Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Last Time I Wrote About Love

The last time I wrote about love, she laughed at me.

Then, I was studying at a college in a small village about 250 km from Delhi. It used to take more than 52 hours to reach Delhi by train from my hometown. From Delhi to the village, the travel time used to be 5 to 6 hours. I preferred to take the direct bus but the decision depended on how late the train arrived at Delhi. There was a bus at 22:00 and when I missed that, I had to wait at ISBT till the 05:30 bus. There were terrorists even then and the police did not allow anyone to sleep or leave their baggage unattended. I could also go by the 20:30 train from Old Delhi station to another village 26 km from the campus. Reaching the campus from there involved an hour’s ride in a jeep at around 03:00 with dense fog and a driver, in a bhang/alcohol induced stupor, spurred on with nudges to the ribs.

Life was not that bad in the college. The students rarely went out of the campus other than for the essential visits to the bus stand, the dhaba for paratha-anda bhurjee, that for hot chai-jalebi on a winter’s night, the hospital with the nurses or the balika vidyapeeth where the computer teacher was a beautiful unmarried Susan. In my second year, I ventured out to find a typist. I found the typist’s shop at around 10:00 on a dusty Saturday morning.

I had fallen in love for the first time and I had written my first love poem. The poem had three sections written separately and feverishly for three earlier ‘one-night crushes’. But, it seemed like a good idea to join the ‘feelings’ for my first love. It also seemed like a good idea to send that as an entry for her approval and also, as an entry for the British Council All–India Poetry Competition. The latter required a typed entry and thus, entered the typist into my life.

They were everywhere in those days. In fact, this typist resembled the one in my neighbourhood back home – a middle-aged educated man, a small shop with three typewriters, three tables, four chairs and two trainees (probably students learning typewriting on a holiday). At the back of that shop, and behind the man, a flimsy curtain barred the way leading to the typist’s house and family.

The typist saw me standing outside, looking nervous and uncertain like a virgin in a brothel. He lowered his spectacles from his forehead, studied me from head to toe for a minute or two, gauged my intentions and with a twirl of his hand beckoned me to sit beside his table. I entered without a word, took out an envelope with the manuscript from my cloth-bag and extended it to him. He blew on the flap, licked his thumb and took out the three sheets of my handwritten love poem.

“How many copies?” he asked.

“Two.” I had planned for one but I had money for two. I wanted my first love to read every word. “When should I come to collect...”

“You will have to read this to me,” the man interrupted, “your handwriting is nice to look at but impossible to read.”

I looked around the shop. I tilted my head in the direction of the trainees and begged silently to the typist.

“It’s Ok.” He leaned forward. “They hardly know English.”

I read and he typed. It was the first time I was reading my poetry aloud and to others. He guided and manoeuvered, and after the first stanza, I was reading well. We would stop when he had to use the whitener and correct a mistake. He did not suggest any corrections to my text. Once in a while, he even said “Wah!” My first audience and I felt great. I still cherish that. I do not care whether his true intentions were mercenary. I have written lots since that day, never to be seen by others but in my mind I still read to him everything.

It was past 11:00 when I read the last lines:

Solitude’s Wrath

   Which angel scattered diamonds upon this field –
   O wicked one! Why do you charm me so?
   Life seems so light with its wish to join you,
   But the gentle air alone caresses and beckons.

   Regal trees in slow waltz to Nature’s measures,
   Gilded crowns lighten the green expanse.
   O let us tread a measure, my beloved pretty one,
   Entertain this heart, control its childish raptures.

   Shafts of light in hazy blue – lanterns of the Path –
   Memory slips away to that distant time
   When with such a sight we delighted,
   But now, your hand not in mine, I face Solitude’s wrath.

When I stopped at the end and gave a sigh of relief, I heard her laugh.

The curtain at the back parted and she entered the room with a tray carrying four glasses of chai. The typist gestured to me and I hardly hesitated before taking a glass. The typist took his glass, signalled with his little finger that he is going inside for ‘1’ and left the room.

“O dear sir, drink thy cup or should I wait so?” I heard her whisper by my side.

I glared at her for mocking my words. I kept on glaring but I saw only her eyes, those beautiful eyes, maybe also her lips, and her smiling face, nothing more, I swear; at least, not then.

What was she then – her name Shreya, a girl in her final year at school (at Susan’s balika vidyapeeth, strangely), two or three years younger than me, staying with her uncle and family. Her parents were abroad and kind of separated. She had two siblings, one married and both abroad, too. I got to know this later.

Predictably, I lost my first love (and I swore I would never send my poetry to any woman – unless, I could not think of a better way to end a relationship) and never heard from the organizers of the Poetry Competition. But every fortnight, on Saturday morning, I would go to the typist’s shop and get two copies typed of whatever I had written. I waited patiently for the few moments with my critic. I guess I needed her more than she needed me. She did not share any of my beliefs, fears and passion. Many years later, in one of our worst moments, she told me why,

“For you, everything is just a phase.”

It was true. I was like a non-addicted chain smoker who had never experienced a nicotine rush. I wanted to wage wars, fight for justice, protest against something but I was just the clich├ęd pseudo-rebel really without a cause.

Even my writing life had its phases. In middle-school, it was Tagore, Wordsworth and the lot. I knew the Lake District better than my village. I was full of vales, dales, dew, doe-eyed beauty and patriotism. In high-school, I stumbled on Tolstoy, Chekhov, Wilde and Marquez. But, I still wrote like before. Without experience, I barely understood (and in that stage, the above juvenile venture happened).

I had a brief dalliance with Che (when I tried to grow a moustache); howling mad days with the Beat generation (when I did not cut my hair); a calm spiritual one with Richard Bach followed by Castaneda and a bit of the Upanishads (I think Pirsig’s Zen started that). Then, a lovely mother of a dull friend tried to introduce me to existentialism telling me that a ‘sin-free’ life is beyond human nature.

It was Shreya who introduced me to crime novels (that phase continued till the end of my marriage) and she made me try M&B. I dreamt of being tall, dark and handsome (I had a 33% chance of success, Shreya calculated) sharing champagne and a fireplace, if not my bed, with a woman. When the concerned women married tall, fair and handsome men, I lost interest and decided to stick to crime.

In my third year, Shreya joined a college in Delhi. But, she used to come to her uncle’s place for Diwali and Holi. I didn’t have anywhere to go and home was too far away.

She had a great relationship with people in that village, dada-dadi-chacha-chachi everywhere. During my third year Holi vacation, she took me to raddi-chacha and his typical second-hand bookshop in a university-village. I found a treasure for five rupees – Piaggio’s Differential Equations. Shreya asked me to take her through the book, “if not everything, something,” she said. With the permission of her uncle, I held tuition classes on those holidays. I tried my best to share my interest and she did well. I think we enjoyed each other’s company, too. I was even invited once for lunch. At the end of the fifth class, when we decided to stop after going through the basics of partial differential equations in chapter four, she told me,

“You are a lousy teacher.”

“For you, I am a lousy poet, a lousy teacher…” I retorted angrily.

“All that I meant was…you don’t have the patience to explain. You expect your student to know the subject before you teach.”

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” I quoted Gibbon.

“Bull-shit!” she said, “It was nice anyway.” she added grudgingly.

I have wondered about how I was given access to her by her uncle. But, in those days, I was a guy a girl could take home to her parents – as a friend, of course. Somehow, girls’ folks found me ‘asexual’.

We ‘got sexual’ only once, during her Diwali holidays in my final year. We were alone in the dining room after lunch while her uncle, aunt and cousins rested elsewhere in the house.

“Have older women made passes at you, touched you?” she asked.

“No,” I replied too quickly and uncomfortably.

“You must not have noticed.”

“Shreya, that I would notice. Why do you ask?”

She shrugged. “There was a nice man in the train.”

“Old man?”

“Not very old.”

“Did he trouble you?”

“No.”

“What’s troubling you then?”

“Nothing…I fantasized about him last night.”

Then and now, I have never been open to discussions about such matters, even with guys. I believe that everyone should grow up without any help and with their own warped sense of sexuality. But, at that point, bravado, curiosity or a mixture of both made me ask,

“Have you thought…about…me?”

“Long back,” came her prompt reply.

“Oh!”

During my college days, we never met outside her uncle’s house. I never invited her to the college. Nor did we try to meet in Delhi. But, we did see each other once in Delhi.

Once a month, I would catch the first bus to Delhi – to take a break and to breathe the sweet city air. I would reach Delhi around 10:00, feeling like an old soggy pair of socks, probably smelling like that too. I would take an auto-rickshaw from ISBT to Connaught Place and there, to Nirula’s ice-cream parlour to have a double chocolate ice-cream soda. I was familiar with the waiters and the school-kids kept their distance.

On one of those visits, I saw her there with a baby-faced guy. I did not want to skip my drink but I tried to avoid her. I must have stood out like a sore thumb, if not a country bumpkin, in that place. She came over with baby-face,

“Adarsh, what are you doing here?”

“Drinking soda.”

She introduced me to the guy, I have forgotten his name, and he did not seem very pleased to share her and a table with me. But, we did talk like adults and during the interval, he excused himself with “to refresh” and gave me a pointed look. I have always had a thick skin when it comes to other guys. Together alone, I asked,

“Who is Farex baby?”

“He is smart.”

“How long?”

“Six months.”

“When did it start?”

“Cute, you sound jealous.”

“You wish!”

I completed my ‘time’ in college and took up a research position in Bangalore. Before leaving college and that place, I met her uncle and family. I even touched her uncle’s feet and he hugged me with genuine affection. While taking leave, I gave a note to him,

“That is the telephone number at my parent’s place – that will not change.”

In my second year at Bangalore, when I returned to the hostel after a tiring day of research and volleyball, a colleague told me,

“There was a call.”

“Whose?”

“She said that she is your wife.”

“Did she leave her number?”

“No.”

In Bangalore, I had managed to lead a good life but on the edge of penury. The closest I came to a meaningful relationship was a close acquaintance – fortunately, she was a vegetarian and quite happy when I treated her at a decent but cheap place to curd rice, bisibele bath and free pickle. But, a recurring nightmare prompted me to end the affair. In that nightmare, I am married to this acquaintance; and, after my strenuous efforts on the ‘first night’ she enquires “Theerno, chetta? ” (“Darling, over?”)

It took two months for ‘my wife’ to call again. This time, fortunately, I was there in the hostel.

“Adarsh here.” I said gruffly.

“Hey, it’s me.”

“Shreya, you idiot! Where are you?”

“Here, in Bangalore.”

She had joined a course for MBA. In the months that followed, we met often though not regularly. She had discarded Farex baby for a professor. I asked her why she was going after ‘my type’. She did not answer.

At that time, my first love popped into my life once again, a brief tempestuous fling before she married someone respectable. I borrowed money from Shreya to finance my affair. I managed to repay when my fellowship was increased in the fourth year and I felt rich for the first time – I could go to M.G. Road more than once a month.

Shreya got a good job after her two-year course. She took me to Karavalli along with a nice girl-friend of hers with whom I flirted outrageously. Mid-way through the meal, the friend asked me,

“You two – are you an item?”

I looked at Shreya but she kept a blank face, “We are too good friends for that.” I replied.

Shreya smiled. I felt as if my life had been sucked dry.

Was I thinking about some North-South divide? Did I think that Shreya would never want to settle in my hometown where I thought I had my roots, ancestral property, what-not? Was I trying to keep Shreya as a friend – I wanted that role at least?

Another year went by and I got a fellowship from abroad. I got the news by e-mail. I remember that Thursday evening – it was raining heavily and there were reports that M.G. Road and the area around Ulsoor Lake, where Shreya lived, was water-logged. I desperately wanted to surprise Shreya and celebrate with her.

But, I received her call around five in the evening.

“Adarsh…please come.”

“Where are you?”

“Apartment….”

“Are you Ok?”

“Sick…”

I asked a colleague to help me but he told me that it is too dangerous to go on his motorcycle. I asked the Administrative Officer of the Institute whether he could help me. He owed me a favour. When his wife died in an accident, I went with him to the mortuary, shielded him from the arduous task of dealing with the helpers and the officials, even bribing to ‘process’ his wife’s body quickly. He arranged for an Institute car to drop me at Shreya’s apartment.

It took a while for Shreya to come to the door. She was shivering, looking extremely weak and dirty, and her house-coat seemed stained with vomit. Even in that state close to fainting, her eyes contained an apology and she was crying, too.

I half-carried her inside. I took her to the bathroom. It was really a mess out there. I filled a bucket with warm water, washed her face and made her rinse her mouth. I got her a fresh nightdress from the cupboard and told her to change her clothes. Once she looked reasonably fresh, I took her back to her bed. I changed the sheets and then, tucked her in. Using her phone, I called my sister, a doctor. Probably just flu along with a stomach bug; rest, fluids, food and rest, my sister suggested.

While she rested, I cleaned the place, washed her clothes, cooked for both of us. I woke her up at regular intervals – “to refuel”, I told her. Outside, it continued to rain.

It remained so till Saturday morning. I was sleeping on the sofa in the drawing room and I woke up in the early hours to find her sitting by my side. She looked much better.

“Can I lie here for a while?” she asked.

She snuggled against my chest and we slept. By the time I woke up, she had already had a bath, looked fresh and rather healthy, and she had oats and coffee ready for me.

“Do you remember our first fight?” she asked in her usual abrupt fashion.

I nodded. On that occasion, it was I who had been sick – bronchial asthma compounded with viral flu. When she tried to fuss over me, I told her “I know how to look after myself”. I went back to my hostel to rest. But I waited for her hoping that she would bring something good to eat, a good soup, maybe. She did not come to me till the next morning. When she did, I told her to get lost. Unfortunately, she listened to me. Later, a colleague told me that she had come the previous night – rather late though, after sulking probably – but did not want to disturb me. I guess it was the first time we really showed some ‘real emotion’ to each other – and so, we stayed away from each other for a month or two.

“Why?” I asked in reply to her question.

She shrugged. She was sitting close to me. I held her hand and kissed her for the first time – I remember kissing the space between the second and third knuckle of her right hand. I held her arms and drew her close to me. Then, I kissed her on her lips. Just the plain old-fashioned kiss – starting at the middle, light touches here and there and then to the side, exploring together, parting the lips a little, kissing deeper. There are some during which you wait for the end; there are some which make you wish for a strip of Wrigley’s (I do not know about the young these days but my generation used to carry Wrigley’s rather than condoms – just being realistic, I suppose). Then, there are those kisses which you will label as the kiss of your life. And the first one with that woman is usually the best – when there are barriers to demolish.

When we parted after the kiss, we still held each other. I traced a finger over her left cheek. I looked at that face and thought,

“God! I need this woman.”

Then she said,

“Adarsh?”

“Huh?”

“I cannot have sex with you.”

I was still holding her. I cannot remember whether my grip tightened or loosened.

“I am engaged to be married…” she continued.

What?!” I exclaimed and then, pushed her away.

She gave me the details, it was the same professor, she said. I listened quietly. When I felt rage ready to spill over, I went to the bathroom, washed my face and bashed my right fist into the concrete wall. I watched the middle knuckle swelling. And then, I felt that I was in control of myself.

We continued chatting, even touching upon the kiss,

“It was…” she hesitated.

“Lousy?” I fished for a compliment.

She just smiled.

Her wedding happened a week before I left the country. I took the newly-wed couple for a good lunch at Silver Wok. Pati patni aur woh – just that the three of us seemed unsure about which role to take. But, I wished them well. We made no promise to keep in touch.

Nice women get lousy husbands. But, wonderful (and lousy) women unfortunately get great guys.

I got married after two years. When I got married, most of my friends were married too. Only when I got divorced did I hear about friends who had divorced or were in the process. Then, even those re-married. I decided to remain single, to concentrate on my career, I reasoned. Is there anything to say about my marriage? No, I guess not, she is a nice woman.

I had switched fields and I was rising fast in an investment bank. What did I do? When the margin from old products was not enough to beat hedging errors, I cooked up new exotic products. As long as the customer was not sure about how to price, I made a profit – irrespective of whether it was a bull or a bear market, recession or boom time. There were always enough fools around to cheat.

I was in the midst of a rather big deal when my phone buzzed and I saw that it was her call. I remembered her husband, switched off the mobile and finished the meeting. Then I took the team to a wine bar and celebrated. I got home late with a pleasant lady, feeling rather lonely till she left at the break of dawn.

It was Saturday, around 6 am. I switched on my mobile and remembered that I should return her call.

“Shreya?”

“Adarsh.”

“What’s up?”

“He died last night.”

I think she disconnected or maybe, I did. It took more than three years for me to get her talking. What do you expect? I didn’t go for the funeral. I didn’t send a note. I didn’t call either. It took me a year to show up at her place. Right at the door, blocking my entry, that’s when she told me,

“For you, everything is just a phase.”

I nearly retorted, “For you, too.”

But, she was right. And, I was wrong, I knew.

I left her place. But, she called me later, that is, two years later. We agreed to meet for lunch. She was doing very well, career-wise. Same with me, too – though, I could feel the beginning of the end of that career.

Her husband had been “fine for breakfast, in a coma by lunch, thanks to an aneurysm or something”. When the doctors had told her that her husband was brain-dead and advised her to pull the plug, that’s when she had called me three years back from the hospital. “That’s all”, she concluded.

After that, did we keep in touch regularly? Did I think about her? No and yes, always, as usual.

I left my job, went back to my hometown and realized that I had no reason to be there. But, I stayed.

Two years passed before I got her next call with the message,

“My uncle died this morning.” Her uncle, my typist…

I managed to catch the flight to Delhi, with a stopover at Mumbai. I think the bus ride from Delhi to the village still takes 5 hours or so. I am writing this in the plane.

I do not know what the ending will be – maybe, she has married once again; maybe, I will propose a long time too late; maybe, she is sick; maybe, the bus will meet with an accident; maybe, it’s just another meeting between her calls.

It is not the ending that matters, to me or to her. It is never the ending that actually matters.

I will show this to her. I will read it to her. Her uncle would have liked it.

The last time I wrote about love, she laughed at me.

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