On a cold December morning, a melodic Pekin Robin cut through the sunlight-hewn mist. It flew among the stone arches and the cusped, tall corridor windows of the British-era college, where students were gathered in cliques, bantering. The bird steered clear of the murmuring, mostly pregnant with one name — Aalam, a second-year English grad with a ‘reputation’. He would only have to walk into the corridors for the ridicule to begin.
That high-headed recluse.
What is wrong with him?
These remarks had mutated into rumours, like:
He is a cocaine addict. He sources his stuff from the Beach Town, and it comes stuck between the bindings of a book.
The part about the drugs is true, you know! I tried to score some weed from him and guess what, he had it on him! Twice!
And was he generous enough to give?
Gave it, but did not utter a word.
The mockery had affected him previously, steadily reflecting in his slouch and the tired gaze. Over time, he had toughened. His posture straightened, imbued with an air of indifference that also spilt from his almond-shaped, jet-black eyes lined in kohl every day. He mostly kept them lowered, although his chin would always be slightly raised. Whenever he would look up from the ground, his eyes shot an array of piercing expressions ranging from condescending to pure evil in a matter of a smile. This transition into this toughened stance had its roots in his teen years.
It began when Aalam hit puberty. He was a late bloomer, almost 14 when his body showed signs of change. Apart from the awkward limbs, and hair sprouting in the most unexpected bodily ravines, a spectacular thing was happening in his mind.
It was an overcast day in July when he experienced the reverberating effects of his mood (swing).
He was eyeing a pair of football studs in his native town, where an exclusive sports shop had just opened, adding to the novelty of the ever-growing urban shroud. Aalam had been saving money for the pair; and as soon as he had all of it and change, he scooted off to the store only to find that the shoes were sold out.
It had resulted in an initial wave of disappointment, that subsequently turned into anger. The wrath seemingly streamed out of his mind — an invisible, ethereal sheet that shined on the edges — and translucently fogged up the store. Almost as if it had touched the people around, they too had started showing signs of anger, talking in raised voices, slamming objects in arguments.
The moment continued to be livid till Aalam’s mood receded into calm. Subsequently, people too calmed down — unsure what had caused the sudden outburst.
The switch bewildered Aalam, for somewhere inside, he felt that his wrath had taken control of the surroundings. He instantly berated himself. Over time, he lived in the paranoia that he had been afflicted with an unknown sickness that in turn affected others.
The maturity, drawn over five years was laced with hurdles, awkward social situations and doubts. The occasional foray into those memories was fraught with fear and panic. Consequently, the burden of his own sentiments slouched his confidence.
Alcohol had then arrived as a pacifier. Along with it came the reputation. By then, he could not care less, as intoxication had turned into a habit.
On that cold December morning, he had craved for alcohol since 4 am. He had gulped down a nip of neat vodka with lemons and readied another flask, just in case the craving prolonged. And, it did. At college, as he waited in the corridor after having walked past the regular ridicule, he felt for the flask in his bag out of compulsion. The Pekin Robin, fleeting through the corridor, swooped in and perched itself on the arch above him. The bell tolled; the bird flew away and the students entered the classrooms.
The General English class of the morning was boring, creating room in Aalam’s mind for the urge to drink. He was perfectly hidden from the professor’s view to retrieve the flask.
Aalam gave up scourging through his bag to hold on for a while — an addict’s discount. He checked his phone. There were 15 more minutes to go, every second of which passed painfully. He started breathing deeply, possibly even attracting glances from neighbouring desks.
When the bell tolled, Aalam rushed to the grey stone wall at the rear-side of the college. It was punctured with a large membrane functioning as a salacious portal to the outside world, breaking the discipline of studies; it was thrilling for some.
Aalam slipped through the crack and scaled the dense patch. He sat under a dewy pine tree and started drinking. Same vodka, same warmth and same sanity.
Few moments on, he heard the crackling of leaves. Aalam’s first impulse was to hide the flask. But on second thought, he continued sipping. The footsteps stopped right behind, compelling him to turn around. It was Simi from his psychology class. She had a smirk on her face. More rumours, Aalam thought.
Much to his bemusement, she sat right in front of him.
“Care to share?” she asked.
“Going to drink this by myself. Thank you for your offer?” Aalam said, looking her in the eye.
“Haven’t heard that one before,” Aalam guffawed, and continued. “So, what are you going to tell others? Aalam lives for the vine — no puns.” He said, raising eyebrows in shock.
“Referring to yourself in the third person is… odd,” Simi said.
“Well, the unconventional can make you stand out — in a good way or a bad one.”
“Is this why you do it? For attention?”
Tipsy, Aalam impulsively spoke his mind.
“Well, there is a bizarre reason and nothing about it would sound believable. It would probably give you more ridicule to chew and well, what’s the harm?” Aalam said.
“Go on,” Simi said, trying to suppress a nervous laugh.
“I have mood problems,” he said.
“Alright? And?” she asked.
“Well, the doctors have ascertained that I do have a mood problem, medicated me and whatnot. What they have not done is found a solution to what happens after,” Aalam said. He stopped drinking to take a good look at Simi.
In an inebriated stupor, he figured that she was listening passively.
“Get lost, Simi. This cannot be your entertainment,” he said.
She walked away.
For the weeks following the forgettable encounter, Aalam battled the urge to drink on the college campus or visit the woods for two days straight. The voluntary rescind was, however, troublesome — like a needle threatening to burst the ballooning mood. The withdrawals also regurgitated the fear of bodily ailments devised by alcohol and medicine. Shivering and bad stomach took him to Google, who was his symptoms whisperer and a nihilist at that. As it directed Aalam towards the looming possibility of cancer and liver problems, he got worked up and without much thought, relied on alcohol to calm down.
He fell back into the routine of drinking at the dawn. There was nothing new about crossing the chasm of the stone wall into the slanting woods of pine. On one of those days, he was once again joined by Simi — a déjà vu, albeit with a small modification. She had brought a flask this time.
“Jokes are funny when they are not on you. And this one is way below the belt,” Aalam said, eyeing her flask, and then looking at her.
“This is a real joke because I am having lemonade,” Simi replied.
A moment passed by before they spoke again.
“What happens when your mood changes?” she asked finally.
The conversation left in the woods a month ago was incensed, perhaps out of curiosity.
“A freak… a spectacle,” Aalam said, adding, “Do you want to hear a story?”
“Tell me,” she said.
It was on a lazy spring Sunday when Aalam’s parents decided to watch The World is not Enough. His interests were far away from the Bond, having not understood the adult fascination, and so, he had perched himself behind the sofa, from where he could see the television screen from between his parents’ heads.
At one point, Pierce Brosnan and Sophie Marceau broke into sex. For the first time, Aalam felt a surge of vibratory warmth rattle his nerves. It gathered at his groin, forming his first cognisable erection. Overwhelmed, he lost control over his erotic disposition, which cascaded out of his mind into the surroundings affecting his parents, who — before he could realise — were trying to be intimate.
Shocked by the blatant groping, he ran out of the house in shame. That did not go well, for the mood. Imbued with a sexual aftertaste, the guilt and the anxiety rained onto the neighbourhood.
Everything seemed to be engulfed in a shade of lusty scarlet: The sunlight was dim red, the sky wasa pinkish-bloody hue, beating like a heart and the neighbours, those who were out doing their own business, appeared shocked by what they had suddenly felt. Some started crying, the others seemed like they were holding their heads to repress a migraine and yet others just mourned. The scene inflicted some deep sadness in Aalam. It escaped through hot tears.
He begged himself to calm down, to stop. He ran away from the neighbourhood, affecting everybody in his path, to a lake. He plunged into the pool of halcyon.
When he was done narrating this incident to Simi, he realised that she was anxious. Aalam immediately regretted his intoxicated revelation.
“Go away. Just, please don’t make fun of what I have told you. I was drunk, okay? Because it affects me, more than it affects you. I deal with it in spirit. No puns here?” he said, giggling.
They continued drinking for a good 15 minutes. Simi broke the silence.
“You know, Aalam, whatever you have said might be tough to believable, but not untrue. A prolonged mood in any person, especially that of sadness or even ‘the swings’, affect the people around the suffering person,” she said, adding, “Yours, might be a different case, an overtly sensitive one if I may put it that way, but very few people understand what is happening. You are lucky that way.”
“There is nothing positive about this,” he snapped.
“Then, have you ever tried working it out the other way,” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“How drunk are you?” she asked.
“Quite, for this time of the day,” he said.
“So, follow me. No questions,” she said and pulled him up.
They ran to the central avenue of the college, where they attracted glares from a couple of students. Aalam was embarrassed by the conscious attention. Simi looked around.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Aalam asked. “If this is a joke, you will pay for this.”
“Wait, you fool,” she said, surveying the surroundings.
Then she added, “Now, it is a cold, sad morning, with some people gawking at us. If you don’t already know, people are curious and nosy and do not mind their own business. Maybe they are not very happy or derive their happiness by having fun at others’ expense. I believe they are sad and not introspective. They need a moment of extreme, pure joy. And if you claim, what you do. You are capable of doing this.”
“Wait. How?” he added, now curious himself.
“Recall a happy memory.”
The slight tap was enough for Aalam to instantly relate to a personal emotion. He was a young teen, along with parents to part take in their social occasions. They were headed to a friend’s place, who had recently lost her partner. A quiet afternoon was planned for him, a dear college friend, whose grief was a matter of concern for Aalam’s parents. At his home, things were awkward due to the lack of conversation and the subdued mourning.
Aalam went around the living room, where a set of neatly framed pictures caught his attention. Two of these pictures had evoked something personal in him — one of which had the couple on a beach, sitting apart looking at the horizon. In the next picture, they were in the same posture, looking in each other’s direction. A sense of warmth flooded him and naturally the mood, sneakily, wafted out from his mind. In the next moment, glazed in warm sunlight, he saw his parents and their friend in an understanding embrace.
The sentiment took hold of him at the central avenue; his ethereal mood slithered out powerfully, coiling the campus in a warm net.
He sensed a new lightness of being that dissolved gloom on his mind, almost instantly.
“This makes a whole lot of difference,” he said under his breath.
“Maybe. It is about how you choose to see things,” Simi said with a smile.
Aalam looked around.
No one was gawking at him or Simi; and instead, they were engaged in their own banter.
Yash Daiv is employed with Pune Mirror, Times Group as a senior copy-editor. Here, he has written feature pieces on mental health, human-interest stories and curated book lists as well. He has also pieced together longform essays/features for online literary magazine, The Curious Reader, pouring over the vanity of Bookstagram, the grief in a Stephen King novel and the importance of acknowledging settings. As a proofreader, he has been aligned with Hachette India. If it matters at all, a short story of his was published by Pomegranate Private Limited (2011) in an anthology of new writers, chosen through an all-India competition.