Words don’t generally fail me. But there are some words that my tongue has a strange antipathy to. And no matter how hard I try, it refuses to utter them. Or pronounces them with such a fine grace that it may often seem that they were better left unsaid. Sorry, for example, is one such word. And no matter how loud it rings in my heart, you will never hear it in my voice. Not readily, at least.
But a sorry seemed definitely needed that day. The memory of Nirvi’s stark white face demanded it. Her rushing away in shame demanded it. My own words, when I forced myself to decipher their every meaning, demanded it. And all these kept on raising a clamour that stayed with me till I went to sleep, and rang louder still till I got up, without having slept much.
But it hadn’t really been my fault. She shouldn’t have said such things about my sister. And I hadn’t really meant anything. She should have understood that. So sorry wasn’t needed, maybe. I just had to make sure she understood things as they were.
It was quarter to seven when I knocked at her door.
She took a minute to open it. And seemed to shrink into herself when her eyes realized who the visitor was.
‘Hey, what took you so long? Sleeping till so late, lazyhead?’ Wrong beginning, I know.
‘I wasn’t sleeping,’ she said.
‘I haven’t slept all night,’ might perhaps have been more apt, going by the redness of her eyes.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, looking straight at me. ‘And I’m so sorry for yesterday. I shouldn’t have said such things.’
How simple was that. How easily she had apologised. And there I was, still standing like a dumb woodstick.
‘That’s okay,’ was all I could think of saying.
‘Do you want anything?’ she asked, her voice even and totally in control.
‘I came to say…I am…I am…going to office today so no need to prepare breakfast or lunch for me.’
‘Okay, that’s all,’ I said, ‘Bye.’
‘Bye,’ she replied, her smile already beginning to relax and droop down.
I turned and tried to walk away. Tried, I say, because something pulled me back at her door before I had taken two full steps.
‘I didn’t mean anything,’ I threw out.
‘You know it well, what made you rush away as if I had thrown a bucket of stinging ants on you. But I didn’t mean anything.’
She nodded again, ‘Of course, I didn’t think you did,’ she said, smiling.
I nodded and turned to leave again. But that something again forced me to face her.
‘You believe me, don’t you? I really didn’t mean or think anything bad about you,’ I said.
‘Of course, I believe you,’ she said pleasantly, without bothering to consider whether she did or not.
‘Okay then, bye,’ I said.
‘Bye,’ she replied, and prepared to close the door.
But the purpose hadn’t been solved yet. The gripping heaviness in my chest clearly said so.
‘On second thought,’ I said, stepping inside her door, ‘Since I’m already here, how about a cup of tea? Your tea is much better than mine. And so are you sandwiches. But I rather feel like having an omelette today, if you know how to make it. I leave for office at 8:30. I suppose you can manage it by then, can’t you? And if you still don’t have tea, coffee would be fine too,’ I rattled out, though I didn’t get any answer to any of my questions.
I went and settled myself down on the sofa. I drummed out a rhythm on its arm. On a table beside the sofa, a handsome couple stood. I picked them up and decided to let them have the pleasure of a morning kiss. The guy seemed quite eager, but when I brought the two statues close, the lady’s big hat came in way. I had to tilt the guy whole ninety degrees to let him have his dues.
Nirvi still kept herself away. I picked up the newspaper from the centre table. And I had browsed through the entire front page of it by the time Nirvi came in.
‘What took you so long? Did you fall asleep again at the door?’
Okay, maybe the question didn’t merit an answer. So she didn’t give any. Then I tried with another and better thought out question.
‘Where’s Tiya?’ I asked, without looking up from the paper.
‘Sleeping,’ she said.
I kept on reading the paper, or pretending to do so. She stood still meanwhile and stared at me. At last she said, ‘You have no need to do this.’
‘This,’ she waved her hand half at me and half generally in the air.
‘What this?’ I asked again.
‘Nothing,’ she said, and turned and hastened into her kitchen.
I picked up the remote and switched on the TV.
In an instant I saw Nirvi storming back from kitchen.
‘I told you Tiya is sleeping. Can’t you at least lower the volume?’ she hissed.
I switched the TV off and flipped the remote on the couch. ‘Nothing good is coming anyway,’ I informed her, before picking up the newspaper once again. I hoped I had not disturbed Tiya’s sleep. One angry girl was giving me so much trouble. Two angry girls would have been too much to handle.
Nirvi went back to her kitchen. And while there, she made enough noise that Tiya did wake up and came rushing to check what disaster had overtaken her friend’s kitchen.
She didn’t know, Lemon Girl had woken up too.
And I could finally feel easy. The more she banged in the kitchen, the broader I smiled in the living room. It was fun.
Tiya’s presence though calmed her down soon and in fifteen minutes I was served the pleasure of breakfasting with two very pretty young ladies.
And as we ate and Nirvi nibbled, I managed fairly well to carry on a conversation with Tiya that kept her giggling. Nirvi smiled sometimes too, and tinkled out her laugh at Tiya’s jokes. But the laughter of her eyes, that I had seen years ago, did not even let its shadow appear.
And for some reason, that somehow made my own laughter sound hollow to me.
‘So, you are going to office today? Why not take another day off to rest your ankle?’ Tiya asked.
‘I won’t mind taking another day off,’ I said, ‘but my boss would. You know what he would say?’
‘What?’ she asked.
And I stood up and gave her quite an accurate display of what my boss would have said, and how.
Tiya was clutching her sides and rolling on the couch by the time I ended. But that’s the fact of life. People do often laugh at other people’s troubles.
‘You are just being wicked. No way can your boss be as bad as that,’ she said, gulping in air to douse down her laughter.
‘Yeah, he is worse. I’m only being kind to him out of respect for his age,’ I said.
‘Can you mimic any Bollywood star too?’ Tiya asked.
As a matter of fact, I can. And I still consider myself quite good at it too. And I had no problem putting up a show for the pleasure of the two ladies. I even mimicked some animals for them, with full acting.
‘Ooh, stop it, you are so terrible at mimicry. Worst I have ever seen,’ declared Tiya after full ten minutes of laughing and clapping.
Well, some part of me was also saying that I had made a thorough fool of myself. But that didn’t matter. Tiya had enjoyed it, I knew.
And it had made even Nirvi holler out loud, quite forgetting her dainty fake laugh. And this time, her eyes laughed with her.
And all was well again with the world. And I finally could agree to my watch’s insistence that I was getting late for the office and must be on my way already.
The apology that I had come to offer had yet not found its way out my throat. It still weighed a little on my heart. But my brain said it would spoil Nirvi’s mood again by reminding her of what I had said. And I rather wanted those words scratched out from her memory, and mine. So I let the apology remain where it was, inside of me.
As I walked across the road towards my home, I knew she was watching me from the balcony. Tiya was with her too, of course. But it was Nirvi’s eyes that I felt on me that day. And they had forgiven me. We were friends again. And even my injured ankle could skip a merry step now.
The merriment lasted only till next evening when I found out Sam had returned. He had promised me a ten days’ reprieve. But obviously, he isn’t the man of his words.
The Sam that had gone away had been a big gamer. The Sam that returned turned out to be a big revolutionary. Something had turned his head to revolution and recovering his country from the hands of politicians. He did tell me how he had got into that, but I didn’t care to listen well enough to remember.
In short, he had decided to hold some sort of protest against the corruption. Though listening to him might have given you the very pleasant idea that the corruption had been squeezed out from the entire collective mass of the common man and had become concentrated in just a handful of politicians. And all the energies of all the ‘awakened’ youth must now be targeted against those handfuls. The rest was all fine, the rest was all innocent, and the common man was nothing but a poor victim, even if from the poorest to the richest, all licked the tar as and when the opportunity welcomed them to it.
But anyway, revolution was not the only thing he brought along.
When I returned from office that evening, I spotted Nirvi standing in her balcony. Her fingers clutched the railing, and she was staring into the air. I don’t know what she was seeing in it, but it couldn’t have been anything pleasant.
‘Hi,’ I called out to her, loudly enough for my voice to reach her second floor apartment.
My voice seemed to startle her. She lowered her eyes slowly, as if they needed time to find their way about, and then she saw me. Half a smile appeared on her face.
‘Hi,’ she said.
‘All well? Where’s Tiya?’ I asked.
Nirvi shook her head to indicate that Tiya hadn’t come. ‘But Sam is here,’ she added quickly, in a tone that forwarded an invitation and offered an excuse for me to visit her.
This was the first time when she had, by herself, invited me to her apartment. I could not refuse, even if it was at the cost of having to meet Sam. Besides, there had sounded in her voice an eagerness, a desperate sort of eagerness that was not required for just a casual invitation. She wanted me in her home, but she herself probably didn’t realize it.
I went and found her waiting at the door. She said nothing and ushered me inside like a good hostess.
‘Hey, Sam, how are you?’ I asked, greeting Sam.
‘Good, good, you returned early from office today?’
Had his desires been consulted, I most probably would have lost all rights to step out of the office.
‘No, usual time, what are you doing?’ I said.
Nirvi came in and handed me a glass of water. She did not bang it down on the table. She handed it to me, with a shade of a smile. However, all my efforts of the morning seemed to have gone waste. She wasn’t angry with me anymore. But she definitely looked under some cloud. Something had happened to make her go pale again.
‘Planning,’ said Sam.
‘I am not sure yet. It will either be a march, or a protest against corruption. Things have gone too far. Now we must do something. We can’t let some dirty politicians eat our country away. As a responsible citizen it is our duty to raise our voice. We must…’ that was where I stopped listening. For one, I was sure he had nothing new to say that was not already blaring out from every news channel those days. And secondly, I saw Nirvi go to the balcony again. And every tissue of my body burnt to be by her side.
But instead, I just asked Sam, ‘What’s wrong with Nirvi? Is she okay?’
‘Yes, yes, she’s fine. Just angry maybe, but it’s not my fault. My parents are pressing me to get married. Though I have refused, told them that I don’t want to get married right now. You know I have a good chance of being sent to US for a year, so don’t want to get entangled in the marriage thing right now. But you know mothers, she smuggled in some pictures of her chosen girls into my suitcase. Nirvi found those photos and is now angry.’
Anger, though, wasn’t what I had seen in her eyes. I liked her anger, and it always made me feel merrier.
I could no more bear not knowing what was bothering her. ‘I’ll go and talk to her,’ I said, getting up.
‘No need. I have told her it is nothing. She’s just being silly.’
I went nevertheless. She was leaning on her balcony’s railing and staring down at the road below.
‘What are you looking at?’ I asked as I stepped over to stand beside her.
‘People,’ her breath let out softly while she continued staring down.
‘Huh? But there’s nobody there,’ I said, looking down.
‘There would be when…I mean…if someone falls down.’
I liked neither the words, nor the ominous tone that uttered them. And while, I suppose, I should have felt concerned and alarmed, it was rage instead that spiked through my veins at that moment.
‘Someone would have to be an utter fool or a coward to fall down from here,’ I declared, in not a very kind voice. ‘And you are both if you ever force my Lemon Girl to do that,’ I wanted to add, but didn’t, somehow.
Instead, I turned and walked out of the balcony. It took just five steps to quell the rage and the concern to finally raise its head. I positioned myself behind the balcony’s door and kept a secret watch at her. There was no knowing what that girl might do.
Nirvi kept on staring down for some time longer. For a few moments, she leaned herself further and further over the railing. My heart pounded in my ears and I readied myself for a dash. But she stilled, and then jumped back raising her hands from the balcony as if it had scalded them. Slowly, and without turning, she took half steps back. I finally found my breath and let it have its passage in and out.
Nirvi too took a deep breath, folded her arms and walked back in with head raised and lips pursed in grim determination.
She was none of them, neither a coward, nor a fool. She was Lemon Girl. And I hope she did win back a little bit of herself that day.
I should have escaped back into the living room. But she had mesmerized me into stillness. She saw me staring at her from the balcony door. Her lips stretched out in a smile.
‘You still here?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said.
That should have made her smile more, but it didn’t. ‘How is your sprain?’ she asked.
‘Good,’ she said.
And we both stood under the doorway, silent, but not uncommunicative.
Finally I dug up from my mind’s store something irrelevant to speak.
‘Did I tell you that the furniture arrived yesterday evening? The couch that is too big for my room, and the side tables that I don’t need, and that thing full of drawers that you forced me to buy?’
‘You told me in the morning.’
‘You’ll have to help me arrange them. I have no idea how I am going to fit them in my rooms.’
‘Arsh?’ Sam called out from his couch. He had probably gotten uncomfortable about my having such a long chat with Nirvi. She was his victory over me. And he was not going to have me make a dent in that victory.
The fool had no idea how near he had come to losing even the outer crust of his dear sweet victory.
‘What does he want now?’ I grumbled.
‘Maybe he wants you to help him choose his wife,’ said Nirvi.
‘I doubt it. And anyway, I’d never be a party to cursing a girl’s life with such an idiot.’
‘Idiot?’ she smiled, ‘Do you know how much he earns?’
‘Oh. So you like his money. I was wondering what you saw in him,’ I said, copying her smile and pasting it on my face.
‘Arsh?’ Sam called again.
‘Coming,’ I said, and went back to the gamer turned revolutionary moneybag. ‘What?’ I asked when I was back in the living room.
‘I am having a meeting here next Sunday. Just a few of my friends would be here. Would you come too? We must unite in this fight against corruption.’
Nirvi came in just then, and I changed my answer. ‘Sure,’ I said.
‘Great, see you then, buddy,’ he said, getting up to shake my hand. And with that polite curtsy, I was ordered out of his home.
Before you proceed to the next chapter, here’s something extra!
Excerpt of Dream’s Sake