“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.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***