Mumbai, the city that makes a person feel the loneliest in a crowd. The small town boy had arrived in the city, had an argument with a local taxi wallah and finally had found his way to the stay set up by his company. He made his way to an apartment which he shared with 3 other freshmen. At first he maintained his distance from them but gradually warmed up to their company though not completely a part of their "gang". At work, he was almost maniacal, driven to an extreme extent that almost scared his peers. His superiors were quick to notice the spark that set fire to the tinder box and fanned it with their words of praise and recognition.
He had remained moody and gruff through the early days still smarting from what had happened back in his town, her face had still been haunting him with her desolate, lost look. But as time had passed, the memory morphed into a faded image much like the yellowed dog-eared black and white photograph of his grandparents. His immersion into work had helped cauterize the raw edges of his emotion and helped the scars form. His work schedule had taken up a disproportionate amount of his time as he had thrown himself headlong off the cliff of his normal life in the jungle that was and had joined the rat race in almost a feeding frenzy.
At first the people had disturbed him with their blank unseeing looks, seeming apathy and the noise that was all around. He had gotten used to it over time, returning the blank uninterested looks with his own, bumping and nudging while being bumped and nudged, being enveloped in a warm cocoon of the noise all around, a hubbub that signified life itself in that city. He had grown the like the feeling of semi detachment that became the trademark of the city person. Women had been the other shock, their dress sense and their frank forthright behavior took some getting used to. He had still been the shy guy from the small town and never really got to grips with this part of the city. Men and women there were like ships crossing each other in the ocean of humanity, some bumping into each other for a while and then moving on. His looks had drawn some stares and his shy smile had gotten a few conversations started. He had gone steady with a girl for about a year and a half and then broke up. Spent another half year as a single guy and then found another girl again.
His work had gotten him noticed and in about three years, he had been offered a job with another firm that involved extensive travel - both overseas and in the country. His visits had taken up too much time away from base and he had become a corporate nomad wandering the sands of various clients trying to tie up as much revenue as he could within the shortest span of time. This had left little if any time for a personal life and he had pretty much an on/off girlfriend that he sometimes met on the weekends, sometimes preferring the solitude of a walk to a nearby hill than any company.
While he had been busy building the foundations of his career, she had not been exactly idle either. His sudden departure without a word and the rebuff of her gesture had numbed her to the point of becoming a social recluse. Her boyfriend had been unsympathetic, not understanding the boiling cauldron of her emotions and her confusion, and moved onto other more willing pastures. She had painstakingly rebuilt her life inch by inch, day by day, seeking desperate comfort in the routines that she laid out for herself in school and afterwards. She turned to her studies much the same way that he had buried himself in work. Finding it to be an easy victory, she had gone onto to excel beyond expectations of teachers or her parents.
College had come and she had chosen to go with engineering much to the surprise of her mother who had assumed that she would choose a creative outlet for expression. She had chosen a college in Delhi. Her initial experiences had been similar to his with the added disgust of the way men treated girls and women in the city. Her experiences had turned her stomach and had made her very wary of men in general, seeking the comfort of a few of her college mates. One of them, an open faced nice kid had charmed his way past her wall of defense and soon they were going steady. However, she let nothing get in the way of her academics, continuing her pursuit with a single minded dedication.
This saga continued, two trains that were hurtling down parallel tracks completely oblivious of each other. Tracks that were ever so slightly but surely converging, but neither of them conscious of the move.
Mumbai. Six years later. He was sitting with his on and off girlfriend at a café one Sunday evening near the beach sipping on a coffee. Suddenly he saw her, or thought he saw her. The same gait, the same curve of the face as it was turned away from him. She was with a group and was laughing at something, her unique wild laugh came to him across the street. He almost got out of his chair in a flash, his girlfriend's peeved voice holding him back. He was distracted for the rest of the evening adding to his girlfriend's annoyance. He dropped her off, silent and withdrawn, her pointed remarks hardly drawing a response from him. He drove to his apartment in silence and found himself remembering more than ever the past that he had almost put behind him. Those dark eyes seemed to have returned to haunt him again. He spent a sleepless night waking up to her voice in his head several times over.
He went back to the café several times after that but could not see her again. He put the episode down to a misplaced sense of nostalgia that had made him see things. Why it should have happened now after so many years, a little voice in his head asked him with no answer. But he threw himself back into his work schedule with a vengeance and in a few days, had no time or energy to think of the episode, which was what he had started calling the incident in his head. Somehow after the incident, he could not face his girlfriend at all and kept putting off meeting her on one pretext or the other.
He fell back to his normal routine, including his calls home. He had not mentioned the little episode to his parents at all except that the particular phone call was very curt and had worried his parents no end. Shortly thereafter, he had returned to his normal self and his parents had put it down to a bad day at work. Life went back to normal, well almost, except for the fact that his dreams were strangely filled with a pair of dark accusing eyes.
Then one day he got a surprise call at work from home. His mother was on the phone, strangely tense and worried. She mentioned that "aunty" wanted to speak to him. "Aunty" came on the line and spoke in halting teary tones. She told him that there had been no news from her daughter for over a week now and that she had not been answering her phone. He tried to calm her down and between questions and placations learnt that the owner of the dark accusing eyes was in Mumbai, had been in Mumbai for the last 6 months. He noted down her address and promised to check on her immediately and call back.
He left office in a hurry, a strange flutter in the pit of his stomach, a churn that had nothing to do with a simple worry for an acquaintance or a friend. He swore at traffic, unusually agitated and bad tempered; a bear with a thorn in its paw, only it did not know that the thorn was there. He finally reached the address that he had noted down. It was an apartment complex downtown, a few kilometers from where he lived. He asked the watchman only to find that there were three girls living in the apartment and that the watchman did not know who he was referring to and would not let him in unless one of the tenants was willing to admit him in. On further questioning he learnt that none of the tenants were in currently and that they would return in the evening only.
He decided to stay where he was and called home to tell them that he had come to the apartment and that the watchman did not report anything unusual and therefore there was unlikely to be a problem. His mother told him to stay where he was and to call back as soon as he met with her. It was an unnecessary piece of advice since he had decided the same anyway. He made himself comfortable in a tea shop a little down the road and amidst several watered down bitter coffees that laced the back of his throat with a grimy aftertaste, he thought back to his events of the day. Apart from the phone call and the happenings after, he could remember nothing else. He was filled with a curious anticipation and every time an autorickshaw or a car entered the apartment, he would go over and check with the guard at the gate.
At about 7 PM, as he approached the apartment, the guard told him that one of the girls had just come in. He made the phone call to the apartment only to be told that the girl in question was not yet in. He decided to wait outside once again. Another of the girls returned with the same results. His stomach was now growling and he decided to subject it to some more coffee for now. He finally parked his car near the guard and sat inside listening to some inane song on the radio. Finally at about 11 PM, an autorickshaw stopped at the gate and the subject of his enquiry stepped out lugging a big suitcase, almost stumbling under the load. She paid off the auto driver and then tottered with the suitcase. The guard was fast asleep and of no use. He stepped out of the car and locked it. The noise startled her and she turned around, not quite able to make out his identity in the darkness. He finally stepped into the pool of light thrown by the lamp and stopped. Her eyes widened in alarm first and then recognition.
Without a word, he stepped forward and took the suitcase from her hand and she mutely let him. Pushing open the gate, he made way for her to walk ahead of him. In the lift and all the way to her door, they did not say a word. She opened the door to the apartment and let him in. They stepped into a central living room which led off into three apparent bedrooms, a balcony and a kitchen. All the bedrooms were shut. She stood there in the middle of the living room, her dark eyes assuming the same calmness that he had been seeing all his life, as if it was natural that he was here in her apartment at this time and like this and what happened next was the most natural thing in the world too.
He turned and put down the luggage in a corner and when he turned back, he walked into her hug. It was almost as if he had come full circle from the last time she had hugged him like this. An eternity ago it seemed, another lifetime with another two people that they had been. And he had then resisted an impulse that he regretted then and continued to regret many times over since. His arms rose of their own accord and hugged her close, feeling her warmth and smelling her citrusy tangy essence that was unique to her. They stayed that way for several moments until a sudden noise from one of the rooms made them step apart. An uneasy silence prevailed broken by her roommate who was surprised on finding male company, embarrassed to be seen in her night clothes and retreated with a curse and exclamation. This caused both of them to burst out laughing, the laugh breaking what had become a strained and stretched moment between them.
The laugh did what nothing else could have. It rolled back several years to when they had shared similar gusts of laughter, hers wild and carefree, his more restrained and toned. He helped her put the suitcase in her room, noting that the room was quite bare as if she had recently moved in and was living out of a suitcase. He stopped at her dresser and was surprised to see a snap of his as a kid next to her clock. He turned around to find her looking at him expectantly waiting for him to say something. He did not rise up to the occasion this time. Walking into the hall, he waited for her and when she came back to the room, he told her all about the phone call and the lack of response. She had apparently lost her phone on the trip and filed a complaint. She had planned to replace the phone and activate the number on return. He made the call home and she talked at length to her mother. Finally his mother took charge and asked him to keep an eye on the "little girl".
After the phone call, the uneasiness returned and he decided to leave as she would be tired. Making an excuse about having an early meeting the next morning, he made to leave when she stopped him and asked him if he wanted to take a walk. He found himself agreeing and they walked out into the garden where they strolled. A sudden cascade of words came, a long pending eruption as she narrated the events since he had left and brought him to speed. He was always never good at this and she had to push and prod him to reveal his trail of events. Having been updated on each other's lives, they sat down on a bench in the garden and just looked at the moon, a throwback to similar nights that they had spent as kids. Her hand crept into his almost as naturally as it had those nights many years ago. They sat there in comfortable silence holding each other's hands.
Finally her tiredness caught up and a series of jaw breaking yawns later, he was saying goodbye to her at her door, her hand still in his, somehow, the connection too strong to break. Finally, he led her in to her room and then let himself out after locking it. He found himself smiling on the drive back, strangely at peace, a sense of home coming, a return to a place long lost. He slept well that night though for a short while. Waking up, his first thought was that he did not have her number and so could not contact her. He started early in office to make up for his early exit the day before and before long found himself doodling a pair of dark doe eyes on the page. At the end of the day, an end which he seemed to have been looking forward to in fifteen minute intervals, he was driving back home when he suddenly decided to swing by her place.
The guard waved him in with the familiarity of the hours he had spent the previous day and as he knocked on the door, the smile returned unbidden. The smile was rudely wiped off when a man opened the door. On asking he was let in and the man walked into her room and she returned shortly thereafter. She stopped short on seeing him, stunned disbelief and something resembling embarrassment on her face. He was studiedly neutral and detached in his manner and asked if she was ok so that he could call home. He left quickly and drove back in a tearing hurry. He called his girlfriend and went out to dinner, almost to spite the memory that lashed him.
He actually could not face the fact that he was insanely jealous of the man who was with her. After all, what had he expected? For her to stage a sit down wait for him while he did what he wanted? Even as he fought to explain his sense of betrayal, his rational thinking sought to justify what had happened. Finally he was left with a curious mix of tragic loss and sheepishness at his own behavior. His girlfriend was getting upset at the fact that he was virtually not there though physically sitting opposite her. A bitter argument ensued and he drove her back in a strained silence. He drove back home feeling completely drained and numb. As he drove into his apartment, he saw her sitting near the gate waiting for him.
He stopped and opened the car door to let her in. Reversing, he drove out of the apartment, considering it safer to be out in the open rather than be with her in a closed space. All his rationalization and pragmatism seemed to have evaporated now that he was with her. The black head of jealousy reared again, striking deeply and viciously. His anger burst its limits and boiled over as he struggled to maintain control on his emotions. All his good intentions had seemingly evaporated like the morning dew in the face of the rising sun. Words turned vicious tarred by the black jealousy. And he could barely bite back the irrational references to the man in her life rather than her being like the way she was.
She could sense the turmoil in him and her calm dark eyes seemed to understand. Her hand crept into his once again and he could feel his anger seeping away, seemingly absorbed by the sponge that was her. He drew her warmth like a cold man drinking in sunshine. He calmed down. He started to apologise for his behavior when she stopped him. She started telling him about the initial days when she had come to Mumbai and how he had gone out of his way to make her feel normal and had been there for her at every twist and every turn. She said that she was not sure about whether she loved him but she wanted to be with him.
Her frank admission took the wind out of his sails. He sat silent listening to the breeze blow his anger away and felt a gradual return to his senses. It was as if her ocean had swept away the ramparts of the sand castle in a trice. He told her then about his life too, his work, his nonexistent personal life and his girlfriend. After that they both lapsed into silence, each lost in their own thoughts and analyzing their own dilemmas. Their hands still joined were their only connect to each other but it was more than enough. Neither questioned the fact that they were both in different relationships but was sitting here holding hands. The question was there at the back of both of their minds along with a million other questions relating to the way they were reacting to each other, the way their emotions seemed to at the edge, the way they seemed to be irrationally provoked by the other. Each of them was almost afraid to take the road that would answer these questions. It was almost as if they were terrified of the explanation.
He drove her back and took her number this time. A day later, he was scheduled to travel out of the country and left. He was half tempted to tell her that he was going but then thought the better of it, putting the impulse down to a stupid reaction that might show him in poor light. A couple of days into the travel, he woke up one morning to see a couple of messages from her asking him how he was and what he was doing. He messaged back that he was great leaving out the fact that he was abroad. They continued to message telling each other inane details. Finally, he told her that he had to leave for work and then to her surprised question, had to reveal that he was abroad. The conversation took a terrible turn after that and it was almost as if she stepped back and was now aloof, and they said bye soon after. He put this down to her being busy or sleepy and pushed the thought away.
He returned a day later and that weekend got a message from her asking if he would like to meet up. They met at the beach front café where he had thought he had seen her. She seemed angry and a little upset. He tried to understand what it was that was bothering her but did not have a clue. They sat in an uncomfortable silence. The waiter took a long time coming with their coffees and when he finally arrived, she burst out at him. This was not normal at all for her and as soon as the waiter left, the silence became even more strained. He finally broke it, asking her what was irritating her. Her brush offs made him even more certain that something was wrong and he stuck to pushing her to tell him. Finally, she admitted that she was angry that he had gone abroad without telling her that he was leaving.
He almost sighed in relief and told her that he almost had messaged her and then had stopped himself thinking it was a stupid thing to do. His admission broke the tension and finally after a lot of arguing back and forth as to what was stupid and what was not, they resolved that they would always tell each other what they were doing and where they were. They took a walk down the beach after the coffee and the mood improved dramatically. Her hand found its way into his naturally and they strolled hand in hand down the beach. To anyone who was looking, they seemed like a couple in love. He kept stealing glances at her, the wind blowing her hair around her face and causing her to struggle with it and smile. On one such occasion, she looked up at him while he was almost staring and flashed him a brilliant smile, enough to make him stop in his tracks. The moment was magical as they stood and looked at each other, everything around them receding into nothingness.
The moment was broken when her phone rang. It was her boyfriend. He walked away some distance and stood at the edge of the water and watched the waves lap at his shoes drenching them thoroughly. She came and stood at his side after she finished talking but she now seemed somewhere else. He realized that the probably needed to go and suggested that they leave. He drove back to her apartment, his attempts at making conversation meeting with a complete lack of response as she seemed to be struggling with some problem. He considered asking her about it and then stopped himself. Dropping her at the apartment, he was a little worried at the creases on her brow and asked her if she was ok. An absent smile and her polite reassurance did nothing to make him feel better. He finally decided to bite the bullet and ask her what was wrong. After initial rebuffs which were now becoming the norm between them, she said that her boyfriend had seen them at the beach walking hand in hand and was extremely angry with her and was threatening to break it off. Guiltily she added that it was a relief that he had not seen them holding hands.
That remark destroyed whatever bond of intimacy they had built and he withdrew into his shell shocked at the manner of her relief and the importance she placed on the perception of their relationship. He muttered something polite about hoping that they make it up between themselves. He invented a quick errand that he needed to run, suddenly realizing that he did not want to be there anymore. He drove away from a very surprised and very quizzical look on her face that he did not seek to explain.
He reached home late that evening choosing to keep driving around and when he finally did, he realized that he had received a message from her - a simple question as to why he had run away like that. He was of two minds as to whether to explain to her or not and finally chose to respond neutrally stating that he had forgotten something that he had to do. It appeared that she had reached home and she continued messaging him till late asking him questions about his work, his dreams - talk similar to the ones they had sitting under the tree in her backyard a million years ago. He opened up gradually, more drawn by the portrait of her own dreams and aspirations. When they finally bid each other goodbye, it was well past one.
From then on, this became a ritual of sorts for them, waking up and asking each other how they were and then telling each other through the day what they were doing and then in the evening, describing how the day went. Even when he was travelling and in another time zone, he would do this, realizing that the day felt empty when he did not complete this routine of his. They met each other briefly at times choosing safe ground and crowded places. He consciously avoided any opportunity for them to become physically close or hold hands. That particular incident was still deeply etched in his mind.
Then a long pending volcano erupted - his girlfriend decided that she had had enough. She left him a brief note and said that she was leaving for Delhi. He was not particularly sad about her leaving and this in itself puzzled him. That evening when he went through his routine message chat on the phone, he happened to mention that he had broken up with his girlfriend that day. Immediately she decided that she wanted to see him and said that she was coming over. She came about an hour later to his apartment, her first visit to his place. As he opened the door to let her in, the worry on her face struck him as odd. She looked at his quasi normal face and was kind of relieved. Her instant balm for the hurt came into play and she stepped close and hugged him. The hug was warm, comforting and intense.
Neither of them wanted to break away and when finally he heard voices in the corridor, he broke off to lock the door and let her in. He stepped back only to be welcomed by the hug again. This time, there was a change in the tone of the hug, something different, something that he could not pin point and something that was very physical. He became aware of her intensely and was dumb struck at his own reaction. Her arms were still around him when he finally gave in to an impulse that seemed as out of place as his earlier reaction, he bent down and kissed her. Her response was a shock at first and then she responded wholly. The kiss deepened into an intense meeting of their souls and when they finally broke, each was gasping for breath as if they had run a long way.
The embarrassment was palpable after and she finally broke it with a self mocking laugh stating that she had come there to console him and that she had forgotten that in the entire hustle bustle. That set them both off and the laughter helped ease the tension. They sat down and she held his hand as naturally as if it was something that they normally did. He explained to her that he was feeling strangely free after the breakup and had none of the heart break that she was worried about. She probed for a while and then was satisfied that he was none the worse for wear.
He drove her back to her apartment and walked her to the door. She opened the door and was about to go in, she suddenly turned and gave him a quick buzz on his lips. He stood there long after the door had closed behind her, his lips still tingling and wondering what had happened. He was still in a daze when he got back and went to bed. A little while later he got a message from her - a simple one and yet one fraught with a whole world of possibilities - "I like kissing you". She was in a relationship with someone else and try as he might, he could not shake the feeling of wrong doing in this. Finally he resolved that he would bring the equation back to an even keel. Little did he know that he was only fooling himself.
Their daily routine of chatting with each other continued. However, a new tension had crept in between them which neither could ignore but neither was willing to face. All his resolve of putting their relationship back on a platonic basis was nothing but a puff of a cloud in the face of the gusty gales of his emotion. It took him a while but he finally admitted that he was physically attracted to this "kid" that he had grown up with.
They were chatting one evening when she suddenly went silent for a while. He guessed that she was in company. She messaged back irregularly and he replied. Suddenly she messaged if he could come by a local hangout and pick her up. He went there immediately to find her standing outside waiting for him. He opened the car door and she got in without a word except for asking him to drive to his place. She was a little troubled and so he asked her if everything was ok. She told him that she had been with her boyfriend at the hangout and was feeling bored. As she messaged him, her boyfriend got jealous and demanded to know who she was messaging. When told, he went into a blind rage and threw a tantrum. She decided to walk out and had called him. They reached his place and he fixed her some tea. He was still not sure what to say and made some comment that she should give her boyfriend a call and make up with him. She only smiled at that, a cheeky carefree smile that was completely out of place for someone who had just had a fight with her boyfriend. He decided to brave the smile and ask her. The answer totally stunned him. She had not just walked out on her boyfriend; she had broken up with him.
After a few minutes of silence, he mustered up courage to ask her why and her flirty response deepened his response. A quick flash of a glance from the dark eyes and a mischievous smile accompanied the remark that she did not need her boyfriend when she had him. That was it. No questions were asked any further. She stayed over at his place that night and the transition was made from a struggling platonic relationship to a gloriously wonderful meeting of equals. A change in the equation that was strangely so comfortable that neither of them felt the slightest bit uncomfortable the next day. The excitement of having found each other exuded like an aura from each of them and the bubble was conspicuous in each of their lives as they went through their days. Their need to stay in constant touch was manic like an addiction. They could hardly separate in the morning and ran back to each other in the evening.
Then he had to go away on a trip abroad - five whole days that were a nightmare for either of them. Even hour long phone calls did nothing to assuage the feeling of loneliness. He was struck dumb by his need for her - to see her, to hear her and to touch her. He could not wait to get back, feeling grouchy like a bear with a thorn in his paw through the day and struggling between wanting to talk to her and not disturbing her at work through the night. The flight was interminable - not being able to talk to her for that long was like intolerable cruelty. He stepped out of the flight at 3 AM in the morning, cursed and fumed at the queues and delays in immigration at the baggage carousel. When he finally stepped out of the gate and hurried towards the taxi stand, he was startled to see a shadow detaching itself from the crowd and running towards him. It was her, unbelievably and unimaginably her. He folded her in an embrace that almost crushed her. There were no complaints from her, her ferocity in holding him, matching his own. The ride back was sweet; they were almost stuck to each other, not wanting even a breath's respite from each other.
They finally admitted to each other that they were now inseparable, two peas in a pod, two halves of a whole that had been separated a lifetime ago but had now found each other. The twine that bound them had frayed, almost broken and finally had become a bond that was stronger than time itself.