Airplane Mode – Part 2

March 31st, 2016, Doha

She chucked the idea of going back to the book store to buy herself a book to divert her mind; instead, she decided to feed her obsession of figuring out who the girl in the pretty black dress was.

She carefully began to observe the girl.

‘Observation makes no sense to me at all, because what exactly are you trying to deduce, I have no clue. You are trying to confirm if a certain person is actually the person whom you’ve never met before, and whose Facebook profile you obsessed with about 3 years ago? Isn’t that plain pathetic?’ her mind made a feeble attempt to persuade her to sway away from the path she was going down. A path that was capable of bringing her more gloom than gain.

She rolled her eyes and looked at Rush Me Not who hadn’t looked up even once while her own brain had just swum through the past nine years of her own life in nine long seconds. Through the first two years where she had been in a wonderful relationship with him, the next three years where she had been in an off and on long distance relationship, followed by the last four years where she felt that she hadn’t ever gotten over him in the truest sense.

‘What on earth is she doing on her phone? People aren’t even able to connect to the wireless internet at this stupid airport. And why would anyone undertake a 27 hour journey dressed like that. You know, in a pretty black dress with tiny pink roses teamed with plain, black stockings and finished with black high heels. They are not even travel friendly clothes. I wonder whom she’s going to meet when she lands in Bangalore that she had to be this dressed up,’ she smirked in spite.

She buried the memory that was starting to sprout in her head; the one where she recalled how he liked his girl to always be dressed up and pretty, the time when he had expected her to wear her black kurta and striped pink patiala pants when he took her to the temple, or the time when he chided her for wearing an old t-shirt when he took her to Xtreme Sports Bar. And mechanically, she looked down at her navy blue sweat shirt that said OK, BUT FIRST COFFEE, and her extremely comfortable pair of old travel jeans and tennis shoes.

‘Or Rush Me Not must have just gotten off from work and directly boarded the plane. You know, had no time to change in comfortable clothing,’ optimism tried to talk to her pessimism, and she chose to ignore the brighter perspective instantly.

Boarding had now begun. She watched Rush Me Not hastily put her phone away and get in the line and she waited for this girl she was starting to loathe to disappear through the gate and wished she never saw her again, because, if that were to happen, she would never have to nourish her desire to find out if Rush Me Not was the enemy or not.

She looked down at her boarding pass, Seat 15E. She went inside, wished the air hostess a good evening, waited for someone tall to help her 5 feet 1 inch-self place her backpack in the unreachable overhead cabin. 15E was a middle seat in the middle row but a for a four hour flight journey that wasn’t bad at all. She looked to her left and it was empty. To her right side was seated an older middle aged man in a red and blue striped polo shirt. She made herself comfortable and buried her head into the magazine that was available.

It wasn’t until a good 30 minutes later that she noticed the person seated diagonally to her right, in the row in front of hers, in Seat 14G, reading a book. She tried to casually catch the name of the book but instead saw tiny pink flowers as the girl set the book on her lap.

‘Oh no! Not again. I am done with this chapter. I just wanted a quiet three hours to myself before I get home and now, you send this menacing riddle again. You put her in my face where I can clearly see her so I can entangle my thoughts all over again,’ sleep screeched grudgingly.

She wished, that very second, that she was traveling by train with Rush Me Not instead of in an airplane. It would have been so much easier. She could have just gone and checked her name on the list of passengers pasted on the compartment door.

Her distressed and pitiable conscience watched Rush Me Not reading ‘A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin’ and screamed from within, ‘You are supposed to be stupid. The kind of person who couldn’t tell the difference between moment and movement. How on earth are you reading one of the bestselling series in the world especially when even avid book readers have actually taken to watching the series on HBO owing to the fact that reading these books is a herculean task since it involves extensive dedication of valuable time.’

‘Or this is just some random person and not the Rush Me Not like you expect her to be. And even if it is her, why does it matter to you, after all these years. It could be a fateful coincidence that you are traveling together, I would just ask you to thank your stars that he isn’t traveling with her which would be even worse, watching them together for four full hours,’ her haughtiness tried to drill sense into her pathetic, judging self.

She was now starting to get hungry. The entire travel had messed up her food and sleep timings. Besides, she needed food as a distraction from this nonsense that was churning in her head. Soon she was served breakfast or dinner, she wasn’t sure, but she decided to let other standard types of entertainment interrupt her. She turned her TV screen ON and decided to watch something. She wasn’t really in the mood to watch a movie, so she selected an episode from Modern Family and began to watch it and eat her meal. About 20 minutes later, she involuntarily glanced at her rival seated in Seat 14G. Rush Me Not had closed her book and was preparing to eat her meal, but before she did that, she switched on her TV too and began to browse the list of movies. She scoffed in contempt and thought, ‘Yeah, come on, select one of your saccharine infused Bollywood crap like Maine Pyaar Kiya or Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. After all, they are the kind of movies you like.’

Rush Me Not began to dig into her meal while selecting the very episode from Modern Family that she was watching. ‘No, this is absolutely preposterous. It cannot be happening. Aren’t you supposed to be this stupid and immature woman who does not even speak fluent English and watches the kinds of movies that require you to leave your brain outside the theater? What is happening? Okay, adding most of it up, it seems like this person I have been giving a lot of attention to might actually be Rush Me Not, in the technical sense,’ her lunatic heart chirped erratically.

‘Or you are trying to match a person’s face and personality with a name. First things first, you were not even provided with this person’s full name four years ago. So for all you know, you could have been ambushing the wrong profile when you checked it out. Two, people are not what they seem on social networking sites. So even if you found the right girl on Facebook, all you did after that was grasped pieces of hay and straw with words like moment and movement and her love for Bollywood and chalked out her personality in your head. Three, even if she was all those things you imagined her to be, four years ago, she could be a totally different person now. People change, situations change, your personality is a direct outcome of your circumstantial subjugation,’ lectured her gray matter, in a serious tone.

Forty Five minutes later, the captain announced that he was preparing to descend in another fifteen minutes. She began to get restless. Not knowing who the stranger in Seat 14G would haunt her for a long time. But she decided to let it go. Come to terms with it. Find peace in the choice she had made four years ago. It shouldn’t matter to her anymore.

******

April 1st, 2016, Bangalore

The plane landed in Kempe Gowda International Airport and continued to taxi towards the gate. Meanwhile, most of the passengers had started to get up from their seats and open the overhead bins and remove their bags as they prepared to hop off the plane. She stood up. She had been traveling for the past 27 hours and her feet were swollen from the continuous sitting. She tried to edge herself completely out of her seat and pick up her backpack but the man in the red and blue polo shirt wouldn’t budge and let her out. She looked around, bored. She tried her best to avoid looking at the woman in the pretty black dress still seated in 14G.

‘Just give it one last shot. One more time. Maybe you will catch a glimpse of her boarding pass or her phone? Hey, she is definitely the cheesy-romantic types of women, the kind who would use a couple picture as the wallpaper on her phone, you know?’ her fragile and scarred heart echoed with vulnerability.

‘Are you serious? Everything you have predicted, designed and played in that absurd playground of your brain has been proven to be wrong. Can we just move on, finish immigration, collect our bags, stretch ourselves and go home?’ her self-esteem thundered in anger. It had had enough of this futile rubbish served to it over the past several hours and was extremely exhausted, mentally and physically.

Her phone was still useless to her since she didn’t have international roaming. So she plugged in her headphones and began to listen to some music as she got her backpack and was ready to get off the plane.

She was standing and at a good viewing distance and could easily look into the sitting Rush Me Not’s phone. She didn’t intend to peep but when she did look, it was right about when Rush Me Not was in her phone Settings and went to turn the Airplane Mode OFF. She watched as the woman seated in 14G quickly texted someone, and then hit the back button making visible to the standing her, the phone’s wallpaper.

She stared. It was HIM, sporting his ordinary smile, in an orange polo shirt, with his one arm around the woman seated in 14G. The girl was wearing a pretty black dress with tiny, pink roses printed on it.

It was as if her world had frozen right there, and could perhaps never be thawed back to normalcy ever again. The plane full of people getting ready to disembark, noisy children pushing their way to the exit door, the man in the red and blue polo shirt, her backpack, the bright lights that lit up the international airport at dawn, the loud and shrill neighboring airplanes that were either screeching to a halt or racing on the runway for takeoff, the captain announcing the local time in Bangalore, some people, readjusting their watches to Indian Standard Time, some people making phone calls notifying their friends or family that the flight had landed, a woman trying to wade her way backwards to get to the restroom at the last minute, everything came to a standstill, like a hazy paradigm. She couldn’t see, hear, or feel anything anymore.

And then, she realized it was because her eyes had become blurry with tears, and in her ears, A.R. Rahman had burst into a passionate New York nagaram urangum neram thanimai adarnthathu, and in her head, very slowly, Rush Me Not had distinctly turned into Rashmi.

******

The End 

Airplane Mode – Part 1

March, 2016, Doha

It was only 5:20 in the evening when she got to Gate B6 at the Hamad International Airport. This meant she had two full hours to kill. She was already tired from the 13 hour flight to Doha and all she wanted by then was to get home and sleep for 12 hours straight. You would have usually seen her with her head buried in a book but this time she had already finished reading the one she was carrying on her. So she began to mentally lecture herself with an ‘I told you to put both your travel books in your backpack should you finish reading the first one’. She took her phone out and tried to connect to the airport’s free wifi so she could Facebook for a while. After a good 15 minutes, she wearily gave up her attempt to connect to the feeble wifi. She then went into her phone Settings and turned the Airplane Mode ON. The phone was practically useless without any cellular network and internet access in a foreign country.

And she reluctantly decided to do what people usually did under circumstances such as these. People-Watching. She wasn’t particularly fond of people-watching and never understood why some people made such a big deal out of it. ‘Airports are such fun places and people-watching, it is my favorite thing. I love those hundred different kinds of emotions you see at airports,’ she had heard people say. She began by looking at people seated in her zone, Zone 4.

There was a young couple with a kid. The wife was asking the husband to give some cookies to the baby boy and silence him while she went to the bathroom to change from her jeans into a salwar so she could be prepared and presentable to meet her in laws at the airport when they landed. There were two girls, probably about 10 years old, watching something on a shared iPad. A young man just brought his mother a hot beverage and was asking her if she needed more sugar in it. Another man in his mid-forties was staring at the TV trying to grasp bits and pieces from the Arabic news channel on the casualties that had occurred during the collapse of an unfinished flyover in Kolkata.

Then she saw a woman in a black dress with pink roses printed on it. It was such a pretty dress. It looked somewhat like the one she had desperately wanted to buy for her graduation but couldn’t afford a whopping $150 dress when unemployed, except that the one she had wanted to buy had the pink roses embroidered on the black instead of printed on it like this girl in the airport’s dress. She looked up at the woman’s face and almost immediately looked away, in shock. She could feel rapid pounding inside her chest and her mind was racing. No, it cannot be who she was thinking it could be. Absolutely not! She quickly and hastily looked around for the other familiar face she was anticipating to find.

There was no possible way on this planet that of all the existing days in her lifetime, Rashmi was going to travel with her on the same day, taking the exact flight she was going to take from Doha to Bangalore. The probability of this happening had to be zero in a lifetime. She looked back closely at the girl in the black dress that was busy typing away on her phone.

‘Oh my god! The resemblance is striking. It has to be Rashmi,’ her insanity screamed at her jetlagged sanity.

‘Or may be it is not. And there is no way you can know with confidence because you haven’t ever met Rashmi, face to face, ever!’ her sanity yawned back.

‘Okay, how about this. It may be Rashmi or it may not be Rashmi. So let’s just call her Rashmi Not, like Touch me not, or Rush-me-not, since you hate the name Rashmi, until I figure this out for you,’ her ridiculousness continued to her rationale and kicked the tiredness right out of her travel-sick body.

******

March, 2012, Somewhere in the United States

It was a busy day at work and she had about 45 minutes to grab a bite. She logged into her Gmail account to check her e-mails since she was eating by herself.

Inbox (1)

She looked at the sender’s name and her mind stuttered. He had contacted her after two long years. Should she open it? ‘Of course, you have to open it,’ her curiosity unchained itself and nudged hard at her calm indifference.

“Actually, I wanted to call you but I wasn’t sure if you would accept my call so I am writing this e-mail. I hope you haven’t blocked me and I sincerely wish that you get this e-mail. I really am not sure how or where to begin, but perhaps I could by first saying sorry for everything that I have done to you. We always wanted things to work out between us and both of us made promises that neither have kept as we started to grow apart.

When you left me two years ago, I believed life had come to a standstill. I felt severely incapable of even a simple thing such as a genuine smile. I have been alive and kicking all this time, not doubt, but I have lived in your memories and I was more than happy with them. I swore that I would always be there for you, at any point in your life, and that I would wait for you to come back to me. But, here I am, guilty again for breaking yet another promise to you. I am sure you will feel less guilty, or actually I am not even sure why I am writing this to you, but I wanted to apologize and let you know that I am moving on in life. You have been such an important part of my life, you cannot even comprehend, and I can never forget you. What I had and have for you always has been nothing but love.”

She calculatedly read every single word in the e-mail at least five times. Her heart and her mind were creating a ruckus at the same time. She couldn’t hear either of them even if she paid close attention. She closed her eyes to analyze how she felt about him today, after these two years, and all she felt was nothing. No pain, no anger, no hatred, and perhaps, no love.

‘Well, you have to reply. You need to know what he means by moving on,’ her ignorance fell to its feet and begged her common sense. And thus, her twitching fingers picked up a glass of water, chugged it down in haste, and hit the reply button and began to type out a rather controlled response.

“There is absolutely no need to apologize. I would like to believe that I have matured enough to understand that we were young and silly when we first fell in love, and that our relation would require so much work given our contrasting personalities, which is why I decided to call it quits two years ago. I have just stayed aloof and out of touch so far because I am really not the kind of person who has it in her to remain friends with an ex.

I was always aware that time would heal you, take that pain away, and that eventually you would move on. I understand that you moving on in life means that either you have found someone you love or that you have decided to marry the woman your parents have chosen for you. Whichever one it is, I am happy for you. I do not hate you today nor have I harbored any hatred for you in the past. I wish you luck.”

By the time she had gotten to the end of this self-restrained crap she had typed out, she plainly wished she deleted everything and just wrote back, ‘I still LOVE YOU, in his favorite Comic Sans font. But she did no such thing. Her fingers voluntarily hit the send button while her eyes involuntarily brimmed with salty tears and her heart; it sank into the deepest torrents of randomness.

Almost immediately, Inbox (1)

“Thank you!”

She couldn’t contain herself and didn’t think she needed to either. This could lead to something, maybe, what that leading entailed, she had no clue.

“So, are you getting married?”

Every single cell in her body had prayed frantically for him to answer, no. ‘Why on earth does it even matter to you now? You chose to leave him for good in the first place. There is no peace in learning more from the other side. If anything, this one question will lead to five more. Just let it be,’ her strength hissed at her weakness.

“Not yet, I am in love. And we are planning to get engaged in May.”

Her heart sank from randomness into the deepest, darkest grave within her soul, a part she never knew existed inside of her. She tried to gather herself up, and get back to work, to working on her research proposal but the next second she found herself typing:

“Is it Vandana?”

“No, Vandu got married last December.”

She rolled her eyes as her ego took the response bitterly. What is the need to call that woman by a pet name? It wasn’t like her name was super long. And it isn’t like he was a Senator who was saving a few seconds by typing a shorter version of her first name.

“How are you? How have things been going on for you? Where do you work?”

She ignored his attempt to make small talk. She wasn’t interested in answering those mundane questions. Besides, why does he care where she worked anymore?  He was ‘moving on in life’.

“What is her name?” She typed and pondered whether hit send.

‘Please!! Stop this ridiculous obsession, for heaven’s sake. You really don’t want to know her name. What good will it do to you now? What comes next? Will you ask him for a picture of her? Will you ask him for an invitation to his wedding? Will you beat your brain into pulp trying to find her on social networking sites and obsess on figuring out if she looks better than you. This stupidity has to stop right now,’ even as her pride was yelling at her, her vulnerability pressed the send button.

“Rashmi,” pat came his response and he continued, ““How are you? How have things been going on for you? Where do you work?”

Pain and anger, in that precise order, struggled with the indifferent front she had been putting up this entire time. But her brain finally cleared its way out; first, locked up tons of emotions her heart was feeling and second, mustered all the courage it could gather and typed out one final nonchalant and curt e-mail, completely under pretense.

“All the very best. Everything is alright. I guess this is it, then. Goodbye.”

“All the best to you. Bye.” he replied, and that had been the final communication she had with him. It had taken her truckloads of self-restrain to not respond any further.

She went home that evening, cooked and ate and tried to get the conversation out of her head. It had been two whole years. She had chosen correctly, she reminded herself. Her new self could digest this bitter news. Tomorrow was going to be a brand new day. Everything is going to be alright. Even as she sat on her bed and mentally talked to herself, she picked up her laptop and decided to get a peek at this female who had created ripples in her head and turned her absolutely normal day completely upside down. But he hadn’t given her Rashmi’s last name. So she opened Google and carefully typed out his first and last name along with Rashmi.

She popped up on the first search result. He had commented on Rashmi’s photo on Facebook. She quickly rampaged thought Rashmi’s profile pictures, her About me and her timeline.

‘Blah. Totally judging. Of course, I despise her. She looks like a man. How can people not do their upper lip, for lord’s sake. I wonder how he even fell for her after dating someone so darn cute and adorable such as me. She seems so silly listing her favorite movies as Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Dil To Pagal Hain, Kuch Kuch Hota Hain and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. I mean, seriously, who even likes those SRK-KJo’s diabetes inducing and cringe worthy cheesy romantic films these days. And she could swear across her heart that he wasn’t into that kind of saccharine overloaded three hour torture. See, they are so different, they will never be half of what we were,’ her vanity comforted her arrested heart, like it were some consolation.

And then she saw it on her timeline. Rashmi couldn’t tell the difference between moment and movement. Her status said, ‘Thank you all for the birthday wishes. This year was spent with special people and had special movements.’

She jumped up and down hysterically. She was having her own Carrie Bradshaw moment. The one where Carrie realizes what an idiot Natasha (who’s married to Mr. Big) is since Natasha can’t tell the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’.

‘There you go! She is an idiot,’ her wounded heart slowly nursed its wounds and rubbed her hands in glee.

******

March, 2016, Doha

‘Okay, she’s sitting with you in Zone 4. Maybe you can take a quick glance at her boarding pass and catch her name to figure out if she is Rashmi or Rush Me Not,’ her impractical and unreasonable-self suggested to her clear sense of reasoning.

‘Or you could just walk back to that book store you saw on the way to Gate B6 and buy a book and drown yourself in it rather than investigate and feed on this totally irrational and insane theory you have going on here,’ reasoning offered stubbornly.

To be continued…

Have you really broken-up?

‘One Tall Americano, please,’ she said to the guy at the Starbucks counter, and looked around while she waited for her coffee to find a good spot to seat herself for the next two hours until her boarding time . When the Americano was ready, she picked it up, walked over to the sugar and cream counter and added half a spoon of raw sugar and did a weird swish-swoosh with the flat, wooden stir stick for a good 20 times to ensure the raw sugar had completely dissolved in the coffee. She would have continued the stirring if she hadn’t realized that the person waiting behind her was looking close to being angry.

The only empty table was the one near the sugar and cream counter and although she would have preferred a better table, she decided to take it. It was way better than not having a table to sit at all in a busy Starbucks at Terminal B in the Newark Liberty International Airport.

She hated this airport. But her work forced her to travel to Paris once every three months and the company she worked for always flew her through Air France with an inevitable connecting at the Newark Airport. And it always had been from Terminal B. For seven long years now. Today was no better than the first time or the 21 other times she had stopped at EWR. It had never been easier. The Starbucks, the escalator, the little Mexican restaurant that had really bad food, nothing had changed since then. Except, probably her heart. Oh and of course! Now she had also learnt how to drag her cabin bag along with her on the escalator without awkwardly tripping over the bag.

She looked at the table that she had been seated at with him on that fateful windy day in March, seven years ago. She tried to gulp down the painful knot she felt in her throat. It wasn’t easy. It never had been.

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‘Break-ups are never easy, Siriya,’ she heard her friend say. ‘You cannot expect to meet each other in the morning, have lunch at noon, catch a romantic movie, walk together in the park that evening and then, joyfully say goodbye to each other and call it quits.If break ups were going to be that pain free, two people in a relationship would never see a reason to break up in the first place.’

Siriya looked up, both angry and sad. ‘Don’t call me Siriya. It’s such an odd name. Could you not just stick with Siri for once?’

‘Okay, Siri,’ her friend continued, ‘if you have decided to break up and if you are choosing to do it in person because you need closure, whatever that means, then suck it up and go through with it but it’s not going to be painless.’

‘I know,’ Siriya said, biting the nails on her left hand and frantically tapping the finger from her right on the table. She was clearly confused, you could tell. Whether she was doing the right thing, you had no clue.

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She waved to him when she saw him at the airport. She had a five hour layover at EWR while she was flying to Phoenix and had decided it was the perfect duration. Not too long, not too short to go through with it.

He hadn’t changed a bit. He stood tall and had a plain face, like he always did. If you looked at him, you could never tell whether in his head he was singing a romantic song to you, or if he was so angry with you that a volcano was erupting right inside him. So this windy day in March, when he had come to meet her at the airport to break up in person with her, she couldn’t tell if he was upset or angry or both.

‘Let’s go upstairs and sit. There is a little Mexican place there. Maybe we could grab a bite?’ she said. She walked towards the escalator and he followed behind her. He was peculiarly more silent than normal. Of course, he had a reason to be.

She tried to put her cabin suitcase and her foot on the escalator at the same time and nearly tripped over the suitcase. Embarrassed, she turned towards him. Now usually, if she did something this silly he would mockingly laugh at her like she’s an idiot, but today, he just smiled and told her, ‘You need to put you feet on there first and then drag the bag along with you onto the next step, not onto the same step.’

They went up, got lunch and sat down. He stared at her without touching his food. She could feel his stare right through her. She could always tell when he was staring at her and when he was not. When he didn’t move his gaze for a long while, she looked up from her food and said, ‘Eat your food. It’s not that great but…’

“I’m not hungry,’ he interjected, even before she could complete her sentence.

‘See, I’m wearing my Harry Potter shirt. I know it looks too big on me but this was the only size they had,’ she smiled weakly, trying to lighten up the mood.

‘I know what is on your mind, Siriya, just say it. The ordeal is not going to turn into something happy just because you prolong it with small talk.’

This was him being curt. This was him being his usual self. But when he called her out by her full first name, she realized that although he hadn’t said it, he was hurting inside. If she peeped into his head, she would have found him curled up in a corner crying profusely.

‘I don’t think it is working anymore. I really love you but I have come to see that we are very different people now. We probably were different to begin with, but everything is falling into a realistic perspective nowadays. We both have always been emotionally very attached to each other but somehow we seemed to have been travelling the same path at different emotional levels at different points of time. When I was crazy about you, very needy and clingy in the beginning, you were balanced. And now, when I seem to feel emotionally stable, you have turned into me. The long distance, the time zone difference, convincing our parents, these are what we are always fighting about. We are trying to concentrate so much on having one good phone conversation without having a fight, and that makes me wonder, if we are trying too hard to stay in this relationship and failing at it, is it possibly cause we may not be in love with each other anymore? You have mentioned that your friends think we are not right for each other, so have mine, may be they have a point?’

‘If this is what you perceive, then I think you should reconsider. I am willing to cross certain boundaries I have laid down for myself if that means having to be with you. Why are you even doing this to me? Don’t you want to give us a chance?’ He was very composed even as he said that.

He had never spoken that way. It was his way of saying, I love you. I truly do. We both have our egos but we can work this out. I cannot imagine a life without you. I may not be as expressive as you would like me to be but no way on earth does that mean that I love you any lesser. I am impatient, yes. But that is me, just like you are immature. Give us one chance, just one chance is all I ask from you. You know that I haven’t loved and will never be able to love anyone the way I love you. You are the reason I smile from my heart. Without you, I will be miserable and shattered.

But he never did utter those words. She waited to see if he would say them at least today. But he never did. And she tried to understand him for that, but she really could not. She needed a man of many words and in his opinion, certain things were best left when unsaid and rather felt.

Those five hours were going to be longest hours of her life. She felt foolish for thinking that she had timed her break up and assumed that meeting him for one last time would bring her closure. He continued to stare at her, taking his eyes off her face only when he blinked.

‘Let’s go downstairs and get some coffee. I saw a Starbucks downstairs,’ she said, standing up and trying to break the silence.  He nodded. When they walked towards the escalator, the drama repeated again, and very oddly, he smiled weakly again, gave a detailed explanation of how you mount yourself and your bag.

He was being rather nice to her today. Why was she breaking up with him, again, she wondered. She tried not to confuse herself. She had thought about this for weeks now, her friends agreed with her, she was making the right choice.

‘One tall Americano, please, the name is Siri,’ she said, as they reached Starbucks. She turned and looked at him with raised eyebrows asking him what he wanted to drink.

‘I don’t like coffee here. Their beans are over roasted,’ he said.

‘No, try my order. I’ll make it the right way for you’ she smiled meekly hoping he would smile back. They picked up the Americanos and walked to the counter to the side. She picked up half a spoon of raw sugar, put it in his coffee and stirred it for two whole minutes, saying, ‘You need to add raw sugar and stir it until it completes dissolves in the hot coffee. Or else the raw sugar settles down at the bottom and even if you try to blend it in later, it tastes weird.’

He said nothing. He took the coffee, sipped it and she couldn’t tell if he liked it or not. Just like she couldn’t tell if he loved or hated any of the gifts she had bought for him. His face was expressionless.

They walked around the airport for a little longer and he suggested they walk into a gift store. She saw him buy something. For a second, she wondered if it was for her. Immediately, she shrugged her shoulders and laughed at herself. He never buys gifts for people. He isn’t that kind of a person.

Here and there, in their conversation, he indirectly asked her if she was sure about what she wanted from this relationship. It was almost like he was begging her to reconsider. They talked about when they had initially started dating and about how both of them skipped dinner every day just so that they could save some money to call each other on the phone. Cellphone calls were expensive those days. She remembered telling him that here AT&T allowed unlimited talk time and they could talk all night if they wanted to without having to go to bed on an empty stomach. She thought about how technology brought them closer while their hearts distanced themselves from each other.

She stood at the Gate as the boarding started. She looked into his eyes for the first time that day. They looked hollow and sad, very, very sad, like there was no life in them. She immediately hugged him, tight. He did not hug her back. He simply stood there, as if he was electrocuted. After a few seconds, he moved his right hand forward, as if to wrap his arm around her, but instead, put a small bag in her left hand.

 She was angry that he wouldn’t even hug her back. She knew he hated PDAs. But for god-sake, this was probably the last time she was going to see him. She clutched the small bag he put in her hand tightly and walked into the gate before turning back and waving a goodbye to him. He stood there like a rock.

She sat in her seat and hastily opened the bag. It was a magnet. It said, ‘Someone who loves me very much went to New York and got me this magnet.’ She started to sob uncontrollably and kissed the magnet.

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It had been seven years. Over the first three years after the break up, she had dated two guys. Both the guys had been great, but she somehow never felt as passionate about them as she had felt about him. It wasn’t them. It was her. It took her two years of wasteful dating and another additional year to realize that she will never feel the same about anyone else in her life. And that she was still in love with him. She was in love only with him. For her, it wasn’t about moving on, she just didn’t want to be with anybody else. It took her a really long time realize that when she broke up with him, that day, in this very airport, a part of her had broken too. So broken that it rendered her heart impossible to be crazily in love with another person. But when that realization had hit her, it had been too late. She learnt that he had moved on.

She missed him, terribly. It hurt her because she couldn’t go back to him. She missed his expressionless face, his wide palms with really long fingers, the smell of his silky hair and his large, deep eyes that always looked like they wanted to say something to her but never did. She missed the way he….

She shook herself to reality. She washed down the painful knot in her throat with a large gulp of coffee, wiped her moist eyes and looked into her handbag. She didn’t have to look keenly or for a long time to find it, the magnet. She took it out, caressed it fondly and planted a kiss on it. Whether he still lived in New York, she did not know. Whether he still loved her, very much, she had never had the courage to find out.

She then suddenly became aware of her surroundings because she thought she heard her name being called out at Starbucks counter where you collect your drinks. That’s odd, she thought. Nobody has her name. It was such an odd name, Siriya. Like her parents wanted to name her after a country and misspelled her name instead. She liked being called Siri until the stupid iPhones stole that joy too. She now preferred Siriya. So when she heard the lady at the counter scream, Siriya – Hot Chocolate and Pat – One Tall Americano, she was curious to see the co-owner of her name.

She watched in awe as a little girl, clearly at least 5 years old, ran forward and picked up both the glasses and walk towards the sugar counter right next to her table.

‘Daddy, one half spoon of raw sugar, stir until it completely dissolves, while it’s hot, right?’ she screamed loudly.

‘Yes, darling. Now hurry up or else we will miss the flight.’ she heard a familiar deep voice. The one that she frequently heard in her dreams every now and then.

She turned and looked at him. He stood tall and had a plain face. He was busy looking at his tickets. The little girl ran up to him proud of her coffee achievement, he took the coffee from her into his left hand, held her with his right and walked hurriedly towards the escalator.

0909090909

How color blind are you?

It was a beautiful evening during the summer holidays. That time of the day when the sun’s heat is just wearing off and the cool breeze wants to push its way in. Summer was always her favorite time of the year because she got to spend time in her grandparent’s village. The countryside, its lush green fields, her darling grandmother and most importantly, her cousins who played silly, childish games with her, all this made her summers beautiful. She was like any regular 5 year old. She played running and catching and house-house, lazied around the wooden swing in her backyard. She usually never carried her toys to the village. So this warm evening, she and her cousins decided to play house-house while all the elders went to the temple except for one of her aunts who stayed back to baby sit the kids.

House-house was a game that had a teeny tiny kitchen set. The kitchen set had all the utensils right from a cooking stove to spoons and ladles. She and her cousin sisters would pose to cook food, tiny amounts of rice, daal and chai and pretend to eat a sumptuously satisfying meal. But the game only started when the roles of mom, dad, and two children were assigned. She and her three cousin sisters played a random version of rock-paper-scissors and she was chosen to play the mom. She was excited because playing the mom was always the most important part. It was like the role Chiranjeevi played in the movie, Gang Leader, extremely important. She set her tiny pots and pans in a row, ready to start her cooking ordeal when her aunt who wasn’t paying attention until then suddenly intervened.

“Oh! wait. Are you playing the mother?”, her aunt asked looking surprised.

“Yes”, she chirped happily.

“No. Wait, you cannot. Switch places with Kavya. You play the father.”

“Why? I just don’t want to bring the groceries. I want to play the main role.”, she said, her eyes almost brimming with tears.

“You are dark skinned. You cannot play the wife or the mother. You should play the father. Girls who are fair skinned are always beautiful, so let Kavya take your place.” She heard her aunt say.

She looked at her olive skinned hands and wondered why she was that way. When her mother came back from the temple, she ran to her, and asked, “Why did you give me this dark color. Did you not like me? I want to be fair skinned too.”

Her mother, rather surprised, said, “What nonsense! Who is feeding such crap into your head. You are beautiful and you are important. Don’t let your skin color, caste or religion ever be something that defines your personality.”

She wasn’t convinced. She felt that it was her fault she was born dark skinned. She wanted a lighter skin tone and was willing to do anything for it.

                  *********

Every year, the 11th grade students would throw a farewell party to both, the 10th and 12th grade students. It was a painstakingly huge yet  a rewarding affair. It was a month of fun that included outdoor spot inspections, speaking with caterers, figuring out a theme for the party, arranging a student fashion show, some dance performances and a skit.  All preparations were done during regular class hours. This meant she could officially bunk classes and not be punished for it. She had always been good at organizing and at writing plays. She scripted the play and pretty much had everything organized, and her team voted for her to compere for the event. She was excited and glad to be the show host. She and her team practiced hard. Two days before the event, as they were rehearsing, her Class Teacher walked in. The teacher silently watched the entire show and called the team together afterward to give her input.

“Everything looks good.”, she said, “Great work. One suggestion though, if you want my frank opinion.”

The team continued to listen eagerly.

“I think your current event host isn’t doing a great job. I would recommend Preeti to host the show.”

She was upset. Nobody had told her to this day that she was a bad host. She had compered at several occasions and knew she always did a fantastic job. She went into the nearest washroom, locked herself up in the toilet and started to cry.

About 10 minutes later, she heard voices in the washroom and it took her an instant to recognize it was her Class Teacher and Preeti. She wiped her tears and moved up closer to the door to eavesdrop.

Preeti said, “Ma’am, are you sure about me hosting the event. I’ve never done it before, and I’m not very confident about it. I think she was doing a fine job. Besides, she has the experience. Why did you have to replace her with me?”

“You will be fine, don’t worry. I agree she was doing an okay job but you know what? You are more appealing. More presentable, you know what I mean! The audience always likes a pretty and fair-skinned face. And come on, nobody will even pay attention to what you are saying if you throw out your flashing smile when you are on stage. So fear, not. You’ll do great.”

She cried a little more and came out of the toilet after she was sure Preeti and her Class Teacher had left.

She went home really, really upset. Her Class Teacher reminded her of her aunt. This was just so unfair, literally. Thinking thus, she turned on the T.V and flopped herself onto the couch. That was when she truly paid attention to the fairness cream ad for the very first time. The ones where a dark skinned woman with the aspiration to make it big in the professional world is always rejected. And how eventually she would get her dream job after she applied tons of fairness cream and became light skinned.

She was in 11th grade. She thanked God that there was still time and hope for her to change. For the better.

The next day, she purchased her very first tube of Fair & Lovely. She rushed home to try it out on her face. The ad said it would take her just 7 days to loose her olive colored skin to a wonderful, wheatish complexion. Her mother was at home that evening, watching this famous movie, Krantiveer. She stood for a second next to her mother before she went to her room to apply the cream.

The scene in the film showed Nana Patekar slitting the wrists of a Muslim and a Hindu, hastily mixing the blood from either of them and saying, “This is Muslim’s blood and this is Hindu’s blood. Can you tell me the difference in both?”

Her mother turned to her and said, “What a beautiful way to say that all human beings are the same and that there should be no differentiating factor amongst us. Anyway, why are you back so late. Go and get ready fast, we need to go to Sheela Aunty’s baby shower.”

She walked into her room dazed. She looked at the tube in her hand and threw it into the bin with disgust. What was she even doing, she wondered. She had to love herself for what she is. She wasn’t defective as people pointed out to her. Everyone has red blood flowing beneath their skin, irrespective of what color the skin is.

 

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                                                                                                                                    *********

Adarsh had said he would meet her at the regular place at 7 pm. She drove to Mylapore and parked her Scooty at the Karukudi complex. She looked up and the restaurant’s sign, The Dhaba. She took a deep breath and walked in. The waiter smiled and came forward, “The usual table, Ma’am?”, he asked.

She nodded and walked towards the table on the extreme left. That had been their favorite table for four years now. Adarsh and she had agreed that it was the perfect table for two. It wasn’t too close to the kitchen or the washroom or the front door. And, the Zanjeer poster was visible to both of them. She sat down and looked at Amitabh Bachchan on the poster. She smiled to herself, nervously, and thought, “Four long years.”

She had first met Adarsh when she was pursuing her Bachelors in Biology. Adarsh was her senior and from the Electronics and Communications Engineering department. They met on the college bus, became fast friends and fell in love almost immediately. The Dhaba in Mylapore was their favorite in Chennai since they believed it was the only restaurant that carried authentic Punjabi food. This restaurant and Mr. Bachchan on its wall had seen them through a lot over the last four years. Right from the days when they lived on limited pocket money from their parents and shared one Rumali roti to when they got their own jobs and could afford a full fledged three course meal that started with Babycorn Munchurain, followed by Rumali roti with Paneer Butter Masala, and ended with Rasmalai.

Today was an important day for her and Adarsh. She had met his parents for the first time that afternoon and Adarsh was going to meet her at The Dhaba to tell her what his parents thought of their prospective daughter-in-law. She saw him walk into the restaurant and her heart skipped a beat as she waved him to their table.

“They love you. Dad absolutely thinks you are a darling. I would have never imagined that Amma and Appa will be so cool about accepting a non-Tamilian girl for a daughter-in-law. I am so happy, baby. This is it”,  Adarsh said, all under one breath.

“Wow! That’s great news and a relief. So, what else did they say after I was gone. I though my kurti was extremely bright colored. I should’ve worn a lighter shade, maybe? Did they think I should have worn a saree instead of jeans?”

Adarsh scoffed. “Not a word about that. You were simply awesome.”

She persistently asked, “Give me more details. What else did you talk about after I left? Anything that I should be aware of?”

“Well”, Adarsh began, “Amma did mention that she is concerned our relatives might say that you are on the darker skin tone. Not that she would hold you responsible for it and not to mention, it isn’t bothering her in any way. But she said it may bother the relatives.  She said she would feel relived if she threw it out in the open lest one of my aunt says it to your face.”

She became very, very quiet and said after a long pause, “What did you have to say to that?”

“Nothing. I just brushed it off. I told Amma that although you are dark, you have a charming face. You know, what people call kala. You are beautiful cause you have striking features and are a wonderful human being and it’s difficult for people not to like you.”

“So, you think so too?”

“Think what, baby”, Adarsh asked distractedly looking for the waiter.

“Think that I am dark skinned.”

He looked at her lovingly, took her hand in his, “But you a have really, really charming face”, he repeated.

She did not speak another word during dinner. When she got home, she called Adarsh and told him that she didn’t want to marry him anymore. She explained that it wasn’t because she failed to acknowledge that she was dark but that she was ashamed that her skin color had to become a topic of discussion in the first place.  She said that it made her feel that he thought of her like a defective shirt you would buy at an outlet store. A shirt that had a few threads hanging loose but was intact anyway. A defective shirt that you would buy at an outlet store only because it was on sale. She told him that she wasn’t defective to begin with. Being dark skinned was normal.

“You do not tell a really fair looking person that they are fair, do you? Why then, is my complexion a topic of discussion and you tell me that you backed me up with the “kala” argument. That is the worst justification ever! If you were a true gentleman, you would’ve argued that my complexion doesn’t concern you. I am afraid, Adarsh. I shudder to think that I have to spend the rest of my life with you, with someone who may look at our child in the future, and if he or she is dark skinned too, you may not blame me directly, but you sure may have it in the back of your head that I am responsible for it. Like being dark is horrifying or like it is leprosy.”

He tried to convince her but she wasn’t willing to hear him out. She lay in bed thinking why women had to face the trauma of worrying about their skin. It wasn’t fair. Men could be dark and that was normal.

“Are you asleep?”, her mom knocked on her door and asked.  She quickly switched on the T.V to pretend like nothing had happened and said, “No, come on in.”

“Adarsh just called me. Is this really happening? Have you made up your mind? I’m asking because I sincerely know how you have always felt about the issue.”, her mom said supportively.

Ding! Her phone notified that she had an e-mail from Adarsh. She opened it. It consisted of three lines.

Hello…. What the fuck are you thinking? This is hurting me. Good luck with all the rejection you will get when you go the arranged marriage route, you know why, because you are dark and you look like a servant maid.

She moved and lay her head on her mom’s lap as tears flowed down her eyes and said, “Yes, mom. I have made up my mind. It is not a hasty decision I have taken. I think this is what I want. I also think I want to get a Masters’ degree. I will leave Chennai for a while to think about what I want to do.”

“Sure, darling. You should get some rest now. You have had a long day. Good night”, her mother kissed her on her forehead, “Do you want me to turn off the T.V.”

“Leave it on.” She said, and sat up on her bed to watch something. Then, she saw Shah Rukh Khan mumble random horseshit about a new fairness cream for men.

What the hell is wrong with the world. Why does everything revolve around the freaking skin color, she thought and stuck  her head into the pillow and let out a muffled yet very frustrated aaarrrgghhhh before she calmed down and went to bed.

*********

Jake was probably one of the laziest and uninterested interns she had seen in the Cancer Biology lab at Cleveland Clinic. He was just different. She had been working at the Cancer Biology department as a Senior Research Associate for five years now, and somehow all the interns or co-ops she had worked with during that time were extremely passionate to learn. Jake was totally something else. That is why when she excitedly walked into the lab that morning with the ‘Blood Donation and Organ Donation Event at Cleveland Clinic’ brochure, and Jake was the only person in the lab, she did not want to discuss the event with him.

An hour later, when she realized that none of her associates had turned up to work due to the freezing rain, she decided to make small talk with Jake.

“So Jake, have you seen this brochure? Cleveland Clinic is teaming up with some Tissue Bank to organize an educative program on blood and organ donation. It should be interesting, don’t you think?”, she started.

Jake looked up from his petri-dishes with his sleepy eyes and said, “Yes, I did see it. Are you going to attend it?”

“Yes, Have you ever donated your blood, if you don’t mind me asking.”

Yeah, two to three times.”

“Oh! Lucky you. I would love to do it too. Although I cannot donate blood at this time. You know, because as per the rules, people who have gotten a tattoo in the last 12 months are not eligible to donate blood.”, she said, biting her tongue almost immediately for giving away more information than required.

“Oh, wait! Are you like allowed to donate blood here?”

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“You know, ’cause you are like an Indian.”

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“Jake Phil Baker, I am shocked that you can say such a thing. That is outrageous. Are you even seriously pursuing a degree in Biology? Do you even have common sense? Go and look up the blood donation guidelines in your country. The factors that go into deciding if you can be a blood donor is your weight, heme level, age, etc. There is no rule that blood donation is based on ethnicity. Of course, if you have traveled to a country that has its population prone to Malaria, which India is, you will have to wait for 12 months before you can donate. And you very well know that I have been here for four freaking years now. You asked me the other day. Also for your kind information, before you interject with a stupid argument about organ donation, I understand that the nearest of kin and/or people of the same ethnicity are a better match, that is because it is a completely different issue which is gene dependent. Blood and organs work differently in terms of donation and I won’t get into that, although people from different cultures and countries can be a match, sometimes. Like I said, I won’t get into that. What a nut head! Why am I even explaining all this to you. You should already know this stuff. You have been a donor yourself and your textbooks should’ve taught you this stuff.  I wish you all the very best in trying to complete your undergrad in Biology with that pea-sized brain and the Goliath sized ignorance of yours.”

She stormed out of the lab.

*********

The next week, she did attend the event and was very inspired. She decided she would be an donor and got hold of the form to be filled out.

Heart – She checked Yes

Liver – She checked Yes

Kidneys – She checked Yes

Lungs – She checked Yes

Eyes – She checked Yes

Bone – She checked Yes

SKIN – She checked YES!

*********

With Love, Your Reader

Present day.

“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.”

************

Present day.

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 smiled. 

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?”

She knew!

“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”

I know.”

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.

 

 

It’s a baby girl!

She was 27, and at home.

She stood in front of the mirror, naked. She looked at her breasts. This was the biggest they had ever been. But she knew that they were going to get bigger. She stared at herself for a long while before she ran her right hand across the entire area of her belly, from just above her abdomen, all the way down to its lower end. It looked bloated and the bump had begun to show through her clothes now. She was five months pregnant, and had just received her scans from her gynecologist. She had dreaded this moment would come right from when she turned into a teenager. And 15 years later, she still wasn’t prepared for it.

“You are going to have a healthy and beautiful baby girl. You just have to keep eating healthy, and get good sleep and sufficient exercise, just like you have been doing so far.” The gynec’s voice rang in her head.

*****

She was 9, and had gone to visit her second cousins who lived in Chennai.

This was her first visit to a metropolitan city and she was all excited. She decided that it would be the best and the most memorable summer vacation ever. Yes, she was innocent enough to believe she could have an amazing summer in the hot and humid Chennai. She was to live with her grandmother’s sister and her family. Her grandmother’s sister was an extremely fun person to be with. She spoke to her in English, which was a very cool thing for grandmothers to do, and also gifted her, her first video game. Super Mario Bros. Oh God! She was in love with this vacation.

One evening, everyone in the house decided to go saree shopping to Sundari Silks in T-Nagar. They din’t want to take her along since the women knew they would take forever, and taking a young girl along would mean they had to take short breaks to take her to the bathroom, or feed her idlis if she got hungry. So they let her stay back at home and play Super Mario. Her uncle stayed back to child-sit her.

She was engrossed in the game when he came and sat next to her. He looked at her for a while and suggested that he could help her play better. He came over her shoulders, put his hands around her neck, and held her hands and the video game remote, and began to teach her how to play. She got the trick instantly. He stood behind her shoulders and continued to watch her. Then, he slowly slid his hands down and began to massage her breasts. She was shocked, and uncomfortable. Her breasts had just started to grow. They were very small and she was always in some sort of a mild pain as they grew. That entire year. So when her uncle did that, it hurt her more. She didn’t understand what that meant, she was very young. But she just felt that it wasn’t right. She felt violated, shameful, and very, very scared. She didn’t know how to react. She just took his hand, pushed it away and said nothing. Her uncle then came around and sat on her left, and put his hand around her right shoulder, pushed her right arm aside, and began to squeeze her right breast, hard. She was in real pain. The sad part was she didn’t know what was happening to her, she didn’t know what she was supposed to do, and she didn’t know if she should talk to her mom about this. All she knew was that it felt dirty. Yes, very dirty.

She decided that she would never visit Chennai again. A few years later, she realized that she was molested for the first time in her life, and that she wouldn’t be able to forget it for a lifetime. She made sure she never saw that uncle in her life ever again. Every family gathering she attended, she made sure he wasn’t attending. She loathed him from the core of her heart.

*****

She was 15, and in a temple near Bangalore.

Her family had gone to visit a very odd and old Shiva temple. The shrine was underground in a cave that was half-filled with water.  One had to walk through the waters for at least 1000 feet to reach the end of the cave where the deity had been installed. Two priests would accompany each family, walk them across the waters, perform the pooja, and escort them back to land. The entire group consisting of the two priests, and her mother, father, brothers, and a few cousins entered the cave. She was the shortest and the youngest in the group. The water in the cave came up to her neck making it really difficult for her to walk. Her mother came to help her, but the priest suggested that the water-walking was a routine for them, and that the group should continue walking while he took care of her. Her mother trusted him. So he held her right hand in his left hand under the water, and he had a basket with the pooja stuff in his right hand that he held above the water since he didn’t them to get wet. He was patient as she struggled to walk.

She felt a pinch on her waist, on her right. She thought it must have been a water bug and continued to pace slowly. There was a tickle on her waist that slowly moved up to her breasts. It took her 30 seconds to figure out that the priest was groping her body parts randomly and pinching them, all under the water and nobody could see that. It hurt, again. This time she knew what was happening to her but she didn’t know what to do.

They reached the shrine. The priest moved forward, conducted the pooja, and blessed everyone there. She was disgusted beyond imagination. What a hypocrite, she thought, and cried from within. While returning, he offered to walk her back. She gave him a “spit on your face, you sick, son-of-a-bitch” look and went along with her mother. What troubled her was that she never had the guts to discuss these things with her parents. She felt cheated because her parents never told her that such things could happen to a girl. Was this normal? If yes, then why did she always feel like tearing away the violated skin, and why did she feel so disrespected and defiled.

*****

She was 21, and at a multiplex in Mumbai.

She had always loved Bombay. She saw herself visit the city and go on a shopping spree in her dreams every fortnight. She had always loved her Bombay friend’s flip-flops, ear-rings, and shawls. So when her Bombay friend called her to visit the now Mumbai, she went frenzy.

One rainy evening, after she had spent hundreds of rupees on buying beautiful accessories, she and her friend went to the Infiniti Mall to watch Rang De Basanti. Aamir Khan was her favorite actor and she was excited. During the intermission, she and her friend went to buy some popcorn and coke. She stood in the queue, and her friend stood behind her. After a while in the line, her friend said, “This man behind me is weird. He is hard and is rubbing it against me.” This time, she knew what it was, and what to do. She pulled her friend aside, and yelled at him, “Hello, mister! What are you trying to do? Do think you can do anything to girls and they will shut up? You bloody molester! I will call the police. Go and shag at home, you loser.” The man fled. Nobody came to her rescue. Nobody cared. People were just glad that one man left the line and that meant that they would get their popcorn sooner. She and her friend couldn’t sit through the rest of the film. “I just want to go home and shower. I feel horrible.”, she said. They left the theater.

*****

She was 22, and at a research institute in Hyderabad.

She had been offered an internship at the L.V Prasad Eye Institute and was in love with her job. She commuted by the bus everyday. One evening, a little after 5:00 pm, she walked out of the institute. She was dressed in a black salwar with a georgette white dupatta. She had to cross the road to go to her bus-stop. She crossed half of the road, and stood on the divider to cross the other half. Since it was just after 5 pm, there seemed no stopping to the endless line of vehicles. She stood there patiently. Suddenly, two men on a bike drove past her. The one sitting on the rear of the bike darted forward and squeezed her bosom and forcefully snatched her white dupatta off her neck, and threw it on the divider, a few feet away from her. Everything happened in a split second. And before she could cope up, and yell, “You fucking bastards, may you go to hell”, the bike was out of sight. She was embarrassed and devastated. She picked up the dupatta and covered herself with it as people on either sides of the road stared on.

She went home and put a band-aid on the wound on her neck.

*****

She was 27, pregnant, and at home.

She hadn’t been sexually assaulted for at least five years now. Nobody had touched her, any part of her, against her will. And for that, she gave credit only to herself for leaving the country. She had been in the West for the past five years. She was an Indian, very patriotic, and stood up every time she sung Jana Gana Mana and all that, but deep within, she knew that her country shouldn’t  be famous just for its diversity, curry, and snake charmers. She wasn’t saying that the Western country she lived in was a crime-free nation. Yes, there was molestation, rapes, bomb blasts, terrorism, random shoot-outs, and a high crime rate at that. She could not deny that and did not assume that the West was heaven. But then, there was something different here. She didn’t know what exactly it was. The best she could say was that it was the sense of freedom.

She could go and watch a film without being afraid of someone groping her body parts in the dark. She could go and have an ob/gyn exam without feeling exploited. She could go shopping without having to fear hidden cameras in the fitting rooms. She could cross the road, and walk her dog at the same time, without having to be extremely cautious of male hands that could pop out of nowhere and abuse her. She could stand at the billing counter in a grocery store without fearing that someone would get hard and rub it on her ass. She could let the plumber or the electrician inside the house to fix stuff when her husband was not at home. She didn’t have to fear the male taxi driver or the bus driver. She didn’t have to shield her body with her laptop bag, or office files, to protect herself while walking on a crowded street. She didn’t have to fear that the guy on the other side of the cash counter at the bank would try to play with her fingers when she went to collect cash. She could go and eat at a restaurant at 11:00 pm and not be molested by 16 men on national TV. She didn’t have to fear sitting next to a man on the bus or train. She wouldn’t forcefully be made to watch two men masturbate at a dark street corner.

 *****

She was going back to India after two years. Her husband’s contract with the company here was ending and she had decided to quit working to take care of the kids for a while. Everything had seemed normal. And today, suddenly, everything had changed.

She was going back to India after two years, with a baby girl. 

A girl of her own. How could she protect the beautiful thing. She had lived with all of it. But she couldn’t imagine the same things happening to her daughter. It broke her heart to think that she had to take her daughter back home, to a place where if a girl is travelling in a crowded city bus, the chance of her being molested is higher than the chance of her getting a seat before she reached her destination. She had to take her daughter back to what she now considered to be the rape capital of the world.

*****

She brushed her teeth, put her pajamas and t-shirt on and went to bed. That night, she cried. A lot. Because there was nothing else she could do.

The Chocolate Chip Muffin

He was a muffin, a dark and handsome chocolate chip muffin. Although he hated his brand name, Little Debbie, he was glad that he wasn’t made at the Great Value factory. Nobody in general, the young, the old, and the middle-aged, could say no to him. He knew that even the ones who bloated with pride about their diet plans slowed down and stopped for a brief moment just to steal a quick romantic glance at him. He always enjoyed that attention. After all, he knew his life was a brief one, and a one that would end with a disgusting flush down the drain.  

He had always wished to choose his home but he knew that was considered atrocious in the “muffin world”. So he waited each day, hoping someone would come by, pick him up, and lovingly put him in their shopping cart, and take him home. 

It was a boring Wednesday and it was the first time he saw her. Of course he had heard about her, a lot. None of his fellow senior muffins had thought highly of her or her home. “It is the “muffin hell”, her home, it is infested with roaches,” he had heard them say. A muffin at her house knew neither love nor liberation, it always landed in a bin. 

He saw her approach the aisle he was seated on. He was aware that she hated the banana muffin and always picked the blueberry ones so he wasn’t worried. He stared at her as she got close to his rack. It was the first time he got a whiff of her and she sure smelt good. He silently watched as she glanced up and down the rack and threw a pitiful look the blueberry muffin and silently muttered a thankful prayer to Little Debbie for making him with chocolate. Even as he was in the middle of his prayer, he felt himself being lifted from his steel rack and put into her shopping cart. He was shocked and in short of thoughts! He wouldn’t call it the worst moment in his muffin life, no, not yet, he knew the worst was just a mile away. 

She was a loud chatterbox with big eyes. It took her new roommates three days to figure this out. Irresponsible and extrovert, an awful combination they had thought. She asked a lot of questions. Well, asking questions was considered okay, after all, she had just landed in the United States. It was during these question-answer sessions that they decided to break the news. They began with, “What do you think of cockroaches? And, Oh! They are called roaches here.” They saw her eyes widen with glee.

She was particularly not a fan of cockroaches or roaches or whatever! But they, the brown insects, had had a special place in her life. She had spent all of her adolescent life dreaming of studying to become a surgeon. She had watched all her seniors as they performed frog dissections. She couldn’t wait to be in high school and major in Biology. But thanks to Menaka Gandhi’s stunted brain development, frogs could no longer be euthanized for knowledge purposes. Her Biology teacher had let her practice dissection on cockroaches. A big brown cockroach was her very first.

“You can keep your apartment as neat as Monica Geller’s but you will still have roaches here. It’s probably cause of the hot and humid weather, so be prepared,” she was told. Little did she realize that it would be the last day she would be able to associate with the roach as a fond memory.

They were everywhere. In the kitchen, on the table, under the blanket, in the shoes, around food, everywhere. Any food packet opened had to be sealed with a paper clip. That was the rule in her apartment. She once forgot to seal a packet of corn cereal. The next day, her roommate saw them feasting and crawling all over the cereal, through the transparent bag. Her roommate was furious, not at the roaches though. At her!

She quickly began to despise them and it increased day by day, exponentially. She always wondered how a country as sophisticated as the United States could not control a feeble insect infestation.

She used the electric cooker to make rice everyday. The cooker lid had a steam vent, small hole through which even her little finger wouldn’t pass. They always went into the cooker through that vent and ruined her cooked rice. They were there on both washed and unwashed dishes. The baby ones would crawl out from her college bag, onto the desk, and towards her classmate, embarrassing her the entire time. One boring afternoon, she was at home, sitting at the dining table busily punching into her keyboard preparing for her weekly meeting as she saw her friend walk into the kitchen. “I’m in the mood for a muffin,” her friend said and pulled open a box that was lying unattended for about a month now. Hundreds of thousands of roaches quickly began swarming towards her friend. She stared, aghast, as her friend impulsively dropped the box, causing the bitches to seek refuge at the nearest available corner. She had never imagined that those many roaches could even exist on the face of the earth. It had reminded her of the crawling bugs from the movie, Mummy. God! They were disgustingly everywhere even though she was at her neatest.

She woke up with a jerk. One of them might have just gotten into her ear. “The roach might have lost it’s way,” she thought, as she tried to remove it from her ear. She tried hot water, a torch to show the lost insect the way out, and ear-buds with lotion. Nothing worked. It was 3 am in the morning and she counted every minute down to sunrise. As the doctor used a water gun to eject the dead bitch out of her ear, she had finally decided that it was time. Time to move out, not just out of the apartment but out of the hot-humid-roach filled town. She booked her flight tickets.

A new place and a new apartment meant shopping for new stuff. She was happy that day. She was smiling as she entered the store. She wanted to do everything a little away from usual today. She got an Iced Mocha instead of the regular Americano at Starbucks, picked pizza for dinner instead of the regular pasta, took strawberry ice-cream instead of the regular pecan, and finally, picked the chocolate muffin instead of the regular buleberry.

He looked around the house as she unlocked the door. He could not remember the last time he was this nervous. His tension could possibly melt the chocolate chips embedded in him.

She set everything down. She was tired from all the moving and decided to grab something to munch.

He heard her humming a soft song as she reached out to him.  

She carefully set the chocolate muffin on a blue plate and flopped herself on the couch. Just as she was about to take a bite, she heard her phone ring. She was expecting a hiring manager to call her. She took the phone and ran outside.

He knew his fate was sealed. In about two minutes, he would be swarmed by hundreds of roaches and thus, he would die a shameful death. He waited!

She hung up. She thought that it had gone well. It was her first phone interview. Then she remembered, the muffin. She hadn’t left food open and outside for two years now. The roaches would not spare a thing. She ran inside. And stared, and stared, and stared. No roaches. The relief stuck her like a bolt of lightening. She quickly called two of her ex-roommates and narrated her freedom episode with hyper excitement. Her move brought with it, freedom. “Little pleasures in life,” she thought as she picked up the chocolate chip muffin and began to undress it.

He felt the muffin paper wrap gently part with him. He blushed as she took him close to her mouth and bit into him. The purpose of his muffin life had been successfully achieved. To be eaten by a pretty young girl  had always been his ambition. An ambition that was as strong as his roach abhorrence.

She walked back into the kitchen and took a sip of the iced mocha.

An abhorrence that was equivalent to……….. 

He stopped thinking as the iced mocha washed him down to where his soul found bliss. 

That night, she slept peacefully, without her ear-plugs.