On the last Saturday of every month, a white Esteem, numbered 1616, would drive down the tree-lined Copernicus Marg of Delhi. Judging by the smoothness of this drive, and the adroitness with which it negotiated bumps and curves, one could tell that the road was not unfamiliar to the driver.
Month after month, year after year, neither the car changed, nor the driver. In the multitude of a national capital, nobody noticed this car, parked under a Chhatim tree. She used to say its flowers carried the drugged fragrance of romantic poetry. And that it injected life with each breath. He’d park his car right under that tree, adjacent to the theatre auditorium – at the same time and same day of each month.
The man behind the steering drove in no hurry. Without exception, he came well in advance, not wanting to risk his religious ritual to haste. In the bee-hive of life, the syrup can be sucked best and deepest only by the bee of leisure. She alone obtains and derives the taste as it’s meant to be. Time enough for the heart to flutter with imminent delight, digest the thrill, feel it, and then swim in its after-thoughts.
He got out of the car and donned his aviator shades. A silent laughter parted his lips. He remembered how awe-struck she would act whenever she saw him wearing those goggles. Confident that a turn of his head could kill unsuspecting girls. Enacting dagger-murder each time. She felt elated when he was stared at, smiling ear-to-ear with pressed lips. Not once tincturing her pride and fanfare with insecurity. Un-jealous to a startling extent. Did the Gods, whom she didn’t believe in, make her like that? Or was she confident that no girl could replace her? Then, a decade ago, he wasn’t. How had she foreseen the truth?
He strolled down to the roadside kiosk and picked up a Marlboro. He had taken to the habit in college, to drop it after learning that even his lungs were deeply loved, to return to it, once a month, while undergoing the self-flogging-purifying drill. He toyed with the tan-colored end, soaking in the undecided love-hate relationship he shared with that roll of paper. “A pinch of tobacco rolled in paper with fire at one end and fool at another.” Her words, first he ever heard, came back ringing in his ears.
In the horrific heat of Delhi June, when he first saw her, she was wearing a lime colored sleeveless tunic and a deep indigo, flared long skirt. Bold, he thought, for office. He had reserved value judgments till he heard her first words uttered. Tearing the sordid spell with peals of laughter. Of course, she wasn’t referring to him in that one-liner, but she cracked it bang in the middle of a smoking joint. It was addressed to an individual there, a friend of hers, but it raised eyebrows. Undiplomatic. Impudent. These were his first impressions.
The seed of love is flying pollen. No one, not even the soil gets to know its existence till it has developed roots.
No, she was no storm. There was nothing extra-ordinary about her entry in his life. She came like any other day. Their sparks visible only in hindsight. That is why they could never recollect who fell first. Or even who confessed first. The chapters of their life were logically strung. The transitions impossible to delineate. Half a year later, laying her head on his lap for her daily dose of ‘sky-view’, wiping pearls of tears off his cheeks with a forefinger, and licking them one after another…he knew he was madly and completely in love. It was beyond his imagination, let alone his expectation, to experience a feeling as divine as this. Love – he had heard the word uttered a zillion times, from credible to frivolous sources. He had heard it tossed around in the name of far-fetched concepts like god, or even the trivial inanities like shoes. In his college days, he too had been in love, per se. He later knew it was mere infatuation. Not because the girl jilted him, but because it never made him want to grow. Grow, learn, absorb, love, express, improve, maximize…become more deserving…achieve one’s own godliness. After three decades of existence on this planet, he finally knew what love was all about.
A precious gem to him, he ran his fingers through her hair as his other hand held the steering. She called it sky-view because she felt as if she was floating among the clouds, her head cradled lovingly in his lap, his face right above hers, and the trees and the sky sailing past the windshield. Like a child, she pressed the back of her fingers to his mouth and brought it back to her lips in a tight, squealing kiss. She repeated it till he stopped crying and their laughter once again resonated in the closed coziness of his car.
But his tears kept oozing. Even when his eyes were dry, every pore of his being cried. Tears of gratefulness. Of a love that was so great that a receptacle of a body was too small to contain. He wanted to keep her forever. He needed her good sense for guidance. Her benevolent kindness for his goodness. Her smiles for his sanity. Her ideas for his sense of right. Her caring for his family. Her playfulness for his joy. Her womb for his child. Her maternal instincts against the uncertainties of life. Her perfection for his inspiration. Her love for his growth. He needed her. Every bit of her. Now. And forever.
He had known about her engagement from the time when this news only conveyed information. This information, her commitment, later started gnawing at his heart. They whispered of eloping amidst desperate tears. Resuming to status quo every two minutes. A love as pure as theirs couldn’t lead to breach of promise with another gentleman, they agreed. And wept. And tore and cried and kissed and loved and laughed and…
A month before her marriage, the last they met as lovers, she took the tip of his thumb and ran it through the mid-parting of her hair. After a long look of echoing silence, she said to him. Your wife. For life. And he promised to be her husband. The day I see you unhappy, he told her with a face aglow with resolve, that day I’ll tell the world about us and take you away. And she knew, from the force of his nails digging in her back…that he would do it. And that’ll be the only time he won’t listen to her.
‘Watch out for play days,’ he wrote on the wedding gift. A gold ring. A beatific smile passed her face at this shared secret. Their love ritual. She never took the ring off.
The first stream of arrivals broke his reverie. He doused the stub under his shoes, eyes alert and searching. He loved this part. The anxious ripple before her arrival. Sari it would be, he was confident. He wondered which colour. Pallu open or pinned up. Will she come looking at him, or will she turn back and smile. A round bindi or the arrow one. His mind generated a series of questions to avoid implosion due to extreme concentration. His nails were almost going to bleed his palms when he saw her.
Brick red sari. Fiery red bindi. A hint of kajal. Tied up pallu. Royal in her simplicity. Damn, he loved her.
Her husband was not by her side today. It was her kid sister. A hundred wind-chimes played between his ears in those moments. He followed her walk, from the metro pavement to the auditorium, with the eyes of a beseecher who has nothing to ask, but everything wanting. One more death-blow survived. One more month without her. One more confirmation of their unshakeable commitment.
Walking with the elegance that set her apart, maintaining a smile that seemed to have root somewhere in her thorax, she continued straight for the theatre. Sure that she could not have forgotten the most important part, he waited for the surprise, a vein of glee throbbing in his heart. Less than a minute later, she came out, alone this time, and collected a leaflet from the gate. And then, with the confidence of a practiced eye in home environment, she lifted her eyes to look directly at him. Time froze. Two mating souls standing apart by ten metres. Her thin smile told him she was pulling along just fine. She raised her brows, as if to ask how he was doing. He smiled and nodded. Her smile grew wider. Back to their pre-marriage days now. Two smiling sweethearts communing through eyes.
While walking back to the hall, moments after tearing away those pregnant eyes…she looked back with a side-smile, and winked. And off she went.
Later in the night, counting the broken shards of his heart, he wondered the price she paid for her smiles.