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.

Valentine’s Day

…ke aisa beparwaaah man pehle to na tha….

Valentine’s Day music, colors and vibes greeted him everywhere on his way to work. He was still a good half an hour away from the place but his thoughts had already reached there, although in a different time. The first time he had seen her, it took him a few seconds but he did realize that there was something special about her. Something that would make him turn and look at her again. Not that she was one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen, nor was she that sorts of attractive whom everyone would declare as the office (or college) hottie right away. Yet, the manner in which she said – thanks, I hope you have a good time here, made his heart skip a beat. It could have been her name, that of a former beauty queen, bollywood star and his childhood favorite. It could have been those expressions galore on her face which made her eyes have a life of her own, or the slender face on which a couple of long stresses were always there, or her slim frame, or the melodious voice which had so much poise that even in the noise of surroundings it could make one feel calm and had a soothing effect in his heart, or the hesitant, half fulfilled smile on her lips which looked just about ready to break into a heartfelt laughter- it could have been anything.

In next few days, as much as he tried not to let that feeling grow, his heart couldn’t care more. They met, got along well and whether due to only ease of access and suitability, many lunches, tea and dinner happened together. Meanwhile, her best friend, also his colleague in office, probably discharging the duties of a best friend told him to not even think of her as she had someone since many years and they would be getting married soon. He laughed it away, though a little part of him did tell him to stop right there and inhibit himself, the moment he saw her all the caution was replaced by pure happiness, and gave way to smooth flowing conversations. Soon there were many more lunches, coffee and dinners. He started adjusting his work timings so that they could leave together and spend time in the metro.

The train of thoughts halted abruptly, he was already in his office. Only last day he got to know she was getting engaged and that news had once again opened a trail of thoughts in his mind, and he could not decide where and when he needed to stop. The songs playing at the reception were all talking of feeling the love, soaking him in its fragrance. He walked towards his seat, on the way she said hello and smiled at him. In a moment his heart uplifted and a warmth spread through him and all he could feel was a pure positive energy. Through the chit-chat, office gossips and lunch and advices, what remained throughout the day was the palpable feeling of attraction that he felt and how buoyant it made him feel.

He walked out of the train that day happy and upbeat, with the music slowing down.

… deewana hua badal, le pyaar me angdaai…

He was happy, in the least mindful of ways he could ever be. A happiness which didn’t expect anything in return, a happiness of a feeling, of love, of having found an experience which could make his heart dance with joy and lips wide with a smile. It was happy Valentine’s day!

 

Context

First day at a new work location- the situation was in no way comforting. Hence, looking around and pinging every person possible on Whatsapp were the only options as he sat there waiting for his new boss.

‘’Hey, how come you are here? What have you been up to?’’, he looked towards the source of the voice- a face which took a few moments to register, and not to a positive effect. Yet as an auto generated response, (which was one of the effects of those first 6 months of his professional life) he smiled and extended a hand.

He couldn’t probably call it hatred, but then there was no word close to the feeling he had for him. He disliked him for sure. The differences were purely professional for all he knew, but if only we were that sorted out, things would be simpler. Hence, even though they had met in person only once, his mention evoked a strong response in him. So much so that the phrase ‘Sunit Kumar’ in his mailbox made him feel irritated now. As a trainee and the face of this new project, the first assignment of his professional life was going all smoothly until he had to deal with Mr. Sunit, to get some manpower and funding for the project. As a function head of one of the in-house businesses, he was in-charge of the same. He did not think it would be much of a task, given that the project spanned through multiple businesses including Sunit’s. The myth was broken within a few days only by the hostile nature of communication, mostly written and occasionally verbal with him, during which he was told that his expectations were unreasonable and the manner of communication inappropriate. He had discussed it with his manager, who enlightened him that there are things like internal politics, one-upmanship, efforts to reduce costs at any costs and things like helping a newbie and supporting a young career existed mostly only when there were rewards associated. The project had continued with whatever he could manage and despite on being the verge of losing his cool often, he had controlled his fingers and mouth. He realized maybe Sunit wasn’t wrong or evil as he wanted to believe he was, and was almost certain it wasn’t anything personal, yet he couldn’t control the dislike. They had met once in an office event, when he was sure the smile and show of ‘I-know-you’ had certain smugness behind it.

The same smile and show today in a different place reminded him of all those moments in an instant. That project was done with a month ago with whatsoever he could manage. Now he was here in a new city with a new project, and strangely after the initial few moments, the negativity he felt had subdued subtly. As if voicing his thoughts, he said, ‘’It’s good to meet someone I know’’.

‘’’So you’re here on a new project too?’’

‘’No, I am on leave actually. This is my hometown. So thought I’ll visit the office too’’.

‘’I kind of like this office, much more spacious and open, no?’’

‘’Yeah, much less number of people too, but just look out on the streets – wish they would clean them up sometime! Even the canteen here doesn’t look clean. How’s the food, did you try yet?’’

‘’No, I came this morning only’’.

‘’Okay, let’s go have a cup of tea then’’

A couple of hours later over lunch when they had discussed enough of weather, politics, movies and cities, he said, ’’Actually, I am quitting the company to start something on my own. I’ll submit my resignation as I go back. I am here to keep my luggage as I vacate my place there. Don’t mention this to people here though. I have realized that in my 3 years here that there is a lot of office politics here.’’

‘’Yeah, I know.’’ He smiled, and that was when they became friends he thought. For the next 3 days, they met over tea, lunch and otherwise; chatted about the company as well as life – from college to girlfriend to marriage. He shared his experiences of 3 years in the organization – good and not so good ones as well, but nothing about the project through which they knew each other. Over lunches and bill sharing, he realized, they would have been good friends if met somewhere else. It was all about context.

On the 3rd day, a couple of hours after they came back from lunch, an office boy came to him with a pair of earphones. ‘‘Sir, these are yours right? Sunit Sir asked me to give them to you’’. I went to his place, to find an empty chair.

It was indeed all about the context.

Freedom

Finally, he broke open the cage and was free, so to say.

For quite some time now, he was caged. He was a prisoner, and used to being one now. The memories of different times had faded away with time, or were covered with layers of the feeling of being tied. He used to be sad often, he felt. It must have been sadness only, that feeling of nothingness, of waiting for some unknown respite, dreaming of the state when he would fly freely and there would be no restrictions. There were a few happy moments though, such as thinking of freedom; planning of things to do when he would be free; how things would be different from now; how he will be able to do anything he wanted and how there will be no feeling of discontent but only of satisfaction. His time was spent talking to his co-slaves, discussing the pitiable state they were in and abusing and cursing the master. Together, they would dream of the free world, of what freedom must feel like and what they would like to do with it.

Finally, he broke open the cage and was free, so to say.

It was a different feeling, a new one. He had the full sky and a limitless world ahead of him. It did feel odd, not being told what to do, having all options open and having to make a choice. He remembered of the things he had thought to do once free. He took the flight and spread his wings wide, so to say. The wind was strong and steady. He had to find his way on his own. He had to identify his obstacles and overcome them. He was responsible for all the choices he would make. There was no one he could blame and curse for his actions and consequences. His direction was uncertain. He did not have his co-slaves to share his possible misfortune with. He felt fear; he felt responsibility; he felt a lack of supervision; he felt unsafe; he felt risk.

He was free, he thought. He could do anything he wanted. He wanted that comfort of knowing what to do; that lightness of not having to compete and fight for everything; that laziness of being instructed and led along; that feeling of being a helpless victim and not having things under control. He missed that predictability of things; he missed that feeling of hope of freedom; he missed that lack of accountability and surprise. He craved for the satisfaction of scheming with his co-slaves; he craved for the satisfaction which cursing and abusing the master brought; he craved for the relaxation which absence of competition and limitless options brought.

He was free, he thought. He could choose to do anything. He turned back to the direction from which he had come, towards the cage. He was free to choose slavery.

Delusion

‘It was a few moments before he realized that she was whistling a piece of music – and that it was the theme of Halley’s Fifth concerto’.

Once again, he lost the plot with a stream of memories flooding his mind. Rather than turning the pages to recollect who ‘she’ was, he put away the book and closed his eyes to get some peace of mind- if only, it was that easy! Ever since he had come back to home, he had been trying hard to stay composed and not let the constant pang of memories affect him, only to fail miserably. It had been a month, still it almost felt as if he just stopped living that life in that place with those people, with his friends. It had still not sunk in that it was all over, that it was a beautiful phase of life which he had lived but it was time to move on.  Everything he did, everything he saw somehow reminded him of that place, and all those memories somehow led to her. It was not as if he was in love with her. He was long over that feeling, he reminded himself. It was not as if they had been together or been the best of friends either.  Not that he hadn’t wanted either of these to happen, but it didn’t, and he had made his peace with the situation. He had some friends with whom he shared perhaps the most beautiful bond. For one last year, though he had just been used to her presence all over the place. Just her presence, which had never got much to do with his’, or him in anyway.

So he was surprised (pleasant or not, he was not sure) that all his memories of the place somehow led to her. The canteen, where she would be chatting merrily with her gang; the grounds, where her laughter would be heard almost all the time; the classes, where her eloquent and intelligent questions were more interesting than the professor’s lecture; the lawns, where she would be found posing for photographs or smearing cake on her friends; the library, where she would be found with eyes full of suppressed laughter and a wait for getting out of the place, and the hostel where her voice would echo all around the floor- all he missed of that place had her presence. Each day, as much as he would try to avoid the thoughts, more they would come, initiated by any and everything. Starting as a slow process of a series of memories flashing in the mind, it would slowly turn into a cold sinking feeling in the heart, and in some time engulf him completely in the most disarming way possible. He tried all he could to get back to his normal self- reading a book, scribbling in the pages of his diary, watching a movie, social networking, but nothing really helped him stop her from coming in his thoughts of that place.

                                                                                       * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was the day he had been waiting for two months now. Finally his new life, in the new city had started. He had known that she would also be in the same city, though wasn’t particularly excited by the information back then. But over these two months, he had realized that probably the only way to get rid of that feeling was to see her, to spend some time with her. So, here he was, waiting for her in a cafe.

She arrived. Seeing her walk merrily, full of life and the infectious happiness as always, he was somehow reminded of the times when he would visit his home after a gap of months, a feeling not of particularly happiness, but of relief, of stability, of things being as he had known and wanted them to be. She smiled happily and greeted him. It was all the same- Her sitting comfortably in the chair yet jumping out every moment in the excitement to speak, like in those classrooms, with semi-circles of tables and chairs and the ever cheerful and familiar classmates battling sleep and boredom; Her loud and full of energy voice asking about his two months, like in those grounds with some beautiful plants along the side, benches in the corner which were never empty and tall trees reaching the heights of the surrounding buildings; Her carefree dismissal of his boredom and her genuine laughter ringing in the cafe like in those lawns with 2 levels of ground and  the old tree regarded as the tree of wisdom on one side; Her vivacious call to the waiter which echoed around like it did in the hostels, with those long corridors and a scarily semi-functional lift and the shredding away walls yet housing the best comforts and luxury ever possible to them; Her easily visible attempts to suppress the laughter at waiter’s attire like in the library, with those long rows of empty spaces between the book-stands, the attractive emptiness of the reading hall, the tempting internet speed all around and the beautiful statues of the guy and girl outside it- he could remember all of it. Every single image of that place he had captured in his mind over last two years came alive in that moment.

He felt something sinking down his chest again. She was there. Everything she did took him back there. He was no more here, with her.  The book was perhaps going to be unread for some more time.

He should have known better.

Guilt

As he stepped out of the bus, he saw her. It had been 5 years, but of course it did not take him a moment to recognize her. He could do that with his eyes closed probably. Probably, for that was what he used to tell her often. Back then, when life was a journey they were meant to fare together, when they secretly took pride in each other and in the belief that they had found true love, when they knew each other’s happiness was what mattered to them the most.

He saw her through the crowd. She looked lost in an animated conversation, oblivious to his presence. She is happy in life, he tried to console himself, only to fail. She was happy, this did not seem to make him happy. He walked away without seeing her. The guilt of realization did not feel good.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  *  * * * * *

As she stepped in the bus, she saw him. It had been 5 years, but of course it did not take her a moment to register him. I can recognize you with my eyes closed, she remembered him telling her often. Back then, when they were meant to be together, to take the journey of life together. But all things that are meant to be, not always happen. True love was independent of their being together or not, she believed. His happiness mattered to her the most.

He had moved on clearly, his oblivion to her presence told her. He is happy, she tried to console herself, only to fail. Coming out of the bus, she forced herself into a loud conversation with her friend. The guilt of realization did not feel good.

Secret Santa

secret-santa

Fireplaces were all lit up; overcoats and long boots were out of the closets; the surroundings were all covered with a white cover of snow  – Christmas had arrived. The festive spirit could be seen all around,  in the decorated trees, in the glowing lanes and homes, and on all the joyful faces. The kids were busy writing letters to Santa describing how they have been ‘good’ throughout the year.

It was the Christmas eve, but Peter and Jill were probably not the happiest of the kids that evening. Peter had been crying ever since he heard a guy say -There is no Santa, he is not Real. At 5, Peter was not really at an age where he could apply or defy logic on his own, he just took to what he was told. Jill, was 2 years older, and had begun to question things. However, he was yet to arrive at a conclusion on this one. He too had heard a lot on this one, and for some time now had been thinking about it, though he had not got an opportunity to test his belief (or disbelief). Until now, that is. Unfortunately, their parents had to leave on an emergency ( Aunt Muriel was very unwell), and would not be back before the next i.e. Christmas noon. They were just the two of them at home, with Kerry, their domestic help.

Unsure of what to do, and partially to test his own belief, Jill asked Peter to make a wish and put up the Christmas socks for Santa to fill them with his gifts. He did the same, and went to sleep, thinking of the play station that he had been thinking of for so many days now, and knowing what Peter must have wished for – the new packet of colorful candies they saw in market the other day.

Out of sheer anxiety, or the secret desire to get his belief affirmed,  Jill woke up a little early, and went to check the socks. They were still empty. So, what he had been doubting was true after all. He was not shocked, though a little disappointed. But then he thought of Peter, and got a little worried. He had not yet reached that age- of facing the not so pleasant realities, and probably deserved some time more to live in his own world of imaginations, happy imaginations. He certainly would be very disheartened to find this, and would feel Santa was angry with him, for not being the good boy he wanted him to be. Mom was not there to take care of him either, so he only had to do something for his little brother, thought Jill. A pack of candies was all he needed to make his brother happy. Against any hope, he looked outside on the streets to find any shops open for the occasion. But it was nearing midnight and there were none. He went to Kerry, woke him up after a lot of efforts, and asked if he could somehow arrange for a pack of candies. it was impossible this late at night, he said and went back to sleep.

But he must not let his little brother cry, thought Jill. There might be some old candies left in the store, he thought. He went there, put on the lights, climbed up on the stool and reached to the rack where Mom used to hide the candies from them. (He had known this for some time now) Searching around, he found a bag.

Lo! It contained a packet of the colorful candies, and also the latest Play Station! For a moment, he was all wide eyed, and pictured a jolly Santa Claus in his red and white coat coming all the way to store and hiding the gifts here. But Santa leaves the gifts in socks, not here, as he had known! As he thought, his eyes went to the slip lying besides the packet, the bill – of the nearby store, dated yesterday, drawn in the name of Andrew Simpson, his father.

And he understood, and smiled. A smile of realization, of happiness, of satisfaction and of love. He took the gifts, and put them up suitably in the socks and went to his bed where lay Peter, asleep, probably dreaming about his Santa. An hour later, he happily held his pack of candies and joyfully exclaimed – Yes , Santa came, he is real, I knew it!

Yes, Santa is real, thought Jill. Mom and Dad were Santa. He was his brother’s Secret Santa. Love is Santa, Santa is love. he smiled to himself. From the window, he could see Mr. Johnson in the adjacent home dressing up as Santa, and Christmas joy was all around him.

Yes, Santa is Real. Joy is Real.