became closer. She would happily share her problems and he would listen to them with patience like a true brother.
Days passed happily until 14 May. Some goons had attacked a local temple, looted and murdered four priests. The Hindus blamed the Muslims for the mishap.
Before any investigation was carried out, a communal riot broke out. The elderly were all stuck in their houses. Children were under constant supervision of their mothers. Shops were closed immediately. Aarti had read about such riots, but seeing it happen right in front sent her into deep trauma. She stopped talking or interacting with everyone.
To bring her back from this trance, Azhaan met her every evening and made her believe that all would be right soon. She knew nothing could happen to her as long as her ‘bhaiyya’ was beside her. But that evening was different.
Aarti was waiting for him at their usual meeting place, when all of a sudden a group of people moved towards them. They saw Aarti and shouted. Aarti was too terrified to move, her knees froze and her gaze fixed at their direction. They sprinted forward with a knife to stab her.
She closed her eyes in fear and shouted ‘bhaiyya!’ When she opened her eyes, she found Azhaan standing in front of her, his back facing her. The men had vanished. But as she moved towards him,, she saw a knife pierced into Azhaan’s stomach. He dropped on the ground, collapsing. She neither uttered a single word nor shed a drop of tear. She stood numb. Azhaan smiled faintly and told her almost inaudibly, "Your bhaiyya is always there for you, Aarti." With that, Azhaan closed his eyes. Aarti fell on the ground and sat there still and still for hours. She heard the azhaan coming from some faraway masjid and the loud evening aarti of the temple. Tears gathered in the corner of her eyes, rolled down her cheeks and died on her lips.
Coordinator, Class XII, Gokhale Memorial Girls’ School.