Tuesday 1 September 2015

Short Story 2015, Featured Writers Garima Behal Niranjan Navalgund

Love and Lolly-pop

“Uncle, two lollipops please!” requested the little boy. He stood up on his toes and stretched his little hands to place the money on the toffee jar that decorated the shopkeeper’s glass shelf in rainbow hues. The shopkeeper opened the lid of the lollipop jar, fetched two, leaned down and handed them over to the little boy.  The boy shook his head. “I need one mango and one orange.” He returned the extra orange lollipop, collected the mango flavored one, tucked both into his pocket and left.

This became a routine for the boy and the shopkeeper. The boy would hand over the money and the shopkeeper would give him two lollipops- one orange and one mango- at six in the evening. Ravneet used to pass by the shop after her SAT tuitions at the same time. One such evening, Ravneet consciously noted the chubby little boy coming to the shop and buying the lollipops. His curly black hair, plastic shoes and his walking style, the way he seemed to bobble up and down the road, like a small football, caught her attention. She watched him walk for some time and resisted the urge to laugh. He kept on walking straight for a few seconds and then, turned right.

Feeling drained after some demanding sessions on Grammar, Ravneet stopped by the shop to buy her favorite pack of juice. Guess what? The little boy was there, zipping up his pocket after tucking the lollipops in.

“One Minute Maid, Orange flavor, please!”
“Twenty five rupees, madam!”

“Heyyyyy!” Ravneet smiled, offering a handshake to the little boy. The boy smiled back and shook hands. After making sure that the lollipops were safely tucked away in his pockets, he exited. Ravneet paid for the juice and hurried after him.

She asked the boy to stop, knelt down and began a conversation:
“Hey, wait. What’s your name?”
“Ummm, Lolly!”
“Okay, Lolly. That’s a unique name. Where do you live?”
“Pop has told me not to reveal my identity to strangers. I need to go now!”
“Oh! Wait. Who is Pop?”
“Pop is my friend. I need to go now!”
“Why are you in such a hurry?”
“I am not in a hurry. I just like to keep my promise, because Pop always keeps his word.”
“All right. Let’s meet some other time, then?”
“All right!”

It was the pleasant evening of April 14.
Ravneet thought to herself.
‘Lolly! He is soooo cute. The way he walks, one step at a time. I see him almost every evening. I managed to talk to him today. I know his name, now. But, how can Lolly and Pop be the names of two people? I see a curious case here. Perfect timing everyday! He comes at six, spends a minute or two at the shop and leaves. I want to find out where he goes and who he meets every evening. He likes to keep his promises because his friend ‘Pop’ keeps his word.

The Next Evening
Ravneet bunked the last 20 minutes of her class, reached the shop and talked to the shopkeeper:
“Umm, do you know the boy who comes to your shop and buys lollipops?”

“No, I don’t know him. He places the five rupee coin on the chocolate jar and I give him two lollipops. He told me that he prefers two lollipops of different flavors, on the day he came to the shop for the first time. It is a routine now. It’s been around three months now. He says “Thank You” and leaves. He doesn’t stop for a conversation as such. Ah, I have noticed that he doesn’t come on weekends.

Ravneet thanked the shopkeeper and left.
‘Why did it have to be SATURDAY, today? I will have to wait till Monday to meet him again! Okay! Let me use this SUNDAY to prepare a surprise for him. Little kids love gifts, don’t they?’ she beamed.
April 17

Lolly was almost done with the purchase. Just then:
“Bhaw! Scared you, Didn’t I?”chirped Ravneet.
Lolly nodded and laughed.
“I hope you are not in a hurry, this time. I have got something for you!”
“Something for me?”
“Yes, something for you. Close your eyes.”
“Nooooo, I won’t close.”
“Why not, Lolly?”
“What if you take away the lollipops while I keep my eyes closed?”
“Aha, no Lolly. I won’t do that!”
Lolly tried to steal a quick glance at the gift which Ravneet held in her hands, folded behind her back.
“Shhhh! No cheating. Close your eyes now and open after I count three!”

Ravneet presented a painting she had made that weekend. It was Lolly with his two lollipops.
“Wow, I love this!”Lolly exclaimed in admiration. He looked at her signatures at the bottom, at the far right and asked if it was her name.

“Yes, that’s my signature. You can call me Ravneet!” she replied.
“Thank you; I will show this to my friend. I am sure that he will love it. Can you paint my friend as well?”
“Why not? But, I will have to see him. Take me to your friend. Okay?”
“Oh, not now. I will ask him and let you know tomorrow.”
“Okay. Where is your friend? Do you meet him every day?”
“My friend lives nearby. I meet him, but not every day. I don’t meet him during the weekends.”
“And what about the lollipops?”

“My friend loves lollipops and I love stories and he tells me stories when I hand over the lollipops to him and we have a favorite line, too.”
“What’s the favorite line?”
“I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.  I need to run now, I am already late. Choose one now!” he asked Ravneet to choose a lollipop.
“Umm, orange?” “Take it.”
“Thank you, Lolly, so sweet of you!”

“You gave me a gift and I gave you a return gift. That balances it. Now I need to run!”

Lolly ran as fast as he could, took a right turn and entered the Guru Dev Plaza.

“Lolly, you are late by five minutes today and your right pocket seems to be empty,” said Pop.

“I know. Ravneet stopped me. She also gave me a gift. See?”

“Wow, this is wonderful. Who is Ravneet?”

“I don’t know who she is. I know that she passes by the shop during the evenings. She asked me a few questions…

“And you answered them all?” asked Pop.

“I answered a few.”

“You gave her the lollipop?”

“Yes, I did. Can I bring her along with me tomorrow? She will make a painting for you as well.”

“Ah. She is a stranger, Lolly. How can you trust her? What if she makes fun of me and my lollipop? How old is she?”

“I don’t know. She is tall, just like you. She must be of your age.”
“I will write a note; you give it to her tomorrow. Okay?”

“All right, Pop!”

“Let us start with the story, okay?”


“A story a day keeps boredom away; a lollipop a day keeps sadness away!” they sang together.

“Lolly, today I have a story of Pokemon for you. Guess the name?”


“Yes, you guessed it right! After their battle, Ash released Pikachu. Pikachu set on for a journey and established a new world for himself. The world of Pikachumia.

Do you want to know about Pikachumia?”

“Yes, yes.”

“Pikachu created yellow elephants, zebras in black and yellow stripes, yellow monkeys and so on. And to my surprise you wore a yellow colour shirt today!”

“Yellow yellow, always mellow!”

Pop had almost finished his lollipop.

“Yes. Pikachumia was full of yellow animals. Pikachu was their master. One day, Pikachu organized a race for all the animals. There was a qualification match before the final race and five animals qualified. I will now tell you the names of ten animals. You will have to guess the names of the animals that made it to the race.”

“Wow, that’s exciting.”

“The ten animals are … Elephant, Cheetah, Panda, Squirrel, Zebra, Horse, Monkey, Giraffe, Lion and Tiger. Now what’s your guess, Lolly?”
“It is a difficult choice. Help me?”

“Think of it this way. If you had to pick five animals for your team to win the race, who would you pick? Tell me the reasons, too!”

“I would pick Panda first! Panda is my personal favorite. Next, squirrel because it’s cute. Cheetah because it’s fast, lion because it’s the king of the jungle, and horse because it is fast as well.

“That’s quite clever. It might surprise you, but your choices match the result. All five of them qualified for the final race.”

“Wow, Pop. Tell me more, tell me more!”

“Now, all the animals were given time to practice for the race. The race was designed well by Master Pikachu to match the standards of all the five animals. Each animal had to fight its own battle based on their respective strengths. Pikachu exclaimed,’PikaPika’ and the race began…

The Horse and Cheetah zoomed ahead incredibly fast; they were almost poised to win by a huge margin. And then came the twist!”

“Wait, let me guess.”

“Yes, go on Lolly. What could be the twist?”

“The two animals encountered an obstacle?”

“Exactly! There was a snow gate that was freezing cold. The Horse and the Cheetah were unable to open the gate. They tried with all their might, but their skin ceased to co-operate. The Lion reached the gate, but failed, too.
Just then, the Giant Panda appeared. It walked slowly at its own pace and greeted its opponents.”

“What’s the matter, folks? I thought you had won the race already,” he exclaimed.
The Horse conveyed that the snow-gate was posing to be a real challenge.

“Okay, don’t worry, I am here. I will use all my strength to open the gate,” he smiled.

The Panda opened the gate with ease, thanks to its thick, adaptable skin. It held the gate open for all the animals to cross. Finally, he leaped to the other side and found the Squirrel coming. It waited for the squirrel and closed the gate after the Squirrel sneaked in.

The five animals found themselves in a similar state after a mile. There was a door that had to be unlocked. The Panda and the Lion tried their hand in vain. The Cheetah and the Horse suggested that they wait for the squirrel.

Its tiny figure made it easy for her to get to the key through the hole. She handed the key over to the Cheetah. The Cheetah unlocked the door and let all the animals in.

The animals understood they had to move together. Each could compensate for the weakness of the others and win the race, simultaneously. So, they decided to keep going together.

Some animals altered their pace to suit the other animals. The next challenge was unique. A monster at the gate was not letting them pass. Finally, it was the Lion’s roar that did the job. It scared the monster away and the animals successfully cleared that hurdle, too.

The five animals took every step together and crossed the finishing line. Pikachu welcomed the winners and escorted them to the Pikachumia dining hall where they were served a sumptuous meal.

“So, Lolly, did you enjoy the story?”

“Yes, Pop. I did.”

“And what is your takeaway from today’s story?”

“My takeaway? Ummm... Each animal was unique and had its own share of strengths and weaknesses. As a team, the animals were able to surpass all the obstacles. Was this a lesson in teamwork?”

“Yes. You got it right. In addition to that, it also teaches us to dwell on our strengths rather than being hampered by our shortcomings. Always remember to look at what you are good at. It can help you in danger. Now, it is time for you to leave.”

“Alright Pop. I will see you tomorrow.”

“Hey, Lolly, just take this note and give it to your new friend. Bring her here, only if she insists.”

“Okay, bye.”

The next day:

Lolly picked the lollipops and put them in the pocket on his right. He realized that the pocket contained Pop’s note; he tucked the lollipops in the left pocket and zipped it carefully. He looked around and after a few seconds Ravneet greeted him.

“Hello, Lolly, what did your friend say?”

“Pop wants you to read this note.”

‘If you want to come here, please buy a lollipop for yourself. Lollipop of your preferred flavor, please! Because, we do not share lollipops here. No offence!’

“Okay, Lolly.” She bought a chocolate flavored lollipop for herself.

After walking for a few minutes, they reached Guru Dev Plaza.
 Pop was sitting in his usual chair, reading a thick book. He didn’t get up to greet them, but waited for the two to come closer.
“Hey Pop, here I am! And here she is.”
Lolly took Ravneet’s hand and offered a handshake. Pop accepted with a humble ‘Hello!’
Ravneet was struck by how handsome Pop looked. She guessed that he was about her age; his beard, the glint of the piercing in his left ear, and unkempt, tousled hair gave an impression that he was perhaps, a year or two older. His eyes had a magnetic pull of their own. And, as he sat there, on his chair, speaking, she did not hear a single word. A strong current of attraction drew her to him and she was momentarily lost.
Pop cleared his throat.
Embarrassed at not having heard him, Ravneet forced her thoughts back to the present.
The house was well-set. The room bore a strange, distinct aroma of jasmine. Ravneet sneezed. Pop offered her his handkerchief. Not managing to find her own, she accepted and sneezed once more into the fabric.
“Allergic to something?” Pop’s eyes glistened mischievously.
“The jasmine, I guess.”
She sneezed again and Pop offered her an inhaler from his pocket.
“I don’t share usually, but, this is unusual,” the corner of his lips turned up in the hint of a sympathetic smile.

Ravneet breathed the familiar odour of Vicks deeply and sighed with relief.
A beverage machine stood very close to Pop’s table, guarding him, perhaps. He pressed the familiar buttons without taking his eyes off Ravneet, who was, by now, a miserable wreck, with puffy eyes and a scarlet nose that could have put Rudolph the red nosed reindeer to shame. The machine poured hot tea into the Styrofoam cup.
He offered the cup to Ravneet, “The best remedy for everything.”
Grateful, Ravneet accepted the tea and thanked him.

She sipped the sweet beverage and felt the slight stirrings of comfort inside her chest. On the left, she glimpsed a few covered canvases which seemed like unfinished paintings. The mahogany bookshelf boasted of impressive titles arranged according to their genre.  Pop appeared to be meticulous and disciplined. She wondered if his taste in the arts matched her own.
Once Ravneet was comfortable, Pop spoke.
“Take your seats. It is time for a story and lollipop.”

Lolly and Pop took the wrapper off their respective lollipops. Ravneet followed suit and waited for Pop to begin.
Today, we will talk about luck. Or rather, good luck. Tell me, Lolly, what do you know of luck?” Pop asked the little boy.
“I know maa makes me have a spoonful of sweetened curd on exam days. And, it brings me luck and helps me score well. And, I wear a thread that she tied around my arm at the temple to bring me luck and protect me from everything bad.” 
“Quite right. In fact, that is what the story deals with. Good luck charms. Like your spoonful of curd and the red thread around your wrist.”
Ravneet listened patiently, afraid to interrupt and voice her opinion, for she never believed in things such as fate or good luck charms, but only in karma.

Pop continued.
“Once, there lived a boy of your age, Lolly. When I met him, he was about twelve years old. He was an excellent athlete, good at the field and even in the pool. He was a talented swimmer and had a lot of laurels bestowed upon him by his school and the state he lived in.”
“Oooooo, so this is a real story?” Lolly enquired. “I love stories that happen to people.”

Ravneet felt her cheeks burn as Pop glanced in her direction and they gave each other a mutual smile.
“Okay, so, the swimmer had to prepare for a state level 200 m free stroke championship. Free stroke swimming means that the swimmers have a great deal of freedom and they can choose to swim in any style they choose or like. Now, he had an excellent shape, already, due to regular sessions of training and exercise and healthy diets. All he needed to do was improve upon his speed, so that, he could prove before everybody, once more that he was the greatest swimmer of them all. He started going to his school pool and gave two hours to his practice in the morning and one hour in the evening, after his lessons.
His coach was impressed by his dedication and continued to bolster his confidence.
He used to beat all the other boys on the swimming team in the individual races and felt proud of his accomplishments.
However, like all human beings, he wasn’t perfect and had his share of weaknesses. Can you guess what his weakness was?”

‘I cannot guess his, but, I know for sure that you are becoming mine,’ Ravneet cursed herself mentally for concentrating more on Pop than on the narrative.
“Umm, you know the story, I don’t,” Lolly replied, petulantly pulling a face at Pop.
“Oh, well, that is right,” Pop laughed. “I only wanted you to take a guess. Never mind. Just tell me what happens if maa forgets to feed you curd on an exam day?”
“Oh, I don’t want to talk about it. Twice, she forgot and I had miserable scores in both those tests,” Lolly replied, disgusted by the memory.

Ravneet knew that luck had no role to play here. Everything came down to the belief Lolly had in the power of his good luck charm. He felt crippled without it and not very confident of himself, thus under-performing.

“I am afraid; the champion swimmer was just like you. He had a good luck charm, as well, and believed it was the reason why he won every tournament.
The day of the State championship was drawing nearer. On the very first day, having carried his good luck charm to the pool, the swimmer performed with brilliance. The same happened for the next two rounds as well, and he qualified for the semifinals.
On the morning of the crucial race, he forgot to pack the picture of Lord Krishna, which he carried for luck. When he reached the pool and began to change into his swimming trunks and fished for the picture in the pocket of his shirt, he found nothing. A sudden wave of panic engulfed him, choking him with overwhelming fear.
The race was to begin in two minutes and he couldn’t find his good luck charm!
He started sweating profusely, overcome with a strong sense of doom.
‘How do I win this race, now?’ he muttered, angry at himself for having been so careless.
‘Ten, nine, eight…’ the booming sound from the microphone brought him back to the pool. Tossing his shirt aside, he took his position, his legs trembling, worried beyond measure.
At the sound of the whistle, he jumped into the pool and instantly all his fear drowned in the cool shadows of the pool. 

Guess what happened next, Lolly?”
“He didn’t have his good luck charm, so he must have lost! Oh, poor swimmer. He was doing so well, I feel sorry for him,” Lolly scrunched up his nose as his lips bent in the opposite of a smile.
“Surprise,” Pop continued, “He managed to win the race, the champion that he was.”

Ravneet smiled at the way colour had blossomed into Pop’s cheeks, at how his eyes twinkled with a child-like happiness and energy, as if, he hadn’t been expecting this end at all.

“But, hooooooooooowwwwwwwww, Pop?” Lolly enquired, incredulous.
“It is really simple, Lolly. He was a great swimmer. Having practiced hard and given his all made him invincible. He underestimated himself and believed that a mere photograph had the power to transform his fortune. In reality, it was the dedication in his efforts that brought him the results. We are the creators of our own success; the reasons for our own failures. Always remember that.”
“But, why do my results turn out bad when I don’t have sweetened curd?”
“It is because you don’t trust yourself enough and believe superstitiously in the good luck charm. Believe in your charm; but always believe more in your preparation, in your own self,” Pop finished.
“Aha! So I need not be afraid of messing up the next time I forget my good luck charm? I just need to prepare well and focus on my exam, right?”

“Right!” Pop and Ravneet exclaimed in unison.
Lolly grinned. Then immediately, frowned.
“Today is Friday.”
“I am afraid it is,” Pop replied.
“I can’t see you for two whole days,” he was on the verge of tears.
“That is because I have so much to do during the weekend. But Monday is just around the corner, and so is another beautiful story. So, give me a million dollar smile?”
Lolly finished his lollipop, flashed his cutest smile and hugged Pop while he sat in his chair. They bid each other goodbye as Ravneet looked on.
“So?” Pop directed his gaze at her. He was aware of the vibrations between them, of Ravneet’s mesmerized look, of the direction in which she was heading. But, what surprised him most was that could neither confirm nor deny that he felt the same.

Ravneet blushed under his piercing gaze.
“Umm, if you don’t mind me asking, I would like to know more about you. I mean, what is with the daily storytelling sessions and lollipops and why you can’t see Lolly on weekends, and why you both have such strange names!” she blurted everything out without thinking twice.
“Oops, I didn’t mean…”

“It is okay. I don’t know if I can trust you, but, honestly, there is nothing special about me. I stay alone. I work at the school during the weekdays and take painting lessons for kids on the weekends. Then, I prefer to spend time by myself, doodling, sketching and painting. I have loved lollipops ever since I was three and Lolly completes my Pop. He is a special child, who brings me immense happiness on lonely evenings.”

“But, you must be twenty one or so?”
“Twenty-two, actually,” he smiled.
“Wow. I am twenty and still studying. You are lucky you are through with it!”
“I was never good at studying. Only sports.”
“Ah, so the swimmer story? Was that you?”
“It is almost dusk. I think you will be getting late. You should go and we can talk some other time,” a strange shadow that had nothing to do with the setting sun, played across his face.
“Whatever suits you,” Ravneet conceded.

Two Weeks Passed.
Ravneet grew fonder of Lolly and Pop with each story she listened to. The stories always managed to invoke a sense of contentment and happiness in her. Pop narrated with an enviable ease and as days went by, Ravneet became convinced she was in love with the storyteller.
One Friday evening, as they came to the end of the story on friendship, Ravneet decided to try her luck.

“I will see you both on Monday, after my weekend painting lessons,” Pop said.
“I paint, too” she chirped. “May I come over to watch, tomorrow?”
Pop sighed, unable to resist the attraction when he clearly knew better.
“All right,” he tried to smile.
Ravneet could have almost hugged him, but better sense prevailed and she walked out of the house.
Saturday awoke with a brilliant clear sky. Ravneet packed a roll of canvas and her paint brushes, palette and colours in her bag and set off towards Pop’s house.

The doors were already open and she couldn’t help but wonder if he closed them at all.
She could find no trace of the jasmine from the day before. A strong fragrance of water colour, oil pastels, charcoal, dust and art wafted through the entrance. She breathed in the perfume, reveling in the strange sense of divinity it brought her.  Enraptured by the fragrance, she made her way to the room. Pop was sitting in his usual chair, surrounded by ten or so kids, their backs to her, as they sat facing Pop, their artwork reaching different degrees of completion.
As he caught sight of her, an impish smile played on his lips.
Ravneet closed her eyes and breathed in deeply again, unable to let go of the addictive aroma.

“Don’t do that or you’ll start sneezing,” he teased.
Embarrassed at having been caught, she gave a nervous smile.
He looked even more handsome than the day before.
She sighed. Then broke her gaze away from his face and took in the joyous atmosphere around the room.

 “This. Is. Marvelous,” she breathed.
“I am glad you think so. Sit,” he offered her as some of the kids glanced up curiously in her direction.
“She is a new student,” Pop grinned. Ravneet smiled at the little kids and introduced herself. Satisfied, the kids went back to painting.
“Actually, I am not here to learn painting. I am here to learn more about you. I had a free day and thought if you would be willing, we could go out once your class is over, and continue what we couldn’t finish yesterday,” her eyes sparkled.

“Umm, I told you I wanted to be alone after the class. I do not like to go out. I am more of an introvert, Ravneet. And there is nothing left to say. I thought you wanted to paint,” he pointed accusingly at her canvas and paints.

“I do. But, I like to experience my subjects before I paint them.”
“What has that got to do with this, then?”
“Umm,” she hesitated, “I thought if you did not mind, I could paint you.”
“We barely know each other.”
“That is why I wanted to talk to you, no!” she was exasperated.
“I don’t think it is the right time. I am sorry.”
As the children painted, a stone wall of silence suddenly found its way between them.
“I thought we could be friends,” Ravneet stood up, enraged.
“I cannot afford the luxury of friendships. Thank you for your concern.”
“Fine, then. You shouldn’t be telling stories you don’t believe in. Friendships are a gift.”

Ravneet stormed out of the room in a fit of tears.
As the kids packed their materials away and prepared to leave, a strange darkness, not entirely made of the night, descended upon Pop’s house.
Bereft of Ravneet’s cheer and non-stop talking, Pop found himself frighteningly alone for the first time in years. Sunday dragged on agonizingly slow despite the class and the vibrancy the children brought.

He couldn’t focus and his thoughts kept drifting back to Ravneet; the earnest, childlike enthusiasm in her eyes, the sincerity of the friendship she had thought they could spawn.
But, could he afford to let her know?
They had just met and despite the magnetic attraction, Pop had his doubts as to whether she could handle the truth. More than her, he doubted his own self, wondering if he were strong enough to accept her decision.
With Monday evening, Lolly came rushing into the house, carrying their lollipops.
They sang their favourite line; he sat down, waiting for the story to tumble out of Pop’s mouth, as it always did.
He waited and waited. And waited.
The story never came.

Pop was lost, today. Lolly didn’t know where. The lollipop lay limp in Pop’s lap as he sat staring towards the door.
Suddenly, Lolly knew.
Ravneet had walked past him without answering his cheerful hello, as if he hadn’t existed. And, now, Pop was expecting her to arrive, but she hadn’t.
He got up slowly and placed his lollipop in Pop’s lap, too. Then, without a word, he left the house. Pop barely knew.
Only when a strong gust of wind slammed the door did Pop realize what had happened.
“I hurt her. And, now, I have hurt him, too,” he stared wistfully at the two untouched lollipops. They told him a story he hadn’t been able to narrate.
Tuesday came and went. So did Wednesday. And the rest of the week. Lolly never turned up, again.
Pop decided to apologize to both of them. But, how could he?
As if to answer his prayers, Lolly turned up on the weekend.
“I don’t care if you don’t want me here,” Ravneet asked me to give you this.

‘I haven’t been in love. Ever. Before this. Before you. I thought I wouldn’t know what it felt like and it made me sad. But, you know what, now that I know it, it hurts even more. I am sorry if this hurts you, but, I love you. I need to see you. If I don’t, now, I never will. Please?’
Pop stifled his tears and gave Lolly a careful reply to be taken to Ravneet.
‘I think it is a good time to get to know you. And, you know what; you can paint me, too. Love doesn’t hurt, Ravneet. But, people might. I think it is time for you to know the truth.’

Sunday arrived so late…as if a whole week had passed after Saturday. Pop had cancelled the class to meet Ravneet.
The door was open.
Dressed in a sleeveless white top and a pair of royal blue denims, Ravneet walked up to the entrance and knocked. Pop gave her a smile. She reciprocated with the same tinge of sadness in hers.
“Come, in! You don’t need my permission.”
“Oh, so things have changed in the past week?”
“I am afraid, yes,” Pop sighed. “I want you to know something, Ravneet.”
“Shhh, the light is just perfect. If we wait, I might not be able to paint you right.”
She fetched her paints and the canvas and erected the easel five feet away from Pop’s trademark chair.
‘I will have to paint the chair, too, since he is so fond of it,’ she thought to herself and set to work.
“Do I stay still?” Pop questioned.
“No, keep talking to me, so I can incorporate all the shades of your life onto the canvas, as they come out in your conversations.”

Pop spoke. She listened. For the next half an hour, as he told her about his history and shared experiences and learning and jokes, Ravneet found a new energy, falling more in love with the man she was painting; falling more in love with every stroke she painted.
“So, I had guessed it right. The swimmer was you. Sameer. I prefer your real name to Pop, you know!”
“I did not win that race.”
“Oh, then?”

“I still believe in good luck charms. The day of the race, when I missed mine, was the beginning of rheumatoid arthritis. The pain was so numbing I thought I would die. I had been swimming for so long it never occurred to me. I thought maybe working so hard had taken a toll. My legs refused to move but I didn’t give up. Only two months later, when walking became an exercise in gut wrenching pain and I decided to consult an expert, did I come to know I would be dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I still believe in good luck charms, and you have been mine. For the past few weeks, ever since I met you, my treatment has started working and I have been able to give up the wheelchair every now and then and maybe, with your strength, I can go back to who I used to be. I like to believe you made it possible.”

The paintbrush fell from Ravneet’s hands, staining Pop’s painted features with an unsightly scar.
A rivulet of tears ran down her cheeks and she closed the five feet gap between them in an instant.
“I am so so so sorry,” she hugged him hard.

“But, you don’t have to be. I am better off, now that you are in my life.”
“You…you..don’t under…hic…stand. I came to tell you something, too. I am leavin…ggg the city in a couple of days. My SAT coaching…hic…is over and I can’t stay here, any…any...more. And, if destiny wishes, I will be leaving the…the country, too, to study. I fell in love with you and I cannot change that. I just wanted to do something for you…hic.., before we had to part ways. But, I am ruining everything. I ruined the sket..ch..ch, too,” she sobbed hysterically.
She had expected the smile to fade from his lips, expected him to withdraw his protective arms from around her waist, expected him to break like she had.
None of that happened.

Pop hugged her tighter, bringing them both closer to each other and kissed her on the forehead.
“Okay, in that case, I want you to know that I love you, too. And, we will make it work. No matter what happens, I know we are meant to be. So, don’t you worry. Love always finds a way. All I want from you right now is an answer to one question.”
“What’s that,” she looked up at him through teary eyes.
“How do I wish luck to my good luck charm? How may I help you, Ravneet?”
She smiled, wiping away her tears and reached in her pocket, drawing a stick of chocolate lollipop. She peeled the wrapper away and offered it to him.
“By sharing this lollipop?”

A sudden sound of footsteps and then raspy breathing at the door startled them out of their reverie.
“No, no, no, you don’t have to share,” Lolly’s cheerful voice boomed at them.
“I got two of them, so now, we all can have one.”

That made them laugh.
Pop stood up from his chair. Ravneet leaned back into him, not afraid anymore. Lolly rushed up to them and fitted into the space between them like the last piece of a jigsaw. After all, love and lollipops could conquer it all. 

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