Raghav Goes Back
I woke up on Sunday morning when the daily help rang the doorbell. Her name was Kamala. She was middle aged, short and stout, and had a voice that carried well and that she used to good effect when Divya or I dared to criticise her work, pointing out some dust in a corner or the remnants of food on a freshly-washed dish. She swept and scrubbed our floors, did the dishes and – sometimes, if we asked politely and she was in a benevolent mood – did a little cooking. She had asked us more than once if we wanted her to wash clothes – but I preferred doing my own laundry and Divya carried hers off to her parents’ home every weekend to load into the washing machine there.
I tried to go back to sleep, but Kamalabai was banging away in the kitchen and my mind refused to shut down. I finally got up and brushed my teeth. By the time I was done, I found that Kamalabai had vacated the kitchen, so I made us both tea, adding an extra heaped spoonful of sugar in her cup. The tea seemed to improve her mood, and she chattered away, while I nodded abstractly. I was relieved when she left.
I had a headache and lethargy that I diagnosed as a hangover. I spent the day doing my chores – washing clothes and hanging them out to dry in the balcony, tidying my room and the living room, making myself lunch, calling my mom. It was November and getting colder by the day: I drew all my sweaters out of the carton I had stored them in. I kept the TV on to disperse the silence and talked to myself intermittently. I tried to keep serious thoughts at bay. Raghav called in the afternoon, and I spent a nice half hour talking to him. Neither of us mentioned last night’s “serious” conversation.
I went for a walk in the evening and bought some groceries on my way back. I lived in a big colony with rows of white two-storied buildings and a nice garden in the centre, with swings and a seesaw for children. The sun had set by the time I walked home and the lights turned on just as I entered the colony gates. With the lamps casting a dim glow through the faint mist, I felt like I was walking in fairyland. The cold wind lashed against my face and made me feel alive.
I thought back to the previous night. At first, I just recollected how much fun I had had. But it wasn’t long before I was replaying Raghav’s declaration of love in my head. It was tempting, then, to give in, to bask in the comfort of a “relationship”, to feel that there was one person for whom I was most important.
But I knew I had been clear-sighted to refuse. I was sure our friendship would not survive long under the strain of a romantic relationship. In one way, I knew it wouldn’t work because we were too alike: both were impatient, stubborn and impetuous. We would accentuate each other’s weaknesses. But on the other hand, I realised that we weren’t alike enough: we didn’t see eye-to-eye on issues that would become more important in a more intimate relationship. Compared to him I was much more rebellious and idealistic: I would have found his traditionalism stifling and he would look upon my idealism as immaturity.
Raghav called up late at night to confirm our date for Monday. We talked for an hour, and afterwards I slept unusually peacefully.
Monday dawned cold and windy. I sneaked into Divya’s bathroom for a shower – mine didn’t have hot water. I buttered a piece of toast and made some hot Bournvita for breakfast. When the cab came for me, I was sitting in the balcony with the morning newspaper.
Unlike most people, I liked Mondays. Monday usually came not too soon after the loneliness and boredom of the weekend. I enjoyed my work and liked most of my colleagues, and was mostly thankful to get out of my lonely house and go to the buzzing, cheerful office. These days, an added incentive was that Vikram and I were working together on a project.
You may have gathered that I liked Vikram. At least, I liked how he looked – his straight dark hair that fell over his forehead, his warm brown eyes, the little dimple near his mouth – if he had been only a couple of inches taller, he would have been breathtaking. But I didn’t seem to know him well enough, even though I’d known him for months now. I couldn’t figure him out. Sometimes he was warm and friendly and almost flirtatious: sometimes he seemed distant. Today he donned his friendly avatar, and we exchanged news about the weekend. I could tell he was curious about Raghav, though he tried not to show it.
“He’s one of my best friends,” I said. “I met him after nearly four months.”
I was sure Vikram was wondering about the nature of the relationship, and I decided not to try too hard to convince him it was innocent: a little jealousy might work to my advantage.
I also learned that Vikram lived within a few kilometres of my house. I concealed my excitement when we discovered that fact.
As I said bye to Vikram earlier than usual that evening – both Vikram and I were used to staying later than our expected hours – and informed him I was going to a movie with Raghav, I had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes narrow before he responded with his usual easy banter.
I took an auto to the mall and walked in feeling excited: watching a movie on a workday with a guy (even though it was just Raghav) was sufficiently out of the ordinary. Raghav was waiting – with flowers! I grabbed the bunch of yellow gerberas with delight (and a tinge of apprehension – was he trying to woo me?) But the smile on his face was as frank as ever, and I decided not to worry. He pointed out that he didn’t get the pink flowers even though he thought they were lovelier.
“Is he just being sarcastic about the teddy bear, or is he trying to say something else?” said Mandakini in my head.
“What else? That he likes pink?” asked Miki.
“Maybe he feels I should be more feminine, more romantic. That I should have been more receptive to his offer…”
Sigh. I wish I could enjoy myself without having Miki and Mandakini constantly analysing everything.
But then we went into the movie, and it was delightful enough to drive both silent. There were a few awkward moments, because the movie was about two “best friends” who fall in love, and it struck a little close to home. I wondered if I was denying Raghav his happiness: what if he really loved me? But the image of Raghav pining away for love of me was too funny to stick.
That week passed delightfully. Work was a pleasure, and Vikram was unusually attentive – he even dropped me home on Friday, when we were late in office meeting a deadline. I talked to Raghav every evening. Saturday morning brought an SMS that said my salary had been deposited in my bank account, and I offered to treat Raghav to dinner that day. I had invited him to come and spend the day with me, but he preferred to wait till his mom came home from work in the afternoon so that he could borrow her car: public transport was too pedestrian for him.
I dressed up this time in clothes that (I thought) were suitable to an evening out: a white satin top and a short red skirt. I picked up my handbag and my denim jacket and walked down. Raghav whistled as I got into the car.
We had a great time. Raghav was at his best: witty, polite, and gregarious. When he dropped me home, he parked the car and we walked around the colony. It was well past midnight but we were reluctant to part: Raghav was going back to Bangalore the next day and we didn’t know when we would meet again.
It was cold, so I ran upstairs and got a blanket. We walked into the garden and sat on a bench. The moon was nearly full, and the garden glowed as if under a spell. We drew the blanket around us.
“Do you remember the day we first met?” Of course I did. “You were the first person I spoke to at b-school. That’s the luckiest coincidence of my life.”
“Do you remember our first college party? We went together – you picked me up… I was so nervous.”
“Yeah, and once we got to the party you ignored me totally.”
“I did not! You were the one who didn’t come near me!”
“Well, yeah, you were surrounded by guys. You didn’t seem to miss me.”
“I did! But you didn’t seem interested in dancing with me…”
We looked at each other and laughed. “That will teach us not to be too proud,” I said.
“Well, how would you have met Mrigank if I had stuck by your side all night?”
I laughed. “Yeah, maybe that would have been a good thing, me not meeting him.” Mrigank had been a college senior, and I hadn’t noticed him until at that party when he came up and asked to dance with me.
“You in touch with him?’
“No, not since I left college. I changed my number, remember? Apart from you, I’m only in touch with Rizvi and Mallika. And yeah, Prabhu calls once in a while.”
We sat there for a long time, reminiscing about old times. It was only when the sky began to turn pale that Raghav left. He wanted to get home before his parents woke up and discovered he had been out all night. We hugged, and I waved to him from the foot of the stairs until the car turned the corner.