15th August- back home Mumu must have made luchi and payesh . But she would have to satisfy herself with pseudo Bangali cuisine at a dingy restaurant at the corner of her neighborhood. Sharing her thali with a stranger- a friend of a friend, who in a strange land becomes a friend, she looked at him. He had small eyes that constantly flitted, not missing a single detail that went on around him, staring from a round, fair face. His thick lips made him look like he had a beak, like a Pelican’s.
Being Bangali was the only thing they had in common, so they discussed Marxism and the Naxalites until they finished lunch and both heaved a sigh of relief. They could now part ways and go home.
“A pretentious bimbo,” he reported to their common friend. “Boring!” she described him. Back home, she rolled a joint, lay on the cool tiled floor and buzzed herself to sleep.
His office was a couple of streets away from hers, so a couple of days later when she was passing under it, she decided to give him a call. It was either another session of critiquing Communism or a joint, and today she thought she’d spare a million of her brain cells.
“Wanna grab coffee?” she asked. The weather did ask for it, but another couple hours of her incessant chatter about things he was too bored to follow? “I have other plans actually. Sorry,” he replied. She shrugged and started trudging homeward, when he called back, “Actually, yeah, let’s do the coffee.”
The weather really had asked for it. The grey clouds had been shrouding the sun all day, a chill running in the breeze. And just when they had walked far away enough from their café to not be able to run back, it started pouring! Not drizzling, it came without warning, and it was torrential. They ran for cover, and just as they slid under the asbestos roof of a cigarette stall, it stopped, just as suddenly as it had started. They looked at each other- drenched, water dripping from their eye lashes, hair disheveled, his glasses foggy.
“Bad day to wear white,” he said to her.
She looked at him trying to wring his non-waterproof laptop bag, “Bad day to be you!” she said. And they burst out laughing.
They smoked cigarettes to battle the freezing winds, and let the new, peeping sun dry them. They talked about cars and their future, family, loves past and lost, coffee, blood diamonds, Simon and Garfunkel-
“I’m going to be earning 30lakhs a year by the time I’m 30.”
“Definitely a lime green Voxwagon Beetle convertible.”
“Monet printed tie.”
“I wish I was homeward bound.”
She would see him every day after work. They left no café, restaurant, pub, uneaten and non-drunken-in in the city. He liked the quiet ones better, where they played his favourite Blues tracks, so he could hear her talk. She was a soap opera. She was a novel. She always had stories to tell- crazy stalker ex-boyfriend, the hot boss with Ablutophobia who stank, her cat fight rolling on the dusty football ground back in school. She would never run out of stories. And when her speech would lisp because her mouth was too dry to talk, she would pause, down her whiskey on the rocks and say, “Tell me about your life. You never tell me anything.”
“I don’t have anything to tell,” he would get self-conscious with the sudden shift of attention to himself.
“That’s it. I’m not talking anymore till you tell me at least one story about yourself.”
He would shrug. And after 15 seconds of quiet, she would forget her promise of silence, “Do you think I’d look like Persis Khambatta if I shaved my head?” “Did you know the first condoms were made of sheep bladder?” She was crazy. The next day she shaved her head.
“Don’t you think the plural of ‘penis’ should be ‘penii’? You know like ‘syllabus’ and ‘syllabi’?” That was a whole other thing- the inane debates she always started.
“Why do you need a plural for ‘penis’? No one has more than one,” he tried reasoning. “Not like you’d need to ask, ‘Excuse me sir, if you don’t mind, how many penii do you have?’”
She would crack up laughing and have to sit on the footpath till she caught her breath again. He was so quiet and resolute, but his one liners, that he delivered with such a straight face, would have her remembering and laughing about them for days afterwards- at meetings she’d pass off her spurt of laughter as a hiccup. When she cracked up in the middle of conversations with her colleagues she would have to explain, but they never found it funny because she couldn’t say it with a straight face like he did. But soon enough she’d spoken about him enough that all her friends were curious.
“He looks like a Pelican,” her besty stated, looking at his Facebook profile picture.
“Oh my god! Doesn’t he? Exactly what I thought first time I saw him.”
She announced to him at dinner that night that she was going to call him ‘Pelican’. And so that’s what he got saved as on her phone, referred to as, all his birthday cards and gifts addressed to. He was offended. Pelicans would make ugly humans. But he shrugged away the sinking feeling at the pit of his stomach telling himself, “She still sees me every day.”
No, not every day. Every day, except for Tuesday. Tuesdays she volunteered counseling teenage drug addicts. “I have done enough crack in my life to be one of them,” she would say.
It was definitely Tuesday, he remembered. He remembered everything- what she wore the first time they met, what she wore the 2nd and 7th and 12th time, when they went to that beer bar during happy hours, when he got drunk and threw up outside the Chinese restaurant- he remembered the exact date, what they had ordered, how much they paid the auto to go home. It would scare her, all the things he remembered.
“You have to see your ophthalmologist today,” he said refusing to meet her after work.
“Really? Oh my god! Yes! How did you know?”
“You told me Friday before last when we were eating stroganoff at Casa Picola, when you spilt your Pina Colada on your orange Fab India bag.”
“Shut up! Please shut up! You’re freaking me out! God, you’re such a creep. I’m going to the ophthalmologist ok!”
A freak and a creep? His stomach felt like lead. But it was Tuesday tomorrow and they would take their night walk. So he relaxed.
On Tuesdays, he would just walk her home from the rehab center. It was a good half hour walk through half deserted lanes, strewn with dried leaves muttering retreats. They would end up fighting sometimes- because he wouldn’t agree that she should have Christian Bale’s love-child, or he would refuse to tell her something about himself- a story of his own. She would refuse to talk to him, look around in all directions and refuse to look at him, fasten her pace and walk on leaving him behind. He would catch up and continue to quietly walk beside her until she forgot they were fighting and rattled off another one of her stories.
Until one night, when they sat on the footpath, smoking their last cigarettes of the day before he dropped her home, he did tell her a story- a family friends daughter. He confessed his feelings to her and she never spoke to him again.
“How long has it been,” she asked, dragging on her filter.
“Four years? And you’re still hung over her?” she was quiet for the first time.
“Not anymore,” he looked towards her, and asserted.
“I’m leaving. I got transferred,” she told him the next day. Get Set Go’s ”Wait for the Sun” was playing in the café. He was sure it was “Wait for the Sun”. He remembered.
He wanted to give her something. Something to remember him by. He though Monet printed bean bags. He thought whiskey. A book? A coffee mug. An argument. A story.
She hated landing in airports where no one was waiting for her outside. She hated rattling taxis, and criss-crossing flyovers that forever seemed to be circling airports. She looked down at the sea of blue tarpaulin and asbestos corrugated roofs choking the city, where 80% of its population lived.
The lights were out and she lugged her luggage up four flights of stairs, she saw her building had yellow peeling walls- the salty sea breeze made it impossible for any wall paint to last. She unlocked the apartment she had been given and stood at the doorway looking in. It was so empty, the one-bedroom-hall seemed vast. She felt uncomfortable entering it, as if she was entering someone else’s house without permission.
She started unpacking for the sake of giving herself something to do. She took out her night dress and slippers, her bed sheet and shampoo. Just the things she needed to sleep for the night until she got furniture tomorrow. And she took out his farewell present. She plugged it in next to her mattress on the floor and turned it on- a lampshade made out of handmade paper. It immediately filled that pale room in a kaleidoscope of blue, orange and purple zig-zags. And she held her head in her hands and cried.
It was two years later, or maybe it was three or three and a half. She didn’t remember these things. She would have to ask him. She was back there on work and they went for dinner with the Blues. She still drank whiskey on the rocks and watched him gulp down an entire pitcher of beer by himself, the froth collecting on his thick lips.
“You look like a Pelican,” she thought.
“Do I still look like a Pelican?” he wanted to ask her. “An old Pelican now,” he thought.
But instead they talked about work, and the recent elections, “The Communists won again! When will our people learn?”
“Walk me home,” she wanted to ask him after dinner. But she had no home to be walked to.
He wanted to eat dinner forever with her in restless pubs and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells. “I’ll walk you through those half deserted streets and muttering retreats,” he wanted to offer.
But instead she crossed the road and disappeared into an auto, leaving him to get into his car and drive…home. No. To wherever they were going.
I know we all like love stories that end with the words, “The Beginning.” But for this love story, this was the end.