“Two hundred and fifty eight rupees, madam,” the man behind the cash counter said. She gave him the money, picked up the book and told him to keep the change.
It was finally out. His first book. She had known for sometime now that it was going to be out soon. Ten Short Stories by him. She held the book in her left hand and swiped her right palm against his name fondly, and smiled, or blushed rather. Her mind drifted to the first day she saw him.
Four years ago.
It was a busy day in March. The University newspaper department was crowded and hot. She had written at least eight articles on various topics and decided to try her luck at the Hyderabad Herald (HH), the University Newspaper. She wanted to be the Writer, Events. Although she had always wanted to write for HH, she somehow had never mustered the courage to do so until her final year. And finally, today, here she was. That’s when she saw him for the first time. She had read many of his articles and was always amused by them, but she had never put a face to the writings. He was the Associate Editor of HH and was in the Editor-in-Chief’s room, having a heated argument. He stormed out of the office, rushed past her with out even noticing. She went in to meet the Editor-in-Chief and showed him her work like an excited kitten who was just offered a bowl of warm milk.
Weeks later, the Editor-in-Chief thought her write-ups were crappy and declined to publish them. She wasn’t very upset since she knew she wasn’t that bad, and left it at that. Besides she was going to graduate in less than eight months.
Two years ago.
She was in a new city now and had a new job. But she kept track of him. He was her junior at the university, but had graduated and continued to work as the Associate Editor of HH, full time now.
She was buried neck deep into his writings now. It was like an obsessive attraction. Oftentimes, she wondered if she was in love with his articles or him. It is assumed that an author’s work reflects his personality. If that were true, she probably was in love with him. He wrote on a variety of topics. From the state politics to the university politics, from movie reviews to ripping apart actors ways of life, from orthodox festivals to secularism, from the university ball games to the Superbowl. She never subscribed to HH, but every Friday, when the paper came out, she would go online and read his article. He wrote one in every issue.
She thought he was bold, and somewhat amusing. There was some charm about him that was hard to resist. She would usually devour his article in five minutes, and go back to read it and re-read it a few times every now and then. He was definitely different. He wasn’t afraid to put forth his opinion on anything. It was like he cared a rat’s ass about a lot of things and wasn’t afraid to show that to people. You could tell that he researched a lot, and hence always argued a lot, sensibly of course, to prove his point. He had some sort of Chandleristic sarcasm about him. He was funny, and he was serious. He cared about society and he didn’t at the same time. He wasn’t afraid to write about tabooed topics like lust or sex or drugs. He was charismatic and was her addiction. She seemed to have fallen in love with his arrogance, and basically his everything. She liked the political party he supported, the movie he thought was good, and the sports team he favored. His articles had that much conviction in them. It surprised her friends when she spoke sports because they knew she loathed any game, but she had her little secret.
She couldn’t tell anybody about it though. They would think it was stupid. To fall in love with a guy because she liked his writing skill. Besides, she knew he had had at least three girlfriends. His current girlfriend was very pretty too. She wondered what kind of fools the earlier girlfriends were to let go of him. He was on Facebook, and she visited his profile often. It was never locked, and she would go through his newsfeed. She imagined what kind of a guy he was and what kind of a life he lead. She knew they were very different and would probably never be right for each other, if that was even a possibility. She believed in God, he was an atheist. She hated politics, he loved them. She lived in a fantasy world, he lived in reality. She was calm, he was temperamental. She doubted her ability to write well, he was extremely confident. She would like to go on a date with him to a 3-star restaurant, he would take her to have roadside paani puri. She was a vegetarian, he was a non-vegetarian. She wasn’t a fan of the foul language, he used a lot of ‘fucks’ in his writings. She liked white wine, he was more of a whiskey-rum person.
Whenever she thought of him, she imagined him in a wrinkled blue kurta with grids. He almost always had long hair that he tied up into a ponytail. He always wore a pencil on his ear, like a carpenter. He was not handsome. He smoked a lot, and his black lips could turn you off. All this said, she knew that he wasn’t aware of her very existence. He hadn’t noticed her even once. She was silently in love with someone who would never know how she felt about him. This made her sad.
One day, he sent her a friend request on Facebook. A billion thoughts were swarming like flies in her head. Did he know her? Had he known her all along? She was thrilled. Would he chat with her? Was he the kind who sent random friend requests to people if he found mutual friends?
She accepted the request, but they never chatted with each other, not once. She sometimes would go frenzy and want to like all his statuses because they were that funny and awesome, but she never did.
One year ago.
Her best friends were getting married to each other. And since they had met at the university, they wanted to have the ceremony there, on campus. “Yes, two romantic fools,” she had thought as she put on the sunflower-yellow bridesmaid dress. She was back at the university. It always made her nervous and she looked around fervently hoping to catch a glimpse of him. But she never did.
The ceremony was over and everyone was heading out. It was late in the evening. She was thirsty and was running towards the water cooler that was around the corner when she suddenly bumped into somebody carrying a mug full of coffee. She had coffee all over the pretty dress, and looked up angrily only to find her eyes meet his. It was him. She had waited all her life for this moment. She turned crimson and hated herself for it. She felt that he would be able to read all those feelings she had for him, right off her face. She didn’t like it. She had never wanted him to find out.
He apologized immediately, and said, “I live on-campus. Why don’t you come upstairs to my room and wash off those coffee stains. It’s best the stains be attended while they are fresh.” She pretended to be angry. She was afraid that all that love would just explode in her heart. She replied nonchalantly, “That’s ok. I have a train to catch”, while her soul was screaming out loud, “I love you, goddammit.”
Not a single day had passed since that day, last year, when she bumped into him on campus, without her wondering what could have possibly happened if she had gone upstairs to his room. Would she finally get to speak to the guy she was always dreaming about? Would he be nice to her? Would they have become friends? Lovers? She would never know the answer to that question. And that, hurt her.
She was done for the day. She tiptoed from the bedroom into the living room, flopped herself on the couch, switched on the reading light, made herself comfortable, and opened the book.
She always thought that he was more of a novel-writer than a short-stories writer. But nevertheless, she knew she was going to enjoy it.
The first story was titled, With Love, Your Reader.
“Interesting title,” she thought, and began to read. Something didn’t feel right. It felt like his writing, the story, and the vocabulary, but it wasn’t necessarily his style. It was a romantic story. An odd genre for him to choose. She knew he wasn’t the type who believed in ‘Love’ or ‘Together for life’.
It was about this young man who wanted to be a writer, a bold and fierce writer. Although he appeared to be the casanova types, there was this young woman whom he was helplessly attracted to. He usually followed her without her knowledge, and even though he was generally a talker, he never had gathered the nerve to approach her.
She rolled her eyes wondering who that young girl in the story might be because she knew that he partly based his short stories from his own experiences. She yawned and continued to read, actually a little annoyed that he had picked the love genre for the first time and wasn’t doing such a good job with it. Until she reached this part of the story.
…… The young man had heard that a couple was getting married right next to his office at HH. He knew she was going to be there. This was his now-or-never opportunity to talk to her. Yes, he had sent her a request on Facebook, and she had accepted it, but that was the only conformation he had that she probably knew of his existence. He wondered if she knew that he wrote articles every week and that he worked at HH, a place she once wanted to be the Writer, Events. She had moved on, but he hadn’t.
So yes, this was his now-or-never opportunity. Something that had come to him after a five year wait. He didn’t know how to go up and talk to her. Yes, he generally was this arrogant person who cared a rat’s ass about people’s opinion and this shit called love, but there was something about her. She was his addiction, his secret obsession. He quickly picked up his coffee mug and watched till she came around the corner, and bumped right into her, emptying the entirety of the coffee on her dress .
He apologized immediately, and said to her, “I live on-campus. Why don’t you come upstairs to my room and wash off those coffee stains. It’s best the stains be attended while they are fresh.” She looked angry. Of course, she had a right to be. It was a beautiful dress and it was indeed ruined. He was afraid that all that love would just explode in his heart while he waited for an answer. She replied nonchalantly, “That’s ok. I have a train to catch”, while his soul was screaming out loud, “I love you, goddammit.”
“It will hardly take a few minutes,” he insisted, “come along.” She gave it a second thought and decided to go upstairs. He opened the door and let her into his apartment.
“Oh, by the way, I’m Sha….,” she began, when he cut her right in and said, “Yes, I know. We are friends on Facebook, right?”
She took her bag and went to freshen up. She came back wearing a pair of jeans with a blue t-shirt. She looked around the apartment, and saw the blue kurta with grids lying on the couch.
“Chai and biscuits,” he asked.
“I really have to go. I don’t want to miss my train.”
How could he be so wrong, he wondered. He knew she loved him too. Her face was screaming it. He could see it, he could feel it. He hated himself for being this love-stricken loser. This wasn’t him. He had had at least three girlfriends before.
Just as she headed towards the door, she stopped, and asked, “Are you the Associate Editor of HH, the weekly issue that comes out every Friday?”
“Yes, do you read it?”
“Oh! yes. I think you are an awesome writer. If you published a book, I would definitely buy it. You are bold. Actually, I think I could use some chai and biscuits,” she said, as she set her bag down.
This was one of the best days of his life. She didn’t flee yet and she was aware of the person he was.
Seizing the opportunity, he said, “Well, it’s too late for chai, how about some dinner? I know this really good cafe, Moulana Azaad Cafe. It will hardly take an hour. You will still be able to reach the station on time.”
“This is so him. A cafe,” she thought to herself. Yes.
He hauled an autorickshaw. She knew he wasn’t the cab kind of a person. She got in and sat in the farthest corner. Since it was a share-auto, very soon, they were neatly shoved next to each other. That was when their hands touched for the first time. It sent an electric wave through her body. He could tell she was blushing.
She was silent, trying to hide the blush behind her cheekbones. She wasn’t doing a good job with it. They reached the cafe. She stepped aside for a minute and called her travel agent and rescheduled her tickets. She knew it was her now-or-never opportunity.
She ordered Pav Bhaaji and he got Mutton Biryani. “I eat meat. I hope that’s ok,” he said.
“I know. That’s ok.”
“I need to smoke. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I know. That’s ok.”
He looked around, uncomfortably, and wanted to make the best use of his time with her. He wanted to impress the hell out of her.
“So, since you mentioned that I should write a book, I’m actually working on that. I have been, for at least one year now”
“Oh Fuck! You sure do know a lot. Pardon my language. It has become a habit now.”
“I know. I’ve read every article of yours. I am a fan of your work”
“So, we have been at the university for at least three years. How did we never bump into each other?”
“Oh, well! You are famous and opinionated. That either makes people insecure or afraid to come up and talk to you. I did see you a few times at the HH office though.”
He sniggered in disagreement about the famous part. “Do you write as well?”
“Not much. And it’s about mediocre.”
He smiled. He couldn’t wait a second longer to take her into his arms. He loved her, he truly did. Although he hated the meek person he became around her. He knew she loved him back.
After dinner, they walked back to his apartment.
“Would you care for some white wine,” he asked. She looked surprised.
“You sure don’t look like the kind of person who drinks white wine. I thought you were more of the whiskey-rum person.”
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“May I,” he said, and let her into the apartment.
After hastily, gulping down a glass of wine, he sheepishly said, “I would like you to know that I know you better than you think I know you.”
She blushed. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve something to show you,” he said, and went to his wacky, wooden cupboard. After a good five minutes, he came back with a stack of papers and set them on the dining table they were seated at. They looked really old and had wrinkles all over them.
She looked shocked. There they were. Her eight articles. The ones she had submitted to the Editor-in-Chief five years ago. Those eight rejected articles.
“Your articles are great. There is something about you in them. It’s like you are soft on the outside, but broken on the inside. You are someone very different. Very bold. There is this spark in you that I can’t help but admire. I couldn’t help myself but fall hopelessly in love with you. Not even an hour goes by without thinking about you. I’ve been dying to tell you this since the day you graduated,” she heard him say.
A tear dropped from her right eye. He drew her close to him. She didn’t resist. He hugged her, tight. He took his right hand up and fondly tucked the hair that fell onto her beautiful face behind her ear. Her hair was exactly as he had imagined it to be everyday when he dreamed about her. He held her face in his palms and stared at it for a moment longer before he kissed her on her lips, gently. He smelt of cigarettes, and his nicotine black lips weren’t a turn off anymore. It was everything he, she, they had imagined about each other.
It was perfect.
He looked at her eagerly. She nodded.
“Are you sure?”, he inquired.
“Yes, this is everything that I have always wanted.”
He lifted her gently into his arms, took her inside his bedroom, switched off the lights, and switched on the fan. The night was dark and the only sound one could hear, was the sound of the creaking fan.
She closed the book. She couldn’t read any further. She had finally found the answer to what would have happened if she had gone upstairs with him to clean up the coffee stains on her bridesmaid’s dress. She turned off the light and stared into the emptiness around her. The night was dark, and the only sounds one could hear, were those of the harmonious synchronization of the creaking fan in the living room, with that of her husband’s snore from the bedroom.