The morning was still dark and it rained gently. Hari was still asleep with his books, laptop and camera. Sam had always been an early riser. He was ready to charge, wearing the best running gear money could buy; North Face Flashdry Jacket, Apple iphone, Garmin Forerunner watch, Asics Kayano shoes and Vapur water bottle. The university had a lush green woody campus with lakes, ponds and beautiful tracks for runners. Sam’s hostel was near the lake that travelled most of the campus. The morning was grey, foggy and the rain neutralized the colours of the leaves. It was still, silent and he could hear his steps through the chorus of falling rain drops. The birds hadn’t woken up yet or may have been holed up somewhere warm and cozy.

Sam loved running along the circular road alongside the lake. The narrow road had colonial style iron railings on the one side and thick leafy shrubs on the other. The lights with solar panels on their heads still glowed and lit-up the lake’s perimeter. The rain got slightly thicker, but his water resistant jacket didn’t soak in and become heavy. He was now stamping on small puddles of water and the sound added a much needed variety to the otherwise monotonous buzz of the rain and the chirping crickets.

I was so terrified Sam, will you protect me, the way you helped Mani? Will you?

The loneliness and anonymity gave Sam the freedom to sing along with the music flowing through his ears.

“I want to spend my lifetime loving you

If that is all in life I ever do"

Sam sang aloud with Marc Anthony and Tina Arena,

“Race the moon, catch the wind

Ride the night to the end

Seize the day, stand up for the light"

His longing for love echoed the sentiment of the song from the movie, “Mask of Zorro".

“I will want nothing else to see me through

If I could spend my lifetime loving you"

“Can I join you?" someone patted on his shoulder. He was serendipitously surprised to face the one girl he so wanted to be with.

“Hey, it’s Charu," she waved her hand across his face, “You look like you have seen a ghost."

She wore a pink jacket and tight black capri pants.

“I don’t care if you call me desperate, I so wanted to see you now," Sam gave a toothy smile, “And wow, do you know something, the song that I am listening to now is based on the raga ‘Charukesi’?"

Ok, that’s a little creepy," and she laughed out loud, “C’mon let’s start running."

Charu jumped onto a puddle with a thud and made sure the water splashed on Sam and laughed cheekily at Sam. Before he realized what had happened, Charu quickly took the lead.

“I had a weird dream this morning," she slowed a bit for Sam to catch up, “It looked like some white desert, maybe someplace like Kutch in Gujarat. Have you been there? It’s totally awesome and surreal. Anyways, it’s late evening; the sky was a brilliant blue with a glowing full moon on the horizon. The white salty sands were reflecting the moon and shining bright. The winds were blowing strongly and making this crazy ‘zzzz…’ noise," Sam noticed how her hands became animated when she spoke.

“Now listen to this. I am at what looks like a race track, wearing just a sexy red bra-top, white shorts and shoes and ready for the gun to fire. Next to me are two fierce and blood thirsty cheetahs. Both have deep chests and narrow waists. Black tear marks run from the corner of the eye down to their noses. An Egyptian looking tall man, he must have been atleast seven feet in height, was standing behind. All of us were tied to three leashes and he held them tight. Far across at a distance was a small baby, she was calling out affectionately ‘amma’ with open arms towards me. The Egyptian then roared like thunder, fired the gun and let loose the leashes. Both the cheetahs and me charged towards the baby,"

“Then what happened," Sam was glued to her dream.

“I was terrified and I woke up," but she did not look disturbed. “Then I saw you standing outside your room and wearing shoes and decided that I might as well join you."

“Wow, that is one freaky dream," Sam looked relieved, “I think it’s probably due to the play yesterday, with all the Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and all such. The practice and rehearsals must have gotten to you".

She stopped running suddenly and grabbed his arm, “I was so terrified Sam, will you protect me, the way you helped Mani? Will you?" she was emotional.

“I will sweetheart," and both continued running.

Sam, women have to negotiate a male dominated world, so to get ahead we paint a mirage and make men believe that they are always in charge.

The intensity of the rain had slowed by then and the sky had cracked up. A flock of parakeets had woken up lazily from their nests and announced the beginning of a new day. Sam and Charu were now on a marshy path and negotiated their way through pits and buffalo poo.

“I was slightly confused about your character," Sam was behind her, “Don’t you think your character displayed contradictory emotions?"

“What was contradictory?" She responded curtly.

“I am sorry, didn’t hear you?" Sam took long steps towards her.

“I asked, what was contradictory?" she repeated.

“In the beginning Draupadi was arrogant and rude, then after Caesar’ rebuttal, she becomes emotional and cries; then later she flirts with him. I found that strange."

“Sam, can I ask you a question? You have craved for ice cream all your life and no one cared to ask why; the first man said ‘Jamoon’ (Indian sweet) was the best choice, the second man thought desserts were fattening and refused, the third man offered to give you a small spoon of ice cream if you favoured him, slowly you become wise to the game. The next man says he has the last cup, what will you do?" Charu was philosophical.

Sam’s eyes widened and he looked at her confused.

“Sam, women have to negotiate a male dominated world, so to get ahead we paint a mirage and make men believe that they are always in charge. Like Draupadi said, you men are fools, so easy to please," she chuckled.

“That’s heavy. So tell me where are you from? What does your dad do?" Sam tried to change the topic.

“My dad ran away with another lady when I was six and amma died two years back," she smiled at him, “My school sponsors my education now."

“I am sorry Charu. Didn’t know you had to struggle growing up," Sam stopped her and held her hands in a way to console her.

Charu smiled at him, “Okay, okay it is getting a bit boring now. C’mon lets continue running."

The marshy track led them to a beautiful leafy green patch which looked like a lost garden with rocky steps surrounded by thick bushes. The shrubs had shoots that emerged outside with yellow blooms and were shaded with maroon lines. Next to it were dandelion weeds with its flowers all dried up, waiting for a brisk wind to disperse its seeds.

Charu slowed down to investigate the foliage around, “So why do you want to study technology?"

“Because I love it," his response came across as if that was even a question, “And I love creating stuff."

“I love these dandelion flowers," she plucked one and blew it while the seeds flew away all around. The rains had completely subsided and a plethora of sights and sounds opened their show. She stood there mesmerised at the thick growth. A long wiggly earthworm moved stealthily on the rocky floor. Charu kneeled down and placed her forefinger next to its head, and started laughing out loud when it curled itself, and exclaimed “Aren’t they so cute."

“I am sorry, did you say something?" she inquired still examining the earthworm.

“Never mind," irritated Sam walked away from her.

“Hey what happened? I am sorry; I get too excited with nature and animals. So tell me, tell me, all yours now," she ran closer to him and held his hand.

“So aren’t you happy doing development?" Sam was excited at the touch.

“I am, but I can get easily bored too," she looked into his eyes. A brief pause continued and she gently kissed him on his lips. She continued to stare at him. Sam though excited was taken aback at the abruptness. She giggled and ran ahead of him.

Sam followed her, unsure of how he should respond. His hormones were kicking in, “Is she in love with me?" he wondered.

Charu ran faster than he had expected. The rocky path now led to a bushy area and Charu was not to be seen. Sam became anxious and took longer steps. The bushes were thorny and small purple flowers had blossomed everywhere. Sam could smell something acidic and pungent. Sam was worried if they had taken a wrong path out to nowhere. He became desperate. “Charu! Are you there?" he called out.

Aagh!" he shouted in pain. His legs were scratched by the thorns and the last one cut him deep. He stood there patiently till he slowly removed the thorn from the wound. Sam was worried, “where is Charu now? How could she have disappeared?" He did not have his mobile phone to reach for help. There is no way he could go back and find an alternative route. The bushes looked taller and his pace had considerably slowed. He could hear voices or moans he couldn’t tell. “Were they human voices?" Sam wondered if he was hallucinating. He had heard rumours that there were leopards in the campus. The story goes that it attacked a lone freshman who had wandered astray. They discovered the semi decomposed body only after several days.

He heard noises again. The land beneath began to get steeper. The bushes were getting crowded and thicker. But he was determined to see the end of it. Sun light was sneaking in through the foliage as he climbed up. “Those were definitely human voices", he gave a sigh of relief. He was now so preoccupied with his safety that he forgot about Charu.

“Aaah!"

“That was definitely a girl’s voice," Sam was now sure that Charu was in some kind of trouble.

He pushed himself through the final set of bushes, stepped over a rock and gave a firm push to get through.

He reached a narrow road and behind a small tea shop. The voices were coming from inside the shop. He ambled to the front side patiently with cuts all over his body. Charu was sitting on a bench with a small boy who was playing with a toy car. She was drinking tea.

“What took you so long?" she asked, “oh my god, you have cuts all over," and she rushed towards him.

“I was so worried about you," Sam was emotional seeing her, “And I am glad to see you."

Charu gave him a tight bear hug, “Come let’s get you bandaged."

The little boy watched the couple walk away slowly towards the rising sun.