It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batch mates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell. Before I could avert my eyes, my eyes met hers. I stood there frozen, wondering if she recognized me, with me putting on weight recently and the stubble covering my face. But approximately 5 seconds and a pair of twisted eyebrows later, she yelled as she did always, “Is that you, Gaurav?” A brief nod and a hint of smile from me was all that took to get her all worked up as she left the queue running towards me and the next moment we were hugging each other like long-lost friends. The initial euphoria didn’t last long as awkwardness set in and we let go of each other.
“So, the boy has finally become a man, I see”, she giggled with a twinkle in her eyes. Me with all that swag and cranky attitude that I developed in the last 4 years, suddenly started to melt just the way wax melts when it comes in contact with fire. After all these years, she still had the charm on me, nothing seemed to have changed. I held myself together, keeping my thoughts at bay to reply with a smile, “Seems like it.”
“You look quite the lady as well”, I added quickly as I realized I had not said anything about her.
“How have you been?”
“Am.. am good. You?”
“Am good too”, the smile had never left her face. It was me who was not able to look into her eyes. And until this moment I was under the illusion that I had changed for good.
Few seconds of awkward silence and then the calls for boarding the flight made us realize we had flights to catch. And no, coincidences just don’t happen in movies, our seats were adjacent to each other! In the past, I would have loved this but not today. The bubble of joy had now burst as memories of that fateful night came flooding in.
We took our seats in the plane. The plane took off on time. Having overcome my fear of having conversations with strangers, today I faced another kind of fear, talking to someone who is not technically a stranger but stranger still the same. Fiddling around for few moments, feeling uncomfortable of the silence, I finally popped the question, “So what are you up to these days?”
“Interior designing. Found my life’s calling at last. What about you?”
“Great! Well, I cracked the Civil Services, an administrator now”, I said trying not to make it look like a big deal.
“Oh! Great! I always knew you had it in you. If anybody could do it, it was going to be you”, she seemed genuinely happy.
Listening to this, I had the same sheepish smile on my face which she knew while others who knew me these days didn’t. But as they say, old habits die-hard and I tried to remove it from my face and replied with a cold thank you. She seemed to have got my cue and the smile on her face faded too, though unlike me she tried not to suggest it to me.
In a few minutes, we had left land and a few brushed elbow moments later we were settled. She had her headphones on her ears and I had switched on my Kindle. Unlike other days, the story I was reading didn’t draw me out into an enchanted land. Rather I felt a strange restlessness, the urge to look at her face. I stole a lazy glance in her direction pretending to look out the window. My gaze went out the window pleased at the sight of the clouds as white and light as cotton and then the gaze on its way back went over her face, the early morning sun rays caressing her soft skin and the beauty of the clouds which I had seen a moment earlier didn’t hold any value. She looked so serene with her eyes closed and my gaze lingered on her face for more than I had intended to. But fearing she would catch me staring at her, I returned to my story. But I couldn’t read beyond the first sentence as my mind took me back to the night of the college farewell.
The farewell function was on the beach of Gopalpur in southern Odisha. Amid the photo shoots and cheering, she held out my hand and led me out of the group.
“Simran, what’s the matter?”
She shushed me and continued walking. I asked her again and she just said “Not here” and continued walking. My heart silently smiled thinking about the gift she might have got for me as I had also got one for her. And when we were finally some distance away from the music and the crowd, she stopped.
As she faced me, I was not able to see the expression on her face as it was a moonless night. And then without any warning, she suggested, “Let’s break up.” I thought she was joking and burst into laughter but she remained silent and then I sensed something was wrong.
“Are you serious?”
I don’t know if it was the feeling of sand slipping underneath your feet when the wave recedes, but I felt just the same. Aghast at her words, I shook her body, asking her why! She removed my hands from her shoulders in a casual indifference, “I have been trying to tell you this. It’s not that I don’t like you. But you are too childish and I am tired of caring for you. I need somebody whom I can rely upon not who relies upon me.”
“But I do care for you. You know that. Don’t you?”
The sound of distant music from the party lost in the roar of the waves lapping in the shore was the only reply he got.
“Common!” I yelled.
She just replied back calmly “It’s over” and started walking towards the party.
“Excuse me, sir”
My chain of thoughts was lost as the flight attendant asked me for coffee.
“No, thank you.”
I looked at her face now and I didn’t feel the same warmth again as I had felt few moments earlier.
Our flight landed few hours later and we took a taxi to Kriti’s place. The atmosphere was filled with festive fervor when we reached there amidst the sounds of dhol and shehnai. So many guests thronged the place; people meeting each other after a long time embraced each other with warm hugs. With all the fun and frolic, it was a true fat Indian wedding. I met few of my friends in the crowd as well and so did Simran but one of Simran’s friends, Riya screamed, “Are you guys together!!” already expecting yes as an answer. But Simran handled it pretty well explaining how we had bumped into each other at the airport the same morning. Hearing this Riya was a tad upset, but I could still see a few disbelieving faces in the crowd. Right then, Kriti’s shrill voice came to our rescue as she ran to hug Simran but she stopped her just at the last moment gesturing her with her eyes the freshly applied mehendi on her hands. Kriti made a sad face to which Simran went full aww and hugged her. Kriti and Simran’s had been the best of buddies during the college days. I was witnessing all this with a smile on my face and then she saw me. She was still in the arms of Simran and she came forward with the most generous smile on her face saying, “Thanks for coming, Gaurav.”
After the initial frenzied activities of meeting each other, exchanging hugs and handshakes, everybody retreated back to their hotel rooms for the party that was planned in the evening.
As I checked myself in the mirror and adjusted the tie one last time, I couldn’t help but wonder if Simran was in a relationship. The thought was bugging me since we landed in Bengaluru. I thought to myself it was none of my business and checked out of my room.
The party was upstairs on the terrace. As I entered, the smell of exotic perfumes drowned the smell of the Cologne I wore. Pretty ladies and handsome gentlemen waltzed to the music. Having greeted the hosts, I walked up to the bar to have a sip of champagne. The next moment I was searching for her in the crowd. There she was! Draped in a blue saree and hairs undone, I couldn’t take my eyes off her for a moment. She was busy talking and smiling with her friends. I turned around and asked the bar tender for a refill.
“Drinking alone?”, came a teasing voice from behind. I turned around to see her standing right next to me.
“I never liked parties, you know that”, I chuckled.
“At last there is something about you which hasn’t changed over the years.”
“Well, what can I say, Old habits, die-hard. C’mon have a seat.”
The age-old proverb that a distant thing always looked more attractive didn’t hold true for her. She looked even prettier up close. She dazzled in the glittering bluesaree.
“Nice tie, btw”, she said with a wink.
I was wearing a blue tie over a white shirt, under a black suit, the same color as her saree.
“Thanks, seems we still have something in common”, I said with a wry smile, pointing to her blue saree. I regretted saying this the very next moment as she flinched. She held her composure and asked the bartender for a margarita.
I asked about her parents, her little brother who wasn’t little anymore. She asked me about my life. After three refills, we were starting to loosen up. Slowly we were talking and not just pretending to talk. The question which I had in my mind the entire day found its way to my lips, “Are you in a relationship?”
“No. None, since we broke up”, she said with her gaze on the glass she was holding.
“What about you?” it was her turn to ask now.
Never to answer a question with an answer, I asked, “What do you think?”
She laughed, looked up at my face, stared at it long enough for me to drop my gaze. (I was really bad at this staring game right from my childhood.)
“Well, you are a hotshot in administration now and an avid blogger. Who knows?”, she winked again.
We were five drinks down now. Somebody called her name and she started to leave, leaving me with my thoughts.
Truth was, I had not seen anyone after I broke up with her. I was so focused on my career that I just didn’t have the time.
But something inside me stirred. Even in that half intoxicated state, I could remember she said something about my blog. Not many knew that. So, she checked my blogs! I was confused. I put down the glass and started looking for Kriti because I felt she knew something which I didn’t.
After talking to Kriti, the feelings which I thought I had buried somewhere deep within me suddenly started to surface. Swirling in a river of emotions, I couldn’t differentiate between happiness and sadness; tears welled up in my eyes. Simran had always loved me and still did. It was only the love and concern for her parents which made her snap ties with me. She had never told me she had an elder sister once too. She loved a boy and Simran’s parents did not agree to their marriage. But they ultimately agreed, giving into the pressure of the child they loved so dearly. The marriage happened and when everything seemed to be going on well, something unexpected happened. The boy whom she loved wasn’t what he pretended to be. Verbal abuses soon translated into physical abuse and she never mentioned about this to anyone fearing she would be ridiculed and reprimanded. Because it was her decision to marry him and she had convinced her family against their wishes. One dreadful night, unable to take it anymore, she decided to end her life. Simran’s father got a heart attack and was in a paralyzed state for a year. This incident shook the foundations of their family and the topic of love marriage became a taboo.
With this revelation, I searched for Simran in the crowd once again, the second time this evening. But this time I wasn’t doing it stealthily, not worried about being noticed. It took me a while but I found her. She was near the railings talking to someone. I hustled up there, jostling in the crowd to reach there. She noticed the worried look on my face and came forward asking me if something was wrong.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you, what?” she was confused.
“That you still love me.”
Before she could refute it, I interrupted her, “Don’t try. Kriti told me everything.”
Silence. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
I took her by her hand to someplace quiet away from the crowd where we could talk and she followed me like an obedient kid.
“If only I knew, Simran. If only I knew.”
She didn’t say anything.
“It’s okay. I understand.”
“You don’t know how difficult it was for me after that farewell night. You had your anger to live with. But I had got nothing.”
She was sobbing now. I couldn’t stop myself from hugging her.
“Everything is going to be alright”, I whispered in her ears.
“You know what else hasn’t changed over all these years. I still love you as much as I did then”, I said.
She was now giggling with tears still in her eyes.
“Well, at least you going away from my life motivated me and made me what I am today.”
“So you mean I was a distraction?!”
The angry expression was back on her face like the old times. I hadn’t seen her like this since we bumped into each other at the airport in the morning. But this also meant she was finally letting go off the lies. I laughed and went down on my knees unaware of the eyes that were watching us now.
“Simran Sharma, you were always an inspiration, never a distraction; will you marry me?”
Before she could say anything, I said, “Don’t worry, I will talk to your father. You trust me on that?”
She simply nodded as I heard the scream of Kriti as she came running towards us.
“Am so so soooooooo happy!” she hugged Simran and smeared her face with kisses.
What a day it had been; from meeting someone unexpected in the morning to falling in love with her once again at the end of the day.
Kriti’s week-long wedding ceremony which I earlier thought would be utterly boring didn’t feel that way anymore, with Simran by my side. Our love suppressed over time now found expression at every opportunity.
Convincing her father was not easy. But seems he had a soft corner for people in civil services. I somehow managed to gain his trust and Simran’s mother and brother had already taken a liking to me. My family supported me in this like they always did. We didn’t have a pompous marriage. We had it among our family members and a few close friends in a temple atop the hills.
Today, as we complete the first anniversary of our married life, we couldn’t be more in love. I could hear her calling my name from the other room as I picked up the gift I had made for her. She looked as beautiful as anyone could ever do. We kissed each other and set out for the dinner we had planned.