I watch her climb down the steep slope. Her gait defies the few grey strands she has tucked behind those delicate ears. Those grey strands are the only noticeable sign of advancing age, seen from behind. I smile inwardly at her defiance to this era of hair dyes and streaks. Sandals in hand, she is taking small, deft steps with those bare small feet of hers. I wonder why everything about her seems so small and delicate, almost fragile. But in moments of eye contact, I have also sensed the inner strength in that small frame.
She pauses. As if she has sensed some invisible pull of the stretching distance between us. Then she turns and puts a delicate palm to her forehead, shielding her eyes from the summer sun. “Come on guys! We have almost reached there. I can hear the waterfall.” I look back up the slope. Our kids are left behind, making the trek at their own leisurely pace, stopping to shoot rocks and trees and each other. “They will manage. Let’s go.” says her bald husband who has been resting his tired legs under a convenient tree, with me and my wife.
The husband starts a slow descent into the valley. I follow close behind him, wife in tow, cautious of the treacherously smooth rocks in the path.
We reach base of the valley. A respite from the burning sun, the shade here is cool and damp. The waterfall is some distance away. She runs forward and sits on a rock, dangling her feet in running, shallow water. Her husband and my wife have stopped behind, waiting for the kids. Setting down the haversack, I sit besides her. Her eyes are darting from side to side, watching the little shoals of tiny fish that gather around her feet and move away when she shifts her weight. “Take your shoes off and put your feet in water” she says without looking at me. I do as she asks. As if I have been doing that all my life, doing what she asks me to.
There, sitting by her side, feet dangling in cool water, I look at her and suddenly realize that I have never seen her from so close! Hers was the front bench, while I had been a confirmed backbencher in school. All the girls were seated on right side of the classroom and boys on the left. Segregation was the norm then, at least in small towns like ours. Boys and girls spoke to each other, but only when necessary and from a distance. From this close, I see some fine lines radiating from corner of her eyes. They are not wrinkles, not yet. Silence is rude. I start talking about the reunion (what else?). But her benevolent smile is for the tiny fish.
I remember the chance meeting at a wedding. I had recognized her the moment I saw her. She had needed some efforts to put a name on my now bulky frame. But then she had talked enthusiastically. About our school days, teachers, classmates. It was the first time she had talked with me so freely. The bald man had stood patiently by her side, waiting to get introduced. It was only when my wife came searching for me, that proper introductions were made. He a scientist of some repute, she working fulltime for an NGO. Whatever happened to the dream of being a doctor? I hadn’t asked of course. Dreams are personal. Asking about them is taboo, especially before the baldy, and the wife. She too had avoided the subject of junior college.
Should I ask her now? I look towards baldy and the wife. They are still waiting for kids. “That was a great reunion. Thanks for the idea.” I am startled to hear the smile in her voice. I start to protest but then realize the futility. Yes, the reunion was grand. It had been a monumental task to contact all our classmates after twenty-five years since we had left the school. But we had accomplished it, together. Our teachers –those who were still alive- had also been there. A grand success, no doubt. Faces faintly remembered from past had floated up, now reflected in miniature on their children’s and accompanied by proud spouses.
She had been chosen for the opening address, naturally. I remembered the somewhat reserved girl that used to bag almost every award in debates and singing competitions. Whose brilliance in academics and even handwriting was constantly pointed out to rest of us as an unattainable ideal. She had choked on her words and left the address unfinished.
We had feted our teachers. Photographed ourselves sitting in classrooms, on the same old wooden benches. The new graffiti etched on desks mercifully hiding the old. Exchanged phone numbers and birthdays and wedding anniversaries. And talked endlessly of the fun we had had (but did not know how precious it was when it happened) in those days. She had related the incident in biology lab, with all the details that I did not even remember noticing when it had happened. Her frog had suddenly jumped from dissection table, with its belly slit open. Her screams had stopped only when I had caught the poor thing and pinned it down firmly in her wax tray. I was embarrassed to receive the public thanks, twenty-five years too late.
At the end of the daylong orgy of nostalgia, the class of 1975 had dispersed with firm promises of frequent meetings. And then after a few months, I had received her call. Exams were over. Kids were free. How about a trip to a hill station? Yeah, sure. Delighted to hear this, I am. Let me ask the wife. “Come on, I didn’t think you were so henpecked a husband!” The mock rebuff had surprised me; coming from her who once would studiously avoid talking to opposite sex.
So here we are, both the families trekking to the waterfall. The kids had struck it off together from the instant we had boarded the train. Two of hers and one of mine. The trio now comes running towards us, followed slowly by baldy and the wife. Stripping to bermudas, baldy and me jump in the water with kids. Lot of splashing later, the kids persuade their moms to join in. They do, with their salwar kurtas on.
Wife seems worried over the clothes turned transparent by water and goes to find a place to change into dry ones. Baldy and I have a swimming race, to humour the kids. Nobody wins. Water is too shallow. She sits in the small waterfall, letting water caress her all over. I don’t envy the water, I don’t. Just noticing how much she has changed, and averting eyes quickly.
On the climb up, we four are together. Rest of the day is leisurely sight seeing. In the night, kids play games while we sit outside our cottages. Despite my protests, baldy keeps pouring some more brandy in my frequently empty glass and tells terrible jokes. I become bold and suggest she sings. She doesn’t need much persuasion. The song I remember quite well. She had sung it at the send-off of our tenth class. A Sufi song set to bhairavi, ud jayegaa hans akela (the swan will fly away, alone). The training in classical vocal is still quite apparent in the matured voice. Baldy is beaming with pride.
“What cry-songs are you singing? Come, let’s play antakshari!” kids join us. Old versus young is the natural division of teams. It is fun singing duets, my off key drunken voice lagging miles behind every crystal clear note in hers. No team loses and none wins. Kids have an inexhaustible supply of new hits and we have oldies stacked miles high in our hearts. We call it a truce and go to bed.
Morning in the hills is sudden. Despite the brandies of last night, I wake up early. Time for morning walk of a diabetic. I silently slip out of the cottage as wife and son sleep. She is sitting on steps of her cottage. “They are sleeping. Let’s go and find some tea.” She joins me. We talk, of the reunion, my business, my diabetes, our kids, her job. There is no tea. The kitchen opens at seven. We wander further. In another search.
The morning sun is mild. We sit on two rocks facing each other. A squirrel scurries past her and stops to look back at us with its beady eyes. There is no one to stop me now. She senses it somehow and speaks, “where is he these days?”
She means Rahul, my fast friend in junior college. In spite of my backbencher frolics, I had secured enough marks in SSC to get admission in the same prestigious junior college with her. We sat in different classes, but sometimes talked during recess. She was not very shy anymore like in our schooldays. The caterpillars were undergoing first stage in their metamorphosis. The newfound freedom of college was heady, after confines of the school discipline. Yet a distance was always there, maintained by some unspoken mutual consent.
Though she had not really been my friend, Rahul thought so, just because she had been my classmate in school. Rahul had just migrated to our town. The handsome Punjabi boy was center of attention for girls and boys alike. He was the only one who rode to college on a Yezdi motorcycle in those days. Rest of us considered ourselves lucky to get mopeds or even bicycles.
For no apparent reason, Rahul had appointed me as his closest friend, philosopher and guide. He would charmingly persuade my mother to let me stay the nights at his place for study. I became a second son to his mom. At my home, even the radio was rationed. But Rahul had his own stereo cassette deck. We would spend the nights listening to ABBA, Boney M and Carpenters while we dreamt of our careers.
On one such night, Rahul claimed that she loves him. I didn’t think so. “She is not the type that would fall in love,” I had told him as if I was an authority on love and psychology. Rahul became furious. “She looks at me hundred times a day. And smiles too!” he insisted. “Everybody looks at you and your bike. And she is born with a smiling face” I didn’t budge. He did not talk with me for several days.
I was chosen as editor for the college magazine. Rahul wanted me to write a poem of love for her and publish it in his name. I grudgingly conceded. He made me write her name in the poem in a manner not too obvious, but obvious enough. That was easy, for her name translated into love itself, in Hindi. Rahul treated me royally thereafter.
The all-important board exams were around the corner. For all of us who aspired for a medical or engineering career, this was the battle to be won at all costs. Rahul and me studied late into nights. We both wanted to become engineers.
In the week before the exams, Rahul became restless. His father had been transferred to Delhi and the family was to move soon after the exams. He made me write a note. He poured his heart out and I moulded it in suitable words. The gist was that Rahul desperately wanted her in his life. He didn’t want anything from her, except a simple ‘yes’. And after graduation, he would come to her from wherever he would be, to rescue his princess. He would fight fire-spitting dragons, if need be. The handwriting too was mine, as Rahul’s was quite bad. “I don’t want to make a bad impression” he had said. He had dropped all his macho bravado and looked at me with puppy eyes as I went out on the mission, alone. He steadfastly refused to come along, “what are friends for?”
I could not just go to her home, ring the door bell and hand over the love letter. The preparation leave meant no chance of meeting in college either. But I knew a way. Every morning she visited the Ganesh temple near our old school.
She saw me standing outside the temple as she came out. Same sweet smile that had Rahul hooked hopelessly, “So the exams bring you too at the Lord’s door! How’s the preparation going?” She asked casually. “Er … okay I guess. How’s yours?” small talk is safe, as opposed to trafficking in love letters.
“I dream of becoming a doctor. You?” she had asked the unexpected question with full sincerity. “Engineer may be... Yes, an engineer. If possible.” I tried replying with same sincerity. “Best of luck then. See you at the exams!” and she turned to leave.
“Er… wait. I have something … this here… something for you.” I stammered as I extracted the note from my back pocket. People were watching us, I felt. She calmly took the note from my shaking hands and opened it. “Not here, take it home” I wanted to scream. But I just stood there, stupidly watching those big dark eyes methodically go through the whole three-page love letter, right there in the street.
I was sweating profusely by the time she finished and looked up at me. I could not comprehend the reason or meaning of the hurt in her eyes. Then she turned and firmly walked away, still clutching the crumpled note in her hands.
I didn’t have the courage to face Rahul. I did not go back to him. The exam started two days later. Rahul never showed up. I went to his house. But it was locked. The family has gone to Delhi, neighbours told me.
“Never heard from him” I say, and after a pause, add “after that day”. She must have sensed the accusation. “It was not my fault. I had never encouraged him” she takes the defensive stance. “Shall we go back now?” Yes. We must.
I get up. But she stays rooted on the rock, “It really was not my fault. I did not like the boy. I was rather afraid of his stares. I told Mom and she told Daddy. Dad asked me a thousand questions. I answered all in negative. Next day Dad went to college and got his address. Dad had settled the matter, mom told me that night. That’s all I know, honest!” She is pleading now.
“Then why did you take the note home? Why did you not tear it and throw it in my face?” I must have screamed. The squirrel seems terrified. She doesn’t say a word for ages. I never expected an answer anyway, I tell myself and turn to walk back, not waiting for her.
She takes a few brisk steps and joins me silently. Somewhere on the way back, she stops me and whispers, “why didn’t you sign your own name on that note? And on the poem too?”
Perplexed, I look at her for few long moments. And then in that moment of revelation, I see the mischief hidden in those lines radiating from corners of her smiling eyes. We both break out into a laughter that is pleasantly warm like the midmorning sun on a hill station.
“Come, let’s go back. They must be waiting for us.” She takes my hand with an ease of a lifetime friend, as we walk back to baldy and the wife and the kids.
(c) Rajendra Pradhan