The inside of the AC 2 Tier compartment of the Jaipur Mysore Express was dark. After all, the time was 9:55 pm and after dinner, sleeping is the best activity that passengers preferred while traveling on a train. The last station to pass was Sawai Modhopur and there was still some time for Kota to arrive. Being a journalist is a job on wheels. It’s a job with good returns but no time to enjoy the returns. But, Hey! I am not complaining. At the age of 30, I can say that I have enjoyed life a lot and now am very much committed to my profession of writing which I enjoy a lot too.
I am returning to my city, where I have been staying for the past 1 year, Bengaluru. I had an assignment in Jodhpur, which was to cover and write about the great Marwar festival held there for 2 days. We have an editorial office in Jaipur so my trip to Jodhpur has to be to and fro from there. The festival was very bright and colorful. The 4-day tour got over in a blink of an eye and I was all packed and ready to move in no time at all. Giving my story a few final flourishes is what I am doing right now. Sitting alone in the almost empty compartment. Now, one would say that when I get so many good returns, then why am I traveling on a train? I mean I could have boarded a plane, right? The answer is quite simple. A train journey gives me more time to reflect on my work and also some masala to use in my stories! Now, as usual, my seat is one of the side berths, but to my disappointment, it’s the upper berth this time. Not the lower one which I am very much addicted to. But, as the occupant of the lower berth is still absent, I am enjoying lounging on it. Doing my work as well as seeing the almost invisible villages passing by in a flicker outside my window.
“Hello! Which is your seat?”
“Excuse me! This is my seat! Can you get up please?”
I turned my face towards the source of the voice. The voice was a female one and although high pitched, possessed a good texture and I don’t know why, but, I had this feeling that maybe I have heard it somewhere before. I opened my eyes reluctantly, still not allowing myself to get up from the seat and checked the time. Gosh! It said 4 am! When did I fell asleep? Only then did I look at the face that was staring at me, for the first time. Oh no! No, no, no no! It can’t be! Maybe I am still asleep and dreaming. The face staring at me can’t be real. But, it’s the same face, with just a few changes. Like the re-defined laugh lines around the eyes and lips, the shade of the skin a bit subdued and the long and curly hair bolted up with a clutch. It is the same face or she has probably come back as a ghost to haunt me. Even the face is staring at me with bewildered eyes as if it is having a problem accepting or recognizing the thing sitting in front of it. I see the eyes pass through me once, twice and then thrice. As if checking me for some faults or changes.
“Chahat? Beta Chahat? Did you find your seat? Have you settled yet?”
An elderly voice slices the silence between us like a knife. I can see a lady a bit younger than my mother; coming towards us. I turn my stare to her instead. I can see some of the features of her daughter in her aging face. Like the elongated mouth and proud chin. Even the quality of their hair matches to some extent. But, the eyes are different. The lady’s are darker. Almost black! On the other hand, the ones which were staring at me some time back are light brown or musk. Like the bark of a mahogany tree. The lady is near now, standing in front of me and I realize that I am still in a lie-down position and get up rather abruptly. She is looking at me with a bemused expression now. Trying to place me somehow. Suddenly, a look of recognition flashes over her face. I have a weird thought in my mind. ‘Man! She must have been really beautiful in her youth!’ But, my thoughts are put on a full stop by her question.
“Aren’t you Anvesha Roy? The girl who used to study in Bhopal with Chahat?”
I wanted to say something but couldn’t open my mouth. It was as if I was having some kind of seizure or something wherein my tongue had somehow got stuck up on my dental roof. I was still staring at her when her daughter answered the question, for me.
“Yes, Maa. It is Anvesha Ray from NUMCB.”
I think her voice brought me out of the trance it put me in, in the first place. Then, looking at her mother, I just mumbled the first thing that came to my mouth.
Then I returned back to staring at her daughter. Like she was some alien who has just come out of a UFO. And she started staring back at me. Auntyji, sensing something or maybe nothing, decided to give us some privacy.
“Well, I am going to sleep now, Beta. I suggest you do the same.”
She left us then, giving me a tender, motherly smile. I have never met her personally in the 3 years of college. She must remember me from the pictures Chahat must have shown her.
I don’t know how long the staring match went on for, all I remember is that a man wanting to go to the washroom asked me to excuse him and then, turning back to excuse him, our staring competition got over there. I sat back on the extreme right-hand side of the berth, looking at my hands, pinching them, to bring me out of the dream. But, my hands were numb, without any sensation. They, like my mouth, had gone into a seizure. I looked up at her then and found her looking back at me. She sat down on the left-hand side corner and smiling for the first time, started the conversation.
“Hi, Anvesha! How are you? It’s been a long time, right?”
“Hello, Chahat! I am good! Yeah! It’s been a very long time. 3 years if I am not wrong. How are you?”
“Well, I am good too! I still can’t imagine that I am seeing you today, here, on this train! It seems almost like a dream.”
“Yeah, it’s real alright! So, where are you going?”
“Maa and I are going to Mysore. Actually, Bhai is working there these days in an I.T. Company and we want to spend some time with him and Bhabhi.”
“Okkie! So, Mintoo finally got married, huh? I thought you were trying to set him up with Avantika…”
She looked at me once, with those mysterious eyes and laughingly, said
“Oh my God! You still remember that! Yes, I was trying to but, I guess there are some things which are just not in my hands. And anyway, Avantika di got married to Kunal Bhaiyaa. It was fun by the way. And it had been such a long time back! Almost seems like another life now. Wasn’t it our first visit to Betul?”
“Yes, it was our first trip together. And the last one too. I don’t think we ever made a trip together after that one.”
She became silent. The trip to Betul, made almost 6 years back flashed before my eyes. Has it seriously been that long? All of a sudden, I felt tired. I just wanted to close my eyes. No, it had nothing to do with sleep. My memories were creating a racket inside my head!
“I think I’ll go back to sleep now.”
“Ok! Have a nice sleep!”
“I’ll try.” I smiled at her. She smiled back. I climbed over the upper berth, lied down and closed my eyes.
NUMCB aka National University of Mass Communication Bhopal. The building with a red facade which encompassed the front portion of the Press Complex was like a sanctuary for people like me. It herded the flock of students who possessed talents that defied other professions. You would never find people who wanted to be engineers, doctors or lawyers here. This was the sanctum of writers, poets, philosophers, filmmakers and as such. The corridors here rang with the names of Mirza Ghalib and as such. The air itself was full of dreams and aspirations. People here only knew how to dream, without fretting about the future. And I, Anvesha Ray, became a part of this crowd in the year of 2011. Although NUMCB was never on my list of prospective colleges, it happened with the help of one of my cousin sisters who was living and working in Bhopal at that time.
When I started at NUMCB, I was literally stepping out of my house after a long time. So, every creature that entered my life was amusing. Like Tamanna Suri, who on the outside looked like a cheerful and bindas punjaban. Pankaj Shergill, the theatre actor who considered himself a star. And then, Chahat…
The train gave a mighty jerk and stopped. At the same time, I opened my tired eyes. The blue colored ceiling of the train after the colorful campus of NUMCB seemed dull. I checked my watch. It was exactly 6 am. I automatically looked downwards, towards the lower berth and two mahogany colored eyes met my glance. Chahat was sitting in the same position that I left her in 2 hours back. The only difference being, her footwear was off, beneath the seat and her legs, neatly coiled up on the seat. The body till the waist was covered in a blanket. It seemed like she hasn’t slept at all.
Brushing my teeth with train water never gave me satisfaction. So I avoided doing it. Instead, I sat down on the lower berth again, with a cup of tea in my hands. I would have preferred a coffee, in the present situation but, tea in a train is a much better option than coffee. I was in for a surprise though. There was a cup in her hands too! The Chahat I knew never drank tea or either coffee for that matter. I even saw her drinking milk rarely in the 3 years I spent in Bhopal. Maybe, my and Tamanna’s more than enough intake of such beverages influenced her somehow. She saw me looking at the cup and laughed.
“Don’t be surprised! I guess, some bad influences of friends turn out to be good in life.”
I was the one who laughed this time. “Yeah maybe! And some good habits of friends also get rubbed off on you in the meantime.” I pointed to the neatly folded blanket kept on my seat. We both looked outside then. The name of the station where the train had halted was Sehore. When we looked back at each other, the train had started moving again. I leaned back in the seat, giving some support to my back. Taking the cue, she started speaking yet again.
“So, where are you these days?”
“You ask as if you don’t know, huh?”
“Thief! You have just been caught with your hands in the cookie jar!”
She roared with laughter at this.
“So, what’s up with you these days? Everything good? How is that Radio Station of yours working out, huh?”
I know that she was expecting this question from me because; she knows that I know everything about it. Well, if it was a question of knowing everything about each other, I think we both would give the same answer.“Yes.”
“Well, my radio station ‘Awaaz’ is a good venture and I think it’s running smoothly at the moment. It’s my pride you know. When I pass people on the roads who are listening to it on their phone or maybe a music player, I can’t express how remarkable it all seems to me. It’s just the initial period I know and the competition is quite tough! But, I think that it’ll work out just fine.”
“So, you must be staying at Indore all the time! Then how did you get time to board this train with your mother from Ujjain?”
“Well, I came home to attend a function…”
“My best friend’s wedding.”
“Okkie! Sorry for the curiosity but, you know me! This is the way I am.”
“Don’t worry about the burst of curiosity, I was actually expecting it.”
“Why traveling in a train though? You could have boarded a flight! I mean, it’s a long journey by train…”
“Maa suffers from air sickness. Bhai took her by flight once. It was terrible for her!”
We both fell silent after this. It’s difficult to carry on a conversation with a person you haven’t talked to in ages! I drank one more cup of tea, read the newspaper a bit. But, the silence was pinching. She was reading a book. A Hindi book! It happened coincidently. I kept my newspaper down on the seat and she kept her book down over it at the same time. We looked at each other. Maybe we both weren’t able to concentrate on reading much. So, I picked up the thread of conversation yet again.
“You did your PG from Indore, right? How was DAV?”
“It was good! But, nothing like NUMCB. By the way, how was Mumbai?”
“Aaah! Do I need to put it in words?”
“Well, not exactly, but, you can just give me an overview.”
“Hmm. Mumbai was great! I loved it there. The 2 years I spent their felt like a lifetime. You know what? I actually felt like I belonged there!”
I met Tamanna, nicknamed Moti, on the day I got admitted in NUMCB. She was sitting in the first row with a man who I later came to know was her uncle. I was sitting with a girl called Shristi. I, like always, had come alone for my admission. I preferred it this way. This is the way I had grown up. Facing the most tensed situations in my life, alone. And I actually loved it! My father’s company made me depressed and my mother, in situations like this, was not much of encouragement either. And my sisters have learned it a long time back that I liked being left off. So, there I was sitting in the second row. Looking at the faces and trying to read the unreadable things. This was one of my most favorite hobbies! Observing people. I guess Tamanna was doing the same because our eyes met a few times during the process. Then I just looked at her and asked
“Are you a localite?”
“No. Actually, I am from Betul. Where are you from?”
“Oh, me! I am from Nagpur. Maharashtra.”
“Nagpur! The Santra Nagri! You came all the way from there to get admission in this college?”
“Well, yeah. Why? Is it strange?”
“Yeah! It is…sort off. I mean there’s Mumbai, Pune. There’s Delhi University….”
“Hmmmmm. It’s a long story.”
“Okkie! I would like to hear it…”
And we started chatting. Our talks moved on from our hometowns to our families to our schools and then our hobbies. She told me that she liked playing the keyboard and I told her that I am in between the process of learning the guitar. And then we suddenly started planning to form a band of ours. Imagine! We weren’t even selected to get admitted in the college but, the plans were already in motion. The hours then, flew like this air now, flowing over my face. I still remember the way she hugged me when we both spotted our names in the list of selected candidates. I am a friendly person but hugging people you hardly knew was still difficult for me. But, Moti got that thing in my life. She made me used to it as if it was all about hugging and being hugged by people in life.
I met Pankaj in our canteen. Fair, a short height guy with floppy hair. We, that is, Moti and me, and a few friends were having lunch and he just came and joined us. The conversation began with the cordial inquiries like ‘where are you from?’ and in a few minutes, we were all sharing our lunch boxes like we were school friends! In the beginning, we thought that maybe this guy has got an attitude problem. Because the way he talked, seemed that way. But, as we knew him more and more we just came to the point that it’s something he’s acquired since he is a theatre artist. We used to be the mastikhor type of people! People who liked to bunk classes and take trips to nearby picnic spots. Our first month there went by like a minute.
Each one of us had a different passion in life. I, liked writing, Pankaj was into theatre and Moti was a poetess. Well, some things just run in the blood, right? But, with us, it was quite different. Our passions in life took birth with us. And I think we were criticized for it in our families too. But, this is the way it was. This is the way we were. These people become a part of my everyday life, my routine and NUMCB started feeling like a home away from home.
I still don’t understand how Chahat became a part of our lives. It all began like this. She joined college late. In the beginning, whenever her name, ‘Chahat Sharma’, was called in the roll calls, she used to be absent. I just considered her as a person who took admission but maybe changed her mind later on and joined some other college. I didn’t even notice her once when she actually started coming to college!
The day I noticed her was the same day when Anna Hazare got arrested for his fast against corruption. We were sitting in the T.V. room and writing a report on the matter. I was sitting close to the boys’ gang who, as usual, was trying to get information on girls in our class. They were asking me questions about this girl and that one and I was just answering them in an undertone, finishing my report at the same time.
“What do you know about Mayuri?” Sumit asked.
“She seems to be a sweet girl. Frankly speaking, way too sweet! Just like a child.”
“Hmm what about Pranjal then?” Piped in Debashish.
“Well, she’s fine but loud, too loud. And I think she’s got a boyfriend too.”
“Ok! Hey, what do you know about Chahat?”
That was the first time I looked at her. I never noticed her before that moment. She was sitting with Pranjal and Mayuri. Writing her report quietly. Suddenly she turned and looked at me. Innocent face, curly hair, not like noodles but like snakes, pulled back with a banana clip. Round eyebrows, like the arc of a circle. Medium height, high cheek-bones. Long and elongated mouth. Then I looked at the eyes and I saw a river. A river full of mysteries and untold tales. The eyes seemed sad to me, somehow. It was as if she has suffered a lot in life. I looked at her clothes then. She was wearing a red colored, sleeveless kurta over jeans. Then I noticed her arms. They were quite tanned! As if she went out in the afternoon sun, wearing a half-sleeved dress. She was not away from my thoughts for more than a few minutes after this brief introduction.
The date was 29th August 2011. We were having our first internal exams in college and the air was full of tension and nervousness. I was sitting by a seat near the window. Observing my classmates doing their last minute revising. I wasn’t doing anything. A few of my friends commented that maybe I was very well prepared. I just smiled inwardly, knowing the truth myself. They then began to fight, arguing about who would be the one sitting beside me while writing the paper, so that they can cheat from my paper. I got irritated by their behavior! Then, I noticed Chahat sitting beside me, reading from her notes. The first thought that came to my mind was ‘Where the hell did she come from?’ Seriously! I never saw her arrive! I just kept looking at her like an abnormal kid. After a while, I asked
“Do you like it if people cheat from your paper?”
“No, I don’t. Actually, I hate it!”
“Me too! Do you want to sit beside me? I think by doing this we’ll be able to write in peace at least.”
She gave me a look that literally x-rayed me as if trying to decipher my hidden motive behind asking her to sit beside me. After that look, she agreed.
The day after our exams got over, we all played antakshari in our class. We both were in opposite teams and the only two people who knew most of the songs. I heard her voice for the first time then and liked it at once. We started chatting regularly afterward and that’s it! We became friends just like that!
Now, where was Moti while all this was happening, right? She was there, busy with her life as usual. I think the first-day Moti and Chahat had a proper conversation was a few days after our internals. She entered the class, attracting the glances of everyone as always. Wearing a black colored kurta over a red colored patiala. I was sitting at the window seat again with Chahat. Spotting me, she came to us, uttering the usual greeting of her
“Hi, Moti! You are looking lovely today! Typical punjaban!”
“Thank you, dear! Love you! Muah!”
Chahat was listening to our exchange of words with perked-up ears. She always had this habit. Sometimes, she seemed distant as if not listening to anyone or observing anything. But, in reality, she is taking in everything that’s happening around her. This was the first time she had a conversation with Moti and they became inseparable in a few days time.
“Are you a Punjabi?”
“Well, am really fond of the language!”
“Really? Can you speak it fluently?”
“No! Not yet. But I would love to.”
Moti smiled her charming wala smile then.
“Don’t worry dear! I’ll teach you.”
They both exchanged a look then as if something has clicked. And trust me, it had! We never planned to be a trio or anything. For me and Moti were strictly against the group rule! We loved to talk and hang around with each and every one. But, who was I to decide all these things? The group thing had to happen and it did.
Moti was planning to change her PG accommodation those days. And, coincidently, there was space in the place where Chahat was living. In her very room. We went there one afternoon, during the lunch hour to check it out. It felt good! Moti’s mind got made up. We felt really happy that day! Bunking the rest of the classes, we went to the lake instead. That was our first outing together. Me, Moti and Chahat. And, man did we enjoy ourselves! Taking a round of the lake, sitting in a motorboat, the splashes of water feeling good on our faces. All three of us, laughing together as if we were 10 years old!
“You took a long time! Were you thinking about something?”
“Yes! I was. And so were you, right?”
“Right! I was thinking about our days in NUMCB. The days I spent there were the best in my life! I learned so many things and enjoyed a lot too. The 3 years there just went by like that! Good times don’t seem to last for long in life, right?”
“Well, I faced my good as well as bad times in NUMBC. The struggle for my identity began there. But, yes, the good times were really great! And the lessons learned, not the lectures, mind you, were great too.”
It was flashback time for both of us. All the good things said and done, all the mistakes committed. Everything was rushing inside the brain like cold water. And as always, it left us numb. She snapped out of it earlier than me. And started talking again.
“You didn’t call me once during the past 3 years.”
It was a statement rather than a question.
“I didn’t have your number.”
“You could have got it from someone.”
“So, could you! But, if I remember well, I think we stopped calling each other when we were still in college.”
“Well, I just couldn’t accept and cope with some things you said and did.”
“Even I couldn’t! But, I kept on trying, you know? I never lost hope.”
“Then why did you never tried to reach even once? You even blocked me from all your social media accounts! Why?”
“You tell me? I don’t think you made any efforts to remain a part of my life!”
“You said that you were in love with me Anvesha… I did not know how to…”
“React? Yes, I was in love with you…for a very long time.”
We fell silent once again. I started looking out the window. The blurring images were having a soothing effect on my old suddenly inflamed wounds. After what felt like an eternity I looked at my watch. The time was 07:15 am. Bhopal junction was about to arrive. Everywhere, we can hear sounds of all kinds. People, getting up, splashing their faces with water at the sink. Pantry workers shouting at the top of their voices, selling tea and other eatables. People assembling their luggage to get down at the station. But, we, we just sat there. Not saying anything. Remembering the days gone by. 3 years, one place and so many memories. Some good, some bad but still there. Suddenly, I had this mad urge to just jump down from the train and run away. But I just sat there. As if glued to my seat! We didn’t even look outside. We just let it go. She excused herself to go to the washroom then.
“Hey, bengalan! Kii korcho?”
It was Moti, calling me at 11 in the night. The date was 2nd October 2011 and a Sunday. I wasn’t well from the past few days. Navratri was going on and I, for some reason, had avoided going home. I had been celebrating Durga Puja at home from the past few years and somehow, they made me depressed, rather than uplifting my mood. So, this year, I just decided to celebrate it here. I was, anyways having some disturbing thoughts over the last few days. I was always a not so normal kind of a person. Right since childhood, I had this ability to get attracted towards people of the same sex. I tried to get rid of it and not acknowledge the fact but, like a persistent nightmare, it came back to haunt me year after year, and at every turn of my life. Mostly, I avoided mentioning it to anybody. Even if I felt something, I kept it to myself. After all, who wants to be a weirdo in this world, right?
“Hey, bengalan, I just called you to say that I am going to Betul tomorrow morning!”
“Why? I thought that you weren’t going!”
“I was not but Mamma called me and she wants me to come. She was sounding very sad. I am going to surprise her!”
“BTW what’s wrong with your voice?”
“Well, it’s sounding strange!”
“What? I am alright! Why would my voice sound strange?”
“Trust me! It is!”
“Maybe because I am tired. Haven’t been sleeping well.”
“Nothing…just some bad dreams.”
“Hey! You know that you can tell me anything. Anvesha…please…tell me what’s up?”
And I ended up telling her everything. I don’t know why? Because I have never even discussed it with my parents and siblings. Then, why her? Maybe she was concerned and really wanted to know what’s really up with me. Anyways, what’s done was done. But I asked her to swear not to tell this to anyone ever. To take this to her grave. Especially not to Chahat.
“Good morning Beta! You both are already up, huh? Did you have any breakfast yet?”
It was Chahat’s mom. The time was 8 am and the whole train was awake by now. The smell of tea and other snacks like samosas, bread-omelet was everywhere. Chahat had disappeared to her mother’s berth and I wasn’t even complaining. Auntyji, in the meanwhile, was getting acquainted with me. Unfortunately, Bhopal and NUMCB were at the center of it.
“Why didn’t you ever came to Ujjain, Beta? You and Chahat were such good friends and so many other friends of her visited our place during those 3 years. But, you never came!”
I smiled at her question, feeling foolish. What was I supposed to say? It felt as if the mother, daughter duo were bugging me with the same type of questions. Questions I didn’t have any reply to. I encouraged myself by saying, ‘Common Anvesha, you can do this!’
“Actually, I never got much time Auntyji. Even in the free time, when there were no exams and assignments, I was quite busy with other curricular activities.”
“Yeah! You didn’t even go to Betul with Tamanna and Chahat, after the first function held there on the 21st of October, right?”
“Yeah, I didn’t! I was busy.”
“Chahat told me that you refused to go there the following year and the year after that. What happened?”
“What can I say Auntyji? I got so damn busy with my life. There was one opportunity after another and I just couldn’t miss them. After all, I got a second chance there, in Bhopal, to prove my excellence in my field. You know na that I left studies midway and then joined them again in Bhopal?”
“Yes, yes! Chahat mentioned it once.”
“Well, you can understand my situation then, Auntyji. I had to prove my mettle in short amount of time.”
“Hmm. Chahat was telling me that you have become a writer and all. Actually, I never talked about you much with Chahat. Especially after that incident…..”
She didn’t complete her sentence and she didn’t even need too. I know what she was referring too.
“Yeah, about that, I am really very sorry Auntyji. Trust me, if I could take it all back, all the weird things I said, I would but I can’t! All I can say is that I am sorry. You must have thought what a psycho person I am! It’s really very embarrassing for me.”
She just smiled and waved her hand then. As if it was all insignificant.
“Ohh! Don’t be so embarrassed, Beta. Some people are just different but that doesn’t mean that they are bad at heart. And, we didn’t feel bad about any of it. It actually became quite a joke in our family!”
She started laughing after saying all this. Which, somehow, made me even more miserable.
“I’ll go and send Chahat here now. Maybe the lady occupying the berth in front of mine is awake by now. I’ll just chat with her. She is an old acquaintance, you know.”
Looks like the train was full of old acquaintances!
The incident that happened between me and Chahat was about one of those weird experiences I was used to having since childhood. Tamanna and Chahat were both planning to go home for Navratri. I wasn’t feeling normal at all since the past few days. My appetite had vanished, all of a sudden. Just the thought of food made me feel sick. This was unusual as I am a big time foodie! Horrifying fantasies deprived me of any sleep. I was having otherwise feelings for Chahat. We had grown really close as friends but this, these feelings, nightmarish fantasies about her… I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I was out of my shell after a long time and for the first time in my life, I had made some really good friends. Who accepted me the way I am, geeky, nerdy, sometimes aloof. And I didn’t want to lose it all to these feelings caged inside. No! Not again!
Things between us had started changing, all of a sudden. I was conscious of her presence all the time. Her little touch sent me to unimaginable places. Then one night I had this wonderful dream about a life with her. A life unhindered by any outside worldly forces. We were happy in our cocoon. And I woke up crying.
It was 7 am in the morning and my cell phone was ringing. Creating a racket and waking-up my roommate beside me.
“Can you just shut it off?” She shouted.
I put it on silent mode hurriedly. The name flashing on the screen was ‘Vidya Balan’. It was Chahat. I didn’t pick it up even though I wasn’t sleeping. She called again once more. Again I put it on silent. Something was stopping me from picking it up. She rarely called. In the past, whenever I wanted to talk, it was I who called her most of the time. Finally, I called her up at 8 am.
“Yeah! It’s me. You called?”
I was talking in a rather rude manner and I know it! But, I just couldn’t help it.
“Hmmmmm. Yeah! Tamanna left.”
“I can guess that much! Did you wake me up to inform this?”
“Are you alright?”
She must have got the irritation in my voice.
“Yeah, I am fine. See you in college.”
And I disconnected the call. Trust me; I didn’t want to behave in this peculiar manner. It was just happening somehow.
I had reached a decision. I decided to avoid Chahat and get away from her slowly. It was the best option I was left with. But, this decision of mine didn’t leave me feeling any good. Instead, the knot inside my stomach got even tighter. But, I wanted my peace of mind back at any cost and if it meant losing a dear friend of mine, I was ready to make the sacrifice. I thought about Moti then. Should I involve her into all this? No, it was my decision and I have to walk along with it. And, thus, making up my mind, I left for my college. But, all my decisions got shattered once I looked at her face. She arrived late in class. When she entered, I just looked at her once and she too looked at me. I then averted my gaze. She stood at the door, looking at me for some 5 seconds. Then walking slowly, took the seat right in front of mine. I was pretending to concentrate on whatever Mam was saying. But, who was I kidding! My concentration was in the pits of my stomach. She turned then, looking straight at me,
“Can I borrow a pen?”
I looked at her straight in the eyes then. The knot in my stomach loosened a bit. I gave her my pen, took out another one. But, I made another decision, sitting right there. I decided to tell her everything. And, it somehow, turned out to be one of the worst mistakes in life. But, I can’t explain this! When I looked her in the eyes, I just knew that I have to tell her everything. And so I did. Everything changed after this.
The train had stopped at Itarsi station. The time was 9:30 am. Betul was mere 1 and a half hour away. It was still feeling like a dream. Me, boarding this train from Jaipur, meeting Chahat like this, and passing stations like Bhopal and Betul, where we have so many memories together. Seriously! It was a high dose of coincidence. Chahat returned from her mother’s seat. She was carrying something in her hands. When she came closer and sat down, she kept it between us.
“Breakfast time!” She said.
I looked down and realized that it was a plate full of ‘Chimtaas’! A special snack that Chahat’s mom prepared. I remember the first time I had it. I fell in love with it instantly! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to eat them after the incident. But, somehow, my brain has still retained their smell and taste. I grinned like a 12-year-old then and started feasting on them!
“Chahat, I need to speak with you about something.”
We were sitting at Moti and Chahat’s room. She was doing her packing. Had a train to catch at 5 pm.
“What is it?”
“When I talked with Moti last night, I discussed something with her. Something I have never told anyone in my life before. And I did sense that she too was uncomfortable talking to me after it.”
She just gave me a searching look. I continued with my story.
“I am not feeling well from the past few days, something is disturbing me! And it’s because of you!”
She still didn’t say anything. Just kept on looking at me with those searching eyes. I kept on with my speech.
“You are doing something to me which is driving me nuts and I cannot go on like this!”
“But Anvesha… I don’t understand…what am I doing?”
“I…I think that…that I have feelings for you! I think that I am falling in love with you!”
I stopped myself telling her about the dream. No, there’s no need to say anything about it. She sat opposite to me then, facing me.
“I know you have not been feeling alright from the past few days. I have seen your transformations lately. All your mood swings. I just thought that maybe you are going through a bad phase and you’ll come out of it sooner or later. But, I never imagined it to be something related to me!”
“I don’t know why this is happening, Chahat! But, trust me. I am seriously having otherwise feelings for you! Your presence has been affecting me in a bad way lately!”
She just started laughing then. And, it made matters worse, somehow.
“ It’s okkie! Listen, when you go home, I suggest you have a talk to your father and go visit a good psychiatrist.”
I looked at her for a whole 2 minutes then. I was back to ground zero. The other incident from all those years back flashed through my eyes once more. The expression in my father’s eyes. He taking me to see doctors for a cure. The hurt, the humiliation. Everything.
“You know what Anvesha? You think too much! Just keep your mind busy, that’s it!”
“I don’t know. Maybe I do think a lot. But, this is the way I am! And I have decided something…”
“I am going to be staying away from you for some time.”
“Tell me one thing? Do you believe in God?”
“Then think, if you ask him, what to do in a situation like this, what would he say?”
“I have already asked him.”
“What did he say? Did he tell you to get away from me?”
“No, he didn’t. He just said that you are like a test for me and I have to go through it.”
“Fine then. Do whatever you feel like doing. Stay away from me if it gives you satisfaction. I don’t have a problem. But, you know what? You are the first person to say this to me! To say that I am affecting you in a bad way.”
Getting up from her place, she went back to her packing. And I had this feeling inside me that it had gone all wrong. Not the way I wanted it to go at all. She finished her packing. I walked her till the auto rickshaw stand, holding one of her bags in my hand. Before sitting inside the auto, she turned towards me
“Don’t think too much! Everything will be fine. Okkie!”
She smiled then, took her bag from my hand and hugged me. That was the last hug we had as friends. The ratio changed after all this.
“Hey! In 30 minutes time, we are going to pass Betul! What do you say? Should we get down?”
There was a manic gleam in her eyes. As if she is 22 years old again. I just laughed at her question.
“Yeah! And do what then? You know na that the Suri’s have moved out of Betul now.”
She started laughing. “I know! I was just kidding!”
It was Tamanna’s father’s birthday, on 21st October, that took the three of us, Moti, me and Chahat to Betul in our first year at NUMCB. Her hometown. We spent 5 days there in her mother’s and elder sister Avantika’s company. Chahat and my friendship were on the rocks by then. We tried to clear away the matter, but some words have pierced her and she just couldn’t be normal with me again. Even though she tried. I still remember how I became a total stranger for her then. The transformation left me speechless! I kept quiet and bore it all somehow.
“Why aren’t you married, yet?”
I can see that my question unsettled her somehow.”
“I just couldn’t make myself settle for someone. It’s as if there is something more I want to achieve from life. After that maybe…”
“That’s saying something! If you love a guy, he has to be great, right? I know how choosy you are otherwise. I mean how choosy you used to be.”
“Hmm. What about you? Is there someone?”
“Well, I joined the community, met a few girls, dated a few, but still haven’t met the one.”
“Don’t lose hope…you will! I believe that!”
The time was 9:55 am and Betul station was about to arrive. I and Chahat were standing at the door. We just wanted to have a brief glimpse of the place where we spent some time together. It came and went and we kept on standing there. We went back to our seat then. Resumed our old places. Not saying a word. Then she started a rather unexpected topic to discuss.
“The first time we came to Betul, I behaved rather strangely with you. Avoiding you, all of a sudden. You must have felt really bad.”
“I did! I felt really very humiliated actually. And everybody noticed it.”
“I am sorry for that.”
“It’s okkie! You were at least truthful with me when I called you up and asked you the reason.”
“Yeah, I was. I was always honest about everything, right?”
“Right! Too much honest if you ask me. Honesty always helps but too much honesty hurts.”
“Yeah, maybe it does.”
“It was hard for me you know. Keeping a distance from you and Tamanna. We weren’t a trio anymore and I never wanted to make Tamanna feel as if she was the rope of a game of Tug of War between us. But, it was hard.”
“It was hard for all of us.”
“I tried to find substitutes, you know? Substitutes for you and Tamanna. And I even got some. Some in college, some outside the college. I just started spending more time with the other people.”
“I can understand.”
“No, you can’t! It was an effort for me to be with and laugh with people when I didn’t feel like laughing at all! Sometimes, I just couldn’t contain myself and it came out in the form of outbursts. I shouted at people unnecessarily, sometimes teachers. I felt lost! The feeling of belongingness has gone somehow.”
“I am sorry for whatever you felt. But, I was helpless too!”
“You know what? The thing that hurt me the most is that you judged me! Judged me in the wrong way. Yeah! I agree that I was not a very perfect sort of a person. Psycho, lesbian or whatever! But, I was a human being too! You made me feel as if I committed a crime or something! Tell me, is loving someone a crime?”
We both looked at each other then. The things we have said to each other in the past, reverberating in my head like a gramophone. Auntyji arrived then. I told her to sit at my place and said that I’ll go to hers for some time. It was a good excuse to get away from her daughter. She accepted, gladly.
I sat beside the window, the sun was up now and the air no more felt cool. I decided to call my mother. She was in Nagpur at presently, attending one of my Cousin’s wedding. And wondering, no doubt, when was I getting married. She picked it up on the 4th ring.
“Hello Beta! How are you? Where are you?”
Her curious questions, which always irritated me, made me smile this time. Some things always remain the same, I guess.
“Maa, I am on the train. I went to Jaipur then Jodhpur from there. Had an assignment. How are you? Are you and Baba keeping well?”
“We are fine! You’ll be passing by Nagpur na? Should we come and meet you at the station? Do you need anything?”
“No Maa! I am fine. No need to come to the station.”
“But we want to come!”
“I am missing home a lot Maa.”
I finally cried. I mother understood my silence.
“Listen! You are getting down at Nagpur! I don’t know anything! You better call up your office people and let them know. I and baba are coming to pick you up and that’s final.”
“Thank you, Maa.”
“See you soon, Beta.”
And she hung up. I was crying and smiling at the same time. I have never been out to my family about my sexual preference. They always had a clue but we always managed to go around discussing it. But maybe, it was time. Time to set the record on everything straight.
“Do you want to place your order for lunch, Beta? The pantry wala is here.”
“No need Auntyji! I am getting down at Nagpur. Mama and Papa are coming to pick me up.”
I was happy in a sad way. It has been a long time since I have been home, been to my old room. The place where I started writing in the first place. I returned to my seat with a new bounce in my step!
“You are back. You are placing an order for lunch na? God! I hate train food!”
“No! I am not!”
“Why? What are you going to eat then?”
“Homemade food! Want some? It can be arranged. No problem there.”
She looked at me suspiciously. I just smiled.
“Homemade food? Okkie! Aunty and Uncle are coming to meet you at Nagpur station then, huh? Cool! Finally, I’ll get to meet them too.”
“Yeah, they are coming! And guess what? I am getting off at the station too! Going home!”
“What? But, your ticket is up to Bengaluru na?”
“Yup! But now, I am going home.”
“Don’t you have to report to your office?”
“No problem! I’ll call my boss and explain the situation. And, I’ll send him the article by mail.”
She was still looking at me in a strange way. As if I was behaving in a different manner, suddenly. I don’t blame her. I was! I picked up my napkin and went to the washroom.
It was at 2 pm in the afternoon. Nagpur station was approaching. I had assembled my luggage at the door and was standing there with Chahat.
“Sorry, you won’t be able to meet Mama and Papa. They couldn’t come. Sending the driver instead to pick me up and sending yours and Auntyji’s lunch as well.”
“Don’t be sorry, dear! I’ll see them one day. By the way, thank you for the lunch.”
The train had stopped now. I have already said my goodbye to Auntyji. Chahat got down on the platform with me. Salim Bhaiyaa was there to pick me up. I waved to him and he came over.
“Hello, madam! How are you? It’s so good to see you after such a long time!”
“I am good Bhaiyaa! And I hope you are too!”
He then handed me the lunch packed in a big bag. I passed it over to Chahat. I shook hands with her then.
“Well, goodbye for now!”
“Yes! Goodbye, dear! But this time, do stay in touch.”
“We both smiled at each other for the last time, I waved my hand in goodbye again and started walking with Salim Bhaiyaa. She shouted my name then.
“Yeah! What?” I asked turning back.
“I put my number in your phone. Do give me a call sometime.”
“I will, but will you pick up my call this time?”
She just smiled then, waved at me one last time and went inside the train.
“Sometimes, we struggle through a tasteless cup of coffee till the last sip. Then we find sugar lying at the bottom. That’s life! Sweetened, but not stirred well…”