It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was cold and I could feel goosebumps on my exposed arms.
I was looking forward to visiting Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. Much had changed since then….this wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batchmates. The potential reunion began much before I had anticipated it. I saw her.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. Standing in the queue, she turned her face backwards to see the long row behind and our eyes finally met each other’s. For a few seconds, I found myself speechless and then, inadvertently what followed was an awkward and embarrassing smile. I opened my mouth to say ‘Hello Nandini’ but it came out as a mutter. To eschew the oddity of circumstance, I started fiddling with my handset. My heart started pounding loudly but I did not want to expose my eagerness and surprise before her. She reciprocated after a few more seconds with a soft “Hello UV, Oh I mean Yuvraj.”
“She called me by the same name. Does she still have a soft corner for me?” However, I tried to dismiss the thought. What was the use now? But, the distance of two odd persons between us in the queue perturbed me now. A keen desire sprang up from within to go near her, talk to her and yes, to have a closer glimpse of ‘my Nandu’. The tresses were still as inviting and lustrous as they were a few years ago. I tilted my head and finally mustered up courage to ask Nandini if she was travelling alone. She nodded in affirmation.
“Inder’s wedding?” I asked, anticipating a positive reply.
“Yeah, he insisted.” A brief, tepid reply…which made me languishing for more…but I had to contain my excitement.
I requested the gentlemen ahead of me in the queue for the favour of swapping turns since I was meeting my long lost friend after a long time. They obliged me and I was more than jubilant of standing just behind her. Out flew from my mouth a quick, enthusiastic, and spontaneous ‘Thank you very much’. Our talk resumed as I bombarded her with a spate of rapid questions.
“A reunion it is going to be … a long time since we met. How have you been doing? Are you working somewhere? Staying at Roop Nagar? How’s your health?”
“Hmm…, I am working and my job demanded a change of place from Roop Nagar to Noida. I am working with Citibank there. And yes, I am in the pink of my health”
“Do you still hold a grudge against me?”
“No, Yuvraj, I have risen above these things. I have moved ahead in life the way you chose to. Whatever happened was destined to be. It takes time for the wounds of heart to be healed and I have traversed and eventually, crossed those painful, temporal precincts. No grudges, no complaints, it is part of life too.”
A strong guilt feeling overpowered my senses as I pretended to rummage through my pockets to find something that was not even lost. What I had actually lost may not be found ever again…I tried to pace my steps in sync with her so as not to lose sight of her as we boarded the airplane together. Inside, the voice of air hostess asking us to fasten our seatbelts seemed to be coming from a distance as my heart instructed me only to hold on to Nandini.
“Nandini, would you mind sitting next to me?”
“No, why would I mind?”
I tried to look at her hands stealthily. Had the marks disappeared? I could not chance upon her neck since it was covered by a white Polo neck sweater. I immediately took my eyes off her hands as I was caught unawares by her steely glance.
“Nandini, I have not been able to forget you all these years. I tried to contact you many a time, often visited CCD in Kamla Nagar, the canteen of Kirorimal College, and a host of places where we often met but you just disappeared.”
“Nandu, (Oh! Could I take this liberty now?) I needed sometime to convince my parents.”
“I was not suffering from breast cancer or AIDS, UV. I was not a pariah who needed your or someone else’s mercy. Leave this topic, let bygones be bygones.”
“No, Nandu, I need to explain. It feels someone has put a millstone around my neck, my heart feels heavy. I wavered a little but that was circumstantial.”
“Wavered a little? No, UV. You oscillated and faltered when I needed your support the most. I was facing emotional trauma and had not yet come to term with the separation of my parents”
The airplane had not yet taken off. A phone call disturbed our conversation. Those few minutes when Nandini spoke in whispers to someone made me uneasy. Then, I drifted off into memories of the day when I had taken Nandini to meet my mother. Like any doting mother, she always had dreams of her son marrying a beautiful and docile girl. Nandini and I were pursuing MCom. at Kirorimal College. Behind her thick black glasses, her almond-shaped, brown eyes were very attractive. Right underneath her chiselled nose, there was a slight discoloration of skin which though only a small patch, seemed out of place on her wheatish complexion. We bumped into each other many a time during and after classes. Gradually, we started seeing more of each other. When we got bored of our lectures, we would bunk classes and discuss politics and philosophy. I was almost six feet tall and we often burst into laughter when she marveled at my stature which according to her obscured her diminutive appearance.
“I look like a dwarf standing next to you.”
“Sweetheart, great things come in small packages and I love this dwarfish creature the most. I shall keep loving you always, no matter what.”
Were these promises hollow? How could I be so lackadaisical? Why didn’t I take a strong stand that day? Or perhaps, even I had my share of doubts. By the time, we were nearing the closure of our MCom. course, Nandu had developed more white patches on her skin. It was a rapid pigment loss on several areas of the skin especially on hands and neck. The initial appearance of the white patch was followed by a stable period without any progression of the condition. However, during the last few months of the college, it had spread to her hands and some other exposed parts of her body. For a few months, we did not discuss her condition but honestly, I had anticipated a fear – a fear of rejection and loss. I tried not to sound very concerned about her physical appearance but tried to initiate a general discussion about the possible cosmetic treatment. Nandini had showed some interest thereafter in undergoing cosmetic treatment to fade away the discoloration of skin.
“Mom, she is Nandini. We have known each other for two years…and I feel, she is my soulmate with whom I can spend the rest of my life.”
I had talked about Nandu to my mother but deliberately chose not to mention her ‘Vitiligo’. I feared….For all good or bad reasons, she would not have accepted a slight disorder of her potential daughter-in-law. Her shrewd eyes pierced through each and every part of Nandini’s exposed skin. She took me aside in the kitchen.
“Yuvraj, I never expected this from you. Have you not seen her skin? You know, these white patches are the result of some wrong doing. As it is, her parents are divorced. Who knows if she is the legitimate child. I mean…you are grown up enough to understand…And have you thought about posterity? Do you want to spoil the future of generations to come? Is there any trace of sanity left in you? What will you do when the whole body turns into an ugly contour of discoloration? Just avoid her and forget about the stupid promises you made in haste.”
“Mom, I consulted doctor. There is no physical impairment due to vitiligo. It’s only the appearance…..she is not intellectually or mentally disabled.”
“Yuvraj, you are our only son and we have high hopes pinned on you. Don’t let us down….you will find a hundred girls willingly drooling over you to get married to them. Why this girl…..? No….take her to her home and just stop seeing her anymore. Else…….”
I just nodded my head in despair and dismay. I wanted to argue but what stopped me …… could not make out….perhaps, my repressed fears surfaced in the form of my mother’s scolding. I don’t know…I don’t know… I felt weak. I was standing in the kitchen whereas Nandu waited for us in the living room.
Next I saw tears cascading down Nandu’s cheeks which she tried to wipe away immediately. My mother kept up the pretence of being a good hostess by telling her to come again someday, meaning the very opposite of her said words. As she sat next to me in the car while on way back to her mother’s place in Roop Nagar, she broke down and asked me in plain terms if I would marry her. My mother’s harsh words were still resounding in my ears….all muddled up and in a disoriented state of mind, my feet gave a rude jerk to the car. I stopped midway and tried to pacify her by saying that I needed sometime to convince my mother. I tried to keep up the edifice of faith but she could sense my lack of firmness. She gave up on me…For the next few days till college farewell, we kept meeting each other but always in the company of Inder, Priyansh, Radhika and some other friends. I tried to take up the matter with mom but she was in no mood to relent. Methodically, we bade goodbye to each other with an occasional emotional outburst. That was the last time I had seen her……………and now…
“Your mom at the other end?” I quizzed her as our mobiles now slept on airplane mode.
“Nandini, I missed you like hell. You deactivated your facebook account. You were no longer on whatsapp. Where had you been? You did not take my calls. Why?”
“UV, I have seen relations turning to zilch. I grew up witnessing my parents’ bickering turning into massive fights until they decided to part ways. Something inside me had died…….When I met you, I longed for a companion who could accept me without being judgmental, with all my frailties, flaws and my ‘ugliness’. That day, your ‘seemingly promising’ words betrayed your thoughts. Though you said you needed time….to rethink…it hurt my self-esteem. I could not take it and a relationship based on compromise could not have lasted long. So, I decided to move out of the picture.”
“But I still love you. Had you waited, I would have convinced my mother….. I know it was shameful on my part to reconsider our relationship and that too, over a societal stigma which should have carried no meaning. ”
“Well….it means nothing now. I have said more than what I wanted to. Leave it UV. Tell me what you are doing these days.”
“Nothing…the same drudge …going to office and coming back. I am working as branch manager of IDBI bank. Life has become insipid, devoid of juice. Nandu, I am sorry for having been a coward. I did not deserve you. Can you forgive me?”
She avoided the answer to this puzzling question and said, “Hmm….Inder is getting married. Imagine he and arranged match! He always used to say he could never understand how two strangers could take a vow to live with each other for the rest of their lives. Life teaches many lessons….doesn’t it?”
She had learnt a lesson how to let go of things or people.
An hour passed in the blink of an eye as we continued talking and recounting our college days, discussing our old friends, our fastidious professors, work pressure, our travel delights…….I wished these talks could travel with us till eternity. I thought we would travel together to Inder’s place once our plane landed at the Bengaluru airport.
As we checked out, a well-to-do Sikh guy waved at us and adorning a purple turban flashed a broad smile. I was bewildered till it dawned on me that the smile was reserved for Nandini.
“Who was he? Her boss or boyfriend or husband or…. ?”
The six feet tall man with a confident, upright walk greeted Nandini with a warm ‘Good evening’. She felt a little embarrassed in my presence.
“Ahmmm… Dr.Tej, meet my college friend Yuvraj. We graduated from the same college. Yuvraj, Dr. Tej treated me for Vitiligo and you must have observed, it is because of his treatment that the discoloration has lightened to a great degree and I have gained more confidence. He moved to Bengaluru a couple of months back. When I told him over phone that I was coming to Bengaluru to attend a friend’s wedding, he insisted that I stay with them.”
“Nandini, see Sukhman has also come to receive her darling ‘Bua’”, said the stranger to Nandini.
A little girl with a chirpy smile opened her arms wide to tighten their clasp around Nandini’s neck. My imagination had run wild all this time thinking she might have got engaged to someone or probably married someone. I had not liked the thought…..Suddenly, my phone produced sharp beep sounds. I opened Whatsapp to see messages.
“Yuvraj, have you reached Bengaluru? Keep me updated. I shall miss you.”
“Yuvraj, how I wish I could come along with you but you know, I am tied up and down with office work. Give my wishes to Inder.”
It was Ragini, my wife………..
Sunaina Jain has recently completed her Ph.D. (English) from Panjab University, Chandigarh. She is working as an Asst. Professor (English) at MCM DAV College, Chandigarh. She has presented papers at national and international seminars. She has published many research papers in the refereed national and international journals. Apart from her passion of teaching, she likes to dip her pen in the colours of poetry and short stories. Her poems, book reviews and short stories have featured in the journals – The Criterion, Indian Ruminations, Muse India, Spark Magazine, Galaxy, Langlit, Dialog, South Asian Ensemble and on the blog of Out of Print Magazine. Her poetry has also featured in an international anthology Shout It Out by Lost Tower Publications, London. She plans to publish her first collection of poems in the near future.