He parked his car in the compound of what was his old society. The place where he had grown up. He was tempted to go to his old house and relive some of the old memories, talk to the people in the building – the few from his childhood that hadn’t left the place. He had brought along the keys too. But that would have to wait. He walked out of the gate and towards the school gate. It was close by. As he crossed the road, he looked around the surroundings; so much had changed, yet he felt comfortable here. He had, after all, spent all of his childhood here.
He entered the school gate. The approach to the school compound had always been this narrow sort of road, flanked by trees and filled with gravel. As the gravel/pebbles shifted under his feet as he walked, he smiled. Some things don’t change, he thought. The school compound had changed though. Interlocking instead of concrete. Impressive, he thought. The banyan was still there thou. As was the stone bench under it. The same bench on which he had sat 15 years ago on a chilly February evening during the farewell ceremony and wondered aloud if he could do something to stay there some more. “You could flunk in the exams”, she had said, sitting next to him. He had smiled back at her then; he smiled now. Thinking of her always made him smile. He shook his head, berating himself for thinking of her. But he couldn’t help it. He took the stairs, as he always did. It will waste time, he thought.
He looked up at the topper board on the first floor landing. Names long forgotten were etched there. Some familiar, the others not. He could never even think of being up there. He had never aspired to. That was for the students who were serious with their studies. Not for me, he thought. Though he had come mighty close to being up there. Immortality, he thought, was your name on that board. And he had lost that by one place. He had come second.
The Principal’s office, the staff room, the library. All familiar places. His class X classroom. The fondest memories were here. He entered the class. People had been there. Lots of them. Remembering. Because nobody forgets. The writing board was new, a metallic board. Teachers wrote with markers now. Pity the kids nowadays, no chalk bits to fight with. He smiled again. He had been hit with more than his fair share of chalk bits. He looked at the seats. Not much had changed. Same wooden benches. Middle column, third row. He used to sit there. He sat there for a long time, remembering, smiling at all the things they did then. Being a kid had its share of rewards. His phone began ringing. He knew who it was and why he had called. “Yes”, he said, into his phone. “What yes? Dude, you’re late! The reunion party’s begun. Where are you man?” “Aren’t we a little old to be calling each other dude?”, he replied. “You must be old! And don’t change the topic. Where are you? You’re coming right? Don’t tell me you chickened out!” “No, I’m coming. I’m in the car, might take another 15 minutes”, he lied. “Ok, dude. See you here then”. He hung up.
He got up from his seat. He walked over to the window. The steady sound of music coming from the auditorium overhead was proof that the party had indeed started. He could hear, if he tried hard, the sound of conversation. That it rose well over the music was proof enough that his friends were present. He was late though. His entrance would be noticed. He didn’t want that. Not with how he had left these very people some years ago. He wondered if most of them
would even want him to be here. He wouldn’t have come, but he had been coaxed by his close friends. He took one last look at the classroom. And a look at the bench where she would sit. He imagined her sitting there, as she did 15 years ago, scowling over a piece of marathi prose that she couldn’t or wouldn’t want to understand. How did she look now? Was her smile the same? More importantly, did she still have the same scowl? He wished he wouldn’t find out today. He wished she wouldn’t come. He didn’t know if she would. He hadn’t dared asked his friends. It was a touchy topic amongst the group. After all that had happened that afternoon 6 years ago…
As far as he knew, all of the guys and girls in the batch were married, recently or otherwise. He was the exception. He wondered about her. Did she marry? With whom? There was a part of him which wanted to know. And yet another which didn’t want to know. The truth could hurt.
He climbed the stairs towards the auditorium. The School had renamed it “Aishwariya” recently. Truly, there was no shame left in the world, he thought and chuckled to himself. He stood in front of the doors to the auditorium. He felt a small chill run up his spine. Brushing it off, he pushed the doors inward to enter the auditorium.
Strange. “Why is there no music?” he thought. “Mikhail!!”, she shouted. He froze. She was at the party afterall. And she was calling out his name. Loudly. Everyone in the hall looked at him. He liked making entrances, but this was way too much. “Mikhail, come over here! Really, I’ve had enough of your running around. Where are you? You really don’t want to eat dinner, do you?”, she said in a mock scolding voice. Running around? Dinner? He had just come, hadn’t he? He was contemplating raising his hand, to show where he was, when a small kid, of around 5 years of age, came running upto him and hid behind him, clutching at his trouser legs. “Shh”, the boy said, smiling. There was something familiar about the smile. Mikhail wasn’t expecting this. He had come to a reunion after all. He expected some humour, some reminiscing about old times. He wasn’t expecting to be stared at by people while a kid used him as a hiding place, from whoever he was hiding from.
“Mikhail! Last Warning!!”, she called out. There was a smile on her face, as she moved about the hall. She was in front of Mikhail now, facing opposite him. Somebody pointed Mikhail out to her. She turned around, a big smile on her face, and said “You are in trouble now, Mikhail!”. And she met his eyes. The smile vanished. “Mikhail….”, she said. Mikhail stayed
rooted to the spot. He didn’t know what to do. After all there is only so much he could do, with one arm half raised and a kid giggling behind you, clutching at your trouser. He offered what he thought was a smile. He was afraid. She could hit hard. And after what he had done…
“I am here mom!”, the kid said from behind Mikhail. He came out from his hiding place and held his mother’s hand and led her away. “Chalo, lets get something to eat na. I’m hungry”, he said, tugging at her hand. But she wasn’t listening; she looked at Mikhail in a wistful, sad sort of way; but only for a fleeting moment. Then she scowled. He guessed she wasn’t happy at seeing him. She hasn’t lost the scowl or the smile, Mikhail thought. And then she was gone. “Ni…”, he began to call her out, but stopped short, calling out the rest of the name in his head, “…sha”.
He stood there for quite some time, not sure what to do. People were still looking at him. Most of them familiar, some not. No doubt, some of them were whispering about him and updating each other with ‘the’ story. He looked around, found no one of much consequence, so he just stood there. He felt stupid. But he wasn’t a stranger to that feeling. “Dude!!”. It was Vikram. “What an entrance man! And I thought you were going to lie low and all”. Mikhail shook his head. “Did it look like I did all that on purpose?”, Mikhail shot back. “No, yaar. But nonetheless, everybody’s talking about you. Look here comes Seema.” “Mikhail! Didn’t know you were coming! Couldn’t you call? Seriously, yaar. you should stay in touch!”, she said. Was this the same Seema who wanted to rip out his guts the last time they spoke? Mikhail smiled. He liked seema when she was in a good mood. And she seemed in a good mood. She was his best friend or had been once upon a time. Relations change over time, he kept telling himself.
Apparently she had forgotten their last conversation. “And no, Mikhail. I haven’t forgotten our last conversation, if thats what your thinking. But I have forgiven. Anyways, whatever happened was between you and Nisha. We had no right to interfere. We still shouldn’t”, she said and sighed. “You had every right, Seema. I was a jerk. Seriously, sorry”, said Mikhail. “You do need to apologise to someone but that someone is not me.”, she said. “Cut that out re, Seema. He’s come to a party, not to some oprah club meeting”, said vikram. “Now, this one is a jerk”, she said to Mikhail, pointing to Vikram and they all laughed. Mikhail met a lot of his friends at the party. And everybody was happy meeting him after a long time (or so it seemed to him). He was just making polite conversation. His attention, however was focussed on Nisha. He hadn’t seen her since long, and it seemed as if she was avoiding him.
He was with Vikram and Seema again and dinner was about to start. “Ask the question, Mikhail. I know you’ve been dying to ask”, Seema said with a mischievious smile. Vikram laughed. “Alright, I will. Where did you get your necklace from?”, Mikhail asked. Vikram almost fell off his chair laughing. “Damn your sense of humour”, she said and laughed. Mikhail could see Nisha now. She was sitting at a table a little further off them and she was talking to a friend of hers. She paid no attention to Mikhail. “Ok, Ok. Lets see. Nisha has a kid. She must be married. When did that happen? And where is the hubby? Who is it?”, asked Mikhail. He saw the kid a few tables away, playing with some of the other kids at the party. He liked the kid, although they hadn’t conversed. He felt it was just because he was Nisha’s kid. But he wanted answers to the questions.
Seema looked at him. She shook her head. “She knew you’d ask. And she told me not to answer. She wants you to ask. And she’ll answer in person. Apparently, you two haven’t spoken for long”. “But you could tell me. It’ll be our secret. Vikram doesn’t count anyways. Tell me.” She shook her head. “And you know as well as me that I won’t go to her and talk. Not after how I walked away from her.”
His mind wandered to his apartment of 6 years ago, the last they had met. Nisha was there. They had known that the end of the relationship was nearing. He couldn’t commit, and she wanted marriage. He wasn’t prepared, he had said. You will never be prepared Mikhail, she said. And why are you going away? To get away from me? she had asked. He hadn’t replied. When will you return? he hadn’t replied. Will we ever be together? she had asked, in between tears. He said he didn’t know. And she had called it off, or had he? He didn’t remember. He had flown away the next day. All contact broken. They never tried talking, sorting it out. All of their friends had sided with her. Mikhail was the guilty one, according to all. Even Seema. And she had sworn not to talk to him. She didn’t for 6 years.
Not a day had gone by in these 6 years that he hadn’t thought of her. He knew he still loved her. But did she? She didn’t. She was married, wasn’t she?
“You two, never talked it out, did you? Not once in 6 years?”, asked Seema. He shook his head. “Seriously, such tremendous egos! Too much”, she said. “Too much”, agreed Vikram. “But you two will talk today”, she said and nodded toward Nisha. Nisha nodded back, and got up from her table. Vikram and Seema got up from the table and left. Vikram smiled apologetically. “Best of luck, dude”, he said. “Will you stop calling every guy you meet ‘dude’?”, came
Seema’s faint words as she walked away.
Nisha was at the table. Mikhail got up. “Haven’t forgotten your manners, I see”, she said to him. She wasn’t smiling. Mikhail nodded and sat down as did she. “Say something, won’t you?”, she said, after a pointed silence. “How are you?”, he asked. “Fine, thank you. Lovely question, Mikhail. Shall I start with the pleasantries?”, she asked. She was being sarcastic.
God, she hasn’t changed, he thought. “You’re being sarcastic”, he said. “And you’re being an idiot. You haven’t changed much in 6 years, Mikhail. You don’t talk much now, thats it”, she said. “Not really. I do speak. Your just making me nervous”, he said. “Its not a viva, miks”, she said and smiled. He smiled too. He looked at the kid. She caught his eye. “Mikhail. His name is Mikhail”, she continued,”I named him after you”. Mikhail hadn’t even thought of this uptil now. He looked at Nisha and then at Mikhail. “You are married, right. Where’s the Hubby? Didn’t he have anything to say when you named your kid after an old flame” He asked. “No, not married”, she said, matter of factly. To say that he was shocked was an understatement. She was enjoying this. “Divorced?”, he asked, looking at Mikhail again. She shook her head, her eyes never leaving his. Not married, not divorced, he thought. He kept feeling worse and worse. “You aren’t joking na, Nisha? Who is the father then, Nisha? Why didn’t you get married? What kind of a man does this to someone he loves?”, he asked. He was angry at that faceless stranger.
“He didn’t want to get married, Mikhail”, she said. She had it tough, this girl. First him. And now this guy. “Who? Who is it? I demand to know!”, he was angry now, at himself, at that guy.
“Its You”, she said, and all was quiet.