She looked around. Could not see him.
The couple sitting on the table across from theirs caught her attention. The woman wore a lovely red-yellow-brown Shantiniketani batik silk saree, her hair was pulled up casually in a loose bun behind her shapely head. Strands of black curls that just wouldn’t stay tied-in, framed her face. It was a typical Bengali face, slightly heart shaped, with dreamy large black eyes that made one think of the bottom of a dark inky black well. She had creamy olive-brown complexion and a very straight, slightly oily, shiny nose, the end of which resembled the chiselled tip of a bamboo flute. A large maroon dot adorned her little forehead. It was a tired but kind face that looked like it could break into a smile any moment.
Her mate looked pensive and he had a face that was hard around the edges, but it shared the same quality of easy gentleness with hers. These people looked like they had never ever slapped anyone or screamed or uttered a word of profanity ever in their lives…they made a fascinating stareable picture together – like a Subrato Gangopadhyay illustration…
But where is he?
Ever since her divorce years back, she hardly ever saw anyone. Reason being, her profession. She was naturally prevented from meeting unattached men. The people she met on a typical day would be parents, teachers, computer professionals and domain experts. They came, they did what they had to do, called her “Madam” and then they left and that was it. She never ever saw any of these people again.
He had been a different story. The first day they had met in the library, she had been excited, they had discussed Contact, a Jodie Foster film she had watched the night before. Turns out that’s his favourite actress too.
She had talked – he had listened quietly. Later, he had asked, “Have you read Atlas Shrugged?” That had seemed to her to be irrelevant and absurd at that time. No, Fountainhead. “Well, you would like this one, I would get it for you”. With that he had disappeared from her space.
She had seen him again six months later. One cool dry spring morning as she walked into the staffroom, she had seen – no, not seen, she isn’t good at seeing people, she senses them or at best perceives their presence with her peripheral vision, so, she had sensed this young man there, and had raised her eyes to give him the customary polite good morning. He had silently handed her a battered copy of the classic with an almost inaudible “your book” in English. What?
She had frowned….
Is he making the ice-cream or buying it?
It has been a year since then. Phone calls had followed, but were rare and far between, they hardly ever spoke at work – he was extremely careful not to push, or break into her (sense of) privacy. This is what had endeared this young person to her. Eventually, they had had a few long silent hours together, so comfortable that he had blurted out one day that hearing her over the phone felt like being wrapped up in a cozy warm kaantha on a holiday winter morning! She had laughed to hide her confusion.
Then she saw him, walking tall, striding easily across the grounds of the Nandan Film Complex, towards her, with a couple of cones in each hand. He held her for a couple of minutes with his eyes even as he continued walking.
She broke away from his gaze, got up from her seat, walked over to the parapet towards the roadside, and hitched herself up on the broad wall. Perched there, above the heads of the milling film festival crowd below, they ate their cones, silently watching, until the sun set. In the purple darkness that followed, they noticed that couple walk down towards the snaking line in front of the entrance to the main auditorium.
A thin kid in a crumpled white shirt with rumpled black hair standing in a group nearby, forlornly watched the lucky crowd now entering the hall. When the breeze rustled the leaves of the deodar where they sat, a couple of leaves shook loose and fell where the kid stood. For an instance the kid looked up. He looked puzzled when he had spotted them. Their eyes met.
He turned towards her once and then took out their passes from his back-pocket, raised his left hand slightly in a beckoning gesture. He held up their passes. The kid looked away as if he hadn’t noticed anything at all and pulled his friend closer and they seemed to have a quick consultation. They looked up, at them now. . A moment of hesitation, then the kid walked over. He reached down and handed him their passes.
The kid dropped his eyes, murmured thanks and looked up at her; the look in his eyes didn’t say “we are grateful”.
She didn’t care.
He hesitated for a moment, then his lips twitched and he flashed her a smile. “Aapni shundor” ( “You are nice”). His friend, waved at them from where he stood. When the kid reached him, both of them walked together to the entrance of the auditorium. While the usher checked their passes, the pair had turned back for one last look at the silhouette of the young man and the woman perched on the wall.
He glanced at her. “Do you know how you look right now?” She ignored him. He was far better looking than she was. He always complained about how she neglected to take care of the way she dressed or let her skin go dry and chapped in winter. He held up his hand and pointed. She looked up. “Exactly like those.” He was pointing at the straight-back slender Asopalav trees skirting the grounds, covered with new-born-frail-pale lime green leaves, swaying gently with the cool February breeze. The baby leaves shone, like sparkling happy eyes, in the neon lights of a city getting busy with its evening chores. What? The leaves? The tree? She was puzzled. What did he mean – good or bad?
He watched her as she studied the trees thoughtfully, then everything around her, really taking in the scene now.
He felt something stirring deep inside of him, clawing at his young heart that made him want to get down from that wall and run. But he didn’t budge. He knew he never could bring himself to tell her. She turned to him.
He knew she could not read the expression on his face in the darkness.
“Aren’t they pretty?”
She stared, unsure. She would not exactly call them pretty – they looked good together, that couple…if that is what he meant.
He shrugged and gave up. “Well, if I hadn’t said that, would you have looked? Or have noticed how beautiful they look when the wind blows?”
Well, probably not. For a minute she hesitated…
What??? The bad – bad man! So, that was about those silly trees? And she almost thought for once he was going to….O well, never mind….she flipped her hair impatiently and turned away. He is only – well, he is just him. He isn’t her date or anything.
He watched her frown gather and then disappear. He lifted his hand in a sudden jerking motion, that jolted her a bit, waving it over her head, fanning the air in front of her face and legs – brushing imaginary mosquitoes away from her. Her face doesn’t quite look right. Stupid woman. Impossible woman. Who is going to waste time with someone like this? His suddenly felt tired inside of him. He fidgeted. Without looking at what he was doing, he drew her bag close to him. It felt warm and nice to hold on to. So he hugged it and held it close and looked away and watched the night traffic.
She relaxed, the sound of his voice felt like a caress to her restless soul. He was wearing a loose warm flannel shirt – it flared out when the wind blew and broke the bite of the chill in the wind shielding her from it. It felt cozy and warm to be near him. She sat still, looking completely at ease with the world around her.
Everyone was inside by now although the grounds were not entirely empty. The chai wallahs wandered lazily about with a large kettle propped in the crook of their left arm and the right holding styrofoam cups arranged in a long white pillar. One looked up at them expectantly but moved on when they smiled down at him.
This was Live – a concert under the open sky, a show they had thought might turn out to be much more interesting than what was in an imported Made in Italy can, inside.
A whiff of breeze blew his hair over his head and his face became fully visible as it caught the neon light of the post in front of them. He is so…quiet and young and clean and like a little bird… lovely – she smiled – as one would, when a huge round full moon, suddenly sails into view in the summer sky.