Her eyes lit up like twin flames as she clutched his hands behind the counter. It was lean hour of the day. The boys had left the shop in a discreet understanding, after exchanging some pleasantries with him. Outside, they chuckled at the delight of this real life drama. This was so interesting, playing live characters in an ongoing love story; not merely an audience by the ringside. Honestly, they too liked him. Even though they spoke about him and madam in a manner of sweet jest, a throbbing true vein within them knew that the two were meant to be a couple.
It was too early for the customers to arrive and this visitor was well aware of this fact. His patronage of this shop had been a decade long. From the time he first brought his new wife to this shop and she had taken an instant liking to it, there had been no need for other tailor shops. He, particularly, didn’t bother much. Those were his early days of marriage, the time when all he wanted was to be lost in the viscous pool of his wife’s eyes, the scent of her hair and the melting feeling of her arms. Jewelry and clothes thrilled her, and he could sell his soul to make her laugh. It was in this romantic pursuit that he had chanced upon this shop. Among the other so-called boutiques in his rather modest neighborhood, this one alone boasted of glassy exteriors. One day, while returning from office, his otherwise indifferent eyes noticed something, and instinct told him his wife would love him for that.
Rows upon rows of colorful embroidered cloth, sprigged muslins, sublime silk and seductive satin…he too had begun to understand fabrics. His wife’s childish obsession with clothes fascinated him. For someone who didn’t think twice about his own attire, this experience was, when coupled with an angelic looking wife, quite marriage-like! She whined and pestered him for these riches, and he fed them with the unctuous love of a doting husband.
Then, he did not know, that he was trying to put off a conflagration with sprinklers. An act of foolish generosity that was soon to tire him.
The beaming young couple became frequent visitors to the shop. A good-natured friendly auntie, herself dressed in ‘latest’ designs and patterns, would guide the duo in the glittering world of clothes. Initially, he took interest and actively participated in the selection of fabrics, he also pore over the design catalogue to choose the best design for her blouse. As time wore off, he realized, much to his dismay, that her appetite for these things was interminable. He started avoiding the process. By now, it had become a painful drill repeated ad nauseam. Even though his wife resented it, he politely turned down her offers to visit the shop with her, and only consented to collect the ‘material’ from the shop on assigned dates.
The best time to wrap up this chore was while returning from office. Thankfully in that hour, his wife would not be there to suck him into another hour of mind-numbing discussion on the chimeral world of apparels. It would also keep him sometime away from home. Lately, the demanding environment at home had started wearying him. And he had always been the avoiding, not the confronting, kind.
On one of these visits, which did not happen on the weekly Wednesday, he was quite surprised to find the shop shut. Strange, he thought to himself. In all these years, he had known aunty to be an over-eager seller. He had seen the standard of shop rise from mosaic floor and mica table-top to German tiles and granite ledges. Today, his wife would be cross to not have her whatever in time.
When in the next day, and the following week after that, the shutter remained down, he smelled a foreboding sense of tragedy. He immediately shook off traces of that thought, and entertained the likelihood that aunty might be out on a vacation. “Thank God she has a life beyond clothes,” was what he last thought on that subject.
8th day. The shop opened. Eagerly this time, he dodged traffic to greet aunty to know where she’d gone. But the moment he stepped in, a pall of morbidity fell upon him. The smile on his face disappeared upon seeing a new face behind the counter.
A flash of recognition crossed the eyes of the new counter woman. Somewhere in her late thirties, she looked distractingly similar to her mother from close. The face was the same – broad forehead, average features and thin lips. Nothing memorable in that face. Besides the faint sense of acknowledgement in those eyes.
She spared him the embarrassment of speaking first. Modestly, she greeted him. A quality far removed from auntie’s boisterous hellos. She briefly introduced herself as auntie’s only daughter, and the fact that she had met him once before in the shop. He didn’t remember that, of course. There she said that she was hitherto going to look after the daily affairs of the shop, and that he was a valued customer, and that the quality of services offered by this shop would remain unchanged.
Auntie, her mother, passed away. Brain haemorrhage. She spoke, swallowed, and looked down.
Not that he ever felt great fondness for that loud, lively woman, but the news shocked him. Before he could react or recover, a neat packet was placed before him in the same old fashion. He somberly walked out. Later, he couldn’t remember the condolence he offered, if at all he did.
When he shared this news with his wife, she regretted her death as a personal loss. “How perfectly she understood my need,” she moaned. And pronto suggested they should look out for another shop since she could trust only auntie. No longer shocked by her lack of compassion, he responded with a lost wounded look, as if to say – death of a person is not death of allegiance. “Impractical,” muttered the wife as she left the room.
Alone, he wondered how auntie’s daughter was coping with her death. Her countenance betrayed obvious grief. Faces of his parents ran before his eyes, and he thanked whatever stars for keeping them alive.
Thenceforth, he decided to visit the shop more often. Once a week, he’d stop by to pay his regards, exchange greetings with the new owner, say a Namaste to tailor master and other boys. His visit without purpose was received warmly by the new owner. He could not help noticing clear difference between her and her mother. While auntie was loud, giggly and talkative, her daughter was quieter, sober. Her greetings were brief, her entire mannerism understated. Still, for inexplicable reasons, he felt more ‘invited’ in her presence. Even though auntie was the one to hold his hand and permeate his privacy with a volley of personal questions, he hadn’t felt the inner urge to open up and talk. And now, in a perfectly opposite situation, where this woman only smiled and nodded in acknowledgement of his presence, or sent tea for him without asking his permission, or excused herself from other visitors to personally look into his work, or let her children play with him or go to his house without asking questions…he felt as if he had become a part of this shop’s family. If auntie was tropical sun that wilted the tulip before it blossomed, her daughter was the dispersed morning light, which made him want to open the closed lids of his heart, and talk.
A year must have passed before he admitted to himself that he felt a pull towards her. That it was no longer to condone for auntie’s death that he went to that shop. He looked forward to meeting her with a pure sense of joy. Her face radiated a warming quality of peace. He loved to watch her conduct business – graceful, precise and neat. How she never ceased to smile while talking to people. Despite being surrounded by gaudy and glittering fabrics, how she afforded to remain so simple and elegant. He observed the horde of visitors approaching her for suggestions, and the firmness of her soft advice. How the tailor boys bantered in her presence, how work had become fun for her staff. How she managed to understand and satisfy all types of taste, unadulterated with judgment or persuasion. Offering a compelling range of choices. So business-like, yet so subdued. An epitome of simplicity in a temple of grandeur.
She maintained the high standard of that shop, without sufferings its ambience with unnecessary words. He smiled when he heard the faint strains of sitar as the store’s new background feature, wondering what auntie would have to say about it!
Gradually, very slowly, the conversations became personal. She took up her mother’s business the moment she sensed her brother wanted to sell it off. She had been a music teacher before. She enjoys the new work too, but teaching had been most satisfying. She was training her staff in accounting work, so as to continue teaching whenever time permitted. She had a supportive husband and understanding in-laws. She dreamt of opening a music academy. She felt music had healing powers…and she wanted to bring peace and beauty in her own and others’ lives through this medium.
Like a river rushes to her destination sea, he opened his floodgates of emotion before her. Without her asking a single question, or maybe because of it, he kept confessing. She listened. Still and patient. Till she became a mirror that reflected himself. His disappointment with marriage. His lack of ambition, the feeling of drying up, of nearing one’s end without experiencing prime. Of feeling near-disgust with wealth and riches because of his wife’s perennial obsession with them. Of his only daughter now being the centre of his life. Of the disaster in not even having a dream to live for.
Would she help him figure out the dream of his life? He asked her. She nodded; pleased with his trust. Anything to help my friend, he added.
That’s how the evening walks began. Half an hour every day, except Wednesdays. Outside the shop, the smells and colors of market added similar flavours of mirth and openness to their relationship. They laughed aloud, sometimes breathlessly, cracking jokes at each other’s expense. Sometimes practical jokes. The subject of discussion ranging from Maoism to corporate tax, and everything in between. Talking of places, she realized he spoke of travel with great love and knowledge. Why don’t you organize excursion trips for starters, she suggested. And the idea stuck.
18 people from varied backgrounds. His first trip was a success by all means. He floated the ‘Rishikesh Rafting’ idea on Facebook, and friends, and their friends, hopped in with vigour. He had to stop booking until he could accommodate no more! The bus, shacks, rafts, guides, all were pre-booked. He took no chances; left no stone un-turned. The itinerary was packed with action, fun and play. He invited her to join in and she merrily obliged. He spoke to everyone in advance, buoyed by a sense of achievement, planning to the minutest detail. She pitched in with ideas for game and bonfire. And what was not planned was adequately filled with liveliness by the exuberant group.
He looked forward to the trip with an uncontrollable delight. Three days and nights with her, removed from the humdrum of her shop and his office, away from home and responsibilities…he tried not to think more.
When the trip happened, it did in a jiffy. A whale’s share went to rafting, rock-climbing, kayaking, cliff jumping, beach games and other adrenaline rushing activities. Damn clearly, the best time of his life. He’d done these things as a college lad too, but this time, he had organized it. Whoa! And look who he had for company!
Days later, after returning from Rishikesh, he was not to remember the frolic filled moments. He lived in the memories of the last night. Glinting embers of bonfire were alive when everyone departed to their shacks, drained after a long day at Ganges. They walked ashore on the cold, powdery sand, climbed up to the highest rock by the sea, and sat close. He wrapped his blanket around their shoulders, keeping her hands warm under it, looking out at the star-decked sky underlined by a glorious mountain range. The rippling susurration of the river kissing the silence of the night. He held her with caution, careful not to overstep her grace. It was she who nestled her head in the crook of his arms, and kissed his cheeks. They confessed love. How they felt happiest in each other’s company. How life came a full circle when they were together. How life would have been had they been married. They talked till day-break. None daring to kiss.
Love infused in him a strange streak of vitality. She continued much the same, with an added glow on her face. His visits prolonged, even the boys began to notice. New reasons were cooked up for Wednesdays. Did they suffer guilt for this euphoria? A wee bit yes, but since responsibilities were being taken care of, they carried on nevertheless. The possibility of getting re-married was mentioned only in jokes, and swept away before it could take root.
But one thing was clear. If they had to live, and breathe…they HAD to kiss. The need was urgent. The only possibility they saw was in another trip. She said she wants to sleep in his arms, alone on an endless desert, under the shadow of stars. He started work for Rann of Kutch.On the day they were to leave, he had a huge fight at home. His wife didn’t like this waste of time, since it came with no substantial cash inflow. She made a hue and cry of it, till he packed his bag hours in advance and left without a word. In her shop, at this odd hour, he managed to smile at the departing boys. Her face suggested she had seen what had just happened at his home, how helpless he felt and how trivial he was made to look. She held his eyes steadily, like a doctor administering dosage. And when his nerves were no longer jangling, she squeezed his hand behind the counter, and spoke with the look of serious playfulness – bhaag chalein?