It’s the first of a new series of stories I’m going to write over at Medium, just to see what the platform can offer. I’m not ditching WordPress; this is where I first started writing, and I hope to complement both of them in some way. Perhaps I could actually use this blog more as an actual blog than as the place where I put out my finished work. I could think here. Maybe. But wherever this leads, I’ll keep you posted.
As for this story, I first came up with a draft of this after a visit to a village called Pavumba in the Kayamkulam district of Kerala, where a close friend’s family is from. Most of these characters are real, as flesh and bone as you and I are, but their actions are wholly imaginary. The biggest struggle I had with this story was how to end it. I needed an emotional attachment, something that wanted to keep Manikuttan here, and I wanted to nest that in a setting of loneliness and nostalgia. Kerala is famous for sending its sons and daughters abroad, but I wanted to explore what the sons felt when the time came for them to go. It’s a deeply felt story, as much about the place in which it is set as it is about the people that inhabit it.
I hope you like it, and do comment, here or on there. Your words are the solitary writer’s only encouragement.
I unplugged the charger and picked up my phone from the bare table. I had removed the tablecloth some time ago and the peeling paint revealed patches of rust, like scars suddenly thrown open to the world.
My bags were packed; the huge suitcase was full and locked, and my abandoned mattress lay in a corner of the room. It was too much of a bother to lug it all the way home, and anyway hostels could do with spare mattresses. The warden would find use for it.
I made to walk out, but then turned and looked at my room again. It was like I’d found it when I first opened the doors two years ago – empty and clean. Except it had been bright when I’d arrived, the cheery sunlight painting the floor tiles orange.
It’s dark today when I’m leaving, the mountain wind blowing in with the night.
I carried my luggage down the stairs, having to do it twice to get all my stuff down.
Everything was done, then. The hostel formalities, the farewells to the professors, the promises to friends about meeting soon, the packing, the last walk through the campus, the last dinner at the mess, the last class, the last exam. I had in my hand the piece of paper that declared that my post graduate studies were over and that I could leave.
That was it, then. I could leave.
I sat down on the suitcase at the hostel door, my knees bending with the weight of hundreds of memories.
There was a mountain there right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it. It was hidden by the night. Everyday, I had opened my eyes to the mist on this mountain, unconsciously taking an indelible picture. Tomorrow morning, it would still be there, but I wouldn’t see it.
I couldn’t put it away anymore. I took the phone out.
The ringing. To my ears it seemed a shrill, foreign sound. It unnerved me.
I hadn’t talked to her in ages. I didn’t know how long it’d been. I didn’t even know if she wanted to say goodbye. But I had to tell her I was going; it seemed the right thing to do.
I would never think of my time here without thinking of her, and she would never be able to think of her time here without thinking of me. I couldn’t leave just like that. We owed that much to each other.
She picked up.
“Hello”, she said, and the blowing wind paused to hear her voice.
“Hey”, I said.
Silence. It must have been five seconds or so, but it felt like more. A lot more. Like when you sit on a bus and think about something in your past and you travel across time and space and pain and memory and are lost and when you look up again, you realize you are still in the bus. That kind of a silence.
“I’m leaving”, I said.
“Now?”, she asked.
“I’ll wait at the gate”, she said.
She hung up.
Wait at the gate. Okay.
The cab arrived and I threw all that I had inside. I stole one last look at the hostel and the volleyball courts and the invisible mountain as the driver sped up. It’s strange how the things you’ve been seeing for days and months, things you know well but don’t really notice, how they suddenly seem so different and beautiful when you know you won’t see them again.
As the bend opposite my department arrived I asked the driver to stop.
I needed to go back there one last time.
Something that belonged to me was still there.
The lawn had just been watered, and my shoes made squishy sounds as I walked towards the entrance. No one was there, and in that darkness, the greenery looked richly desolate.
I knew where I had to go.
The student board had one of my hand written poems in it. I wanted it back. Taking it was my way of signifying that my life was moving; it was going somewhere else, though I didn’t know where yet.
It was then that I saw that there was nothing there. The board was empty, save the small glinting brown pins.
I turned back.
The empty board was telling me something too. I didn’t have to take anything back. My poem was already gone; it didn’t belong here anymore.
Nor did I.
I sat in the cab, the dull thud of the closing door startling me.
This was it.
I didn’t know if I had it in me. To say this goodbye. I’d thought about this so many times, what I would say to her, what I would feel, how we both would explain to each other what had happened to us in this university between the mountains, where our romance had threatened to burn forests down.
Once upon a time we’d been in love, and we’d screwed it up beautifully, she in her own way, and I in mine, and we’d lost each other to each other, if that makes any sense.
And now I was going to see her, perhaps for the last time.
I told the cab to stop near the gate, where the railway crossing was closed for the train, and walked back towards the ATM on the side road, the asphalt crackling under my feet.
She was where I knew she would be, near the tree with the huge yellow flowers; she was reading. I stopped, I couldn’t go on. She saw me, stood and walked towards me. I just stared.
I remembered kissing her in that very ATM, remembered her running into my arms in the backstage darkness after our super-successful fest, remembered putting her to sleep on trains when we travelled, remembered looking into her eyes during presentations, remembered watching her order all the food that I would have to finish.
I remembered so much.
I hated it that I remembered everything.
She had come up to me, soundlessly, like only she could.
“So”, she said.
She was all of five feet, and once she’d been half of the rest of me.
I looked into her eyes, beautiful and not sad at all, and I knew she was. She was like that, she was the opposite of what you saw in front of you. She was beyond gorgeous, and even in that darkness, she could not help but glow. That was why she was so beautiful, because she never paid attention. She had other things to do in life.
I didn’t say anything.
“When is the train?”, she asked.
“Mine is early tomorrow”, she said, even though I hadn’t asked.
I had lost her, and it was a loss that I would never be able to reconcile with. Maybe later, years later, but not now. Or maybe never. It was that kind of a love. We’d been that kind of lovers.
The night train passed the crossing in a deafening rush, the ground vibrating beneath us, and the gate opened with the familiar mechanical rattle.
“I love you”, I said finally, my voice breaking just when I did not want it to.
When we were together, I always kept my hand on her head when she was worried or upset or when I felt she needed me. It calmed her, and sometimes she herself asked me to do it.
It was our own little gesture of understanding and commitment, our own small secret.
She took my hand and placed it on her head, her eyes holding back tears of her own.
The cab driver honked.
“Take care, baby”, I said.
“You too”, she said, and before I could say anything more, she turned and started walking back.
I stood there, looking at the girl I’d loved and lost. And it took me some time to realize what I’d seen in her other hand, what she’d been reading.
I’d called that poem ‘the wind in her wake’.
The line ‘She was all of five feet, and half of the rest of me’ was inspired by this post on Alfaaz ki Barsaat, and another post of her’s gave me the words ‘burning forests down’, which I use in the beginning of this story. Y’all should go read her poetry. She’s just amazing.
Written during a fiction writing workshop with writer Jerry Pinto at the British Library, Bangalore, this is my first work to be critiqued, reviewed and rewritten dozens of times. Originally meant to be a 500 word short story, it stumbled on to 700, and is part of my attempt to capture something of Madras and its people. Read.
4 pm is a strange time, she thought. It’s not the evening, and its not afternoon either. It’s a slow, strange time. She adjusted the basket on her hip, and resumed.
“Meenu Meenu, Sangarameenu”, her loud voice echoed unnaturally, reflected back from the jutting iron beams, the mounds of sand and the un-plastered bricks of the new houses.
There were only a few fish left today, an amount she would usually take home to cook, but the lady at the end of this street often bought some at this time. She ambled on, her path now familiarized with routine, past the Bihari laborers shouting incoherently at each other, past the one-eyed dog wagging its tail with interest, past the overflowing drain where a big dead rat was being fought over by a few crows, to the large metal gate, painted a deep, morose brown.
It was only when she peeked in, ready to announce her arrival, did she actually see the bikes and scooters outside the house, the rising homam smoke, and all the people. “A pooja”, she thought as she turned around instinctively, already thinking about what she could make with the fish for the children’s dinner.
“Irunga ma”, a voice called. Wait. She turned around to see a boy come bounding across the portico, dodging the swing and dozens of chappals. She recognized him, it was the lady’s school-going son.
He arrived before her in a second, and handed her a box of sweets. Before the gift could be acknowledged and thanked for, he had already jumped back into the smoke and the commotion in a flash of teenage feet.
Ah, something for the kids, she thought, as her legs picked up pace unconsciously and cut through the market. She could not wait to get home now. David and Nancy would already be back from school, and they would eat sweets tonight.
She had reached the main road, and now had to take a share auto home. Five rupees was a lot of money, and she usually walked the whole distance, but today was special. She put down the basket, smoothed her saree, tied her hair up again and squatted by the bus stop. It had been a good day, there was money in the cloth purse at her waist and it hadn’t been that hot.
The Madras evening descended around her, the breeze trying to assert the ocean’s proximity, as she threw her basket in the back of the share auto.
And amidst the young man immersed in his phone, the old man with the jute bag and a frowning girl, she saw Nirmala.
“Akka”, she called out happily. “Adiyei, vaa vaa”, said Nirmala, and the two friends jostled for space in the cramped vehicle.“Hospital la enna sonnaanga?”, she asked eagerly. What did they say at the hospital? Nirmala just smiled. “Please ka, sollunga ka”, she implored.
Nirmala turned and smiled, “Solren, shhh”.
It seemed like a long time to her, the 5 minute ride that usually was over in a jiffy, before the auto driver cried out “SRP Tools!” Both of them got off and picked up their baskets.
“Naa amma aaga poren di”, said Nirmala quietly, as the roar of the auto died away into the cacophony of the Old Mahabalipuram Road.
I’m going to be a mother.
She did not add ‘at last’, because her friend knew. David was 10, Nancy 8, & Nirmala, two years older than her. Though she often tried to understand what her friend must feel, she knew she never would. She would never understand what Nirmala had gone through.
“Sweet kudunga Akka”, she asked Nirmala, and immediately regretted it. Nirmala never had any money. Her friend’s husband, unlike her own, was a drunk.
She put her basket down, pulled away the sack under which she had hidden the sweet box, and thrust it into Nirmala’s hands.
Nirmala looked at the box and turned away, managing to get the two words out before her voice broke, “Apa pasangalukku?”
For the children?
“Meenu Meenu Sangarameenu”, she cried out loudly and smiled, raising the basket to her hips as the street lights came on above them.
It was not the normal cold that morning.
It was different. Something more, something approaching freezing but not there yet. It was a feel-miserable kind of cold, as if the morning knew what was coming, and was preparing for it.
My phone rang around 6. I wasn’t asleep, nor awake, nor dreaming. Whatever I was, I wasn’t ready.
It was a friend from University. I could only remember snatches from that conversation later. It wasn’t even a conversation – he talked for two minutes as I felt my heart grow cold like the wind outside.
I was running even before my eyes could adjust to waking up. Nandita, jogging, accident, hospital. The words repeated themselves like a cassette stuck in my father’s old Panasonic tape recorder.
This is not happening. This is not happening.
My mind, bewildered and shocked into a state of mind I’ve never known, kept repeating the line, as if by doing so, I would wake up from the dream & after some time, laugh at it all.
I didn’t wake up. This was no dream.
The antiseptic whiteness of the hospital welcomed me, the neon lights lit up in a morbid smile at the nurse’s desk. “Nandita”, I blurted out, letting my hastily wiped away tears do the rest of the talking. “She’s being operated upon”, she added as she told me where to go.
Operated upon? Nandita? My Nandita? Oh fuck.
Her parents were there, the professor and the banker. And Rohan was with them.
He nodded at me. I nodded back.
He came up to me. “Milk van”, he said, through pained, lost eyes. “The driver was drunk”. I nodded again. Both of us stood together in an awkward expression of mutual tragedy.
Until it all became too much for me. I ran to the rest room and threw up.
I was asleep on the stairs in the hospital corridor, my classmates standing around me, when she died.
I never said goodbye.
The days that followed remain blurred. It must have been day later, I think, when I went to our empty classroom on a whim, sat down at my desk, looked at her place, and promptly lost it.
I rushed outside and walked to the far end of the playground, where, guarded by that minor mass of young humanity, I could sit down and let it all out. I looked out into the distance, the running and the shouting and the crack of cricket bat against ball and the sound of footballs being kicked all dissolving into one huge din of background noise. All I could feel was a hole in my chest. Unable even to cry, I just looked.
Because that was all I had now.
How did ‘us’ happen? We were in our third year, not exactly spring chickens. We were bookworms, the both of us, romantics, yarn-spinners, prolific walkers, put together in a class by an irritating professor who will never know what she started. There was a time when both of us forgot that there was such a thing as time. But before that day, I’d never given the girl with the glasses a second thought.
It was a Friday afternoon, and it was raining, a few drops of which found their way inside through the window onto our desk. Both of us weren’t writing anything, and as we sat there, each of us in a world of our own, my bored eyes found the book in her satchel. I pointed at it, & she passed it to me silently, almost reverently.
It was Murakami. Norwegian Wood.
I turned the pages of the well worn book, one of those lovely old editions you find at second hand bookshops.
“I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?”
She had underlined this sentence.
It was 11 by the time I said goodbye to her and started walking back to my hostel. She called at 11:03.
I talked to her all night and met her for breakfast at the University canteen next morning. I talked to her all day and all night again and took her out to the town on Sunday. We only stopped talking on Monday morning. Because we had classes to get to. And we resumed immediately when the classes got over.
I had never talked to her before. Not once.
It was sorcery. Magic of a kind that had never happened to me before.
And it went on and on. It just never stopped.
Until it did.
It was three months since that rainy day, the day a book brought us together in a way we could not understand, let alone try to explain.
It had been four days since the drunk driver of a milk van had run down a girl out for a jog on a winter morning.
I was sitting on the lawn opposite the canteen, when I made out the shape of Rohan walking in my direction. I wished he would go away. I did not want to talk to anybody, least of all him. But he kept coming, a faraway figure coming into focus as he came nearer and sat next to me.
It was some time before he talked. “You okay, man?”, he asked. I just nodded. “His parents don’t know about you, they still think she and I were together”, he said. I nodded again. I knew all this. He knew I knew all this.
Not that I didn’t want her parents to know me. Not that I didn’t feel like shit when they consoled a crying Rohan. Not that I didn’t want to tell them that we were together, had been for three months and loved each other in a way that could only be described as madly.
I did, I wanted all of it. But I had no spirit in me to tell them. They were grieving, as I was, and they had enough to think about. They’d brought her up, from when she was a baby to a child to a young woman. I’d known her three months. Three roaring months, yes, when we did not know where she ended and I began. But three months nevertheless. 90 days. It felt so short when I put it that way.
He started to walk away. The he turned, & said “Wait here”.
I didn’t say anything.
He came back in an hour or so, by which time I’d forgotten that he had asked me to wait. I was still sitting there on the lawn, as the winter air enveloped me.
“Here”, he said, “Her books. Her parents gave them to me. You should have them.”
I took the satchel from him, the touch of it sending me into world of pain. I showed him none of it, though, as I got off the lawn and walked away.
I held them close to my chest, as close as I could without choking, as I cried on the walk back to my room. The darkness hid my tears and I was thankful. I didn’t want pity or consolation. I’d had more than enough of it.
I opened her satchel. She loved Murakami most of all, as I did. But she also loved Dostoyevsky, Pasternak and the master, Gogol. I’d never read the Russians, but she worshipped them. There were five books in it, of which one I’d given her. The rest of her quite sizable library was at her parent’s home, I knew. A pang of regret stung me again. I should have known them, I cursed myself. I should have.
But we thought there was time, another voice said.
There seemed to be so much time.
I took out the books one by one. There was Doctor Zhivago, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, the book I’d given her – IQ84, and lying at the bottom, oblivious of everything it had done, was the old, tattered copy, of Norwegian Wood.
I knew it was there in that satchel of hers. I knew it the moment Rohan gave it to me.
I took it out and turned the pages to find a particular sentence the girl I loved had considered beautiful enough to mark, and remember.
“I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?”
Even as renewed tears rushed out and dampened the page, already tainted with the stain of a memory it would have to carry forever, I wrote one word beside the line her pencil had made.
For those who are coming in now, I’ll repeat the reminder – this post is a continuation of the earlier two. So if you’re new to Raghu & Priya’s story, read the earlier posts before you read this one.This is the third & final part of the story.
For those who have been following Glimpses from the beginning, Thank you, for all those messages and tweets and calls, telling me how much you liked & enjoyed the story. You guys were awesome & I hope my writing doesn’t disappoint you, now, or ever.
I got quite a lot of questions. The most common question was if I played football. No people, I don’t. I play cricket and if you can make it to Amrita University, Coimbatore on the 9th of this month, you can watch me play in the white and red of Amrita School of Business. I’ll be the guy wearing number 88.
I unlocked the door & walked in. My watch said it was quarter to six. My timing was good. 6 laps around the block in 45 minutes. I still had some football in me. Maybe I could’ve played a bit more. Maybe I should have gone for the job that Air India offered me, I’d have been part of their football team, played in the National League & maybe, just maybe, in National Colours.
I smiled to myself. I’d never have taken the job. Ever. There was a reason why.
The reason was asleep in the bedroom across the hallway.
The reason had a name. Priya.
I opened the door, as slowly as I could, and there she was. She never could wake up in the mornings. The only times she used to was to come to my matches when we were at University. There she was, at one time the girl I loved, now, the woman I call my wife. She was exquisite even when asleep, actually, especially when asleep. As if nothing could ever disturb her. As if she was just that, her beauty eternal, frozen in time and space, never to be destroyed, something perpetually magnificent.
I walked up to her, removed a golden strand of hair from her eyes, twirled it behind her ear, bent down and kissed her.
The grin never left my face as I removed my tracks and trainers and walked to the kitchen. You never could tell with her. Sometimes she would want coffee, sometimes she’d have none of it. Sometimes she’d want orange juice. Sometimes she even wanted my Gatorade. As I said, you never could tell with my Priya. She was always like that.
I took out the coffee from the refrigerator. It’d been a hell of a ride with her. But it’d been worth it, every step of the way. From the day it dawned on me that I just had to be with her all my life, the day we had told our parents, the madness after that, and the day we’d won, at last.
Wow!! We’d been through a lot.
Her father had been unconvinced. He’d looked at me once and went into heart attack style convulsions. He’d wanted an IAS or summat, you know, one of those guys who listen to whatever their fathers say, get straight A’s through everything, wear shirts and button their collars, hold a handkerchief in their hand all the time and when asked a question, look at their Dads for inspiration. Translated – he’d wanted a geek. What’d he get? Ummm. Me.! No wonder he reacted the way he did. I’d have been surprised if he hadn’t.
But in all that, he’d said just one thing that made sense, one thing that I knew he was right about. He knew I wanted to play football and that I would chase my dream. And he knew that it wasn’t a stable life. I might have to move a lot, travel a lot, and be away from home. The pay would be crummy. I had no idea if it would be enough to give Priya everything I wanted to give her. I couldn’t take her on that journey. It was the life of a travelling athlete. It wasn’t the life for a married couple. He was concerned about his daughter’s future. He was her father, and he was spot on.
I asked him for time.
My mother was another story altogether. You see, it’s easy to handle threats and harsh words. What cannot be handled are tears, high pitched wails, and statements like “Was this why I sent you to college? To bring a girl home and tell me that you want to marry her?”
This sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Well, it isn’t!
This would be accompanied by several spoken and unspoken insinuations that I’d somehow committed an unforgivable crime. “You want to spoil the family’s standing in society”. Whoa! Why would I wanna do that, of all things? Dad didn’t mind actually, but coz Mom’s performance was worthy of a Golden Globe, he too pitched in.
All this lasted till the day I brought her home. My sister was transfixed, with one look she was sure that I should marry only Priya and was on our side throughout. I’d expected that. Sisters are made that way. My mother, ever the headmistress of her school, grilled her, much the same way Priya’s father had grilled me. The difference was, Priya had the answers. I always knew that Mom would be convinced once she met Priya. I was right. It may be also because of the fact that by then Mom knew she had no choice in this whatsoever. That was tough, but we did it.
The coffee was almost done. She liked it black. I didn’t know why. I liked it with milk and sugar. I always had. We were both very different personalities, as I noticed sometimes, but it all somehow came together, like magic. But I suppose our love is exactly that – magic.
I took the two mugs to the bedroom. She was as I’d left her, peaceful, her tranquil face lost in a world of dreams. I tore my gaze away from her face and looked out the windows, at the light of an approaching winter morning.
I had had a choice. I could’ve chosen her and football, or I could’ve chosen just her. She’d have been alright with anything. But I couldn’t take the chance. What if something went wrong? One injury, one sprain could take down my career. She would have had to struggle through my early playing years, until I made it big. If I made it big. And that was a big If. She would have wanted me to follow my heart and she would have stuck it out through everything that came with it. She loved me. She would do it, happily. She would face it all. That I knew.
But could I do that? Put her through all that?
I loved her more than she loved me. Or so I like to argue with her.
I chose her. Just her.
Do I regret it?
No. I don’t. Not for one moment. Not ever.
No achievement, no accomplishment of mine, would ever be complete without her. When I had won the University Cup, I had searched for her piercing brown eyes in the crowd. When I’d got through the placement process for Caterpillar, I’d run to her like wild dogs were after me. When she’d got through her interviews for Tata, I’d been there outside, and held her hand when her name was announced. I don’t know about other people, but that’s the way we were. We still are.
My place was beside her. It always would be.
“What are you thinking?” said the voice I loved. She was by my side. She could do that. Walk through the house with no noise whatsoever. She looked up at me, with that gaze that could see through me. She knew what I was thinking. But then she always did. She shuddered. It was cold. I put my arms around her.
“Liar.” She said and smiled.
I passed her the mug. She snuggled closer to me and had a sip of the dark brown liquid.
“Are we going out today, Raghu?”
“Do you want to?”
“Then we are babe. Of course we are.”
For those who came in late, this post follows the last one. So if you’re new to the story, read the earlier post before you start this one. And if you’re already familiar with Raghu and Priya’s story, read on..
There’s just one thing I failed to mention before. The University, the locations, even the Football League outside our mess hall and the Amrita Trophy are accurate descriptions.. Every bit is true. These are real places the story is taking you..
The Story Continues..
I woke up with a start.
Lord No, had I overslept? Please God, not today! I frantically reached for my phone and checked. Phew!
I said a small prayer. Nothing should go wrong today. Not one thing. It meant so much to him. And to me too.
I threw away my covers, stood up and opened the window. The cold draft hit my face like a splash of fresh water. I could see nothing in the mist outside. Ettimadai was famous for being this way. It was best in the mornings, the greenery invigorating, the coldness refreshing and the mist just breathtakingly beautiful. Many a morning I had lazed here, sipping hot coffee and looking at the hills that stretched as far as I could see.
My phone beeped its message tone. My heart leaped. It was 5. Raghu was up. I ran to pick it up. It’s been three years, but his morning message is still my drug, my opium. I’m addicted, I truly am, not to the drug, but to the peddler, to Raghu, in every way possible.
“Priya, big day for me girl. I just wanna say this. Everything’s been because of you. Every single thing. You’ve made my dreams come true, but you know what? You are the biggest dream of them all. Come soon baby. Love you”
His words always have the same effect. I just can’t wait to see him. I ran off to get ready.
Coming Baby. Love you too.
The stands are half full. I’m standing near the gym’s entrance as hordes of people make their way to the ground, most of them in jackets and sweaters. Some of them gave me knowing smiles. We were no secret. Kinda difficult to keep it under wraps, we were inseparable and I sometimes even went to his training sessions. We gave two hoots anyway. The mist was lifting and the pitch was just about visible. It was still very cold. I pulled my sweatshirt’s hood up. Where was he?
There he was.
He walked towards me and I could see he was nervous. It was the biggest game of his life, the final of the Amrita Trophy. He’d fought long and hard to get here, but I wanted to see him win. He deserved it. From street football to captaining Amrita University, the boy I loved had come a long way. He stopped in front of me and took my hand. It was all we could do, but my face burned. I badly wanted to kiss him. But I held back. He had a trophy to win. Time for all that later. He looked at me and squeezed my hand “Wish me Luck, Priya”. That look of his. It always made me feel that he could see through me, that he could somehow read my mind. “You’ll win”, I said and that was enough for him. He walked to the edge of the pitch, bent down to touch the earth, and went in, as the crowd screamed, whistled and cheered their captain on.
I watched him as he ran, wearing the new Reebok studs that I’d got for him. I watched his muscles work, the sweat dripping from his brow, as he sent in the first goal. I rose with the crowd and shouted myself hoarse. I was proud of him, always had been, always would be, but at such times I felt truly glorious. My mind wandered back to our time together, a treasure chest of memories. That day during Anokha when he told me he loved me, the train trips, the long evening walks, the movies at Coimbatore. There were just so many of them. How he’d changed for me, from a boy who cared about almost nothing to the boy who is now a regular volunteer at orphanages, from a boy who’d never come on time to class to the boy who never makes me wait even for a second, from the boy who hated looking at a book to the boy who was starting to Australia today for his final project.
That stopped my chain of thought. I didn’t want to think about his leaving, not now. I had promised myself that I wouldn’t even think about it till evening. It wasn’t working. I felt myself slip.
But again Raghu made it easier for me, netting another one. I jumped up and cheered, the ordeal of the evening pushed back again, but still nagging at my heart, like a string tugging at a flying kite.
I stood at the gate, waiting. The match was over. Raghu had lifted the trophy. Amidst a cacophony of celebrations and mind numbing noise, he had come over and given the trophy to me. It was all he wanted, to play for his university, and to play well. He had done better. He had led his university team to glory. And I had stood by his side.
But he was going now.
And I could not bear the thought of it.
This was his career, his life’s biggest opportunity, his triumph on a path that I had led him on. I had made him study, work on his subjects as hard as he worked on his football. And he had trumped both. He was one of the very few chosen to go abroad to do their projects. I was happy. Of course I was.
But he was going. For six months. What was I going to do?
I was afraid too.
We had never discussed our future. It seemed stupid at that time. We were in love. How would it matter? I had never seen any reason to think about it. But now, as he left, I felt stranded. What was gonna happen to us? Would it just end, like another one of those cute college romances? My mind swirled as it comprehended the enormity of the situation. It had all been a fairy tale. I had lived a dream. But it felt like this would be the end. Life had caught up with us. Our four years of insulation from the rest of the world was gonna end. I had known this of course, that we would have to talk about this. I had dreaded it, but I had known it. I just had not foreseen that it would come down upon us so fast.
But I would not ask him. Not now. Raghu was heading towards his life. I would not stand here and ask him to make promises. He had given me everything, every inch of happiness that I had was because of him. He owed me nothing. And I would not put pressure on him. Maybe it was how it was meant to be.
I saw them.
Raghu and Hari walking towards the gate, from the ATM. I pulled myself together. I could not cry, not after holding on so long. I had to let him go.
Hari was the one who came near first, “Bye, beautiful”, he said. He always called me that. This guy was the reason we were together. He had refereed our fights, got us out of trouble, stood up for us, even given proxies for us when we were off together. He was our best friend, and I loved him for what he gave us. I could not speak. I was breaking down. But he put his hand on my mouth, “Don’t say anything”. He gave me a package in red wrapping. I knew what it was. It was a photo of the three of us together, framed in some ornate casing. Raghu had told me. “Raghu wants to say something to you, don’t cry yet.” He laughed, ever the joker. I mock punched him. But he’d moved away.
And Raghu came close. It still felt like the first time I saw him. It was always the same. His chiselled, sharp features mesmerized me, held my gaze, like they had, thousands of times before.
“Priya” he said simply.
I had written him a letter. I gave it to him. “Go, Raghu, it’s almost time. Don’t stand here and make me cry.” “I’m going,” he said, “but there’s something I have to say first.”
I waited. He waited too, before speaking. I could see Hari at the far end, too, waiting.
“Priya, you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. These four years have been all about you. We’ve been together in springtime and held together during storms. You’re the reason I’m somebody today. There’s nothing I can’t do when you’re with me. But I need to know something today, now.”
His trembling hand brought out a ring. He took my stunned hand and slid it onto my finger.
“Will you marry me?”
My hands went up to my mouth. My lips wouldn’t move. My heart was going into palpitations. I felt dizzy. I looked over at Hari, he rushed up to hold me. The tears just wouldn’t stop. It was a full minute before I finally got out the words.
“What took you so long?”
It took a long time to conceptualize, visualize and get this down as something close to what I wanted it to be. This post is part of a trilogy which I call Glimpses of a Love Story. This one’s also a dedication to my beautiful university and the characters are a tribute to Raghu and Priya, my best friends and the most beautiful couple on Earth..
So here goes my first attempt at storytelling..
I was bored to death of Hari’s monologue by evening. “If you’d just passed it to me, I was open you know. No one was guarding Ashok even. All you had to do was pass, and we would have won it…”
Actually, I wasn’t bored. I was experiencing guilt. But I couldn’t let that show. “And then what, if I’d passed, you or he would have scored, right? Tell me Hari, how many times have you or Ashok scored for our team. Tell me.” I wasn’t being fair. Hari meant well. He always did. My best friend, my companion and also one of the very few who would take all my self absorbed ramblings. He knew I played better, same way I knew that he was right. I should’ve passed. But I’m not exactly known for being virtuous. “Whatever, let’s get something to drink”, said Hari, and I was happy to oblige.
We had lost the game yesterday. This wasn’t any high level tournament or something. This was just something we guys at college had dreamed up. A league, on the dirt right outside our mess. This was street stuff, football at its rawest and most dangerous, but it was a league and the whole college played in it, and it meant everything to us. “Lime soda for me”, I said and settled into a chair at the ASB canteen. This was Anokha, our college’s annual engineering fest and everyone was busy, running here and there, organising something or the other or running to catch some show that started soon. I was not to be bothered with all this. Who wants to do horse work? “Show me some money”, came a voice from the distance and I grudgingly went over and handed him my purse.
And then time stood still.
I gasped. I couldn’t breathe. I somehow managed to will myself to study the blank menu on the whiteboard so I could watch her out of the corner of my eye. She glided through the place, and I knew every single boy must be looking at her. She was beautiful, if such a mild word could describe her. I had looked at her every day for the past six months, and I knew every expression, every twist of her face, every strand of her hair. I could make her out from a kilometre away. I could tell you that she never fully closed her eyes while praying and that if you looked closely, you could see the mole on her neck. Oh, I could tell you a lot of things about her.
But there was one thing I couldn’t do. I couldn’t, for the life of me, talk to her normally.
Hari could, though. He didn’t suffer from any of the conditions I described before while talking to her. And he chose exactly that moment, right when I was getting back my bearings, about to breathe again, to say this, “Hey Raghu, look who’s here. Hi Priya!” I almost swore. I knew he’d done that on purpose, but again he means well. Except, I was gonna kill him for this. “Hi Priya” I said weakly, as her utter flawlessness permeated into my senses and threatened to make me fall on the floor. She smiled “Hey Raghu, what you guys doing here?” And there it was, a question. She was making conversation. All I’d to do was talk. I just looked at her. She waited, but nothing came out of my mouth. Hari, ever my saviour, jumped in and launched into something about how our HOD had caught us copying and how we managed to wriggle our way out of it. I tuned out, I could only look at her. You see, I have a one track mind. I have no space for processing conversations or something trivial when I can just look stupidly at her.
She was going, and I watched her sail away, and I thought I heard violins play in the background. Well, okay, that’s kinda like a movie, but don’t blame me! She is an angel. What else can I say?
I was in dreamland when Hari cut through “You said today, remember?” “No. I said Anokha” was my lame reply. He just looked at me. “But it’s just been six months since college started man.”, was all I could manage.” “So?” he asked and I had nothing to say. I knew I’d to tell her, sometime or the other and I had promised Hari that I would, during Anokha. But it’s never that easy, is it?
“Look, if you don’t, someone else will, and I have word that Ashwin, you know that tall guy from Mechanical, has been talking about her.” The sky came crashing down around my ears. The guy looks like Ashton Kutcher on steroids. “Who told you that”, I asked, half heartedly. “What does that matter, you @#$%?” went Hari, “Just go tell her.”
It took me all of half an hour to summon up the courage to just go near her. “Priya”, I said. And she turned. Oh my God she turned. I wanted to run away, fall down & kiss her all the same instant. “Yes, Raghu”, she said, her eyes twinkling, as if she already knew this was coming. It took every bit of mental strength that my 18 year old brain had to say the next few words “Can I walk you back to the hostel today? I wanna talk to you.” The stares from her friends were cold and incisive, like hostile she-wolves, but I was there and I stood firm. She said “Sure” and stood up and a few moments later, there I was, with her, walking. I swear, even this was enough to keep me happy for a year, maybe more. But no, everything was at stake now. Ashton Kutcher was lurking, and God knows who else.
We walked through the main university road, where the evening rush was on. This was Anokha, after all. Mostly everyone was rushing to the food stalls. Who wouldn’t, it was the only time of the year you could get Pizzas, Burgers and Chats in campus. I had no idea how or where to start, but she made it easier for me. “What is it, Raghu?” I blinked in the evening sunlight, took a deep breath and went for it “Let’s get something to eat, shall we, Fries?” “No Raghu, I just ate, we came from the canteen, remember.” Nice. That was super dumb. She thinks you’re a joker you fool. I looked up. She was smiling.
That smile made me say what I said next.
“Priya, I think I love you.”
I didn’t say anything else. She didn’t reply, either. She just walked, head down. It was almost dark now, and the neon boards glinted in the dim light. I walked her past the store, my desperation and fear rising with every step. What had I done? She wasn’t even saying a word. We were at the steps of her hostel gates now. I had conceded defeat. As I turned to head back, she called out.
“I’m here Priya”
“What took you so long?”
It took a moment to register. I turned, but she’d gone.
I started running, but it felt as if the air itself was carrying me. I felt light, like a feather. I cannot describe myself as happy. I was overjoyed. I was almost hysterical. I ran, smiling like a maniac and didn’t stop until I reached my hostel gates. Sure enough, there was Hari, on the dirt pitch, as I knew he would be. He saw me first though, and sent me a pass. I took it, swerved past two defenders, dodged another one and sent it straight past the goalie, smiling all the time.
I didn’t need to tell him anything. We hugged each other and jumped up and down, a boy in love and his best friend.