“Anyone sitting here?”
I looked up and my jaw dropped. My eyes popped out and rolled somewhere under the dirty train seat. My heart skipped a beat and then raced like a bull in heat.
Here was the most deliciously beautiful thing that my roving, scanning, eighteen-year-old eyes had ever devoured. I tell you, if my eyes had teeth she would've been swallowed whole that hungry instant.
Her hair was like a black waterfall, if you know what I mean. And those eyes, I swear, those eyes were... impossible, man. Impossible. To define... describe... dream. They held a tinge of a smile, a dash of mischief and a hoard of... let's see… mystery? Mystery. I guess that was what it was, though I cannot be sure. Her skin, yeah her skin was something you could get if you mixed the brightness of sunshine, the delicateness of babies, the softness of cotton clouds and the spotlessness of truth. Her smell. Ooh that was divine joy. Joy. Yes that's it! That must have been the perfume she was wearing, since it gave me such indescribable joy. And her lips... gosh! Did you hear that? That was my pulse setting off like an NYFD fire engine on Sept 11! I better not continue with this description. For the sake of my health, and maybe for the sake of yours. But being a masochist and firmly living by the principle of 'Live Good, Live Dangerously', I knew that instant that she was mine
Now you may ask how I came to such an outrageous conclusion. You know, I am not so bad either. I have a few muscles under my skin, a moustache under my nose, some grey stuff in my skull and some money in my pocket. What more does a girl want? You tell me! When I walk along that long college corridor that reeked of teenage sweat and heartbreaks, my hair greased and glazed like black lightning, a Hindi tune in my breath, a spring in my Nike, I have heard nervous giggles and felt girlish eyes fondle my taut skin under my straining tee shirt. I couldn't care less for those college babes who slobbered like starving Alsatians every time I made a pose. I knew I was too big for them. Way too big and way too slick for those boring coconut-oil-smelling churidars. But then, the gang I hung around with didn't believe in my exclusivity (obviously they were jealous). They may tell you that I was too shy, that I would turn pale every time a girl asked me the time, that I would sweat like a WWF wrestler, that a huge lump would form in my throat and tie my tongue up tightly. All lies! You must believe me; I swear I am not the shy type, though I do have a problem with that annoying lump in my throat that shows up only when I try to chat up a gal. But that, I assure you, is some strange case of tonsillitis or something. I don't know. I am not the expert.
“Anyone sitting here?” she repeated. Her eyes giggled.
My head shook, my eyes transfixed on her.
“This your bag?”
My head nodded, my eyes still transfixed.
“Can I keep it on top?”
My head nodded again. She took my bag that I had kept on the opposite window seat and placed it on the berth above and sat daintily facing me. She was wearing a tight pair of Levis and a pink tee shirt, her curves more dangerous than the hairpin bends to Tirupathi.
The air was getting unbearably hot now. I could feel sweat gushing out of every pore on my skin, forming little streams on my face, making my collar sticky. Strangely, the other passengers in the compartment seemed unaffected. I checked my watch and saw that there was still another twenty minutes before departure time.
I fought the lump in my throat and managed to mumble something that sounded like, “Going out. My bag. My seat. Watch it, please.”
She smiled sweetly and nodded her head.
I stepped on to the platform and got a grip on myself. My mind raced. What next? What do I do now? How can I strike up a conversation with her? What the hell do I talk about? Suddenly I remembered Vinod, my playboy pal with the golden tongue.
“Sunny boy,” he would say, sitting on the high step and looking down on me so that he could make me look small, “If you want to open an account with a babe, the right way would depend on the type of babe,” he would sound as if he was disclosing the most profound secrets of the universe.
“If the babe is of the intelligent type, you know -- the girls who let me copy their assignments -- speak to them about the latest bestseller. If she happens to be of the fun-loving kind, start with a movie you saw. And then there is the surefire way -- tell them you're an amateur palmist, and watch what happens next.”
The movie idea seemed good, but I wasn't sure if she was the fun-loving kind. What if she belonged to some secret cult that prohibits seeing movies? There are such cults around, you know.
I could have told her I was a palmist and grabbed her hand, but then, what if she preferred giving me some homework and left her palm impression on my cheeks? That would be bad, wouldn't it?
Anyway, she appeared intelligent (after all, she could pick the right seat in front of the right guy), so I headed straight for the Railway Book Stall.
There were only two bestsellers on display -- one history book written by some guy with the name of a pressure cooker (Stephen Prestige? No. Stephen Hawking? Yup, that's the guy), and then there was this thick book called A Suitable Boy written by an Indian bloke called Vikram. I chose the latter because of three reasons - (1) I didn't like history, even if it was brief, (2) Hawking's book was too thin and hence, I thought, unsuitable for impressing babes, and most importantly (3) the title of Vikram's book was as suggestive as it could get (I pictured myself sitting opposite her, holding the book in front of my face, the title facing her, suggesting volumes). I grabbed the book, paid the money and a surge of adrenalin drove me back to my compartment.
I sat down on my seat, carefully placed the book on my lap so that she could clearly see the title, and smiled at her.
She looked at the book and smiled back.
Her smile was heartening, somehow it eased my nerves a bit.
As the train started moving, I opened the book at some page in the middle and held it against my face while stealing quick, furtive glances at her from the corner of my eyes.
“Do you always start a book from the middle?”
“The book -- do you normally start reading from the middle?” she repeated, stressing each word. I could see her eyes held a twinkle of amusement.
“Oh, this, you mean,” I said tapping the book, “I've read this before. A couple of times, actually. Just rereading the interesting parts now.”
“Oh, I see,” she said.
“Wonderful book, my favorite novel,” I added. “You have to read it some time.”
“Have you read any other books by Seth?” she asked.
“Who?” I queried.
“Seth,” she replied, “Vikram Seth, the author of the book you are holding.”
I flipped the book to look at the title once again. A Suitable Boy, it said, and beneath it was written Vikram Seth.
“Oh yes! Vikram Seth! I call him Vikram!” I exclaimed, “I have read them all. All his works,” before she could ask me anything else, I quickly added, “But I don't remember any of the titles. You see, I've read so many, many books.”
She nodded in agreement. But somehow, I felt she didn't quite believe me. I wonder why.
“Then I suppose you must have read Roy's God of Small Things?” she asked.
“God of Small Things?” I repeated after her, my mind racing, my eyes looking upwards at those filthy train fans, “Hmm, let's see. Nope, I don't think so. You see, I don't read religious books.”
“Religious books? But…” her voice trailed, her face, a big question mark.
Doesn't she know anything that's got to do with God ought to be termed religious? I wondered how someone so beautiful could be so dumb. Anyway, I did like them dumb and beautiful.
Now, you must understand, it's not that I am not religious or anything. I honestly am quite religious. I do make it a point to visit my local Devi temple every Friday (that is when that cute Padma with the oval face and dreamy eyes gives the beautiful Goddess a run for Her money). It is just that I don't fancy reading about God and His doings up above those grey clouds of His. I am a reasonable man -- my life down here, His life up there -- let's keep that separate for God's sake. Okay?
Her face suddenly lit up like a slow tubelight as she said, “Oh you mean religious as in God?”
“Aaha,” I replied, nodding my head, smugly. Superiorly.
But I did notice for a fleeting instant the flicker of a mocking smile on her face. It did unsettle me a wee bit. So I checked my zipper to ensure that everything was in its proper place.
After a while, she suddenly asked me, “How do you like the character of Mrs. Rupa Mehra in your book?” Her voice was so sweet.
“She is nice,” I said nodding my head, “very nice.”
“What about Lata, did you like her?”
“She is also nice, very nice.” I replied
“What about Estha and Rahel? I suppose they are also nice and very nice?” her eyes were drilling into mine, and it made me quite uncomfortable.
I shifted in my seat and replied, “Of course. Of course. They are also very nice.”
She laughed a short tinkling laugh. I wonder what was so funny.
But one thing was certain -- she wanted to strike up a conversation, know more about me. I was sure it was not the passing interest that a passenger feels for his fellow traveler. It was much more than that. It was a genuine need to know more and that really encouraged me.
I told her that my name was Sunil Menon. My closest friends and those whom I care about call me Sunny. I told her she could call me that (with a wink). I told her I had just finished my plus two and got admission for BA. English Lit. at Victoria College, Palakkad, where I was going to start a new chapter in my academic life. I told her both my parents were doctors, stinking rich, minting money in the Gulf. I also added I was just returning from a holiday in the US.
I learnt her name was Sujata Menon. Her parents were also in the Gulf. She was also going to Palakkad. That was enough for me! So many things in common! We were both Menons, both our names started with Su, both our parents were in the Gulf and both of us were going to Palakkad. There was only one minor irritant; she was not studying any more (no wonder she was so dumb!), she said. I did ask her what she was doing now. But she somehow seemed reluctant in answering that. So I didn't press her. Maybe she was a dropout who couldn't cope. In a way, I thought, it was better she wasn't in any college. I couldn't bear to imagine guys lusting after her, giving me some serious competition. Suddenly the horrific thought that she was engaged or something crossed my mind. I asked her that, to which she relieved me by replying in the negative.
As the stations and trees and skies and clouds and lakes and butt-naked-waving-kids and men and women and feminists and communists… passed furiously past my window, my spirit soared above them all and hovered in the highest heavens. When the fleeting day mellowed into a cool crimson afternoon, my dreams stitched me a possible future. One in which I saw our wedding invitation -- 'Sujata weds Sunil' so su-weet. We will have two children -- Sudhesh and Sudha. For a living, I will be a billionaire dot-commer (by then dot-coms would be back in vogue, I was sure), creating a website called Sulekha, where Indians everywhere can post their literary works. I will build a palace of a home on the banks of Lake Superior (like the one the divine Kareena did her Lajja lajja in Kabhi Kushi...) and call it Sudharshan, where I will settle down. I will holiday in Su-witzerland, have a British nanny called Susan, a Mallu cook called Sukumaran, a Tamil gardener called Subramoni, a Sikh driver called Surjeet...
I was still in my sundara su-wapnam (beautiful dream), when Sujata gently tapped on my shoulder and whispered, “We're just half an hour away.”
My mind fell to earth with a thud as I realized I hadn't told her my feelings. How do you tell a girl whom you met only a few hours earlier “I love you”? I was brave, but I didn't have that kind of guts. It was then that I got this brainwave. I will write a love letter and give it to her just before we part. How supremely romantic! I tore a page from my diary and wrote:
I am here,
I will protect you,
I will support you,
I'll be there for you,
Because I love you
Thank God I was a good instant poet. If it were anyone else, they would have messed it all up. I carefully folded the piece of paper and put it in my pocket.
As we were alighting from the train, I asked her, “Sujata, where do you live in Palakkad? Your address? Your phone number?”
She just smiled and said, “Maybe later.”
“But, how do I see you again?” my voice was almost shrill (God! It's a miracle! I hadn't noticed until then that I was cured of that pesky throat-lump!).
“But, why?” she asked, looking straight into my eyes.
“Simply,” I said managing a silly smile, my fingers running over my shoulder strap, “Just to get to know you more.”
“Don't worry, we are in the same little town. You will see me again,” she said as she resumed her stride.
Somehow the way she said that seemed quite reassuring. So I didn't pester her anymore.
Just before she vanished into a waiting auto rickshaw, I passed her my letter.
“Please read this. And when we meet again, please give me a reply,” I shouted as the auto merged into the ink of a Palakkad night.
The following day, as I mentioned earlier, was the beginning of a new chapter of campus life, with new faces, new smells and a promise of new experiences.
As I sat in my new classroom, with its quota of new boys and girls and sparks of new romances, I saw a sight which made my heart soar once again. As you have rightly guessed, I saw her entering my class. This time she looked completely different in her off-white sari, her thick braided hair adorned with jasmine flowers, a finger line of sandalwood paste on her forehead, smelling like the earth, like life, like love… to me.
I stood up and asked her, loudly, jolting everyone from their newness, “Hey! I thought you said you stopped your studies!”
“I did,” she said calmly, looking at me straight into my eyes with her drill-vision, “I am teaching now.”
Then, she faced the class before declaring, “My name is Sujata Menon. I will be taking Contemporary English Poetry for your class,” she said sweetly and added with the same twinkle in her eyes that I saw the day before. “Since we have some nursery-rhymers in our class, I hope my job will be easier.”
“Now, to break the ice, I am going to ask Sunil Menon here (she gestures in my direction) to give us a summary of his favorite novel -- A Suitable Boy.” Then, with the sweetest smile I've ever seen, she added, “Come on class, give this Suitable Boy a big hand.”
I don't think she was wearing Joy the day before; it was more like Poison.