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Friday, August 19, 2011

Approaching Yet Another Fall

Suresh Hiremath, humble, self-effacing, always trying to please others, had been constantly tagging along me for a quite a while now. Of late, he’d started accompanying Vijay and me every evening to the city for my daily quota of drink and mughlai chicken. Although he too like Umesh had kept all the acquaintances under the impression that he was a teetotaler and a pure vegetarian, of late, if only to please me, he’d begun to drink a small peg of whisky and to partake in my plate of Mughlai chicken, though initially he took only the Sherwa or the gravy part only. What I liked in him most was that he was not secretive and exhibited no holier than thou attitude, like Umesh and his kind did, despite the fact that he belonged to the highest and priestly caste of the Lingayats. He was sitting in deep conversation with Vijay when I returned after talking to Umesh. He had joined us just before we entered the restaurant holding a polythene bag, declaring that he had made some purchase. As I sat opposite them asking Vijay if he had placed order for the drinks, Suresh gave me the bag, “Sir, this is for you.”

“What’s it?” I asked him as I opened it partially to reveal the contents- it was a T-shirt. “Why did you get it for me Suresh?” I asked with disapproval, as it felt like a bribe for whatever I had been doing for him. Receiving gifts always produced some kind of unease in me.

“I found it in the roadside stall sir, and I remembered you. It suits your fair complexion very well sir.”

It was a white t-shirt with dark blue stripes and felt like smooth wool when I touched it.

“Please don’t think otherwise sir, it is just that I felt like buying it for you,” Suresh tried to explain.

“Why didn’t you feel like buying one for me swami?” Vijay asked, just to tease him.

“It doesn’t suit you, Mama, it is meant for lookers like Harsha”

Instead of taking offense, Vijay said, “For once, you are right. But any type of dress suits Harsha”

“Those who have hair can have any hairstyle they like,” Suresh said in a lighter manner.

“Are you guys finished with your silly observations? If so we can call the waiter,”
I remarked feeling embarrassed.

“We’ve already ordered,” The waiter entered the cabin as Vijay replied.

“By the way, I saw Bhaskar and Mohan near bus stand,” Suresh informed.

“Well, it seems they have got together again, after a long time,” Vijay observed.

“Bhaskar can never leave Mohan alone, you know. He doesn’t have any existence apart from Mohan. It is a wonder that it took so long for him to catch up with Mohan,” I said trying to keep my voice normal. It was not palatable news to me. There had always been sort of cold war between Bhaskar and me for grabbing the affections of Mohan. Of late, however, Mohan had drifted away from both of us. Bhaskar could easily outdo me because he would not mind being Mohan’s sidekick or ‘chamcha’, which was detestable to me. But today, I was not bothered about either of them, for Kavya had filled every nook and corner of my mind.

Mohan and Bhaskar caught up with us later, at the city bus stand. “Hello brrrotherrs!,” Mohan hollered with deliberate slur. I knew he was never too drunk to slur and sway, but he liked to act like he was. Bhaskar hugged Vijay in a display of overflowing emotions, as though he was meeting the latter after a long, long time, which too was his way of showing that he was drunk. It seems so ridiculous, but those days we not only wanted to drink, but wanted to show off that we were proud to be drunk!

Mohan clasped my arm and said, “Brotherrr, still half an hour is there for the last bus. Let’s have one more drink!”

“Mohan, I have already had my dinner. I don’t drink after eating.”

“Nothing'll happen, man, at least to me. Won’t you buy me a drink? It’s been long since we drank together.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “But we can’t go to bars now. They’ll all be crowded.”

“Yes, we’ll have it over the counter,” Bhaskar added.

We went to a liquor shop opposite bus stand leaving behind Vijay and Suresh, who wouldn’t come there for the fear of being recognized by someone. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to gulp down our drinks and lick the achar supplied free of charge. The whole thing felt cheap, standing amidst dhoti clad villagers, smelling of sweat. When we walked out, Mohan’s eye fell on a couple of women standing with their trademark baskets near the grill encircling the pavement round the corner.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Beginning of Magic

The moment I entered the botanical gardens through the turnstile, it suddenly struck me that I had quite forgotten about Vijay, who was with me in the lecture hall and after the class was over, had gone out for a while and had not returned. Where the hell had he gone? But had he returned, I wouldn’t have had time alone with Kavya for which I felt grateful to him. It was good that he’d vanished. But now I needed him; needed someone to talk to; as none seemed half good a listener as he. I felt a hand being placed gently on my shoulder and I turned back with a start. There he was!

“Vijay! Where’d you been?”

“You must thank me first for leaving you alone with Kavya. You were so absorbed with her that you didn’t even notice me peeping into the lecture hall. And you’d quite forgotten that I’d skipped out to the office to submit a certificate.”

“Oh yeah! I remember it now,” I said gratefully, “You indeed owe me for keeping out of way.”

“I can see that you look a bit disappointed, though the gleam in your eyes has not yet faded. Something is wrong?”

“It’s nothing. She talked to me really well, but didn’t even turn back to look at me while leaving.”

“Tsk tsk, she belongs to a very traditional and dignified family dear, don’t be under the impression that she is going to be easy. In fact, I think she is not your type. You better leave her alone!”

“Vijay, there’s nothing like ‘my type and your type’. Every girl can be molded to suit my type” I said in what seems in hindsight pure arrogance.

“Or rather you can mold yourself to suit the preferences of the girl, till your ends are met!” He blurted in half jest.

“You might say so!”

The botanical gardens were as shady and cool as ever, but had never felt so pleasant before. I had never known that a smile could be so attractive, so enchanting and so beautiful. Kavya kept smiling at me again and again, even before my wide open eyes. Her dreamy eyes, the braids hanging down from both sides of her glowing cheeks, the intoxicating scent of her proximity, the soft, soothing -at times causing galloping of my heart beats- brush of her shoulders with mine, all kept flashing at the back of my mind and unknowingly, I kept smiling to myself as though I was the happiest man on earth. I didn’t notice that Vijay had been eying me with puzzled look.

“What makes you smile so much? Suddenly your spirits seemed to have lifted up” He said trying to avoid a branch of tree coming in his way.

I couldn’t tell him, could I? That would have been negating all the impressions of me I had laboriously built up, without realizing the futility of it all.

“I just remembered what Bhaskar had told about Vani, how she makes cries out with delight while…” I deliberately tried to change the subject and left the sentence unfinished.

“Does she really?” He asked with sudden sensual interest.


I could see that his curiosity was even more aroused.

“But not as laud as he describes. He always exaggerates things,” I added. I was amazed at my own capacity for lying. I needed to confirm Bhaskar’s description to denigrate Vani, defame her character to avail Vijay’s support to finally ditch her. I needed badly to show her in bad light so that I could get away with my own wrong doings! A faint twinge of guilt and shame travelled through my mind, but I could suppress it easily. I wanted to put all that reminded me of my brief encounter with Vani behind, and move forward towards the glittering sky of future, that was Kavya. Was I utilizing Kavya too? This was the question I didn’t dare ask myself at that moment.

* * *

The ‘Prince’ had just opened for the evening business when we walked through the entrance nodding at the smiling owner of the hotel. Just as we were entering a cabin, I found that another group of boys was sitting in the far corner of the hall and one of the guys, who looked familiar, was trying to hide himself. Obviously, he didn’t want people to watch him sitting in a hotel serving liquor and non vegetarian food. I looked hard and recognized him. “Excuse me for a while,” I told Vijay and walked over to Umesh Melligatti. I remembered that he had been Kavya’s classmate in the undergraduate college. Realizing now that there was no way he could avoid me, he started walking towards me, so that at least he could shield his group from being discovered in this place.
“Why were you trying to hide from me?” I asked him as I took his extended hand.

“I don’t usually come to places like this Harsha. Some of my old college mates brought me here. This is your usual hangout. Isn’t it?’ He couldn’t lie convincingly.

“I don’t care who goes where dear. It isn’t a big deal. Is it?” I ignored his counter question deliberately.

“Not for you who’s from a big place like Belgaum. Dharwad is just a big village. Word spreads here too quickly”

“Anyway, you needn’t worry about me and you know it only too well. What I wanted was to talk to about one of your classmates in your college.”

“By any chance, is it Kavya?” he asked with a teasing grin.

“What if it is?”

“I would rather you stay away from her. She is not that type.”

“What if I tell you I have successfully changed her?”

“I won’t believe you Harsha. I have seen her for almost four years”

“Ok. It hardly matters whether you believe it or not. It only shows you don’t know me.”

He considered it for a while, indicating that he had started to believe me.

“What I can say is that you should be very cautious. Especially of her brothers. She is a very decent girl”

“Thanks. You must be having her photograph, at least a group photograph?”

He looked up at me with suspicion. “If you are so cozy with her, why don’t you ask her?”

“You know very well Umesh, why she can’t give me one. She is still terrified.”

He again took some time to think it over and then nodded. “I will give you a group photo taken during our study tour.”

“Thanks brother. You may now join your group. Have a nice time!”

He nodded and walked away.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rediscovery of Kavya

For the next couple of days Vani did not turn up at the department and everybody, to my relief, assumed she was indeed not keeping well. However, I was not sure I had escaped unscathed and the thought kept nagging me like a shrew. Mohan kept on assuring me that nothing would come out of it, that Vani had come on the trip on her own volition and had everything that she did voluntarily. All the same, I wanted to make sure that I keep myself in a safe distance from Vani and for that I had to justify myself somehow. At first I thought of telling her that I was going steady with a girl from Belgaum, but then she would blame me even more, for keeping both the girls in the dark about my misdeeds. That too, only when she believed that there indeed was a girl in my life.

Why, I thought, I could show her a girl right in the university and say that I had fallen in love with her. But for that I had to find a girl who would be friendly enough with me in order to impress upon Vani. I was sitting right behind the girls in the classroom when these thoughts were crossing my mind. Yes, there was Saroja, but I somehow had a feeling that it would be unnecessarily hurting the feelings of Saroja because I was sure she would gladly accept if I proposed to her. I had gleaned from her ogles, sidelong glances, blushes and giggles that she had it for me, though it could well have been all in my imagination sprouting from my youthful arrogance.

Today Saroja however, was not present. Kalavati followed the professor as soon as he left the lecture hall; it was continuous effort on her part to impress upon the teachers that she was a very industrious, studious and sincere student that required her to visit the chambers of the teachers much too often with some problem or the other. Mohan had left for Gymkhana after the first lecture itself and Bhaskar had a brother visiting him the previous day and he had left for the Bus Station to see him off. All the boys had cleared the hall and I started singing “Khoobsoorat ho to ilzam-e-nazar le lena” a ghazal sung by Chandan Dass, set in Rag Hamsadhwani.

Suddenly I realized that I was not alone in the hall. Kavya was sitting with an open book on her laps but staring at me. Her eyes lit up when she realized that I had caught her gazing at me. With the brightest of her smiles she said, “You sing very well”

She wore a white salwar-kameez over which a crimson dupatta hung covering her shoulders and bosom. She’d big dark and dreamy eyes. For once I noticed that she had the fairest of complexion in our department. Unlike the other girls, she had parted her slightly wiry hair into two braids. Her forehead was wide and the bindi she wore on in was so small, it was hardly visible. The nose was narrow and straight and lips were full. One could easily have presumed that she was used to applying lipstick, for her lips had a natural shade of pink.

“How come I haven’t noticed that you are so attractive?” I said, but became apprehensive, expecting her to get angry.
She blushed and looked pleased but immediately took control of herself and said, “Is this line you always use?”

“I don’t remember to have said this to any girl in all my life. Believe me,” it was my turn to be embarrassed. I must have given that impression to all my classmates who had observed our group.

“You are interested in ghazals?” she changed the topic.

“A lot. And in music as well. Are you too?” I asked her.

She nodded, pulling her dupatta over her shoulders. “I have read Ghalib, ‘Jigar’ Morodabadi, Meer, and even Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’“ I tried to impress her, though I had read only fragments of the works of these poets. I made all efforts to pronounce those names properly.

“How can you read them? Are you familiar with the script?” she seemed genuinely interested.

“They are available in Devanagari script, with footnotes containing meanings of difficult words”

“Are they indeed? I would like to read one myself”

“I can get you one. I have got ‘Deewan-e-Ghalib”

“Thanks. Are you waiting for the optional class?”

“Yes, I am glad I am. Otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed you!”

She blushed again and started making scratching the ground with her toe. A peon entered the hall and informed that there would be no lectures in the afternoon as the teachers would be having some meeting. “Well, then there is no need for both of us to wait,” I said leaning on the desk, closer to her. She stood up with a start, gathered her purse and looked at me expecting that I would let her go. She couldn’t go from the other end of the desk as it was blocked by the wall. A mild perfume emanated from her which I recognized as that of a rose.

“I have to leave now or I will miss the bus,” she said imploring me to move away.

“Can I come along with you to the bus stop?” I asked, moving away from the desk. She didn’t reply but favoured me with a bright smile.

As we walked towards the stairs, I could feel the eyes of some of our classmates lingering in the corridors on my back. Despite feeling a bit unsettled by that I also felt proud to be walking with her, but she looked embarrassed although I didn’t expect her to be, having grown up in Dharwad city as she was. She was at least four inches shorter than me and wasn’t wearing high heels. I tried to walk very close to her and a couple of times her shoulder brushed against my arm, sending me into a tizzy! Why am I feeling like this? I asked myself. She became conscious of proximity to me and moved a little away, sending a faint note of disappointment in me.

“You are a local girl. Aren’t you? Have you learnt music?” I asked to keep our conversation going.

“No, never had a chance. But I love music.”

“Right here in the university, you could have joined for a diploma course in music,” I suggested.

“I don’t have time for that. I am not living on the campus you know,” she said looking up towards me, “Moreover, I come from a traditional family and have to account for every minute I spend out of my house.”

“Strange, indeed very strange,” I said pouring sympathy into my voice.

“Perhaps it won’t seem so strange if you know that I am the first graduate in my family”

“Don’t have brothers?”

“Two of them. Both are into our family business. Very tough guys,” she replied. I felt she was avoiding looking into my eyes while saying so.

We crossed the large statue of Goddess Saraswati and came out of the huge door. The road that led to the bus stop from there was free of vehicles and had a beautiful garden adjoining it. The authorities were growing roses in the vast area fenced on all sides. The roses of different colours - yellow, white, pink, red, and even orange- were in full blossom. The hedges were covered with bougainvillea
of different varieties. Both of our clothes fluttered by the cool breeze and it was sheet delight to watch her try to control her dupatta. At the same time her hair too was waving and she had to brush them aside from covering her eyes.

“Isn’t this beautiful out here?” I too combed my hair with my fingers. She didn’t reply. I could understand that she had now become even more conscious of walking with me. She was looking all around and hurried towards the bus stop as though she would miss it though there was none parked there. But as soon as we reached the bus stop, a bus came to a screeching halt and she boarded it without bidding me farewell, not even looking at me. I stood there till the bus packed with passengers left and vanished from my sight, feeling cheated, and deeply hurt.

*** *** ***

Monday, January 17, 2011

Vani Creates A Scene

“Is something wrong, Harsha?” Mohan must have sensed something certainly wrong.

“I'm afraid so friend. It is Vani” I tried to reply in a calm tone.

“Oh! What does she want?”

“She thinks she own me. I shouldn’t have come with you on the trip”

“Hey, come now. Nothing has happened. You will be alright. I am surprised she didn’t do this to Bhaskar.”

“She might have. How can you be sure she hasn’t?”

“Well, he would’ve told me.”

A senior professor, who was to engage our class, came out of his chambers and we had to rush into the classroom.

In spite of Mohan’s assurance that I would be alright, I was afraid it was not going to be so easy. At the back of my mind, I was thinking of something that I might tell Vani by way of explanation of my behavior. Albeit in rage I’d told her point blank that I didn’t owe an explanation to her, I wasn’t myself so sure. On the contrary, I was thinking of all sorts of explanations that could convince her and free me from the clutches of obligations to her. I couldn’t bear the thought that someone was badly hurt by my callous attitude. Hadn’t I been selfish? Of course both of us had sought and found pleasure, but I couldn’t blame her alone. I had to share the blame. I never did tell her in so many words that I loved her, but wasn’t that implied in our cultural context? I certainly had acted in such a way as to imply that I intended to have a long time relationship with her. But the reality was I wasn’t ready yet for a lifetime commitment and Vani would’ve been my last choice even if I was, in fact, ready.

Vijay was already seated and we joined him on the same bench. It was a class on political philosophy by the professor, who was as extremely erudite and eloquent and his lectures were always full of good humour. But today I felt like running away from there. Vijay was looking at me with a question as to what had happened but I couldn’t tell him anything as the lecture started immediately.

Only a few minutes into the lecture, the professor was quick to find out that something was wrong with Vani, for she had turned pale and looking as though she was nauseated. She rested her forehead on the desk which was noticed by the professor. “Is something wrong? Are you not well Miss Vani?” he asked her.
Tears flowed down her cheeks and she pressed her handkerchief to her eyes but didn’t reply. My feet went cold and my heart began to pound furiously out of fear that now I would be caught, if he seriously investigated into what had gone wrong. I was sure though that Vani couldn’t tell anything in the open class, but I was not that sure she would remain equally tightlipped if the professor summoned her to his chambers and made enquiries. I could visualize the enquiry, Vani sobbing and keeping her head down, I being summoned, then parents being informed and I losing all my dignity, pride and …

“I am all right sir, I was just feeling some giddiness,” at last Vani replied trying to stand up and wincing with pain.

“No, you need not stand up. If you are not well, you may go back to the hostel and take rest. One of the girls will escort you,” the professor said in a kind voice.

Vani was still holding her forehead with her right hand and didn’t reply, but Nirupama talked to her something in whisper and then said aloud, “I will take her to the health centre sir.”

The professor nodded and continued with his discourse, much to my relief. He must have thought that it was the usual monthly bad days for Vani. I watched Vani and Nirupama till they left the classroom, all the way feeling that at least a few of the students must be staring at me accusingly.

“It is all bloody drama, Harsha,” Vijay whispered to reassure me, but the professor observed his doing so and asked him, “Do you too want to go to health center?” There were giggles all around till the professor said stiffly, “That’s enough!”

I sincerely hoped that it was play acted by Vani in order to gain my sympathies, yet I was finding it hard to believe just the same. I wanted to get out into fresh air but now for another forty-five minutes it was impossible to do so. I couldn’t close my eyes and try to calm myself for the fear that the professor might think I was dozing. To try and understand what the professor was saying was out of question but I was obligated to pretend concentrating. The world is full of pretense, I thought, everyone was pretending all the time.

“Life is poor, short, nasty, brutish and short in the State of Nature according to Hobbes. Poor because..” the professor was explaining the Hobbesian Theory of Contract. A thought came to my mind that even in the civilized state, life is not much different! In hind sight, it all looks so ludicrous. “Fear and self-preservation are the dominant emotions in human nature” I couldn’t understand in what context the professor was saying this, but certainly it must have been Hobbes’ idea of human nature. True, I said to myself, how true!

After what seemed to be an eternity, the lecture was over and I was relieved as though I had been through an ordeal. The moment we climbed down the stairs and reached a safe distance from our department so that nobody could see us, Mohan and I lit cigarettes. The nicotine rushing through the blood, instead of relaxing my mind, gave a sudden kick as to nauseate me. I wanted to sit down but we were standing under the dappled shade of a gulmohar tree.

Watching us smoke, Vijay might have felt the urge too. He relived me of my cigarette and began smoking. Mohan laughed observing Vijay’s novice way of smoking and said, “Mama, you are not taking even a puff into your lungs. You are simply wasting the cigarette.”

“I know,” Vijay said defiantly, “I am doing it deliberately.”

A breeze of cool wind that caressed my face and fluttered my shirt, made me feel better. At the very moment I saw Vani and Nirupama coming; perhaps they were returning from the health center. “Look,” I said, “Vani seems perfectly all right!”

All were looking at them now. “Who said she was not well, Harsha?” Mohan inhaled deeply, “She just wanted have your attention.”

“By creating a scene!” Vijay added sarcastically.

We remained silent till Nirupama and Vani approached us; while Vani kept going as though she had not noticed us, Nirupama came to Mohan who met her half way and talked to her under his breath. After exchanging only a couple of words he came to us and Nirupama joined Vani.

“She is perfectly alright, nothing to worry,” he announced.

“As expected,” Vijay rejoined, “Let’s get back to the hostel friends” he spoke my mind.

I let out a relief; all the same I was not actually totally relieved. I had to still find a pretext as to why I would not be Vani’s boyfriend. As we entered the botanical gardens through the turnstile, an idea came to my mind. The botanical gardens seemed darker than they always did, though it was only a couple of hours after mid day.


Friday, January 7, 2011

The Aftermath

Though I didn’t want to attach any significance to what Vijay had told me, it still impelled me to search my mind a bit because I always really liked knowing what I was going to do instead of doing it first and wondering why I’d done it afterwards, or until then that was what I thought of myself. I wanted to put everything behind and move forward, but the thought that I had put my neck into the lasso thrown by Vani kept nagging me. I tried very hard but found no reason whatsoever not to believe what Vijay had told me. Had Mohan, who had lured me into going for this adventure, also been a part of the conspiracy, I couldn’t be sure, nor could I ask him, for I was in the danger of incurring his displeasure if that had not been so. But I couldn’t fault Mohan, neither then, not later, nor even now. I took comfort in believing what I liked to believe, that he too had been hoodwinked.

On another front, some coldness had steeped into the relations between Bhaskar and Mohan, which I guessed was because of Bhaskar’s envy, his disapproval of Mohan choosing to take me on the tour and what was more important, without even caring to tell Bhaskar why he had done so. Neither had kept any secret from the other, at least as far as I know, till then. Mohan didn’t seem to have done it deliberately, for he must have been goaded to keep Bhaskar out of it, was my convenient guess. It troubled me too, that I had been secretly delighted by the chasm between the old friends, although it also simultaneously pleased me that at last I had been able to pierce their close friendship. I had not been able to forgive them for ignoring me on so many occasions early on. Now both were close to me, but they had drifted apart from each other. It all sounds silly and frivolous now but back then, it had been so important to me!

Fortunately, the teachers had not got the wind of what had all happened in our group and life went on as always, until something happened.

I began to meticulously avoid talking to Vani and evade the daily trip to the canteen with the group. Mohan too seemed to be busy with the political elite of the university. There was a group consisting of the General Secretary and other officer-bearers of the gymkhana, who along with a big crowd of followers were spending too much of time in the Gymkhana building where a room had been provided officially to the GS. They would play shuttle, bunk classes, play cards with stakes in terms of money, wander on bikes all the time in the city. Mohan was soon immersed in all these useless pursuits so much so that he hardly returned to his room even in the evening. He moved most of his belongings to the Gymkhana building and was hardly seen with any of us on the campus. Bhaskar tried to follow him and be a part of that group, but I had the least idea why he didn’t succeed.

I’d got a new partner in Pavan, along with Vijay for my daily trips to the city for drinks and dinner. Those times must have been really very hard on Bhaskar, though he never showed it. He made all efforts to seem happy in the company of Suresh and Virupakshappa in the hostel, making jokes, reading newspapers holding either a cigarette or a cup of tea in one hand, telling things that had happened only in his fantasies, mostly the politics of his native place and frequenting to his friends from his undergraduate days. But we all did meet in the department where we gathered to attend lectures.

As usual, Vijay and I used to sit right behind the girls in the classroom. Vani, who always sat on the first bench, had begun to sit in the last row of the girls, just in front of us. She kept looking back at me and try to talk to me so often that one of the teachers noticed it and reprimanded her and advised her as well to be attentive in the class. It was too embarrassing to me to put up with and I suggested to Vijay that we sat somewhere else.

The day we changed our place and sat in the last row of the boys, Vani was obviously offended and her face fell. Nirupama, sitting by her side tried to talk to her and take her mind off me, which I could easily observe and understand. I knew that something was wrong. When that lecture was over, Vijay and I walked out of the classroom and stood in the balcony leaning on the parapet, gazing at the tall palm trees. We had another five minutes before the next lecture began. Had the gap between two lectures been more, I would have preferred to go out of the building to have a fag.

“Why are you doing like this?” I was startled to hear the voice from behind my back and turned to find Vani standing, with red eyes. “Why are you doing this to me?” She repeated the question.

“What am I doing?” I asked evasively.

“Don’t you know what you are doing? You do know very well that you have been avoiding me as though I am a stranger to you.”

Before I could answer Vijay excused himself and walked away.

“Vani, you are creating a bloody scene here. What have I done?”

“I am not creating any scene here. I am just asking a simple question. I need an explanation. Have I done anything to offend you?”

Now I had begun to lose my temper. “Do you own me? I don’t need to explain anything to anybody, ok?”

She looked stunned at my response and stood still for a while.

“You mean you don’t love me?” Her voice was now only a shade higher than a whisper.

“Don’t be absurd. Did I ever tell you that I loved you?”

“Then, then why did you…” she couldn’t complete the sentence. “You love someone else?” at last she managed to ask.

“I don’t think that is any of your business Vani. Please behave yourself,” my tone was still testy. I was angry but not at her, but at me myself, for having thrown myself in such a situation.

She stood considering my reply for a moment. It was not more than a minute, but, to this day, it was one of the longest of my life. Seconds seemed to be separated from each other by what seemed an eternity. I could hear my heart thumping wildly. Her cheeks grew red; she glared at me with anger, anguish and disappointment. “Don’t I mean anything to you?” she asked at last, without expecting any reasonable answer from me.

I was now very conscious of my surroundings. I was in the balcony before my department, most of my classmates, and maybe a couple of teachers watching me with interest. I decided not to say anything. As luck would have it, Mohan approached us and favoured me with smile. He was absent in the first lecture and was just returning, perhaps from the Gymkhana, after a game of badminton. It was an immense relief to see him.

“Hey Mohan! Where had you been man?” I deliberately moved away from Vani turning my back towards her. I hoped Mohan wouldn’t start a conversation with her. I could sense Vani moving away and going into the classroom.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Vijay Forewarns

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”

“Whose 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.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Coming back...

I am suddenly catapulted to the present as the waiter clears the plate deliberately making noise as if to remind me that I had already paid the bill and I must make space for others. I look around and find that there are still a very few customers. I call the waiter back and order another drink. He seems to be used to customers like me for he gives a bored expression trying to avoid looking at me and turns away to bring my order shouting something at a fellow waiter.

As I lift my cell phone to know the time, it starts ringing. I press answer and say ‘Harsha’ instead of ‘hello’.

“I know you are somewhere in Hubli. Aren’t you?” I hear the familiar voice of Pavan. How does he know that I am here? I am puzzled but regret that I cannot lie to him. He is sure to have called Bhaskar, who knew that Nirupama was coming to meet me. Bhaskar has always had this weakness of telling others that he is the securest repository of secrets but always letting all the secrets out, more often than not after adding sufficient masala of his own.

“Yes. I was about to call you. Are you free?”

“Always free for you. Where are you?”

I give him my location. “That’s very good. I am hardly half a kilometer from the hotel. Wait for me,” he says before disconnecting.

Yes, those were the three days that made me what I am today I almost say it aloud but feeling embarrassed I look around to see if anyone is watching me talk to myself. I find nobody is looking. Why anyone would care? I start brooding again. Not all the three days, but the moment when I exploded was what made me what I am today. Could it have been different? Only if I had refused to follow Mohan, only if I had a stronger will to say no, only if… It released the Satan in me, or did it? Greed, lust, wrath, ego, envy were all inherent in my personality, however suppressed by the veneer of values and culture they might have been. In fact I could find these very things in Mohan, Bhaskar, Pavan and a host other friends that I made during my stay on the campus, the only difference being I was more conscious of these qualities, or rather vices as I was wont to ascribe them. But I was still neither better nor more mature than the members of the group into which I was drawn, like a shred of straw is into the vortex of a typhoon.

The last night of the tour was the breaking point in my story, thereafter something changed so fundamentally deep inside me, that even today I am unable to comprehend what it was.

The waiter comes and places my drink on the table. I remember that Pavan is coming and I will have to drink with him too. So I must slow down. I decide against taking a swish and start looking at the entrance. He arrives on a bike, spots me immediately even before he parks it and waves enthusiastically at me. I try to remember how he looked during the campus days and find it too difficult. He must have gained at least a dozen kilos of weight, mostly in the form of fat deposited on his paunch that now protruded pushing his trousers down. He still wears dark glasses that used to be fashionable back then, but now he wears then only while riding his bike. He looks around the whole place before entering, like a college student entering a bar stealthily. It irritates me every time my friends do this, as if they were committing a crime entering the premises where liquor or non vegetarian food is served, though those they are trying to avoid would be in some other bar going through the same ritual!

I wanted to be left alone today but it was not to be so. Instead of coming straight to me, Pavan goes to the washroom. I know this too is a ritual with him. He would take at least quarter of an hour to have a leak, wash his hands thoroughly, then wash his face, wipe it clean with his handkerchief, neatly fold and keep it back in his trouser pocket and draw a comb… and so on!

Unable to resist the temptation to take a swig of my drink, I pour soda water into the whiskey and take a big sip. It indeed was my lowest point, I remember those moments when I lowered my guard and became what I am today…