When it’s time for you to fall in love, even a lemon can become the cause of it. In my case, there were a full dozen of them.
However, when even love affairs begun by roses and chocolates fall to ruts, I should have expected nothing better from the one begun by lemons and a fight.
Actually, I hadn’t. I hadn’t expected it to be anything more than that one fight. Never knew that one day, we’ll encounter each other again, and how.
All I was thinking of at that evening, about five years ago, was to buy some palatable grub to help me survive the non-eating of the food that our land lady forced upon all her paying guests. After ordering what I wanted, I turned away to allow the guy behind the counter some privacy to cheat me out of a pack of biscuits. While he packed my order, minus that one pack of biscuits, I turned to carry on my manly duty of ‘sightseeing.’ Unfortunately, though a lot was stuffed in the radius of my sight, little of it was worth seeing. And amid all the melodies of the two, three and four wheelers pushing their way through the competing human mass, nothing at all appeared worth hearing.
But I believe the ears of the masculine gender of the species called humans are naturally trained to pick up the sound of girls, even from the collective wails of the entire remaining animal kingdom. Like a trained archer’s arrow, the sound hits the target every time.
Well, the sound that hit me was that of a girl laughing. Nothing like a tinkling of silver bells or the soft song of a brook as lovers boast their ladies to posses. It was a robust sound, open and frank and entirely careless of what the world might think of it.
It was not very hard to find the source of that sound as the laughing beauty was not making any effort to tone down her voice or her laugh. She just didn’t give a damn. She was free, freely she talked, freely she laughed, and freely she walked, not caring who or how many were staring at her.
And many were staring at her actually. Though she was not of the kind that guys usually turn to gawk at. And I’m still wondering why I did.
A nice and polite estimation would have called her chubby. Her lemony yellow tunic over the blue jeans did try to hide that chubbiness. But it didn’t seem to matter all that much anyway. She was not fat, and I’d have challenged anyone then and there had anyone called her that. Her hair was short and curly and was busy rocking this way and that in the wind, and getting arranged and re-arranged at every new moment. And how she walked! With big steps, swinging her hands as if trying to make something topple out from the shopping bags she was holding.
But she had the most feel-good face I had ever seen. You know, the kind of face that makes you feel good just to look at it, even if it bears no dazzling beauty to boast about. But of course, she was pretty too. Sweet looking, fair, lovely eyes, gorgeous eyes, actually. And her smile was one of the most contagious ones I had ever seen, or had succumbed to. And she was fun, fun to watch, fun to listen to as well.
‘You are stupid, Kusum,’ she was saying to her friend. The name suited the friend well. She was quite pretty and was dressed in pink. She had long hair and nails, big danglers in her ears and colourful bangles adorning her fair arms. And even in a vegetable market she was walking on high heels.
But despite all her adornments, and slimmer figure, my eyes somehow didn’t find Kusum as interesting as her friend.
‘Had I been in your place, I would have walked straight up to him, put my hands like this,’ this more interesting friend was saying, putting her thumbs to either side of her head, raising her fingers like horns. The two heavy bags she was holding dangled near her ears, as if well used to such manoeuvres. What a sight that was. But a still prettier sight was about to come. ‘I would have stuck my tongue out and stared back at him,’ she said, and stuck her tongue out, right in the middle of the market, and opened her eyes as wide as they could be opened, showing exactly what she would have done. ‘How dare he stare and whistle at you?’ she added, letting her tongue do the talking before poking it out again.
‘You are silly, that would only make you look ridiculous. Besides, he was handsome,’ said Kusum, looking down on her clothes and making sure her dupatta was perfectly arranged, its every fold right where it should be.
‘You are silly. But hey, those lemons look good. I’ll buy some. Rishi bhaiya is home for weekend, and he loves lemonade.’ She marched up to the nearby vegetable seller, a boy who looked the same age as she, but was half her size.
I picked up my order from the shop’s counter and stepped down to go to my room. And yet I lingered.
I should have walked away then.
But it came into my head that a cold glass of lemonade would be great to help me bear the humid stuffiness of my room. In short, I needed lemons too.
I walked up to the same vegetable seller, but waited patiently while she dealt with him.
‘Are you a vegetable seller or a robber?’ she was saying. She brought on a very deep frown on her face. It might have worked in making her look angry, had she been able to control the child that kept laughing out from her eyes, from her barely controlled smile, and from the lilting tones of her prattle.
‘Didi, you can ask anyone, that’s the rate. I’m not taking any more than the rate,’ said the guy.
‘You have all fixed the rate too high. The market is full of robbers,’ her scowl deepened, her voice became louder. So desperately was she trying to appear enraged.
‘What are you saying, Didi? What are we to do if the vegetables are getting expensive? We have to feed our families too,’ the boy said to her.
‘How many children do you have?’ she asked.
‘I’m not married yet,’ said the guy, breaking out in a shy smile.
‘Oh, look at him smiling, Kusum, I’m sure he is thinking of his girlfriend. You are thinking of your girlfriend, aren’t you?’ she asked, before Kusum could even nod.
‘What are you saying, Didi, I don’t have a girlfriend,’ said the boy.
‘Liar,’ she cried out, in a voice that made at least a dozen heads turn. ‘I’m sure you have one. What is her name? Is she pretty? Is she a vegetable seller too? I’m sure she must be a cheat like you.’
‘No, she is very nice, she works as a housemaid,’ the boy couldn’t help but confess.
‘See, See, I knew you were lying. And for that, you’d have to give me these lemons at my rate. It’s your punishment for lying to me.’
‘Didi, now you are robbing your brother,’ the boy said.
‘Hey, I never called you my brother. My brother is not like you. He would never try to rob his sister. Now come on, hurry. Give me the lemons, and here’s the money,’ she said, slapping two notes down on a pile of green chillies. ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry,’ she sang.
The boy had no option but to pick the two notes and hand her the bag of her chosen lemons.
That guy was either a fool or very generous, as most guys allow themselves to be when it comes to girls. She had stripped him of all his profit and yet he was smiling and wanting her to come back and do it again.
‘Don’t you want anything else, Didi?’ he asked as she stepped away.
‘Not from you, you are a cheat and a liar. But I’ll pray you get married to your girlfriend soon. If she is good, she will cure you and then you won’t rob people as you do,’ she said as she walked away, mutely followed by Kusum.
As soon as her march started, so did the swinging of the bags she was holding.
I forgot that I had wanted to buy lemons too. I stepped away from the stall and just stood watching her walk away. While Kusum picked her way carefully through the dirty road, she marched on looking quite unconcerned about the road, the traffic and the bags in her hands.
They started talking, though it sounded like a one-sided conversation. While her voice could be heard clearly enough, Kusum either was not speaking, or in a very low voice. She must have known that her companion didn’t really care for her responses, content as she was listening to her own magnificent voice and superb opinions.
So that companion talked on, and walked on, almost blindly, letting others make way for her or risk getting trodden down.
And then there came that cyclist. Even I could read the intention in his eyes and grin. Both of them had only one target.
Though I do believe that target was Kusum, yet the alarm that I rang out was, ‘Hey, Lemon Girl, watch out!’
The cyclist came up on them just as she swung around towards me. As she swung, her bag of lemons swung along as well and banged into the cyclist. His grin turned into a cry and he sped down to taste dirt. That was good. Fit place for him.
But down too went the lemons as the bag burst and spilled its contents on the road.
For a moment, I was worried about the cyclist, fearing she might get in her head to stamp her foot on his face for trying to collide into her friend. But instead, she whirled up to me.
‘What did you call me?’ she asked.
‘Lemon Girl.’ I should not have grinned as I said that, but some things just can’t be helped.
‘Do I look like a lemon to you?’ she asked.
I looked at her bright lemony tunic and grinned again. Yes, I can go totally out of my head sometimes, grinning at most inappropriate times. That happened to be one of the worst of them.
Her eyes opened wide and glared at me. She probably wanted me to cower down with fear at that glaring look. But that is never my way of dealing with a glare, stare, frown or scowl. Besides, I had lost myself in marvelling at her eyes. I still wonder if that was because they were big, beautiful and had long eye lashes, or because of the laughter that twinkled in them even when they frowned. Whatever it was, I only know that as they stared at me, I stared back.
‘How dare you stare at me and grin like that?’ she asked.
When someone orders me to stop smiling, not that many dare, I consider it my duty to grin broader. And that’s what I did then. Besides, I couldn’t have helped it either. Even she looked as if she was enjoying the scene and finding it funny. I’m sure she was already planning out the words in which she was to describe it, and me, to her friends.
And then, it was kind of hard to mind her anger.
When I failed to answer, she gave a jerk to her head and raised her eyebrows.
‘I don’t know your name and you were buying lemons and…’ I began to explain.
‘Tomorrow if you see me buying shoes, will you call me a shoe girl?’
‘Not if you tell me your real name,’ I said, folding my arms, pulling myself straight to my full height, raising my head even higher and looking down on her.
But she was not the one to cower down with any high and mighty display.
‘My name is none of your business,’ she declared. ‘And if you call me Lemon Girl ever again, I’ll come and squirt some real lemon juice in your eyes to teach you what a lemon can do. So there, you watch out.’
With this, she turned on her heels and walked back to Kusum who by then had made two young boys to gather most of the spilled lemons for her. The cyclist, meanwhile, had made good his escape.
‘Have you got all?’ my still furious lady asked her friend.
‘No,’ said Kusum, ‘they have rolled all over.’
‘Let them be, let’s go.’
But I had to call her back again to return to her the little round thing that had come rolling towards me.
‘Hey, Lemon Girl, here’s one of your lemons,’ I called out.
‘Cut it and squeeze it in your eyes,’ she called back and continued on her way.
I grinned and stowed the lemon in my pocket. A moment later, my ears caught a loud laugh from the lemon’s rightful owner. So she had already started making fun of me. Strangely though, it did not raise my hackles up and, well, felt kind of good.
All this had taken place when I was very near the end of my engineering course. Just three months were left before I and my friends were to give our professors the pleasure of seeing us leave the college for good. Those three months passed away swiftly.
Those were the last three months of my student life. And I believe I studied harder during that time than I had ever done. The reason was that there was a very real danger of my failing in most of my exams, unless some drastic changes were brought about in my study schedule. And I could not fail. I wouldn’t have minded it all that much had both my parents not been such proud holders of degrees from IIT, and much respected professors in much respected universities. And my elder sister and her husband were both earning big bucks in an MNC. My younger sister was already through one successful year in a medical school. I, on the other hand, had already failed them all by not getting admission in any decent college. I could not fail them again by failing even in the damndest little hole I had got myself into.
So I studied hard for the last three months. More would have been useless. I was not going to become a NASA scientist even if I had studied more, you know.
I visited the market often enough though during those three months, but I never saw her again.
The lemon she had given me stayed at my table for a full week. If I could have pressed it in a notebook like a rose, I would have, as the memorabilia of a memorable girl. But a lemon isn’t a rose. Its purpose is not to evoke sensations of love and romance, but to quench thirst and strengthen the body’s immunity. So after a week, on a particularly hot day, I helped it to fulfil its life’s purpose. And with a chilled glass of lemonade in my hand, I thought of my Lemon Girl and shook my head and laughed at her and like her, just as I believed she would have laughed at me.
I wondered if I would ever hear that laugh again.
And five years later, I am wondering that once again. Have I robbed it off her forever? It’s almost six months since she ran away from here. Ran away in shame. Because of me. How could I have been such a senseless brute!
Before you proceed to the next chapter, here’s something extra!
Excerpt of Dream’s Sake