Many moons ago, I had written a short(ish) story, bearing the same title as this blog. The protagonist of the story was a girl, loosely inspired by the then girl in my life (and as fate would have it, my current wife!). As we completed a decade of knowing each other this year, it seemed like an opportune time to revisit the story. So, as a true blue 'Star Wars' fan, here is the redux of the story that was penned with a little bit of immaturity but a lot of heart.
Raindrops pelted hard on the roof. As people scurried for shelter in the fading twilight, I could see a dim silhouette running towards me. Like the train approaching a station, the figure that had seemed to be crawling from a distance, now appeared to be sprinting as it came closer to me. As the hooded figure’s feet splashed into the puddle a couple of feet away from me, the water defied gravity and covered me from head to toe. I was about to utter an expletive or two. But before I could unpurse my lips, the figure lifted its hood and a feeble feminine voice reached my ears – “Oops, I’m so sorry.” I felt a very eerie sense of déjà vu.
“How many times will I have to tell you? Why don’t you come on time? Will bhaiya go late to office because of you?”, the words weren’t loud but their sharpness could have pierced through concrete sheets. “Sorry didi, won’t repeat again”, the maid exasperatedly shared her usual monotone. “Don’t come for work from tomorrow. I will do it myself”, she said, with an air of finality. “OK. OK. Sorry didi, I will come on time. Please.”, this time the maid’s tone expressed genuine fear and worry in equal measure. The threat had worked. “This is the last warning. Now make some honey-lemon water and some bhindi for lunch”, she casually said, looking nonchalant. The maid uttered a feeble yes and got to work.
“How does she manage to give such risky threats? What if the other person calls her bluff?”, I wondered, overhearing the conversation from a distance. “But then again, she has the guts to live up to any threat”, I solved my own riddle. As I heard the footsteps approaching the room, I quickly shoved myself under the blanket and pretended to be asleep. Avoiding eye contact with a tigress who is not in the best of her moods, is the first principle of safety.
“Dad, I want to be an actress”, cried the little girl as she climbed up the sofa to be by her father’s comforting side. “Sure, but can you act?”, he casually commented as he turned the daily’s page over from business news to sports news. “Oh yes – haven’t you seen me acting to like mummy’s food”, was the sheepish comment as she finally managed to climb her Everest. He put aside the newspaper, took the girl into his hands and kissed her on the forehead, “Haha. You will become a great actress someday”.
“Will I get to have lots of fans?”, whispered the girl.
“Don’t bother. It’s alright”, were the words I uttered, while thinking on the inside, "Stupid girl, you’ve botched my week’s work-wear. Who’ll pay the extra laundry bill?” As the rain pelted even harder, she took shelter by my side. Her hood was no longer covering her head. I turned my head in her direction, not to look at her, but to catch sight of the car’s noise I could hear approaching. I was waiting for an Uber. I was disappointed to find it was a minvan. As my gaze turned, I avoided looking at her but could not. Her hair was drenched with water and it was dripping onto the rest of her dress. As a gust of wind blew over our heads, she started to shiver. Not that I was any particularly chivalrous, but I offered her my overcoat. “I’m alright”, she politely refused. Peeved by my favor not having been taken kindly, I grudgingly wore it back. The wind blew again. And she shivered again.
An hour had past. The aforementioned maid was wrapping up her work as I was preparing to head for a bath. Her temper had cooled down by now – so it was an opportune moment to escape attention. For years, she had diligently followed the discipline of waking up, giving instructions to whoever needed instructions (that included myself!), and then tucking herself back under the blanket for stealing some precious more minutes of sleep. The blanket with her inside was akin to a black hole – strong powerful gravitational pull existed inside it, and it could suck in even the strongest-willed. I had often resisted but largely succumbed. Not because I craved more sleep, but because I craved more of her.
“Dad, Can we go eat golgappas?”, the little girl mumbled, sensing the opportunity the rush of affection from her father had thrown open. “Sure, why not? Lets go to the sweet shop”, the man got up and flung the princess over his shoulders. “Honey, we’ll be back in ten minutes”, he called into the other room as the door closed behind him.
“Dad, Can you pick me up again?”, the little girl cried in her ever so feeble voice. The man was suddenly aware of the fact that while he had been carrying the girl on their way to the parlor, he had let her walk by his side on the return journey. “Sure”, he said, as he picked up the girl. He had taken but a couple of steps, when his daughter’s inquisition reached him – “Dad, why do I always have to ask for things I want? Can’t you know what I want, without me saying it?” The man was bamboozled by the innocent question. As he continued walking, he took a deep breath and said,”Maybe because I like keeping you on your toes.” The little girl wasn’t going to be pleased with a simple answer,” No, but I don’t like it”. The man knew he had to give his daughter nothing but the truth, lest she lose trust in him. He carefully measured his words ,”Because I like it when you ask me for something. It makes me feel responsbile for making you happy. And to know that you have faith in me to make you happy”
The rain had reduced to a drizzle by now but the wind had got gustier and colder. January wasn’t the month you typically expected rains in this part of the world, and when they happened, they wreaked havoc. I turned my wrist and found the minute’s hand trying to play catch-me-if-you-can with its shorter, slower counterpart. It was quarter to nine, and I was hungry. In a vain sense of hope, I strained my neck again, for any signs of an approaching car. But a vain attempt it was to be. As I was turning back, I noticed a moving object, barely visible through the corner of my eye. My neck stopped in its stride and took reverse gear to discover the girl shivering. “Please, take my coat. You are cold”, I mumbled as I motioned to let loose the sole garment sheathing me from the chill outside. I realized I should explain more, and then uttered,” I meant you must be feeling cold. Not that you are a cold person. You seem like a cool person. I only meant to say that you might be feeling cold, as you were shivering. Not that you are a cold person…” This botched attempt drew some attention from the people waiting next to us, as I secretly pleaded to be buried a couple of miles below the concrete my feet were grounded on.
“All roads leading to Powai have been blocked due to the crashing of electric poles in the area. Residents moving towards Powai are advised to stay put. Residents of Powai are well advised to stay put in their homes till …”, the crackling voice from the radio sitting on the tea-stall behind me, turned to be the saving grace. The announcement had apparently caught the lady’s attention. I was liberated from the prying eyes and the consequent ignominy my following jabber had engendered. As I strained my ears to listen to the remainder of the announcement, I saw her face turning pale. It took me another moment to realize – We were on the road that led straight to Powai, and that’s where she was headed.
As I was putting on my shoes, I saw the breakfast neatly arranged on the dining table. This was her routine every morning, but something caught my eye today. I saw the plate set out for me juxtaposed to the plate she had set out for herself. On the surface, both of them had the same food. But something was different. My plate had the fresher fruit slices, the larger food portion (without chili, as I hated it) and the larger milk glass. I jogged my memory to remember the extra pickle that had been packed in my lunch a week ago, and the extra imli toffee the week before that. There was a pattern to this. She really was attempting something. Just what it was, I did not know.
The little girl was back home now after her golgappa outing. Ding-dong. The bell rang. “Honey, I’m busy in the kitchen. Can you get the door?”, the mother’s voice echoed from a distance. “Sure”, the man said, and made a move towards the living room. The little girl followed him into the hall. Arrival of guests always excited her, and it nearly always meant a chocolate or a doll. As the man opened the door, he saw an elderly gentleman smiling at him. “Hi. We’ve just moved into the neighborhood. Can you guide us as to where we can catch a bus for the town hall from?”, the man’s voice shook as he spoke. “Sure, take a right down the road and then the first left. The bus stop is right at the corner of that street”, the man said, stepping out of the doorstep, while motioning the direction with his hands. “Thank you”, the old man said.
“Who all do you have in your family”, the man enquired, as the little girl was now trying to wrap herself around her father’s feet. This seemed to be an act of disapproval for the guest who had brought neither chocolates nor dolls. “Just me and my grandson, who I guess is about the same age as your pretty little daughter”, the old man smiled.
“Let us go, grandpa”, a little boy’s voice beamed, as he came running down to the door. “Aah, there he is”, the old man smiled again. The little girl’s eyes fell on the boy. He was unkempt and looked as if he had given up on bathing as a yearly ritual. “Thanks again. See you around”, the old man wished in his gentle voice. “See you”, the man smiled as he began to push the door close. The little girl caught one more glance of the boy as he tugged on his grandfather’s shirt. He seemed to be the ugliest creature she had ever seen. She cringed.
“Tea?” I could barely hear my own voice as I made the offer, after the ten minute awkward silence had made me fidgety enough to trade that discomfort with the one I was experiencing now. She turned her head in my direction. The eyes were no longer prying. But I now realized that the awkward silence was a better deal than having been thought of as the guy who hits on girls on dark rainy nights. “OK”, her feeble voice broke the silence, much to my bewilderment. Some sound was better than no sound. We proceeded towards the tea-stall where the radio had been playing. I pulled out a chair, or rather a bench for her, as I motioned the sleepy stall-owner to bring a couple of teas.
I had been born with a disposition that made me uncomfortable with women. Irrespective of caste, color, age or situation, women always managed to make me fidgety. Here I was, in front of a woman I barely knew. I did not know how to handle the situation. “Tea” now seemed to be the most heinous three-lettered word I had ever uttered. I regretted my indiscretion.
“So, how come you are trapped in this hideous weather?”, her question broke the silence. I could not miss the silent swallowing of tears she made before uttering the sentence. But I was happy nonetheless. Some sound is better than no sound. “I’m not from Mumbai. Came down for some office related work. But somehow, I love the city”, I finally found some sense returning to my statements. “Ditto. I love the city too – there’s just something enigmatic about it”, she said, the tone a little more cheerful. A lean boy placed two glasses of tea on the table. The hot steam was a pleasant relief from the damp coldness surrounding us. The lady’s potential cheerfulness and the hot tea put me a little at ease.
Unable to decipher the pattern, I decided to leave for work. “I am leaving”, I shouted to get her attention. A couple of seconds later, she emerged from the bathroom, head wrapped in a towel, body all wet and wearing nothing but her bare essentials. I was motionless for a few moments” “Go”, she said in an impatient tone, and broke my reverie. And then she approached to give me the customary peck on the cheek. “If only I could have stayed back”, I wondered as I descended through the elevator.
“Will you play with me?”, the boy’s voice beamed from one end of the see-saw. The community park was empty save for the two of them. The little girl wanted to pay no attention to the hideous creature. She heard him climbing down and walking towards her. She tried to act preoccupied with her doll. But this wasn’t enough to curb the over enthuisiastic boy. “Will you play with me?”, the boy shouted as he hovered over her head. She looked up, and declared, “No”.
“But why?”, was the boy’s injunction. The girl wanted to get rid off him. “Have you seen how fat you are? We can’t play see-saw, you idiot”, she lost her temper. She wasn’t used to playing with boys. She hated their rowdiness, their brutally physical sports and the way they were mean to each other during any game. But this boy had a unique quality about his stupidity. Not only was he coaxing her to play with him, he was well beyond shame in asking her the same question repeatedly, despite the rebuke.
“Some other game, then?”, he argued. “No. I’m not playing with you. Get lost”, she screamed and ran with her doll, towards her house.
“How about a board game?”, the boy ran behind her, undeterred, unabashed.
“So, what do you do?”, she asked, taking a sip from the glass. The awkward silence that had been pervading, save for the drizzle trickling off the plastic shelter covering the tea-stall, was finally broken. “I’m a consultant”, I proceeded to answer the question, which seemed to have been born out of the urge to fill the silence, rather than any genuine curiosity.
“Why are you so uncomfortable with girls?”, I could scarcely believe my ears as the words pierced through them. “What did you say?”, I lifted my head up to confront, but could not look her in the eye, still. “Yes, just like the way you cannot look me in the eye right now. Just like the way you practiced saying “Tea” ten times before you said it. Just like the way you did not proffer your overcoat the second time”
“Err….Umm….”, I could barely feel my throat as I spoke. “You seem like a nice person. And you are not an introvert. I could make that out from the way you talked to the tea-stall owner. Then why this change of disposition for someone else, just because she is not of the same gender”
As much as the words were chipping away on my already shattered sense of self respect, I could see some degree of veracity in them.
“How can you say all of this, having known me for all of sixty minutes?”, I tried to reason. But evidently, she seemed to be beyond all reason. “Is it untrue?”, she smiled. My silence gave me away.
Here I was, sitting half-drenched on a cold damp January night, with my conduct being put to the butcher’s table. I had lived all my life with a toothpick stuck inside my throat, which flared up everytime I interacted with a girl. And this girl seemed to have caught hold of the obstruction and was moving it about, inside me. I started sweating. In another vain rush of indiscretion, I found myself uttering,” So what do I do about it?”
“Find the girl who you can treat like a friend, before you treat like a girl”, she lowered her voice.
“Tea?”, I muttered, as I made my way through the entrance. Over the years, I had learned to ask the question a lot more confidently, even if it was only with her. For some strange reason, sharing those two (and sometimes more) cups of tea with her had always had a strange therapeutic effect on me. They tended to calm frayed nerves after a mighty stressful day at work. And sitting next to her, even if we didn’t converse, repaired a wound or two, seemingly by some weird induction effect.
“Our life has become so boring and predictable. You don’t even talk to me anymore.”, she uttered, catching me unaware lost in my train of thoughts. “I need some fun back in my life”, she continued. It was not a grouse I hadn’t heard before. I always had some well rehearsed answers to situations like these – “Last week we did this. This weekend let’s go for that”, or “What do you want to do? We’ll do whatever makes you happy.” or when I wasn’t feeling as charitable ,”You always complain. Do something about it yourself”. But today, I didn’t feel like brushing this under the carpet. I felt compelled to answer in earnest. Maybe the larger breakfast portions and the extra lunch pickle had needled my conscience.
“I am sorry for not keeping you as happy as I promised to. I want you to know that you are the single most important person in my life and I will do whatever it takes to make you happy. At times, you might feel I am acting to the contrary. But always remember that whatever I do, is always to make you happy – sometimes in the short term, and sometimes in the long term. I only ask you to trust me with your life, just as I trust you with mine. And more”, I finished in one breath, bewildered by my own cacophony of words and emotions.
“I love you”, she settled the matter with three words.
“Mummy, where is Dad?”, cried the little girl from the doorstep
“He’s gone out for some work”, a feminine voice reverberated from inside the house.
The girl looked down on the floor, and her doll lying on it, split into two. The sight drove her to tears. She picked up the pieces, embraced it to her chest and began to weep. The sound of her sniffles was interrupted by the screeching sound of friction. She lifted her head and saw the boy. Her crying rose by another decibel level at the sight of the culprit who had led to the massacre of her beloved toy. She had tripped over the steps while running to escape from the interfering fool’s intrusion, and fallen over the doll, splitting it into two. As the scene played back in her mind, she was repulsed even more by the ignominious creature and the hideous sound his shoes were making against the ground, as he inched closer.
“Oh. I’m so sorry”, he uttered, peering over her shoulder, catching a glance of the broken toy.
“Get lost”, she shouted, throwing her doll back onto the floor, and ran back inside to seek medical attention for her bruised elbow.
Having cried her heart out after the burning sensation of the antiseptic had played its part, the little girl’s concern for her treasured toy returned. As her mother was placing the first aid box back, she ran towards the doorstep. She couldn’t believe what she saw. The doll was in one piece. It was a miracle. She picked it up, and embraced it, an innocent smile adorning her face. As she turned to go back, her eyes fell on the boy who was sitting at the neighboring house’s doorstep, rubbing his fingers against each other in an attempt to take the adhesive off.
“Easier said than done”, I mumbled, singed more by her statement, than the hot, tasteless tea.
“Better done than said”, she smiled and winked at me. That made me very uncomfortable, for a minute. I did not know where this conversation was going, but it only felt downhill for me. However, for some strange reason, the clouds had begun to clear, the cold breeze had turned pleasantly cool, the tea tasted better than it was, and I started feeling a little more at ease. This was unprecedented – comfort in the company of a girl, and a hot one at that! It almost seemed to me that I had met her in the past – a strange sense of déjà vu. She seemed like the girl who would play with dolls and like golgappas.
“So, do you mind going out for coffee sometime?”, she broached the question that had been inevitable.
“Huh”, I acted surprised, while tripping on the inside. “Sure, why not”, I tried to fake nonchalance, as I began peering into her eyes.
“Thanks for the tea. The rain seems to have abated - I’ll make a move”, she motioned as she got up. “Don’t go”, was what I wanted to say, but wisely chose to purse my lips.
As she flung her bag over her shoulder, she left me food for thought, “You seem to have a way with words. Maybe you’ll chronicle this chance meeting someday”