Saturday, January 16, 2016

Now or Never II


I am pacing up and down a deserted corridor. I have walked away from the dull- lit waiting room, because I feel claustrophobic now. I feel suffocated by the numerous anxious faces and teary eyes. I’m tired of hearing the same question, “What’s happening now?”

Exactly, what’s happening now?
The doctors rush past, possibly trying to avoid us. They’re exhausted from giving the same staid replies,
She’s under observation right now. I’m sorry we’re not allowing anyone to see her right now.”

I want to ask you, how did you let this happen? Why did you let this happen? Have I not warned you enough about dangerous Delhi roads?
How could you be so careless?
Even if we’ve exchanged few words over three years, how could you forget all those times I told you?
Why, Swara? Why do you always leave me worried like this?

I want to fight with the doctors, and push past them. I want to rush into this hidden room and see you. I want to see you, Swara. I want to look into those steadfast eyes- those big beautiful eyes, which have come to me so many times in my dreams-and I’ve never understood why.
I want to see you awake, and that expression in your eyes- which you just had for me. Something only both of us understood.

I see Aisha, pacing up and down too. Her usually neat hair lies untidy and loose around her. She hasn’t slept for two days straight, and her eyes look ill and tired. Her scarf, which was always kept carefully around her neck, is now twisted around her hand. She doesn’t speak much to me-perhaps just some short and curt words and I suppose I know the reason why. I try again anyway.
“Have you eaten something, Aisha?” I ask hesitantly.
She gives me an irritated glance and shakes her head.

Despite the morbid and waiting gloom, I feel an inward happiness.
You have a good friend, Swara. Better than me, probably. Though I know you’ll defiantly deny that. You’ll smile and say, “Don’t say that Rehaan.”

I don’t know where time went, Swara. I don’t know how it’s been three years and all we’ve exchanged is New Year greetings, birthday greetings and other small bits of irrelevant information. I don’t know why there were times that I didn’t respond to your message asking me what’s happening in my life.
Was it your reaction to my news about Aditi which kept me away from you for good?
I’ve never cried like that.
Not even when my parents divorced.
What was it about you that produced such emotion in me? It was Aditi I was dating, then why did you and I have a silent moment on the phone that day?
I’m so happy for you.”
I can hear those clear words ringing in my head even now.
I remember being relieved that I was a hundred miles away from you at that time. I wouldn’t have been able to handle it, had you been in front of me.
Just the thought of your eyes and your smile would have been enough.
What was it about us, Swara? You would speak volumes without speaking. But I wouldn’t understand, because I was dying to hear it from you. You, who used to answer everything in crisp and concise sentences?
Will I ever be able to hear that voice again?

I remember the first time I saw you. It was orientation day-our first day in college. We had exchanged polite smiles, and sat in different rows in that stuffy auditorium. You were wearing that black t-shirt and jeans, with your tiny bag slung across your shoulder. I smile now as I think of that tiny bag. You only carried a notebook and pen in it. Your hair was tied back, and you were wearing those long earrings.
Do you still have that earring collection, you kept boasting proudly of?
I have thirty-three of them, Rehaan.”
I would pretend to scoff and shut my ears.

By the time, the dreaded orientation ended, we were sweating profusely. The electricity as always didn’t work. We were told to leave the auditorium and find our department heads.
I remember both of us trying to squeeze past the crowds and get out. We laughed in exasperation.
“Which course?” I asked you.
“History.” You answered, almost getting knocked down by a stampede of screaming girls.
I held your hand, to stop you from falling.
At that time, we could hear raindrops, and thunder and lightening. We both groaned at the same time, and then we laughed.
Do you remember how there was a flash of understanding in our glances? I do.
We were in the same course, and you said with your trademark shyness, “Oh good, we’ll be in the same class.”
We walked outside, to see the rain. It was just drizzling now.
I turned to you and said, “They’re holding the department orientation in this rain. I’m not going. It won’t be of much use anyway.”
You seemed taken aback at this declaration. Years after, I would remember how sometimes you would just roll at your eyes at my declarations-or at times smile and nod, and go along with them.
“I detest rain too. We could sit on the steps for now.” You said quietly.
We sat on those dirty steps, and then when the dreaded drizzle stopped, we went for a walk around campus.

We wouldn’t go anywhere specific, all that mattered was that we were together.

I’m brought back to the present reality, with Aisha’s sharp call,
“Her parents have been allowed to see her.”
“That’s good.” I say rather mechanically.
I prefer to dwell in those forgotten days.
Aisha says, “Don’t walk around so much. Stay near the waiting room. Can’t keep running around looking for you.”

It was ironically Aisha, who had called me.
I don’t know how she got my number.

I remember answering the phone, and hearing a rather weak voice saying,
“Hi, Rehaan…I’m Aisha…Swara’s friend.” She seemed to choke a little.
My fingers were already cold.
“Yes, tell me Aisha.”
She did. She told me you had gone to visit college. You had walked a little fast across the street-near those dreaded red lights…and a car had rushed past.
I had felt numb and my head suddenly was spinning. For some reason, I wildly remembered the last time I had spoken to you properly- not through short text messages-or Facebook comments- but a proper conversation on the phone.
It had been about my new job, two years ago.  
Two years.
The conversation ran itself in my head for some reason so many times that day. It played in my head while I bought flight tickets with fumbling fingers, while I threw everything possible into my bag, along with your postcards-while I sat dazed through a two hour flight- while I walked into the hospital and saw a sea of pale and teary faces around me- but just not you.
That was still the time when you were the first to know things about my life.
The conversation had taken forty-five minutes. It had a touch of our old camaraderie, and a new sense of maturity in it. I still teased you, but it was different. You told me how proud you were, and how you knew that it would always happen.
The same thing you used to say during any debating competition.
And I asked you…the same thing I would ask after every debate,
How do you always have faith?”
“I just have a good feeling when it comes to you.”
Why do you, Swara? Why did you never get angry and ask me to call you? Why did you still insist on being friends with me, even though I was a coward?
Yes. I was a coward. After Aditi came into my life- or rather after I told you about Aditi-and the way we had cried on the phone…I had felt an urge to stay away from you.
You scared me sometimes.
The way you felt for me, frightened me.
You felt my joy- like it was your own-you felt my sorrow, like it was yours.
I have disappointed you, Swara.

You remember our last meeting.
There are nights I’ve been awake thinking how those five minutes could’ve gone differently.
You were wearing that light white kurta. You had insisted on wearing it- even though it was slightly crumpled. Your mother wasn’t happy with that decision, but as always you went ahead with it anyway. You were wearing that faded necklace which was now turning black in the Delhi heat. It was leaving a few marks around your neck, but you had refused to change it. Your hair was left loose, with a few strands flying across your forehead. You always preferred it like that.
I had a mad urge to miss that train. I wouldn’t have cared. I would have not gone to Bangalore to be with my mother if…I could have just stayed back in Delhi.
I would not have gone to Bangalore and seen further domestic chaos.
I would’ve been in Delhi…just had you said something.
You had chances, Swara. So many. The day at the lake, the day we talked about it at night and I told you,
If we were together, I would lose you.”
I wanted you to fight me on that- tell me I was wrong. I wanted you to shake me out of my fear of falling in loving with you so deeply- and telling me it would be okay.
Yes Swara, I wish you had seen through my false bravado and confidence like you always did. I feel better blaming you because that’s the only way I can justify myself.
And now you’re lying unconscious in this miserable dingy hospital and no one knows how you are.
I am not allowed to see you, yet.

Bangalore was a cold drudgery misery. The city was alive and warm, but my family was in pieces.
I had moved with my mother away from my father, and I honestly don’t know whether that was the right decision. Not that I wanted to stay with my father by any means-I just didn’t know what to do at that time. I had seen enough during college years. I had seen their cold and uncomfortable silences, and witnessed their raging fights. If there was one thing, which united them- their pale love for me and their complete disappointment in the professional path I had chosen.
You remember how dismissive my father was. He never bothered about my talents in college-well by that measure neither did my mother. She was convinced it was a waste of time. When my academics suffered in that terrible third year, they blamed it on these distractions…and you. They made judgmental remarks about you, and I lost my temper once.
In the course of the argument I threw down a plate. Of course, that action spurred them on. They were convinced that I was becoming unstable because of you.
“She’s the only good thing in my life. It’s you, both of you.” I had yelled.

I fought with them so many times. I blamed it on them- something I shouldn’t have done in retrospect. You were right later when you told me that I couldn’t keep blaming others for everything.

You only saw my family once, and I took care that you would never see them again. You remember walking into that brightly lit dining room. The first thing you noticed and told me later was how well polished the tables were. They shone, you said. There were a series of ornaments on the prim and proper bookshelves. You admired them for a long time, with a small smile. You liked the stone china cats for some reason, you strange girl. I never liked them as I always thought they looked mocking and evil. You would argue with me several times about this and try to convince me later to give them to you. I actually would have, but that would have led to another domestic wrangle.
You looked particularly windswept that day- as if you had survived a tornado. You later explained to me that it was because you were running after an auto rickshaw. My father was of course contemptuous of your appearance and later told me you were “dowdy”. I didn’t speak to him for two days.
I came in, and gave you a drink of water. We were meant to leave for a play. My parents came in and of course delayed us. My father didn’t fail to disappoint though. He left after ten minutes abruptly, indicating dismissal. He had issued short and curt questions to you asking why you were studying history and whether there was anything to be gained from it. He asked if you participated in debating like I did. You confessed you had no interest. I can’t forget that smile curling around his mouth. That was my father. He would hate my debating, but pretend to be condemning of those who didn’t. You were noticeably stunned, but you kept your cool. I had tried to give him glances to stop. You got nervous and started stammering. I was exasperated with you now, as well. Why did you have to let everyone shake you up like this Swara?
My mother tried to make conversation but you had lost all confidence by now. You gave a few nods, and I understood it was time to leave. I’m sorry Swara, I told you to come home. Before leaving my mother said conversationally, “Your kurta is faded. You shouldn’t walk around like that, especially when you’re going out for a play. Looking a bit pale next to Rehaan.” She laughed at the end.
You were quiet while we were in the metro. I suppose there was not much you could have said, as people were all pressing in against us. A fat balding man fell on you, when the metro gave a little jerk. There was no reason, he could have held on to the railing like everyone else. I lost my cool and came in between the two of you. You knew I was going to get into a fight that day. You held my hand and whispered softly,
And you gently leaned on my shoulder. The fire in me died instantly, and I leaned back, my head touching yours.
I forgave you for getting rattled by my parents.
I forgave myself as well.

When the divorce finally took place, I made an impulsive decision to go with my mother. It’s not as if my father cared anyway. The only thing he said to me when I saw him last was that he wouldn’t send me money anymore.
I could’ve cared less. But my mother cared, and was worried.
We stayed in a small dingy flat, and sometimes we had problems with the electricity bills too. It was difficult getting a job in the beginning as well. My mother’s salary for a meagre job was not enough.
Your messages were a breath of fresh air at that time. Your calls were the only light in dark flat. I did not tell you what was happening-because I knew you would worry for me. Your voice would maintain its steady note but I would sense that anxiety.
I didn’t want that. I wanted those carefree conversations. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, but I needed that. I loved being able to laugh with you.
I know you’ll be upset with me that I didn’t tell you this. But I didn’t want you to become my counsellor and crutch, which is what you were becoming for everyone else. I was scared that you would just become so involved with helping me that you would forget yourself.
I didn’t want to be that person who would just cry to you about their problems…. because I felt if I started, I would not stop. I had done enough during college.
After months of toil and chaos, I found a job- by a pure stroke of luck.
I began to work for an upcoming magazine, and they made me editor.
And that’s when I met Aditi.

I don’t know why I delayed telling you about Aditi.
She breezed into my life during a cold and rainy February. I hadn’t even noticed that we had a new intern in the office. I had been so preoccupied with getting my mother medical attention that I had become oblivious to my surroundings. My father had spared money for my mother finally- but his business was suffering as well. No doctor had been able to tell us what the problem was, or why she was in so much pain.
Aditi and I were told to divide the articles to edit. We stayed in late that night, sifting through millions of articles and laughing at some of them.
It was only then I realized how lonely I was.
She reminded me of you at points. She had strange quirks, which I would taunt her for. She was also a steady listener just like you.
She was perfect in most ways- she was fun, bright and had a witty retort up her sleeve all the time.
It was easy to talk to her. I wasn’t constricted by emotion at times or overwhelming urges to confess something crazy which I hadn’t shared with anyone.
The only word I could think of- I was fine.
We spent time every day together, just like you and I used to. Except we didn’t have those comfortable silences, or those X-raying glances we used to exchange.
And it’s possibly why I asked her out two months later.
And three months later, I told you.
And that’s why I call myself a coward.

That relationship was a quiet and pleasant one. We were just comfortable. We never spoke of the future; we decided to go with the flow.
In essence, we grew complacent.
It was convenient.
But how long can a relationship like that be sustained?
It was as if we had entered marital ennui without even being married.
It was a routine- we worked together, and then we would go and get dinner. We would talk, and laugh. Sometimes the silence was uncomfortable, sometimes it wasn’t. We would try out new restaurants…in the vain hope we would have something new to talk about. I sometimes stayed at her place, she sometimes stayed at mine.
She knew all about my life, and my complicated family situation. She had come and seen my mother on several occasions, sometimes even when I wasn’t there. She somehow got along better with my mother than even I ever had.
My mother heartily approved of her, and would embarrassingly refer her to as my future wife. Aditi had raised an eyebrow, and then she laughed to cover up her reaction. She never mentioned it to me, though.
“She at least is lively and is talkative, unlike that girl you used to bring home.” Mom had once said in front of her.
Aditi later asked whom she was referring to. She of course knew about you, but probably never heard you being talked about in such terms.
I rarely uttered your name anymore. Once when I had said it, Aditi had remarked, “Your face changes when you say her name.”
I had laughed it off.
Even though we had good memories for the most part- it was if they had all become tarnished with pain, and I couldn’t fathom why.

I’m brought back to the present abruptly as Aisha silently hands me coffee.
“Thanks.” I say, trying to be friendly.
She walks away.
I call out, sharpness of strain showing in my voice,
“Aisha. I thought we got along well.”
She turns around. Her face looks whiter and more haggard than ever. Yet it doesn’t hide her anger.
“This is not the time, Rehaan.”
“Then why were you the one to call me?”
“Why did you come down to Delhi?”
“You thought I wouldn’t.”
“I was sure.
Her cold replies provoke me, and my anger blends with grief. But I find myself saying,
“Say what you want to say, Aisha.” Don’t spare me, I say in my head.
“Where have you been, Rehaan?” Her voice breaks.
Where had I been? Somewhere between surviving with my mother in Bangalore, desperately trying to pay electricity bills, looking madly for jobs, and then getting myself involved in a job and a beautiful dead-end relationship, ignoring recurrent thoughts about you…where had I been?
“It’s been rough.” I finished lamely.
She throws me a look of disgust and says more to herself, “That’s what you all say.”
It bursts out of me then.
“What’s been happening with her, Aisha?”
I don’t know what makes me say it.
“Why didn’t you ever call her back? What good were those two line text messages, Rehaan? If things were ‘rough’ as you say, she would’ve been there for you. The truth is, you just forgot about her ever since Aditi came into your life.”
Her accusations are like poisoned arrows. I almost feel weak. I hold on to the staircase railing and say unsteadily,
“I’m not with Aditi.”
She dismisses this and continues.
“ You don’t even know what’s been happening with her. She tried telling you to call her so many times. But you didn’t.”
I stay quiet.
Tears break free at last.

We sit down on the white dirty benches outside, and she tells me your story, Swara.

A few months ago, Jay had gotten in touch with you.
Jay, that menace from college who had hurled hurtful comments at you from time to time. He needed help with his application for a Masters degree.
You acquiesced. You helped him even though you were never friends. He had upset you in every conversation.
Then why did you help him?
Of course, he was sweet and loving to you within days. He did the perfect things, the perfect man would do-called you every day, whispered sweet nothings,
You fell for it. You believed he had fallen for you. He expressed his love for you soon.
And you…accepted.
Had loneliness taken such a strong hold over you, Swara?

I remember our conversations in college about dramatic love stories, and painful breakups. I remember this particular day, we were sitting in the café on a rainy day, and discussing someone’s failed love life. You as always were feeling sorry for her- a person you barely knew. Apparently in this story, the boy had broken up with the girl for no apparent reason. There was no fight, there was no other girl in the picture. Just because he wanted a change. You were angry.
“How can people just break things off for no reason?” You said with a sigh.
I honestly wasn’t bothered because I didn’t even know these people.
“There are far worse breakups, Swara. This is nothing.” I remember saying airily.
That statement shocked you.
“I don’t know what a “far worse” breakup is. A breakup is a breakup, Rehaan. You can’t decide the amount of pain a person feels.”
I felt rather ashamed, but quickly hid it.
“Oh stop it, Swara.”
We changed the topic, but I could see you were upset.

This conversation came screaming back to me.
Jay had broken up with you, without reason. A cool dismissal.
A quiet end to what promised to be a relationship.
He had just said that you weren’t the girl for him, and he needed to explore more. There was no discord. It had just been an announcement. He had avoided your calls for a week, and then come home one day to tell you.
How simple.
No drama.
You tried asking. In your peaceful way you wanted him to come back. But he said, “Don’t push it. I’m sure you’ll find someone else.”
He left and closed the door behind him.
After all those fervent confessions.

I see what you meant, Swara. I can’t decide and measure the amount of pain a person feels.
And right now I can’t even imagine what you must have felt.
I close my eyes and I see your stricken face so clearly.  

I despise Jay. The burning anger makes my head sway for a bit.
But I know I despise myself more.

Aisha leaves.
But before leaving she says, “I expected you to be there.”
Clear and sharp, those words strike me like arrows.
I don’t know for how long I’ve been sitting on this rusty bench. I wipe my eyes, and finally get up.

It’s been three bleak days.
You’ve still shown no sign of consciousness.

Everyone else has seen you. They’ve sat by your side, given you cards and flowers. Someone has given you roses too.
I can’t help smiling. You detest roses.
“They’re so artificial.” You had once said.

I haven’t seen you yet, I don’t know why. I have paced up and down outside your room. I have put my hand on the door handle, and then turned away.
I’m afraid to see you-like that Swara.
The idea of you lying unconscious and unaware of your surroundings sears me.

And then I see Jay, in the waiting room.

Another conversation comes back to me.

We were sitting in the back lawns and eating that plate of maggi. You loved maggi, and I was eating it because…there was nothing else to eat that day.
We had had a good day. It had been the teacher’s day celebrations, and the performances had been god-awful. We had laughed ourselves sore, and had gotten yelled at by professors, which made us laugh even more.
This was the first time you had been yelled at by a professor- but ironically that didn’t register with you.

How do you like this lumpy stuff?” I said in disgust. You were used to my grumbling.
“How can you not?” You were perplexed.
“It’s s such a lump. I’m going to kill that man for taking thirty rupees from us, for this misery.”
“Wow Rehaan. Physical violence?” You laughed.
I laughed as well. Then you were curious, and decided to ask.
“When was the last time you hit someone?” You wanted to know.
I thought.
“I don’t know…I don’t like hitting. It does nothing for me. I like fighting it out with-”
“Abuses.” You finished the sentence for me.
I smiled sheepishly. “Yes, pretty much.”
“But you’ve never punched anyone or gotten into physical fights? I thought you might have.”
“Swara, just because I have a hot temper…occasional hot temper, doesn’t mean I go and beat up everyone because I feel like it.”
“So when will you feel like it?” You were really interested in this conversation. You’re such a weirdo.
“Oh god, I don’t know. Why, do you want me to punch someone?”
“No-o-o-o! I’m just curious about this whole non-physical-violent side of Rehaan.”
“When I do hit someone, it will be when I have a perfect reason.” I said.
We laughed.

This conversation plays a million times in my head as I walk up to Jay, drag him by the collar and push him out of the hospital, amidst a crowd of stunned people and a few exclamations. The fool tries resisting and utters some confused words but I don’t hear them.
With a composure, which I have learned from you, I tell him never to show his face again.

It’s the fourth day, and I still haven’t seen you.
The hospital has become embarrassingly familiar now. It’s as if the uncomfortable couch in the waiting room has become my new home.
Sleep is a faraway dream now.

Aisha comes and sits next to me. Her dislike and resentment has melted slightly.
She hasn’t slept either, by the looks of it.
She isn’t wearing those colourful bangles, you used to talk about. The colourful Aisha you had described to me has become a pale and quiet girl- just waiting for you to wake up.
We sit next to each other for hours. In that time, we talk about the good memories.
Sometimes we laugh.
She mentions your love for postcards. I nod silently
I fumble through my hastily packed backpack and pull out a sheaf of postcards.
We look through them together. I tell her how you always sent for my birthday, and for Christmas.
Not to mention that you used to give them to me in person in college.
“She’s such a strange girl. Only she would do that.” Aisha said smiling through her tears.
“Mad, absolutely mad.”
Aisha finally asks why I haven’t seen you yet.
“I…not when…she’s like this.” I manage to say.
“The doctors expect her to gain consciousness soon.”
I nod. I swallow hard.
“It would mean everything to her if you were the first person she sees when she recovers.”
I give a little helpless laughter.
“You’re definitely Swara’s best friend. Bollywood runs in your blood.”
She gives a tired laugh too. “Sorry, got carried away. But…you understood what I meant.”
I do. Despite the gloom, a strange happiness breaks over me like a wave.

It’s the fifth morning. I’m re-reading your postcards again.
I’m reading the one you gave me before my first debate.
The first postcard you had ever given me.

Five years ago. I touch your handwriting gently- and notice the slants.

You’re probably wondering WHY on earth I am giving you a postcard for a debate.
Truth is, I don’t know. Somehow I feel like giving you postcards. I have a bad feeling this might become a habit.
So if you wish to end our friendship now, you may. Hahaha.
But I wanted to say, all the very, very best for your debate. You’ll be amazing. Go thrash your opponents.
Love, always,

I remember laughing in exasperation when you handed me this. But I never told you what it meant to me.
Yet I loved each and every one of your postcards…but never told you I did. You must have thought I treated it as a habit.
There are so many things I haven’t told you, Swara.

Love, always.
I re-read the postcard again. Emotions swarm over me and I walk towards your door finally.
I push open the door.

I see you, at last. But I’m afraid of nothing now.
I know you’re going to wake up soon, and you’re going to be fine.
With my postcard clutched in my hand, I bend down at the bed. Conversations explode in my head, and I can’t tell one from another.
You’re a Bollywood fan, aren’t you? If this was a film I would sit and express myself clearly, in the most beautiful and soulful way possible.
But this is real life, and all those words are stuck.
Instead, I read out the postcard to you.
I’m as strange as you.

I hold your hand tightly, just as I used to. I don’t know how many hours have passed. But I can finally sleep.
The postcard is still clutched tightly in my other hand.

There are so many things I haven’t told you. I have taunted and teased you so often- but never said the real things.
I don’t know what I was scared of. Or maybe I do.
I’ve never told you I loved your postcards and looked forward to them every time. I’ve never told you that I liked it when you wore those peacock blue earrings. Or that you looked beautiful on farewell- and I ruined your mood, as usual. I’ve never told you that I’ve tried writing postcards, but I never could go through with it.
Beneath that confidence and bravado…you were right, I was more scared than you were.
But I’m not now.
The idea of losing you forever has erased all that.

Time has lost all essence now. I know I’ve been sleeping and waking, and looking at you hopefully. Nurses and doctors have come in, and gone.

I read out the postcard you sent on my last birthday. I knew you were angry because I hadn’t acknowledged it.
I close my eyes. I’m more despicable than Jay.

Why aren’t you waking up? I want to scream in frustration. I touch your hair gently. Please, Swara. Please.

After what seems like an eternity…
You open your eyes.
You close them again. I jump up and say your name. Your eyelids flutter.
You look bewildered. The bewilderment melts into a faintly happy expression.
And your eyes water. You try making a movement. I shake my head slightly, afraid that you’ll get hurt.

I open and close my mouth. It seems surreal, it’s a dream, I’m sure of it.
I show you the postcard with trembling hands.
 A few minutes pass. You give a rather confused smile.
That smile tells me all I need to know. Your hand tightens on mine. Your very small and slight fingers.
The words almost burst out of me. But I realize at last- there’s no hurry. Moreover, there’s no need. Everything has now- been said.
There’ll be years. A lifetime of them. 
There’s just certainty.
For now I just smile back. I kiss your forehead and say,
“You really to need to learn how to cross roads.”
We laugh through those tears.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Now or Never

I scrolled through photos rather drearily on my Instagram and Facebook feed. It had only been two minutes since I had checked last.  I doubted there would be anything new.
I refreshed again. Might as well, I thought. I was sitting in a hospital, waiting for Aisha to return.
A new photo had turned up on my Instagram feed.
I paused. I tried scrolling past it, even though I knew I would inevitably come back to it.
It was Rehaan’s. An old friend.

There he was, at some beach, sitting next to her, holding her hand lightly. The beach seemed deserted, as if it was just made for the two of them. His hair was brushed and pushed back for once, with just a few strands flopped across his forehead. He still had that strained smile, as he could never smile properly for photographs.
Smiling for photographs isn’t exactly my thing, Swara.”
I could hear his exasperated voice so clearly in my head.
He looked more sunburnt than ever. Both of them did. She was lovely as always, and was holding a melting ice cream in one hand.
In that perfect world, there was only two of them.
What a good-looking couple, my mother had said. I couldn’t have agreed more. She had a beautiful complexion, and bright round vivacious brown eyes. Her hair was twisted into an untidy knot, and hung loosely around her.
I thought of his eyes. His eyes always had a passionate fire in them, and were full of different emotions. He seemed to now have found his match.
Rehaan had always been tall, handsome and broad-shouldered. I recalled how he used to walk with fast strides, and I would struggle to keep up with him. “You walk agonizingly slow.” He would taunt and run ahead.
I smiled faintly as I remembered how the girls in college used to fawn over him, and how he used to pretend that he didn’t notice.
Idiot. He would be secretly so pleased with himself.
“Okay, that’s good for them right?” He would grin when I would tell him. He maintained his friendly relationships with everyone, but somehow never dated anyone.
I wondered what the story behind him and Aditi was. He had promised to tell me. Of course, a lot of promises had been made, and he hadn’t been able to keep up with most.

I couldn’t help smiling at his rather sarcastic caption.
But that was Rehaan. That was the only way he expressed himself. Sarcasm was his first language, he used to say proudly.
I stared at the picture again. He was looking happy…and younger.  Something I hadn’t seen for a while.  
I looked at the way he had held her hand, and a strange unnamed emotion washed over me.
My eyes smarted and I put the phone away. There were too many things running through my head and I couldn’t understand them.
I missed my friend, that’s all I knew. 

I leaned back and closed my eyes. I had just celebrated my twenty-third birthday three days ago. He had always looked forward to my birthday, sometimes more than I had. By the beginning of the month he would start sending messages reminding me how it was my birthday.
“But it’s your birthday Swara! Please for once, I beg you don’t sit at home and watch one of your depressing soap operas.”
Without fail, he would tell me this every year. He would call half an hour before “to avoid the rush at midnight when everyone starts calling you” so we could talk for a while. We wouldn’t speak about anything heavy. We would just talk.
And every year I would sit at home, eat cake, and watch one TV soap opera, and tell him animatedly about it. He would sigh and say,
“Whatever makes you happy.”

This year he didn’t call. He didn’t even mention my birthday month. This is probably why we’re always told we shouldn’t take things for granted. There is a strange blankness and emptiness when the things we just assume will always happen...don’t.
I missed the call that never came, I missed the friendly warnings of telling me to leave the house and enjoy myself…I missed the annoyed and exasperated sigh on the phone when I would tell him I didn’t.
He sent a message, saying that he had just returned from his holiday and was exhausted. He promised he would call the next day.
That call didn’t come either.
I wrestled with my thoughts and told them to be sensible. It was of course very childish to keep calling at midnight. Maybe we had grown out of that, and I just didn’t know that.
How many things had we now grown out of?

I hadn’t spoken to him properly for months now. I had tried, but he had become very busy with his work. He made promises to call back, but he never could. I would tell him not to worry and that it was not a problem. I understood.
And I did understand, I told myself. It’s natural that he would spend the only free time he had with his girlfriend.
Or was it?
Again I would fight with myself.
Wasn’t it natural that he would spend time with his girlfriend first?
But he could call once in a month, at least. Maybe not regularly like he used to, but at least one call, my inner voice would tell me.
It’s okay, he didn’t have to.
Shouldn’t he see how I am doing?
People change sometimes. Feelings don’t, I told myself sternly.

We had been friends from college days. I don’t know how this friendship started- but from a conversation about mutual hatred for rain; it led to a walk around the college campus. And from then on I couldn’t imagine that there was a life before him. And like he said, neither could he. College gossip, dubious as it was, credited us with being in love with each other. We laughed at the thought.
We couldn’t have been more different. He entertained a large circle of friends, and participated in every co-curricular activity, which came his way. I felt awkward around them and could only mumble half-sentences. He would be exasperated,
“You don’t even try.”
“They don’t even like me.”
“You’re not even giving them a chance.”
And he would fight with me. I was never good at arguing, so I would stop the conversation halfway.
“I wish you would just fight back sometimes, Swara.” He would say disappointed.

I admired him for his passionate debating talent, secretly wishing I could argue like that. I turned up for all his debates, even though he would half-heartedly insist that I shouldn’t. I used to come with a packet of macaroons, and save one for him. It became a tradition. Even though he mocked me heartlessly for it, he was considerably upset when I didn’t come for one of his debates.
“Where were you?”
“I had to study for the assignment-otherwise you know I would’ve been there.”
“You’re there for all of them, despite assignments. It felt weird today, Swara. No macaroon, no over-enthusiastic encouragement... Nothing.” He said, finishing his coffee in one shot.
“I’m sorry.”
I was surprised he had mentioned my “over-enthusiastic encouragement”, as he had always reprimanded me sharply for it.
“You work too hard at trying to make me feel good.” He had once said.

Though a year later he walked towards me and said rather shakily,
“Swara. Tell me everything’s going to be okay.”

Often when I saw him at the podium hammering his opponents with his well-researched facts, I realized I was a little scared of getting into an argument with him.
“You shouldn’t be scared of me.” He said half-bemused, half-laughing, when I mentioned this to him.
“Not of you-just fighting with you.”
“That’s the same thing, Swara. It doesn’t speak well about a friendship if you’re scared of someone.”

At the beginning of our third year, there was a time when he turned into someone I didn’t know. His parents were going through a divorce, and he unleashed his anger on everyone else…including me. It was hard to talk to him during that time because he would either reply in brusque phrases or snap.
“Where do you want to have lunch?” I would ask.
“Don’t feel like eating.”
He would walk ahead, kicking the pebbles hard.

I almost felt like giving up sometimes. It was draining. He perhaps noticed this, and would call later in the evening rather reluctantly and we would have a forced conversation. He looked tired most of the time, and his academics suffered. I tried talking to him about it, and he snapped of course.
“If trying to talk to me right now is too much for you too, you better not.”
I actually got worried about him. He refused to talk to me for a while, and got into fights with people he barely knew.
And then one day he got into a really aggressive fight with some of the seniors. I tried pulling him away, but he pushed me away roughly. He had never ever behaved like that. Even he looked rather stunned at his violence.
I finally said, “I’m so tired of you.”
He turned towards me, and the fire in him went out. There was a silence, except for some awkward murmuring in the background.
“Well, I’m sorry about that.”  He said slowly and walked away.
He didn’t come for classes that day.

For around three weeks we didn’t talk. He would come to college, conduct his conversation with people, work hard, and leave. The only good thing was that he seemed calm. He didn’t even try to make eye contact with me, except to say, “excuse me” courteously. I had had enough, and didn’t try to reason with him. The only thing I was happy that I could be happy about was that he had stopped being fierce and disagreeable. Once when he answered a question in class, I caught him looking at me as if expecting me to add to his answer, like I usually would.
I turned resolutely to my notebook.

I was walking home one awful rainy day with an upside down umbrella. This is why I probably detested rain. I was soaked and miserable, and then I saw Rehaan walking towards me, looking even more so. I stared at him rather curiously.
He put his hand on my hand, and said,
“Swara- I…”
I knew what he was about to say and realized that I didn’t need to hear it.
“It’s fine.” I said.
“I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
We stood next to each other for a few strange seconds, staring in different directions. Despite the wet cold, my cheeks had turned warm.
His hand was still on mine.
There was a silence between us, except for rain splattering on the road, and cars reveling in the puddles. People rushed by, but for some reason time had stopped for us.
I wished he would say something more. I didn’t know what, but I wished it.
“Let’s go home.” I said.
He nodded and then said rather quietly,
“I wish you would say something more, Swara.”

Life which had been kept on hold for a while, resumed again. Third year was more tedious and exhausting. There was already a sense of finality in the air.
Yet that didn’t deter us. We still sat next to each other, helped with each other’s assignments and drank copious amounts of coffee to get through tedious exams. I usually hated coffee, but was doing anything to keep awake. He would sigh at the amount of sugar I would mix in the coffee.
“That’s too much!”
“It’s so bitter otherwise!”
There were times when we stayed in the library till late in evening. I remembered vividly, how we sat on the sofa, trying to learn up notes. I also remember how I used to sleep along the way-sometimes putting my head on his shoulder.
He never stopped me, or said anything about it either.

During the chaos of the final examinations, he suddenly told me.
“Why don’t you try talking to Karthik?”
Trust him to bring up something like that so randomly.
Karthik was one of my classmates who had tried speaking to me several times, but I had been shy and hadn’t spoken much. Rehaan usually found it amusing, and would give one of his mischievous grins every time Karthik passed by looking rather disappointed.
“He’s nice.” I said rather vaguely.
“Not what I asked, Swara. I think he really likes you. Why don’t you-”
“No.” I said quickly, feeling the heat rushing to my face.
“Why not?” Rehaan continued steadily.
Exactly, why not? I didn’t like anyone else, I wasn’t committed. So what was the problem?
“I…I don’t know. Why are we bothering about this now Rehaan? We have an exam tomorrow!”
“Is there a reason?” He said in a low voice.
I frantically searched my brain looking for a valid reason-or rather a reason I could give him.
He shuffled his notes, and hours went by in silence.

I was still lost in thoughts about the light pressure of his hand on mine when Aisha returned triumphantly, with her bandaged hand.
“What did the doctor say?” I asked, trying to keep my voice normal.
“Oh he told me to remove the bandages in two days. I should look where I walk, instead of falling on concrete.”
“A wise idea.”
She looked at me and said, “You look rather blue. What happened?”
That didn’t convince her, obviously.
“Come let’s go.” I hastily.

In the car, I brought it up with a rather forced casual tone.
“Oh, Rehaan apparently had gone to some pretty beach with Aditi.”
“And?” Aisha said questioningly.
“Nothing, he had gone with her. Was just telling you.”
‘What’s bothering you, Swara?” She asked looking at me in concern.
“I don’t know.” I said looking out of the window.
“Did you ever love him?” she asked after a while.
“I loved him as a friend, Aisha.”

I thought back to the many walks we had taken in pretty Delhi gardens. I thought of those laughs and inside jokes we had laughed over. Conversations surged in my head.
I remembered the things we had told only each other.
I wondered whether he had confessed them to her as well now. Somehow the idea made me irritated.

Does she know that you cried while watching a LOST episode, the TV series?
Does she know that you have a small lucky charm-in the form of a tiny china pig, which you carried around for all your exams? Do you give that pig to her too, when she feels nervous…just the way you used to give me?
Does she know that you secretly enjoy all bad Bollywood films, even though you claim you don’t?
Have you told her the gory story of how you got that scar on your hand? You told me that I was the only one who knew. Not even your parents did.
Does she know you, like I do?  

You’re first for me, Swara. There’s no one else who listens to me like you do.”

He had said this when we were sitting by the lake and throwing stones. There was a hushed quiet, and we were far away from the noise of the city.
It was just us.
Just as I had always liked it.
Our laughs, our silences.

I looked at him and smiled. The wind rustled through the leaves almost interrupting the quiet.
“What if you find someone?” He suddenly said.
“What if I do?” I asked puzzled.
“It’s very strange to imagine that. I’ll miss you.”
He said it matter-of-factly.
I said rather wisely,
“Even if I do, that wouldn’t change us. And if you find someone, we would still be…us. As long as the feelings don’t change, who cares if the circumstances do?”
“Oh I’m not finding someone anytime soon.” He said with a derisive laugh.
“You’ll still be first for me though.” He said, seriously.
“That shouldn’t be the case, Rehaan.” I said quietly.
“Well she’ll be very insecure about you.”
He laughed, sighed and laughed again. He held my hand for a few seconds.

Aisha’s question, did you ever love him echoed in my head again when I reached home. I looked through old letters, hoping to find one from him.
But obviously, he never had any need to give me letters or postcards. It was I, who had given them to him.
I wondered if he had kept them all.
I only found a small bill from a restaurant, which had a devilish looking smiley face on it. He had spent a good half an hour drawing that.
I came across a photo of us during the Graduation ceremony. Somebody else had taken it, which would explain why we weren’t looking at the camera. We were sitting in the auditorium, engrossed in a conversation.
Graduation Day. Another day which came to my life in my head now. I remember how much I had fussed about the saris. I had no idea what colour to wear, and I inflicted this misery on him as well.
“Swara, ask one of the girls, I have no idea.” He said annoyed after I asked him for the tenth time.
So I chose a purple sari at last.
He smiled when he saw me, and complimented me. He then said rather reflectively,
“Blue would have suited you better, though.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” I said, upset. I had no idea why I was upset.
“Would you have listened to me, if I did?”
“Of course I would’ve.”
“Maybe that’s why.” He said and shrugged his shoulders.
I hated when he spoke in riddles.
“I wish you would just tell me things sometimes.” I said angrily.
He said rather indifferently, “I wish you would, too.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What were we fighting about? Was it a fight? Why was it so difficult sometimes to understand him?
I didn’t understand, and I always felt a twinge of bitterness when I looked back at that day.

“Swara. I’ve got something to tell you.”
I remembered the slight hesitation and nervousness on the phone. We were now in different states. We weren’t talking as often as I wished, but the phone calls once a month still made me considerably happy.
“Tell me.”
“I’ve….I’ve met someone.”
“What? When?” I exclaimed, unable to say something more clearly. A rather unfamiliar feeling washed over me, even though I smiled outwardly.
“Aditi.” He whispered her name.
My voice broke and I said,
“I’m so happy for you.”
“I knew you would be.” His voice broke too.
“I want to speak to her sometime.”
“You’re the first person I want her to talk to.”
“You deserve this happiness.” I said quietly, wiping my eyes. I had never heard his voice so elated, and yet shy too. I could see his expression so clearly in my head.
How I wished I could see him.
I spoke to Aditi in the next few days. She sounded soft and gentle, and I told her how lucky they both were.

I looked around angrily around the mess of letters and postcards. Six years of friendship and he hadn’t even given me a card.
Then I laughed at myself. How childish, Swara.

A conversation came to mind, as I picked up the rest of the postcards.

It was one of our midnight conversations, two years ago, before he had to move to a different city.
It was around two am in the morning. He had just finished his essay and was finally free.
I was half-asleep by this time, but I remembered the conversation as if it had just happened a few minutes ago.
We were speaking in whispers about some terrible film, and laughing about it. I remember his change of tone when he said,
“Thank god you didn’t like it. Everybody else did.”
“It was awful, I don’t understand how they did.”
“We share the same views on practically everything, Swara.”
I nodded. “Yes.”
He said even more quietly,
“We’re such crazy people.”
I laughed.
“We would be a crazy couple.” He said with a change of tone.
My heart almost stopped.
“I would drive you crazy, Rehaan.”
“You won’t.”
The conversation was heading to a place, which I had only read about in books, and films. A mad happiness seemed to be breaking over me like a wave…and then I was terrified. The words had gotten stuck in my throat.
“You’re so unsure of yourself.” He continued.
“You’re no less. That lies beneath all your bravado and overconfidence.” I said irritated.
“I wished you talked like this to me more often.” He said with a laugh.
There was a long silence. He then said coolly reverting suddenly to the previous topic,
 “But then we won’t have this friendship anymore. I don’t think I can lose that.”
 “We’ll always have that.”
“I’ll lose you, if we were together, Swara.”
There was a deafening silence after that statement. Sometimes, I wanted to desperately go back to that moment and have the conversation again. But I wouldn’t know what to say, once again.
“What do you think?” He said. I don’t know if I imagined it-but there was a hint of absurd hope in his voice. 
“You’re right.” I said, not even sure what he was right about.
There was an abrupt disconnection, and he later messaged saying that his phone had run out charge.

I’ll lose you, if we were together, Swara.
We never referred to the conversation again. Yet it burned through my memory now.

I had felt safest near him. No one could get away saying anything profane to me while he was around. And sometimes this became the cause for a lot of strain.
Many of my classmates would tease me for my introversion, and my “lack of a social life”. Some, were perhaps more straightforward about it than others.
“You don’t have a life, Swara.” One of them once snapped, while I had narrated how I spent one of my birthdays.
This stung me and I couldn’t think of a response. As always, I was never good with comebacks.
“That’s a bit judgmental.” I managed to say.
“It’s the truth. You have the most boring life.  You’ve never even had a relationship. I mean go out with people, get to know people, get into a relationship-and then maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”
My eyes watered. Rehaan noticed and stepped in, even though he might have reminded me of this deficiency in several different ways. He sharply told Jay to mind his own business. It almost became a verbally abusive fight, as Jay obviously didn’t take that lying down.
“Stop, enough. Let’s just go.” I said and dragged Rehaan by the arm.
Rehaan withdrew his hand and stormed out of the classroom. I ran after him. He stood near the balcony and then turned on me,
“Is “Let’s go”, “forget it”, “you’re right”, your solution to everything?”
“Rehaan please. Let people say what they want-”
“Oh for god sake, shut up! I’m so tired of your eternally passive behaviour, and letting people get away with saying idiotic things like this to you! Do you or do you not have a mind or a backbone?” He shouted so loudly, that a couple of juniors stopped by looking alarmed.
I was shaken by now.
“You’ve always pretty much agreed-”
“And you accepted it when I told you. How about for once saying, no Rehaan I am comfortable with my life, I’m happy?”
“Because you’re not.” He said breathing deeply.
He tried walking off, and I for once roughly turned him around. Was it my imagination-or was there a slight hint of pride in his eyes when I did that?
The sun blazed over our heads, as I struggled with words. He watched me with quiet amusement.
And then I had nothing to say.
“I thought so.” He said quietly, as if he read my thoughts. He gently took my hand away from his shirt. He walked away, and didn’t look back.

I had disappointed him. Perhaps I always had.
It was a mutual feeling, anyway. Maybe that was left in this friendship now.

It was afternoon now. I lay in bed for my normal afternoon sleep, when my mother came and lay next to me.
“You’re early to sleep today. It’s only two.”
“I’m a bit tired.”
I then said rather reluctantly,
“Oh just saw some photos. Rehaan’s gone with Aditi for some holiday.”
“Oh god, all these lovesick youngsters going for holidays. What nonsense.”
I couldn’t help laughing in spite of myself.
“What are you so disturbed about? Did something ever happen between the two of you?”
Trust mom to be that blunt.
“No.” I answered, after a pause.

Did something ever happen between the two of you?
When people used this phrase, what did they mean?
I don’t know. The “something” could’ve been the way we would sit and watch TV shows for hours, the times we played football in the rain-both of us admitting that it was the only time we could properly enjoy rain…or the hours we spent talking on the phone till early morning, the way he would put his hand in front of me gently when crossing the road “Look before you cross, for crying out loud.” Maybe the times we went grocery shopping and argued whether I should buy orange juice or not.
“Get mango juice, it’s much better.”
He would try taking the orange juice bottle out of my basket when I wasn’t looking, and I had to put it back with a sigh. Could that laugh and glance we exchanged be the “something?” Or maybe just the secret precious memories I pretended did not have significance?
There were a series of “some things” then.

A memory suddenly surged.
We were on the terrace. It had just rained heavily, and we had come to splash in the puddles. Or rather, I had. He pretended to be distasteful but joined me anyway.
“You’re such a child, Swara.”
“You’re not quite the adult either.” I said throwing some of the muddy water on him.
“Oh Swara, it’s on my shirt now. Urrrgh!”
“Okay, sorry about that.” I said stepping out of the puddles.
He tried pushing past me and ended up flat in the water. Helpless with laughter, I tried helping him up and fell too.
We lay there, still laughing.
Whenever I missed him, or longed for his companionship-I would think of that moment. I thought of both of us lying unabashed and unashamedly in the muddy puddles on his terrace laughing uncontrollably. It was brought a smile to my face, along with searing eyes.
I remembered the concern in his eyes when he saw me sniffing, and about to sneeze. His eyes always spoke volumes. I just wished…that he would.
“Okay you look terrible and you’re going to catch a cold. Come now.” He said and pulled my hand.
His eyes caught mine for a few seconds.
As always, I never looked away. For a mad moment I believed he would say something- something, which I hadn’t phrased clearly in my head, but as always I expected him to put it as lucidly and clearly as he always did. I wanted him to say it for me, and explain…what was to be explained.
The spell suddenly broke, and he took his hand away.
 “Swara, please get up.”

And then, there were the birthdays. His birthdays.
The last six birthdays. Five of them, we had spent with each other. I found myself thinking of the way he would insist on spending the day with me and then going out later with friends. We would always take a walk in one of Delhi’s famous historic sites.

I suppose he had her to spend his birthday with now.
Perhaps why he had forgotten to take my call on the last one and said rather hurriedly he would call back.
He had stopped teasing me about my postcards as well. I had to specifically ask him if he had received it.
“I did, so sorry! There’s just so much work. I loved the postcard, thank you!”

Those birthdays flashed in my head like glowing embers of a dying fire. I wondered if he remembered them now.
There’s nobody else I would rather spend my birthday with.”
He said that in his usual flippant way. Yet I would look into his eyes and see him staring back at me with an inexplicable expression.
Sometimes, those seconds felt like eternity.
On the last birthday we spent together, he said exasperated,
 “Oh don’t look at me like that. You have such a torturous thoughtful look. It scares me.”
“It’s very hard to look away!” I said before thinking.
He was about to throw a stone in a lake, and he stopped. He looked rather startled. He was about to say something, but thought better of it. For a few seconds, both of us fumbled with words.
“I meant-” I said hotly.
“It’s okay.”

After meeting him, Aisha once asked,
“How come the two of you didn’t fall in love?”
“We were too comfortable.” I answered.
“You were too scared.” She said quietly.

They say that some moments pass by quietly. Only later do we realize their enormous significance. That seemed to be the summary of my relationship with Rehaan.
The time for a final goodbye had come.
I saw him off at the railway station, with an emptiness growing steadily inside me.
“Don’t stay too long. It’s already getting dark.” He said anxiously.
“I don’t mind. The train’s anyway is leaving in ten minutes.”
We stood opposite each other, with his huge suitcase standing between us.
We weren’t sure of when we would meet next.
How many years would have passed by then?
I opened my mouth to say something and so did he.
As always, the words got lost in the air. There was chaos all around us, people and porters were all knocking us over, the train horn was sounding…and yet…nothing stopped the unbreakable glance between us. He cleared his throat, and held my hand tightly.
I held it even tighter, suddenly afraid to let go.
 “Best friend” was a pale term for us now.
I wondered if his hair would be this untidy the next time I saw him…or whether he would still tie those shoelaces as shoddily as he always did.
When would I see those deep searching eyes again? Would they still be the same? Or would that strange emotion flickering in his eyes be for someone else?
We hugged rarely. But today, he came close. He came extremely close to my face and I saw his brilliant black eyes staring into mine once again.
There were a few moments when I couldn’t hear anything at all. His eyes didn’t leave mine. And then I saw…tears in them.
Then I realized I had them too.
He sighed, smiled and then gave a short kiss on my cheek.
“It’s getting late, Swara. Let me know when you get home.” He said withdrawing.
I’ll miss you. I’ll come with you. Delhi won’t be the same without you. Life won’t be the same without you. I won’t be the same without you.
“Yes. Have a safe trip, and message me when you reach.”
He stepped on the train and waved.
I waved back.
He went inside the train and didn’t look back.
I turned away, with his kiss still burning on my cheek.
The train left the station.