Monday, September 27, 2010

The Build Up to Disaster

Anyone who is shocked at the sight of a girl drinking these days would be looked upon as an anachronism. He’s certain to be branded as feudal and male chauvinist. However, those were the days of only one National Channel TV, and cell phones and computers were mostly unheard of. Even the salwar kameez that is ubiquitous was considered blasphemy in the villages and small towns. I hardly ever saw Vani wearing it one herself, though most of the college going girls had begun wearing it. Even today, majority of us have dual standards and would certainly be upset to know that our girls or women drink even as soft liquor as the beer. No wonder even Mohan was dumbstruck at the feat accomplished by Nirupama. He asked her in a raised voice, “Hey! What do you think you did? It wasn’t a soft drink!”

“I know. Nothing will happen to me. I will only feel sleepy. That’s all. Don’t worry,” she replied very casually.

“It seems she is used to drinking arrack!” I said facetiously.

“At least the arrack is controlled by the government. It seems she’s used to drinking illicit liquor,” Mohan said trying to conceal his anguish. Vani was giggling.

Mohan and I began to sip our drinks slowly, but the impact of what Nirupama had done seemed to have been weighing on our minds too, for I finished my peg in three gulps and Mohan finished his in two. However, Mohan didn’t offer any more rum to Nirupama while preparing the second drinks for us.

“Tomorrow we’ll leave as early as possible for Jog Falls. We will have sufficient time to view the falls from both sides of the valley,” Mohan instructed us while trying to light a cigarette, but Vani requested him not to smoke in the room as she would feel suffocated by the smoke.

Nirupama was speaking louder than usual now. Her cheeks were glowing and the eyes had become half shut, as if she was straining to open them wide. Vani looked disinterested in all this and was quietly reading some Mills and Boons type novel in Kannada.

Nirupama who had shed most of her inhibitions now, addressed me, “Harsha, we thought you wouldn’t come with us.”

“Why?”

“You always keep yourself so aloof from others. You are totally different, unlike others. You are intelligent, well-read, brought up in a bigger city and modern.”

“So what?”

“I remember how you disliked our department tour to Badami. The whole day you looked depressed. You hardly talked to anyone. You didn’t even eat anything the whole day. You went on smoking. You didn’t enjoy it, did you?”

It pained me to remember that day. How could I tell her that she was the cause of my resentment that day? After all, she’d chosen Mohan over me. I couldn’t tell her that it was envy that was seething inside me, and continues to do so even to this day.

“Ah, I did enjoy the trip,” I lied knowing fully well that none would believe me, “I have my own ways of enjoying things, you know.”

“Well, I thought you missed your girl friend of your college days,” Mohan said taking a large sip of liquor.

“Did you have a girlfriend?” Vani suddenly entered the conversation.

“All of us had girl friends long before coming to university. What do you think, we have never seen any girls before you?” Mohan replied for me.

I knew that Mohan had been madly in love with a girl when he was in pre-university college. That the affair ended in the girl’s father taking a transfer to a different place was also well known to all his friends. Bhaskar even used to tell how the girl was wailing and sniveling when she’d met Mohan for the last time in all graphic details.

I had had my shares of crushes too. It would sound ridiculous now to tell anybody that I was in love with a girl when I was just eight years old! The immediate to come to my mind was the picture of a dark lean girl, who I used to meet everyday in the bus on the way to undergraduate college. I had to change buses at the City Bus Terminus popularly know as CBT every day and would find Rajashree, who was my classmate majoring English literature, waiting for me, reserving a seat by her side. Whenever she laughed, which she did it all the time when I was with her, the dimples that appeared on her cheeks were so alluring and seductive that I’d fallen flat for her. It was pleasant beyond words to be sitting with her in a jam-packed bus, often those standing by my side shoving me hard against her soft, nimble body. She used to approach me during the college hours too, with a host of doubts and questions as though I was her teacher. All my hopes came crashing down when at the end of the final year, she introduced me to a tall, fair guy who was studying for M.Com and told me in a suggestive manner that he was to be her life partner. All my dreams were shattered to smithereens. But soon thereafter, I came to the university and brushed aside her memories as some forgettable, if not regrettable, infatuation.

When pitted against Mohan, insofar as all other things I was well ahead of him but for having experienced a failure in love. Though I didn’t explicitly lie to friends, I would never counter any insinuations they made or inferences they drew. It was the only way to create an image of myself that was better than that of Mohan. As an after thought, I must add, that I had been disappointed throughout my childhood, as far as my craving for a companion, whose image constantly fleeted in my mind. I had had too many failures, each giving me considerable heart ache and finally impelled me to arrive at a conclusion that there was nobody made for me! 

A knock at the door interrupted my thoughts as well as the conversation that the others were having and presently, a waiter entered with dinner for us. Mohan had ordered North Indian dishes and a couple of plates of fried chicken. The girls were vegetarian at home, as per the customs of their caste, but Nirupama was obviously used to eating chicken and she relished it. Vani sat a couple of paces away and avoided looking at chicken. Although I was starving, I couldn’t eat much, for I concentrated on my drinks. Mohan ate very little too, obviously anxious to go to the next part of the evening. Nirupama said with a wink to me, “Eat little Harsha, you have a lot to do!” which I felt was disgusting. Vani blushed and wouldn’t lift her head from her dinner plate.

Surprisingly Mohan had consumed only two pegs, much less than his usual intake. I saw that there was at least two pegs of liquor left in the bottle. The moment the waiter cleared the plates, Mohan stood up and asked Nirupama to leave. When she was gone, he waited at the door beckoning me with a wink, and shook my hands to say  ‘Good Night’ but I felt he had placed something in my palm. When I opened my palms I saw a packet of condoms! I could hear my own heart pounding furiously while I closed the door and bolted it securely.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

New Revelations

It was more than a four-hour journey from Hubli to Sirsi and by the time we landed in a dirty bus station at Sirsi, it was almost five in the evening. It was just like coming out of a reverie for me, waking up to the rude shock of the stink of urine wafting in the air and the cattle wandering freely in the bus station as if it were a cattle shed. I’d enjoyed the journey so much that I wished it had never ended. But others looked tired and eager to get the hell out of bus. I didn’t have any idea as to where we’d be heading thereon. I left all such mundane worries to Mohan and taking out a small comb that I always kept in my pocket and combed my hair that had ruffled due to wind blowing through the window. Nirupama was pushing back tress on her cheek and looked so enchanting that my heart skipped a beat. In the next instance, I felt I was being silly. Yet Mohan’s promise that we would swap partners once we are settled in the lodge kept coming to my mind.

“The lodge is nearby. Let’s walk,” Mohan said moving towards the small gate fitted into the compound wall on one of the sides leading to the road. We followed him silently.

Sirsi was neither a big city nor a small town. It was somewhere in between. It retained some of the characteristics of a malnad village while many concrete buildings had come up on the main streets of the market that were mainly hotels, restaurants, and shops. The old market was still crowded with nondescript sheds, carts and trolleys. People spoke a different version of Kannada, though there were quite a few people who spoke the language of northern plains of Karnataka.

Outside the bus station, a number of passenger vans were lined up with the drivers seated on the driving seat and unnecessarily honking the horns to send the message to the travelers that the van was about to leave, while the assistants were yelling the names of different destinations at the top of their voice. A couple of people sitting in a barber shop were eyeing us with curiosity; even the one whose face had been lathered for shaving, was straining to turn his neck to have a look at us. I hoped that the barber would cut his ear!

Mohan was oblivious to all the stares and was walking towards the hotel. He obviously knew the town, and our destination well. The broader road gave way to a narrow lane descending towards an intersection point, which was visible now, and I came to understand that Sirsi was located on an undulated landscape. Just a few meters before the intersection, on the right side a concrete building of two floors stood amidst nondescript buildings. It was the hotel where Mohan was taking us.

Mohan went to the reception counter while the rest of us stood a few paces apart. There was a short, plump man with a round fair face wearing a white bush shirt at the counter. I couldn’t see his lower half for it was concealed by the counter. Mohan talked to him, wrote something in the register that the latter placed open before him and at last paid some cash. The receptionist who was perhaps the proprietor too, beckoned a room service boy and handed him keys to the rooms. Mohan approached us and pointing to the stairs, said, “We have rooms on the first floor. Come on.”

We climbed the stairs after the room service boy. The hallway leading to the rooms was dimly lighted. The rooms we were shown were opposite each other. While the room boy changed the bed sheets we waited outside. After he was finished, Mohan tipped him handsomely. “Is there anything else you want sir?” he asked with a wide grin. Mohan asked him to come later and looking at us said loudly, “This room is for the girls. We’ll occupy the opposite room,” as if he wanted the room boy to hear it and understand that the boys and girls will be staying in different rooms. However, the room boy must have seen hundreds of lodgers like us, for his grin became wider as though he had caught some thief red-handed, as he turned towards the stairs to climb down.

Meanwhile the girls had gone into the room that he had pointed out to them. I entered the other room with Mohan in my wake. He closed the door behind him and went straight into the bathroom. The room was about ten by twelve feet, sufficiently big. There was a double bed with a clean white sheet. There was a dressing table with a stool, a couple of chairs and a bed lamp. Everything was new, for the hotel itself seemed to have been recently constructed. The bay window opened towards the street but didn’t offer any pleasant view.

Mohan came out of bathroom and said, “I going downstairs to get something. I think you need cigarettes. Meanwhile you may use the bathroom and get fresh.”

I nodded and before I could say anything, he’d gone out. I went into the bathroom, but had to use it hurriedly. It was filled with cigarette smoke since there was no exhaust fan in it. The bathroom had one louvered window and it would take a long time for the smoke to clear.

About fifteen minutes later, Mohan returned, and both the girls too entered the room in his wake. Vani was carrying her bag but Nirupama’s hands were free. I rose from the bed where I was lying and sat on one of the chairs. The girls sat on the bed while Mohan paced up and down towards the door as if he were expecting someone. There was a knock at the door and he rushed to open it. He indeed was waiting for someone, and it was the waiter who had brought a half bottle of Old Monk rum and a couple of bottles of soft drink. They were cluttered with glasses, soda water and chips on the tray. He laid the tray on the teapoy and calmly went out.

“Oh oh! You have already made your arrangements,” said Vani.

“How can they forget it?” asked Nirupama.

“It is only our daily dose. Nothing more,” Mohan replied with a grin and opened the bottle of rum.

I didn’t expect Mohan to get the liquor when the girls were with us, although I wouldn’t have given a hoot about their presence. As the evening was advancing into dark, I was craving for a drink. But that the girls weren’t at all shocked or even surprised bewildered me. Those were the days in the early nineties when the girls were not even sent to college as it was thought to be inviting trouble. But these girls were certainly bolder than girls of metropolitan cities. Modernity must have been only a veneer over my conservative mind, I thought, perhaps I wasn’t as modern and open-minded as the girls were. Mohan poured the rum in two glasses and after mixing soda water, handed one to me.

“What about us?” Nirupama asked him teasingly.

Mohan opened the two bottles of soft drink with an opener and handed one to Vani who said she didn’t like soft drinks. When Nirupama extended her hand to take a bottle, instead of handing it over to her, he kept it back on the teapoy and poured almost two pegs of rum into another glass and filled it with soft drink and he gave her the glass. I was watching all this curiously.

“Does she drink?” I asked Mohan with astonishment.

Before he could reply, Nirupama said, “Cheers!” and emptied the glass in one go!

Shocked out of my wits, I stared at her with mouth agape.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Panorama

As the bus came out of the city, crowded with people, buildings of various proportions in equally various conditions, the road lined with small shops and street vendors standing behind their carts, dirty and stinking side drains at places overflowing, some men shamelessly urinating on the compound walls surrounding vacant plots filled with rubbish and garbage, torn old cinema posters fluttering wildly as the vehicles pass by them, I caught a breath of fresh air and a view filled with greenery of farm fields with saplings of maize swinging in unison. But soon I got a whiff of the foul smell of the smoke emanating from bidi, which someone at the front portion of the bus was merrily smoking in defiance of the rule of no smoking in the bus.

I remembered an incident that happened when I was an undergraduate student in Belgaum. I had two very close friends with whom I was huddled in a small restaurant to drink a bottle of rum that one of my friends had been able to obtain from an ex-military person. All the ex-military men get their monthly quota of liquor at subsidized prices in the military canteen and some of them sell it at a higher price, yet much lower than the actual market price. We were not sitting in a bar. It was a small restaurant serving snacks, but the owner being a friend of the friend of mine, had allowed us to sit there, after the business hours. The two friends with me were Krishna Hulkund and Subhash Vannalli, both my classmates since I joined the pre-university college. Subhash was not a smoker, but he ate ghutka. Krishna and I used to smoke. After the first round of drinks, surprisingly Subhash lit a cigarette and let a stream of smoke on the face of Krishna, which the latter didn’t like. With a wince, he shouted, “Hey! Stop it man. I don’t like this.”

Subhash laughed and said, “What difference does it make Krishna? You too smoke.” Krishna was known for his quips, and he retorted immediately, “You ear ghutka and spit. What if someone chews ghutka and spit in your mouth? Would you like it?”

I heard the conductor as well as a couple of co-passengers reprimanding the villager who was smoking bidi and he was forced to throw it out. I left a sigh of relief. Although I smoke, I hate the smell of smoke that the smokers let out. Again, I felt the whiff of fresh air gently nudging me and my mood was elated. I felt Vani’s thigh and shoulder touching mine, giving the pleasure that I had never experienced before. Along with four of us, another three passengers were sitting on the last seat, meant for six people. If I were sitting with some strangers, I would have felt miserable, like being crushed. However, now I thanked the seventh passenger in my mind, for creating such a pleasant situation!

Nirupama and Mohan were continuously chatting with each other. When I stole a glance at Nirupama’s beautiful face, a bunch of long hair fluttering on her cheek, I felt, after all, I was not as happy as Mohan was. I started humming the ascending and descending notes of Rag Bridavani Sarang, trying variations, while gazing at the lush green farm fields in which women wearing saris of bright hues were working. When I thought I had got the notes right, I broke into singing a cheez, set in that raga. I was well aware that Vani was listening to me attentively and gazing at me.

“This is Sarang. Isn’t it?” Suddenly she asked me. I was surprised at her knowledge of music.

“Yes. Have you learnt Hindustani Music?”

“Long back, when I was in school, my father used to force me to attend music classes in the evenings, but I could never sing. Of course I like the film music, especially the old melodies,” She replied, with a bright smile.

“I too used to like film songs. But I have graduated to classical music now. I think it is a process of evolution. Some are stuck at the first level itself,” I said, without any intention to offend her, but I had to hastily add, “Of course, I love the old film songs even today.”

“I like the lyrics of the old songs along with the melody,” she said without taking any offense.

“True, in film songs, Bhakti songs and Bhavageet, lyrics is more important than melody. The musical content is secondary. But in classical music, the lyrics are secondary and musical content is all important.” I agreed with her with further elaboration.

“How is the new couple enjoying?” Nirupama suddenly asked this question bending towards us with a naughty wink. It embarrassed me and disappointed me too, for it meant she was distancing herself from me. When this thought crossed my mind, I felt ashamed. She was in love with Mohan, not me. She had got what she wanted. She didn’t know that I liked her better than Vani. I couldn’t blame her. But was she pushing me towards Vani? I kept questioning myself.

“We’re friends and not a couple like you,” Vani replied flashing a smile at Mohan.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Nirupama persisted.

Why didn’t I say anything? A thousand things passed in my mind, which could have found expression if someone else was in my place. I could never respond in time, could I? I could have said that I couldn’t fancy Vani even if I were to stay with her for ages, that I actually didn’t know about the trip, that if sufficient advance notice were given to me, I could have refused to come, that in fact I fancied Nirupama and not Vani, that all of them had tricked me into joining them in this excursion, that the name Nirupama is musical, containing the notes ni, re, pa, and ma, and I loved music, that I could have…What the hell!

Immersed in my thoughts as I was, I missed a couple of exchanges between Nirupama and Vani. The bus took a right turn on to a smaller road, leaving the National Highway and soon there was no longer a smooth ride. The speed of the bus decreased considerably to lessen the impact of bumps and was swerving now and then to make way for the overtaking and oncoming vehicles. The road, though not smooth, was a good sight, meandering and lined with huge trees. In the dappled shade of some trees, some village folk were idling by the side of the road, and as the bus passed by them, all the faces turned towards us. I pushed back all the thoughts of the present to the remote recesses of my mind, and began enjoying the view through the window, and the cool breeze that kept gently stroking my face.

A few miles into the North Canara district, the surroundings changed dramatically, with vast plain areas replaced by thick, seemingly impenetrable forest. Trees rose to such heights that sitting in the bus, it was not possible to see their tops at places. Many trees had a girth of several meters. There were teak trees, which stood erect with big leaves sprouting all around. I could recognize some sandalwood trees also, but a large number of trees were unknown to me, being a city dweller as I was. But that hindered the least my pleasure of watching them in all their glory. At some places, the woods were interspersed with these forests are swampy fallows, where the water was covered with white lotuses and white cranes hovering above or brooding, and this made the scene immensely delightful and soothing. The droplets of rainwater dripping from the leaves of the trees, shrubs, and creepers, the drains flowing with clear water, were all the sights that were so pleasant that I forgot for a while all about the adventure I had been dragged into undertaking. The villages were far apart, sparsely populated and very neat and clean unlike the villages on the plains of north Karnataka, which were perpetually filled with the rancid stink of cow dung and human excreta, and which turned into virtual hell during the rainy season, for the dirt roads were flooded with the water overflowing from the gutters, if there happened to be any.

“Isn’t this beautiful Harsha?” Vani tried to break the ice and chat with me. Although I didn’t like to be disturbed thus, I couldn’t be rude to her. I turned towards her; her face was so close to mine that she was peeping into my eyes.

“Yeah, not just beautiful, it is romantic!” God! What did I say?

She warmed up, and leaned on me closing the small gap between us, and held my right arm with both her hands and beamed at me the brightest of her smiles. Then she asked me in a whisper, “Are you romantic too?”

“Ah, my idea of the romantic seems to be different than yours,” I said hardening a bit and trying to restrain myself. I thought she would be disheartened, but she was not at all put out, for obviously she understood from my words what she wanted to them to mean.

“Is anybody hungry?” Mohan asked looking at us.

I nodded indicating that I wasn’t and others did not reply. I shifted my gaze to Nirupama to find that she had dozed off on his shoulders with a smile on her face that had not yet faded. I felt a pang of jealousy and immediately turned away to look out of window. Soon I was once again immersed in relishing the delights of the panorama of landscape.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Out of Bounds

Mohan dropped his cigarette on the ground and stamped on it hurriedly as if he had remembered something of importance suddenly and said, “Harsha, we need to buy something too. Come on.” As I was wont to by now, I followed him without a question. He entered the hosiery section for men and purchased undergarments for both, although I didn’t need one. When I asked him why are we buying them, he replied, “We’ll need them where we are going.”

“Where are we going?” I asked him in a raised voice with alarm. I had thought we would be going straight back to the campus. “Shsh…” he silenced me, and said, “Have you seen Jog Falls? This is the appropriate time to see it. It would be wonderful now.”

He smiled conspiringly, watching the intrigued look on my face. And then added, “This’s the opportunity boy! The girls are coming with us. In fact, it is the other way round.”

“But I don’t have sufficient money,” I protested.

“Did we ever have? By the way, the girls are going to spend it,” he replied.

“But…”

“No ifs and buts pal. I want to bed that Vani. She behaves with me as if I am nothing. We’ll exchange partners once we are settled in the hotel in Sirsi. I want to teach Vani a lesson,” he said with a revengeful tone.

Although I couldn’t understand why Mohan was angry with Vani, I was excited at the prospect of spending time alone with Nirupama.

“Will she agree?” I was asking about Nirupama and my voice had softened almost to a whisper.

Mohan laughed tauntingly, for he’d discovered my secret desire, and quoted a popular idiom in Kannada, “Will anybody ask the chicken before grinding the masala?” Masala is the mixture of spices used in cooking chicken curry.

“How much for this?” he asked the salesperson pointing towards the t-shirt hung behind the counter. I didn’t hear the reply, for I was already deep in my thoughts. The idea of going on a trip with the girls was indeed titillating and it was giving me Goosebumps. However, I was at the same time afraid of undertaking such an adventure. I knew, in the heart of my hearts, that it was wrong. Going with the girls such a long way, staying at the hotel, and then… it was all very wrong; certainly against all the customs of our society. Dating is unknown in India, and India would never adopt it, of which I was sure. My parents would never approve of it; as a matter of fact it would be outrageous as well as sacrilegious to them, even more so to the parents of the girls. If they ever found this out, they would be shocked to death. Am I afraid of going on a date or of being found out? I tried to be analytical in my thinking, but couldn’t go on like that. I wanted to go, but I also didn’t want to go. What I really wanted, I was afraid to admit. Yes, there was some security, for either Vani or Nirupama would not be able to force me into marrying either of them. Why, they must have understood that it was within my knowledge that Nirupama had slept with Mohan and Vani, with Bhaskar during our trip to attend Virupakshappa’s marriage. No, they won’t have courage to ask me to marry, for I would not be the first to sleep with them. God! What rubbish was going through my mind! I cursed myself.

On the other hand, I couldn’t really refuse to go with them. How could I? I had created an image of myself, that of a modern, courageous, rebellious and uninhibited person, who would not care about scruples in matters concerning sex, in order to obtain the appreciation and esteem of my friends. If I were to refuse to go, I had to give Mohan a valid reason, or at least a plausible one. Then I would have to withstand the worst of his disappointment. The other friends are sure to hear about all this and would be disillusioned. Worst, I would be a butt of jokes among friends due to what they would perceive as timidity and cowardice.

“How do you like this colour Harsha?” Mohan asked me loudly and I started, all thoughts fleeting in my mind suddenly vanishing. It was a light blue coloured t-shirt that he held high in his hands.

“Very nice and sober,” I replied.

“This is for you,” he said and hastily added, “Don’t refuse, for you would require it there.” He was referring to Jog Falls.

Presently I saw the girls approaching us. Mohan walked towards them and took Nirupama along with him to the cash counter to pay the bills and Vani kept coming towards me. “Let’s go out,” she said as soon as she was a couple of paces near me. I strode towards the entrance along with her, very conscious of one of the salesperson staring at us.

“So this is your first visit to Saroja’s house. Isn’t it?” She asked as we came to a halt on the pavement to wait for Mohan and Nirupama.

“Yes, and I didn’t know that till you told me in the bus,” I said, somewhat testily, looking at a car that was passing by.

She laughed heartily and said, “And I presume you do not know where we are going now?”

“I didn’t until a while ago.” Before I could add something, Mohan and Nirupama arrived carrying polythene bags. It was almost noon, but the sky was as cloudy as my mind was. Mohan and Vani started discussing something about lunch and I, being aware that Nirupama was looking at me, lit a cigarette.

“It is too early to have lunch. Moreover I am sure none of us is hungry. So let’s first jump into the bus to Sirsi. We can think about it later,” Nirupama joined the discussion understanding that I would rather enjoy my cigarette than have small talk with her.

At the Central Bus Station of Hubli, as soon as we reached the platform from which the buses would leave for Sirsi, luckily we found that a bus was about to leave. Only the last row was vacant. The girls sat between Mohan and me, of course Vani by my side. Then I suddenly realized that I had not even decided to go with them or not. I was just thinking and thinking endlessly, and the decision that Mohan had made had become final. The bus plunged forward with a jerk and Vani, losing her balance, gripped my arm tightly with both her hands, her cheek resting on my shoulder. I said to myself, to hell with everything, I was going!


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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Saroja, the lotus!

When we reached Saroja’s house, I found her waiting for us. I got down from the autorikshaw first as I was sitting at the edge of the seat, hanging would be more appropriate. I wondered how the four us could get into the autorikshaw, meant for, at the most three persons apart from the driver. I was the skinniest of the four and that’s why, I thought while getting out. Saroja’s house was located in the bazaar area and if she were not waiting for us at the small door between two shops, I wouldn’t have been able to spot that door. She gave us a very warm welcome.

Although she had been my classmate for more than a year, and was part of our group frequenting the university canteen almost every afternoon, I knew very little about her. Born and brought up in Hubli, she was essentially a city girl. She wore skirts, t-shirts, and jeans and high heels. Well below five feet, she was slender but curvy, with swells and depths at appropriate places and proportions. She was neither fair nor dark; her complexion could best be described as the colour of pale cinnamon. She corrected her myopic eyesight by powerful lenses, but whenever any boy was around, she would remove her glasses. It was evident that she was worried about the dark circles around her eyes, but never guessed that they didn’t in the least reduce her attraction. Yes, she was attractive, but not very beautiful. On the long corridors of the university, we the boys observed many times that her casual gait changed into catwalk as soon as she found that we had spotted her. This was a topic of prolonged and hilarious discussions amongst us in the hostel.

Another thing peculiar to her was her speech, that is the habitual manner of speaking. She had a very soft and very feminine voice. She wasn’t a chatterbox but she used to quip now and then. If you were not attentive, you are certain to miss out what she said, for she delivered her quips at express speed. Aside from all her mannerisms, she was very kind, considerate and condescending to her friends. We used to make fun of her, behind her back and sometimes right under her nose, but none of us could have disliked her.

Her house, though with a small and narrow entrance, was sufficiently spacious with two stories. Though the furniture were old and worn out, they were covered with artfully decorated covers. She stayed with her mother and an elder sister; both were present when we visited her. Her sister must have been only a couple of years older, but not even half as much good looking as Saroja. I couldn’t ask any personal question as to where her father was, what was he, did she have a brother or not and so on, neither in the presence of others, nor in person, for it would have been grossly inappropriate to do so. Asking very personal questions immediately after getting introduced is very common in this part of the world, but somehow, I had come to consider it as bad manners and as violating personal liberty. It might well have been the influence of the western literature and philosophy to which I had been exposed.

I began enjoying the get together, for Saroja and her mother were wonderful hosts. Saroja’s elder sister kept somewhat aloof, busying herself in the kitchen preparing breakfast for all. I observed that she smiled but very rarely and that a deep melancholy glued to her face as though eternally. In contrast Saroja was radiant and loquacious and she chatted with all of us garrulously. Their mother, in her early fifties was obese but surprisingly very agile. She too spoke with all of us, enquiring about our families, parents, family-properties, and our plan for the future.

“As far as Saroja is concerned, she need not work. We have sufficient income to take care of all our needs. Whenever she wants to marry, I can give my son-in-law, whatever dowry he may demand,” She said happily without noticing that Saroja was feeling uneasy and embarrassed.

“Two blocks each on the either side of this house were owned by my family and have come to me as parsimony,” she continued, “My parents were one of the richest family in this whole region once upon a time. But they lost much of their property just by their magnanimity. They land and buildings to educational institutions run by the maths.”

“Mother, what is the use of mulling over the past now?” Saroja interjected agitatedly.

“No dear, I am just giving some information,” her mother brushed her away and continued again, “Not that it matters now. But even now we’re left with sufficient and you needn’t get master’s degree to obtain a job. That is what I am trying to tell them.” I could see a scowl on Saroja’s face.

Oblivious to Saroja’s feelings and unconcerned about her remarks, her mother, this time looking at me as if she were addressing me alone, began with a renewed enthusiasm, “Our family is very liberal and modern in outlook, in spite of the fact that we belong to a conservative caste of Lingayats. Saroja is a very lucky girl. She may marry any person of her choice irrespective of his caste.”

Now even I was feeling embarrassed. Mohan and Nirupama were engaged in their own chat in whispers and probably didn’t hear anything. So were Saroja and Vani. Saroja was by now resigned to the fact that she could not bridle her mother’s cackle. I was left alone in the direct line of fire. Was she offering me something, or was she sounding me or was she indulging just in a small talk, I couldn’t figure out. Although Saroja looked busy talking to Vani, I knew she had all her ears to the dialogue between her mother and me. She would steal a glance at me now and then as if trying to know what I was going in my mind. But I was nothing but perplexed.

“Look, we have everything that is needed for a comfortable life. But what I do not have is a male child. That’s why my only condition to my future son in law will be that he should stay with us, as my son would’ve, if I had one,” Saroja’s mother was still concentrating on her speech and on me, as I suspected then.

To my relief, and perhaps to the relief of Saroja also, her elder sister entered the room with a big tray cluttered with plates of dosas, upama and sweets. She kept the tray on the teapoy and went inside without saying a word. My guess was she was to bring another tray, perhaps with cups filled with tea. Saroja’s mother had to cease her babble and she now addressed her younger daughter, “Saru, don’t just sit idly. Ask your friends to feel at home. Serve them breakfast.”

Saroja, with a relieved look in her eyes, got up and handed a plate to each of us and served chutney and pickles. I hadn’t had my breakfast and was starving. I said, “As far as food is concerned, aunty, I always feel at home, especially when I am not eating at my own home!”

Everyone laughed as I took my plate from the hands of Saroja and said, “Looks delicious! What are you waiting for, friends? Let’s attack!” I was surprised myself by what I had been able to do and say. All of us began to eat silently, for unlike in the west, it is considered bad manners to talk while eating in this part of the world.

It was not a breakfast, but what these days is called a brunch. Everything tasted so good that without anybody goading me to eat, I ate to the content of not only my stomach, but also heart. If you are compelled to eat in the hostel canteen everyday, you are certain to feel the way I did when I was offered such a delectable food. At about eleven, we took leave and decided to walk down to the bus stop instead of taking an autorikshaw. Saroja asked us to stay for the lunch; in fact she was begging her to stay till evening. But Mohan whispered to her that we’d some other plan. I didn’t know of any plan that we had, and I thought he was just making an excuse.

While walking back to the bus stop, the girls saw a readymade garment store and Mohan permitted them to go inside on the condition that we wait outside the store. He wanted to have a cigarette badly and I wanted to be with him alone, so I could clear some of the questions that were pestering me.

“Where is Saroja’s father?” I asked him as soon as he lit a cigarette staring at the back of the girls entering the store.

“Don’t you know?” he feigned surprise and said, “Her father left her mother for another younger woman. Now he visits them once a week, on Sundays. While studying for his graduation, he was staying with his maternal uncle, who was Saroja’s grandfather. The old man had taken pity on her father because apart from being very poor, he was a distant relative. The old man wanted him to marry Saroja’s mother, which the young boy obeyed dutifully. But when he completed his education and got a good job, he began to think that the old man had duped him into marrying his daughter. Then he fell in love with some colleague of his and married her. Saroja’s mother took everything into her stride and contented herself with taking care of her daughters.”

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed, but felt relieved that I didn’t ask any question about Saroja’s father while at her home. “How ungrateful people can be!”

I also lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. I had to ask another question and this was the only opportunity. So I asked it, “Her mother was continuously talking about Saroja’s mother. But Saroja has an elder sister about whom she didn’t even make a single reference. Why is that?”

Mohan, who was staring at a girl wearing tight jeans and t-shirt, turned his face towards me as if forcibly, and replied, “She’d been engaged once. Even the marriage invitations cards had been distributed. I’ve heard that it was a love at first sight for both the boy and girl. But at the last moment, the marriage was cancelled because of what Saroja’s father has done. Since then, Saroja’s elder sister has lost all interest in marriage. In fact she looks like she’s lost all interest in life. It is very painful to see a daughter in such a state of mind. Isn’t it?”

I was shocked speechless. I remembered all that Saroja’s mother was telling. It was not a blabber. She wanted at least her second daughter to be happily married. The melancholy filled face of Saroja’s sister came to my mind. I began to feel very sorry for her, for Saroja’s mother and Saroja herself. How could she look so happy in the university, having such difficulties, trials and tribulations at home? She was indeed a very brave girl. My respect for her multiplied that instant, but there was a bitter after taste to the scrumptious food I had had at her house.



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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Another Journey

“Harsha, I want to take you somewhere. Be ready at eight tomorrow morning and meet me at the bus stop,” Mohan whispered to me one evening while returning from the city. I understood that he wanted it to be only between us. I was so elated by this, for he’d chosen me over Bhaskar that I didn’t even ask him where he wanted me to go with him. I didn’t even care to tell this to Vijay, which was as bad as Mohan concealing something from Bhaskar, if not worse. To some extent I was intrigued too, but I did not worry about it, as I felt as though I had attained a hard fought victory. At long last, I had been able to win the confidence and true friendship of Mohan. I couldn’t help recapitulating the days when Mohan and Bhaskar used to treat me as an outsider, used to disappear without giving me even a semblance of an excuse and behaved as if they didn’t owe an explanation to me when they reappeared. But although both of them were co-conspirers, I, in retrospect wonder why I held Bhaskar alone responsible. Now was my chance to go with Mohan and Bhaskar would get the taste of his own medicine!

Next morning, when I had finished bathing and was dressing up, Vijay woke up and looked at me in surprise. “God! It is just seven-thirty and you are up and ready?” he asked.

“I am going out Vijay, I have a personal work,” I replied with some guilt.

“You didn’t say anything about it last evening,” he said accusingly.

“I thought of it only this morning. I didn’t want to disturb your sleep. I was going to tell you before leaving,” I replied defensively.

He sat up and rubbed his eyes and asked, “Is it some date?”

I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I said vaguely, “Something similar.”

He looked satisfied and said, “Anyway, there’s only one lecture today. Have a nice time!”

Thus relieved, I rushed to the canteen and had upama and a cup of tea in hurry. When asked, the proprietor of the canteen told me that Mohan had just gone out.

I ran towards the bus stop near the hostel, but he was nowhere to be seen. Intrigued, I ran through the botanical gardens towards the main bus stop of the university. I might have taken not more than ten minutes to reach the bus stop and I was panting and gasping furiously. I found Mohan talking to Nirupama and Vani near coffee shop behind the post office. They were sipping coffee. I slowed down to equalize my breath and ambled towards them.

The first to notice me was Nirupama since Mohan had his back towards me. She smiled brightly and said, “Good Morning Harsha, you are in time.” Mohan too turned his head and smiled at me and as I approached him, put his hands around my shoulders. “Well, you seem to have been running,” sensing my fast breath and body heat, he observed. Vani smiled at me and said, “At last, we have got you!”

I didn’t understand what she meant by that but I ignored it and addressed Mohan, “I thought you asked me to come to the hostel bus stop, so I took time in getting ready.”

"Never mind. You aren’t late,” he said warmly.

“You want coffee?” Nirupama asked. I nodded in refusal. The bus screeched to halt as I was nodding and we had to run again to catch it. I wanted to ask Mohan where we were headed to but he sat with Nirupama, leaving me to sit with Vani. It was only after a while, I heard Mohan say Hubli while buying the tickets from the conductor, that I realized that the bus was going to Hubli and so were we.

Vani was sitting on the window seat and I, at the aisle. She was wearing a light pink sequined sari and a matching blouse. She wore a small garland of jasmines in her plait hanging by the side of her right cheek. The cool breeze through the window that brushed my face gently, brought the scents of jasmines, which always inebriated me and made me nostalgic. The feel of her thighs and shoulders, when they brushed me now and then, excited me by the softness of her feminineness and I craved for more and more of it. She too looked elated, happy and content with herself, smiling to herself continuously. I began humming the notes of Rag Bhoopali to myself and she looked at me. “You look very happy today?” she asked.

“Do I?” I asked her in reply and then said, “Perhaps not as happy as you are today”.

“You know what? I want to be happy and I always try to be happy,” she said very enthusiastically.

“And succeed, don’t you?” I again asked her with a mild laugh.

“Why are you so serious and taciturn always?” she enquired after staring out of the window for a while.

“I didn’t know that I am serious always. I am not tongue-tied, but I am not given to say everything that comes to my mind.”

“But I like to talk, anything and everything that matters or that doesn’t matter.”

I didn’t respond to that and kept looking out of the window, enjoying the buildings, electric and telephone poles, lush green trees and shrubs rushing by and the horizon keeping pace with me, cautiously avoiding looking at her full cheeks, small nose with a shining nose-stud and her large dark eyes.

“By the way, would you be surprised if I say that I do not know where we’re going?” I asked her.

“Why, I certainly would be. Didn’t Mohan tell you?” she replied with amazement in her eyes.

“Well, he couldn’t, perhaps,” the reply was more to myself than to her.

I looked towards the seat in the front where Mohan was sitting. I noticed that he had put his hand around Nirupama’s shoulders, his cheeks almost touching hers and I imagined him whispering endearments in her ears. I too wanted to do that to a girl, but Vani wasn’t Nirupama, I thought. And Nirupama too wasn’t someone whose fleeting glimpse I had always had since my childhood. Suddenly as though I was roused from a sweet dream, I asked myself what the hell was I doing there in the bus, sitting beside Vani, talking to her intimately. Only a couple of months ago she had slept in the same room as Bhaskar, and during that trip to Mantralaya and back to Ranebennur, Vani and I had exchanged only a few words. Why Mohan had replaced Bhaskar with me? Was it a gesture of his gratitude for helping him? I was totally befuddled. I remembered that at the bus stop, neither of the girls was surprised to see me. In fact they were expecting me and not Bhaskar. Mohan and the girls had all conspired together to have me. What the hell was going on?

“Look at you. Again you have become thoughtful and mute,” Vani said trying to draw my attention by tapping on my shoulder.

“What are we going to do in Hubli?” I asked her.

“We are going to Saroja’s house. She’s invited us. She’s invited you too,” She replied smilingly.

“What about others?” I asked her innocently to which she replied with an intriguing smile.

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