Shackled, Unshackled – Avinash Kaushal

The motorcycle momentarily wobbled and Avinash almost dropped the two polybags in his hands filled with clothes, books, utensils, and more of his belongings. He tried to balance them both so this wouldn’t happen again. Fifteen minutes later, his father stopped the bike, took the bags from Avinash’s hands, put them on the ground, and just as Avinash got off to pick them up, his father turned and left. Without saying a word. For a few moments, Avinash stood there speechless. He knew his father was upset, but the boy was moving out of the house for the first time, he could’ve at least said goodbye, given some fatherly advice; hell, he could’ve scolded him for moving out but he said nothing.

 Avinash called Ishwar who helped him take his things to their flat. Now done with their fourth year of engineering, Ishwar was preparing for GATE, and Avinash wanted to do that, too. But his family couldn’t afford the coaching fee.

 So he moved in with Ishwar, and studied with his coaching notes and workbooks. There wasn’t always money to eat dinner, and Ishwar never let Avinash ask for it. Over the years, Ishwar had been such a friend to Avinash that that debt could not be repaid with money.

 Avinash didn’t grow up in a society; he grew up in a mohalla – closer to ground reality. A bunch of two-story houses lined alongside each other, on all sides of a rectangular area somewhere in the busy streets of Barabanki, some nine kilometres from Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In the centre of the mohalla, a lot of life happened. Everyone learned to play cricket, cards, learned to smoke behind an electricity pole, witnessed fights and reunions. Avinash would sometimes be caught playing poker with older boys, and would get a proper smacking at home for it. He once witnessed a girl, who was tired of her family tying her with ropes all the time, not allowing her to go out anywhere attempt suicide – she jumped from the terrace of her house, but got tangled up in the electricity wires going below her, and landed rather softly on the ground.  Avinash grew up very close to his mother. He could ask for the world, and he knew his mother would get it for him. A lot of his life went by dreaming about making his mother proud and happy. Once, he told her about a dream that he had been having for several months, and would continue for a few years, ‘It’s like … all these labour are working in the house, and the bottom one throws a brick to the man standing on the first floor, who would pass it on to a man behind him. And I’m the man standing on the first floor, catching and passing brick after brick when at one point, while reaching to catch the brick, I fall off the building and wake up.’

 Avinash’s mother smiled, ran a loving hand through his short, electric hair. ‘It’s because it has happened to you before,’ she said.

 ‘What?’ exclaimed the boy, suddenly excited, ‘Like in my previous life?’

 She laughed, ‘No, honey… when you were little, I think about two years old, you were on the terrace, and there was no boundary around it, you crawled to its edge and rolled over. You didn’t fall too hard or from a great height, but you fell unconscious. Oh! I have never been more scared in life.’

 ‘And that’s why I get these dreams?’ asked Avinash.

 ‘Yes. That incident developed a fear of heights and your heart remembers it. It is cool, right?’

 ‘I don’t know, it’s kind of scary, too.’  ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get over it now that you know what it is.’

 And just like his mother said, Avinash realized the dreams were less frequent, and when they came, Avinash didn’t wake up all scared and sweaty. The dreams stopped after a time.

Beemar padta that oh saare nuskhe aazma deti thi
jab chota tha maa dhuei’n ko aasmaa’n bata deti thi
Roti tab bhi thi, aur roti shayad aaj bhi hogi
ab door hai tab aansu phaas ke bata deti thi

 When Avinash went to college, he discovered a new love – drama. At first, he had joined the dance club. But he didn’t really find his feet there. There was no natural instinct pushing him to dance with or for a purpose. So he quit there and in the second year of his engineering, he joined the drama club, DRACULA. Now like a lost piece of puzzle, jumping from one home to another, had found its mother, Avinash fit into DRACULA. And like this boy was what the drama club was waiting for to go from nice to wow, everything was falling into place.

DRACULA

 Avinash was so engrossed in drama that there came a time when he would leave home at eight in the morning for college, and would come back at eleven in the night after drama practice. He had crushed street plays and gulped it down his throat.

 His father was not happy with him staying out so late. And for good reason, too. He had at times seen Avinash roaming around the roads, sitting in corner, playing cards and kanche with his friends. But his mother stood up for him, like always. She talked his father, and let Avinash continue with what he loved doing.

 Once, they had to go to Delhi to perform at an IIT festival. Now Avinash had never been out of Lucknow before this. And to go to an IIT to perform was not only overwhelming, but a little expensive too. But for the millionth time, his mother played her role of superwoman. Avinash went to IIT Delhi and soaked in the atmosphere – the captivating, electrifying atmosphere of one of the most happening colleges of the country.

 Delhi University creates some of the best street plays you will ever see in colleges. Watching them perform, Avinash stood there with his mouth open. It was like somebody had showed him for the first time what street plays should like. He went back to Barabanki with his head filled with ideas.

 He went into the third year of engineering, and now was the time to create street plays, not perform them. For some reason, however, Avinash was not selected by the committee. About ten days before they were supposed to perform, there had been no final script in place, not fruitful dry runs, and the panic was starting to settle into DRACULA.

 That’s when they called up Avinash, remembering how excited he had been at the thought of writing plays. He agreed immediately. And then came a few days in his life that he will never forget, and may never replicate. When you’re in the zone, you write well. But when you are the zone, you just become a medium for the things that are coming in from another dimension and just spilling over your diary.

 One of the sweetest moments of Avinash’s life is when the play was over and everybody was happy, they picked him and celebrated the writer that had emerged out of that engineering student.

 ‘It was the best play I’ve seen, Avinash, we’re all really proud of you,’ said the Dean.  It was in that moment that Avinash thought if he could write that, he could write more.

College ended, and took a lot of fun and carefreeness with it. Shit was getting real.

 Avinash and Ishwar were sitting in their small room with books, notes, and boxers lying all around when they received the forwarded email from their friend. It said ‘Tata Consultancy Services Drive’. Well, they thought, we have been studying anyway. Wouldn’t be bad to see how much we know. At least it’ll give us an ego boost if we get selected.

 They appeared for the drive and at the end of it, they had a job offer in their hands. Now think about someone who was studying from someone else’s notes, eating only as much as they’d need to survive, and still having an uncertainty over their future. Vulnerability soon overcomes you in these times. The image of being on your own, even helping your family who had given you their all, and then some is very tempting. Avinash accepted the offer.

 And then he moved to Chennai, and fell into a routine he had never imagined himself to be in. Corporate world was sucking the life out of him, but his motivation was coming from very far away to be concerned about this.  He continued writing poems, reciting them to a couple of friends, and then working his ass off in the office. For two years, not a lot changed. Monotony was getting into his head. He was seeking small approvals from who wouldn’t matter in a few years. The pressure of being the backbone of the family was starting to bend his back.

Girne ke baad sambhla toh maine chalna seekha hai
Darr mei’n bhi muskuraakar maine jeena seekha hai
Koi kaushal nahi’n ye likhna mera
Zindagi se bohot haara hu’n tab likhna seekha hai

 That’s when drama came calling.

 ‘Avinash? It’s Shilpa,’ her voice over the phone still like it was in college.

 ‘Shilpa? Wow, hey! It’s been so long. How’s it going?’ asked Avinash.

 ‘Getting by, we’re all getting by,’ she said. ‘I heard you’re doing great in the job.’

 ‘Who’d you hear it from?’

 ‘Umm … well, I don’t know. I mean, I just thought you would be, you were always so hard-working.’

 ‘Yeah, that’s been a pain in the ass last couple of years. So what happened?’

 ‘Nothing, we’re coming to Chennai. I know you’re there, do you want to catch up?’

 ‘We? Who else is coming?’ asked Avinash, slightly uncertain about whether he should meet.

 ‘Oh, you don’t know? I thought you’d have heard about us. DRACULA’s. We’re doing a few plays in Chennai.’

 ‘DRACULA’s? Is that what you’re calling it now? But hey, that was back in college. What are you talking about?’

 ‘No, yeah,’ she said, ‘that was back in college. But we continued. We formed an external group, and we are the DRACULA’s. We perform plays on social issues, and it’s going great. Chennai Art Theatre called us, and they want us to perform there next week. They’re even going to pay us. You should come.’

 ‘Wow, that’s … wow! That sounds really great, I mean … I didn’t know you guys had stayed in touch.’

 ‘Hey, you dove into so much studying and then job and everything, there was no point coming after you. Your family would never had allowed you to continue with drama.’ That pinched at a little knot somewhere in his stomach.

 ‘Yeah, yeah. Good, come to Chennai. I’ll try to come to your play.’

 ‘Cool, bye!’

 ‘Bye!’

 The following week, Avinash went to the Chennai Art Theatre. He met Shilpa and the rest of the DRACULA’s. He didn’t even know a lot of them. But they finally caught up. Avinash had been so out of touch with most of his friends from college that he didn’t know how DRACULA was doing. But the batch that had performed the play he had written went on to do more plays, and then more. They found a girl, or rather she found them, Juhi, who was had been into theatre for a few years now, and wanted to mentor a young group of enthusiasts. She transformed their lives. The issues she chose to make plays on were getting into the heads of small audiences. Now they were getting the recognition they had been working towards for over two years.

 Before they left, they planted a seed. They asked Avinash to join them. At first, he laughed it off. But they were serious. Shilpa had shown Juhi the play he had written, and a few poems he had posted online, and Juhi felt he could really be on to something there. And then they left.

 Avinash could not really concentrate on anything after that. He had never set his goals too high to achieve. He always wanted to be recognized for something, but despite his dreams, on a practical front, he never rose his head much higher than mediocrity. This could be his chance.  It took him fifteen months after the DRACULA’s had visited him in Chennai to muster up the courage to call them. They welcomed him with open arms. He knew his father was never going to support his decision, but well, his mother was there to negate that. But when he called her, she didn’t say anything. After a few moments, he could hear her sobbing a little, as if disappointed and too broken to scold.

 But Avinash was on his way. If he didn’t get the support from his family, the drama club was more than compensating for it. A sense of satisfaction was settling into his heart. They moved to Mumbai and things were happening faster than they had anticipated. They were performing more, earning more, and when stability was slowly creeping into their lives, his parents anger was fading with it.

Kuch khwaab bhi baithe hai’n rooth kar hum se
jinhe manaana abhi baaqi hai
Kuch raaz bhi zinda hai’n dil mei’n
jinko dafnaana abhi baaqi hai
Kaise chorh du mai ye zindagi ka pinjra
Zinda hu’n abhi khud ko ye
yaqeen dilaana baaqi hai

 Avinash also had an elder brother, Dhruv. He always wore his heart on his sleeves and it often landed him in trouble with teachers, professors, other children’s parents, everybody except his own family. He knew how to take care of family.

 Dhruv was a very emotional person. He was taken advantage of a lot of times. It was easy to manipulate him if you could come to him as a victim. He had cried for his friends when they told him they had no money, and then he would give away most of savings to save their businesses and they would still not remember him.

 As a result of wrong people around him, manipulative friends as he would call them, ever-growing intolerance in the air, and brainwashing from mainstream media, Dhruv was reeled into a group of vigilantes, who would cause occasional unrest in the areas they were responsible for as and when the politicians demanded. Things started to get out of hands, and Avinash had no idea, no time to know what was happening back home.

 A month long unrest, fear and uncertainty looming in the air one day made way for riots. It was not uncommon in Uttar Pradesh, but it was ugly nonetheless. Avinash tried calling home, but would never get a clear answer. Most of the times, he could not even connect his call, all the networks were down for the majority of the time to stop the agitators from communicating with each other.

 Eventually, everything settled down. The votes had been divided. People had been manipulated. Media had been sold. Propaganda had been served with revenge for dessert. Avinash’s father called.

 ‘Son, come home,’ he said.

 ‘What? What happened?’ asked an agitated Avinash.

 ‘Nothing, but you need to come home. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And he cut the call.

 Avinash panicked, wasted no time. He took a flight that very night.

Kitne dino baad mujhe kuch kaam milega
Mai ghar jaaunga toh maa ko aaraam milega

 It was a connecting flight so it was just after dawn that he reached home. People were sitting there. He knew some, but not most. It was quite, gloomy. The air was heavy and it was hard to breathe. Sure, even the sun hadn’t risen then. But Avinash felt as though it never will.

 A broken figure of his father came into sight. He was fragile, thinner than Avinash had ever seen him. When he saw his son, he fell into his arms, sobbing. ‘Your brother … your brother … they … he’s gone, son.’

 Avinash’s knees wobbled but he kept his shape to handle his brother. But his senses had given way. Numbness ran through his body like cold ice. He could hear a scream somewhere in the distance. His tears felt hot on his frozen face.

 The riots had taken Dhruv’s life. He was right in the core of things. Avinash looked up, and saw his brother’s friends. ‘Dad? What are they doing here?’

 ‘Son, we have to stick together,’ his father said, pulling himself up.

 Avinash let go of his father’s grip, and crying, went straight to Dhruv’s friends.

 ‘YOU BASTARDS! YOU KILLED HIM, YOU ASSHOLES!’ screamed Avinash, landing a blow on whoever came in his reach ‘YOU FUCKTARDS HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE HERE! GET THE FUCK OUT!!’

 People rushed and held Avinash as continued to punch and kick in the air, shouting ‘YOU TRAPPED MY BROTHER!! YOU FOOLED HIM INTO JOINING YOU!!’

 The commotion had brought everybody out of their houses. The sun was starting to show from behind the mist.

 A sad, depressing few weeks followed that incident. Avinash didn’t go back to Mumbai. He stayed. He had to stay. But he had to do something about it. He had spent the last two years spreading awareness through his plays. He felt now was the time to walk the path he had been preaching.

 And then came politics. The root cause of every goddamn problem in this country. The seed of hatred. The real scum. Politics. Avinash went to Dhruv’s friends, who seemed to be sceptical at first, but talked to him eventually.

 Avinash had found his purpose. He was going to fix the only thing truly wrong with India. The only thing truly anti-national in a population of over a billion. Politicians.

 He devoted his life to politics. Well, a lot of it. For the next twenty years, it was extremely difficult to do something good in politics. There were forces pulling him down. But Avinash’s motivation was coming from too far away to be concerned about this. He did what he had to do, grinded through every obstacle that came his way, but he made sure he was walking the path he had preached through his plays all those years ago.

 Before his mother passed away in his arms, she smiled. She was not disappointed. She knew that all the times she had stood up for his child was worth it. She had lived an entire life with one of her sons, she was going to spend her afterlife with the other. She was content when she closed her eyes. In the seventy six years that Avinash lived, he never cried as much as he did when his mother passed away.

 His father could not live alone for long. But when he went, he wasn’t angry anymore. He was proud. Avinash had shattered the limitations his father had set. He could not ask for more.

 Retired, Avinash moved back to Barabanki, in his mohalla. And he spent his last years there, breathing in the prevailing peace, watching new life grow around him.

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8 thoughts on “Shackled, Unshackled – Avinash Kaushal Leave a comment

  1. ‘But Avinash was on his way. If he didn’t get the support from his family, the drama club was more than compensating for it.’
    I feel this is the point where story turns virtual.

    Liked by 1 person

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