When I reached my room I found that the door was not latched and I entered without making any noise. Vijay was asleep, snoring lightly. I felt like talking to him badly. As I shook him awake, he sat upright with a start, and on finding that it was me, relaxed, rubbed his eyes and stretched his limbs. “God, it is you! Where the hell had you been?” he asked.
“I will tell you everything. But first tell me why are you sleeping keeping the door open?” I asked him a question in reply. It was not that I was worried about keeping the door unbolted while sleeping, for I knew for sure there was hardly a thing to be stolen and whatever were stolen in the hostel were lifted through the window using a hook at night. I was embarrassed to face him, ridden with guilt as I was. He never kept any secrets from me and I had deceived him by concealing something I knew before I left for that unforgettable trip. Without knowing myself for sure, I had insinuated that I was going on a date and it indeed had turned out to be a date, nay, a honeymoon of sorts. I needed some time to organize my thoughts and decide what to tell him and how.
“I had been for jogging with Bhaskar and Suresh. When I came back, I was tired and drifted into sleep.”
“Surprise! Surprise! You guys have started jogging? That’s very nice! But don’t you feel you are too old for jogging? It’s enough if you just walk a couple miles!” I teased him.
“So you have joined the other buffoons who tease me on my age?” he said without minding my jive and got up from the bed. I lit a cigarette without offering him one, knowing well that he didn’t smoke. But he surprised me by asking for one.
“Mama, while I was away, you have grown up!” I teased him, lighting his cigarette. He inhaled and coughed; his eyes were filled with water.
“My dear brother, I used to smoke earlier. You keep forgetting that I have been the headmaster of the school in which you are a student,” he tried to joke.
“Yes, it shows!” I snapped.
“I’ve found out that cigarettes help in concentrating on what I read,” he tried to explain. I nodded without agreeing with him.
“Well, what’s your story? You’ve been away for three days. So was Mohan. Even Nirupama and Vani had gone missing. I already know part of the story,” he said looking into my eyes.
“Ah! Anybody can put two and two together and arrive at a wrong conclusion!”
“True, but there was no chance of arriving at a wrong conclusion in this case! But in this case two and two were definitely put together!” I couldn’t but smile at his attempt at making a pun.
“Mama, I didn’t know where I was going the day Mohan asked me to meet him at the bus stop. Nor did I know that the girls were coming too. It was totally unexpected. First they said we’d been invited by Saroja to her house. We did go to her house. But later they took me to Jog Falls,” I tried to give him a watered down version, “That’s why I couldn’t tell you where I was going.”
“You need not be apologetic Harsha. But tell me in detail what happened. I am really curious to know.”
Now I knew that he couldn’t be so easily satisfied, that I could not stave him off lightly, that he could easily make out what I wouldn’t tell him and above all Mohan was going to tell everybody anyway. When Mohan gave his version, which he usually did when he was high on liquor, it would all be a mixture of facts and fiction, colourful and humourous. It was better that I told about me myself rather than letting Mohan do it. I narrated every detail to Vijay taking care to skip erotic and sensual portions, which he would anyway imagine the way he liked. He heard everything with utmost interest and rapt attention, asking questions wherever he required clarifications or more details and seemed to enjoy every bit of it.
“What do you say? In all this I was an unwilling partner and I want to take it off my mind as soon as possible,” I said at the end.
He threw the butt of the cigarette out of the window and smiled, “Harsha, you have played into her hands”
“Dear, you may be well aware that the girls in the ladies’ hostel often used to discuss about you and you are generally considered not easily accessible. Vani boasted always that you are one of her closest friends and had challenged a couple of girls that she would conquer you, vanquish you and make you dance to her tune, or to use her own words, “to take you in” in just under a week.”
“What? I can’t believe girls would talk like this. Where did you hear this?”
“Wrong question. Instead the question should have been ‘why didn’t you warn me’”
“That would have followed. But who told you this?”
“I heard it from a girl from my place, who stays in the same hostel. I didn’t tell it to you for I didn’t myself believe it and I thought it was just a gossip, worthless and trifle.’”
“Would you believe that the girls can talk about the boys the way you describe Vani talking about me?”
“Maybe all girls won’t talk. But I am talking about Vani and the likes of her” I could feel the contempt in his tone.
“Alright. It means I have made a fool of myself. Doesn’t it?”
“It also means she was right about her prowess.”
“You know, there is an old saying that whether the thorn touches the flower or the flower touches the thorn, only the flower is going to be torn.”
“As long as she is a flower and you are a thorn, it doesn’t matter,” he said feelingly, “but if it turns out to be the other way round…” He deliberately left the sentence incomplete.
He was suggesting that she may turn out to be a thorn in my side. It may sound absurd to those of the present generation, born and brought up in the age of hundreds of TV channels, mobile and internet; but during those times when traditions had not diluted and the values had not eroded, whether they were right or wrong, mattered a lot. They were deeply ingrained in the whole generation of youths like me. We could be easily branded as male chauvinist pigs. In my case it wasn’t exactly a battle between tradition and modernity, but a deeply emotional matter concerning all the dreams that lived in my young heart and oozed from my eyes.
“It may not turn out to be as bad as you make it to be,” I said, trying to brush aside his portentous statement.
“I sincerely hope so, dear. I do sincerely hope so!” he replied grimly.