Memory has never been something that I have ever boasted of as my strength, as my parents and teachers would gladly, or sadly, attest. There are some moments in life though that have their own unique way of taking over a portion of your brain, usurping the land and building a house for themselves, whether you like it or not. And then every time you let your thoughts wander that way, their inhabitants rush out and usher you into their house and then you can’t help but reminiscence of old times with them.
Such a house Lemon Girl had erected in my mind despite the shortness of our meeting and despite it being passed away mostly in fighting.
It was not that I remembered her night and day and pined for the loss of my love-at-first-sight. I did not love her and I did not pine for her. It was only when I thought of her that I wished I could meet her again. And every time a lemon appeared before my eyes, so did the Lemon Girl. In all her robust glory. Her voice had been loud enough to ring clear in my ears despite the distance of months and years. And as my imagination controlled her now, the poor helpless babe talked the talk I gave her and walked the walk I gave her. And we had much fun chastising people that needed to be chastised, mocking people that seemed to be constructed for that very purpose or just having a blast challenging each other’s wit.
I believed that she would soon have forgotten me. But I didn’t want to forget her.
I don’t live in a forest and she was not the only girl I ever saw. But she is still the most interesting girl I have ever seen, in whose eyes life seemed to laugh as boisterously as she did.
After college got over, real life, as they say, started in Bangalore. And it soon gave a lie to my previous belief that nothing could be more stressful than the impossible expectations that Engineering professors harbour from their trapped victims. As a result, memories and reminiscences started having longer and longer to wait before my mind got the freedom to have a chat with them. Sometimes they intruded by themselves, but were often pushed away for there were projects to be completed and deadlines to be met. And as the years passed, my Lemon Girl understood that I had no time for her. As I said, a lemon managed to conjure her up still. But she refused to linger for long and rushed away quickly.
Three years passed away in Bangalore. But the previous year didn’t much like that city and pulled me to Gurgaon.
Okay, I was rather pushed to it by having a tiff with my boss, which by no means was my fault. He needed to be talked to and since nobody else dared, I fulfilled my duty and did my best to set him right. But something somehow went wrong in the process and I found myself without a job.
My enjoyment of the leisure of life lasted two months. And after two months, I accepted the duty of trying a different boss in a different company. With bags and baggage I came to Gurgaon and, to ease the process of settling down, started trying out all the night spots that the place could boast of.
Now, being so near the city where I had met my Lemon Girl seemed to give her memory some sort of licence to come visiting me again and again. But I never imagined that just as her memory had started coming uninvited, so would she. And that one evening, muffled amid the sounds of the hard rock echoing in a pub, I would hear the unmistakable sound of my Lemon Girl laughing.
Imagine finding a still unreleased Smartphone in the pile of ordinary feature phones. I couldn’t believe it for a moment. Had I really heard her? Or had the music played some trick on me?
I couldn’t be sure as the laugh was silenced instantly. And what followed it was tinkling affectation of merriment, a soft and sophisticated sound that seemed to examine its every note as it murmured out with measured elegance.
Both kinds of laughter had risen up from the group standing behind me. I turned, a grin right in place to greet the robust lady. She was not to be missed, of course. Even amid the crowd of hundreds, she could easily be seen and heard. Or so I thought. But as it happened, she was nowhere.
The group had two guys and two girls. None of the girls had the dimensions of my Lemon Girl. One was too short and dainty. The other was tall enough, but slim, with a body and dress that boasted of careful attention to it and, well, seemed to demand the same from all around. She had long hair, straight, shiny, and let loose. My Lemon Girl had short and curly hair, didn’t she?
‘But that was surely her I heard. It was her laugh, maybe she has walked off to get a drink,’ thought I. A grumble of protest rose up in my head. Somehow, the idea of her having anything stronger than a lemonade didn’t feel pleasant to me.
I did look around though and scanned the crowd. But she was not there. Having nothing else to do, I turned and focussed my eyes back on the slender beauty standing nearby. She stood tall on high heels. On her hand gleamed a huge ring, matching the shades of her dark dress. Though I couldn’t make out whether it was black or dark green. A glittering bracelet hugged her wrist. That might have impressed me by attesting her wealth, had it not been too thick and expensive looking to be real.
And then, before I could notice anything else, I saw her looking at me. Her big eyes looked confused for an instant and then her brows frowned.
I knew that frown.
Her eyes widened.
I knew those eyes.
A grin appeared again on my face, ready in expectation of her smile of recognition.
But instead of smiling, she took a step backwards. Pushed, as if, by a physical blow. Her hands clenched into fists.
‘Is she still so angry with me?’ That even topped the longest grudge I had ever had.
I took a step closer to her. She stepped backwards and folded her arms. I could see her digging her fingers into her skin. She stepped closer to one of the guy standing there, lowered her head, and shut me out.
In my turn, I shut the world out and looked only at her, trying to find my Lemon Girl in that fashionable woman. What an astonishing transformation she had gone through in four years! I stared at her eyes as much as I could in the dim light of the pub. There was glitter of makeup on them but the glimmer of laughter was gone. Her own laughter was gone. It was trespassed over by a measured, tinkling sound that irritated me again and again as she responded to the jokes of her group. She was chatting busily, laughing often, and openly clinging to one of the guys. And she never cast another look my way.
But I would not have it so. For four years she had lived in my mind. Now that she was there before me, I was not going to let her ignore me as if I was nothing to her.
Okay, well, a ten minute fight did not really give me a right upon her attentions. But four years of constantly disturbing me with her memory seemed to do so. She had talked often enough to me in my mind, she was going to talk to me now too. I will make her.
So, as soon as she separated from the group, I stepped over to her and held out my hand.
‘Hi, remember me? We met in…’
She side-stepped me and walked away without even looking.
‘I’m Arsh, by the way,’ I said, following her.
She clenched her fists.
‘And shall I call you a Lemon Girl still?’ I persisted.
‘Don’t’ call me,’ she threw back at me without turning.
‘But listen, Lemon Girl,’ I did call out.
She stopped, took a whole moment before turning, ‘Nirvi. My name is Nirvi. And that is Sam, Samarth, my boyfriend and my live-in partner.’ If ever there was defiance mocking itself in its own assertion, then there I saw it. It cindered in her eyes, it trembled in her voice. But she stood firm.
‘Must be quite a guy if you chose to live-in with him,’ I said.
I must confess it took me a moment to form that reply after such a revelation. And I do wish I had recovered quicker, disappointing her by showing no sign of shock or surprise. But I’m afraid she won over that battle. And she revelled in it by folding her arms and fixing her dark eyes at me.
‘He is the best man in the whole world and I love him,’ she said.
The words didn’t surprise me. I guess girls do often, and should always, think so about their boyfriends. But then, I believe such an assertion should have at least a little spirit accompanying it, some happy spark in the eyes, some zest proving the veracity of the feeling if not the claim.
‘That’s great,’ I said, shrugging. ‘You are a lot changed,’ I added.
A smile appeared on her face, though it was only a tired and bored kind of spreading of lips. ‘I guess I have learned to behave myself. You won’t find me shouting in the streets now,’ she said.
And then she spun around and walked away, with the quickness of an escape.
She clearly didn’t want my company.
But I wanted hers.
‘So you do remember me,’ I said. That felt nice.
She mumbled something but I could not catch the words.
She was not going to welcome me into her group. But all of a sudden, I wanted nothing else but that. Don’t know why. Maybe because for four years she had lived in my mind as a chubby, bubbly and bold girl. And now that I had been robbed off that image, by someone who seemed a trespasser in her own skin, I believed I had a right to know why.
I saw the other girl in the group, the short one, making her way through the crowd. I stepped closer to her, ready to offer her a supporting arm in case she stumbled. Not that she was drunk or anything, I just thought that she might stumble. And she did stumble because my hand happened to accidentally push away a chair just when she happened to lean on it while stopping to chat with someone. But no harm was done. I caught her, and held her, smiling reassurance into her eyes.
‘Hey, thanks,’ she said.
‘My pleasure,’ I said, quite honestly.
‘Tiya,’ she said, offering me her hand.
‘Arsh,’ I responded.
‘You are new here? I never saw you before,’ said Tiya.
She had all the fashion assortments right in place. From head to foot, she was dressed in branded extravaganza. But there are some girls who, even when dressed as a cat woman, would still appear sweet. Maybe it is something to do with their manner of speaking or looking at you. Something there is that betrays instantly that behind the fashion showcase hides the picture of a sweet and sensitive girl still in her ponytails. So Tiya appeared to me at that time. And so she has proved herself to be since.
I smiled at her and said, ‘Yes, I’m new. Was in Bangalore till now. Left all my friends there, so now am trying to make some new ones.’
‘Oh? Then I am your friend from now on. And come with me and I’ll introduce you to my friends. All my friends welcome all my friends.’
But she had overestimated her power over her group. Or maybe her words would have proved true if two of the people in her group had not been from the group that I had fought with.
One of these unwelcoming persons was Nirvi, of course. The other, call it divine retribution if you will, was the one on whose head I and my college buddies had poured our retribution aplenty in our college days. Of all the people in Gurgaon, Nirvi had to choose him!
Yes, I am talking about Samarth, Sam, Nirvi’s boyfriend. He had done justice to his name, and surprisingly so.
I didn’t recognize him at first. And so, I readily extended my hand to him when Tiya introduced us.
A slight touch of fingers was the handshake Sam allowed me. He had recognized me, while I still was in the dark.
‘Arsh, CPR College,’ he said, attesting by those words that he knew me too well.
And then I looked at him closely, and looked back at my memories of four years ago, and finally knew him. He had shaved his moustache and got rid of his glasses, and that had made all the difference. But with his thin frame and tall height, he still looked like a flat pole shaking in the wind. He was dressed in a skinny T-shirt which made him look skinnier than usual. He had gel in his hair, a fancy watch on his wrist, expensive boots on his large feet, and he stood in a pub with two gorgeous girls. And all this looked as comfortable on him as a cigarette in the mouth of a kid who is afraid his friends would know this is his first time, and also afraid his parents would know that he is smoking.
He was Sam the PP, Professor’s Pet. He had pursued Engineering in Information Technology through the same years and college that I used to chase my Engineering Degree in Computer Science. He neither was very intelligent nor very close to being a class topper, even in the college that could never boast of admitting even one class topper. But he knew the art of becoming the Professor’s Pet by dint of obeying their every whim, fancy or command.
While I tried my best to uphold the reputation of our college, he went against it by being dutiful and studious. And once, when some professors tried to trap their students in compulsory extra classes, he and four more like him displayed the extremities of their insanity by attending them against the order circulated by us. Even the professors proved to be wiser than them and remained absent.
Of course, the sense of justice demanded that the defectors be set to right. And they were set to right. Since they loved learning so much, a thorough lesson was given to them.
And as Sam looked at me now and we shook hands, I could see that he had yet not forgotten the education we had bestowed on him.
From him, I turned to greet Nirvi again.
She met me as a total stranger and, for once, I obeyed and reciprocated. She kept her distance from me. Well, I too kept my distance from her, forcing even my eyes and ears to do their function properly instead of focussing in just one direction.
Our meeting lasted for half an hour, though Nirvi did all she could to cut it shorter.
‘I am so tired I can’t stand one minute longer,’ she complained.
I noticed she was sweating a bit too much and looked quite white and shaken.
‘Lean on my arm,’ said Sam, without looking at her.
‘It is too stuffy here. I am feeling dizzy. Let us leave, Sam. I’m feeling really dizzy,’ she added when her first complaint refused to move Sam enough to leave his drink.
‘Have a drink, you’ll feel better,’ said Sam.
‘What you need is food,’ said Tiya, holding Nirvi’s hand. ‘I wish we were at home. I learned a new dish yesterday. And it is so delicious. You’d have eaten it whole despite your dieting crap. Why are you starving yourself like this? I’m sure you have not eaten even half a bite all day.’
‘I am not starving myself. I am only trying to lose some weight. I don’t want my Sam to be stuck with a fat girl. But what has happened to the music of this place? It’s intolerable. Let’s leave, Sam.’
‘What has happened to your taste? This song is awesome, much better than the tortures you used to like. Be quiet now and listen,’ said Sam.
‘Uh, uhh, hold my hand, Sam. I am sure I am going to faint, everything is getting dark,’ she said, putting one hand on her forehead and pressing the other on Sam’s shoulder, leaning heavily towards him. Her eyes fluttered as if they were on the verge of blacking out.
‘Hey, don’t faint, don’t faint,’ he said, wrapping his arms around Nirvi. ‘Sorry, guys, we’ll have to leave now. But why don’t you two come to our home? I bought a new game. Let’s have a Playstation tournament tonight,’ he said to his friend.
‘As dumb as ever. The fool really thinks she is fainting,’ I thought to myself.
‘Uhh…’ Nirvi groaned, forcing Sam to turn and get ready to leave.
But I would not have it so. She had played her game. Now was my turn.
‘It was great meeting you again, buddy,’ I said, before Sam could lead Nirvi away.
I saw Sam studying my face. I could also almost see him re-living the lesson we had given him and wondering at the last word I had used.
‘I always enjoy meeting an old friend and college buddy, no matter what might have happened between us in the past,’ I added, putting my right hand on his shoulder.
His frown deepened and the past glared back at me from his eyes.
Ok, then I did the mistake of letting my eyes slip a little towards the girl leaning on his shoulder. And though slow he maybe in everything else, Sam was quick to catch that shift.
Pride sneered from his eyes and a grin appeared to twist his lips. ‘Good to meet you too,’ he said, and extended his hand once again to shake mine. ‘I see you are alone here.’
‘Won’t be for long,’ I wanted to say, but managed to control myself. ‘Yes, I just moved from Bangalore.’
‘Let’s go, Sam,’ Nirvi said again.
‘Here’s my card, hope to see you again soon, buddy.’ I said, thrusting my business card in his free hand.
‘Sure,’ said Samarth, putting the card in his pocket. He did not offer to give me his. But there was something in his voice that hinted that he too was looking forward to meeting me again.
A minute later, the whole team had exited the bar. I too walked out soon after.
No, I didn’t catch any romantic glimpse of Nirvi fading away into the thickening smog of that February evening.
Instead I saw a rectangle piece of white plastic lying on the road. It bore my name and number. At one stroke all my self-congratulations of the successful handling of Sam were erased.
But all was not lost yet. I had extended a hand of friendship to him. And justice demanded I be given that friendship. And whether he liked it or not, I was going to get my dues one way or the other.
Before you proceed to the next chapter, here’s something extra!
Excerpt of Dream’s Sake