If I remember it correctly, it was on the day prior to one of the literature papers of our final year graduation exams. The hours were spent in hard study. Around 3 pm I could feel the uneasiness of a fever coming on. My mind now in turmoil, pushed me further to the edge. I couldn’t afford to fall sick. Not today, definitely not now, else I would lose a crucial college year. Sensing my agitation, Gracy, my roomie comes over to check on me. A devout soul, her unwavering faith makes her face life’s many challenges without any falter of self-doubt. Handing over a pill she asks me to sleep off the fever. I lay down obedient and willing, anything to ward off the looming uncertainty. Then she does something more. She prays for me. I wake up from my siesta much relieved and ready to cram for the exam. Reminiscing later, it felt as though it was her trust and belief in the divine that sped me up on my recovery rather than just the medicine itself working magic on me.
During holidays I traveled from the city I resided in into another small town to catch the connecting bus to my hometown. This hassle-free ride was thrown off gear every time I arrived late from the city or fewer buses plied the roads that day. Nervous and worrying with anticipation, the man at the counter always made the attendant physically occupy a seat until I was able to buy the ticket from him. The agitated look on my face might have provoked him into securing a favor for a total stranger. This gesture continued for a few more years though by then my place of education had shifted from the city to a small town from where I pursued my postgraduate degree.
For almost a year I had been pestering my roommate Anisha to let me tag along on a visit to her hometown – the small, dusty town of Tundla in Uttar Pradesh, India. The reason was Tundla’s proximity to Agra – the abode of the Taj Mahal. This famous Mughal era relic, a mammoth white mausoleum was a place I had long desired to visit. But the journey to the Taj couldn’t have begun on a more anxious note.
Anisha’s call came after her graveyard shift ended, reminding me to reach the office on time so that we could leave together to board the early morning express from New Delhi railway station. My scheduled pickup from home to the office reached late, and we ended up missing the ride together. Informing her from the office phone that I got left behind did not ease matters. She gave quick instructions on how to reach the station along with the train details. My heart pounded as I changed my pace to a frantic run in a last-ditch effort to board the train amid the several -awaiting departures to various destinations from one of the busiest train stations in the country.
The situation was hopeless as efforts to locate both my train and friend appeared futile. I could sense the clock ticking away along with my throbbing heartbeat. A railway employee with a walkie-talkie walked past. He appeared just the opportunity I had been seeking. Rushing towards him – breathless, I pleaded for help. He pointed towards the one I desperately sought, waiting for one of its last passengers. Within minutes I was trudging along the aisle as Anisha’s faraway grin greeted me inside just as the train slowly pulled away from the station.
The invite to the book fair had seemed interesting and sure enough, the interaction was enlightening. Listening to people narrate their personal stories, pleading for a more open society; as different mindsets listened attentively, captivated the evening. The venue was a little further into town with dense traffic thrown in. Precisely the reason I had remembered to leave home early, hoping to use the extra time in parking the car. Proceeding to drive back home after the program, expecting to reach sooner than my earlier drive to the venue based on the belief that traffic conditions would have eased by that time of the night, I turned on the ignition key.
Taking the advice to drive on the narrow winding lane which promised to connect to the main road after a couple of right turns. I was dismayed upon discovering the exit closed due to road repairs – pausing at the second right turn. Turning back, I decided to stick to the original route which I had taken earlier to enter the lane. Cruising along the labyrinthine lanes, my traffic troubles only worsened as I unwittingly waded into a logjam. At certain points, it appeared as though two normal-sized cars wouldn’t make it through without the risk of grazing off bits of paint each other. Few times, I switched off the ignition, exasperated at the helplessness. By then two citizens had taken it upon themselves to help navigate people out of the impasse. Once again, driving past the cars, I was mindful of the small drains also snaking alongside the lanes. At last, with the snarl behind, I was driving homewards – late but relieved to be on the way.
We had agreed on vacationing in a neighboring hill state that summer, which shared a border with a powerful neighbor and is also a war site from the 60s. Besides the memorials dotting the mountainside in honor of the valor and sacrifices, tourists carried back precious memories of the region’s pristine natural beauty, including a famous Buddhist monastery; a place that offered refuge to the Dalai Lama when he first escaped into India. We thought it prudent to drive up in our SUV along with our eighth month and eight-year-old. So, setting aside initial inhibitions, concerns of dear ones, and consultation with the pediatrician – we heeded the necessary precautions, keeping the dangers in mind.
The journey turned out to be just as anticipated. Bidding our hosts farewell and gratitude for their hospitality, the rosary counting matriarch, edged closer to the window to bless our baby; whispering sutras and handing over a sacred scarf to be tied to the car’s driving mirror for a safe journey. Agreeing to time the mileage covered and the landmarks reached, we caught ourselves in a hailstorm after only a few hours of descent. The dangers of navigating through pitch darkness of a tropical rainforest on a narrow treacherous state highway coupled with the probability of sudden encounters with wild pachyderms, made for a grim situation. Besides, forbidding thoughts of getting trapped in landslides or skidding off the highway into a deep gorge below, added to the stress of pacifying an already hungry, restless baby. Whether the journey had been a good idea or had we overestimated our capabilities, dominated our thoughts. Nevertheless, we decided on waiting out the storm. The downpour ended as abruptly as it began, clearing the dangers away. Soon we were driving through dry wide roads right after crossing over the border check post into our home state late into the night.
The consultancy firm was a new setup and everyone had been keeping late hours in trying to get it operational at the earliest. Like on other days, I logged off around dinner time. The home wasn’t too far and the late hours meant reaching on time for a family meal. I followed behind a colleague as she drove ahead and had an even longer commute. Moments before I could touch the main graveled road, I discovered the front wheel on my side getting stuck in soft, wet ground. In my urgency, I pressed repeatedly on the accelerator to push off from the slippery ground but ended up with the wheel getting buried deeper into the slushy earth. Hopelessly stuck, I called up a colleague still in the office and who arrived with additional help from the neighborhood. A water pipe burst in the underground system had released a substantial amount of water beneath the open ground, creating a trap for the unsuspecting driver. The timely help rescued me from an unsavory situation otherwise faced by many on deserted city roads.
Before I was done photocopying the assignment for my daughter’s school project and left the cybercafe, it was already 9 pm. As I attempted to take a right U-turn, a scooter from behind overtook from the wrong side, plowing into the car even as its right-hand indicator kept blinking. I was caught unaware. A sharp reprimand to the offending party, I tried driving away, more eager for dinner at home than a futile altercation. That’s when I realized the extent of the damage. The front tire had gone flat; pierced by a sharp object the man riding the pillion was carrying. The fast-congregating traffic soon looked to turn into a jam as onlookers approached to witness the commotion. I was politely asked to get the car pushed onto a nearby lane to avoid inconvenience to the flowing traffic. Waiting helplessly in the partial darkness of a desolate lane as the kids were locked inside for safety. A few tense moments passed before a gentleman arrived to enquire about my predicament – volunteering to keep watch until help came. I went off looking for anyone who could change a flat tire while the man continued to keep vigil until the task was completed and I was ready to drive away.
Growing up as I was being initiated into the formalities of religion, I often had queries about the rituals and practices we would observe unquestioningly. I was especially intrigued by the practice of turning towards the right and then to the left of our shoulders during the concluding phases of our prayers – the Muslim salat. But most intriguing was the answer that I was given – to acknowledge the presence of the guardian angels sitting on both ends of our shoulders. Their constant presence had more to do than keep watch on our daily acts, I concurred. Perhaps they were there to protect us from the perils that might befall us – the most important creation of God.
Over time, I realized there had to be more to this explanation. And that we could not take this protection per se. It would not have been granted to us simply because ‘We’ human beings were in peril. There had to be a stronger reason attached to this constant presence accorded to us and that we could simply not expect it without being in some position of earning it.
These series of incidents have remained embedded in my collective memory over the years whereas several insignificant ones have faded away into oblivion. Then there are also the ones I am unable to recount in exactly the manner they might have occurred. But I often do retrospect and spend time silently thanking the stars that guide my destiny, amazed at how lucky I have been on the many occasions. I also let out a silent prayer acknowledging the angels who might have kept watch over me. Or even if they haven’t been, I would like to believe a favor was returned whenever I have helped a needy soul just like me.
I am on a hospital visit to see a friend recuperating from surgery. I drive past the gates toward the parking area for visitors. I reach the steep incline of the parking end only to be informed about the unavailability of parking space and that I needed to turn back and park beside the road which leads towards the exit. I am nervous during my numerous attempts at parking the car sideways on a slope. The taxi driver watching me offers help in parking the car. Taking in a deep breath after remotely locking the car, I walk away, looking heavenwards once again; indebted for the many rescues big and small.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
The author pours out her thoughts and conclusions to these very personal events that she keeps experiencing from time to time. In doing so, she hopes to establish a connection with her readers who might have undergone similar situations in life.
Zerine holds a postgraduate degree in English Literature which she followed up with a brief stint in teaching English to high school kids. She later left home to explore opportunities that set her on a corporate career as an HR professional. She continued to pursue her career in the north Indian city of Gurgaon, far away from her home state, Assam. During this time, she settled down to start a family. Years later family compulsions beckoned her back to her state where she currently resides in the north-eastern city of Guwahati, Assam, India. Zerine derives her calm from slow living and seeking beauty in the everyday mundane, often indulging in daydreaming and getting lost in it. She reads whatever she can lay her hands on but is mostly drawn towards literary fiction, often crafting her own short stories, essays, articles, and poems.