I stared at the flaps as they extended. A few moments later the wheels were kissing the airstrip amidst roaring air. It was a strange feeling. The city felt alien and that too in just three years. My parents were waiting outside the airport, scanning strange faces for a glimpse of familiarity.
“You are dark,” mother said the moment she filled her hands with my face.
“Don’t worry, winter is almost here,” father said and smiled. I smiled back.
Even if you have lived in a city for years, there is something inexplicably uncomfortable when you see it after a gap. The sunlight feels different. The air smells strange. New bridges and buildings have sprouted. There are monstrous pillars on road-dividers with trains snaking on them. Faces are buried in more lines.
Rajat called in the evening. The cheerful baboon wanted the gang to meet even before I had unpacked my bags.
“Where shall we meet?” I asked.
“Saahil’s place. Tomorrow,” he said.
The four of them have been meeting regularly. I was the outcast, thrown away by destiny. I had been to Delhi twice in the last three years but the trips were fleeting, not stretching for more than four days. I haven’t seen any of them. Saahil was married now – the only married man of our gang. Who would have thought?
I was late. I bought a box of chocolates and a kilo of apples. Kirti opened the door. I had never met her before. There was a one year old in her hands who was playing with her gold chain.
“He is here,” she turned around and shouted at the living room.
There was a sudden roar from the sofa and a crowd of faces filled my eyes. The moment was surreal. Rajat, Gaurav, Sumit and Saahil encircled me like an eight armed octopus, the way they had done three years ago on our last night in the hostel. I was engulfed in sounds of laughter, questions and recollections of the better days my complexion has seen.
“Chennai does that to you,” Gaurav said.
“I will be ok in a few weeks. It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Really?” Gaurav asked raising an eyebrow.
“It’s just skin.”
“How is the job?” Sumit asked.
“I pay my bills regularly,” I said and smiled.
“We missed you. Every time we met, we always wondered if the five of us will ever be together some day,” Rajat said.
“At least all of you met. All I did was sulk.”
I tried not to look at Saahil and he noticed the gesture. My face was brimming with questions. It would have been an embarrassment. He was holding his son as Kirti had sprinted towards the kitchen after greeting me.
“I am still angry with you for missing my marriage,” he finally said as Kirti appeared with a cup of tea and some biscuits.
“I know,” I said staring at the tea.
There wasn’t any reason to be cross with Saahil but I was. I could not explain it to myself. It was immature. He made a choice and he was blissful but then how could he just whisk away all that had happened? I wanted a moment with him to give my mind some rest.
“Is anyone in contact with the girls?” I asked. Chatter fell off the air and everyone looked up at me. The question was a mistake.
* * *
Kurukshetra was a scary place. The fact that I had to travel through unknown villages and towns of Haryana in a roadways bus to reach my college made it scarier. I had never lived alone in a hostel and my parents were failing miserably to put a brave front. My mother behaved as if I was a soldier going to war. Dad tried to be emotionless and strong. The college was three hours from Delhi and I promised to be back every weekend with loads of opportunities to use the washing machine.
Dad went with me to the hostel and helped me clean the room. Thankfully I did not have to share it with anyone. He gifted me a Nokia mobile so that I can call them in case someone was trying a sword on me. Certain narrow-minded communities in Haryana were famous for their flair for weapons. Dad stayed for the night in a hotel in case he had to take my body back. He was relieved to see me alive the next day and bid me farewell. Suddenly the fact that I was all alone in a town in Haryana manifested itself in all its glory and I went weak in my knees.
I met Rajat, Saahil, Gaurav and Sumit in the hostel. I clung to them as I found them surprisingly calm. I was later told that this was not their first time in a hostel. Saahil and Rajat were from Sonepat which was another small town in Haryana. We were ragged incessantly by our seniors but the versions were mild as we were post-graduate students.
Classes commenced and I met inhabitants of the girl’s hostel. There were five of them – Neelam, Ruchi, Sneha, Amrita and Kiran. The fact that the ten of us were away from our families brought us closer. Also, there was a hope that five love stories might blossom in the process. It was too much of a coincidence that the gender equations were so levelled out. Our dreams were shattered a few weeks and a few unsuccessful wooing attempts later when Ruchi and Sneha confided that they already had boyfriends while Amrita and Kiran were too scared of their families to even think about it. Neelam gave a mysterious smile and did not disclose anything. Their heartbreaking revelations were made during a game of truth-or-dare in the ruins of Sheikh Chilli’s tomb, a Mughal monument in Kurukshetra. By the time we reached hostel that evening, Saahil was having great difficulty in breathing.
“Neelam is not engaged to anyone!” he screamed with joy the moment the five of us were alone in his room.
“Yes, we noticed that and also the drool from your mouth reaching your foot,” I said.
“I am going to propose to her tomorrow,” Saahil said.
“What!” the four of us shouted. The windowpane vibrated.
“What is wrong in that?” Saahil asked innocently.
“What is right in that? She belongs to a Jat family from Haryana. They are influential businessmen,” I said.
“So?” Saahil said.
“If you want it so bluntly loverboy, then here goes. You belong to a Scheduled Caste community. If her family comes to know of your affair, your family will end up collecting pieces of your body from farms all over Haryana,” I said.
Rajat, Gaurav and Sumit nodded. There was silence while the news sank in.
“I think I love her,” Saahil said.
“Oh for God’s sake!” I got up and threw my hands in the air.
“They can always talk to the parents. They might agree,” Sumit said nervously, with an unconvincing tone.
“Don’t encourage him! He will die!” I shouted and stormed out of the room.
* * *
“Lunch is almost ready,” Kirti said from the kitchen. She and Saahil were making the chapattis. Rajat, Gaurav and Sumit were cutting salad while I was playing with Arnav, Saahil’s son. Arnav held my finger firmly in his hand and was staring at me as if trying to place me from his previous birth’s memories. It is said that children remember their previous birth till they begin to speak. I looked at Arnav’s face and wondered if that was true. And then I wondered how his face would have turned up had Saahil married Neelam. I suddenly felt ashamed.
“There was no need to ask about the girls,” Gaurav whispered.
“I am sorry,” I said.
“As you know Ruchi and Sneha are married to their respective boyfriends and happily settled in Bangalore. Amrita is divorced as her parents married her to a jerk and Kiran is in Sonipat, married to a businessman,” Rajat said.
“Amrita is divorced? When did that happen?” I asked a bit taken aback.
“Two months back. She is in Gurgaon working in an MNC,” Rajat said.
“And…,” I said.
“And nothing,” Sumit said pointing to the entrance to the dining area where Kirti has appeared with the cutlery.
“Why are you so glum? What has happened to you?” Gaurav asked.
“I don’t know. All of you have moved on but for me our life together is frozen in that hostel. I can’t time travel,” I said.
“Pretend to be normal. Ok?” Sumit said. I nodded. Rajat wiped tears from his eyes. He was slicing onions.