Down the Line

I was waiting for the evening suburban when I saw her. And, as if sensing my gaze – for I was still not quite sure it was her – she turned towards me. A look of vague disquiet, then one of the vaguest remembrance. Across the distance of a few yards, I could see the fog lifting off the hazy ten years it had been since we had last met. Her eyes lit up, the lips creased into a smile, the mouth opening, about to call my name…

BLARE!!! the engine thundered past us, drowning out the voices of a platform chock full of wearied bread-winners returning to their homes. I had no idea if she had indeed placed me, or, more likely, mistaken me for a more recent acquaintance, but I had not forgotten her. As the train slowed to a stop beside us, she fought the current of the boarding crowd and moved towards me, deftly swerving this way and that to avoid the countless briefcases and handbags, the smile growing brighter with each step.

“Deepthi,” I said, sticking my hand out and striking an old lady scurrying forth, a handwoven basket wobbling precariously on a white-topped head. Murmured apologies brought forth an angry glare, just for a second, before the challenge of navigation grabbed her attention again. Deepthi was now certainly within arm’s reach, but I kept my arms down by my sides this time. Now that she was so close, I was not sure any more – those laugh lines and the few extra pounds seemed to be amplified, distorting who I once knew as a young woman into a lady who had seen the world. “Hi,” I mumbled.

“Sneha!” she exclaimed. “Hullo! It’s been so long!” As I started to nod my head, she gripped my shoulder and pushed me towards the door of the carriage. “Better get in – the stop’s just for a couple of minutes!”

It was Deepthi, I was sure of that now. All those exclamatory sentences were a trademark, a mannerism that dated back to when I first knew her as a tomboy at college. The Deepthi of those days – from a faraway past – punctuated her life each second, treating everything as a production that demanded the most expressive emotion that she could muster. She followed me into the ladies’ carriage a couple of seconds later and maneuvered me into a corner that seemed to be the least crowded. The train had pulled out of the station by the time we settled ourselves.

“How are you!” she said, more a statement than a question, and nodded appreciatively. “You still look fantastic! And your hair – I can’t believe you actually cut it this short! You were always so fond of it growing long!”

“Well,” I said, and I suppose I probably patted my hair once as I continued, “I was tired of keeping it long. This is much better. Much less work.”

“You were always the lazy one,” Deepthi retorted with a smile. I felt a warm rush as the years seemed to shrink into a second. We could have been back in the canteen, or on the pavilion next to the ground. It seemed like one of the good old days.

“Right. And you were always the studious one.” It was one of our oldest jokes, for despite being a front-bencher, Deepthi’s marks had rarely risen above those of the back-benchers. We laughed together.

“Listen to us,” she said, smiling. “Some things never change.”

“Some things shouldn’t change.”

And that brought us to a sudden halt in the conversation. Because both of us remembered – you could have seen the bulb light up behind our heads, I suppose – that some things had changed. To be more specific, ten years ago. On a cool evening that should have been wonderful for all the right reasons, but one that would always remain within both of us as the day we lost each other.

I felt she had betrayed my trust.

She thought I couldn’t stand to see her happy.

It was a fight neither of us had ever seen coming, and once it had, neither of us had walked away from. For four years, we had been the closest of pals, the envy of other friendships, the ones the teachers liked to call, ‘Dumb & Dumber,’ for the way we pretended to be too stupid to complete our work on time. Or adhere to the institutional rules, the occasional infraction, or mixing stuff that they had no reason to keep in a domestic Chem Lab. We had fights, sure, but most of them were over which movie to see in lieu of a bunked post-lunch seminar.

But when Dumb and Dumber had their fight, their really serious fight, nobody could patch it up. Our parents had tried, but neither of us gave in.

Which made it all the more surprising that as I sat there, right across Dumber, it seemed so natural that I find her at this time in my life. Just like all the other times that we had been there for each other, through the trials and tribulations of that first love – and that shattering moment when George Michael announced that he was gay – the illnesses and inconveniences that plague womankind, like the little kid who jumps, expecting his parent to catch him safely. I felt that old connection with her, once again, a bit weaker, but certainly there.

Deepthi was the one to take that first step. Reaching across, she took my hand in hers and, with a sober expression on her face, said, “I am sorry.”

“Me, too.” I told her, giving her palm a squeeze. “I’ve missed you so much.”

This time, it was her turn to say, “Me, too!”

I sensed the lady sitting next to me shuffling slightly, as if moving away from me, and it wasn’t until Deepthi leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially that I understood. “She must think we are lovers or something,” and that grin was back, “But in this day and age, who can blame her?” She locked eyes with the old lady, mouthed something unrepeatable, and then patted me playfully on the back of my hand. “I love you,” she said loudly enough for everybody enough in our section to hear.

After the next station, we had the section we were in pretty much to ourselves.

“Good,” she said, letting go of my hand and stretching like a cat. “Now we can talk!”

“God,” I told her, shaking my head. “You haven’t changed, have you?”

“I have,” she replied playfully, “And don’t tell me you haven’t noticed. I have got gray hairs, I’ve got wrinkles, I’ve put on weight… and I’ve got two little kids waiting for me to get home!”

“Waitaminit!” I said, holding up a hand, cutting her off. “You’ve got gray hairs?”

“Hmmm,” she said, nodding her head gravely. “I’ve dyed it so it is not noticeable, but I’ve got a couple of grays, yes.”

“You are right,” I told her. “You *have* changed.”

“Told ya! But enough about myself! Tell me, Sne, how have you been? I heard that you got married, but then you dropped off the radar. What’s up with you?”
I hesitated just long enough for her to realize that we were moving into dangerous territory, for my personal life – or lack thereof – was not something I might be comfortable sharing with a friend I had parted with a decade ago, but then a part of me wanted to pour it all out to her. Hadn’t we apologized? Wasn’t ten years enough to wipe away the hurt I had felt that Friday evening? Hadn’t we shared everything intimate until then?

God, it would feel so good to tell someone how I actually felt…

“It was two years ago,” I began, “The wedding, I mean. I knew Raj much before that, though. I’ve known him for close to nine years now, I think… yes, that sounds about right.” I answered her next question even before she could ask. “No, you don’t know him. I met him after we… you know, our… fight.”

We smiled wryly at each other at that last word.

“Yes. Let’s not relive that again! Tell me more, girl! How is he like? Is he a TDH? I remember that was your favorite kind!”

I threw a playful punch in her direction. “Well, he’s tall. And he’s dark. But I wouldn’t call him handsome – “

“Hey, two out of three isn’t that bad, either!” She grinned at me. “So how did he woo you? With his handicap…”

I raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Handicap?”

“Looks.”

“Oh.”

“If he didn’t win you through his looks, what did he use?”

After a couple of seconds, I answered, “His persistence, I guess. He was just a friend for about three years before I even caught wind of the way he thought about me. And then he was so gentlemanly about it, so understanding… so polite.”

“And here I thought you were always hankering after the bad guys,” quipped Deepthi. “Remember that stud who used to give us rides to the movies on weekends? What was his name? Salim? Rahim? Something like that, right?”

I was laughing as I shook my head. “I can’t believe you still remember his name. I wonder what he is doing these days.”

“Well, I always thought he was fonder of me than he was of you, so I would guess he is somewhere still pining for me.”

“Or still ferrying impressionable young ladies.”

“Hey! Don’t change the subject! So tell me more about this Raj – Oh, damn! Here’s my stop!” She stood up and pulled me to my feet. We were halfway out of the station before I even realized that I had accepted her offer of dropping into her place for a little tea and a lot of gossip. “It’s just a couple of minutes’ walk from here,” she was saying as she jumped into an alley that led to a bustling thoroughfare on the other side. “You can call Raj and ask him to pick you up on his way home! Where does he work, by the way?”

“The Bantam IT Centre,” I said before I could stop myself.

“Well…?” she paused in mid-stride, seeing me make no move towards reaching for my cell. “Aren’t you going to call him or not?”

I shrugged. “He’s not… We are not together anymore.” I tried to keep whatever residual emotion I felt out of my voice, but I guess it was still a raw wound, sensitive to the slightest reference.

Those words hung between us. She looked at me for a few seconds more, unblinking, perhaps trying to gauge what I was trying to hide. Then she turned around and flagged a passing taxi. She gave the driver the address, he quoted a figure I registered as outrageous for a short trip – the Deepthi of our past would have erupted at this – the Deepthi before me nodded without even bothering to negotiate a better deal and got in. I followed her.

“If your place is that close, why this?” I asked her.

“It’s faster,” she said simply, still gazing at me with that concerned expression on her face. I was the one to blink, turning my face away and out of the window, trying to take in the unfamiliar sights and sounds of her residential area. It took all my will-power not to turn around and divert the discussion – I just knew, for some reason, that my marital status had upset her.

We got at an apartment block that seemed identical to the ones on either side, an anonymous pinkish-brownish structure from within whose walls I could discern the noises of playing children and cautious parents. As soon as we were a few steps past the guard’s cabin, a round-headed little boy rushed towards her, arms and legs flailing in that innocently-clumsy way of a child who is still learning how to coordinate his limbs, screaming out, “Mommy! Mommy!” as loudly as his little lungs could manage. He seemed to slam into Deepthi, who picked him up in one smooth motion and planted kisses on his rosy cheeks.

Turning towards me, she held his little hand out for me to shake. “This is my little hero,” she said, her face radiant in a way I had never seen it before. “Meet Aditya. Adit, this is Sneha Aunty. She is Mommy’s best friend.”

He shook his hand shyly, then turned around, pointing a finger at one of the other children playing near the sandbox. “I have a best friend, too. His name’s Naveen.”

In a pattern that seemed to occur everyday, she set him down gently back on the ground. “Where’s Anu, sweetie?”

He tilted his head, placing his hands under his cheeks, and said, “Sleeping. Dadima’s with her.” Without another word, he ran away to join his friends. Deepthi watched him indulgently for a short while. Her mood seemed to have gone from black – or at least brown – to white at a moment’s notice. Strange what effects kids have on you.

We went up to her apartment on the second floor and knocked on the door. Deepthi placed a finger on her lips. “Anu’s a devil if she is woken up. Ma always says she got that from me.”

A pleasant-faced woman, with a full head of white, a red dot in the centre of her forehead and a wide smile on her face, welcomed us inside. It was not Deepthi’s mother, whom I had known very well, so it had to have been her mother-in-law. She had features similar to Aditya, a nose that seemed kind, eyes that were mischievous.

“This is Sneha, Ma,” Deepthi said as she stepped inside. “She was my best friend in college. Is, I should say! We made peace on the way home! Imagine my surprise when I saw her waiting for the same train!”

Dadima soon left us alone in the apartment on the pretext of having to visit a friend next door, and I thought it was awfully sensitive of her to realize that Deepthi and I might like some privacy. As soon as the door shut behind her, Deepthi whirled around and – as expected – crossed her arms, asking, “Well?”

“Well what?” I shrugged. “If you are asking about me and Raj… I don’t know. It never really clicked for us. Married life, I mean. He started making so many demands of me, it was so unreasonable of him. Go here, a party there… It didn’t seem as if I could have a life without him in it every second, you know.”

When she did not say anything, I added, “Just because I get married doesn’t mean I don’t need my personal space!”

And then I fell silent. I could still remember the times when he had surprised me, when he had made me unbelievably happy, but every one of those memories were now getting polluted by my indignation at his taking me for granted. Why should I cease to be Sneha, an individual, simply because I got married?

Deepthi broke into my reverie by saying, “He never read any of my mails, you know.”

“Huh?”

“My husband.”

And with that, it was that Friday evening again. Deepthi and I were at the canteen, finishing off our daily quota of tea and biscuits, and Deepthi was telling me about the wonderful qualities of the guy she was engaged to. A guy she had met only once in person, an alliance forged by the parents on both sides, the groom in question an IT professional working abroad and earning oodles of money. And who had probably had his share of girlfriends before getting hitched to my best friend, if you ask me.

“So you asked him to take a hike, right?” I asked her. Around us, the canteen was entering into the twilight zone when it was just a few of us regulars. Deepthi had just confided to me that her fiancee had, in their latest chat, asked for the password to her mailbox and social networking sites, “if you trust me.”

She was silent for so long I felt compelled to echo myself with a “Right?”

“No,” she answered. She seemed to be embarrassed about it, but she also seemed to be happy that she had done it.

“What?” I shouted, causing the cashier to glance across at us. “Tell me you are not serious!”

“I did.”

“Oh. And I take it he then shared his passwords with you?” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“No,” she said, and I had this sudden urge to overturn the jug of water over her head. Wake up, I wanted to scream. What’s gotten into you?

“It seemed so childish, you know, to ask him for his, just because he had asked for mine! Kind of like tit-for-tat!”

“I don’t believe this!”

“Why? What’s your problem, Sne?”

“What’s my problem? What’s MY problem?” I shook my exasperated head. “Girl, why would you want to give a guy like that your passwords? You were perfectly fine for the last 22 years – and now this! What next, you need to call him every time you come out with me, too?”

With a sheepish grin, Deepthi replied, “Well, if I am staying out after nine… yeah, I need to let him know.” As I opened my mouth to continue berating her, she raised her voice, “He always calls me just after dinner, so if I am not home by then, he’s going to start getting worried!”

It must have been quite a sight for those who were there – a young woman slamming her hand down on the table so hard a glass fell off and shattered on the floor. My hand hurt, but I did not sense it until later. “Worried? Deeps, he’s keeping tabs on you! He’s already controlling your life, dammit, and you are letting him do it! How can you even trust him?”

That set her off. “So what if I do?” she shot back, rising from her seat. “I like him! I am going to spend the rest of my life with him, whether you trust him or not! And if he’s controlling my life, as you call it, maybe you should be so lucky, Miss Oh-I-Love-My-Freedom!”

The rest of that conversation I don’t recall verbatim, for in the heat of the moment both of us said things neither of us would have used at any other time. I remember the end, though, when we paid for our tabs separately and walked off in opposite directions, eyes blurred with tears, egos hurt… and a friendship that seemed to be beyond salvage.

Until now.

“Then why did he ask for it?” I asked her.

Before answering, Deepthi walked over to a shelf and pulled out a picture of the two of them on their wedding day. “He was just joking, he told me later. It is true, you know – I sent myself an email from another account, just to see what his reaction would be, and to this day, he has no idea what I am talking about.” There was that mischievous grin again. “Believe me, if he had really read that one message, I would have known about it. I am certain about that!”

“So we fought over nothing, then…”

“Maybe,” she said, “Or maybe we fought then so that we could meet again, like this, today.”

I shrugged. Fate was something I rarely put stock in, for it implied a lack of control over your future that went against my basic principles. “It’s just that I couldn’t stand the thought of someone as independent as you, as modern in outlook, becoming just another stereotypical female.”

She laughed mirthlessly. “Stereotypical? Sneha, haven’t the stereotypes changed? How many women do you know these days who refuse to compromise? Who walk out on their marriages rather than make a few adjustments?”

“Are you talking about me?” I asked. I must have sounded rather defensive, for she immediately made a placating gesture.

“Generally speaking, of course,” she said. Then, in a gentler manner, she asked me, “Is that why you walked out on yours? Because your Raj was making too many decisions for you? Because you couldn’t live the way you were before you were married?”

I nodded.

“Marriage is not just about love, Sneha. And it’s not just about sex, either.” She set the photo on the table between us. “When I got engaged, I knew that I was going to share the best, and just as importantly, the worst, of my life with another person. If that required me to be open and vulnerable to that one person – vulnerable because he would have the power to hurt my feelings deeper than anyone else… I was willing to pay that price. The question was never what I would give up for him – or he, for me – not once I had decided that I was going to trust him enough to spend the rest of my life with. Sometimes, it doesn’t even occur to you that you’ve given up something to get something else that’s invaluably better.”

She placed a hand under my chin and pushed upwards so that I was looking right at her as she said, “I took a chance there, but I have never regretted it since. My vulnerability is the single greatest gift that I can ever give him.” A pause, before she added, “Have you ever allowed yourself to feel that with Raj?”

I shook my head.

She did not say anything more.

And then a few minutes later, as I took in the life she had – paid for by the sacrifices I had hated her for making – and the one I had – forged within the protection of my own personal space – I knew that, right or wrong, I had to make one last try. Since the day I had walked out on Raj, he had called me many times, left countless messages apologizing for hurting me… I had not returned a single call for that would have put me under his magic – his control – once again. One single call would have been all it took to make me vulnerable to hurt once again, on a scale bigger than what I had already suffered.

I decided to make that call…


Disclaimer: This is, in all probability, neither an untold story nor a classic. It’s just something that’s been festering for the last couple of days – I needed to put it down on paper so that I can free my head (sic?) for other things. It’s not just about love or marriage – for those who missed the message, it’s also about friendship. I dedicate this to those who are fortunate enough to have such great friends that even if you see them after months or years, that blessed connection is still there. I count myself among the beneficiaries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *