By Reema Tripathy from Bhubaneswar, India
It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport.The early morning February air was pleasantly cold
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend's wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batchmates. But what I didn't know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
It had been four long years; four years three months and ten days to be precise. I wanted to run up to Vandana . My eyes pined to catch one glimpse of hers. But our break up was also a fact which I could not wish away. My heart pleaded with me to talk to her. My mind objected; beware she will hurt you again. It is interesting how we perceive distances. Five years back, she had gone abroad for a short while but we had been as involved in each other’s lives as two people sharing a room would be. And now, she wasn’t even two feet away, yet the chasm seemed insurmountable for me to bridge. The chilly Delhi air was not able to dampen my spirit; I decided that I would speak to her. I badly wanted to hug her tightly and cry bitterly but somehow restrained myself. I mustered courage to say ‘Hi’. There was no response. I looked into her eyes. They seemed blank. She was not even acknowledging my presence. ’Hi’ I repeated. Still no response. Just then,a burly man came in between us. ‘Excuse me, we are getting late’. I wanted to retort, but the words would not come out. I am not a roadside ruffian making a pass at your beloved. And I was the centre of your beloved’s universe, even before you came into her life, I wanted to yell.True we were no longer together. But it was her decision and I respected that. When she had already moved on in life, why did she need to be so indifferent to me? Was it the same Vandana who had proposed to me? Who had moved into my room in college? Is it so easy to flush people out of your lives? Then why do I feel like talking to her, I wondered.
Enough!!I should not sulk, I reprimanded myself. That chance encounter made me realise that I had been a fool to think that I did not miss her. That was because I had immersed myself in work. One glimpse and she was back to dominating my mind space. No wonder,before the flight attendant could ask for my preference, I had blurted out salted cashews- her all time favourite.
I landed at Bengaluru and hailed a cab. I got to see her no more. The city had changed a lot in the last four years ie it had become more chaotic. The owner of Chetty’s Corner, a local eatery was being interviewed on the radio. He was the brains behind the famed ‘ BunNippat ’ a kind of burger and that was this snack that had brought Vandana into my life.
It was the first day at B school.I still remember that evening vividly. Most of the seniors frequented the Chetty’s. I had gone there with Animesh and Sohail. After taking one bite of the famed snack I said, ’This can definitely be improved upon.’ 'Really? Show me how’, challenged a voice from behind. I turned around and saw Vandana ,a fellow batch mate, for the first time. Long hair, bright eyes and flawless skin, it was difficult for any guy not to take note of her. She had thrown down the gauntlet and I had to accept it on behalf of the guy fraternity.The tiny kitchen in Animesh’s studio apartment was my examination venue. Along with the nippat, I used cheese and sweet corn for the filling. She loved it. She said,’ You are someone who knows what he talks’. From that day we became friends.
The traffic was moving at snail’s pace. I turned around and realized that I had been stuck near Windsor Manor, a prominent hotel. It was the first five star hotel that I had gone to and Vandana had taken me there. We had started dating by then, but this wasn’t a date.She felt that I needed to learn table manners that came in handy while handling clients, especially foreigners. The rustic Punjabi that I was, I ended up creating quite a scene there. On one occasion, the fork flew out of my hand and on another a piece of chicken. We were there for about an hour and by the end of it, every person sitting in 360 degree radius of us had noticed me- thanks to clinking and clanking of cutlery and my clumsy mannerisms. I was embarrassed but she just laughed. Later we savoured roadside panipuri; with our hands of course.I kept wondering as to how could she choose to be with me?
Half an hour had passed. I was now stuck beside the famous Golf Course.We used to go there once in a while. Golf is the favourite sport of the rich; its only the wealthy who can afford to play it. She believed that the golf course could offer lessons in client management. She had managed a membership through one of her father’s colleagues who was a top bureaucrat in Delhi. I used to be amazed at the ease with which she could strike up conversations with the rich and powerful. Within five outings we had the visiting cards of almost all the dignitaries of Bengaluru. She was a natural charmer alright but she also persevered. I hoped that some of her talent and doggedness would rub off on me.
The traffic starting flowing.I reached the hotel.I wanted to look forward to the next day.It was Hitesh’s D day.
As I got up the next morning and glanced at my watch, the first thing that struck me was that it was Vandana’s birthday. To distract my attention, I tried flipping through the pages of the newspaper. There was a piece titled ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’. The article used it to refer to an old fort, I had used it to wish her on her birthday in college. As always, I had realized later that I had committed a blunder- referred to her as ‘thing’. Did I need to goof up all the time? By the way, I specialize in committing blunders, so I would never stop at one. I went upto her and admitted my mistake even before she had read the note. She smiled,’ You have made my day by quoting Keats for me’ and kissed me.
‘Let go man’! A voice was screeching inside my mind. I obeyed. I got ready and reached Hitesh’s marriage venue in no time. It was a reunion of sorts. Majority had gained weight and the hairlines of most of the guys had receded. We hugged, joked and teased but I was feeling incomplete. Just like the absence of one person in a crowd of fifty is felt in a family get together, I was missing Vandana. Whosoever I spoke to, whatever we discussed the common thread was Vandana. I checked with Animesh. She had not been in touch with anyone after college and thus could not be invited.
Hitesh was getting hitched to an Odia.I knew all the Odia marriage rituals verbatim.Vandana, an Odia, had made me go over them umpteen number of times. A particular ritual called ‘Khaipoda’ was underway. The bride had to stand up and offer puffed rice to the fire. The groom was to hold her from behind. ‘If you eat pizzas like this you are soon gonna look like a globe. How will this lean fellow hold you during ‘Khaipoda’? I had asked her one night. She retorted,’ Mr Lean Guy, do take note of your height. When you stand behind me you’ll be barely noticeable.’ ‘Good, I'll slide my fingers beneath your saree and go right upto the….. I was standing behind her. My hands had already started to trace the outline of her silhouette and were slowly moving down from the waist toward the navel. Sex was different that night; it was coupled with commitment. Probably that’s what is called making love.
The blowing of the conch shells brought me back to my senses. I longed for the warmth of her body.
I wanted to rest in her arms and dismiss the reality as a nightmare. Meanwhile ‘Haatha –ganthi’ had started. As per the ritual, the bride’s father had to place his daughter’s hand on the groom’s and symbolically hand over his daughter’s responsibility to him.’ We will tweak that; you are my responsibility as well’ she would say.I had been sloshed once and was about to unzip and urinate on the dance floor. She had dragged me by my hands into the hostel. The following morning, she broke down while recollecting the incident. ‘Please revisit your roots, goals and actions’. She did not say anything more. That was the first time that I saw her cry.At that time the server asked me my choice of drink.‘None’. That was all I could say.My voice had choked .
All the rites had been solemnised. The moon was out in its full glory to bless the newly weds. Could it not have been a bit more kind towards us?
It was a full moon night. Vandana had just returned from home. She was worried about her dad.The doctors feared that he was sinking into depression. Her mother had died long back. Her dad had still not been able to get over her death. Vandana, his only child,had tended to him; she considered his well being her responsibility . Trying to lighten up her mood, I said ‘ Why don’t you fast for me on all full moon nights? I ll come back and feed you, exactly as in the movies. A Punjabi bahu needs to observe Karwa Chauth you see’. I said sounding like a hopeless romantic. To my utter astonishment, she flared up. Who do you think I am? Some demi goddess? Dude,do you realise how heavily dependent you are on me? I am sick of your expectations, its suffocating. Let's not drag this further.'
I was in a daze. I did n’t have the faintest idea of what had hit me. She packed her stuff and moved out to her room in the girls hostel.I stood still because I did not know what to say or do. She was right,I was useless. For anything and everything, I required her opinion, assistance or encouragement. She was classy and I was not even average. It’s said that women love men who they can look upto. In our case it was just the reverse. But then, she should have realised this at the first instance. Did she need to walk into my life and then walk out abruptly? She could have anyone she wanted, where do I get someone who can match her? I was seething with anger.But she as always was dead sure. It was our last day in college. She avoided me in the reunion party in the evening. She left in the early hours of the next day. She had requested her recruiters in Mumbai to take her in that day itself. She seemed to be in a great hurry to run away from me.
Unable to let go of, I slipped out of the wedding. I left Bengaluru the following morning.
One year had passed by. I was sitting at Mumbai airport, travelling to UK on business. I was a top investment banker now. My transition had been like the before after pictures put up by weight loss clinics, drastic and unbelievable. Clients swore by me. I was the top management’s blue eyed boy. I lived in a posh sea facing flat in Juhu and owned a Mercedes. It was a matter of time before I got inducted into the board.Girls considered it a privilege to be seen with me. My parents also wanted me to settle down. But how could I? The way I matched my ties, the way I chose my clothes, the way I greeted clients, struck up conversations, pitched for deals , responded to crises –all of that was how Vandana wanted it to be. I travelled all across the globe clinching deals. Hence I knew that no girl should invest in me ; I was a loss making proposition. I had everything that I could have only dreamt of while in Gurdaspur. Yet now I did not know what I wanted.
I saw a familiar face in the crowd. Yes, he was Vandana’s guy.I walked upto him.
‘Hello, but do we know each other?’
‘Vandana….Bengaluru airport…. last year’.
‘How’s she’? I asked hoping that she was around
‘Not sure. Not too well the last time I checked’
‘ What? You guys are not together?’ I was shocked.
‘No. Am just a family friend. Poor girl. You know even after ten years her dad could not get over her mom’s death. His condition had gradually worsened into one of acute depression. That took a toll on Vandu. It seemed that she loved someone madly in her college. Stupid girl that she is, she dumped him. Reason? ‘He’s so dependent on me, exactly like dad.What if destiny plays spoilsport again? I cannot afford to see him like dad’. Little did she realise that she was sinking into depression. Her dad’s death last year had wrecked her; her condition started deteriorating. Her uncle lives in Bangalore.The day you met us, she was going to get admitted at NIMHANS. The doctors are not very hopeful. Lately ,she has started acting in a weird manner. She refuses to take food every full moon night, says she’s observing Karwa Chauth. Were you close to her? Please try to find out that guy if you can. Gotto rush buddy, take care.’
I stood there stunned. How close I was to her? I could feel how fast she breathed when I went near her. I knew how her heart throbbed when I rested my head on her bosom. I knew her pulse for I would not get sleep unless I held her wrist. To be honest, I did not know how I felt. One part of me was on cloud nine, I was very much THE guy in her life. The other part of me wanted to hide in the deepest recesses of earth; how could I leave her alone in the darkest phase of her life?I should have realized that she could not be right always; she was human. The parting of ways was a wrong decision, I needed to tell her that. And I as usual had chickened out. The meeting at the Delhi airport was not a chance encounter. All through my stay at Bengaluru, nature was giving me cues which I ignored. I was only responsible for the mess that she was in. I will set right whatever I have spoilt, I resolved. I had to.
I walked towards the ticket counter.
‘Next flight to Bengaluru please’.
Vandana's memories flew back. ....
It was the first day at B school. ‘Chetty’s’ outlet had been mobbed by the freshers. In walked Ravin and my eyes catch the first glimpse of him. He was a small town guy; his clothes are the biggest giveaway. But there was something about those eyes; they reflect a certain tenacity and firmness of purpose. You can easily make out that ‘hanging out’ was new to him. Yet he was neither behaving like a fish out of water nor was making an out of the way effort to ‘belong’. He was being just himself…scanning the environment, taking in whatever he could without being overwhelmed. The bun nippat arrived, he took one bite. Completely oblivious of the surroundings, he focused solely on the food. ‘This can definitely be improved upon’ is what he said. Guys would generally shy away from admitting that they know how to cook and here was a man who wore his culinary skills on his sleeve. ‘Really, show me how’, I could not resist the urge to provoke him. Oh God, he seemed to be so perfect. I knew he would win hands down, but I wanted my instincts validated. And as expected, he rose to the occasion. Cheese, corn, olives and oregano, our very desi bun nippat had been transformed into a continental dish. His ‘bun nippat’ was the best I have ever had.
‘How are you so good at this’? I asked bewildered.
‘Well, life taught me’. My mom lost one of her arms in a road accident when I was ten. Ever since, its me or my brother who help with the cooking.
‘You eat all these stuff at home, is it?’
‘No, madam!! I come from a lower middle class family of Hoshiarpur in Punjab ie. Such exotic products are not available there and even if they were we cannot afford them, ‘Miss Stephanian’, he replied looking at my St Stephens sweatshirt.’
‘Then, how on earth do you know all these continental stuff’?
‘It’s not that difficult. Your basics need to be in place, that’s all. Once that’s done, you can play around with anything. Moreover, the internet’s always there.’ He said and walked off. Never before had I met who after so effortlessly stumping a woman had gone off unperturbed.
This one meeting and I could not get Ravin off my mind. It wasn’t attraction per se, though that possibility could not be ruled out completely. He was smashingly handsome and had a perfectly toned body sculpted not by the sophisticated equipment of a an upmarket gym but by rustic nature. The nonchalance with which he handled his looks only helped multiply his attractiveness quotient. However, the persona that Ravin was, way beyond his looks. True his English was a bit accented, his styling had to be upgraded, his social skills needed work but his confidence was one area where he scored a 10/10. As days passed by, I slowly started to realize where he got it from. He had a solid grasp on the concepts of almost all the subjects taught, what he had referred to as ‘basics’ earlier. Usually, it was he who would be the one contributing to classroom discussions in the real sense of the term. We would just ask random questions for our CP (class participation) marks. No wonder, within few days I had fallen for him, madly and completely.
Being the introvert that Ravin was, he maintained a safe distance from most of the classmates, especially the girls. Even the mention of flirting would be sacrilege for him. How do I approach him? The only thing that he bothered about was studies,so I started approaching him to clarify some of my doubts, which he would with absolute ease. He was a good soul and slowly opened up with time. But how do I broach the topic of a ‘date’? I googled some random articles on etiquette, networking etc to convince him as to how important soft skills were for client management. The gamble paid off. Now, he was on my turf. I decided that we would start with five star hotels to practise table manners and frequent the race course road golf course. I knew he required none of it, for all these were mere appendages. The basis of any relationship is trust. All it takes is one interaction with Ravin for anybody to be convinced that he is in safe hands whether it is the client or the absolutely smitten me. I don’t know till what extent I helped him fine tune his skills, but a few outings and I knew he was THE man in my life.
With him, there was no scope for experimentation, the commitment had to be for life. You could not wriggle out by quoting space, difference of priorities etc. I proposed to him, fully aware of what I was signing up for. That was the best decision that I had ever taken and I would stand by it for the rest of my life. The reply? When someone like him wants you around all the waking hours, lays bares his deepest insecurities and loftiest ambitions, seeks your opinion for even the most trivial things you it’s a no brainer that he’s into it for the long run.
Now, when I look back I realise that I never deserved to be in his life. I was so frail, more emotionally than physically. I have had a string of failed relationships, frequented nightclubs, gotten involved in brawls, had my run in’s with the local police… you name it and I had done it. May be I was just lucky or probably I had what they call in business circles the first mover’s advantage. Nature has one rule of thumb which it follows without exception; you need to value what you have else it’ll be snatched away from you. I resolved that I would transform myself so that I could be called ‘Ravin’s girl’; that would be a privilege. This was actually very easy for it was the first time in years since my mom’s death that I was feeling anchored.
The Short Story Is Love the Reason continues here....