On Ex-Boyfriends and a Boy Who Was Just a Friend
Raghav had gone back, and I missed him. For the week that he had been in town, he had lifted my life out of the mundane into the special. I had someone to talk to, to go out with. I had a friend.
But now I was alone again, with nothing to look forward to after work. I was back to what seemed in bad moments like a pointless existence. I loved my work, but it wasn’t meaningful enough to be the purpose for my being. I craved excitement and romance. All I had were deadlines and lonely dinners in front of the TV (even more lonely than usual right now because Divya was on some project that required her to work unusual hours, from 1 p.m. to late at night, so that she was never home for dinner.)
Raghav used to laugh at my love for romance novels. I found that funny, because he was far more romantic a person than I was. He believed in love at first sight and all that jazz. I, on the other hand, read most of the romances thinking they were rather nonsense. Yet I read them because the idea of finding a soulmate seemed so full of hope.
But I wondered sometimes if the heroines in most of the books I read were actually happy afterwards. Wealth and sexual attraction never seemed like the lasting foundation of a happy marriage to me.
My mind went back again and again to Raghav’s declaration of love. I treasured the memory – I hoarded it and brought it out to caress when I was lonely. Raghav was my best friend in all the world – the one person I liked above all others. That he had given me the greatest compliment of all helped to shore up my self-esteem.
That week passed slowly. Raghav was busy with work and had little time to talk. My work was going smoothly, so that there weren’t any late nights or fires to fight, and I had lots of time to kill. I took to going for a run around my colony every evening, ending by sitting in the park and looking at the moon. This did little to relieve my loneliness but it gave me something to do.
Yet I wasn’t unhappy. Since childhood, I had always been sensible of my aloneness. I hadn’t grown up like most of my friends had, surrounded by siblings and cousins and watched over by the indulgent eye of parents and grandparents. I had been mostly alone at home, with my mom often preoccupied even when she was home from work (though she always found time to spend with me, she rarely treated me as a kid and I don’t remember her ever playing with me unless it was Scrabble), with a sister who came home once every few months and whose condescending attention I did not much care for once I stopped thinking of myself as a child (which I did – who doesn’t? – much sooner than it was true.)
Desperate to dispel my loneliness, I had often been less than discriminating in my choice of companions. I had met my first boyfriend, Deepankar, in college in Guwahati. We had taken tuitions together and had lived in neighbouring hostels, and had made friends on the long walks to and from our tutor’s house thrice a week. We often studied together, and I took to visiting his room. Girls weren’t allowed to have male visitors in their hostel rooms, but similar rules did not apply to boys.
Deepankar and I had had our first intimate experiences with each other. We kissed and fondled with less than expert hands. I had thought him extremely attractive. He was also quite nice, though he wasn’t able to quite shake off the narrow-mindedness fostered by his rural upbringing.
The romance lasted a couple of years. By the time we ended our studies, it had tapered off. Unlike me and most of my classmates, Deepankar found a job even before graduating, and joined right after the exams. I prepared to go to Delhi. He was a bit relieved, I think, that we weren’t together then, and he could honestly wish me luck. Going off to Delhi alone wasn’t a move that he would have wholly approved of in his girlfriend.
In the more glamorous environs of Delhi, Mrigank had swept me off my feet. My romance with him had been spurred on mostly by my idea that “Mrigank and Mandakini” sounded perfect. And the fact that he was cute. And a senior, and a couple of years older, which made him seem wiser and smarter. And he played the guitar and sang like a dream.
I had been very flattered when, at the freshers’ party, he had come over and introduced himself, and asked me to dance. I had been too shy to accept at first, but he stood by me and talked to me until the beat of the music made me want to step up to the dance floor.
He had a beautiful voice, and had formed a band with three other college seniors – all men. Mrigank provided the vocals and the charisma and played the guitar. You could often see him sitting in the college lawns strumming his guitar, surrounded by a small crowd. Sometimes I went up and sat in the group, and then he would look at me and sing a slow romantic song. The entire college started teasing me about him. I felt like a heroine in one of those romances I had read.
It took me some months to realise that he wasn’t as smart or as liberal as he believed himself to be. By then he had passed out of b-school and got a job, we didn’t have to see each other every day, and the break-off wasn’t very difficult. For a time though, he claimed I was leaving him for ‘someone else’ and insisted on knowing who it was: I suppose that was easier than believing that I was merely tired of him.
And then there was Abhijeet. Dull Abhijeet who pretended to be intellectual but was nothing more than boring. That didn’t last long, only a few months.
I realised now that all these three episodes had been mistakes, that I should have deliberated more carefully before entering into something that was so obviously mismatched. I also admitted that I had rushed into these relationships because I had been lonely. Because I had never had the attention I had wanted as a child and was trying to make up for it. I wanted to feel that someone considered me special, the most special person in the world.
Over five and a half feet tall, with frizzy hair, narrow eyes, nearly nonexistent eyelashes and a somewhat sallow complexion, I hadn’t considered myself heroine material. Deepankar had treated me more as a friend than as a girlfriend: with Mrigank, I had been a fan. Abhijeet was the first person who had actually told me I was beautiful.
The second was Raghav.
It was on the day of our farewell party. I wore a black skirt, a strappy blue top, and make-up (that my friend in the senior year, Rizvi, had helped me with.) As I stood by the dance floor catching my breath after the last dance and looking at my friends, Raghav danced to my side.
“You look even more beautiful today,” he shouted over the music.
I was stunned. “You’ve never told me I’m beautiful before.”
“Do I need to? It’s one of those obvious things… You’re fishing for compliments now.”
“No. I just… I didn’t know…”
“You’re pretty, and you have a hot figure,” he spoke in my ear.
Before I could answer, he pulled me onto the dance floor. We danced together all night. It was the best party I had ever been too.
And then there were the bike rides. Prabhu rode a Pulsar, and Raghav an old Enfield. Late at night sometimes, Raghav would take off his helmet and ride down the empty street with his long body leaning against the wind, his curls flying behind him.
Prabhu and I teased him mercilessly for his vanity, and I never admitted how hot I thought he looked.
Mrigank had a car, a second-hand Palio. That and the fact that he and Raghav had from the beginning shared a cold animosity, peppered with jealousy, meant that I was usually with Mrigank in his car while Prabhu and Raghav went off on their long rides, Mallika sitting close behind Prabhu with her arms around him, a dupatta wrapped over her head to keep her hair from being disheveled by the wind.
Abhijeet had few insecurities, and when we were dating, he became part of the gang. He didn’t own a vehicle, so he and I usually trailed behind the others in an auto, except when he managed to borrow a bike.
It was after Abhijeet and I parted ways, in those two months before the course ended when we had already got jobs and didn’t bother about classes: it was then that the four of us became a fixture. I sat behind Raghav on his bike, though never as close as Mallika did with Prabhu. I banged on his back with my fists when Raghav made to take off his helmet: I didn’t want his hair in my face.
It was winter. The cold wind seemed to go right through my body in spite of the several layers of clothes I had on. We went down to AIIMS at midnight to have paratha on the street outside; we went to the India Gate in the evening where Raghav would buy balloons for all of us and we would behave like school kids on vacation; we would go to the Nirula’s at Chanakya after dinner, get down shivering from the bikes and then go in and have ice cream.
Sometimes, when it was very late and the streets were deserted, Raghav and Prabhu would have an impromptu race on the flyover near AIIMS. Mallika and I would roll our eyes to signify how stupid boys were and then hold on tight, eyes sparkling with excitement, in anticipation of the ride.
When it was too foggy to see the streets, we would merely walk down to Munirka to eat at Udupi.
Winter was coming, but there would be no bike rides this year, no sitting in the sun in the college lawns. There was no Nirula’s nearby, and I hadn’t found parathas to equal the ones near AIIMS.
And this year, there would be no Raghav to share the delicious season with.