Fiction | ‘Two Girls and a Promise’ by Shreya Iyengar | Creative Writing Workshop

The rain came down in blinding sheets, drenching everyone and everything to the bone. The sky was leaden; and the sun was nowhere to be seen. At that moment, Bombay was a kaleidoscope of sounds: vehicles honking at different pitches, so that it sounded like an out-of-sync orchestra, rain swooshing, thunder rumbling, drivers cursing, children shrieking with delight as they splish-splashed around knee-deep puddles.

Himani watched it all through a window on the first floor of her apartment building, munching on carrot sticks. As she usually always did during this time of the year;, she felt a mixture of awe, revulsion, and fascination. This was her third year in the city, and she adored it even as it annoyed the hell out of her. The Bombay monsoon was the stuff of legend; it spared no one.

Five feet and three inches tall, with shoulder-length hair the colour of chocolate-chip brownies, deep-set eyes and a creamy complexion, Himani’s slender frame belied her twenty years. She could have passed off, still, as a schoolgirl. She had a particularly arresting look about her: diffidence, with a barely discernible strand of self-assurance. Her face was like a touch-me-not flower which turns its petals inwards: it was, in a word, inscrutable. Or perhaps it just was.When she cracked her knuckles in an empty room, it was like dropping a bomb. Her glasses were tortoise-shelled; the frames were dark green with black dots. ‘Like a green ladybird,’ she always thought to herself.

She loved many things: the rain when she was indoors, staring into space, the smell of coffee, the minty aftertaste of Colgate toothpaste and the way her teeth tingled when she drank cold water immediately after brushing, the inside of a bookstore. She also loved scribbling mindlessly in her many notebooks that lay scattered around her room. And daydreaming about Marine Drive, her favourite spot in all of Bombay.

She didn’t have many friends; two, perhaps three at the most. The loneliness eased, when she thought of Sanchita, her soul sister – ‘Sanch’, as Himani had always called her. Sanchita, the rainbow. Sanchita, the girl with the wide grin, whose guffaw could be heard from miles away; who could talk the hind legs off a donkey. She’d bumped into Sanchita during her first lecture in college, reading Indian Poetry; it would always be fresh in her memory, because the professor had been completely riveting. Himani could never forget her thick black curls spilling down her back like a waterfall, her denim midi dress, neon green tote bag, and her French-manicured fingernails which were adorned with outlandish silver rings. The diamond sparkling on the right side of her nose. The sapphire-painted toenails and the kolhapuri chappals. And how, when Sanchita spoke, she was a headmistress commanding absolute attention. The girl was a born thespian, someday meant to take the world by storm with her acting prowess.

Chance by Chanel had always been her signature perfume. Sanchita was everything Himani was not – she loved meeting people, could mingle effortlessly with all kinds of crowds, and was a master storyteller at parties. She lived in a room where a bright, purple Bluetooth speaker blasted upbeat music all day. She loved going to the park nearby, to play with the stray dogs, helping differently-abled children at the Make a Difference foundation, strumming on her guitar, effortlessly slipping into different characters at the National School of Drama, and exploring pubs and disco bars – but always with a trusted group of friends.

Even her room décor was a contrast to Himani’s, whose one-room flat, tiny as it was, radiated a characteristic serenity: pale cream walls, diffuser lamps, strings of fairy lights, gauzy curtains, books at once scattered artfully and arranged neatly, clothes stacked in her cupboard, a pile of books teetering on the bedside table. Sanchita’s room, on the other hand, was the very definition of an Arty Party Animal. Living two streets away from Himani, Sanchita’s was a shared accommodation into which she’d moved into three years ago, when they were both just starting college. There was an orange bean bag in the middle, usually surrounded by leftover boxes of Domino’s Pizza that never went to trash. Patterned floor cushions made for comfortable lounging. There were no curtains; and natural light flooded the room during the daytime. A rickety table was pushed into a corner, on which Sanchita heaped absolutely everything: clothes, jewellery, books, stationery. And, of course, there was her prized Bluetooth speaker – music was to Sanchita what books were to Himani. Every time she visited, the jarring white tube light made Himani squint.

***

15th July, 2017

“Hiiimaaaaniiii!” Sanchita’s voice echoes from the entry gate. 

‘The hurricane cometh,’ Himani thinks to herself fondly. She props up her glasses, which have an irritating habit of slipping down the bridge of her nose while she is reading. Out of the corner of her eye, she catches sight of her best friend.

Gently placing a bookmark between pages 110-11 of The Awakening, Himani stretches like a cat and beckons to her. 

“Yo, Sanch. Why haven’t I heard from you – or seen your face – in one whole month? Have you checked your messages and missed calls at all?” For the girls, joined at the hip as they are and living so close to each other as they do, a month feels more like a millennium. Himani’s tone is gentle; entirely non-confrontational.

Sanchita pauses, a curl escaping her bubblegum-pink scrunchie and falling into her eyes, and bites her lip. Her turquoise kurta accentuates her carefully-lined, almond-shaped eyes and big silver jhumkas. 

“Well, actually, Himani…”

“Yeah, babe?”

“The thing is…”

Himani’s emotional alarm starts blinking in her head. This isn’t the Sanchita she knows. To hesitate before speaking. If anything, Sanchita makes effective communication look spontaneous and confident. 

“Sanch? Why don’t you come and sit?” Himani pats the pillows next to her.

“I will. Just… give me a minute.” Sanchita appears to struggle for composure; something that – in all the time that she and Himani have known each other – Himani has never even imagined, let alone seen.

After two very long minutes (during which Himani simply looks at her and Sanchita’s eyes are as skittish as those of a particularly vulnerable horse), she walks over to Himani and plops herself down on the bed. As she’s done countless times before, she pushes the pillows aside and lays her head on Himani’s lap. She closes her eyes, feeling the familiar tightening in her chest and an itch in her throat.

“Sanch? Honey? What is it…?” Until she feels Himani’s gentle fingers on her face, Sanchita hasn’t even realised that a stray tear has made its way out of her eye and run down her cheek.

Suddenly, the whirring of the fan seems too loud. Himani has never known Sanchita to be anything but self-possessed. Inexplicably, a line from The Little Prince runs through Himani’s mind at that moment: ‘It is such a mysterious thing, the land of tears…’

“Sanch. Talk to me.”

In those few seconds that it takes from propping Sanchita upright and getting close for a cuddle – the two of them have always sensed each other’s needs for physical affection without saying anything – Sanchita seems to fold in on herself. 

Tears stream down her cheeks, smudging her eyeliner. Her shoulders shake. But she does not make a sound. She simply weeps, soaking the front of Himani’s Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Himani holds her close.

A few more minutes pass. The shadows lengthen on the walls. The clock says that it is 6 p.m.

Sanchita meets Himani’s eyes. In them, she sees nothing but love and concern; not even a trace of judgement, surprise or shock. 

“You seem unsurprised, Himani.” Her voice is hoarse from crying.

“If you want to tell me what all this is about, I’m here.” She squeezes Sanchita’s hand.

Sanchita takes a deep, shaky breath.

***

“It’s so difficult to say this, b-but,” – here, she sniffles and blows her nose before continuing – “I haven’t been feeling like myself lately. I’ve been doing all the regular things – theatre practice, music class, that volunteering work – but I feel as though I’ve… crashed. Just like that. Like I’m suddenly on a snowy mountain peak and am skidding downwards, without any sense of direction. I haven’t slept in weeks and find it hard to even get out of bed to do everyday work. The tears threaten to pull me under. I lock myself in the loo and cry for hours. I’m exhausted.”

“Oh, Sanch. I can see that you are in pain.” Himani leans closer, rubs Sanchita’s back.

“Y-yes. Absolutely anything can set me off. Like right now. And I don’t look at my phone because the notifications trigger anxiety. My appetite is non-existent. I’m having a hard time being…just normal.‟ You know how I am, I like people around me; can you imagine how much harder it must be? I mean, look at me. I feel like I’m losing my sanity. The other day, I saw the bottle of toilet cleaner on my window sill… and… and all sorts of thoughts came into my mind…” Sanchita swipes at her eyes and looks at Himani.

Himani takes Sanchita’s hands in her own. “Sanch. What led to this, was there anything particular that set this off?”

“I… don’t know, Himani. I can’t think of anything specific. Everything in the past two weeks has been going well, on the face of it. But… I suppose my mood started to plummet when I got three rejection emails in quick succession from three of my top preference universities. And I don’t want to keep going over my break-up – the last thing I want is to fixate on it – but flashes of it come back to me over and over again. This is what I ruminate over all day long. I can’t confide in my parents or family because they have no idea about any of this at all. And I don’t want to be another cause of worry. See, this is why I’ve been incommunicado.” Sanchita’s eyes well up again.

The news of Sanchita’s rejections comes as a surprise to Himani. Sanchita is one of the most talented thespians she’s ever known – but the competition is indeed very stiff. Sanchita must have been heartbroken to share the news with anyone, even her close ones. Himani also knows how badly Sanchita had taken her break-up – it had been an emotionally toxic relationship, one that was extremely manipulative, which resulted in her being cast aside for someone else. She had dated one of her classmates for two years. 

With all that in mind, she tries to muster the courage to ask something she’s never asked Sanchita before. She has never needed to – not up until this moment, with Sanchita in tears and Himani as her confidante. In Himani’s experience, it is usually she who struggles to get a solid grip over her feelings; not Sanchita. Now, listening to Sanchita makes Himani’s heart ache.

“And… d-do you know so-something? Whenever people ask me how I’m doing, I say I’m fine. I’m fiiiiine.” Sanchita stretches out the word like chewing gum; sings it with as much resentment as possible. 

“Two little words that are Band-Aids, covering up so much inside because if I admit to feeling the most miserable I’ve ever possibly felt in all my twenty years, I will come across as weak. People will come up with their own interpretations and solutions: ‘Oh, you must exercise! You must go out and be around people! You must engage! You have everything that you ever need; you simply cannot be depressed! You must be positive!’ As if one needs certain reasons to feel this way. As if I don’t engage enough already. As if my feelings are a tap that can be turned off at will. Damn it.” 

Sanchita is stiff as a ramrod. Her nails are digging into her palms. Her kurta is askew. Her eyes glitter; two wet onyxes, black as the night sky and bottomless as the ocean. Her heart-shaped face is tear-stained, but her voice is steely. In that moment, in Himani’s eyes, Sanchita is the most beautiful person in the world.

***

“Sanch. Look at me. Will you do something for me? For yourself?” Himani is fully aware that she is treading delicate waters. She tries to ease her breathing, which had accelerated. Empathy always triggers physiological responses in Himani. It’s been that way for as long as she can remember. She keeps trying to tell herself that it is a good thing. She is not – in fact – being ‘oversensitive’.. She looks at Himani, and says after a pause,“I will do anything. You know that. Just… please tell me how I can put an end to this mental agony…” 

Her voice – theatre-trained and usually pitched to fill an entire auditorium – is so soft and tremulous that Himani has to lean forward to hear her.

“I need you to do one thing. Will you come with me if I make an appointment with a psychiatrist?”

Sanchita’s eyes light up like forest fires. They blaze, and then they die out.

The only sound in Himani’s room is that of the wall clock.The room has darkened. Outside, the wind howls and lightning flashes. Somewhere in the distance, dogs bark themselves hoarse. Himani leans across Sanchita and flicks on a diffuser lamp, and warm yellow light fills the room. It makes patterns on the wall. The girls’ silhouettes, like lines on a canvas.

Fifteen whole minutes. Nine hundred seconds go by. Neither of them says anything. 

Sanchita stops fidgeting with her silver butterfly ring. She looks up at Himani through a haze of tears. “Will that help? Will you come?”

Himani does not hesitate, not even for a fraction of a second. “Of course, it is no big deal. I’d do anything in the world for you, and this is the least I can do.”

***

One year later

Sunlight spills through the patch of sky at Prithvi Café, which is curiously empty for a Sunday afternoon. The polished wood tables gleam. Indoor plants line the window sills, and classical music plays softly. At a corner table, Sanchita sits with a notebook and pen in her lap. Her legs are curled up under her. A mug of hot chocolate sits untouched. She has been here for a half-hour but it feels like it has been days.

The wind chimes clink as Himani pushes the door open. “Sanch, sweetie! How’s my favourite girl?” Himani’s voice is as familiar to Sanchita as her own. Sanchita tears her gaze away from her notebook and jumps up to greet her.

When they hug, they never want to let go. It has been far too long since they have seen each other. But even though it has been a difficult year for both of them, they feel closer to each other than ever before.

Shortly after that night in Himani’s room, Sanchita was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. When the psychiatrist told them, Sanchita did not waver. She had Himani’s hand to hold through a critical part of her life. And for that, she has never stopped feeling grateful.

Amidst an almost frenzied exchange of questions and answers – neither of them could get the words out fast enough; and time is slipping by sooner than they would like it to – they fill each other in on the minutiae of their lives.

“And that book, Himani? Have you been writing and rewriting and re-rewriting your drafts about the journey with your best friend in the world who is legitimately mentally ill?” Sanchita’s tone is playful, but her eyes are serious.

“Yes, my love, I have. It is a struggle. But I’m so glad that I know the details inside out –  and that I have the reason for the book sitting right in front of me.” Himani reaches across and gives Sanchita’s hand an extra-tight squeeze. “And you? What about that production of King Lear that’s to go on floors in three months? How is your Cordelia shaping up?”

“Oh, you know. It’s the usual. My job is to find calm in the chaos – which, mercifully, isn’t very difficult, if I just take time to breathe. Apart from that… my body is a cocktail of antidepressants, but who’s complaining? After a hellish ride, at least I know what keeps the depression at bay. I’ve been going for therapy sessions, too” – she makes air quotes as she says the word “therapy”, but she’s only kidding about the implied sarcasm – “and trying to establish a yoga and meditation routine for myself. It’s a lot of effort, and I’m taking it slow, but I’m starting to feel at ease with myself again.” Sanchita takes a sip of her hot chocolate.

“Do you know how proud I am of you, Sanch?” Himani was always emotional with Sanchita; but had been even more protective of her ever since that day, and being there with her as she waded through waves of depression so debilitating that they’d both instantly nicknamed it The Black Cloud – took a breath to steady herself. 

“You’ve come so far from the girl hunched over on my floor, who was at her wit’s end. You’ve started sleeping through the night; you’ve started eating properly. You’re taking your medicines. You’re seeing your psychiatrist. You’ve found purpose by doing what you love the most. There’s a glow to your face that I haven’t seen in a long time. Most importantly, though, you’ve come through this with so much strength..”

Sanchita smiled. “It’s not just me, Himani. Look at you. Look at the sparkle in your eyes, I am sure it comes from working on those drafts. And as for it being my journey…it was you who took me for the appointment, and you who has sat with me. How can it ever be just my journey? I like to think of it as our journey. Haven’t we always been that way, right from that first day in college when you made a face at my neon green tote?”

“You always did know how to make me cry. Stupid.”

“I might say the same for you, too, my darling. Whom do I have to thank everything you did for me during that difficult time in my life – when I didn’t want to see your face (that’s the depression, by the way, not me) but you still sent me adorable little notes and reminders; called me, even when I refused to answer the phone – and came over to clean up, nudged me to get out of bed, have a bath, and cooked for me? 

***

Once upon a time, there were two girls. And there was one shared story.

Glossary:

Chappal: a slipper
Jhumka: a traditional Indian bell-shaped earring, worn by women
Kolhapuri: of – or from – the city of Kolhapur, Maharashtra, western India
Kurta: a long, loose-fitting tunic which usually reaches the knees


Shreya holds an MA in English from the University of Delhi. She is a lifelong bibliophile, book hoarder, daydreamer, and (over)thinker. Her work has appeared on Elephant Journal, Quiet Revolution and The Punch Magazine. If she’s not daydreaming, she’s writing; and if she’s not writing, she’s reading. She needs paper and ink like a fish needs water. 

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