To sit alone near a crowded sea-shore like the one in Juhu can be quite a task. The solitude of the jungle has its own charm; the silence among the crowd is quite unnerving. It would have been different in Calcutta; I’ve a routine there to ward of my loneliness. I’m new in Bombay, a tourist and evenings are the bad times for a lone and poor tourist.
I pass time by looking at the crowed, especially a couple, standing near the approaching waves, the husband with his hands in the pocket of his trousers and the wife clutching the fluttering pallu of her sari by her left hand; I am especially looking at her. I don’t know why.
A small boy selling small sea shell key chains accost me. Sir, take this bunch for forty rupees. I inform him that I don’t have money. He asks me not to make jokes with him and tells me: sir, you are like my big brother, I’ll give you the whole bunch for twenty rupees. Take it sir. Impressive marketing! I give it to the young chap. Does he go to school? I ask him. Yes, he answers.
Excuse me, Okan? The key chain seller nudges me; someone’s standing behind me, clutching the fluttering pallu of her sari by her left hand.
Excuse me, are you Okan, Okan Bhatt? I look at the woman. Yes, that’s me, and you?
Dada, I’m Nila. Don’t you remember?
Some things cannot be forgotten, but it is difficult to remember either. They try to cease the movement of time. They are like thorns in the garden of spring forgotten in the big fair of life, and one day when it pricks the sole of your chapped feet…
I don’t remember when I last saw Nila. The last time I went to her house, Machima prepared luchi and aloo bhaji, especially for me. And she cried. No, no, I forgot. I went to her place again for one last time. That evening too, Nila was not at home.
Machima opened the door. Seeing me she said sweetly, “Come, come, I’ve prepared khir today. I said I was in a hurry, just stopped by to say this: “If you are sure, then let Nila marry him. I don’t have any problem. I’ll just disappear from her life. Let her be happy.” Machima stood frozen on the threshold. She knew how much I loved Nila. She knew how much Nila loved me.
For many years I was even scared to think what’ll happen if I just bump into Nila some day. I’d imagine, after seeing me she’ll break into tears, will call me names – coward, hypocrite… will slash my hand with her long fingernails - nothing of that sort happened.
“Okanda, after so many years,” she cried. What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” I ask back. “How did you recognize me? My appearance has changed a lot.”
“Of course, one can count the hair on your head. But is it possible to forget you?”
I search for malice in her voice. There is none. It is the plain expression of a plain truth.
“We live here, what else,” she informed and called out to the man with his hands tucked in the pockets of his trousers. “Rana, Adige asho, come here…” Then she turns towards me and asks: “Who’s with you?”
None. I answer. I am alone.
“Not married yet. Or ashamed to travel with your wife?’
Before I could muster an answer, like an obedient student, her husband stands beside her. Nila introduces him to me. By the look of it, he’s certainly one of those big corporate bosses: manicured nail, a wiseacre smile, and an unimaginative face.
She asks me what I was doing in Bombay. I mumble something. She talks about herself. She’s in Bombay for last two years with her husband. Next year they are moving to Australia. I feel like having a cigarette. I control myself. How Nila used to fight with me about my smoking habits. Finally I had to quit that small addiction of mine. It is a long time since I began smoking again. I look at her husband and smile. Does he smoke when she’s not around?
Once I thought I would never be able to face Nila again. And here she is, talking animatedly to me in a crowed beach, as if nothing had ever happened between us, as if she was not betrothed to me, as if she never told me that she could feel my breath inside her bones, as if we never planned our lives together.
It’s not meeting Nila, but the banality of the situation, the way she is responding to this sudden, strange meeting, the way she is blabbering, animatedly, the way her husband is grinning encouragingly…
Want to have some coffee? I ask and she answers, “no, bhel.” Her husband looks at her. Probably it hurts his ego. I join in some small talk with him. Just courtesy. Did Nila ever told her husband about me? If yes, just how much? Nila offers a plastic plate of Bhel to her husband and then one to me.
Nila enquires where am I am staying in Bombay. Then she asks tell me where you live in Calcutta these days. I will try to see you next time I am there. I look at her searchingly. Why she wants to see me again? Whatever was there between us is all over. I don’t want to scratch all those wounds that are, thank god, healing. This, today evening was an accident. Nila shrugs her shoulders and says: “Leave it. God knows when I’ll go home again.”
Am I jealous of Nila? Or am I angry with her? Bitch! Once she said, if she can’t marry me, she’ll remain a spinster. And today, how she’s fluttering around her rich husband. As if she doesn’t remember me at all.
And I? When people ask, I tell them, I got divorce before marriage. I don’t have the courage to put my hands into burning fire again. People laugh, they pity me.
Perhaps Maya was right after all. Whatever was supposed to happen between you and her is already over. And it was your decision. But is it wise to destroy everything for that one decision? I’m not asking you to forget Nila. But don’t kill yourself with her memory. You can start your life all over again. With me…
One day she too got married to someone else.
That decision was mine too.
It was a difficult time. Nila had already completed her graduation. Her family wanted her to get married soon. I was still struggling, doing odd jobs.
Machima said, son, why don’t you two get married. You’ll get a good job one day. Nila too can find something for herself. And for the beginning, even Nila’s father can help.
Those were depressing days. Those were the days of blunt ego. Nila cried. I screamed like mad: “Marriage, marriage. Just get married and you’ll see how all the love just vanishes like a smoke when there’s no money.
Leave that to me. I’ll manage. She said.
Serving me some extra aloo bhaji, Machima informed. A proposal has come for Nila. A suitable boy. Good job and everything. I didn’t know how to respond. Sitting beside me Machima said: We can’t even say she’s engaged, can we?
That night I took the decision. Let Nila get married. That’s better for her. There’s no point spoiling her life with a futureless person like me.
And that morning, I removed everything from the garden of my desire, packed the sun in a black cloth and locked it inside a cupboard. I tried to stop the passing current with my fist. There was no option but to burn away into a heap of ash.
Room service comes at eight. Then who’s knocking at my door at six in the morning? Yesterday was a bad night. I didn’t sleep a wink. I open the door, disturbed, irritated.
You? It’s Nila in front of me; a big polythene bag in her hand, water still dripping from her long flowing hair.
“Wouldn’t you invite me inside?” she asks. “You are surprised, aren’t you? She closes the door and sits on a chair. She’s wearing a cloud white sari. “We weren’t supposed to meet like this, isn’t it?”
It was an accident. I grin foolishly. If I were you, I would have just disappeared from the scene.
“I know. You are coward…”
Finally. Finally. I am prepared. After all these years, I have to face all her bickering.
“But Okanda, I couldn’t. All these years I’ve been praying to god only for just one thing, that you are still alive, that I see you at least once. You just disappeared. How I tried to find any information about you.”
Bending my head down, I listen. What is there for me to say?
“I couldn’t Okanda… I… I… still love you.”
No. Those are stories from the previous birth. I don’t remember.
Would you like to have some tea? I ask.
“No,” she answers. “I have to return back soon. I told Rana that I am visiting a temple.”
Why? Why Nila has come to meet me? I can’t ask.
“Why didn’t you get married, Okanda? Seems you tell people that you got divorce before marriage – do you tell them who filled for divorce?
Have you come to ask me this? Have you come to do the accounts?
“You did all the accounting, didn’t you? I had to accept you rulings. Don’t think that you are the only one who failed. I lost too.”
Then why have you come to meet me without telling your husband?
Without speaking a word Nila gets up and picks up the polythene bag. It’s filled with marigold flowers, my favourite. She spread the flowers on the bed.
What is all this drama, Nila?
“Drama?” she sits next to me on the bed and takes my hands between hers. (Oh, these hands!) Then she speaks softly: “Drama? You played drama with me, Okanda. You just disappeared into the blue. Couldn’t even trust me that much that I could love you without any money.
My hands are between hers. She smells of jasmine. What is there for me to say?
You are happy with your husband, aren’t you?
Nila smiles. A dazzling smile. “How easily you could ask, am I happy? Yes sir, I am very happy. Did I surprise you? I hope not. I’m very happy with Rana. My husband is a good human being and he loves me. And he’s rich. What more do you want from a husband anyway?
Her voice trails off. “And suddenly amidst the luxury of my husband’s home I scream out in pain.” She pulls my hand and puts it on her heaving bosom. “There’s a live wound there… sometimes it pains… then I need you…
“I’m still in love with you.”
Nila. Nila. Don’t speak a word. Please. I’ve wrapped the sun with a black cloth. Don’t uncover it.
Nila, it was not a good idea for you to meet me.
“For one last time.” She smiles. She gets up from the bed and stands before me. So, Mr Bhatt, since you had your divorce before marriage, how about honeymoon after divorce.
She pours her fingers through my unkempt hair. “You know, finally, Rana and I have decided to have a baby. According to the doctor too, it’s the right time.”
The proximity between us recedes. And she whispers on my ear: “Give me a baby. Give me a baby from your side.”