Raghav – and “That Girl”
Raghav arrived on Wednesday night, but I got only a text message. Then I heard nothing from him till Saturday noon, when he called. I put down the Christie I was reading and answered the phone.
“What’s up, babes?”
“Aah, the man has time to talk to me!” I cried.
“Oh, come on, don’t be mad. I was crazy busy. I have been getting home after midnight… I had to go out for dinner with some people from work last night, and I only got home at one-thirty.”
“Anyway, how have you been?” He ignored my sarcasm. “And when do you wanna meet?”
“Well, I’ve got a lunch date, then a movie, then a dinner date…” I lied.
“I’ll take you to a movie. And I’ll pay for dinner. I don’t think I can get there by lunchtime so you can go on that date if you want to, only get rid of him early.”
“Okay, let me cancel all my dates then. I was only going out with them because they were paying.”
I offered to go over to Delhi to see him. I hadn’t been to Delhi in months: I missed hanging out at Priya and shopping at Sarojini Nagar.
“Sure, come over to Priya,” he said. “We’ll hang out, watch a movie. I’ll drop you back home if we’re late, so don’t worry.”
I went over to Priya. It had been a favourite hangout during b-school days. My gang – Raghav, Prabhu, Mallika – and sometimes Abhijeet or Nivedita – used to go there after class, or sometimes during classes, for movies or meals. Sometimes we couldn’t afford either, and would just sit around and talk. Prabhu and Mallika would sometimes take off alone, and – if neither Abhijeet nor Nivedita were around – Raghav and I would have fun together. We came across other classmates there, and someone would raise an eyebrow at seeing the two of us alone. Raghav and I used to spend so much time together that some people suspected we were a couple – but most of them just got used to seeing us together and did not think of us any differently than the many same-sex friendships in evidence.
I recognized that things had changed since. While Raghav and I had always been close friends, earlier there had been other people around (metaphorically if not physically). We had been students, and carefree apart from obsessing over marks and project deadlines and placements, and we had had crushes to dream of and other friends to hang out with. Now the other friends seemed to have fallen by the wayside, and Raghav and I seemed to be in a deeper, more complicated relationship than ever.
I was excited at going back to Priya, but I was also a little nervous about seeing Raghav again. It didn’t feel good, this nervousness. This wasn’t how I should feel about Raghav.
But he had the same old wicked grin on his face when he saw me, and he cocked his head in the old way and said, “Late as usual, babes!” I was five minutes late. No one else but Raghav would have pointed that out, especially as I had come over by bus from Gurgaon and then taken a rickshaw from the bus stop: no one else shared my almost-manic predilection for being on time. I gave him a hug. This was my Raghav all right.
“Do you want to watch a movie?” he asked.
“Well, no, I don’t think so. I’d rather just talk to you.”
“Okay,” he grinned and put his arm around me as we turned and walked aimlessly.
“I’m watching the Harry Potter movie tomorrow, with Sonali. Want to come?”
My mind seemed to shut down for a second. “Say something, anything,” said Miki.
“Where?” I said aloud.
“Right here,” he pointed to the building on our right. “At two tomorrow afternoon. Come and join us.”
“He’s going to a movie with that girl?” wailed Miki.
“You’re getting out of bed so early on a weekend for her?” I remarked, trying desperately to keep a note of teasing sarcasm in my voice.
“I got out of bed early for you, didn’t I?” he countered. “She can’t stay out late, you know. She lives with her parents, and they’re quite strict. Actually, she’s treating me to lunch first. She just got a job – her first job. She just got out of college this year, you know.”
“What did she study?” I didn’t care. But I had to say something until my mind started working properly again.
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? She’s from my college.”
“She’s a computer engineer too?”
“Yeah, but she was two years junior. She used to borrow my notes and stuff back in college. I mean, she had Amit’s, but he goofed around much more, so she came to me for help about studies.”
“How come you never told me about her before?”
“I wasn’t really friends with her, you know. She was just a friend’s sister. I only used to explain stuff once in a while when she came to me, or hand over my year’s notes when I passed on to the next year. And the three of us used to take the same bus home on weekends sometimes, as our parents live within a kilometre of each other. But I’ve only really begun talking to her over the last few months. You know, after our course was over I had a month’s break before joining my job? I used to hang out with Amit quite a bit then, and I met Sonali a few times. Then Amit went off to the US and she’s been rather lonely.”
“Doesn’t she have any friends?” I asked rather viciously.
“She does, but she doesn’t get out of home that much. I lived so nearby, it was easier. She didn’t get a job out of campus, you know, and she was rather depressed over that. She came to me for advice, and I helped her apply to a few places. Plus, her parents are rather conservative. They’ve been saying she doesn’t need to work and they want to get her married off soon. In fact, she’s already met a couple of guys.”
“The whole traditional arranged marriage route, you mean?”
“Oh, yeah. Dressing up and serving tea and all that. She hates it.”
I was torn between pity for the girl and resentment of her.
“And now finally she’s got a job,” continued Raghav. “She joins Monday.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“So, will you come? I’ve got to get the tickets.”
“What? Oh, I don’t know…” I stalled for time.
“Might as well check the girl out,” Mandakini said.
“Besides, if you don’t come tomorrow, you might not get to see any more of Raghav before he goes back,” Miki pointed out.
“Oh yeah, sure,” I told Raghav. “I love Harry Potter.”
“Come on, let’s get the tickets then.” He pulled me towards the box office. “You’ll join us for lunch too, won’t you?”
“Oh, no. She’s invited you.”
“Come on. She would love to meet you. I’ve told her so much about you.”
“Oh, yeah?” Aloud, I said, “No, it’s too early for me to come all the way over from Gurgaon. I’ll see you in time for the movie.”
The rest of the day passed well. Raghav and I talked, ate, window-shopped, talked and ate. And then he dropped me home. But my earlier ambiguousness returned to haunt me and never quite went away. I must have succeeded in concealing it, because Raghav didn’t remark on it. He stopped in front of my building and made no effort to park in Divya’s empty parking space. He said goodbye and neither of us suggested that he come in.
I debated with myself through much of the night and all the next morning whether I should call off my date with Raghav and Sonali.
“Let’s not go,” said Miki. “I don’t want to have to share my time with Raghav with some girl I don’t know. I’m sure I won’t like her.”
“You promised Raghav,” countered Mandakini. “It’s not nice to back off now. You’ll have to make up an excuse, a lie. And you should go meet her once, if she is important to him.”
Finally, I decided to go.
Sonali was petite and pretty. She wore a pink top that brought out the colour in her cheeks. She had thick straight hair that reached down below her waist. She made me wish I was slimmer, less awkward, that my hair was shiny and straight or even downright curly instead of being the frizzy windswept mess it was.
I also wished I could think of something to say instead of standing there, grinning awkwardly, like the shy ungainly teenager I’d been a few years ago. She, however, didn’t seem to be afflicted by shyness.
“Raghav has told me so much about you,” she said confidentially, as if Raghav wasn’t standing right by her and beaming. “You guys seem like such great friends. You know, I really envy you. I wish I had such friends.”
“You have us,” said Raghav, right on cue.
“I shouldn’t have come,” said Miki furiously. “How am I going to spend a whole afternoon with them? Very likely more – if I have to wait for Raghav to drop me home.”
Mandakini could find nothing to say. But thankfully, I had reached almost right in time for the movie, so we went straight in. Also thankfully, Raghav sat between Sonali and me. But I was placed next to a fat middle-aged man who kept his arm comfortably on the armrest so that I had to huddle closer to Raghav, who seemed to be leaning near Sonali much of the time, to listen to what she had to say. Behind me was a small kid who kept bouncing about and kicking my seat. It wasn’t the best movie experience I had had. I tried to ignore the kicking and concentrate on the movie. That didn’t help much, for it made me wish I looked as good as the lovely Hermoine. Under the circumstances, I felt rather like ungainly Ron. But then beautiful, smart Hermoine liked Ron – and no one seemed to like me much.
After the movie, we went for coffee.
“How did you like the movie?” asked Sonali.
“It was all right. I much prefer the books.”
“I loved the movie,” she said. “I love the books too.”
“Sonali is a great reader,” said Raghav somewhat proudly.
I was too late to stop my eyebrows from going up.
“Really? What kind of books do you read?”
“Oh, I love Roald Dahl,” she said.
“Roald Dahl isn’t so bad,” said Mandakini, still intent on making friends with Sonali.
“She lent me a Roald Dahl book the last time I was in Delhi,” said Raghav. “I loved it.”
“He didn’t mention meeting her the last time,” said Miki furiously. “And since when does Raghav read?”
“Have you read Roald Dahl?” asked Sonali kindly.
“I read some, ages ago. I liked him then, but I’ve grown out of him.”
“I really like him. I also love Paulo Coelho. Have you read the Alchemist?”
I sighed inaudibly. I also wondered if I had ever told Raghav about my distaste for Coelho, and if I should voice it again or pretend I liked him to preserve the peace. Even Mandakini seemed to have given up on being Sonali’s friend now, and all I wanted was to take my leave as soon as I could without being rude.
As soon as Sonali finished her coffee, I voiced my wish to go home. I had downed my own coffee and sandwich long ago and had been desperately wiggling my toes and willing her cup to be empty.
“Oh, no, I’ll drop you home,” said Raghav. “It’s almost dark and I don’t want you taking the bus.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “I’ll be perfectly safe.”
“No, please wait. We’ll leave in some time. Raghav can drop me off and then you.”
“Or, if Miki’s in a hurry, we can go drop her off first,” suggested Raghav.
I held my breath. I definitely did not relish the idea of an hour-long car ride with Sonali for company. Besides, if she went all that way to drop me home, I’d have to invite her in.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I have to reach home soon.”
I gave in, not too reluctantly. At least I would have the chance to talk to Raghav alone. He was going back to Belgaum tomorrow.
When Raghav brought the car around, both Sonali and I politely indicated that the other should sit in front with him.
“You get in here,” Raghav directed me. “She’s getting off first.”
“I wonder whom whom he would have asked to sit by him if Sonali was coming to Gurgaon with us,” wondered Miki.
We stopped some way off Sonali’s house so that there was no fear of her parents or a nosy neighbour seeing her get off the car. When I saw Raghav get out too, I scrambled to follow him.
“It was really nice meeting you,” she smiled and gave me a hug.
“Me too,” I mumbled.
Raghav gave her one of his hugs. I realised I hadn’t ever seen him hug anyone else but me and Nivedita. He used handshakes for male friends.
“Bye, kiddo,” he said. “I guess I won’t see you again before I leave. I’ll call you, okay?”
“He called her ‘kiddo’,” said Miki in dismay.
She walked off gracefully. Raghav waited till she turned the corner, and so I did too. She turned and waved at us, and disappeared.