He had been 13 years old when he had first seen her. He had been walking down the street to meet his friends, cricket bat hoisted on one shoulder like a warrior off to battle. His strides nearly a run, he had wanted to get to the ground at the other end of the town before they started the game. His short flaps swung in the breeze behind him and his pants flapped around his legs in the dust swirls of the street. A sudden rush threw up a cloud of dust and he instinctively ducked behind his hand. The next thing he knew was that some small thing had come cannoning into him and had knocked him clean off his feet. He fell to the ground with a thud, landing on his hands and the bat glancing off the side of his face with a thud that he was sure would bruise.
Gathering himself, he waited for the dust to settle down and found a small object digging into his abdomen and the small thing laying half on his back and half off. Reaching below himself, he brought out a small ball. The dust had settled then and he saw that the "small thing" was a girl wearing a white printed frilly dress most of which was around her head then. She must have been about 3 years old and as he watched, two tiny hands pulled down the dress to reveal a dirt-streaked, heart shaped face with the most disturbing stub of a nose and two extra ordinarily dark and unfathomable eyes.
The eyes wandered about his face as if memorizing the details and watching for any signs of anger that meant that she would have to up and run. Finding none, the eyes moved onto his hand, to the ball he was holding. Her hand rose, palm down and an imperious voice said "Ball". He found himself obeying mutely and gave her the ball. She then stood up, brushed off or rather brushed her dress which was brown in patches and then gave him her hand as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He found himself taking her hand and walking with her into the house opposite. It was a large house with a large verandah and plants all around. Trees shaded the house with leafy profusion and sunlight dappled through them to cast dancing patterns on the glass panes of the white windows.
He had spent the next couple of hours playing with her, his role being that of a retriever to her throws. All thoughts of cricket forgotten, bat lying against a jackfruit tree in the garden, he continued to play without uttering a word. The play was punctuated by her peals of laughter, one that he would come to remember so well, and her words describing what she had done, for most part unintelligible. The sudden sound of other boys loudly arguing roused him from his daze and he quickly gave her the ball, picked up his bat and ran down the street.
The next day at school, the boys asked him about his not having come to play and he muttered some inane excuse about guests at home and promised to come that evening. As he walked back from school that evening, he passed her house and saw her sitting on the verandah drawing something on a paper. As he passed by, she looked up and smiled, a heart stopping rendition that automatically drew a like response from him. She waved him over with the same imperiousness that would mark the course of their knowing each other and he walked over and saw that she had doodled something resembling alphabets on a page. He then spent the next half hour trying to teach her to write "A". Her mother came out and Aunty, as she was to be known to him since then, gave him some biscuits and a glass of milk.
This then became a routine for him over years. He would stop off at her house on the way from school and help her with work or anything she wanted to play. Then he would return home and finish his work and then run off to play. His record at academics was excellent and his passion for sports unflagging. Even so, the routine with her was unbreakable, a corner stone in both their days.
A few years passed and he was in his 11th and she in her 2nd grade. He had come to help her with her studies on a regular basis. One day, her father, "Uncle", stopped him and said, "Son, you help her so much with her studies, why don't you take these 100 Rs as a tuition fees?" His eyes blazed as he struck Uncle's hand away and ran from her house. That evening, her mother came home to apologize and asked him to come back. It seemed that she had been crying inconsolably since he had left abruptly. He walked back with her mother and as he entered their house, her little figure launched itself at him, clinging to him and whimpering as he just held her, not needing to say anything.
As he became aware of girls and found himself watching and smiling at them, his friends at school would kid him that he already had a "girl friend". After one such incident when he had taken to talking with his fists and returned with a bloody nose and a shiner, his friends stopped pulling his leg about it. From then on, they referred her by her name taking care not to speak even offhand in a casual manner. She had seen his injuries that evening and her dark eyes shone strangely but she did not ask him what had happened. It was as if she knew.
When he went out with a girl for a date the first time that year, he felt that he had to explain it to her. With all of her 6 years of life, she would not have understood a word of what it is that he was saying and yet those eyes searched his face and nodded as he finished. He could swear that there was a blink of disappointment in those eyes but put it down to his over active imagination. After all, disappointment from a six year old was hardly a realistic emotion. That night after he had dropped the girl home, he went to her house and stood there hoping to catch a glimpse of her though he knew it was far too late.
One evening, her parents had invited them over and they were sitting in the hall talking. She was playing with him, matching pictures on a piece of paper. Suddenly the topic seemed to veer around to the two of them and the adults started making comments about how the two of them were seemingly inseparable. His mother, ever the one to try and label each thing and put it in a pigeon hole, called them brother and sister. At this, both of them stopped and looked at the adults sitting around them. He looked at her, sitting next to him, and said "She is not my sister". The adults did not quite know how to react to this and quickly moved onto some other safe topic. The subject was never broached again and neither was any attempt made to define their relationship. Everybody knew that she was special to him as was he to her and in some strange way, it made perfect sense though no one knew what "it" was.
In his last year at school, he was caught up in the whole preparation for his board exams and competitive exams. Between coaching classes and school, his days went by swiftly, melting into each other until it was all one grey blur. With his time caught up in academics, he could not find the time to see her much, often only spending a little time with her on Sundays. These meetings, though brief, were intense with each telling the other what had happened since they had last met. She told him about the fight that had happened between her parents and he told her about his first attempt at smoking a cigarette. She wanted to watch him smoke and so he had to bring one to her house and they went around the back where he lit it and sucked in the smoke. She watched with those dark eyes as he blew the smoke out, not saying a word. He felt her eyes on him as the smoke tasted harsh and acrid in the back of his throat. Her gaze like a sponge absorbing every little detail about him, the way his lips pursed as he held the cigarette, his teeth clenched around it, the way he sucked and his cheeks hollowed, the way he took it from his mouth and held it, fingers bent and loosely gripping the cigarette near the filter, the deep breath of air into his lungs as he chased the smoke down and then the slow release as the smoke escaped through his nostrils in a haze that enveloped his face. She drank it all in. No recriminations, no criticism, no praise, just a calm acceptance of him with a cigarette. At the end of the cigarette, she only said one word, "Good". And then they stood up and walked back.
Then he started going steady with a girl. In the first flush of the whole event, he was sucked up like a whirlpool. Torn between the upcoming board exams and wanting to spend his time with the girl, he completely forgot the other half of his soul. One evening, he was walking his girl back home rolling his bicycle along and suddenly he came face to face with his alter ego. A strange sense of guilt came over him leading to an embarrassed smile that quickly faded as her dark as night eyes seemed to swallow him whole. That night he lay tossing and turning in his bed alternating between trying to explain to himself that he did not need to justify anything to her and the fact that he was guilty as hell for having simply shut her out. Finally in the wee hours of the morning, he decided to take a step that would irrevocably change their equation from then on. He cycled to her house at the crack of dawn and knocked at her window. With the speed at which it opened, he guessed she must have already been up. She saw it was him and without a word, came out and took him by the hand and lead him to the trees in the back. When they reached there, she just stepped close and hugged him. The first time that they had actually hugged and it felt like coming home.
He felt her tears rather than heard them and realized that he too had been on the verge of tears. He knelt down and only said two words "Never again". And it said all that he had wanted to say through the night. There they sat and watched in companionable silence as the sun came up over the trees. As her mother's voice called out asking her to come and drink milk, she simply stood up, took him by the hand and walked back. And that was that. That day he realized that the bond between them was too strong for something like this to come between them. He did not want to put a label to it or try and define it in any way. That evening, he went back to her house and spent over an hour talking to her about his girl. It was not as if he was seeking her approval but he needed her to know. As he walked back that night, he felt that he had finally corrected whatever wrong his heart felt that he had done. The next Sunday, he brought his girl over to meet her, a meeting that was so disastrous that he felt the first seeds of doubt in his mind about his girl.
His exams finished, his admission into an engineering college secured, the summer was close to an end. He had given up on his "girl", the first seeds of doubt blossoming into a series of arguments about why he was spending time with a kid who was a baby. As it grew closer to the day he was to leave for college, he spent more and more time with his "baby girl", talking about his dreams, what he wanted to do. They seemed to go on for hours and hours as she listened to him, those dark eyes nudging him on. Somewhere in those days he realized that he was more used to talking than listening and tried to get her to talk about herself. She was hesitant at first, unsure about what to say and whether he being much older, would feel that she was childish. But she found that he was always attentive and eager to listen.
So she opened him to her world where her insecurities were thorns that plucked at her skin, her friends comments about her the sledgehammers that beat down her walls of self image and about the boy whom she liked in class but who did not pay her any attention. He cursed the boy for not knowing what was good for him and told her what she really was like. In his eyes, she was perfect. She could not possibly have a flaw in her. So it went between them, the talk always serious and meaningful, far more than could ever have been accepted between a boys his age and girls hers. They knew each other's lives inside out at the end of summer.
When the day came for him to go, she came by to his house and watched him pack, staring at his suitcase but not saying a word. They found themselves strangely silent that day. Everyone at his house was affected by the strain in the air and they kept out of his way. She came with him to the station and stood there as his parents hugged him and repeated the things he should and should not do. As the time came for the train to leave, his mother called her over and asked her to bid him good bye. Wordlessly she walked across and stood there, somehow her face looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Eyes on the verge of tears, she stepped up, hugged him and then simply turned and walked away. His mother ran behind her and he had to step onto the train as it left. He stood there at the door and waved good bye to his dad as he left town.
College was a whole new world. He was an adult now - free to exercise his choice. It was not that he was repressed and his parents forced their choices on him. But the options were different and so was the playing field. He met so many different people from different backgrounds who were so different from him in so many ways and yet had a common goal. He met people who considered college an escape from their earlier lives and made themselves over again and he met people who were so single minded in their intent to excel to the exclusion of everything else that they shut out the rest of the environment. He for one stood out different. He was not shamed of his roots but was eager to take in everything around him when he could without losing focus on his dream.
Little did everyone around him including his best friend know that his anchor to reality was his baby girl back home. He wrote to her every week and she back to him. The letters were tentative at first since the parting moment at the railway station had not been easy to get over. But once that small barrier was crossed, the words seemed to pour out like catharsis. She knew about the boys in his wing at hostel, his professors, the food he ate, the times he went out, how he drank himself silly and how he had taken to smoking regularly and how he saw a completely new breed of city girls there. He learnt about how she had felt conscious about her growing older and being more attractive, about how her best friend became friends with the boy she liked and about how the boy had later asked her out. He did not tell her how the fact that she had gone on a date had affected him weirdly. He had felt embarrassed by his emotions and had gone out and got stone drunk, telling himself that he should be happy for her.
The first summer, he chose to do an industry project that kept him away from home the entire holidays and he came home for the first time after two years of college. The first thing his mother told him as he entered the house was that she was waiting for him in the back yard. He had to stop himself from running to see her and when he finally did see her, he stopped in his tracks. The small girl had seriously grown up in two years. She was taller now, her face angular and heart shaped, overall thinner and more conscious of herself in a pretty pastel dress as if she had dressed up for him. While he was drinking all of this in, she was taking in his loss of weight, his longer hair, the fine gristle of a beard that he had taken to growing, his travel crumpled clothes sticking to his lanky frame, his smile the same lop sided event that creased his face endearingly. They stood there a little unsure of what to do and then with the same surety that she had displayed as a six year old, she walked up, took his hand and led him back to the house where she helped his mother make his lunch.
That evening they talked and talked about everything that they had written to each other for the past two years. A couple of days later, she brought her boyfriend to meet him and the poor kid, petrified of now having to seek his approval mumbled and stumbled his way through an unusually harsh questioning session. He later admitted to himself that he had been rough on the boy and that was probably due to the knot in his stomach at facing her boyfriend. The same wave of black emotion had swept through him inexplicably as he pretended that it was care for her that led him to behave so. Her furious eyes flashing at him pouring reproach did nothing to make him feel better.
A crack had appeared between them and without either of them admitting it, each felt that the other had done something wrong and had to take the first step forward. Egos built up the façade of bravado and hurt while inwards the anguish at the other's reluctance to come forward fueled the flame. After almost two weeks of this passing, he finally gave in and admitted to himself that he had been way out of whack. He went to see her that day and found that she had gone out with her boy friend. He waited, sitting by the trees at the back of her house. Finally he heard her voice saying goodbye and he walked down to see her walking back into the house. She stopped when she saw him and stood there, eyes simply looking at him. He thought of those eyes looking at her boyfriend and a curious kind of frenzy descended on him. The fact that he could not explain his emotion or control it left him angry and frustrated.
He walked with her behind the house and they sat down. He wanted to explain to her how much she meant to him. But the words would not come and he struggled to express his emotions as confused as they were in his own mind. Instead he found himself finding fault in her actions rather than explaining his. And the vortex grew deeper and deeper as he blindly hurtled along in his ranting. All the while, he felt those dark eyes on him, shocked at first and then clouded by a film of sadness and then a sheen of tears as his words turned vindictive. As he got onto the subject of her boyfriend, he should have seen the flash of anger in her eyes and should have pulled himself short. But his emotion blinded him completely and his ranting continued. Her face blanched and then strengthened into a steely resolve and she waited patiently until he ran out of steam. He finally did stop, panting as if he had run a long distance. Then the reverse whip lash started. He had never before seen her angry but his words had pushed her over the edge. The words cut at first, then scraped off flesh, then bone until he was one writhing bleeding mass. He was shocked at her outburst. Then the pain turned to anger.
He turned without a word and walked off. Had he looked back then, he would have seen her starting to sob and holding her hand out to stop him from going. But he did not look. His strides took him further and further away from those angry eyes and hurtful words. The fact that he had hurt her did not seem to matter. The possibility that she could hurt him so much crashed into him like a ton of bricks. It was a long while before he stopped walking and when he did, he found himself in the cricket ground where he used to play as a kid - across the town. He sat there for a while. As he thought, the sane part of him wanted to go back and make peace with her, to tell her he was sorry. But his anger came in the way and with it a fear. A fear that the emotion he felt for her was not sisterly at all. And that he somehow felt betrayed by her. Adding to the fear was the simple fact of how easily she could hurt him and leave him a bleeding mass of withered flesh. His answer was to stay away.
He left town the next day - his parents were surprised that he suddenly remembered that he had a project to complete. He never said goodbye to those dark eyes. As the train sped away from the station, he stood in the open doorway of the carriage and let the wind hit him full in the face hoping that would blast away the ache in his heart which he could not explain. His eyes watered, whether from the force of the wind or the emotions that sought to drown him, he did not know. He stood there until his face was numb and then went back into the coach and sank into a troubled, tormented sleep.
His return to college was a change from earlier. Where he had been cheerful and great company, he was now moody and irritable with flashes of temper. He turned his focus to academics to take his mind off other weighty things that seemed as irresolute as the mountains themselves. He found that he easily excelled at his courses. With his behavior and performance, there was always willing feminine company that he found as a foil. However, he always held himself back, his fear of having been hurt now making him doubly wary of exposing any of his 'weaknesses' that could be exploited. Girls found that he was great company but that they did not know anything about him at all. And he wanted it that way. When any one tried to get close, he would stop off.
He wrote home occasionally. Thoughts of home were always painful since they brought back thoughts of her. But he continued to write to his mother. She wrote back almost immediately each time and sometimes when he did not write. Once or twice she mentioned "her". But when there was no response from him, she stopped of her own accord.
While he buried himself at college, she was going through a similar experience at school. She was hurt beyond belief at what had happened. Curiously, she felt that she had lost a very important part of herself. Her parents helped by being there all the time. Every time she caught herself weak and down, her mother would call for her help in the kitchen and as she helped out, her troubles were pushed to the back ground. Her boyfriend turned out to be a rock at this time. He was very sweet and was always there for her at all times. He showered a lot of attention on her and as time went by, she grew closer to him. Then he had to leave town suddenly as his father got transferred. After a tearful goodbye, they promised to write each other. In a few days she found that he was not very good at writing. But she had no complaints. She was now getting a lot of attention in school and was turning down requests for dates almost by rote at every corner.
Each of them had created their own bubble in which to live, isolated from the other. They were like two severed parts of a whole, amputated and left to exist. Time helped heal and cauterize but never to forget. The memory was pushed back into the recesses of their minds as each went about their lives in their own fashion, weaving and forging a series of relationships that they tried to create to fill a void that neither of them were ready to acknowledge or accept since it almost seemed taboo.
He graduated from college and went on to do his post graduation specialization. After completion of this, he was offered a research job in a prestigious firm in Mumbai. In all the years after his hasty exit from home, he had not gone back once, readily taking on projects and assignments that would give him an excuse to stay away. But now he found himself yearning to see his parents. Their faces etched themselves in his vision and he soon found himself on a train home, with all his belongings, ostentatiously to drop them off at home before he went on to Mumbai. He had not told his mother for fear that there would be talk of his coming back and word would spread.
He alighted from the train and took an auto back home. On the way he passed the entrance to the new mall that had opened in town. As he looked, he saw her with a boy, holding hands, laughing at something he had said. He could not tear his eyes away. She had grown to become a pretty and vivacious teenager. The boy next to her leaned close, almost too close and he found his old jealously rearing its head, almost as if it had never gone away. She must have felt his gaze for she suddenly looked up at him across the distance. Seeing him, she quickly backed away from the boy in confusion. Their eyes met once again and he quickly turned away. He arrived home to a joyous welcome from his parents and in their elation, forgot his mind's turbulence.
He stayed home for the first three days, not venturing out, not wanting to meet anybody. But word of his coming had spread and some of his old friends arrived to meet him that day, bringing him up to date on what had happened. Each of them was very careful to never mention her. One of them slipped up badly when he talked of her current boyfriend and her being seen all over town and the others rounded on him viciously cutting him short. And then they all left and his gloom returned inexplicably. Even his mother's words could not dispel them and he retired to bed early. The next day was his last - he was to leave that evening by the train to Mumbai. In the morning, he decided to walk to the nearby hill and the temple there. It took him a few hours to go there and back. When he reached home, he found her waiting on the porch. She stood up uncertainly on seeing him, her hands fidgeting around with her bag strap.
He chose not to say anything and walked in. His mother invited her in as well. Amidst biscuits and savories and hot tea, an uneasy silence stretched on. His mother's nervously empty banter with both of them filled the vacuum partially but did not draw either of them out. Their eyes wandered all over without meeting each other. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, he stood up and thanked her for coming and walked out into his room. He could hear his mother still talking to her but without any answers. He lay on the bed and shut his eyes willing his thoughts to calm down. A knock on the door brought him back and before he could get up to open the door, she stood there framed in the doorway. She shut the door behind her. As she walked up to him, he stood up. She stood for a minute drinking him in. And then in a flash, she hugged him, tight. He was too shocked to respond and stood there, arms hanging loosely by his side. His lack of a response drew a choked sob from her and she drew away. Turning, she ran out of the door.
That evening, he left for Mumbai, his thoughts more confused than ever. His mother sensed his confusion and kept silent, her touch more comforting than he could have imagined. As the train pulled out of the station and the lights of the town sped past, he had a curious feeling that he had left a very important part of his life behind without even understanding what it was. A sense of incompleteness overcame him and he spent a sleepless night on the train. The journey from knowing everything about each other's lives and sharing everything with each other to this stony silence on two sides of a metaphorical wall seemed inexplicable. The fact that she was no longer his confidante and soul mate while his own feelings for her were amorphously indecipherable, was too much to bear.