Today is my daughter’s wedding.
But neither was she blessed as much to get into the mandap after touching my feet, nor was I blessed as much to run around shouldering the responsibilities of arranging the logistics of the event they call the grand Indian wedding. Will she be knowing the pain of a father, who is unable to hold his daughter’s hand and give it to the groom, the pain of a father who is seeing the wedding sitting undistinguished as one among the hundreds of guests? I doubt it. There would be other, much more pleasant thoughts racing through her mind right now.
College life is special for everyone. The memories never fade, the day it dies is the day you cease to exist. Memories could be sweet, bitter or a blend of two in arbitrary proportion. Possibly the first impression almost everyone has is the apprehension he/she has when he/she goes to attend class on the first day.
It was that day I saw her first. She was in the same batch as I was, but we differed in our majors. I was majoring in Chemistry, and she was into Mathematics. I can’t recollect how or when it happened that we became close. I guess it is that inevitable process that occurs so commonly – acquaintances through mutual friends, friends through mutual acquaintances, buddies through passage of time and then it somewhere unknowingly, that threshold too was crossed. Sharing some subjects did their bit as well, we grew a lot cozier over those late night study sessions in library and the campus canteens.
There were a lot of instances. Campus life is always enriched with instances. We had so different tastes when it came to food but inevitably we used to end up going to canteen together and we used to enjoy sharing food with each other a lot. In one such instance, I was reading a book while she was eating from my plate after she had finished hers. Suddenly, out of the blue, she asked me, “Which raga is love in?”. I was taken aback, I was absolutely ignorant about the nuances of Carnatic music. “Hmm… I guess Shriranjini”, I retorted back with a mischievous grin. The truth was, that was one of the handful of ragas I knew about. “No, you’re wrong”, she replied. “It’s Mohanakalyani.” I remembered the peculiar look in her eyes when she said this. And she disappeared fast feigning the excuse that she had a class for the hour. I the dumb could not decipher it. Another time she asked me what my favorite color was. Green I said it was. For the next week or so she wore a green tinted salwar suit. It did send me some signals, but I was perplexed. I always believed (or maybe I liked to believe?) that all those craziness was a part of the friendship between us.
On one other occasion, we were sitting in the library, I was immersed in a magazine. I concede she did have the knack of taking me by surprise. And she didn’t fall from the standards she set herself when she asked me, “What does a woman, take me as an example. What do you think I desire most in my life?” That did catch me unawares. As usual, I was ignorant and ended up guessing a lot of answers. “Good job with a comfortable salary”, “being a good and loyal wife”, “a well-off and caring husband”, “professional glory”…. She looked disappointed with my answers. In fact, she actually looked hurt that I stopped the misadventure abruptly. She never bothered to give an answer to that question. Though I was curious, her reaction when she heard my answers prevented me from bringing up the topic again.
I didn’t realize when I crossed over from the realm of friendship. It just happened. There is no hard-and-fast rule for that. The boundaries are where you define them. Looking back, I think she had erased the lines from her side quite a while back. Or rather, she attempted to erase them. It was me who never really caught on the signals. Can’t say I’ve grown any wiser today but the fact that I am able to understand why she did what she did on a lot of occasions which at that time, seemed out of place to me, did make me feel a bit more intellectually mature after all these years. I’ve tried unsuccessfully a lot of times to recollect when and where it was that I started having feelings for her, but the crux was definitely that I started having feelings for her. Her role in my life graduated from that of a very special friend of mine, to being that very special someone in everyone’s life.
Everybody perceives campus life to whiz past at a pace you don't realize. It was the same in our case. We had our falls and springs in our lives, as any other pairs you’d find in any random campus landscape. Romance, fights, reconciliations, then again back to romance…. The wheel was never any different. Our relationship grew stronger over the years. As they say about college life, one has got all the time in the world, but one never has sufficient clunk in his pockets. We enjoyed each other’s company, lavishly in time and frugally in economics. We became inseparable.
Towards the end of final year in college, we started getting worried. We knew that a separation was on the cards, but either of us were unwilling and unprepared to confront it. We started spending more time with each other, and often times, periods of silence started overcoming periods of chatter. The whole thing was depressing. It was unfair, we never really spent enough time with each other. What would happen after college? I would have to go and search for a job in a big city. What about her..? It was those times were girls were typically married off early, as soon as possible after graduation. Both of us were engulfed in those depressing lines of thought.
The final exams were on the cards. Torn between the desire to spend maximum time with each other and the necessity to prepare for the examinations, we started studying together. Initially, the venues were the college library, cafeterias and other places inside the college campus. I stayed with a couple of my batch mates outside the college campus and occasionally she used to come there and we used to study till late hours. What was between us was known to my roommates and so they never had any problem with accommodating her.
“The End”. That was the last line I wrote before I handed over my answer sheet to my invigilator one final time from the portals of my college building. I can’t precisely remember what went through my mind while I was handing that paper out to the invigilator, but looking back a couple of decades with my not-so-highly-rated memory, I am reasonably sure my eyes would have been moist. But I distinctly remember me walking with her from the examination hall to the college canteen. The same walk which we used to do at least twice a day for better part of two years, that ever so familiar route seemed to detach away from us. For the college, the buildings, the halls, the labs, the campus, the canteens, nothing would change. An x would be replaced by a y. That would be about it. Every year she sees off a hundred students walking away from her, never to return back and the she welcomes a new set of a hundred fresh-faced eager and enthusiastic group into her fold, only to see them off the same way after three years.
We sat in the canteen silently, over a cup of tea. We had done that a thousand times before when we were never short of things to talk. A wide array of topics used to occupy our canteen time, from hostel gossips to astronomical discoveries, from the relevance of Leninist ideology to the price increase of beeda we used to have at the shop outside the college gate. That was the usual case, today was a world unusual. We spent the day roaming around the campus, reliving memories. Talk was sparing and sentimental. Neither of us could fathom that we had actually finished our degree, that we’ll have to move out, possibly to separate cities.
It was a full moon night. The clouds obstructed the view of the stars but the moon was present and bright. Lying beside each other on the basketball court, we were seeing the same moon. We were seeing the same dream. We didn’t speak a word but we both knew that the same thoughts were going through each other’s mind.
We got up. I looked at her to find her looking at me. I could read her eyes. I suppose she could read mine as well. I’m sure both of us knew what we were thinking was far from ethical. There are times when even the most rational of individual shelve ethics and morality, when fundamental human instincts trump everything else. That full moon night, technically the last day in college, was the night when I felt the magnetic power of my feelings overshadow every sense of right I had.
My roommates were partying, I knew that. That’s the first thing they plan when the examination schedule is put out. The night after the last examination is something every college student invariably looks forward to. The rhetoric may be different, the celebrations may wildly differ, but the anticipation is palpably same. So was the case with my roommates. Over the past couple of years, it had become a ritual of theirs to go the bar far in town and get drunk to the fullest. So much that the guys at the bar had a copy of the examination schedule every time. Both of us knew my room was empty. We walked the long walk.
We knew it was going to be wrong. We knew it was going to be irreversible. But I needed it. And she also needed it. It was as if we were challenging whoever constructed the framework of ethics for human beings. Sometime in the dead of night, when most of the world around slept, and most of our batch mates were exploring varying levels of alcohol-induced mental highs, we shared each other.
The following days in my memory, remain fuzzy. She did not tell me when she vacated her hostel room and left for her hometown. I enquired with her friends, but they didn’t have much information to help me. I just knew her hometown, I didn’t know her home address. Nonetheless, I went there and inquired around. A guy looking for a girl doesn’t generally go down well in southern Indian towns and the case here was no different. Not only was I unsuccessful in getting any info, but things reached a point where I started to get threatening vibes from some of the locals. Tired and dejected, I took the bus back home. I prayed that things be well for her. That’s the least I could do for her. In those moments, that was the most I could do for myself.
The societal pressures of economics and conventionalism caught up with me in due course of time. As was the case with a lot of my contemporaries, there was this period of my life where I searched for a job and then I got a job. And then, before I realized it, I was married to a girl half a decade younger to me by age. I settled into the rhythm of a conventional, uneventful yet happy life. All the while she occupied my mind, but as they say time is a great healer and the passage of time, tightly coupled with pressures of life, did a fair amount of work in ebbing my thoughts about her. I had never told my wife anything about her, I really couldn’t ever come around to look in her and eyes and tell her that her husband was not as pious as a wife would expect her husband to be. Never had the guts to tell that, so I never told.
Until that day. Almost six years after I stepped out the last time from my college, she came back for me. Magically. One summer morning, I open the doors of my house to a knock and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw her standing in front of me. Such a thought never occurred to me in the wildest of my imaginations, but there she was, standing in front of me, in flesh and blood. A charming young girl wearing a polka dress and ponytailed hair was shyly holding her hand and throwing glances at me. I invited her in, introduced her as a classmate of mine to my wife. It took a good deal of composure to introduce the two women to each other, and looking back, I am surprised about how I was able to do it. Thankfully for me, both the women took a liking to each other and they quickly became friends.
Over the course of next few days, she told us her story. She had married an army jawan immediately after college. Just over a year after their marriage, he was killed in action along the Indo – Pak border in Kashmir. As a result of that, she had got a job in a nationalized bank. After working for a few years outside the state, she got transferred here to my town. And she and her daughter Sreelakshmi moved here. I did not ask her any details about when the marriage happened and so on. Though I wanted to know about it, I thought it might make things between us awkward. Plus the presence of my wife warranted my restraint from asking too many questions.
Years rolled by. Barring a few transfers lasting few months, she and I ended up staying in the same town. Sreelakshmi grew up into a fine young girl. Over time, I felt an increasingly lot of similarities between she and her mother as she grew up. I saw her going to school the day before yesterday, inter college yesterday and today, I saw her going to degree college… time flew. So fast that I was shocked when her mother told me that she was starting to consider marriage proposals for Sreelakshmi.
One day she came up to my office. Said she wanted to talk to me. In the confines of our guest lobby, when the whole world rumbled along like any other day, she said, “I can’t keep it anymore. I can’t keep it from you any more. I am imploding within myself, I need to tell this to someone, and I can’t tell it to Sreelakshmi….” Her voice trailed off in the muffles of her light sobs.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I’ve lied to the world. I lied to Sreelakshmi, I lied to everyone. I lied to you. I was married to a jawan, but at the time of my marriage, I was carrying Sreelakhsmi.” Saying that, she burst into tears.
I was shell shocked. I sat there, speechless. My mind raced back to that night after exam. And her quietly disappearance from college. Lack of information regarding her with any of her classmates. I perfectly understood everything now. Everything was crystal clear.
As I sat there and pondered, the marriage ceremony was over. Sreelakshmi was now married. My daughter was now married.