This is a short story I wrote last year. It is set in the beautiful city of Pune, where I studied Law for five years and is in the context of the many discussions I have been having with friends here in Singapore of how even the educated and neo-liberal youth of India are hesitant to break the preset social norms and traditions when it comes to deeper social interactions on matters like love, sexuality and marriage.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction, so please do not jump to conclusions and be judgmental about the story, characters or even me for that matter. If I had a chance to write it again, I would probably put up several drafts and maybe the final story could be quite different in style and content. Nevertheless, I am sharing this story now because I would like to look back at this first version and maybe develop this story into a mini-series or novel someday.
She picks up her phone, opens her Contacts list and types in the first few letters of his name. Should she? Shouldn’t she? She presses Dial. And then immediately hangs it up. “Damn it Woman, make up your mind!” she tells herself, as she chucks her phone onto her bed. She takes a couple of deep breaths and says out loud. “Relax, will you – he is just another guy, you’re not asking him to marry you or something! It is a conversation over coffee, in fact he suggested it last time, remember!” But in her mind, another little voice says – “He isn’t just another guy and you know it. Don’t mess this up, gal. If you call it will look too eager on your part and then he will blow you off!” So she smiles to herself and says – “Just wait now, you will see him tomorrow at Open Space, anyway.” But she is already looking at her phone again. There it is lying on her bed amidst a pile of books, tossed up clothes and the unfolded blanket. “NO!” she tells herself. She quickly wears her shoes, grabs her I-pod and heads out for a walk to Tekdi (Marathi word for ‘Hill’), locking her door and deliberately leaving her phone behind.
Pune, post the monsoon, was her favourite place to be, at that time of the year. A soft breeze, the perfect weather and the right playlist made her evening walks to the hill her favourite time of the day. Today the song playing was ‘Bandeh’ by Indian Ocean, the powerful lyrics and the soulful melody often gave her goose bumps whenever she heard it. She quickens her pace; she must make it in time to get to her favourite spot at the hilltop so that she can watch the sunset. She tries to stay focused but her thoughts keep drifting back and forth. Between planning for the campaign to be held on World AIDS Day, the Seminar on Gender Justice at her College and the person for whom she would so eagerly look forward to at her three-month internship programme at Open Space, the youth and civil society outreach initiative of an NGO she was a part of, she could barely conceal the big smile she had on her face. Passers-by would stare at her in bewilderment, but she knew Life had plenty going on and she was quite in love with her charming fellow intern.
Ekaparnika Devi, a fourth-year law student at the ILS Law College, Pune took pride in being an independent, hardworking and sincere student. Her friends called her ‘unique’ for everything about her – her name that she often had to repeat every time she was asked, her penchant for long flowing skirts, her love for Nature and her seemingly effortless knack at taking centre-stage for most college activities within campus, yet remaining highly elusive at parties or outings outside made her different from her peers. She was aware of what others thought of her and it did not bother her much. Right now, all she could think about was what she would say, what she would wear and how to plan her day so that tomorrow she could get some stolen moments with the guy.
She remembered the first day she met him. Amidst the bunch of youngsters chosen to be interns for this unusual programme, he stood tall in the sleek black T-shirt, dark blue jeans and leather jacket. Her first thought was – “Whoa this guy looks more like a street biker than a college student!” His light-eyes, baritone voice and endearing smile made her heart skip a beat and then flutter some more, and her usual participative and eloquent self was reduced to a mostly incoherent babble when she was asked to introduce herself in the ice-breaker session. The game was to pair up with another intern and introduce the other. He was standing with someone else and the first girl nearby had managed to partner with him. She remembered how she felt while looking at the flirtatious smile on the other girl’s face – and then thinking – it had to be that he was the only good-looking guy in a group where ten out of twelve members were women. Open Space had selected a diverse mix of youngsters, each who came from different parts of the country to learn more about the ideals of tolerance, peace and social justice. They were made aware of our diversity and had to learn how to accommodate each other.
The next day was when she managed to pull herself together after telling herself that the internship was important for her career. Her ideas were well-received; she made friends with some interns of other colleges and even led a small discussion group on the topic for that day – cultural diversity. He too had looked at her appreciatively – she was dressed to impress. After the session that day, she had begun walking back to her home, when a gleaming motorbike had stopped near her.
“Oye… Devi!” he had called out and she swung back and yelled “WHAT did you call me?”
“Look, your first name has too many syllables…it is just too long for me – what is wrong with Devi, anyway?” he replied.
“Nothing, it is just that nobody has called me ‘Devi’ before – anyway, what do you want?” she had responded quite startled.
“Where do you stay?” he asked.
“Hanuman Nagar,” she replied.
“Great! I stay at Shivaji Housing Society – do you wanna ride?” he asked.
She paused and looked at herself in the little tank top and her long skirt, and then said “I would love to, but some other day when I am in Jeans instead.”
Without a pause, he was quick to respond “Never mind, you can sit side-saddle – Hop on!”
They had talked a bit, traded numbers and then she asked him to drop her off at the corner instead of right up in front of her apartment building. She declined his offer for coffee that day citing assignment submissions, but had promised to join him another day. Over the weeks that followed they became fast friends. They shared their world views, stories of their childhood and would frequently haunt roadside coffee joints in and around the area after the Open Space sessions. The other interns in the programme obviously noticed their camaraderie but if anyone had something to say, they would simply smile knowingly.
Ekaparnika had reached the top of the Tekdi and began doing some of her bend-and-stretch exercises at the centre-point with other joggers and walkers. Having been a regular for the last three months, there were several familiar faces she would greet with a smile. Most of them were retired Marathi officers and servicemen and she regretted her inability to converse with them. She loved Pune, the fact that her college, this hill and her flat were within walking distance of each other and that the predominantly student-based area was both safe and comfortable for a girl to be residing on her own. But she did not like the parochialism it harboured. Wasn’t India meant to be a union of states? She did not understand how a linguistic divide could create tensions between people. That is why she enjoyed Open Space – where a number of different youngsters would share their ideas about issues related to cultural diversity, sexuality, HIV/AIDS and the Environment through alternate mediums.
She sat down at her usual spot and watched the setting sun. She knew why tomorrow everything at the internship would be different. The previous day, while practicing the street play the group was going to perform on World AIDS Day, they were all supposed to hold hands in a circle. He had quickly taken his place next to her, but for the smallest of moments hesitated when taking her hand. When he finally clasped her hand, both of them looked up as if aware that it was the first time they were holding hands; he was gazing at her. When she looked up at him enquiringly, he whispered – “Your hair smells real nice today, I like how straight it falls!” But later as he dropped her at the usual corner, he did not return her smile or word of thanks as he normally did (“Stop thanking me yaar, no please and thank-yous between friends!”). Instead he nodded and quickly sped away. She knew at once something was wrong, and wanted to get it clarified immediately – but it was a Friday, which meant it would be two long days before she would see him next. Suddenly, she was not looking forward to the weekend anymore. He had called later that night. The conversation kept playing like the repeat mode of her I-pod.
“Hey Devi – sup?” he drawled.
“Hi – did you finish watching the documentary film you had borrowed?” she asked.
“Haan, yaar – Anand Patwardhan’s films are very stirring,” he replied.
“Cool – when are you gonna lend them to me?” she asked.
“Borrow them on your own account Devi, I will be charged for the excess days,” he quickly replies as if he has something more urgent to say.
“You are MEAN! You know ….” She begins but he quickly interjects “Why do you always talk to me about stuff related to Open Space?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Never mind,” he quickly responds as if he regrets asking that question out loud.
“No, tell me what you mean – what do you want to talk to me about otherwise?” she asks urgently.
“Listen…uhh.. I got to go; I’ll see you Monday… ok?”
“Ok!” she replied, and then he hangs up.
She stared at her cell phone blankly for a whole minute thereafter. In all the weeks that they had known each other, this was the first awkward conversation they had had.
“Idiot – why can’t you just fess up?” she thought to herself. Men, why can’t they come out straight with their feelings? Why are they so afraid to emote? I did not expect this from him, she thought exasperatedly.
The sun was setting behind the hillscape rapidly. Watching the birds fly by, people walking their dogs and chatting animatedly as they did their rounds, she thought of how she spent her weekend. She was not able to concentrate on her work, her nights were of broken sleep and restlessness – switching channels more than watching T.V. – and she was sure she must have spent at least six hours a day staring at the phone wondering if she should call him. She knew she had a little crush on this guy from the day she had met him, but this was pure agony. She knew she enjoyed his company at the internship and outside too. She loved the way he spoke, the way he asserted himself, his thoughtfulness for keeping a seat for her whenever she was running late, his soft smile, his leather jacket, the way he held her hand ….. “Stop it!” she tells herself. “If this is how you feel, why don’t you just ask him out for coffee or simply tell him how you feel.”
Ekaparnika looked back at her own relationships. It always took her some time to trust a guy, and her last relationship ended after months of trying to keep it alive when her boyfriend was in another city. Was she ready for something here? She knew she was lying to herself if she continued convincing herself that this was just a passing infatuation. She was no longer a teenager and did not overestimate or dismiss her feelings for anyone anymore. When she liked a guy, she would state her feelings irrespective of how he might react as she believed that secretly harbouring one’s unreciprocated thoughts for another was far worse than getting hurt. Those wounds then heal as she would let go of any fanciful thought of a romance with someone who did not care for her. She decided she was not afraid about getting hurt this time either, so why was she hesitating to tell him. Moreover she was so sure he felt something for her too. She sighed and then decided aloud – “Tomorrow.”
Monday morning passed by in a blur. She couldn’t wait for the afternoon, to arrive early at Open Space, make herself a cup of tea at the kitchen to calm her nerves and then casually tell him that she would like to speak to him later in the evening, over dinner maybe? When she arrived, he was already there out on the balcony taking a smoke.
But he wasn’t smiling and talking to the coordinator in his usual manner – instead he was talking on the phone to someone and he was trying to extinguish his cigarette as fast as he could. His body language had changed, and at once she knew he might be talking to his family. “Walekum Salaam Ammi – jaan …” and then he was speaking in a language she could no longer understand. It suddenly struck her like a force of lightning.
Her ‘Dar’ is Mohammed Ahmed Dar, from Kashmir. While he was speaking reverently to his mother – suddenly she envisioned him in a skull cap and a long white kurta and pathani, offering his evening prayers during Ramadan. There next to him was her, dressed in a panetar- the wedding saree – white silk with a deep red border rich in embroidery worn by women of her caste and community in Gujarat. But when the two figures were trying to reach out to hold hands now; a dense fog blurred out that image.
But wait, she was a secular Indian. She never discriminated, why would it matter that he was Muslim and she an upper-caste Hindu, what she loved about him were his ideas, his style, his looks, his demeanour – did his religion make a difference? At their internship, they watched documentaries about Gujarat post the Godhra riots and the ramifications of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir. Did it never strike her then, in the numerous discussions and debates they had on cultural diversity and deeply ingrained prejudices in the Indian middle class that she was in fact talking about her own image?
That evening, she was numb throughout the session and as he dropped her home later he asked – “Devi, why are you looking so disturbed? What happened?” She looked at him directly in the eye and smiled and said – “Nothing so serious, I was thinking that there is hardly any time left towards this internship and there is so much work left to do on the HIV campaign, how will it all happen?” “Yaar Devi – Bas Karo! Anyway, I shall see you tomorrow!” he replies.
As he drove away, she stood there thinking that if there was any space left open in her heart until then, she now felt like a complete hypocrite.