It is one of those usual days. I stand in my balcony overlooking the children’s park in our complex. The coffee tastes fine and it seems the perfect moment to sip and reflect. The pastel shades on the porcelain cup, the warm winter sun and the little pink and white roses popping out of the brown pots that line the balcony’s boundary offer the perfect ambience.
Call me Gitanjali. I am bold and daring, that’s people around me say. Charming and secluded too, some say. Narcissistic, do I sound? Perhaps I do. But, the observant among you or those who know me, I guess will make out that I am not boasting. I am merely sharing what I hear.
If you are a young man, I am sure you are working out details in your head. Trying to draw up a picture of me in ways that your imagination wants me to look like. i wear a platinum nose ring, if that helps in any way. What age would you put on the ‘me of your imagination’? 18? 20? 25?
Well, the truth is I am 45 years, 3 months, 5 days, and 6 hours old.
Right now, as I stand in my balcony, sipping coffee and looking out, I feel strangely empty.
Would you walk with me down memory lane? I don’t think I will be able to escape this. The sudden gush of thoughts overpowering me now is scripting a path back to the past. Every human on this earth has a past – interesting or otherwise, that comes back to haunt him or her when a spark of an incident triggers the journey back in time. And now, it’s my turn, I suppose.
I am going to tell you a story -a story that began 28 years ago when I was seventeen and was waiting for my first ever class of ‘Physics I’ course, inside one of the biggest gallery classes of one of the most prestigious engineering institutions in the country. Delhi, the city was.
That day, a buzz of a noise had filled the class. The guys were chatting excitedly. And the girls, almost all of them were giggling in anticipation; yeah, anticipation. That moment somehow seems frozen in time, the moment he first entered the room; a sudden hush came over the entire crowd. What a moment it was! It was a silence that came from admiration, admiration for the overpowering presence and charisma of a person who truly owned it.
There he was, Professor, Arvind Krishnan, the most eligible bachelor on campus and the heartthrob of many a girl and the model of a perfect guy for every man. There he was, dressed in a pair of blue denims, a blue checked full-hand shirt, neatly tucked in. The most striking part about him was his black hair with modest streaks of gray and a finely chiseled face, a sharp chin; there was a glint in his pale blue eyes, surprising for an Indian, I mean the blue eyes.
Why he remained a bachelor, no one really knew but both the legal and illegal stories did the rounds. But at that moment, all that never mattered. I would have hated to admit it then but I stared for a moment too, perhaps a moment too long because his gaze quickly caught ‘the dazed first-bencher, me’ for a fleeting second. I think he was perhaps too used to it by then, these ‘stares’ or ‘gazes’, whatever you would wish to call them. It isn’t a big revelation if I told you that I had fallen in love with him by the end of that class. I am sure every girl in that fully-packed class did, only that they went on to find their own boyfriends a few months down the line. Going gaga about him now and then was typically ‘open flirting’, well knowing that it would amount to nothing because it was never going to materialize, (oh, come on we had at least twenty three years between each of us and him!) which later turned to be all but fleeting passions once new men entered their lives. Did I say ‘theirs’?
Yes, I have most conveniently excluded myself because I never found the right man for myself, so to speak. A few months into the first semester, night sessions at the hostel were filled with stories of love – ones that were sending out signals of beginning to bloom – indications of that feeling that it is a little over the usual liking; then there were ones that were almost at the stage of confession; and there were those that were fully-bloomed love stories. Love hung in the air, literally, apart from of course a zillion courses – ranging from Calculus to Optics to Inorganic Chemistry to Engineering Drawing!
For most men and women in my batch (I say men and women because experience was teaching us certain things and we were maturing in certain ways – making that transition from boys and girls to men and women), academics and fill-in meetings with their sweethearts during college hours, and post-evening dates filled the calendar. Where was I in between all this?
Now, I have to define my idea of men. I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that I don’t like men, given that I have no personal romantic stories to boast of in the first semester. Frankly, I had many friends who were guys, and only a handful of ‘girl’ friends, none extremely close. In fact, barring a few, I found most girls to be silly and so full of farce and stupid dreams.
While my friends (both the boys and the girls I mean) grew busy with their dates, I would often choose the library or that calm spot near the faculty quarters. That large banyan tree that opened up like a big black umbrella into the vast expanse of the clear, star- studded black sky. I would sit under the tree and spend an hour or two looking at the night sky. I often spoke to the moon.
Like I said earlier, I had gone a wee-bit too crazy with Mr.Arvind Krishnan after the first class. But what’s interesting is that I had conveniently assumed that ‘it would pass.’ When the truth was, I sank more and more into my world of dreams that had only two inhabitants – me and my blue-eyed Professor!
I was appalled at first. But I let myself loose and be carried away. After all, finding a man who appeals to you doesn’t happen all the time, especially for someone like me. The result: A student falling in love with her professor! Truly. Madly. Deeply. I would attend all his lectures religiously and once even followed him on his way back home to figure out where he lived! While my friends would rave about the shirt he wore on a particular day or the way he explained a concept and gush over him, I would think how unfair they were being to their boyfriends! The logic of commitment was totally flawed in their cases, so I would think. Why the hell should I have bothered? But I did, because much to my dismay, I was indeed taking this whole thing too seriously!
Two semesters following that first one, we didn’t have a single course with him. That never changed anything. I stole glances at him as I walked through the college corridors. It kept me happy. My friends had no clue of what I had in mind. It didn’t matter whether they knew or not – I never had anything like a close friend to confide in. Friends, they were there, only for a few fun-filled memories.
You think I am one of those ‘leave me alone, don’t mess with me types’, withdrawn-into-a-shell kind of a woman, don’t you? Yeah, in a way, I was and at 45, I think I still am. Back then, the sort of love stories that I saw around me irritated me beyond a point. Yes, there’s all that fun of proposing, gifting, holding hands and sometimes secretly kissing. But, how many of you know that there’s such a beauty to love that isn't confessed but nurtured with pure devotion within? I knew it. Life taught that lesson when I ran into Arvind Krishnan.
I call him by his name now though I never dared to utter it in reality back then. In the third year, I did two courses under him for my specialization. And that evening, in my third year, when I had walked into his home under the pretext of asking doubts, I clumsily uttered as we poured over a book, ‘Sir, I love you!’ Yeah, you heard that right : Sir, is what I had said. And yes, I had confessed too out of sheer impulse.
The next moment I had expected a tight slap to land across my face. But then, he closed the book, looked at me and smiled. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
I nodded blankly.
One more reason for me to fall madly in love with him all over again – composure. That, in addition to his amazingly perfect body language, his quiet confidence and his flawless proficiency and expertise in his subjects.
In certain ways, he was all that I wasn’t. Calm, patient and well in control of himself.
I guess when you meet someone, especially from the opposite sex, who is in many ways what you want to be, and exhibits some rare qualities, you tend to kind of forget the world around you and get into a world of dreams and start living a life that borders on insanity, a sweet kind of insanity, though.
I waited praying that the glimmer of hope will break into brilliant radiance. But, he showed me the way to what I thought then was the darkest tunnel I had ever known.
So, when I idiotically blurted those three words that evening, this is what he told me.
‘You aren’t the first one to tell me this.’
I hated to hear that but I nodded.
‘Are you sure of what you are talking? This isn’t love,’ he explained. ‘I am sure you have heard enough of all this fare.’
I looked at him.
‘It isn’t what you think it is,’ he continued.
I shook a ‘no’. ‘I am sure of what it is and it isn’t what you think it is,’ I spoke.
‘Hmm..’ he seemed lost in thought. ‘You will know soon. Nothing of what I say will enter your head now,’ he said, ‘You have a long way to go, Gitanjali. You are an intelligent girl and your focus should be on your course now,’ he finished as he picked up a bunch of newspapers lying on the floor.
‘Promise me you will never think these things again,’ he put out his hand.
I cried like an adamant child. I coughed up a ‘No, I won’t promise. Please.’
He waited, his hand outstretched, his maddening gaze fixed on me. I looked up at him. ‘go on,’ he gestured with his eyes. I obeyed like a woman in trance.
I knew back then and even now that it wasn’t infatuation I had. Yet, I felt there was no point talking and explaining. I got his message loud and clear.
One of my friends, who had been observant enough came up and asked me. ‘Geetu, is everything alright?’
‘Yeah Sam, ‘ I told him, ‘it’s all fine.’
He wasn’t convinced but he decided he should leave me alone.
I struggled, after all, all my dreams of five semesters had gone down the drain. To hell with all the talk of practicality! Heck, why only me, I broke my head.
I scored poorly in some of my tests and then reality dawned on me. I had to realign my focus. Get back on track before the world took notice of what I had done to myself. My circle of friends started to notice (quite late actually) my withdrawn, sulking self. One even asked me if I had fallen in love and was walking around with a rejected proposal. How true it was – only that she didn’t know who that ‘he’ was.
It took me all the effort I could put to get myself back on track. I focused on my studies even as I tried hard to turn back my unrelenting mind from the path it was treading. I battled and hit many losing points and eventually I won; convinced myself that all this was taking me nowhere. Somewhere down the line, experience gave me the lesson that one should learn to let go. Go with the flow. Impermanence and all that philosophy made tremendous sense for the bereaved yet determined-to-make-my-way-out soul I was. What I didn't realize was soon my philosophy would begin to go down the drain again. Otherwise, I could have well become a saint - if all of it could be so easy!
Cinematic it all sounds, doesn’t it? After all, what’s cinema but a reflection of our lives?
Thanks to placements and projects, life rolled on in the final year. But when it reached a point where there was only a week left for me to leave campus, the memories and longing started getting back to me.
It was one of the last few days in the final semester. Gloom hung over the fourth year hostels. We were all going to say goodbye to the place that had been our second home for four years.
Five days before I was scheduled to leave, he caught me at the college canteen. Arvind Krishnan catching me at the canteen? It threw me off my balance. All the resolve that took months of building, it seemed, was melting away. I held on desperately to my new attitude like an insecure child clinging on to her blanket.
‘When are you leaving?’ he asked me.
‘Coming Monday, Sir.’ I replied.
‘Mind joining me for lunch on Sunday at home? I know it’s going to be tight with all the packing and winding up.’ He paused briefly.
I was floored. What more did I want? Lunch with him and that too at his home? This was more than what I could ask for when I was thinking I would be leaving without even seeing him.
‘Are you sure, Sir?’ I looked at him hesitantly.
‘Then, Ok Sir.’
‘Sunday, 1PM, then?’ he asked.
What a memorable Sunday that was! For the first time, I disclosed to Sam that I was going to Arvind Krishnan’s for lunch. Sam only smiled. He didn’t say anything.
At Arvind Krishnan’s home, much to my surprise, both of us were so much at ease. A simple self-cooked meal awaited me. It appeared as though nothing had really happened before and we were starting off on a clean slate. I figured out that day that he smoked. He confessed that he smoked once in a while, when he was really relaxed. I felt a little stir of joy within me from that indirect signal. He was relaxed now, in my company.
He asked me about my family. He told me that his mother lived in Bangalore and so did his sister, who was married. Dad was no more. He told me that they wanted him to come back; that they wanted him to get married.
‘Why haven’t you married, Sir?’ I asked him suddenly.
He looked right into my eyes.
‘Your eyes are blazing,’ he spoke. ‘Bold girl, Gitanjali,’ he said.
‘And cute too.’
Cute? That was something I was hearing from a man for the first time. I was beginning to feel strangely dizzy. God, hang on, Gitanjali, I remember telling myself. Remember you have to stay in control!
Then, he told me: ‘one night I saw you talking to the moon.’
God damn it! I blushed. How did he know? Perhaps he had looked, because his balcony overlooked my favourite banyan tree spot.
‘Thanks for the meal, Sir,’ I said, ‘trying to change the subject. You cook well,’ I continued as I looked away. I was really losing it.
He casually took my right hand into his and looked at me. I had tears stinging my eyes by then.
‘I am going to miss you and all your seeing-without-actually-seeing glances’ he said. ‘Geetu..’
‘Geetu,’ he called me for the first time ever. I sat there shocked and paralyzed with love. How did he know? That’s how my friends called me. How did he know? How did he know that I had been looking at him secretively all those years?
‘You know..’ he paused, ‘You are the first woman to have caught my attention in my life. Remember that first Physics class four years ago, when you looked at me for a moment longer? I knew you had the fire in you. And the day you told me that you loved me, I knew it wasn’t what I said it was. The determination in your eyes I saw that day told me so', he paused and sighed.
‘I wonder why I found you after all these years. The wait has been just too long.’
‘This can’t happen, Geetu..’ he said, pressing my fingers slightly. ‘The society wouldn’t take it well. And you have a big life ahead of you..’
I didn’t say anything. I suddenly felt unbelievably light as if I had just offloaded something mighty heavy. I felt that I had attained some sort of enlightenment. All my bitterness of rejection and the uncertainty that haunted me about the nature of this relationship seemed to vanish.
‘I don’t need marriage to define this relationship, Arvind,’ I thought to myself. In a transformational moment, I realized that just knowing the feeling was mutual was sufficient to keep me happy for a lifetime.
‘I must leave now,’ I said, looking at him. He nodded and led me out of his house. As he closed the door, I caught a glimpse of the face of the man I loved so much.
I wrote him a letter from Cochin once I went back home. Told him that I had settled down into my job and was enjoying it. We exchanged a few letters and then the communication kind of trailed off.
I disappointed my parents by saying I won’t marry. My mother was aghast but she couldn’t do anything to break my resolve.
It all may sound vague to you, this entire story of love. Yet, it is one of those rare stories where proximity, conversation, expectations and a definition do not matter at all. Just being in it is priceless gratification. Yes, this story did not begin the same way but experience and time shaped it thus.
Two years ago, I visited my college website. Arvind Krishnan was still there. He had an email ID. Oh, how far we have moved away from the age of handwritten letters! I wrote him an email. Told him I was in Bombay, still working. He wrote back. ‘Why didn’t you call me for your wedding?’, he asked.
I sent him a smiley (my nephew had taught me how to put one!). ‘Arvind, what made you think I would marry? I haven’t run into another soul mate.’ I sent him my number.
There was silence from his end. A few months later, he called on my mobile. I froze when I heard his voice. After 22 years.
‘How are you, Geetu? ‘
‘Fine. And you? ‘
‘Hmm..been OK..I am getting back to Bangalore, to my sister’s place. ‘
‘Finally!’ I said.
‘Yes. I thought I could spend my last few days with my nephew and niece.’
‘Last few days? Arvind, is everything alright?’
I shuddered. He told me he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
‘Come on, Geetu,’ he told me.’ I thought you were a bold girl!’ He laughed slightly.
‘Geetu..’, he said. ‘Say something nice, won’t you?’
'What..How..?' I stammered.
'Come on now, girl..'
‘I am not a girl anymore,’ I said through sobs. ‘I am 45, you old hog.’ I sniffed.
He laughed. ‘Now, that’s more like it.’
‘Arvind, you will be fine.’
‘Hmm..yeah. I will talk to you from Bangalore.’
We hung up. I received one call from him after he reached his sister’s place. Then, silence. I tried calling back once in between but no one picked up.
I prayed. I didn’t have the courage to see Arvind when he was suffering. Yes, the bold Gitanjali became so vulnerable.
Today morning, I received a call. It was from Arvind’s sister. She informed me that Arvind Krishnan passed away the previous Sunday. She sobbed uncontrollably. He had given me your number last week and told me everything, she said.
Everything? I didn’t know what to say.
He was a great man, I consoled her.
‘Come home if you come to Bangalore,’ she invited once she calmed down.
Yes. I will.
I have been feeling numb since morning. And now, as I think, a bloody tear makes its way out.
I look up at the skies and mutter a prayer.
I think I feel him as the wind ruffles my hair;
Arvind, I call out softly.
I hear a loud thunder and it begins to pour.