Stories to Stir your Soul...

"11/09/'04, 5.12pm" - Vijay Ch.

"Feb 16, '00, 11.24am", Banya scribbled on her notepad as she picked up the
phone. "Asha Jyothi. How may I help you?" she asked in a concerned tone. Banya
and Sarat studied at IIM, Calcutta where they excelled as an invincible team in
debating and quizzing. Coming from affluent families, neither had to worry about
money. Banya spent two years abroad with a consulting firm before she joined
Sarat again when he started Asha Jyothi, a befriender's organization. Banya
didn't readily agree and expressed the doubt if, in doing so, she would not be
wasting management education. Her doubt soon disappeared when Sarat told her, in
a firm tone that echoed conviction, she would, on the contrary, be putting it to
use in the most challenging and rewarding domain - adversity management.

"Adversity is a bog that pulls each and every person, at some point in time or
the other, and renders him helpless. We have to lift the person up and alight
him on the flight of hope", he would jest frequently. Four more people work at
Asha Jyothi that operates out of a sprawling apartment. A large poster in bright
colors of blue and yellow hangs on the wall behind Banya. The poster is a
combined effort - Banya designed the logo and Sarat wrote the caption.

As she put the receiver down, Banya wiped her tears. Whenever she does so, Sarat
reminds her that a befriender should just be an objective listener with a very
alert mind that would not lose the ability to reason even amid a hopeless
situation, and that crying is an absolute no-no. "When a person decides to
commit suicide, his perception becomes paranoid, and in such cases, empathy only
makes him go deeper into his shell. He does not construe your empathy as a
gesture of understanding his feelings, but just as your own feelings of despair.
So, you are actually posing him a problem instead of helping solve his", he
says. He believes this so strongly that you find the following lines right above
his signature on the first page of his notepad:

"Lend him your words and ears
And keep to yourself your tears"

These lines are also among the first that the new recruits are advised to learn
by heart. To make it easier, they refer to it as Asha Jyothi's Commandment -
"Thou shalt not cry."

Banya doesn't always receive his reminders with a cool head. "Not my way. I do
not agree with your twisted logic that the proof of befriending is in becoming a
robot with just an active listening faculty and dead to emotion. I cannot
pretend to be unmoved when the person on the other side of the phone is not yet
twenty and is going through hell, and concludes that death is the only solution.
Imagine! Hardly twenty, with all his life ahead! And he has already given up!!
Well, it could've been my brother, it could've been your brother. When someone
is down and is on the fringe of giving up on life, it is not his problem
anymore. It is a human problem. Adversity is a human problem, damn it!, and it
doesn't yield to intellectual explanation or logical comprehension", she would

Occasional outbursts notwithstanding, Banya and Sarat understand each other
quite well, so everybody knows that her anger would not last long. Sarat would
soon say some nice consoling words with good wit and the calm returns. Sarat is
a good listener and has amazing restraint over his feelings. Banya reaches out
to people and doesn't hesitate in taking that extra step to help. She finds it
queer that Sarat is a man of few words. And, whenever she asks him to explain
the reason he would say, "The deeper one's insight, the more silent he becomes.
Talking is easy; touch any person on the street and he'll start talking.
Listening is tough because it demands sensitivity. People, in moments of fun and
frivolity, enjoy the company of those who talk, but when hope is gone from life,
they hanker for a listener. It's tough to find listeners in this world. So, I'd
rather be a listener." She finds it impressive every time. It'd be obvious even
to a casual observer that they complement each other perfectly. It should be
surprising if at least one of them is not aware of this.

At Asha Jyothi, work usually ends at 5.30. Sarat drops Banya and two more of the
team before he reaches home. Banya isn't a keen diarist, but finds some minutes
after dinner to write statistics and one-liners. "12 calls - one saved, eight
hopeful, three gone. Tough day, but very rarely do days end with a smile at AJ
(Asha Jyothi)", a typical entry reads.

Sarat takes pleasure in writing his diary. A rather introspective kind of
writing, but, at times, profound tread of reason gives way to dexterous dance of
rhyme, and verse dissolves into poetry. More often very impersonal about life
and events, yet, rarely though, very sensitive and intimate accounts of the
same. But, of late, entries of romantic poetry have become more prominent and
Banya is slowly taking the place of his beloved, who has thus far been eluding.

Sarat picks up Banya and the two members at mornings as well, while coming to
AJ. Tough schedule as it might seem - what with working six-days-a-week, with no
holidays - they have as much fun on Sundays. So much so that they refer to
Sundays as Fundays. For all his composed temperament and exceptional knowledge,
Sarat is admired as a great boss by all.

Every morning, Banya talks with the two juniors and gives them more insights
about handling calls. She makes one of the members make a dummy call and
demonstrates by example. "And do not forget to make an entry of the date and
time before you pick up the call", she would insist, "and, more importantly, do
not forget to complete the entry after you finish. Remember? 'Saved', if you are
sure the caller felt better at the end of the call and so would certainly choose
to live, 'Hopeful', if you are sure that he felt only a little better and so
might choose to live, and 'Gone', if you are sure the caller is not going to
change his mind."

All is not dreary at AJ though. It has a wonderful collection of books and
music, besides a sleek TV set. There are moments of fun and surprise too - as
when one of their friends called up Banya, threw open a deal that he would slit
his throat if she fails to identify him within twenty minutes, and then
disclosed his identity when she just began to cry; as when a businessman sent a
load of bouquets on Diwali as a gesture of gratitude for being there when he
needed hope and company most; as when a man called up, read out his unfulfilled
dreams and Will, and ended up proposing the girl attending the call because he
liked her voice. A birthday is celebrated with much fervor, and issues -
political or otherwise - are debated with equal passion. And it's a law,
unwritten but mutually understood and agreed upon, that a team member should
avail of AJ's services when he is in difficulties himself.

Sarat decided he would not delay any longer in letting Banya know of his
intentions of marrying her and felt her birthday to be an appropriate day for
the confession. Although an element of doubt troubled him, yet he was confident
that she would accept. He always felt she belonged to him. After all, it was he
who shortened her name Lavanya and rechristened her Banya. He played with the
idea for two days and convinced himself that 'Mrs Banya Sarat Chatterjee'
sounded better than 'Mrs Lavanya Sarat Chatterjee'.

When the day came, and after they had cut the cake and sung and danced, he took
her out. He gifted her his small collection of poetry. The whole event did not
take her by surprise though. Besides being intellectually sharp and emotionally
sensitive, Banya has the gift of reading other people's minds with remarkable
precision. When he dropped her at home that night, the drive ended as the
longest and the most poignant for both. The reason for her disappointing Sarat
was not that she disliked him, but because she had already decided to marry
Amit, with whom she had been in love for five months.

It was not the pain of her rejection that haunted Sarat, but the fact that Banya
confided in him every important event in her life but kept him a complete
stranger to what he feels was the most important one. He felt utterly alone,
rendered helpless by the imperceptible yet sudden slice of the dagger of Fate,
thrown out of the stage of the world, thrown out of her life. But he handles
such states of mind very well and comes out of them soon. This time he came out
sooner, when he remembered that he too had concealed something very important
from her after all.

After graduating in management, Sarat worked for two years as a Rural Management
Consultant with a new energy company in Mumbai, earning a hefty pay. If not for
an event that occurred on August 24, '98, he would not have given up that decent
job to return to Calcutta and start AJ. Sarat's father retired as a commissioner
of police, his mother runs two schools for the poor, and his elder brother
Satyajit who studied at Oxford heads a publishing company. On that day, Satyajit
returned home late, watched TV, had a light dinner with their parents, locked
himself in his room and shot himself dead. When at dawn they broke open the
door, Satyajit was lying in a pool of frozen blood, a hole in his head and a
pistol in his right hand. On his writing table was found a small note -

"From that endless road begins the sojourn
And to that endless road does one return
The road of life is long and tiring
With only illusive hopes in its offering
Liberation in life have I sought
But deliverance in death have I found

Life is a lender of pleasures, pains, dreams and hopes; at the end, everyone
owes it a death.

I hold nobody or no event responsible for my taking this decision. Please do not
disclose the news of my suicide to anybody.


That was Sarat's first experience of being the target of Fate's dagger. He loved
Satyajit very much and the family was close-knit. It was impossible for Sarat to
imagine that Satyajit could feel so lonely and shattered, no matter what. That
event prompted Sarat to start AJ and study the mechanism of suicide in depth.
And being honest to Satya's last words, he concealed this important event in his
life from Banya too. He instead coined the phrase 'adversity management' to
persuade her to join AJ. He uses the pistol in his cache - the same pistol that
Satyajit shot himself with - to get a first-hand insight into the feelings that
run in the mind of a person contemplating suicide. He does so, however, only on
those days when Banya is on leave and he stays back after everybody has gone.

He rationalized that Banya too must have had an equally compelling reason to
conceal that fact from him.

Equally compelling or not, Banya too indeed had a reason to have not told Sarat
about Amit for all these days. Amit too studied with Sarat and Banya. So, when
Amit and Banya decided to marry, they thought they would break the news as a
surprise to Sarat. And the idea of surprising her dearest friend was a matter of
delight for her. That night though, after dinner and that long, painful drive,
it troubled her with poignant feeling of guilt as she wrote in her diary - "One
birthday, nine hours of happiness, twenty SMSs, five bouquets, one broken heart,
one shattered girl."

As days fleeted past, Sarat and Banya tried hard to restore the same bridge of
intimacy between them. To make Banya feel better, Sarat would refer, in a
lighter vein, Tagore's Farewell My Friend and tell her that Banya and Amit are
the best pair. But the harder they tried, the more uncomfortable the relation
between them became. The dagger of Fate, it appeared to Sarat, was more
unrelenting this time, pulling apart each other with every word, just as water
pulls apart two ice-blocks with every slight movement.

But before it became any wider, Banya's wedding came as a savior. Sarat knew
that even if it takes away his beloved, it would still leave behind his dearest
friend. So, he was not entirely unhappy. Nor was Banya. A week after the
wedding, she would leave for US along with Amit. However, to save themselves
from feelings of discomfort, she and Sarat would not communicate with each other
for a good time. They would e-mail, in brief at that, only twice every year - on
New Year's Day and on each other's birthdays.

October 27, '00, 11.15am - Banya left for US.

"10/27/'00, 4.36pm", Sarat wrote on his notepad as the phone rang. "Asha Jyothi.
How may I help you?" he said. He heard no voice in response, but Sarat felt the
immensity of the burden in the other person's heart. He held the receiver closer
to him as he listened to the sound of heaviness in his own heartbeats. Shortly
after, the stranger began to make sounds of weeping. The sounds became more
frequent and when he could not contain himself anymore, he broke down. After
crying his heart out for ten minutes, he put the phone down. Sarat held the
receiver for a minute more, softly uttered "Thank you" and put it down. He
looked at Banya's seat, now empty, and got back to finishing the entry on his
notepad. "10/27/'00, 4.36pm - saved."

Almost four years have passed since that day. Sarat wrote to Banya eight times
and she wrote him seven times. His birthday is just days away and he would hear
from her for the eighth time. AJ now has ten members in the team, the collection
of books and music has only increased with time, and now they handle online
queries as well. Sarat has written two books - a work of fiction and another on
insights into the roots of suicide. He now writes for international journals on
psychology, serves as a visiting faculty at his mother's schools and other
colleges, and is also writing a script for a short-film on 'Depression - The
Serial Killer'.

Ever since marriage, Banya has been taking care of Finance operations for Amit's
software development company. Owing to immense work pressure, typical of a young
software venture, they believed it's a good idea to not think of having children
for at least another year.

On his birthday, Sarat arrived at AJ a little earlier than usual, for he
expected to begin the day with reading Banya's wishes and replying to her. He
was neither surprised nor disappointed when he did not receive any mail yet. He
is quite aware that Banya would write rather later than on time. But, skeptic as
he is, he checked his inbox ten times before he was made to cut the cake in the
evening. No matter how many times he checked, the result wasn't any different.
As traffic restrictions were being imposed, due to a foreign official's arrival,
from 5pm that evening, all the team-members chose to leave. Before leaving, they
agreed upon meeting Sarat at the Chinese restaurant at 8pm.

After checking the inbox yet again and not finding the mail he had been
expecting, he resumed reading Tagore's collection of stories - a book that the
team gifted him earlier that evening - when the phone rang. He waited, as he
usually does, for the second ring to ensure it's not a wrong call. He put the
book down and picked up the notepad. He looked at the watch and noted the date
and time - "11/09/'04, 5.12pm - ". The fourth ring was about to start when he
picked up the receiver and answered, "Asha Jyothi. How may I help you?" After
moments of silence, a female voice answered, "Hello". Sarat responded and waited
for the next words. But no words came. He repeated "Hello?" with intervals but
it failed to persuade her to speak. After three minutes, she cut the line.

Sarat sighed deeply as he put the phone down. He is used to answering such
calls, but he had little patience left at this moment. He was just about to
strike off the entry when the phone rang again. He decided against striking off
and answered the phone after the third ring. "Asha Jyothi. How may I help you?"
This time, the response was quick. "Hello", said the woman on the other side.

He reckoned it was the same woman who cut the line a minute ago, and he noticed
no obvious strain in her voice. "Hello, how are you?" Sarat asked as he waited
for her to speak.

She started in a low voice, "I have always believed that suicide is an act of
cowardice and that no reason, however sound and convincing, can justify it. I
believed life follows a pattern, and by analyzing the causes one can eliminate
the effects. I thought there can be only two reasons why a person thinks of
suicide - loss of hope as in the majority of cases, or obsession with an
irrational ideal as in the case of suicide bombers. One either gives up on faith
in life or gives up himself for the cause of his group. And I believed one can
come out of that state of mind if he is patient for some time. But I have
realized it is not so in all cases. Adversity makes life itself a quicksand and
neither time nor words of hope can bring one out of that. Its cold stare breaks
all the anchors with the known and throws one into the abysmal unknown. Today,
as I find myself giving in to death, it neither surprises me nor makes me feel
guilty. There are times when life proves a bad sample and is worth giving up.
So, I believe my decision is sensible. But before it is curtains down on life, I
thought I would confess this most important decision in life to my most precious
and dearest friend." Her voice quivered as she said, "Sarat, happy birthday.
Forgive me for offering no gifts, but only the sorrow of death."

"Banya!" Sarat exclaimed as he controlled his tears and held his head in utter
disbelief. He collected himself and said, "Banya! ...but I always thought you
are happily married, and enjoying work. What is it that has gone wrong? Whatever
it is, Banya, it can be worked out. Believe me. No problem is strong enough to
warrant giving up on life. And there is nothing wrong in cutting off all needs
or attachments, however strong they may be, for the sake of the most important
need of life - survival. There are no dead-ends in life, Banya. One can always
take a u-turn and choose another lane. Please! No matter what your problem is,
I'm certain it can be worked out. Please don't take any decision out of
impatience. Just give me five days, two days, one day, at least an hour! I will
solve your problems. Please!" Sarat pleaded and broke down.

"Sarat, I know you will. And if it's my problem, I know you will do whatever it
takes to solve", Banya assured. "But it's all beyond that now. It's all over.
I've taken the sleeping pills and I've barely few minutes left."

"What!!" Sarat yelled in anger. "You stupid, adamant girl! Will you ever listen
to me!" he cried out loud as he admonished her. This time, he realized, the
dagger of Fate is planning a fatal cut and has chosen him for witness while
mocking at his helplessness.

"Forgive me, Sarat. And remember our commandment, 'Thou shalt not cry'. Take
care of yourself. Bye", Banya put the phone down and the last drops of tears
rolled down her cheeks. The cut was complete.

The heaviest burden is not that of ignorance, but that of knowledge. To know of
the loss after the event is sad, but to know all along what you are losing, and
that you are bound to lose is pathetic. And life doesn't give a second chance.

Sarat shouted into the mouthpiece, "Banya! Banya! Banya!" But he could hear her
no more. He yelled and cried at the top of his voice and collapsed on the table
in tears.

A minute later he opened the cache, took out the pistol, pointed it at his
temple, and pulled the trigger.

The deafening noise splattered blood on the floor, and made the receiver,
hanging loose from the table, swing. And on the notepad read the unfinished
entry -

"11/09/'04, 5.12pm - "

-Vijay Ch.


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