The Last Time

Posted on Sat 29 May 2021 in Writing

Soft sunlight streaked in through the curtains, illuminating the room in a warm glow. Of course, I noticed none of that. The only thing I was aware of was my phone's alarm clock ringing. After drowsily hitting the snooze button, I realized that I had done this twice already, so I started scrolling through the notifications. It was 8:30, and my friends were abuzz with excitement. "Oh! The JEE Advanced results are coming out today!", I suddenly recalled while jumping out of bed, almost falling over in the process.

The next few moments were a blur as I got ready and had breakfast. I had given the JEE Advanced a while back, and was quite sure of a good rank in it. However, my father had fallen ill a few days after we came back from giving the exam. Initially thinking it was COVID, we got an RT-PCR test done, which came out to be negative. We then shrugged it off as a seasonal cold, and dad had been taking antibiotics and paracetamol and keeping well. At 55 years, he was a frail old man by now, and a heart patient, so it really pained my mother to see him ill. He was feeling worse than usual today, so he was not up when I was having breakfast

"Baba kaise hai?" I asked Ma with my mouth stuffed full of paratha

"Kal raat unhe sardard hua tha. Ek aur COVID test karane ki soch rahe hai"

"Accha. Aaj mera result aayega, and friends ke saath baahar party ka plan hai"

"Ok. I would suggest you don't go, because Baba is really not keeping well"

I thought about this for a while. I hadn't seen him, so I couldn't really comment. I was going insane staying inside the house, though. I hadn't been out anywhere after the JEE exams, and (quite obviously) before them as well. I was really aching to see my friends (and my girlfriend :P), and speak to them face to face. The network connection around our house didn't help either, and I couldn't speak to them properly or join the among us sessions that they used to hold regularly post JEE.

"Mumma, I really want to go. Please, bahut bore ho raha hoon ghar pe", I protested.

Ma nodded silently for now. This was a common action for "We'll see", so I stayed quiet for now.

The next hour was spent furiously chatting with my friends over WhatsApp, while the network connection permitted me to do so. All of us discussed our future plans: which IIT we intended to go to and which branch we would prefer. All of us had a fair idea of how our exam went, and most of us were doing quite well. My girlfriend was iffy on her decisions, and said that she would take a final decision only after her rank came out.

Finally, the opportune moment came, and I tensely reloaded the page to see the result portal. With trembling hands, I typed my details in as Ma stood behind me reassuringly. I hesitated for a moment before clicking; should I check someone else's result first so that I can get an idea how mine will be? My parasympathetic nervous system took over, and I pressed the left mouse button. The page took a few seconds to load, and I skimmed through the information to finally come to my rank: 323. "Mixed feelings" would describe how I felt at that time; I wanted to get under 270, which would have gotten me into IITB EE. I doubted I would get CSE at an old 5 IIT with this rank; would probably have to settle for IITD MnC or IITR CSE.

Ma was very happy; she embraced me and congratulated me, and went to tell Baba. I ran to my phone and saw the group; everyone had done slightly worse than they expected, but my girlfriend Swati still hadn't posted her marks. Strange, I thought. I sent her a personal message, which wasn't delivered immediately. Damn this spotty Internet! Slightly dejected, I went to see dad to inform him of the good news. I kept my distance from him, as he had asked me to do so.

"Baba, I got 323"

Even though Ma had already told him the marks, he broke into a huge smile as I said them. He was very happy, happier than I've seen him in quite a long time.

"Shabash bete. You're truly independent now. Where do you plan on going?"

"IIT Delhi Maths and Computing most probably, or IIT Roorkee Computer Science"

"Good, good. No IITB? I think your friends were planning on going there"

"No, no IITB. Listen Baba, mai doston se milne jaa raha hoon ab. Pehle ka hi plan tha, we'll go to pavillion mall. I'll be back by evening most probably"

Baba's face turned slightly pale. "Kidhar mat jaa", he croaked. "I might have COVID, and if I have it, you and your mother have it too. Don't spread it among others"

"Nahi baba, you don't have it. Aaj test karaane kab jaa rahe ho?"

"Right now, by 12"

"Don't worry, COVID nahi hai aapko. It's just some normal sickness and aap kaise bhi thode boodhe ho rahe ho"

He chuckled softly. "Beta sun, don't go anywhere. It's very risky."

I was getting impatient by now. I had planned this for a long time, and I was getting impulsive after being bounded in these four walls for over 5 months. I resisted: "Baba please! I really want to go, bahut bore ho raha hoon! I don't even talk properly to my friends because signal nahi aati hai idhar! Just let me enjoy today, please, after getting my rank and results!"

Ma also took Baba's side, and firmly said "Vishnu, No! You're not going". Baba finally caved in. He was truly proud of my IIT marks, it seemed. With a smile, he replied "Nahi, jaane do usse. He's still a kid, let him enjoy now. Go, maze karke aao."

I didn't expect Baba to cave in so quickly; he has a reputation of being very strict. I started to second guess myself. Maybe this is serious and he has COVID? Is he using negative psychology or something to get me to stay? Or is he really so happy with my marks? These thoughts evaporated as my phone pinged; Swati had texted me, "Can we talk when we meet?" I decided to go to the meet. I changed quickly and went to my parents' room, where I proclaimed "Ma, Baba, I'm going. Taking the Activa. Call if needed. See you!". Baba nodded with a smile and Ma said in a motherly fashion "Stay Safe!".

I reached the mall by 11:30 and strolled in. Swati was already there, and so were some of my friends. I said hi, and asked her how her results were. She replied with a smile "You First!"

"Aw cmon, you must have checked the group for my marks"

"Phir bhi, bol de"

"323"

My friends let out a whoop of joy. Vedant said "Really? Tu itna accha kab ban gaya padhai me?"

I was laughing as well by now. After some more small talk, I finally got around to asking Swati her marks

"Uh, 1302"

"Oh nice, congrats! IIT Delhi Electrical milega tujhe with that rank!"

"Yeah, I guess"

"Itni dukhi mat ho, I'm also going to IITD Maths and Computing most probably. We'll still be together"

She smiled back faintly.

The rest of the day was a blur, as more friends came and we went over every minute detail of our lives during the lockdown; who got fat and who got thin and who got smarter, all was laid bare amid much laughter and camaderie. We finally got around to discussing where everyone was going, and everyone had a good idea of where they were going. A lot of us were going to IIT Delhi, so I realized that we'll all spend the next four years together as well.

Once we were done with our bickering, it was 6pm. Just as we were about to leave, Swati said "Can we stay for a few minutes more? I want to tell you something" All of our friends gave us the teenage grin, and I said "sure!" Once everyone had left and we had strolled around and made some more small talk, I asked her, "So what did you want to tell me?"

"I didn't get 1302"

"Oh, Ok. What was your rank then?"

"102"

I could slowly feel the ground slipping out under me. I knew what this meant, but I put on a brave face for now and said "Wow, congrats! Why didn't you tell this to all of us then? 1302 kyun bolte gayi?"

"You know I can't just do that! I was the weakest in our batch, the one who used to get the lowest marks in every test! How do you think everyone would feel if they found out I studied hard during the lockdown and jumped them? Do you feel happy that I got more than you even though you taught me 90% of what I know? Admit it!"

Silence followed. It took me a minute to gather up my thoughts.

"So what are you doing now? I'm guessing it's IITB CSE for you then"

"Yes. Girls quota ki wajah se mil jaayega, and my parents want me to go there as well"

This was playing out like one of those clichéd romance tragedies. I played along and said "I can come to IITB! Mechanical mil jaayega mujhe, we can be together"

"Forget it, Vishnu. You saw that everyone's going to Delhi, and you also want to go there."

I couldn't deny this. I came back to reality, and an awkward silence followed.

"I think it's best we break up. Long distance nahi ho paayega mujhse. We can still be friends"

That's when the ground slipped out from under me; this was not happening. I asked her in anguish "Why don't you come to Delhi? IITD CSE is no less than IITB!"

"My parents won't let me, they think Delhi is not a good place."

"I'm ready to come to Bombay for you, but you're not coming to Delhi? After the three years we've been through together, all those times I taught you, all the times we went out, you're just..."

I choked up; I couldn't speak any more. I didn't have to. She completed the words for me

"Well, I guess this is the last time we meet. Best of luck for whatever you do in life."

I nodded, and watched her walk away.

I turned the other way and walked the mall a few times. It was relatively empty because of COVID, and I had the floors to myself and my thoughts. Stupidly, I realized that this was coming; there's a reason why teenage love is called puppy love, and I should have seen it earlier. There was no way our relationship would continue if she didn't need me academically, and I was too naïve to see that. I went through the five stages of grief all to quickly, blaming everyone from her parents to the girl quota, without which she would have come to Delhi. Eventually, I calmed down enough to ride my scooter home.

Once I came home by 7:30, I realized that in haste, I had forgotten to take the house keys. "No Worries, Ma must have come back home" I thought as I rang the bell. No response. I waited for 5 minutes and rang the bell again. No response yet again. Frustrated, I spammed the bell. Once I finally accepted that my parents weren't home, I tried calling them, only for the cell phone signal to not reach them. I was cursing myself by now; what was a very happy day for everyone else was turning out to be my worst nightmare.

It struck me at once; they weren't back because dad had tested positive for COVID. Which meant that they were in one of the many hospitals in the city. This meant that I was also, in all probability, COVID positive. "Damnit" I cursed myself. I shouldn't ask my neighbours for help, in this case. In fact, there was nobody I could ask for help! I must have spread it to all my friends, and to Swati as well. This cooled the fire burning in me. Somewhat. My thoughts immediately turned to Baba and Ma; Baba was definitely not looking well today morning. Weary at the end of this long day, I sat down in front of the door, too mentally tired to go anywhere. I have been a lifelong atheist, but that was the only time I reached out to god with all the willpower I could muster, and asked him to save my father.

It was around 8 by the time I heard footsteps approaching me. I looked up and saw my uncle Jitendra; Uncle had already got COVID recently and he was now immune to it. I asked him "Uncle, Where is Baba? Why haven't they come home?"

Jitendra uncle sat down, and it was then that I realized his eyes were red and glazed over. He said softly, "Baba was waiting for a long time until he tested positive for COVID, and they had to shift him to hospital immediately. He had a heart attack at around 7:15, and didn't make it. Your Mummy was trying to call you but you were unreachable, so I decided to find you and tell you. I'm sorry."


This story was originally written for BSP IIT Delhi's Muse magazine, but that hasn't been published yet :P

DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents in this book are either the product of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.