He waited breathlessly for Kashish to come. Standing in the dark, surrounded by a swarm of mosquitoes on a hot humid night was not his cup of tea. But then again, where else could they have met? The wilderness, outside their campus was the only place they could meet. It was cut off from the main road which connected them to the university where they both studied. Covered in thick thorny undergrowth and hard rocks, it deterred most people from straying into this area, which made it an ideal place for lovers to meet on the sly. Hidden from prying eyes and judgemental gaze, the spot was frequented by couples threatened by disapproving families, self-appointed moral guardians and greedy policemen seeking a bribe to look the other way.
Besides, if one waded through the bushes long enough, one would come across a clearing in the middle. There, one could climb a cluster of rocks and lay down to watch the planes from the nearby airport fly overhead. The spot had been perfect for all their rendezvous. Despite all the prickly foliage surrounding them and God knows how many creepy crawlies lying in wait for their unsuspecting victims, strangely it was still a refuge. Hari still remembered the magical nights Kashish and he had spent there; counting the stars in the sky, discussing their anxieties and insecurities, stealing kisses, having a silly laugh about the eccentricities of their professors and making plenty of plans for the future. His mother always warned him about daydreaming. “Stop making castles in the sky!” she would say. But he did not want to cease doing so. Somehow, when Kashish was there with him, the world appeared to be full of endless possibilities.
Hari’s train of thought was interrupted when he heard footsteps trudging slowly to his place. He stiffened for a moment and then relaxed. It was only the watchman who was hired by the University to man the area. “Ram Ram beta..kaise ho aap?” the old man shouted his usual greeting. “Hum badhiya hai. Bas ghar jaane ki taiyyari kar rahe hai,” Hari responded. “Thik hai beta ji. Khayal rakhna apna,” saying this, the guard shuffled his feet, away. The old-timer, Hari mused, appeared to be an institution himself. He was the sole witness to their clandestine meetings. The guard was fully aware of the nature of their relationship yet he pretended to be oblivious about it.
Hari did not mind it and was grateful for the anonymity granted to them. Maintaining the secrecy was immensely crucial. His mother (the only person he had confided to) had already cautioned him about the impending ignominy lest the news of his relationship with Kashish broke out in their family circles. His father had already laid down the rules before leaving for the University: Do not mingle with anyone outside your caste. He had strived hard to adhere to them but all hell broke loose the day he met Kashish.
They had met in the afternoon remedial classes. He had entered the class sheepishly and Kashish, sensing his discomfort, had called him over to sit nearby. His father’s sermon on maintaining caste boundaries went unheeded, as he complied (After all, did it really matter that his surname was Chaturvedi and Kashish’s surname was Katiyar?). They had hit it off instantly and had become thick friends within a couple of weeks.
Kashish was not only popular in their class but was also a dynamic political activist. Hari himself accompanied Kashish on various political campaigns for economic development, for protecting the motherland against ‘outsiders’ and for promoting Matribhasha (mother tongue). He still remembered the euphoria following Kashish’s landslide win in the campus elections last year. Being a student leader demanded time and Hari was not surprised that Kashish had not turned up yet. “The upcoming electoral campaign must be the reason behind the delay,” Hari reasoned. Yet there was a niggling worry at the back of his head.
Kashish’s party had undergone a leadership change recently and the new regime was hell bent on imposing many strictures on its cadres. There was talk about launching an aggressive campaign against a new enemy. Old foes of other castes and religious communities were replaced. Now, the focus was on those who did not fit into its framework of the idyllic family—the most important stronghold of Indian culture. Those who dared to digress were to be hunted down and to be castigated. “We will not allow anyone to besmirch Indian culture with their ‘unnatural’ sexual acts and intimate unions, outside the institution of marriage,” thundered the new High Command at the party meeting.
Hari did not take it seriously, dismissing it as political rhetoric, until a few weeks ago when he heard at a party meeting that two women were dragged out of their houses in the neighbouring locality, beaten up and were paraded on the streets, with their faces blackened. When he enquired why, one of the young cadres guffawed loudly that they deserved it because they were engaging in ‘immoral’ behaviour. No charges were pressed and the offenders (led by party cadres) went scot-free. He was horrified to see them later celebrating their victory over moral decadence. This was followed by another vicious assault on a boy and girl holding hands in a park, two blocks away from the University. They were coerced to get married on the spot, then thrashed and handed over to their respective families. He was not surprised that there were yet no repercussions against the perpetrators since the campaign had the blessings of the ruling government no less. He shuddered to think what would happen if they come to know about Kashish and his relationship.
Kashish was caught in a precarious situation, torn between loyalty to the party and between commitment to Hari. They rarely discussed it and there would always be an awkward silence whenever they did discuss it. Hari had noticed that Kashish would seem distant these days. At a party meeting Kashish and he had attended, where there was yet another stream of rants on cultural decay and the need for retaliation against the culprits, they were accosted by two members. They appeared to be in a jubilatory mood. “Did you hear about what happened to those two women in the neighbourhood? We were part of the ‘operation’. Where were you? If you would have joined us, you could have enjoyed the sight of them writhing in pain. We got a ringside view of the spectacle. O, how they screamed and begged for mercy..!!” one of them said gleefully. “Not that it did them any good. If you have sinned, you have to pay the price,” the other quipped. Hari was seething with anger, but he waited for Kashish to respond. The latter weakly smiled, “Of course, sinners have to repent their follies.” Annoyed by the lukewarm response, Hari scathingly retorted, “So, using violence against the innocent is not a sin?” The other two cadres laughed uproariously, “Are you a ‘naamard’ (emasculated man)? Only an ‘asli mard’ (real man) will be ready to fight for honour.” To Hari’s horror, Kashish kept quiet.
Looking back on the incident, Hari sadly reflected that this was not the same Kashish who had thrown him a surprise birthday party in his hostel, or lovingly gifted him his favourite poet, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s poems, or the one who stood outside his exam hall to calm down his jittery nerves, or the one who cheered for him from the sidelines when he played in an inter-university cricket match.
When Hari had confronted Kashish later, the agitated response was that the others’ inane convictions were not shared. For Kashish, being committed to the party’s ideals meant that there was no other choice but to bear their juvenile comments, their raucous laughter over sexual innuendoes and their venomous hatred for anyone who was ‘different’.
This became a regular bone of contention between them. Whenever Hari would question, Kashish would deny any involvement in these attacks and vowed to stay away from the ‘rowdy elements’ in the party. Some miscreants were ignorant about the higher goals of the party, that is to promote nationalism and to infuse a sense of patriotism in today’s ‘apolitical’ youth who would stray otherwise. Such low handed tactics were their handiwork and was not reflective of the party as a whole. In fact, Kashish defended, the party leadership was thinking of rebuking the rebellious members.
Hari could see the mental turmoil taking its toll on Kashish and refrained from saying anything. He knew that despite such vehement denials, the party had no intention of scaling back its violent attacks.
Yesterday, he had overheard rumours of another attack being planned on the sly. He had long stopped attending the meetings, disgusted with their hostile polemics against ‘sexual deviants’—adversaries of the Indian culture. However, he was familiar with some of the party members and they hinted that a fresh attack was in the offing, right on the campus. They planned to storm the University hostels and catch hold of the ‘depraved offenders’. “No one will be spared. The hostels are breeding grounds for such deviant activity. The administration has been silent for long. But now we will deal with them in our own way,” one of them said, winking at him. Hari broke out in cold sweat, thinking of the impending violence.
The University had seemed like the last formidable bulwark against repressive forces. It had once promised to be an invincible barrier against allegiances of caste, creed, religion and hegemonic masculinity. But now its walls seemed to be crumbling against the wave of poisonous hatred. He started nervously pacing around, trying to calm himself down. “Where on earth was Kashish?” he wondered, checking his mobile, which predictably had no network.
As the minutes ominously ticked by, Hari was beginning to panic. He did not want to think about the men and women in the hostels, blissfully unaware that they will soon be subjected to an excruciating witch-hunt. “And what will happen to Kashish? Will Kashish be part of this horrible campaign?” He tried to repress all the demons in his head and tried to concentrate all his anxieties on counting the number of steps he had taken, while pacing around.
And then he could hear footsteps dragging on the cobbled path. Shuffling his feet, tired and gasping for breath, Kashish finally arrived. He had a haunted, haggard look on his face. He sat down on a rock and put his face in his hands. Wanting to comfort him, Hari put his arm around him. Kashish looked up and started sputtering,
“They were dragging people out of their rooms, targeting anyone who they suspected. They then started mercilessly beating them with iron rods. No one was spared. They asked me to join them……I froze….I didn’t know what to do…They said no one would get harmed, that they were only planning to threaten some of our political rivals. At that moment all I could think about was to get away from it all and I just ran away from the place….I was so wrong about them. They don’t care about the nation. They are just hooligans, selfish, manipulating people for their own political gain… I don’t want to be part of this anymore…T-T-take me away from it all…Take me away from it all…” Kashish pleaded.
Hari said nothing. He embraced Kashish, wanting to protect him from the horrors of the world outside. He reflected that the world was not ready for them and maybe it will be years before anyone accepts their relationship. But, as they stood close to each other, in the midst of the wilderness, the soothing sound of crickets chirping in the bushes, and the twinkling stars above them, away from the callous claws of sadistic moral guardians. Hari thought quietly that they still had tonight, before another day dawns and brings with it more trials and tribulations…yes, they still had tonight… a night of hope…