“Nine two zero one”, I said, shutting the door.
There were confirmatory beeps from the keypad as the cabbie keyed the digits into his tracking device and started the engine.
“Shall we start?” he asked, without turning back but looking at me through his rear-view mirror.
I nodded and turned to look out the window as he pulled away from the kerb and joined the long queue of vehicles getting out of the airport. As we left the final gate and joined the traffic headed into the city, it started to drizzle. Absently, I traced a few drops actually on the other side of the window glass, with my fingers and tried to get them to form patterns.
It had been six years since I had last seen her. The day before I had flown out, I had called her.
“J, I’m moving out of this city soon.” I had said, kind of apologetically. “Meet me for a cuppa?”
“I can’t.” She had refused. “I am too busy here at office.”
“Take an hour off or get off early.” I had tried to reason with her. “I am really moving away.”
“I don’t think I would be able to.” She had insisted.
“J… don’t know when we would see each other again.”
She hung up. I had been miffed.
Four days later, I had flown out of the city. Initially, I had only flown to Mumbai. After spending a few days there, I had bene invited to join the primary team of the project in Adelaide. By that time, Juhi and me had had an ugly fight. And she had told me not to try to talk to her again. I had left without saying goodbye. She had been the one person that I missed as I had sat on that long flight to Adelaide.
Months later, browsing through my contacts list, I saw that she had unblocked me.
Hesitantly, I had said “Hi”.
Not really expecting a reply. But the next morning, I had been happily surprised to see that she had replied. Not just a reply, she had sent me a long message.
“Hello! How have you been? Where are you now? I think about you a lot. I am happy that you are talking to me again. Do reply.”
And then, we had stayed in touch.
The driver braked suddenly to avoid another car. My bag almost slipped off the seat next to me. I put a hand on it and felt the brush of the special gift I had brought back. For her. I pulled it out and held it in my hand. It was wrapped in gift paper, but I knew what it contained. A picture. Of her favourite restaurant in another country. She had never been there herself. She had read a book once and had fallen in love with the place. I placed it back within the bag and turned to look out. It was already dark, though nightfall was technically two hours away.
We approached an intersection. One could go both ways. But almost seven years ago, she had showed me a shortcut that avoided most traffic. I bade the driver disengage from his map and follow my directions. Finally, we were at the main gate.
I paid the driver and stepped out. Something… caused me to look up. There she was, on the third-floor balcony, smiling down at me. The ceiling light in her balcony framed a cascade of rain drops in a halo around her head. As I headed into the basement of the apartment building, I felt her run to her door in anticipation. I could feel my heart beating faster.
“What would it be like?” I wondered. “After all these years…”
“Ting!” The bell rang and the pre-recorded robotic woman’s voice followed with.
“Third floor. Please close the door…”
The door started to open, and I saw her standing there. Just by the lift.
She flew into my arms and I hugged her tight.
Finally, she started to let go and pulled back.
I cupped my hands to her face and said, “J, I missed you.” And I kissed her softly on her cheeks.
Tears streamed down her face. Taking my hand and holding it tightly, she led me to her apartment.
After I had washed up, she brought two plates of upma with coconut chutney and sat down beside me on the couch.
“Eat.” She said.
I took a spoon of it. The aroma was already making me ravenous. “It tastes exactly like I like it.”
She smiled. “Am glad you like it.”
We didn’t have anything new to talk about, because we had chatted such a lot over the years. I knew everything that had happened in her life and she knew everything that had transpired with me. Except of course, the past few hours I had been on the long flight over.
“You must be jet lagged.” She said, showing me to my room. “Take rest tonight.”
I spent a few days with Juhi. She took me to all the places she had talked about, took me to her new office and showed me off. I liked the attention she was showering me with. Then it was my last day with her. I had to fly to Chennai for some office meetings, before I flew back.
I had an idea.
I sent Juhi to a nearby supermarket for some supplies I convinced her that I needed urgently.
When she got back, the house was dark. The door was open. Hesitantly, she opened it ajar and called.
“Come in.” I said softly.
She stepped inside and found me at the far end of the hall. I had set a small intimate table, lighted with a single candle. Soft music played in the background. As she moved toward her, I stood up.
She came up to me and hugged me tight. “Can’t you stay back in India?” she asked.
I lifted her tear-streaked face with a finger and looked into her jet-black eyes.
“I would, if I could.” I whispered. “I will ask them when I go to Chennai tomorrow.” I promised.
I sat down and pulled her onto my lap and caressed her hair. We ate dinner in silence and then moved to the balcony to sit there watching the light rain, sipping her flavoursome filter coffee. It was time to go to bed, or I would miss my flight in the morning. Her fingers were intertwined with mine as we walked in. As we reached the little alcove that separated the two bedrooms in the apartment, I purposefully led her into her’s.
She turned her head and looked at me.
“What are you doing?” She asked. Her voice, trembling.
“Something, we should have done a long time ago.” I whispered, holding her tightly to me.
After about an hour, we lay under the covers panting.
“But…” she began.
I laughed. “You know,” I said, interrupting her train of thought. “Maybe, instead of me staying back in India, you should fly back with me to Australia.”
Her eyebrows knitted up contemplatively.
“You have nothing much left here anyway.” I shrugged.
She nodded silently. “Can you make that happen?” She asked. “The visas and all?” She turned to face me and laid her soft head on my shoulders.
Embracing her tightly, I whispered, “I should be.”
The next morning as I flew to Chennai, after the refreshment services were done, I lay back in my seat and thought back to the time almost twenty… no, almost twenty-five… years ago. Juhi and me had been teenagers then. One day, when we had been playing together, I had been watching her for some time. She noticed my gaze and asked me what the matter was, with a flick of her head.
Suddenly, in a moment of passion, I had given her a hug and kissed her on her cheeks. Her cheeks glowed red with surprise and a tinge of teenage shyness. But she had said nothing. She had not protested or complained to our parents. She had just continued playing. My heart had sunk then. After a while, I had forgotten about the incident. For a few years, I completely forgot about her, as life and other things became more important and took us away on divergent paths.
Then after almost a decade, browsing through Facebook, I had come across her profile. So, I had sent her a friend request and was mightily surprised when she added me and sent me a message asking where I had been all these years. That led us to talking again.
In Chennai, I talked to the management team and arranged for Juhi to join me in Australia. She would come with me on a temporary tourist visa until the proper documentation came through. She was happy. We locked up her apartment and flew out together.
“Do you think anyone would guess?” she asked as we stepped off the plane together at Canberra and joined the long immigration queue.
I shook my head. “How is it even possible?” I laughed.
She slept off her jetlag. I got dressed and went to the office. When I got back home in the evening, Juhi was still in bed.
“It’s your first international trip, isn’t it?” I joked, waking her up.
“Mmmhmmm?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes and trying to wake herself.
“I got dinner. Will need to go grocery shopping tomorrow.” I said.
Reluctantly, she allowed herself to be pushed into the shower. I went to the kitchen and unpacked the food I had brought back. There was a nice little Indian restaurant run by an old couple that had emigrated here a long time ago. When I didn’t feel like cooking or eating other cuisines, I usually ordered from here. The couple did not have children of their own and they addressed me as ‘beta’ (son) and sometimes gave me a little extra or something else they had made and thought I might like.
“The water was warm.” She said flatly, after her shower. “What season is it supposed to be out here?”
“Summer’s just starting.” I said. “The very end of ‘spring’.”
She looked around and saw that I had air conditioning in the apartment. “Good for those then.”
“What now?” She asked after we had finished our dinner. “You are going to bed, and I would be awake all night like a vampire?”
“No,” I said, “You come back to bed and sleep. You will wake up in the morning with your body time reset. Actually, if you hadn’t slept all morning you would have adjusted faster.”
Long ago, a colleague had taught me a vital trick of adjusting as rapidly as possible to a new time zone. But, Juhi had been so sleepy that I decided to let her sleep it off. She didn’t have anywhere else to be.
The next morning, she was watching me get dressed for work.
“You know, you look a lot nicer in formals.” She teased me.
“You have never seen me in formals, have you?” I asked. I could not recall that she ever had.
She shook her head and propped herself up on her elbows. She wore a long cotton shirt and nothing underneath. She looked so… I wanted to call in sick and stay home. Pulling my breath in, I controlled myself. There was a lot of time for that.
“Okay, I have to rush now.” I said, bending down to give her a kiss. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“I think I can manage.” She winked.
Juhi surprised me in the evening with a home-cooked meal. She had found the local stores and done some shopping. The girl never stopped surprising me.
“You know,” She began when we were washing up after dinner. “I think it would be best if we moved to another house. And got rid of some of your old boxes.”
“Where have you been digging?” I laughed giving her a friendly bump on her hips.
“Memories. Old memories.” She said, sombrely. “You have to really actually move on.”
I knew what she meant. “Shweta, you mean.” I said. “I have moved on. Quite a while ago.”
“Then don’t keep memories of her.” She shook her head.
“Those really are memories of mine as well.” I pointed out. “But in my heart, in my mind, I have moved on. You know me, I don’t dwell on those things.”
Before I had moved to Australia, Shweta had been my everything. I had met her at a bar when some of my friends and me had gate-crashed someone else’s party. We had wanted to get a few free drinks and maybe pick-up some girls for the night. She was a silent demure one who had sat in a corner, uninterested in the happenings around her.
“Hi?” I had approached her tentatively.
“Hello!” She had replied, half-bored.
Somehow, we had started talking. It started as friendship. Then we started to hang out together in the evenings. Then we had found we shared the similar interests and passions. We had strong dislikes about the same things. Eventually, we decided it was love. One evening when I got back from work, I found Shweta had moved into my rooms – it wasn’t an apartment then.
She introduced me to her father. Her mother had passed on a few years before. We got married quite soon after that. It was a short, but a whirlwind of a romance before we got married. Four, five years into our life together, things started to fall apart. Neither of us could pin down a reason why we were going through such a bad phase. We ascribed it to being “just a phase”, tried counselling, got friends and family to look at it and provide an outsider’s perspective. But nothing seemed to actually help. Strange and silly things turned into long and ugly fights. Finally, we decided we would end things as amicably as we could.
That is when I had decided to take the job and move to Australia. For some reason, I had kept back a few memories from those days with Shweta and brought them with me to Australia.
“You kept some of your memories too!” I accused Juhi testily, returning to the present.
She looked at me and did not say anything.
Though a few years younger than me, she had been married for longer. She had had a happy marriage and had three lovely children. They were an exception in my otherwise troubled chaos of relatives. Someone’s evil eye eventually caught up with them. About four years ago, her husband had taken their children to the movies, while Juhi worked late. On the way back, they were stopped at a traffic light when an errant water-tanker ploughed through the intersection. The happy family had been helplessly crushed. Juhi had been devasted by the loss. I empathized with her, but the support I could provide her with from so far away was insignificant and useless. I wished I could fly over and be with her, but circumstances dictated otherwise. She healed, slowly.
A few days later, when I came home, Juhi was on the balcony listening to music. She had set a steaming hot mug of coffee on the counter, and next to it was a newspaper. She had circled out rental listings. I smiled to myself at the not-so-subtle hint. To be fair, this was not an apartment fit for a family. It was a bachelor-pad. We did need to move.
I went to the balcony. She looked up. I took away the noise-cancelling headphones she had on and set it aside. And knelt down on the carpet in front of her.
“J,” I said, looking into her eyes. “I found something you really would love.”
“Which one?” She asked, snatching the paper from my hand and scanning through the listings on the page it was open to. “This one?” she asked, pointing to one of them.
I shook my head and kissed her. “Those are rentals.” I said, half into her mouth.
“You want to buy one?” She asked, astonished. “Can you? Can we?” Her eyes widened with surprise.
I nodded silently and grinned.
“Let’s drive over this weekend. If you like it, like I think you would, we can put down the deposit right away.” I promised her, standing up with some difficulty and heading back into the house.
She wandered in behind me. A little dreamily. And went to set the table for dinner.
That weekend, we drove over to the place I had seen earlier. I had been on a weekend trip with my team from the office. We used to do these getaways sometimes to keep the team bonds alive and recharge, away from the city, away from the rest of it.
It was a large house, big enough for a small family and a few guests. And may be two or three children. I had set it aside in my memory as “one of those places”. At the time, I had no idea who I might share it with. It had been one of those things.
And then, just two days after Juhi and I had landed here, the property had come up on the market. The price was not too much, I could afford it. I had a little put by from my earnings here and I could make up the rest with mortgages and loans.
Juhi had been looking at the houses and the neighbourhoods as we drove through.
“Well, this is it.” I said, pulling up next to the house.
She turned abruptly to look at the house I had pulled up to.
“This one?” She mused.
Her face turned pensive. She had ‘that clouded look’. My heart sank. Did she not like it? I had fallen in love with it the very first time I had seen it. And when I had been inside, I had to buy it.
“Let’s go inside”. She said quietly. “Do we have a key?”
I nodded. The realtor had said she would leave a key under the mat. Walking up, I retrieved it and unlocked the door. Behind me, Juhi was shaking her head furiously.
“I would never ever leave a key there!” she said.
The house, at the moment, stood fully furnished to show potential buyers what spaces would look like. We had an option to have them replaced with our own.
The front door opened into a small welcoming room. There was a larger study to one side, and a living room on the other. One for official friends, one for family. Deeper within was a large kitchen with a dining area to one side. It was an ‘open kitchen’ arrangement with a large counter separating the areas. Everything in the kitchen was a posh off-white colour.
Silently, she walked through the rooms, looking at different things in different rooms. The lighting, the curtains, the vast fireplace in the living room.
“There’s an upstairs too.” I said quietly.
Her face lit up. “There is?” She asked rhetorically and found the stairs.
She took them two at a time. Laughing at her excitement, I followed her at my own pace. When I reached the top of the stairway, Juhi was admiring the bedrooms. There were three bedrooms on the first floor that we were on. A master bedroom, for us. Then a smaller, children’s room to one side and another smaller room on the other side. There was another ‘room’ in the attic-space that we could turn into a room or use for storage.
I was thirsty, I told Juhi I was headed down and went to the kitchen. I found the bottled water the realtor had stocked in the fridge and took a sip. I heard a rustle of dresswear and then was in a tight embrace from behind me. I smiled and turned to her.
Her eyes were sparkling. “You know I love it.” I said in a whisper and rested her soft head on my chest.
“Did you see the backyard then?” I asked.
She left me in a hurry and rushed to the back of the house. The frontage was right on the road outside. But we had quite a bit of space at the back, with a pretty little garden there. When I followed her out to the back porch, I found her standing there with her hands clasped and she was twirling around happily. She did not notice me there.
“It’s a good thing I bought it then.” I grinned.
“Get out!” She shrieked in joy pushing me away. “Really?”
“The papers are in the desk back at the apartment.” I said sheepishly. “I want you to sign them too.”
“Oh!!! This is getting worse and worse.” She said, her eyes tearing up. She started to walk toward the main door. I followed and caught up with her at the car. We drove in silence for a while. Until the intersection a few yards away. Then she started talking a mile a minute. What furnishings we should keep, what we should throw out, the colour schemes for each room.
“You know,” I interrupted her when I got a little space. “There are at least two children’s rooms in that house. Thoughts?”
I was being naughty. But she went quiet. And shy. Her fair cheeks blossomed in pink and she shrank into her seat. She turned to the window. I could see by her reflection in the slightly tinted window glass that she had teared up.
“What’s wrong, J?” I asked.
She shook her head and sniffled. I put off asking her about it till we got home. My hands were full fighting the evening traffic. But she didn’t talk to me at all the rest of the evening. She put a pillow between us and turned to the other side when she went to bed.
The next morning, I found her already in the kitchen. She was endlessly stirring a cup of coffee.
“J…” I said softly, going up to her and taking the spoon.
She turned with a start. “Uh?”
“What’s wrong? You’ve been silent since last evening.”
“Is it about the children’s rooms?” I asked. Bringing it up but hoping she would not clam up again.
“Is it too soon?”
She shook her head and gave me a hug instead.
“Are you already…?” I asked with a smile.
She shook her head and looked up at me.
“I know I want them with you.” She said, shyly. “I was thinking about those rooms too. When you brought it up in the car, I just…” She shook her head violently and buried her face in my chest.
“Ah! So, this is all romantic shyness.” I teased her.
After breakfast, I was getting dressed.
“You know, the other day I was going to talk to you about me finding a job.”
I stopped and looked at her. “I know you want to. I know you’re plenty bored. But on the visa, you are on right now…” I shrugged. She was on a tourist visa and she should not find employment with that.
She swallowed. Then smiled wanly. “I guess shifting and all that might keep me busy for a while.”
“Look at stuff on the internet.” I suggested. “Then we’ll go to the shops together and buy what we need to. Okay?”
She grinned devilishly and said, “Sure.”
I knew she would do a lot more, left to her devices. But I was getting late for work. My carpool ride was here, and he was honking away on the street below. I took her leave and rushed down the stairs.
Winter was setting in. Since there had been no plan of her ever being with me at the time I had got my Visa, things turned out to be a bit complicated to process her papers. Finally, we found a way through and she was now finally with me. We had moved to the new house and set it up. She was now allowed to work in the country and she quickly found work as a food blogger with a local media house. She did a great job too; she was eminently recognized wherever we went.
I had got home early. The previous night had ended with many twists. But happily. The lights were out. I could not find her anywhere. Not upstairs, not in the backyard. Then I went to the garage. We had a single-car garage. I usually parked out and she put her car in. Her car was there. Where was she?
Concerned, I tried her number. It rang. Somewhere near me. Searching, I found her phone on the coffee table in the living room. Her handbag was there. Then I noticed a newspaper. The hair at the back of my neck bristled and a chill ran down my spine.
The previous night, I had proposed to her, at a restaurant. In full public view. The celebrity she was, a lot of people had paid attention. The local newspaper had carried our antics on its front page, with large photographs.
It was titled, “Eminent food blogger turns down long-time partner”. In big bold Times font.
The paparazzi had got it completely wrong. She had said yes. She had in fact enacted a scene from a famous Indian movie where the female lead accepts the male lead’s proposal in the negative – she was acting out a “No” while saying all the things that meant “Yes”. The folk that had been the nearest to us had enjoyed the performance and had clapped. Of course, the photographers who were outside the glassed windows had no way to know.
I had called them earlier in the day and had some strong words with them. They were going to fix it in tomorrow’s paper, with an apology and the actual story.
But evidently, Juhi had seen today’s article.
I ran out of the house in search of her. Finally, I found her seated in the dark, in the community cricket stadium. She was sitting at our favourite seats.
“The paparazzi!” I shrugged, sitting down next to her and embracing her tightly.
She lay her head on my shoulders and sobbed.
“Don’t worry about them. Let’s not destroy what we have built between us.”
“It’s all because of me.” She sobbed.
“It’s not.” I consoled her. “First, come, let’s go home.”
She rose reluctantly and came back home. On the way, I explained to her how I had called up the newspapers and given them a piece of my mind. And told her it would be set right in tomorrow’s edition. Unlike the online media, print does not have an ‘undo’.
“Okay.” She mumbled.
We ate a solemn dinner. Which seemed strange, given we had much to celebrate. And talk about.
“I can’t imagine what they would write about if they found out…” She said as we turned in.
I shivered. It was not something I wanted to contemplate.
The big day was here, finally. We had a small Hindu ceremony at a local temple. Friends acted as family for both sides and participated eagerly in the different traditions. The aged couple that ran my favourite Indian restaurant acted as her parents and gave her away to me in a traditional ‘kanyadaan’. Uncle even wept as if his own daughter was going away.
“I never had a daughter of my own. This is equally heart-breaking.” He sobbed. “But I am also so happy!” He cried with laughter.
We had written vows to each other. Though Hindu weddings did not feature vow-recitals, they were included in the chanted Sanskrit mantras, we had wanted to do them.
“I have never found a more perfect person for me. You complete me in ways that I could never imagine. I found you when we were both very young. We grew up together, as did my affections for you. I have always and will always love you unconditionally. And today, I finally have the pleasure of being married to you.” I said.
“I’ve called you many things over the years. Shared thoughts and ideas. Fought with you. You have already been there for me in good times and in bad. I have always and will always love you unconditionally. I cannot be happier than I am now, to accept you as my husband.” She said.
Laughing in mock glee, our friends pushed us into our bedroom. They had decked it in traditional ‘first night’ décor. Flowers everywhere. Fruits and milk and other things laid out.
“You guys are nuts!” I cried as they shut and locked the door from the outside.
Juhi sat on the bed. I went to her. She covered her face with her sari’s pallo.
“Come on!” I teased her.
“No. I need to tell you something.” She said through the folds of the sari.
“What?” I asked, revealing her face.
She took up two little dolls from her nightstand and put them in my hands.
“Two?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I don’t know.” She shook her head furiously.
I hugged her.
We lay talking about children for a long time. Reminiscing of the times that we ourselves had been children. I had a great memory, going very far back. I told her somethings from my earliest childhood and infancy. She was shocked.
“Surely you don’t really remember that!” she screamed, laughing.
I was finally about to doze off, when she asked, “Do you want them to call you ‘daddy’ or ‘uncle’?”
She slept quite soundly after that. I even heard her snore a little. But I couldn’t sleep a wink.