Before Sunrise

1730 hrs, 14th February 2017, New Delhi

The sun was inching closer to the horizon, marked by the uneven skyline of the capital. From his side of the window of the car, the outsides seemed pleasant. A perfect balance of the afternoon heat and evening, the diminishing blue with approaching black, the road full of motor cars and the birds dispersed across a sprawling sky mixed to create an impressionable image.

‘’fir aamne saamne baat hogi…fir hoga kya kya pataa kya khabar…’’

The song filled the cab with a delightful feeling; or was it just him? It was not going to be his first meeting with her, just the first meeting in some 5 years, he reminded himself. Still he was full of excitement mixed with a bit of nervousness. The reasons ranged from juvenile (It was the Valentine’s Day evening) to nostalgic (sharing a classroom for a year does bond you in some simplistic but strong ways) to troublesome (he wished he would be wrong about this).  The surroundings around the cab were colourful, with a number of florists gracing the street sides. He stopped at one of those, and unsure of the colour, eventually picked up a bouquet of pink and orange roses. The heat dominated the breeze, the noise dominated the calm and diminishing sun was further blemished by dust and smoke. The illusion that the glass window had created was quite something, he thought. Just like the one he had created in his thoughts maybe, Or maybe not.

‘’Ghazab ka hai din, dekho zaraa, Ye deewanapan socho zaraa..’’

The cab sped towards the airport, and he received the message.

Hey, Just reached T3, waiting for my luggage. J

Oh, I will still take half an hour. In the cab. Damn the traffic L

Np. Yayy. See u soon  😀

The blues had started turning a shade darker with the approaching night. The concrete jungle had started being replaced by the real wildlings as the cab moved across the outskirts of the megacity. The airport was still a good half an hour away. The time would just pass away in a blink of eyes he knew, as had the years flew by, unconcerned, unimportantly, indifferently. The anticipation of a moment or an event only resulted in disappointment, he had learnt long back. The sepia-toned past always looked more beautiful than present could ever be. Hence he tried to control his thoughts. He wished he had his diary or laptop. But that was not going to stop the words from being etched in some corner of his mind, he knew. For, occasions like this were not often, when his thoughts became turbulent enough to be carved into words. It was going to be memorable evening and a happy night for reasons more than one, he was sure.

31st December 2012, Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

It turned out to be a re-union, a beautiful unplanned surprise. When his father asked him to accompany him for a day to the town where he was currently posted, he wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. Yes, it was the place where he spent the major part of his childhood and the journey to adolescence; it was the place where he had learnt most of things about life; it was the place where logistically and emotionally, most of his memories of school were based. But now since he would hardly know anyone there, he had almost decided to say no when his father pointed out that it was the winter break in most colleges around the country and many of his school friends might be in the town.

A good four hours later, he was sitting on a wooden chair in the room, which he could actually call his room again as his father had rented the same house where he had spent the 8 years of his life. Looking around on the walls, the shelves in the wall, the withered wooden window frames and the decaying gardens outside them was getting dull and increasingly unnerving. They must be here anytime now, he thought. Arpit, his school friend had said he’ll bring some other people who were in town. It was about time, and the bell rang.

It was actually a re-union. 8 class-mates, meeting after 7 years, in the same town where they grew up and at 5 minutes’ walk from the school. The initial hellos and introductions melted the ice and probably everyone was relieved and happy at the realization that despite a zillion changes, they were still the same group of small town teenagers who had parted ways to bigger avenues. The distance of years was visible in their hairstyles (and in some cases, hairlines) but definitely not in their chemistry with each other. Everything was the same, and as she smiled at him, with a ‘Hey!’, it became further clear, every single thing was same, except perhaps for that red streak in her hair, which added a whole lot of magic to her already magical self; and the length of those strands which had grown in restrained curls to shoulder length from the short crop as he remembered from the past.

‘’Hi! Long time’’, he said.

A few moments of silence followed which were anything but awkward, at least for him.

‘’Yes, almost a lifetime it seems. The last time I was here was almost 8 years ago. My cycle was tied to the pole of that swing outside. I guess today both the swing and the cycle are no more there. But I am one hell of a stalker. I read your blog- your poems, stories everything. Hey, when did you start writing all that? I mean other than those long essays which would delight Leela Mam and Kulsoom Mam? ‘’

‘’Oh, well I don’t know, sometime around that, Hehe, teachers! Those were some days, no!’’

“Ah, yes, you are the same, Mr. Confusion!’’

His insides leapt up in joy.  She remembered!

‘’So are you, Ms. Hollywood, only more stylish and pretty!’’

‘’Ahem, and you’ve learnt to flirt’’

‘’ Well, finally I did, thanks to you’’.

They laughed. And her laughter took him back to the thousand memories kept aside in the packed boxes of childhood.

2004, Winters. Stella Maris Convent, Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

‘’You’ve lost your mind, and even eyes I will say. She is not even pretty!’’ shouted Saurabh, as if it made any difference.

She had joined our class that year only. It being the big year of ‘board’ exams, the school believed in grouping the students according to their ‘potential’. I am not sure about potential, but she did manage to grab all my attention. The fact that we both were members of the school cabinet- I was the President and she the Discipline captain- ensured that we became friends easily and smoothly. Both of us had to inspect the ‘silence’ and discipline status of all the classes during the daily morning silence period, and award marks. These inspections and marks distribution ensured we had more than enough to talk, and gradually friendship took over, or so I thought. There were signs, which I being the bookish geek, didn’t really understand. But through my incessant raving about how wonderful she was, how great she looked, how wonderful it was to be with her, Saurabh read some signs apparently (as he was the smarter one, in these matters, and most matter, for that matter)

‘’Oh no, I can’t find my record-book’’, I said frantically searching for the notebook in which I recorded the discipline score of the classes, as she waited for me to join her for the morning watch routine.

‘’Oh, come on, there it is, below your desk idiot. Poor you, look at what all the studying has done to you. With great intelligence comes great confusion, I guess. From today, you’re Mr. Confusion’’ she laughed as I looked at her, lost.

‘’Huh, as if you are never confused,’’ I said (and the very moment I had to agree in my mind, yes she wasn’t). You think you’re so cool and some heroine, no less than the English ones, Ms. Hollywood!’’. The classes definitely got some generous scores that morning, and the names stuck with us, almost like I was accused by Saurabh to be with her.

The next morning, seeing her struggle park her cycle in the crowded school parking, I offered her to park it at my home. It was just at a 5 minutes’ walk from the school, and had lots of open space. From that day, my mornings became better. I would be on my gates at 6:45 am; she would reach there and park her cycle by 6:50, and we would walk to the school, discussing the upcoming board exams, teachers, future plans after the exams (since we didn’t have the senior secondary in our school) or the latest movies we saw. It became a daily thing, and yet something I would look forward to. She wasn’t the first girl I became friends with, but being with her was different. By the time our first pre-boards arrived, Saurabh had declared that I had a huge crush on her.

What did I do of it? That was not a question or even a thought then. I loved the feeling her company brought, the joy that seeing her in the morning filled me with and the happiness her vivacious voice and the interesting conversations we had gave me. The pages of my diary had become familiar with her name, and by the time we approached the end of the pre-boards (which also meant the end of school) we had to bring our duties as the score keeper of the school discipline to a culmination by announcing the total scores and hence the ranking of classes in discipline

Most of the class was in grounds either playing or watching others’ play. A few lurked in and out around the classrooms in hope of staying unnoticed.

‘’Oh, please, not again. It is just a notebook, how can you lose it every day! Wait, I’ll find it as always’’, she said as we sat together in the class to prepare the final rankings. But after some 15 minutes of searching frantically, we came to the scary conclusion that it was lost for real this time. After a few minutes of blankness when I fully grasped the weight of the situation, the horror stuck me. We had three days before we had to collate the yearly scores and present to the students committee to award (and shame) the classes for their discipline. While I started panicking with the realization of the disaster that seemed inevitable now, she sat silently with a patient and thoughtful face, as if strategizing the way out. Even in that stressful situation, I couldn’t help but notice how her short hair carefully traced the outline of her face and ended in perfect symmetry on both the sides.

‘’So, what do you think we should do now?’’ I moved my gaze quickly to meet her eyesight, and looked for a response.

‘’I…I don’t know, I am confused. Do you think we should go to Sister Irene and tell her? What do you think?’’

‘’Are you mad or what? You are the school president, you are the topper, and I am sure you will be the topper. Do you want to be that President who lost the score-diary? I have my dairy, I am sure we can make something up. Come-on we have three days’’, she said passionately.

‘’We can? I have the conciliated scores till October since we submitted that to the cabinet. We need to retrieve scores for last 2 and half months only. I will just do it right-away. Give me your diary’’.

‘’What’s the rush Mr. Confusion? Let’s do it after school today and tomorrow at your home. We don’t want anyone to get a whiff of what we are doing, or we will be the President and Discipline Captain who forged the score. I anyway have to pick my cycle, I will stay over for some time and we will finish this, what say? ‘’ she said with a smile. My heart just felt much lighter, and I could barely suppress my smile. Suddenly all the stress of the incident vanished and I felt happy that the diary was lost. I couldn’t wait for the evening.

‘’Wow, you really love your movies and your Hrithik Roshan,’’ she said, seeing the million Bollywood posters on my wall. As she sat on the bed in my room in my home, the realization that she was in my home, in my room sunk inside and a further wave of happiness rose inside me.

‘’What else do you like?’’ she asked me.

‘’You’’ I said, only to realize that the voice came only from inside my head. ‘’I love, whatever gives me happiness. Whatever makes me smile, or fills me with a positive and relaxed feeling, or makes me look forward to something, I like all of that,’’ I said, this time to her.

‘’And what are those things, apart from your books and topping in the exams?’’

I was used to being teased for being a book-worm and the typical nerd who topped every exam. But today I felt this strong desire to clarify to her that there was more to me, much more than just those damned textbooks and exams. ‘’Well, watching movies, reading novels especially Harry Potter ones, listening songs, meeting my cousins and spending time with friends,’’ I said, and for some reason felt conscious while saying the last part, hoping she wouldn’t read much into it. ‘’And what about you?’’ I added.

And we spoke about a lot of things – about her, her likes and dislikes, her family, her friends, her favourite TV shows, my friends (‘’Does Saurabh have a problem with me? He acts weird these days’’, she asked), the teachers, the church, the bad condition of roads in Sultanpur, the upcoming board exams and how life would change after it, since our school did not have senior secondary, which meant all of us would move out to same or different places after the board examinations.

The score dairy was almost done. We had taken the scores from her diary, and manipulated numbers to look realistically different, and basis the trends of final scores in mid-year, approximated the numbers. ‘’No one had to know – you are the President,’’ she said, and before my chest could swell of pride, she added, ‘’Correct, Mr. Confusion?’’ and laughed.

Oh, I would miss her, I thought, and wanted to tell this to her.

I mustered up all my courage. ‘’So, you would be moving to Central School from next year?’’

‘’Yes, and you will move to Varanasi’’

‘’ Hey, do you have my mobile number? Please share yours also, I will send you SMS daily. Do reply. I…I will miss talking to you’’. My ears were already red I could feel.

She smiled, and held my hand for a slow shake, ‘’I will miss you too, and we will stay in touch definitely. Don’t change, always remain like this’’

‘’And neither should you, Ms. Hollywood’’.

 

 

 31st December 2012, Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh

The room was the same – except that years of layers of paints on the walls had removed all traces of all the posters that he used to have; the windows were the same, except that the frames were renewed and felt like a strange new outline to the view outside; the view outside was the same, that of the dishevelled plants and overgrown trees and the road outside with boundary walls of adjacent plots; though the walls were higher now and trees and plants even more distorted and trying to outgrow each other. But he realized instantly, she was sitting in same spot as she had that evening 8 years ago, and he was sure she was thinking the same thing, and perhaps wondering if she should ask or not.

He took the lead. ‘’Well, we couldn’t stay in touch really.’’, he smiled.

She replied, ’’Well, I think we did, didn’t we? I remember your SMS’es – some jokes and that your SMS pack is about to end, and even those websites that you used to send messages.’’

‘’Yeah, but then soon I started using Whatsapp, and I think you used a different number there so most of my messages weren’t delivered. Also, you joined facebook pretty late, right? I searched you there many times, but found only last year.’’ He said.

‘’Oh yes, to be honest I am not much of a social media person. One of the few things I visit all those sites is just to see the posts and pictures of you and some other friends. And truth be told, I have hardly been touch with anyone in this room, except you’’. He didn’t know if that should have made him happy or not, but a very strong desire to know something sprung up inside him, and before he could think of a way to ask her, the group gathered there and decided that everyone would talk about the personal and professional lives of last 8 years, since most of them were meeting for the first time after school.

Arpit started. ‘’Well, I cleared the medical entrance for the Army, and am now posted at the border serving the nation! Becoming a doctor is not easy, the jokes are all correct – we end up studying for most of our lives. No time for love!’’, he laughed. Saurabh added his own. ’’After IIT, I joined Reliance in Mumbai, worked there for 2 years, moved to General Electric in Bangalore. And in all this, I somehow found time to have 2 break-ups. But now I am with someone whom I will spend the rest of my life with,’’ the smile on his face told everyone that it was indeed true.

After a couple of people, she spoke. ‘’I am one of the confused ones! I prepared for medical entrance exams for 2 years but couldn’t crack it like some smart people here, and went ahead to join engineering in biotech in Vellore. Just started my job in Chennai, and yes I have someone special in my life right now, let’s hope it is meant to be forever!’’

He heard it, and for a moment had the feeling that he had when he was rejected in the final interview of his dream company, or when his much planned family trip to Europe was cancelled. It was the feeling of not being shattered, but feeling the pinch of unbecoming of something that he was looking forward to. What exactly was he expecting here, he asked himself, but it was already his turn to speak

‘’I did the most clichéd thing – engineering and then MBA. Despite that, I have always been alone, still looking for the right girl!’’ he heard himself say and immediately wondered – why did he have to say this?  Suddenly he thought of Ayesha, her face and voice, and how his B-school friends would react if they heard him say this. They, who had been accusing him all the time of being obsessed with her since last 6 months, and at the same time encouraging him to tell her how he feels- would most certainly have not appreciated such response from him and would have shot nasty looks at him. And suddenly bringing him out of this reflection was Saurabh’s comment- for which till date he is not sure to be angry at him or thank him.

‘’Well, since we are talking of special someones, Lokesh – I think its high time she and everyone knows about your special feelings for your Discipline captain, isn’t it? Or should I still not talk about it?’’ said Saurabh, with a wicked and full-of-satisfaction smile.

‘’What-the-f***, are you mad? Now don’t create stories, I will kill you for this’’, he could barely mumble over the loud voices of people laughing and giggling.

“Oh, that’s sweet. But guess what, I was crushing on you too, Mr. Confusion’’, said she.

It took him a moment to register if what he heard was not hallucination. Saurabh looked at him with a look that said it was not, and any remaining doubts were removed by the combined whoooo-ooo-ooo from everyone. He felt he would start blushing (Or was he already?), and avoided looking at her directly, but then everyone took over and the next person started talking.

For him, rest of the day was blur, what remained was perhaps only that moment, though neither he nor she bought it up in any further talks.

 

1815 hrs, 14th February 2017, New Delhi

He was about to meet her today after  about 4 years, and yet that moment still remained fresh in his memory. The descending planes had started being visible to some extent, and he was hardly 10 minutes away from meeting her. So, he tried to summarize the multiple thoughts in his mind – So, 12 years ago they both had secret crushes on each other, perhaps a first for both of them; 4 years ago when they met, she was seeing someone, yet admitted in front of everyone about her crush, and he lied about him being forever single to her and everyone; and now that they were meeting again, he was single, and so was she, as she had admitted to him a few days ago on Whatsapp. Wasn’t all this adding upto something which he felt was inevitable and what he maybe always wanted at some level? Her flight ahead was only next morning, which meant she would have to leave just slightly before the sunrise, they had the entire night to themselves and he was sure by that time, he will have all the answers!

..’kuch to hua hai, kuch ho gaya hai, do char din se…’

Well, I will find out – he thought as the cab’s playlist also seemed to be in sync with his mind, or heart, or whatever was it – causing him the anxiousness. He thought of the last image that he remembered of her. Somehow, that meeting 5 years back had not altered or added on much to his memories of her, apart from the mutual admissions of crush, that is. But was that a lack of confidence or the fear of rejection that kept him from perusing her in last 5 years, he was not sure. But if all goes well, before the next sunrise, I will tell her clearly, ask her how she feels and finally start the much awaited chapter of our story, he thought.

Well, there she was, looking her cool self. But maybe a 40 hour flight from New York had some effects as she was far from the radiant self that used to make him conscious while talking to her. The curls of her hair had turned straight and color looked like a confused mix of brown and black. Nonetheless, he felt pleased to see her and smiled as she greeted with a side-hug, and they got into the cab towards his place. The playlist continued.

..’Ek ho gaye hum aur tum, to ud gayi neendein re…’

‘’Oh, not again. This song is everywhere I go. The movie was just about okay, did you like it?’’ he said, feeling suddenly very comfortable.

‘’ No yaar, I hardly get to watch movies there in the states – there is only one multiplex which screens Bollywood movies in my town, and with the hectic schedules I hardly get time. I could have done with one tonight, but I am so jet-lagged that I just want to rest. Hey, thanks a lot for giving me a shelter for the night – I could not imagine spending 9 hours at the airport. ‘’ she said. He felt his anxiousness gradually reducing, though somehow he would have preferred if it stayed.

‘’Not a problem, I am happy that we could meet again. Remember that 2012 mini-reunion? I think I have never seen any last minute plan work this well after that.’’ He said.

‘’Oh yes, how can I forget that. Hey, did you have no idea that I was crushing on you in high school at all? I think I knew you were to some extent’’ She did bring up that. Was she also thinking what he was thinking?

‘’No, I didn’t know. Oh we were total kids, weren’t we?’’ he heard himself say, but a part of him bewildered, why did he have to say that?

..Yoon lagta hai, jab milte ho, ke aaya mausam dosti ka….

‘’Hey, Happy Valentine’s Day’’, he said, and just remembered the flowers that he had got and were pushed behind his back as they sat. He gave her the bouquet along with the Valentine’s Day wish. She thanked him. ’’Oh, what are the odds, today is 14th February and look at you, I ruined any possibility of your date night, didn’t I?’’ she laughed. ‘’Well, you never know!’’, he added. They spent the rest of the time in cab talking about their love lives or the lack of it; laughing at their experiences, teasing at the embarrassments and memories of school. He felt good, and started missing Saurabh, Arpit and some of his other friends. By the time they reached his place, it was already 9 pm – they had already called up both of them and spoken to them, and then made plans for the night – scrolling through school photo albums and stalking everyone they could find on the internet and creating an all-inclusive Whatsapp and Facebook group for their batch of SMC (Stella Maris Convent) and ensuring both of them take the responsibility of being the group admins as seriously as they did that of being the President and Discipline captain!

He will really need to straighten up his talk and tell her or ask her what he wanted to, before the night starts hinting of the sunrise, he thought as that cab took the last turn before reaching the destination. Why was he not feeling even half the anxiety of what he was feeling before he met her? He always thought the anxiety was what stopped him from doing things, but now he realized it was what pushed to go ahead and take chances. The absence of it was certainly not helping. But, he told himself, he will need to do it quickly without thinking now. Or, will he?

As he entered his flat along with her, the realization sunk in – they really were kids back then. Some memories do not only seem more beautiful in memories than if you were to live them again, but also the perception of the feeling from the lens of age and time changes it a lot. He certainly didn’t have to ask her anything.  The sunrise was still at good 7 hours away, but he had got reasons to be happy much before – two good friends meeting after long and reminiscing memories and connecting to other friends was indeed a happy way to walk into the sunrise. They were, and had always been very good friends and there was nothing else which would give him more happiness, at least in this story, his and her story.

‘’Let’s stalk the internet, Ms. Hollywood! We still have close to 6 hours for the sunrise’’

‘’Yayy! What’s the password for the wi-fi’’?

‘’Mmm…let me check, it was lokesh123 or was it lokesh1!’’

‘’Well, you haven’t changed, Mr. Confusion’’ she laughed.

Oh, I have Ms. Hollywood. He thought to himself, smiled, at that little realization about himself.

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