“Ma, I can’t find my new ear-rings!”
“I left it on your bed Alisha.”, comes my exasperated reply.
“Ayaan! Just bring it right back… Ma!!!”
“Ayaan, return your sister’s stuff please!”, I command my son.
These kids! Sigh!
There is a crisis in the house. It’s packed with half a dozen teen aged friends of my daughter’s. They’re here, in all earnest, to help me with the arrangements for Alisha’s birthday party, but I dread to think about the state of our house once they’re done.
Presently the ancient clock announces the onset of 4 o’ clock in the evening, chiming it’s age old tune, ushering a familiar sense of anxiety within me. I have always been one who does things in the ‘T’th hour. The breakneck pace, the adrenalin rush and the sheer exhilaration of it all, I confess, gives me quite a high. And thus yet again, I’m about three hours behind schedule, preparing for a party at 5 pm and with well over two dozen things to be ticked off the list…And my ‘helping hands’ are becoming more of a handicap.
“Ma! Milee Aunty is on the line… quick!”
Leaving the half filled samosas to the cook, I trip over a stool, but reach for the phone sans any dislocated bones, leaving in my wake a protesting cook and a teen-aged daughter, rolling her eyes, who (thankfully!) has inherited her father’s primness.
Milee, my sister-in-law and best friend since childhood quickly fills me in with all the hullabaloo of her life in France, her job as an apparel designer with a Parisian firm and her three boys ( my teenaged twin nephews, and the third being my own twin brother!)
“Oh! I hear the ‘jeans and kurta’ look has made a comeback!”, she exclaims.
“Well yeah! Alisha would have nothing else for her birthday!”
“Thank God! It was heavenly during our college days. Remember the shopping trips to Com Street? And…”. The doorbell rings and I’m forced to cut short my conversation.
“Daddy, Daddy… please! I want to see it first.”
“No me! It’s my birthday cake.”
“Okay wait, both of you!” Relax, let me first put it on the table!”, his protests are drowned as my eleven year old son and his sister pounce on the cake. Any bystander would think we raise these two without ever giving them a piece of cake!
“Zoya! Is everything ready for the evening?”, my husband’s voice brings me back to terra firma and I dive back into the kitchen.
Before I know it, but mercifully after all the starters are ready, the multitude of guests arrives. The house is brimming with people, my parents and in-laws, my husband’s friends and more of my children’s friends.
“Hey! Where are all the girls of your class?”, I tease my daughter, noticing that two out of every three of her friends were guys. She gives me an exasperated look (which plainly says,” Mom! You’re embarrassing me!”) and drags her friends away across the front yard.
“Ma! How come you never invite any of your friends?”, my son suddenly wants to know.
I look around and images from my own teenaged days flash in front of my eyes.
Oh! All the things we did, the high and mighty speeches we gave and the lofty promises we made. Intoxicated by our youthfulness, life seemed so perfect.
“Oh! Right Milee Aunty and Mama stay really far to make it to our parties!”, he quips, satisfying his own curiosity.
The evening rolls over, guests leave and the routine gift opening ceremony drags into the wee hours of the following morning. Then it’s on to settling down my daughter’s friends who are staying back for the sleep over. Their enthusiasm is yet to subside… It’s 3 a.m. by the time I finally step into bed. But a questions still lingers in my head…
28th May, 2008
The phone vibrates beside me and, “Hello!”
“Heyy!!! Happy 18……!!!”, it’s one of those voices which I’ll never forget Vrishalli Bhat, my best friend and part of ‘The Gang’!
Pretty soon it’s mayhem as the rest of the gang calls up! Aakriti, Milee and finally Zayan, my brother, who found it more convenient to call rather than walk in from the next room!
Early next morning, I wake up to a party atmosphere. The Gang shows up for breakfast with a couple of other friends and settles in.
“So I called up first huh!”, Vrishalli gushes.
And a squabble breaks out as everyone justifies how and why they were the first ones to wish. It’s a game we played on everyone’s birthday… it had sort of become a tradition. And if you were upset with anyone, you underlined the point by not wishing until much later in the day!
I chide them about my birthday gift, speaking of which, not giving one till about six months later had become another notorious tradition with us!
It’s bliss… my best buddies!
It’s one of those boring winter days with nothing to do. The four of us girls find ourselves lazing around in Aakriti’s house. It’s one of those things we seem to always end up doing, and the fact that Aakriti’s mother happens to be an amazing cook doesn’t hurt either.
“K, let’s just call Nzoo up! … Or Frido… anybody! I’m really bored.”, I say, helping myself to another handful of chocolates.
“Noo … are you nuts?”, an agitated Vrishalli jumps up.
I throw another couple of chocolates at her, this calms her down sufficiently.
And in case I forgot, Aakriti’s house was a chocolate haven! Her refrigerator had never seen a day minus the chocolates, and the irony of it all, she ‘hated’ chocolates!
“Listen, are you people ever… like ‘ever’ going to propose to your guys? I mean, Bhat you’ve liked Nzoo since before I could spell ‘doctor’? So unless you intend to become a nun, you should make a move soon! ”
“Yeah, but it’s just that chick, Neha! I’m soo sure he likes her.”, is the reply.
“Sshh!”, Vrishalli cuts in, “Your mom will hear, don’t yell .”, drowning the rest of what Aakriti had to say.
“Hey, but I wasn’t really loud!”, an indignant Aakriti says.
“You were soft enough for it to be heard to the whole of Thippasandra! When will you ever learn to speak softly?”, Vrishalli moans.
“ Ok! Chill out guys … we were using code names and nobody but us knows Nzoo refers to Nitin!”, Milee the calming factor amongst us says.
“Oh, ya no! Why didn’t I think of that?!”, the all too familiar phrase issues from Vrishalli.
“That’s coz it’s you Bhat!”, I reply.
Vrishalli was sort of slow when it came to such things, and thus was the ‘Bhat’ of all my jokes!
We still loved her, all the same.
The sky was a dark gray, bright, sunny summer had made way for gloomy, tempestuous autumn…
All of us had finished our twelfth standard and it seemed that reality had finally caught up with us! The blissful bubble in which ‘The Gang’ had always lived had burst… all hell had broken loose! One set of us couldn’t see eye to eye with the other!
It had all begun when Aakriti and I had a spat. I admit that it was one that could have been averted, wise in hindsight!
I was extremely passionate about my dance troupe and had put in a lot of effort to help set it up. Joy knew no bounds when, much later, Aakriti joined. Vrishalli and Mille had to cry themselves hoarse to get the two of us to shut up about our ‘dance’!
But one fine day, we had a showdown because Aakriti landed the meatier piece and I was left high and dry.
A good month passed and the rift between the two of us widened. Aakriti started college, pursuing journalism, and didn’t seem to have the time for any of us. Still unable to override my ego, I didn’t extend the olive branch either.
As July faded into August, the day arrived when I packed my bags and got set to leave for medical college in Mangalore.
2nd August, 2008
Zayan and Milee have exhausted their reserves of both patience and energy in their efforts to see Aakriti and me arrive at a compromise. I’m confused. I’m forty five minutes away from boarding the train.
“Heyy, but it isn’t all my fault!... Come on!”, I say . Zayan and Milee are stone faced.
“Where’s Aakriti?”, I want to know, heading towards Vrishalli. She shrugs her shoulders.
I jab Aakriti’s number, no answer.
Fifteen minutes left, and I’m on the verge of tears.
The train hoots!
“Okay, see ya then!”
We exchange hugs.
“Zoya, I’m sure that by the time you come for the Christmas break, we’ll all be back together!”, Milee says.
“Yeah man! We’ll meet up every week end… just like old times!”, Vrishalli adds.
I board the train.
Ten minutes later, I get a message.
‘Sry dude cudn make it! 4got u wer lvng 2day…was 2 l8 b4 I rmbrd… tc man…c ya den! V’ll surely meet k!’
Yeah right! That’ll happen. If she doesn’t give a damn, neither will I.
Two decades have passed since… and so has that bond between us.
26th October, 2034
“Man! It feels good to be back.”, Zayan exclaims.
“Hey they haven’t changed the wrought iron gates huh!”, Milee says.
“This is well and truly home… Where’re the others?... It’s starts at 7.30 right?”
My brother is abuzz with excitement and Milee is practically bouncing about. They now look like the two hyper teenagers I once knew them to be.
Right, but I honestly don’t know how I got dragged into this one.
The three of us are back at New Public School in Bangalore, ‘the place…’, like Zayan has been saying over a million times the past week, ‘…where it all started!’
It’s the 75th Anniversary and a gala bash has been set up by the alumnus. It’s packed with all the people who have ever been acquainted with these walls… reliving the ‘Good Times’!
But I’d rather be ‘anywhere’ else at this point in time. I have no intension on boarding the nostalgia train and ultimately be left high and dry… yet again. Things can never be the same again … ever!
“Hey Zoya! How good to see you!” Can’t say I reciprocate the sentiment.
“You’ve lost weight!”
“Oh! You look so pretty.” … and I’m the how many-eth person you’ve said that to??
“You’re the one I’ve been looking forward to meet.”
“I missed you so much!”
Oh my God! I just can’t stop rolling my eyes at these phony comments.
“I didn’t think you would come. I met Zayan and Milee. They told me you were here. How have you been?”
I’m pulled into a bear hug.“Umm! Yeah good.”, I manage to blurt.
“So, where have you been… You’re married right? Where’re you working? Orthopedics right?!”, she throws a barrage of questions at me.
“Oh yeah! After I finished studies in Mangalore, my family moved to Madras. I live there now. I’m married with two kids and yes, I am an Orthopedic Surgeon!”, I reply.
She has tears in her eyes… genuine tears of joy.
I can see the warmth lighting up her face.
She’s the Vrishalli of old, I’m sure.
“So where’s Aakriti?”, the question bursts out of me.
Vrishalli peers back into my eyes, her expression betraying none of her thoughts.
“Hi Zoya!” It’s Aakriti. She’s looks no different from the fervent eighteen year old I’d last seen.
“Listen… I’m really sorry. Let’s all get back. Let’s bury the past… I’ve really missed you guys!”, she implores.
Aakriti never was one for small talk.
I’m at loss as to what to say. I just stare right back at her.
“I accept it was entirely my fault. I’ll make it all up. We can still be the pals of old.”
It’s a desperate attempt. She’s putting everything she’s got.
Well so did I that day at the Station! … But some things can never change.
“But it’s just not possible”, I exclaim.
It’s about three hours since I abruptly walked out of school.
“Zoya quit acting like a kid, okay!” Zayan is livid.
I don’t know what happened.
I sort of blanked out when I saw Aakriti. And then, suddenly, everything just came back in a torrent. The dance troupe, the fight, my guilt and … and Aakriti’s indifference.
I was once again a hot blooded adolescent and just stormed back to the hotel.
“Zoya, come on! Be reasonable… this was over twenty years ago!”, Milee pleads.
“See, people change, times change! We just have to move on okay! And yeah like you say, this was just ages ago. So don’t go back to digging up the past. We’re all leading great lives and let’s just get back to it!”, I say.
“Oh!... and I’m leaving for home tomorrow morning. You two can stay, no problem.”, I add, leaving the room.
I’m in Bangalore on official business. Milee and Zayan are back in Paris. Zayan was fuming at the way I carried myself that night, but it’s close to two months now, and things are back to normal between us.
My husband tells me Zayan and Milee are back together with Vrishalli and Aakriti.
Good for them. As for me, 26th October,2034 has faded into oblivion.
After I wrap up a case discussion this afternoon, I’m heading back home.
I still have a good few hours to kill, before I’m due at the airport.
I scroll down the contacts list on my mobile. I dial Vrishalli’s number…
“Hey Bhat!... I’m in town! You think we could meet?”
I walk the last hundred yards and find myself staring at a familiar building. LCS… or Lavelle Road Coffee Shop. The hangout from the days of yore. It was the Gang’s ‘adda’!
Smiling to myself, I enter.
Vrishalli is already here, seated at the window table … and Surprise! Surprise!
Aakriti’s here too.
Okay I’m sure this is another make up plan! Great!
We place our orders.
Vrishalli and I settle for a choco-latte each and Aakriti for a regular cup of coffee.
Vrishalli begins, “ You remember the time we came here, when Zayan’s leg was fractured and he had to miss the tournament, he was so upset, but nothing the ‘chocolate mousse cake effect’ couldn’t change!
LCS was renowned for it’s ‘chocolate mousse cake’!
“It’s heavenly”, Vrishalli states, digging into the cake.
Aakriti screws up her face, “ How can you eat that? It looks gross.”
Vrishalli and I laugh. Aakriti still hadn’t gotten over her disgust with chocolate.
Some things… sigh! They never change.
The cake is wiped clean off it’s plate.
“Zoya, see I’m not forcing this upon you. But what happened that day was unfortunate, don’t you think it’s worth giving our relationship another chance?”, Aakriti says.
I look at Vrishalli and every ounce of her seems to echo the same thought.
“But look, this was ages ago Aakriti. Since then you practically disappeared off the radar. Not once did you try to even contact any of us, so why now?”, the thought that’s been on my mind ever since the night of the reunion bursts out.
“I have forever been ashamed of what happened, and my not coming to see you off at the Station was no accident, as you might have guessed. My ego got in my way.
Well, I’ve thought about contacting you guys, but every time I decided to I’ve been consumed by guilt. I just felt you guys were better off without me. But that day, at the reunion, Vrishalli told me the entire story of how even she wasn’t in contact with you or Zayan, and that all of you had gone your own way. That was when it hit me hard.”, she pauses.
“… I was the reason this beautiful friendship broke up, and I now want to be the reason we get back, I owe it to all of us. This isn’t a story or an excuse Zoya, this is the truth. Bhat, Zayan and Milee accepted me. I just wanted to tell you this, but during the reunion both of us got emotional and I didn’t have a chance.”
Aakriti’s words linger in my head. I continue to ponder about what she just said.
It’s difficult to go back into a relationship, having already been hurt by it once, and, being aware that there is no guarantee that this time it’ll end differently. Life’s after all not celluloid, not all endings are hunky-dory.
Seeing no other alternative, I voice my apprehensions.
Aakriti is downcast and displays no emotion.
“Zoya, that’s fair enough, but how’ll you find out unless you give it a chance?” says Vrishalli.
31st December, 2034
It’s the beginning of a new end to an old tale.
By trying to protect myself from getting hurt again, I was being selfish and unfair to the others. And though I still won’t accept it openly, I’ll readily forego a lot many things to relive the good old days.
I’ve decided to throw a party at my place. But this time, for my friends. All our families are here. It’s a pleasant evening and everyone is getting on well with each other.
The warmth from the rekindling of old flames is quite soothing on a chilly New Year’s Eve, a time when you are bemused as to whether to celebrate the year gone by or look forward to a new beginning.
… And my son finally has an answer to his question.
WORD COUNT- 3001