by Ravi Srivastava
It was eleven in the morning when the train reached the modest Ramgarh station. The station had not changed much in the last forty years that had elapsed since I left Ramgarh for higher studies and a suitable career, though there was now a new book stall and a tea kiosk which had not been there. As schoolboys, we used to walk up to the overbridge spanning the two platforms and watch the trains halting at the station and the hustle and bustle of the passengers on the platforms.
As I came out of the station, I noticed that the hand rickshaws had given place to auto-rickshaws. I engaged one and asked him to take me to the Fort Road; it was in a lane off the Fort Road that our family had lived when I was in school and then in college. Though most of the boys I knew then had left the town in search of career, I knew that one Naren was still there having succeeded his father in running the chemist shop that the family had owned for three generations. We had not exchanged any letters in these forty years but I was sure that he would be able to place me. I had hoped that he would be able to fill me up on what had become of our other friends. In particular, I was curious to know about Reva who was our classmate. I had been secretly in love with her and had a notion that she was aware of my feelings though neither of us had talked about how we felt. I was sure that Naren would be able to give me news of her.
Fort Road which in those days was a narrow street with just a few grocery shops, was now a bustling road with large stores and restaurants. However, it was not difficult for me to locate the lane in which our family had lived. I left the auto-rickshaw and walked down the lane. It had not changed much; the old houses were still there as was the temple at the corner. Memories came flooding as I walked slowly towards the house where we had lived. I could have missed it easily, for though the house was still there, its front room now housed a tailor’s shop. As I stood in front of the shop, the young tailor looked at me enquiringly.
“Are you looking for someone, sir?”
“Well, not exactly... You see, forty years ago, my family had lived here, and I had my study table at the very spot where you are sitting and working now. I just wanted to have a look at my old house.”
Hearing this, he got up, greeted me warmly and offered to take me inside and show me the rest of the house. I declined the offer, for I did not wish to intrude in his family space. Instead, I asked him whether he knew about one Naren whose family had lived in this lane when we were here.
“Yes, sir. There is one Naren uncle whose sons are running a chemist shop in the town.”
I was happy to have found someone who knew about my old friend.
“Can someone take me to his house?”
“Certainly sir. I will take you there.”
Asking one of his boys to look after the shop, he accompanied me to a house just a few doors away.
“This is where he lives. Shall I call him for you sir?”
“Oh no.Thanks. You have been very helpful. I will be now on my own.”
“As you say, sir,” he said, and left.
The house, like all houses in the lane, looked quite modest. I rang the bell, and after a brief delay, the door was opened by a man who, though old, was neatly attired. I recognised him in spite of his greyed hair and the wrinkles on the face, but I could see that he had not placed me.
“Do you remember one Arun who was at college with you?” I said.
He looked at me intently, and then exclaimed, “Oh you! What a surprise! Come in, come in. How long has it been? Thirty years? Forty years?”
Saying this he took me to the sitting room which was simply but tastefully furnished. After the initial excitement was over, we talked about what each one of us had been doing since we left college. He told me that he had succeeded his father
in running the shop but after running it for thirty years, he had now virtually retired and had left the active running to his two sons, though he went to the shop at closing time to take stock of the day’s business. I, in turn, told him about my career in the corporate sector.
It was around 12 o clock by now. He said,
“You will have lunch with us, won’t you?”
I declined, saying that as a habit I don’t take lunch, but he insisted that I must have tea at least. He went inside and presently came back with someone who I presumed must have been his wife.
“Meet my wife; she has difficulty in walking because of arthritis. I have already told her that we were at college together.”
Mrs Naren said a polite Namaste and retreated to the inner parts of the house. Shortly, a maid came in with a tray of tea and snacks, and we started talking about our mutual friends. I was secretly waiting for an opportunity in which I could casually ask him whether he had any news of Reva. When there was a gap in the conversation, I casually asked,
“Oh, by the way, do you remember Reva, that good looking girl who was in our class, though not in our section?”
“Fancy your remembering her after all these years!” he remarked.
“Why not? I was rather fond of her, you know. In fact, I can now honestly say I was in love with her.”
“Oh, were you? Did you ever tell her this?”
“Oh no! It was out of the question, though now I feel I should have had the courage to tell her.
Do you have any news of her?”
“Oh yes, I have. You see she is a distant cousin of mine, though you didn’t know it; none in our class knew.”
“Oh, what a surprise! You never mentioned it. Anyway, where is she? Is she well and happily settled?”
“Well, yes and no. Soon after you left Ramgarh she asked me about your whereabouts, but I could not help her, because you had disappeared without telling anyone where you were heading. A year later she was married into a rich business family, but the marriage went sour. She obtained a divorce and came back to Ramgarh with her minor son, who is now grown up and working in Singapore. Reva is living alone in her parental house here. In fact, she very recently asked me whether I had ever heard from you.”
“Yes, you must go and see her; she will be so happy to see you”.
Soon I took leave of Naren. As I came out, my mind was in a turmoil. What would have been life like if I had proposed to her when we were both young, I thought. But would she have accepted me? I was not sure even now.
I took an auto-rickshaw for the station, having decided that there was no point in seeing her now; what had happened had happened and could not be reversed. But suddenly on an impulse, I asked the auto-rickshaw to turn towards Reva’s house.
When I reached the house, I found that the old-style house had been remodelled and it had the look of a modern bungalow now. I rang the bell and the door was opened by a servant, but before I could say who I was and who I wanted to see, Reva herself appeared in the doorway. She looked at me and after a moment recognised me.
“Oh, it is you, Arun! After all these years! Come in, come in, please”.
Her hair was greying but her eyes had the same sparkle that she had when we were in college. She took me to the drawing-room, and we talked and talked. She told me about the ups and downs of her life and in turn, I told her of my life which really had been a straight line. We didn’t know how the time passed, but finally, it was time to take leave. She came to the door to see me off, and as I said bye she said,
“Arun, can I ask you something?”
“Why not? Do ask”
“Will you disappear again?”
“Oh no. Now that I have rediscovered you, I will not disappear”
As I left for the railway station, I knew that this was a promise which I would never break.***