Finding her proved to be easier than I had thought. I belong to the 21st century. Technology is my slave. I invoked its services, and hit jackpot. That night, when I sat down to register my presence to my seven hundred and fifty eight friends on Facebook, it took but a tiny bit of search, and a few taps of fingers to increase the number of my friends by one more.
Five evenings after seeing Nirvi at the pub, I was standing at her door.
‘Hey, guess whom I have brought with me,’ my new friend Tiya sang out as soon as Nirvi opened the door.
Nirvi’s smile of welcome for her friend dropped down in an instant. She stared at me, but it was not anger or unwelcome that froze her eyes. Rather a sudden fear, and something very like pain and shame that flamed up and made her squirm. I spied some sudden drops of sweat on her brow. And then she turned and went into her home without even greeting me.
‘Tiya, you said all your friends welcome all your friends. But I don’t think your friend is happy to see me here,’ I said, stepping inside the house nevertheless.
‘Oh, she must be tired or something. Don’t mind her, she’s cool,’ said Tiya, shrugging her shoulders and walking straight to the refrigerator.
‘She is angry at me,’ said Sam. ‘I defeated her once again.’
‘You and your Playstation. How can anyone spend Sunday evenings playing video games?’ said Tiya, shaking her head.
‘That’s how I spend Sunday mornings too. And don’t you say anything against me and my Playstation. We are a perfect team.’
‘And what did you do all day?’ Tiya turned to her friend.
‘She tried to play with me. But she is useless at it. No fun at all. It’s too easy to defeat her.’
‘But I am trying to learn,’ said Nirvi.
‘Yes, since the time we started living together. But in the ten months…’
‘Seven,’ Nirvi corrected him.
‘In the seven months, you haven’t defeated me even once.’
‘I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that,’ Nirvi said, tilting her head sideways and smiling adoration at Sam, ‘You are too good. You are a champion.’ Eye lashes were fluttered, the smile was broadened, and a kiss was planted on his cheek.
‘Yeah,’ he grinned, ‘I am the champion.’
That word, somehow, tasted a little bitter to my ears. But then, it didn’t much matter. Some people there are who believe they have wings even if they find themselves elevated on an ant hill. They serve very well to make others laugh, but barely matter otherwise.
‘Okay, champion, don’t forget to greet my new and your old friend,’ said Tiya, pulling their attention towards their uninvited and waiting guest.
Sam half got up from the couch and shook hands with me.
‘I hope you do not mind my coming here. As you didn’t call me…’
‘I didn’t have your number,’ he said.
‘What happened to the card I gave you?’ I knew the answer very well, of course. But I wanted him to own up.
‘Your card didn’t like staying in my pocket. It flew away somewhere.’
As Sam said this, I noticed Nirvi turning her back at me and speeding away. She would have done better to stay still instead.
I could pretty well guess now how my card had flown away. What I could not guess at was, why?
Well, there were lot many whys I wanted to find answers for. And I think even she knew I was not going to leave her alone till I was done.
I had to know. I just had to know why a free spirited, bold and frank girl had transformed into something so artificial.
‘Can you play?’ Sam asked me.
‘Yes, I can play,’ I said, managing to feign some bit of humility. In my mind I was already celebrating the joy of robbing him of his champion’s trophy.
‘Good then, you are welcome,’ my unsuspecting opponent said. ‘Come and let’s have a game.’
I nodded and settled down. The battle between Sam and me started. And within ten minutes I realized it was not just a girlfriend he had gained in the last four years. He was not going to be so easy to beat. Not especially when my eyes kept on turning to Nirvi again and again, and my brain tried to decipher a meaning out of her every move.
And she moved often enough, flitting ceaselessly like a butterfly in a glass jar.
Well, though I sat composedly and played with Sam, I was no more at rest than her. She made sure of that.
Though Sam had warned her from disturbing him, she returned every five minutes to him. I was her guest, but she preferred asking him, twice, whether he wanted anything to drink or eat.
‘No, just sit still and don’t disturb,’ was what Sam wanted instead. ‘See how I defeat him.’
Nirvi sat down and started watching the game. She managed to be still for full five minutes. And then she had to lean her head on his shoulder, she had to run her fingers through his hair, and she had to cheer him on, though at most inappropriate moments.
When nothing worked, the little patch of sky peeking from the window arrested her attention. And that’s what she watched till the game was over.
‘There, champion again,’ Sam shouted at the end of it.
‘And here’s a kiss for my champion,’ Nirvi said, as if she had been following the game all along.
She leaned towards Sam, crossed her arms around his neck, ending her words with an emphatic kiss. As her lips touched his, her eyes turned to look at me.
I, at that moment, managed to appear attentive to nobody else but Tiya. And so, Nirvi’s display could get no response or reaction from me. That seemed to disappoint her somewhat and she got up from the sofa and made as if to go into the kitchen.
I must confess that I probably would not have remained so unaffected by that kiss, had it been a kiss of any genuine emotion. But it pleased me to see that no matter how much Nirvi had changed herself, she was still above feeling any genuine emotion for a fool like Sam. No matter how much and how often Nirvi clung to Sam, love certainly didn’t appear to be the glue pulling her to him. And what it was that was binding her to Sam, I had already vowed to find out, as soon as possible.
And to that intent, I soon began my hunt.
‘This seems like a nice neighbourhood. It’s nearer to my office too than the room I have now. I think I’d shift here. Do you know if any apartment is available for rent?’ I asked Sam. I had been thinking of moving anyway, and this locality was as good as any other.
‘I guess so. Some or the other is always available. I’ll inquire and let you know,’ said Sam.
Nirvi had almost reached the kitchen. But my declaration made her stop. She turned, she glared at me, and then she turned again and vanished into the kitchen. Two seconds later a crashing sound from the kitchen told me that a tea cup had been sacrificed to celebrate my expected arrival.
‘Do you have a Playstation too?’ her helpful boyfriend asked meanwhile. ‘We can play at your place when the girls turn too grumpy.’
I suspected, by ‘Play’ he meant defeating me again and again. He didn’t know nothing would make his girl grumpier than having me in the same society. But that was not going to stop me from coming. That, actually, was what was pulling me to her.
So I recited out the list of all the games I had, on my Playstation, and on my laptop, and on my tab, and on my three Smartphones. That guy was all but drooling by the time I ended.
Within ten days of my visit to his house, Sam managed to pull me and my games close to him.
‘Welcome to your new home,’ Sam said as he dumped the last of my bags on the floor of my apartment. He had been kind enough to help me carry my stuff up to my third floor flat in the tower that faced his own. ‘Where are your games?’
I pointed to a box.
I had thought the past few year had given Sam a skill at gaming. But he had not just gained skill, he had gained an addiction. And the person who never bothered to attend a sporting event as a spectator, was now a compulsive gamer. Well, as long as his addiction worked in my favour, I had no problem with it. And if my games could win me his friendship, all the better for me.
‘Freshen up quickly. The dinner must be ready,’ Sam told me.
‘Sure, just give me five minutes,’ I said. I wasn’t going to take longer because for one, I was starving. Moreover, the dinner was to be at Nirvi’s home. Or so I thought.
When I returned from the shower, the first thing I saw was that the promised food had been brought over to my apartment. And Sam had already installed and started up my Playstation.
‘Hey, good you are back. I brought the food here. Hurry up now and let’s have a match,’ he said.
‘Match? But it’s past ten. If we start playing now, it will be midnight before we know it. Wouldn’t Nirvi mind?’
‘Yeah, Nirvi gets scared when alone at night. Once, when I returned late from office, I found her screaming in her bed. The TV was on at some music channel. And she was staring at it and screaming as if she had been watching some real ghost, instead of peppy item songs. When I asked her, she said she had fallen asleep and had a bad dream. Silly girl. But anyway, she knows I am here only, so she would be ok. Now hurry up with the dinner. Let’s play.’
‘Let’s play,’ I soon found out was Sam’s favourite phrase.
As time went by, not one single evening arrived when his ‘Let’s play’ didn’t ring in my home. And with every passing evening, his departure time shifted more and more towards the morning.
One day at a time, I somehow stumbled through a whole month of sleeplessness and headaches. And all the reward I got for it was three brief sightings of Nirvi, during each of which she had behaved most graciously. And yet I was never in doubt that she hated seeing me.
Then, on the first Sunday morning in the month of April, even before my alarm clock had opened its eyes, Sam was again at my door. And I do not lie, nor exaggerate when I say this, but my head started throbbing and my fingers pulsated in protest just at the sight of him. His forgiveness was proving worse than a punishment.
‘Hey, dude, still sleeping?’ he asked, strolling into the house.
‘Yes,’ I mumbled, ‘I don’t wake so early on weekends,’ I said. ‘And neither does my Playstation,’ I wanted to add, but managed to control myself.
‘I don’t either. But I’m going home today. So had to get up early. I came to inform you we won’t be able to play today.’
‘Oh? When would you two return?’
‘You and Nirvi?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I am going home. And nobody at home knows I am living with a girl here. My father would hang me upside down with his belt, if they come to know of it.’
Sam meant nothing to me, and Nirvi was just a curiosity I wanted to satisfy. Yet, somehow, Sam’s words made me want to challenge him to a match then and there and defeat him hands down in at least ten continuous games. That, despite the fact that just the thought had made my head throb harder and my fingers to shout louder.
‘But they would have to know, sooner or later. You love her, don’t you?’ I said.
‘Sure. She’s cool,’ he shrugged. ‘Anyway, I’d be off in an hour.’
‘Nirvi would stay alone?’ I asked.
‘Tiya is to come. I’ll be gone for ten days, but Tiya has already planned 15 days of ‘girls only’ fun with Nirvi.’
That didn’t surprise me. I had already seen that no matter what the occasion, Tiya always had more things to do than time could permit. She was always so full of interests and hobbies and good intentions and purposes that she never could have her peace with the limitedness of time. Another thing that I had noticed was that Tiya was the only one who could raise any real smile in Nirvi’s eyes. I had no doubt at all that Tiya cared more about Nirvi than Sam did.
‘Isn’t it a pity I have to go just now?’ Sam continued, looking at the games that I had already stopped bothering to put away.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I had hoped you’d take me to that furniture shop today.’ Since I had stepped out of my parents’ home, it was the first time I had a whole apartment to live in, instead of a small room. So I wanted to furnish it nicely, with something better than a cot, a chair and a table, I mean. And since the very first day of my arrival here Sam had been intending to take me to the furniture shop of his acquaintance. The intention hadn’t yet come close to materialising into action however.
‘Well, Nirvi knows that shop too. But better wait till I’m back. Nirvi is terrible at shopping. She buys the most useless stuff. She has no taste at all.’
‘She chose you.’ But that seemed to prove his point bang on, at least to me.
‘She would have chosen even you had you been at the right place at the right time,’ said Sam.
I must admit, Sam had definitely done some good growing up since he passed out of college. The guy had learnt to taunt, and acquired the daring to do so too, even to me. But then, he was earning more than I was, owned a car and had a gorgeous live-in partner. That, I suppose, was enough to give him the confidence and right to look down upon me.
‘You should have seen the long line of jerks she went out with before I brought her here,’ he added, in a tone that abundantly praised his unselfish goodness in rescuing the poor girl from the jerks and giving her a kind and generous shelter.
‘Okay, got it, she has no taste,’ I said, wishing to silence him before, well, before things went out of control.
‘Yes, and she can never bargain. The shop keepers always overcharge her,’ said Sam.
That made me smile.
Here was yet another part of her that she had given up. And yet, I felt happy to know it. Sam had been living with Nirvi since last seven months. But he had no idea who she was.
I knew her better. Yes, I knew her better.
An hour later, I waved Sam off and did not bother to wonder whether I was smiling a bit more than was needed.
As his taxi sped off, my eyes focussed on the one who was busy blowing kisses at the departing vehicle and shouting ‘miss-you’ and ‘love you’ in between those kisses. But the unexpected fortunate respite from Sam had put me in a very forgiving mood, so I did not let that lessen my grin.
And then I saw Nirvi’s waving hand freeze in the air. Her smile faded in an instant. Her eyes, busy so far in gleaming love, filled up with a sudden dread.
After a long moment of stillness, her raised hand curled its fingers and drooped by her side. She turned, and it seemed as if Sam’s departing taxi had melted the road under her and weighed her feet with tar.
I was still standing there, waiting for her.
She saw me, ignored me, and sped back towards her home.
I should have returned to my own apartment then. But at that time, somehow, following her seemed more natural. Besides, it was the opportunity I had been looking out for all through the past month.
Together we reached her door which had been left ajar. She took hold of the doorknob.
In my mind’s eye flashed the picture of her banging the door at me. Instinctively, I stepped back and covered my nose.
‘I suppose you want to come in now?’ she asked, not allowing her eyes to meet mine.
‘I suppose,’ I said, ‘If you don’t mind.’
‘You are Sam’s friend,’ she mumbled, wrenching the door knob almost out of the door.
That didn’t mean anything of course, so I let it pass. ‘Sam told me Tiya is to come here to give you company. When is she coming?’ I said, stepping closer to the door.
‘Soon,’ she said, walking into her home. She did not close the door behind her. She had realized that this time there was no chance of escape. So she surrendered. And I followed her inside.
We crossed the small corridor that led to the living room. She sat down on a chair, crossing her arms a bit too tightly. I chose the couch in front of her and settled down comfortably. I looked at her and saw no more shrinking in her eyes. Instead, her face and her eyes looked rigid with defiance now. Not the irresistible, amusing defiance of the Lemon Girl, but something grim and…desperate.
She did not speak anything. I too let the second’s hand in the clock take full five rotations before I opened my mouth.
‘In my home, when a guest comes we serve chilled water,’ I said.
She got up like a robot, entered her kitchen and soon returned to bang the glass of water on the table before me.
I picked it up and poured it down my throat. ‘Thanks,’ I said, wiping my mouth.
‘You are welcome,’ she replied.
‘In my home,’ I said again, ‘we serve our guests a nice cup of tea too.’
‘Sam does not drink tea,’ came the answer.
‘When tea is not available or the guest does not like it, we serve coffee or cold drinks,’ I said.
She got up again. I grinned to spot the very obvious irritation in her robot act.
I feared her breaking another teacup in the kitchen. ‘Maybe she would break a whole set now,’ I thought.
Well, there was something far more valuable that seemed to be broken in that house. And I would rather she break the teacups, then herself.
But all the teacups remained safe. Even the coffee that was served to me gave no indication of any mischief.
‘Thanks, nice coffee,’ I said, after taking a couple of sips.
She spread out her lips in a gracious smile. But as she said nothing, I once again had to start the conversation. ‘Why do you think I’m just Sam’s friend? We two know each other from earlier too, don’t we?’ I said.
‘You call fighting on a street knowing each other?’ she said.
‘So you do remember.’
‘Yes, I remember. I remember every moment of…that day.’
Had I been listening with only half an ear, I would still have caught the unmistakable alteration in her voice when she spat out the last two words. Had I been looking at her with only half closed eyes, I would still have seen the shafts of pain and hatred that pierced her eyes. But my attention was focussed only on her and I missed neither the tremor of her voice, nor the sudden descending of moisture in her eyes.
‘That day… that day,’ my mind repeated the words. Did something happen to her on the day I first met her? Must have been something painful. Then I must always remind her of that. ‘No wonder she hates seeing me,’ the thought cracked out, illuminating much in its blaze.
I don’t know how long a time passed away in silence after that. Maybe many minutes, maybe only an instant. But finally I managed to push my thoughts away and reply, ‘I don’t remember much of that day,’ I said. ‘But I remember someone whom I nicknamed Lemon Girl. She was a most extraordinary girl, you know. I wish I could meet her again.’
Her eyes flicked up and looked into mine, straight and unwavering. ‘But I don’t,’ she said. ‘She was ugly and foolish. She had no manners, never knew how to behave properly. Even her mother thought so.’
‘No, she wasn’t. She was…’ I began a protest.
Just then, a merry singsong voice announced the entry of another visitor in the house. Not a glance passed between Nirvi and me, but we both knew that the past was to be dropped at once and the present met with an unaffected grin.
‘Hey, where are you, Nirvi? Why is the door open?’ Tiya’s voice entered the living room before she herself skipped in.
I at once realized that I had forgotten to close the door as I had followed Nirvi in. ‘My fault,’ I called back. ‘But don’t worry Nirvi is not alone.’
‘Hey, Arsh, nice to see you. How are you?’ chimed Tiya stepping inside the room.
I gave the required response and reciprocated by asking the required questions. Tiya let the pleasantries continue for five minutes. And then, ‘So anyway,’ she said, ‘how long are you going to give the pleasure of your company to us girls?’ she asked, tilting her head sideways and raising one eyebrow.
I well remembered what Sam had said about Tiya’s ‘girls only’ plans. She clearly couldn’t wait to start up on them. Well, but I have my own mind, and my own mind likes making its own plans. And I don’t like putting them on hold either.
‘How long can you bear me?’ I asked grinning, settling deeper into the couch and spreading my arms on its back.
‘Hmm,’ Tiya mumbled, shifting her pupils left and right as she did her calculations. ‘You have permission to linger till lunch. After that we girls have to go shopping,’ she declared.
‘So kind of you for letting me stay this long,’ I said. ‘I need another favour from you.’
‘What?’ asked Tiya.
‘I need furniture and some household stuff. Sam had promised to help me, but he hasn’t yet. And I don’t yet know the markets here all that well. Can you help?’
Tiya screwed her eyes and twitched her lips and pretended to be thinking hard and calculating a bunch of options.
‘Just tell me where to find the best furniture shops, offering good price,’ I said.
Another round of rapid calculations followed, made visible by some more dancing of her pretty eyes.
‘I have a better idea. We are going that way anyway, so we’ll take you there and help you shop. Okay?’ she asked finally, extending her hand to me as if to confirm a deal.
I took it in mine and managed to hold on to it for at least two full moments longer than was needed.
Before you proceed to the next chapter, here’s something extra!
Excerpt of Dream’s Sake