The Final Countdown

This short story was written for the #TOI Write India Contest. The format was that they gave a fixed common opening paragraph and we had to complete it into a story.


Paragraph supplied by Ashwin Sanghi in bold. Rest of the story is mine. Hope you guys like it. Cheers !

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door.

I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven….”

Time slowed down and stopped as people say it does at such moments. All the adrenalin that was coursing through my system seemed to evaporate. My heartbeat which was the loudest sound in the world a second ago had suddenly gone quiet. I relived all of the last 15 years that had led to this moment in those 10 seconds. My entire life had been turned upside down. This was finally happening. Today.

I had known Khan since my first day of school. We had always been in the same section. First rank in all those 12 years had been shared solely between the two of us. Yet, I bareIy knew him. We only became friends after we ended up joining the same engineering school. Unbelievable as it might sound, we both made it to the Chemical Engineering program at UDCT Mumbai. This was the most prestigious program in the country and it was the first time ever that two students from the same class of any school had been selected. It was history of sorts.

He had always been very quiet. The only time everyone noticed him was when he stepped up to receive the awards for academic achievement. It was only in 10th grade that most of us discovered he was an orphan. He had been brought up by his uncle who had always seemed quite scary to tell the truth. One major reason for me to stay away from him at school functions in fact was his uncle. He seemed to be from a whole different world than that inhabited by my parents in genteel South Mumbai. My dad was a semi-famous investment banker and my Mom was a retired air hostess. Our family parties featured men wearing cufflinks and smoking expensive cigarettes along with women who smelt heavenly and wore amazingly beautiful dresses. Khan’s uncle by contrast was always unshaven. He even seemed to wear the exact same off-white afghan suit every time. And he never smiled.

The one thing both of us did love more than anything else however was the chemistry lab. It was always amazing to use different combinations and create mysterious compounds. Magical. Mesmerising. New colours, strange smells and even new tastes. While chemistry by itself was interesting, the practical aspects of the discipline were incredible. It was there that we had first interacted with each other in 9th grade. Khan had accidentally created a fuming solution that seemed like it would explode any moment. I had used my phone to google a neutralizing solution and then brewed it up in the lab to help Khan control the situation. The fear and the adrenalin rush had overwhelmed both of us. Khan knew I had saved him from getting into trouble with the school authorities. I was slightly disappointed that I could not publicly boast about my brave and brilliant handling of the crisis. Though to be honest, word of my feat did go around the school grapevine and I earned a lot of respect and street cred. That was the first one-on-one interaction between Khan and me. We began interacting a little bit more from that day onwards. I guess I should have heeded the symbolism of that first interaction. Our chemistry was always going to be explosive.

We went back to our different worlds after that incident and our interactions went back to the usual perfunctory hellos and goodbyes. It was only when we prepared for the all-important national level entrance exams that we got together in a study group. The two of us were the only ones capable of pushing each other. There was no one else in our league and the mutual respect became the basis for our friendship.

I also got to know a little bit more about the world Khan came from. It was a world totally different from mine. I had my own room with my own study desk and my own books and my own computer. I had no responsibilities or worries apart from focusing on my studies. Khan had no such benefits. I discovered that he lived in a small one-room apartment where he lived along with 6 other people who could only afford to rent a tiny room in a slum. Every morning he had to fill and carry his own water to the bathroom from the public tap in his building. He could not study at night because the rest of the family was asleep. His uncle worked as a bus driver at a private school and all his books were second-hand books from a book donation program in that school. His family could not afford too many notebooks so he maximized every single square inch of every notebook. He even wrote on the cardboard covers of the notebooks. He had no computer available to him apart from the shared computers in school that were available for half an hour every day. Honestly, it was amazing that he had the same grades as me. I gained a whole new respect for him. To think of what he could have done if he had the same advantages as me was almost scary. I even began to appreciate the advantages of my privileged background and family – something I had always taken for granted.

And then we were together at UDCT. It was a whole different world out there. Everyone was equal and everyone was judged purely on their own merits. Everyone shared the same food and the same facilities and the same teachers. Khan was the shining star of the luminous galaxy – the best of the best. I was one of the better students myself but he was the genius in the batch. Teachers and seniors were awed by his ability to create magic in the lab. He was known as “the alchemist”. Suddenly, I was privileged to be known as his friend. He and I became absolutely inseparable. It was truly a wonderful time.

And then, out of the blue, it all went horribly wrong.

Hindu-Muslim riots erupted in Mumbai.

Khan’s uncle was killed.

He was distraught.

Khan had always been nothing but a scientist. Religion had never ever come up in any conversation. Science had been the only thing occupying that brilliant brain. But now, things were different. Nothing made sense. I hurt more than I ever had. He was obviously hurt many times that. It was terrible. We tried focusing on our studies but it was too distracting. We tried reading philosophy. We read existential pieces and essays from modern and ancient authors. But most of all we found that we read a lot of stuff from the golden age of Islam. Al Ghazali’s take on Sufism, Ibn Rushd’s seminal work “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”, Khaldun’s “Muqaddimah”. It was captivating and enchanting and mystical. Most importantly, it was soothing and distracting and consoling at the same time. We had spent all our time engaging our brains. Suddenly, we discovered the importance of our souls.

It was a wonderfully immersive experience. I found myself drawn to the wonderfully soothing words and deep thoughts. Immersed in this new mystical world, we were hooked. I understood for the first time why so many people through the course of history had converted to this faith. It was a 100 times more addictive than the Game of Thrones. It was simple. It was pure. And once you were hooked, it was obvious. You had to follow the way. You had to cede control. You had to subjugate your individuality. You focused on what you were supposed to do and not what you wore or what you looked like. It was liberating. It was easy.

Semester exams came and went. For the first time in our lives, first rank was taken by someone else in a class where both of us sat. We weren’t even second. I was third in class. Khan was ranked 7 – a shocking result by his standards. But we didn’t really care about that anymore. What we cared about and loved was our beloved lab. We were putting in more and more time experimenting there. Our proficiency in the lab was growing to prodigious levels. The alchemist could do stuff that only a handful of people in the world could do in a chemical lab. Some of our papers were accepted and published in the best journals in the world. We were accepted at 4-5 Ivy League colleges in the US for our doctoral studies. This was something I thought we could do for the rest of our lives. Life was satisfying again – in a very Zen way.

And then he finally asked me. I had always worried about this moment. I had thought it possible but wished it away. Somehow the impossibility of the idea seemed to prevent me from planning for this moment. Yet here it was today. We were under my building and I assumed he was about to head back home. But he didn’t. He came up to me and said, “Radha, will you marry me? ” “Yes” I whispered, almost in a trance, “But you have to go in and ask my parents for permission without me. They know all about you even though they’ve never met you. My father is a huge fan of yours. My mom has always suspected us of being a couple – right from 9th standard or so. But you still have to go ring the bell and ask them. I’ll wait right here.”

We had spent all our time engaging our brains. Then we discovered the importance of our souls. Now it was going to be about the hearts.

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door.


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