Wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day, I’m republishing an old story. Have a great time ahead!
I was happy in my own world: living my own life, playing with my best group of friends; cricket, football, riding bicycles, climbing trees, wrestling in the mud, swimming in the lake. It was the time (probably it still is) when we hadn’t heard about a dirty word called,’cleanliness’. Apart from our school uniforms (which looked OK only in the morning) we wore brown clothes all the time, or perhaps they looked brown, no matter what their original colours were.
We were playing hide and seek when she moved into our neighbourhood, along with her humpy-dumpty-looking parents. It was then the confusion started. It was then that so many questions cropped up in my head. Dressed in white frock and white shoes, she looked so clean and out of place. How anyone can be so clean, I wondered. When the workers started unloading the furniture from the truck, Mr. Humpty-Dumpty picked her up and walked towards their house. I frowned. When my mother came outside and stood beside me, I asked, “Is that an angel?” It was a serious question. My mother laughed, “Why don’t you ask her whether she is one?” I never did.
How could a 6-year-old boy ask that? Let me rephrase that question. How could a boy of any age ask that? He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He shouldn’t. Some questions are never meant to be asked or answered. Else, the magic will be lost. And she was magical.
She was not seen for the next two days; although we played cricket right in front of her house to get a glimpse of her. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty called us in. We threw our bats and ball, and ran inside. We sat on the sofa with a ‘thump’ as angel’s mother brought us orange juice. Our eyes swept the house as we drank, producing all sorts of creative sounds. One of my friends even rinsed his mouth with a gurgling sound.
“Manasvi has gone out with her father,” Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty said.
We were four boys in all and everyone chanted the name one after the other, as if the name was a difficult poem. Years later I would realize that she was indeed a poem. Difficult, yes. But also lovely. Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi, Manasvi … The name had a beautiful ring to it. Sitting in her house that day, drinking juice, I didn’t know that I would be chanting her name for the rest of my life.
The next day when I saw her in my class, my happiness knew no bounds. I kept grinning and the girl who was sitting beside me kept staring at me. “I know that girl. She is my neighbour,” I said, as if she was a celebrity. The girl didn’t respond. And I didn’t care.
After our class prayer, our class-teacher called the new girl and introduced her to the whole class. Manasvi stood there and surveyed the class. For some reason I’ve never found Barbie Dolls cute, but if the makers of those dolls had seen Manasvi that day they would have agreed with me, too, for all the dolls looked pale in comparison to her. Her uniform – blue and white chequered shirt, blue skirt, black shoes and white socks – was spotless. Her hair was neatly combed and two pony tails were tied with blue ribbons; not a strand of hair was out of place. Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty had taken good care of her.
Her sparkling eyes surveyed the whole class as I tried to look bigger by sitting straight. A moment later our class-teacher sent her back to her place. I scowled. Years later when I asked her whether she noticed me in the class that day, she said, flatly, “I don’t even remember my first day.” Splendid.
I could never talk to her in my primary school days. Though she lived nearby (she still does), went to the same school in the same school bus, studied in the same section, I could never make friends with her. All those monkey tactics I tried to impress her and get her attention never worked: deliberately playing in front of her house, falling down and bruising my legs, smiling when it hurt like hell. Nothing worked. Now when I recently asked her about it, she said, sadly, “I was jealous of all the boys. I wanted to play cricket and football too, but my mother never allowed me. So, no. I was busy imagining as to how I would’ve played when I stood behind the gate like a prisoner.” I silently thanked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty, for I preferred a girl who was girlie; not a tomboy.
I was in 10th standard when I talked to her for the first time. I had practiced it for five days and when the D-day arrived, I delivered the line with utmost honesty and confidence: “How is your preparation for the exams?” And she sweetly replied, “Good.” And that was the most beautiful word I’d ever heard until then. Well, it was a start.
Manasvi had become quite popular already; dancing, singing, et al. And the competition to get her attention was fierce. As the exams were coming up, I couldn’t think much about it. But there was improvement finally. It was the day of our first exam. We were going through our books during the final moments. She passed in front of me, looking down at her book. “Hey Manasvi,” I called out. She looked up and raised her eyebrows, her lips still moving.
“Studied well?” I asked.
Ah. She asked me something. Finally. Looking back, I don’t know whether my answer would have meant anything, but I am an eternal optimist, you see. So I really thought she was interested to know.
“Yes. Kind of.”
“Kind of? It’s our board exam, for heavens’ sake,” she laughed.
Let me not describe how she looked when she laughed and how I felt about it, for I’m afraid I’m going to bore you to death. On second thoughts, I don’t care. So listen. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen her laugh. But it certainly was the first time in front of me, in response to my answer. We had our English exam that day, and W.B. Yeats, P. B. Shelley and many others’ poems were being learned by heart, ferociously, without understanding what they actually meant. Our English teacher had repeatedly said, ‘Understand the poems properly. Only then you’ll be able to enjoy them.’ None of the students seemed to have grasped it. I was the only exception – to a certain extent. When others were reading and reciting poems, I was literally seeing one in front of me. I do not know whether I understood it (I still don’t know whether I do), but I thoroughly enjoyed its beauty.
I was lost. She said when I didn’t reply, “All right. You seem to be tensed. Good luck, Sawant.”
“Huh? Oh, yes, thank you. You too.”
Do I really have such a good name or is it just that it sounded good because she said it, I asked myself. And I still don’t know the answer. Though I strongly feel it’s the latter. Well, I think it is the latter. Wait a second. I think? No, it is the latter.
When the results came, I had scored more than she. I didn’t know it until she said it.
“You’ve scored well. You’ve scored more than I. Damn it. How did it happen?” she said in mock anger.
“Maybe because you wished me before exams.” I swear I wasn’t flirting.
She laughed, wholeheartedly. “That’s very sweet of you.”
School days were over. But that didn’t bother me much, for I was looking forward to my new life ahead. I was sad about only one thing: Manasvi would not be there. Luckily, I was wrong. She had taken admission in the same Pre University College as I. Boy, was I happy that day!
I had taken Biology and I was interested in only Anatomy. But my specimen had chosen Statistics. Whatever for, I didn’t know.
Two years passed in a jiffy; tensions, headaches, worries – about board exams, CETs, etc. I sometimes wonder; from the day we are born, we are made to think in only one direction. Work hard to get good grades; work hard to get good grades in 10th standard, work hard to get good percentage in plus two, which will land you in a good college; work hard to get good percentage in college, work hard to get a good job, work hard to get a promotion, work hard to get a salary hike, work hard to get a good wife, work hard to make children, work hard to make your children work hard, work hard to get them into good colleges, work hard to die peacefully. So basically you only live to die. Is that it? Monday blues on Mondays and TGIFs on Fridays. Aren’t we supposed to do something that doesn’t require hard work but lots of love and smart work? Aren’t we supposed to do something where Monday blues and TGIFs do not exist? But every day of the week is pure fun?
My mind was wavering, trying to find answers to all these questions. I was also aware that nobody was going to ask me these questions. Everyone would ask only one question: how much did you score?
In the midst of all these ‘mental’ problems if there was one thing that kept my sanity, it was certainly Manasvi’s presence. Unfortunately I could never talk to her much in those two years and I thought she’d go away after plus two, to some ‘top’ college. I was about to be proved wrong.
I had turned eighteen, and along with the driver’s license, I had also secured a license to practice Ornithology. I brazenly did it. I believe practicing ornithology and flirting is every boy’s birth right. No one can take it away from him. All these things came to an end on the third day of my college life, for Manasvi arrived on the third day.
I was astonished. “How come you are here? I thought you were going to Mysore.”
“No, I chose to stay. I had come to your house last evening. Didn’t your mother tell you?”
“No. I was off station. Returned this morning. She must have forgotten.”
“OK. Seems like we are going to be together for the next four years,” she laughed. Years had passed but her laughter had never changed. Perfection can’t be improved, you see.
We were together for the past twelve years, I wanted to say. But didn’t.
Though we had known each other and stayed in the same neighbourhood for twelve years, we had never really become friends, or perhaps I had never tried. This changed soon. We became good friends in college. And it wasn’t a good thing. Being ‘just friends’ with the girl you love is very dangerous, because there are good chances of remaining ‘just friends’ forever. ‘Make your intentions known’ is the mantra, and I never chanted it.
The only good thing was I got to spend time with her: College, library, movies, parties, visiting each other’s house during festivals and exams. But I was still ‘just a friend’. I didn’t complain, thinking that I had three more years to let her know about my feelings for her. I was wrong. Time was running out.
We were in our second year when she announced that she had a crush on Abhilash, the so-called ‘hunk’. They became friends very soon. As the days progressed she started spending less time with me. I was her friend and I was supposed to ‘understand’ it.
‘Hunk’ had one more name: Ghost Rider. There is a curious story behind the name. He had a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 350cc bike. It suited well for his personality. When every boy in college either had a Pulsar or Yamaha or TVS, our hunk stood apart with his monster bike. When he was in first year he had a girlfriend named Namitha, who seemed to be a permanent pillion rider. Nobody ever saw him alone on his bike. Now, Namitha darling was a dark girl and weighed around 80 kilograms (conditions apply). She had an amazing dressing sense. We sometimes wondered whether her father owned a textile factory. Not because her clothes were distinct, but because we never believed that jeans pants came in such distinct sizes. They had to be specially made. Another thing was that four days in a week she wore tribal dress; the ones with tiny, round shaped mirrors all over. As an icing on a cake, her hair was always let loose. And like a double icing on a cake, she had loads of ‘additude’ (not attitude). Some called her African jungle baby, some of us simply called her, The Ghost. So she was the ghost, who rode pillion on ‘hunk’s bike. Hence the hunk became Ghost Rider.
And now, my love rode pillion on his bike. Though the name Ghost Rider stuck, everyone changed his tone: ‘He finally has a nice-looking girlfriend.’ Needless to say, my stomach churned.
There were only a few minor differences between me and Ghost Rider. He was well over six feet tall; I was (and am) five-seven. He had a well-built body, whereas I only had a body (like everybody does). He had a monster bike, and I had an old Hero Honda Splendour. He participated in glamorous activities like dancing and music (he played guitar for a band), and I took part in dramas and skits. He played Basket-Ball and I played chess. He anchored and gave opening/closing speeches on important college functions, and I wrote speeches, which somebody else delivered and got the fame. The bugger even studied well.
When an incredibly beautiful girl like Manasvi falls for such a guy, it’s not a surprise. Now what was I supposed to do? I didn’t know. So I didn’t do anything.
“So tell me, Sawant. Do you have a girlfriend?” Ghost Rider asked.
We were sitting in an ice-cream parlour. It was owned by a local boxer and Ghost Rider was a good friend of his. Both went to the same gym. Since it was a boxer’s ice-cream parlour, all the ice-creams had distinct names.
Ghost Rider was about to say something when the waiter arrived.
“What will you have?” asked my arch rival.
He was already eating Rocky Marciano and I don’t know what Manasvi was eating. Perhaps she was having Laila Ali. I didn’t want to be left alone, so I ordered Raging Bull. Five minutes later when my ice-cream arrived I found that it wasn’t as good as its name. Just like Ghost Rider.
I took another spoonful when Ghost Rider asked, “Don’t you really have a girlfriend?”
I eyed him once. He was definitely well-toned. He was definitely more handsome than I. There was no way I could have challenged him and made Manasvi promote me from ‘just a friend’ to ‘someone special’. But as my Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’ I fought on.
“As a matter of fact I do,” I said, taking another spoonful of Raging Bull.
Manasvi stopped eating and looked up.
“But there is a small problem,” I continued, “I’m not her boyfriend.”
Angel raised her eyebrows and tilted her head sideways, as if asking, ‘What are you talking about?’
“What’s the problem?” It was he.
“She is with someone else.”
“You never told me,” Manasvi cried.
“I wanted to tell you, Mans. But the time wasn’t right.” Irony, that.
“You are such a moron. Who is she? From our college? Do I know her?” It was a typical girlie question. She wanted to know everything at the same time, irrespective of the priorities.
Before I could think of something, she said, giggling, “I think I know. It’s Ashwini, right? I knew you had a thing for her.”
“So what is it? It’s just a crush or you have feelings for her?” Ghost Rider asked.
“More on that later. Now let me ask you the same question. Is it just a crush or do you really love Manasvi?” I said, smiling at both of them. It was a very direct question and it startled them to the core.
When none of them replied, I said again, “Tell me. Where is it going?”
“I’m not sure,” he faltered. I looked at Manasvi. She didn’t respond.
“So you are just friends?” I probed further.
“No,” he was quick.
“Then? You are not just friends; you are not sure whether you love her. So what’s the name of this relationship?”
“She is my girlfriend.” There was some mild anger in his voice.
“That’s the problem these days,” I said. “Everybody says the same thing. ‘She is my girlfriend. He is my boyfriend.’ But what nobody says nowadays is, ‘I love her or I love him’. Saying that you are in love with a girl is termed old-fashioned,” I paused for a few seconds, letting the words sink, and then continued. “All right. She is your girlfriend. Or perhaps your Champion’s Trophy. Right?”
Manasvi didn’t speak a word. Perhaps she wanted to know what her ‘boyfriend’ would say.
“Look, here’s the thing,” Ghost Rider began. “It’s like this. Before you buy a bike, you have to take a lot of test drives. Once you are convinced that a certain bike is comfortable, you go for it.”
I didn’t dare look at Manasvi. Rather I asked, simply, “So, how many test drives have you had so far?”
It was then it hit him hard like a thunderbolt. I had done the necessary damage. Damn it, I am not guilty of it. Everything is fair in love and war. It may sound a bit clichéd, but it is relevant.
“Oh, no, Manasvi. I didn’t really mean it that way. I was just trying to give an example …”
No use, my boy. No use.
“Answer his question, Abhi. How many test drives have you had so far? And how many do you intend to have in the future?”
Gosh, was I enjoying this! If I was, I didn’t evince it.
“Why don’t girls understand me?” he cried.
Oscar Wilde came in handy then. I said, “Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood, you know.” That was some salt on his wound.
I could see Manasvi from the corner of my eye. She was staring at me.
Oscar Wilde had fallen on his deaf ears. He said to Manasvi, ignoring me, “Come on. Don’t say that. I can die for you, you know.”
I suddenly looked at the wall behind me and checked the calendar. It was unquestionable. The year was 2010, all right. For a moment, after hearing Ghost Rider’s dialogue, I was a bit confused. I thought it was 1960.
“Oh, really? You can die for me, yet you don’t know where this relationship is going, huh?”
He opened his mouth to say something, but words wouldn’t come out.
Moments later she got up and left. I followed suit. Ghost Rider was left alone among boxers.
Ghost Rider was really a nice person. I liked him a lot. But the boy didn’t know what he really wanted and how to say things. If he were not Manasvi’s ‘boyfriend’ we would have been good friends.
Over the next few days he kept trying to reach Manasvi, but to no avail. She didn’t return my calls either. Why would she? After all, I was the culprit.
They were back together a week later. They had somehow reconciled. And I was back to square one. I was still ‘just a friend’.
She invited me and a few other friends (including Ghost Rider) to her house. It was her birthday. Over the past few years I had just wished her, verbally. This time I wanted to give something adorable, something worth remembering. But what? I had no idea.
Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty welcomed me, lovingly. I had grown fond of her over the years and she always treated me like her own son. So, naturally, I was the star guest. Two hours earlier I had decorated the house for the party. It wasn’t too grand, but had an aura of elegance. Manasvi didn’t speak much, as she was still angry with me over the ice-cream parlour incident. At least I thought like that.
After the cake-cutting ceremony, snacks were served. Everyone had bought cool presents: Teddy bears, big, musical greeting cards; a pair of high-heeled sandals (girls, I tell you!), etc. A huge, life-sized teddy bear was of course given by Ghost Rider.
When my turn came, I carefully took out a thin 5” X 5” square gift-wrapped pouch, with a silver-coloured ribbon on it. Manasvi said a mild ‘thank you’ and opened the wrapper. It was a DVD.
“What’s in it?” she asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
Everyone was eager to know. Manasvi ran the disc in her DVD player. A movie started to play on the screen.
I have always believed that going to a gift shop and buying gifts is easy. It’s too formal, it’s too frivolous. Also, birthdays are not remembered these days. Mark Zuckerberg reminds people of their ‘friends’’ birthdays. Telling the birthday boy/girl, ‘I remembered your birthday and bought you a present’ is not important. But showing how much his/her birthday means to you is. This could be your birthday, but it’s my special day too. Time is the greatest gift one can ever give to a friend.
What I had done was simple. I had compiled all her photos; right from her childhood days, right from the day she moved into our neighbourhood. Photos of her birthday parties when she was a child and all the little boys and girls of our neighbourhood were her guests; photos of school days, photos of her on stage, reciting a poem or singing or dancing along with other participants; photos of her in the hospital when she was sick with typhoid (I had taken it without anyone’s knowledge), photos of send-off parties in school and PUC; photos of little trips we had been to, along with other classmates, and many more. Almost every type of emotion was captured. In fact many photos were being seen for the first time. Even Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty was surprised. “When was this?” she kept asking me from time to time. Bottom line: Her whole life ran like a movie, with suitable captions and quotes and mellifluous music in the background.
I was increasingly becoming emotional with every photograph. I got up to go, but Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty wouldn’t let me. The movie got over. Everyone looked at me. Two girls that had come were impressed. But the birthday girl stayed silent. Not a word.
“But how come you are not there in a single photograph? Those Deepavali photos. You were here that day. Why haven’t you included a photo with you in it? Not even one?” asked Mrs. Humpty-Dumpty.
“At least you could have put your name in the end. Something like, ‘Video created by Sawant’,” said a girl.
I cleared my throat and replied, candidly, quoting Oscar Wilde, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”
After that I couldn’t stay there. I wished her once again and left. Had I stayed there a moment longer, they would’ve noticed tears welling up in my eyes.
Manasvi didn’t talk to me for over a week and I didn’t try. I left her alone. Then one day she called me and asked me to meet her in the reading room of our college.
“Thanks,” she said.
“For the memories.”
I said a moment later, “That hospital photo is damn good, isn’t it?”
“Yes, right. Get ready to die.”
We laughed, deliciously, holding each other’s hands.
I began when the laughter had subsided, “Look, Mans. I never got a chance to apologize. I’m really sorry about the other day. I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m not with him anymore.”
I was shocked and happy at the same time.
“What? What happened?”
“Nothing big. We didn’t have a fight. It’s just that I realized he was not my type and I was not his type. Also, thanks to you. I wouldn’t have realized this if not for you. Whatever you said made sense to me later. Abhilash is a good guy, but not good enough for me.”
They had never had a fight after the ice-cream parlour incident. As the days progressed they had drifted away, respectfully, in a decent manner. No goodbyes, no ‘let’s break up’, no nothing. Just a simple understanding.
“I’m so sorry,” I mumbled.
“Don’t be,” she snapped.
Days and weeks passed and we started spending a lot of time with each other. It was just like before. One day when we were sitting in the reading room, writing our lab records, she suddenly asked, “What about Ashwini?”
“Ash who?” I asked, without looking up.
“Don’t act now. You were about to say something about your secret one-sided love story in the ice-cream parlour the other day when the conversation took a different turn. Now tell me about it in detail.”
I stopped writing. “Forget it.”
“I won’t, my dear.”
“It’s not Ashwini, all right.”
I had always fantasized about my proposal; a nice evening in a restaurant, with a magnificent gift in hand, and so many other filmi things. But when I actually did propose to her, it was in the most awful, unromantic place on earth (college reading room), at the most awful time (two-thirty in the afternoon, when the sun was having its vengeance on innocent college boys and girls), wearing the most atrocious dress possible (jeans, t-shirt, sandals).
“You,” I said, flatly, looking straight into her eyes.
She stared at me, probably looking for some sign of naughtiness.
None of us spoke for two minutes. Then she said, “You are serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course, I am. Since eternity. I just wanted to play with you when you moved into our neighbourhood; I wanted to make friends with you in high school. We did become good friends later on and we still are. Whatever happens, I hope this will never change. But the fact remains. I’ve always loved you. If there is any girl with whom I want to spend the rest of my life, it’s you.”
She didn’t respond. I continued, “Throughout the centuries people have been telling that a boy should find a girl to die for. Somehow it doesn’t apply in my case; it doesn’t make any sense to me; because you are the girl I want to live for.” I paused for a minute. Her expression remained inscrutable. “Look, I know this is coming as a shock to you. I wanted to tell you two years ago, but I ran out of time. You were with Abhilash already. Never found the right time. I still do not know whether this is the right time.”
Silence sang in the air again. “I know I am not a romantic person. I won’t say that I’m going to die if you don’t accept me. I won’t become a lovelorn tragic hero. I love myself too much for that. But remember this: You were, you are and you will always be the one. Whatever I do with my life, you’ll always be my muse, my love, my reason to live and achieve.”
Several minutes passed and she still hadn’t said anything. She never took her eyes off mine. And then, without saying anything, she collected her books and walked away.
The next two weeks were unbearable. She neither called me nor replied to my calls and messages. I was confused. I had even lost hope of being ‘just a friend’. I thought I had lost her forever. But if such a thing had happened, I wouldn’t have had any purpose to write this.
She visited my house one evening. After having a pep talk with my mother she entered my room. I was writing my assignment then. She came and stood next to my table. I got up. Our eyes met. A moment later she slapped me hard across my face. What just happened? I was about to find out.
“Who said you were not romantic, you moron,” she said as a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Wh … wha ... –,” she slapped me again.
“That video you made me says everything. I should’ve understood it then. In fact a thought crossed my mind, but how should I’ve known for sure? You’ve no idea how many times I’ve watched it in the last ten days. Why didn’t you tell me before?” she burst into tears as she hugged me.
I held her in my arms, not wanting to let her go. She didn’t mind. A few minutes later I asked, smelling her hair, “Hey, Mans, your hair smells great.”
“Wish I could say the same about your hair, your shirt, your room. Such a dirty scumbag you are.”
A new problem had begun. Cleanliness. It was only my mother till now. Now there were two women. God, where are women manufactured? Sterilized room of a perfume factory?
It was Valentine’s Day. We were sitting in a cozy restaurant, enjoying every second. Today was a special occasion and she looked ravishing in her red dress. I could never take my eyes off her. “Thank you,” she said, brushing her curls to the back of her ears. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved to see a girl do it. And when the girl is Manasvi, it’s still better.
“So what’s that you are hiding in that bag?” she asked.
I took out a neatly bound book, which had Manasvi written on it, and pushed it towards her, on the table.
“Manasvi? What is it?”
“Remember that video I made for you?”
“What kind of question is that? Of course I remember.”
“Well, this is the book version of it. I’ve penned down everything. From the day you moved into our neighbourhood; from the time I asked my mother whether you were an angel to the recent times. A sort of memoir, an epistle, a symphony to my Valentine.”
She didn’t say anything for a few minutes as she leafed through the pages. The book was handwritten.
“You are a nerd. Do you know that?” she said at last.
“I knew you’d say something like this. That’s why I’ve also bought a big box of chocolates, a fancy greeting card and a teddy. Here, take them. Enjoy,” I said, handing over the bag.
She pushed the bag aside, without taking a look inside, and continued to go through the book, all the while smiling. I knew she was overwhelmed with joy, but would never admit it. When she couldn’t go further she kept the book back inside the bag and asked me, “Tell me something. What’s the most you can do for me? It’s Valentine’s Day and I have a right to know.” She was anything but foolishly romantic. My lady love was just teasing me.
“The most I can do for you, Mans, is to be with you always,” I said, looking at her delightful face.
She smiled and looked away, not knowing how to react.
My Guruji Mark Twain once said, ‘Never say the obvious thing, but leave the obvious thing to commonplace and inexperience people to say.’
Sorry, Guruji. It doesn’t work always. I’ve learned from experience that when you are with a girl, don’t act smart. Just say the very obvious thing.
Copyright © Karthik 2011