by Priya Tallanje
The plane lands at 2AM sharp, a good 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Fatigue and jetlag seem to multiply as immigration formalities take up another 40 minutes. The mobile phone, after being denied a charger for nearly 20 hours, gives a short beep and blacks out temporarily.
I scan the airport to see if there is a phone booth nearby to call my wife, but my weary legs protest vehemently. The overworked mind reasons with me – she has waited for 12 hours; another hour should not make much of a difference. Pulling my airbag, I walk towards the prepaid taxi stand and that is when I spot her.
White kurtha, sky-blue leggings. Slender silhouette. A handbag slung over the shoulder. With a mobile phone firmly clasped in the palm, she is walking towards the parking lot with an agitated look on her face. There are a gazillion reasons on why she is at the airport at this hour; I reject all of them and conclude she has come to receive her husband. What else, what else could it be. But why is she alone now? That image of her however unexpectedly reminds me of the first time I had seen her in college. She was rushing to the electronics lab to be on time, and coming out of the library, I had caught sight of her. We were later introduced to each other through mutual friends and the first thing that literally took my breath away was her smile. Oh, what a whirlwind romance it had been! And then, there were the fights, the tears... I forcibly break my train of thoughts and try concentrating on her. She looks the same as she had more than a decade ago, only a few kilos heavier now.
My basic instinct is to call her name or follow her and talk to her. Yet, I stop myself. For the second time in an hour, I look at my watch. It is already 23-Jan, so technically today is her birthday. Oh yes, how could I forget the date. Blame it on either the jetlag or the devil’s hour, I suddenly get a weird idea in my head. I decide to go after her. I would ask the taxi driver to trail her car, follow her home and then...
Banishing all puerile thoughts, I walk up to the taxi stand, book a taxi and get into the passenger seat along with my single piece luggage. The driver, a young chap who looks to be in his late-20s, probably senses that I am a native of this city and smiles cheerfully at me. ‘Yellige?*’
he inquires. ‘Padmanabhanagar’ I reply and then ask him to drive to the parking lot and wait there. He mumbles something about waiting charges, I ignore him.
She spends a good 10 minutes leaning on her car and fiddling with her phone, frantically holding it to her ears at regular intervals. Probably trying to reach the husband who for reasons best known to him seems unreachable. ‘Get inside the car’ I silently scream. The disregard she displays for her safety appalls me. As if on a cue, she gets inside. And finally starts the ignition after what seems like eternity.
I instruct the taxi driver to follow the red santro.
“Sir?!” he hesitates as looks at me.“Aa car follow maadi**”,
I repeat trying to give the impression I had not heard him the first time. The last thing I want is a pesky taxi driver prying my intentions.
“Ok sir” he replies and starts the car.
As expected, the roads are deserted at this hour which makes it easier not to lose track of her car. I try to duck behind the driver’s seat and make
myself as inconspicuous as possible. You know, just in case. ‘Behave yourself and stop acting like a love-struck teenager’ cries a voice from the back of my head. A couple of days or just hours later, the entire episode might seem foolish, almost cringeworthy. But right now, I don’t care. Reasoning has taken a back seat and my excitement is reaching intoxicating levels.
It takes slightly more than three quarters of an hour to cross K.R road, by now I am convinced she is heading home and not anywhere else. I fervently hope she does not take unnecessary deviations to dodge a taxi following her. The driver throws me enquiring glances as he looks at my face in the mirror. Probably, he is debating on whether I am a serial stalker (for which I don’t look serious enough) or a genuinely eccentric chap.
A loosely formulated plan in my head now dictates that I reach her house before her. Assuming she hasn’t changed residence since I last met her, I decide to take a shortcut. I tell the driver to make a left turn immediately after crossing DG Petrol bunk. The santro does not slow down and zooms straight ahead. I smile to myself. Typical of her. She would have avoided all narrow lanes and shortcuts at this hour and stuck to main roads even if it meant arriving at the destination a good 5 minutes later.
After swiftly maneuvering through a couple of sharp bends and seemingly unmotorable roads, the driver finally halts in front of the very familiar white and brown brick painted building. I grab my airbag and get out of the car after handing him two crisp 500 rupee notes. “Change itkoli***”
I add before he can calculate how much change he owes me. I am in a tearing hurry, I cannot afford to be late or arrive just in time as her. I open the gate, enter the building and throw a cursory glance around. There is a set of golden nameplates displaying the tenants’ names and apartment numbers stacked one above the other on a wooden frame which is attached to the wall. I quickly locate the one which displays her name along with her husband’s name and the number and then grin involuntarily. There is no ‘Mrs’ prefix, no change of name, just her maiden name as it was. All those grandiose views she had back then on how a change of name affected the identity weren’t transient; she had apparently carried them forward. I quickly climb up the flight of stairs to reach the 3rd floor. Deciding that the best bet of catching her unawares would be to position myself next to the elevator, I lean right next to it and catch my breath.
15 minutes later, no one has arrived and I am beginning to get worried. Probably she was going elsewhere. A clandestine meeting. Or a rendezvous with someone. My imagination starts running wild. As if listening to my fears, the elevator door suddenly opens and she steps out, handbag still slung on the shoulder.
Instantly, I grab her hand, pull her towards me and look deep into those eyes. Shocked, she lets out of a short but sharp cry. For a second, a myriad of emotions flood her face. Terror, panic, surprise and eventually relief. And then, she smiles. Ah, that smile. It is the same smile which drove me crazy in college, the same smile which had launched a dozen suitors, the same smile which has lit up every morning of my life for the past 8 years.
‘Happy Birthday wifey dear’ I say.
*Yellige – Where to?
**Aa car follow maadi – Follow that car
***Change Itkoli – Keep the change ***