Chandrilota-10

Born and brought up in Tamil Nadu, V.S. Ramachandran knew that he had to get creative in order to make it into the world. Oftentimes referred to as the 'Marco Polo of neuroscience', Ramachandran invented a low-tech solution to the problem when he was researching on 'phantom limbs' -- a simple mirror box. When an arm or leg is amputated, patients still feel the presence of the amputated limb, even feel the pain if they find the 'phantom limb' kept at an uncomfortable position. Ramachandran's solution was to trick the brain into thinking you have both limbs, using mirrors, and therefore enable patients to 'move' their 'phantom limbs from uncomfortable positions thereby relieving the pain in many cases. Ramachandran is a genius of neuroscience and his work may have very well helped saved Chandri's life when I wasn't in it.

It was the first time that I had called in years. She was surprised, even though she was in a lot of pain, she took the call.

'Matraya, this is unexpected! Actually, I'm in the middle of something, so can I get back to you in a few days ?'

'Chandrilota, I know about the accident. In fact, that is why I have called.'

She sighed, and I heard the sound of ruffling bedsheets.

'Okay, a few minutes perhaps.'

'Listen, Souvik called me yesterday and told me about the pain therapy. Rohit and Sumana have been both working on a bionic replacement for days now -- I am helping too! How are you now ?'

We spoke for more than a few minutes. We decided on meeting over the weekend at the hospital to discuss the state of affairs.

'Is this your way of burying the hatchet ?' she asked, perhaps already knowing the answer.

'Well, would you rather it stays unburied ?'

'Perhaps not. I think we've had enough.'

My rivalry with Chandrilota at school had been professional, but given how cut-throat competitive schools always were -- it is not difficult to imagine that it would have gotten personal at some point. Some words had been said, which neither of had liked very much. Being young had not helped, in fact our disdain for each other's intellectual prowess had become personal. Some friends had tried to interfere, but to no avail. I had always thought that some truce was possible, but hadn't known when or how.

When I met her at the hospital over the weekend, she surprised me by apologizing first. I followed, telling her that we were both grown-up now and childish issues had to fall back to make way for newer things.

She smiled and tugged at my t-shirt, gesturing me to go and have lunch at the cafeteria. As the nurses move her to the therapy room, I told her that I'll be back in another 20 minutes.

As much as I would hate to admit it, the accident brought us closer. In face, it brought a whole group of friends together who would have otherwise not worked together. We were working on an advanced prototype from Sumana's undergrad project called BIOLIMB-II. It now ran a customized version of Arch Linux with rudimentary hardware driver support with Rohit and I had written together. Lyangcha, Arnob and Tilottama had worked on the hydraulic system and finally I had written a small module for the software-based coordination. After spending more than eight weeks on this, we were certain that both the software and hardware was stable for a first run.

My meetings with Chandrilota became more personal over these eight weeks -- by the end of which I was certain that the concentrated throbbing in my chest was not just empathy for a fellow human being, it was the same type of monster that had growled in Harry's stomach when he had set eyes on Ginny. I cannot be certain as to when it all began, but the rule was that nobody spoke about it. She has, to this day, maintained that there had been no growling monsters in her belly and that inferences of her tugging on my shirt is merely a case of confirmation bias. I have also been reminded that I will be kicked at a rather delicate part of my body if I ever mention the time she .. well, I do not want to get hurt. It wasn't exactly friendship even though nobody was ready to talk about it.

The therapy worked well, and after a lecture on neural plasticity that must have gone for hours, the doctors decided to discharge her. It was an eight-week battle but Chandrilota was finally coming home. We took her home and Kakima greeted us with tears and later mishti. I felt proud, primarily because she was strong and also that my comrades had all worked so hard for this moment -- it was finally time to see is BIOLIMB-III worked.

What happened next is a blur, the team decided on entrusting the installation of the arm on me, each of then had conveniently found excuses to leave. I love my friends, because they sometimes know the right things at the right moments. Sumana had smiled while Langcha had patted me on the back and tried to kiss me on the cheek. They had all walked away from us, leaving Chandrilota and me under an invisible mistletoe. Tilottama looked back and mouthed 'you owe us one.'

I winked and gave her a thumbs up.

'So do you want to get this going ?'

'Yeah, let me get rid of the padding.'

I attached BL-III to her arm and turned on the power -- three beeps confirmed that all systems were indeed functional. I then attached the usb to my laptop and we started with the basic calibration.

'Chandri .. is it okay if I call you that ?'

'What is it dumbo ?'

'We need to test the basic manoeuvres, so fancy a dance, pumpkin face ?'

We slowly swayed to Randy Newman's 'What a Wonderful World', her bionic arm wrapped around my neck while I guided her other hand in my own. She was standing on my toes, as we moved gently in her living room. Suddenly, her face was inches from mine and she drew me even closer. I stared at her, feeling that I should look elsewhere.

'What is it ?'

'The next time you call me pumpkin face is the time you lose your toes!'

A threat. How enchantingly beautiful a way to start a relationship! I told her that she had large eyes, momentarily after which I realized it's the stupidest thing anyone has ever said -- not that it mattered now. We leaned in and she kissed me, gently at first and then with more passion.

It is only then that we heard Kakima receding from the door, red-faced, 'Accha, ami ektu pore aschi!' This was a cringe worthy moment but Chandri was determined to make a point.

'Come here asshat!'

Kakima did not interrupt us further.

Finally, it is time to part and we have ice-cream while walking to the metro station, a mere 50-yards from her house.

'Kakima, aschi,' I wave red-faced. She smiles and waves.

There is much explaining to be done and I only have so much time, so I slide a letter into her jeans' pocket. Much of the train ride back and the subsequent flight to Pune is a blur. Fencing is a fine sport but one cannot always afford the armour in real life, so you dance till you drop. I imagine her, a small built boxer from the north-eastern part of the country, lightweight to a disadvantage but very observant and agile. She studies her opponent, much as a preying cat surveys her prey. Within minutes of the fight, she knows the pressure points in the opponent which will break them, she will keep defending her head against incoming blows and just when the opposition thinks she is exhausted and affords to play a bit risky, she strikes with precision and power. Chandri's eyes gleam like marbles on fire, and every hurdle an opponent waiting to be defeated. A blow to the neck, a blackout, a sharp cut of the blade, a risky shoulder-lock -- whatever you throw at her, it is in her nature to conquer.

I see her silhouette against the backdrop of the Kanchanjangha, her broad shoulders carrying a flag fluttering against the wind. She carries with her a silver lining, a place to call home.