The doorbell chimed dingdong.
Sighing, Surya Rao muted the giant 60-inch LED TV, got up from his reclining chair, and walked towards the door.
The doorbell chimed again. A little impatiently? ‘How can an inanimate object be impatient, you stupid?’
“Coming, coming,” he said loudly and opened the door.
There stood she, his next-door neighbour.
She was about fifty, of average height, slightly plump, and tan in complexion. The bottle green crumpled-cotton dupatta was unable to cover fully her thick mane of half-grey tresses. The loose-fitting white salwar and kameez had a certain dignity about them. Was it because she was wearing them?
“Adaab, I live in the adjacent apartment.”
“Yes, I’ve seen you. How can I help you, madam?”
“I brought you some sevai…”
“Yes, sevai, vermicelli sweet…today is id-ul-fitr.”
“Oh…oh…happy id to you, madam.”
“Can I…come in…”
“Oh, sorry, the imbecile I am for making you stand in the doorway. Please come in.”
Surya Rao held the door wide open and stood aside. The neighbour entered the drawing room and placed the small stainless steel bowl on the coffee table.
“Please be seated, madam,” Surya Rao said, pointing to a cane sofa.
“Naseem…” she said and sat on the sofa.
“What?” Surya Rao looked perplexed.
“My name is Naseem, not ‘madam’.” She smiled displaying a set of white teeth; one canine was missing.
“Oh, Mrs. Naseem…Thanks for the sweet. You took lot of trouble.”
“Not at all, sir, it is an important festival for us. Traditionally, we prepare this sweet and share with friends and relatives. I am alone. My relatives have already visited me. I thought I should share it with my neighbour.”
“That’s nice of you, Mrs. Naseem.”
“Naseem, just Naseem.”
“All right, Naseem it shall be.”
“I am Surya Rao; just Surya for friends.”
“Okay, Surya it shall be. Hmmm…your family?”
“I am a widower; my wife passed away several years ago. I have a son who has settled in Australia. This is his apartment. I moved in here only recently, after selling my apartment in Hyderabad. My son insisted; my daughter-in-law is from this place; would be convenient for all, you see.”
They sat silently for a little while.
“Some tea or coffee?”
“I don’t want to trouble you, Mr. Surya…”
“It’s no trouble at all, Naseem. I drink in litres in a day. Ha, ha, ha.”
“All right then, half-a-cup of coffee, without sugar.”
“No, just health-conscious.”
“Okay, coffee it will be.” He paused. “So I’m not your friend?”
“Because I addressed you as Mr. Surya?”
“Because you addressed me as Mr. Surya.”
“Sorry…Surya it will be.”
“Thanks, Naseem, coffee in two minutes; decoction is ready.”
“Tell me about you, Naseem,” Surya Rao said, slurping a mouthful of coffee.
“Nothing much, I’m afraid. This is our apartment; have been living here for over twenty years. My husband was a businessman; we owned a grocery and general store. Then…”
She fell silent and drank her coffee in silence.
She cleared her throat. “My husband died, eight years ago. I sold the business; I couldn’t manage it alone; we don’t have any children, you see.”
“I am very sorry to hear that.” Surya Rao looked sad.
“It is okay; time heals all wounds, they say.”
She fell silent for long moments. “What about you, Surya?”
“What about me?”
“I mean, has it healed your wounds? You must have loved your wife very much?”
“I adored her. No, time hasn’t healed my wounds, even on the surface.” He paused. “I’m still struggling to live with the loss.”
She nodded her head understandingly.
“Religion helps in such matters, it is opined. I have never been a very religious person. So…I can’t say anything,” Surya Rao said.
“Yes, religious faith does help; it doesn’t heal, per se, but it helps you escape from the immediate aftermath, the immediate trauma, the immediate turmoil that such devastation brings. I’ve experienced it.”
“By religious faith, you mean the rituals, the chanting, and the like, Naseem?”
“That’s one aspect, the minor short-term aspect. The major long-term aspect is the philosophy that goes with it. It offers understanding of life and death.”
“Hmmm…Every religion, Naseem?”
She looked at him quizzically.
“You sound sceptical. Is it about my religion?”
Surya Rao looked surprised.
“You have taken offence. I am sorry.”
Naseem did not say anything.
“Yours, mine, theirs, all are the same to me; I’m an agnostic, Naseem.”
“Yes. All the faith, rituals, and philosophising did not help me. I am in pain even now. Just looking at her picture triggers the trauma. Escapism is not for me, I guess.”
“You cannot dub it escapism entirely, Surya; matter of faith you see.”
“Okay, let’s leave it at that, enough for our first meeting.” He smiled.
She looked at him with an impish smile prancing on her lips. “First meeting? Are you sure there will be more?”
“I am, madam.” He paused for effect. “A question of faith, you see…”
Both stared at each other for a moment and burst into laughter.
“Bye, sir, see you later.”
Surya Rao rang the doorbell and waited for the door to open.
After a couple of minutes, the bolts rattled and the door opened.
“I thought you’d never open…Hey, Naseem what happened?”
She collapsed on the floor like a rag doll.
Later, in the nearby hospital…
“That was close. Dehydration…the doctor said. Care to tell me what happened?” Surya Rao was anxious.
“Two days ago, my cousin and I roamed around the whole day – VGP, shopping, eating out. It was very hot. I wasn’t feeling well in the night. It became worse yesterday. I couldn’t get up from my bed.”
“There is something called a cell phone? You could have called me.” Surya Rao sounded angry.
“I … didn’t want to trouble you…”
“Trouble? Is that what our friendship means?” He paused. “Call your cousin. She’ll take you home tomorrow…Good bye.”
Surya Rao got up to leave. Naseem held his hand.
“Don’t go, Surya. I am sorry; won’t do it again. I promise.”
They were sitting in Surya Rao’s apartment watching a Hindi movie.
“I ordered pizza for us.”
“It tastes like shit cake, Surya.”
“How do you know? Did you ever eat one?”
“No, shit cake.”
“But you said pizza tastes like one?”
“Oh my God! A home prosecutor. Sorry, baba.”
“My wife loved it; forced me to eat it; I started liking it.”
“I don’t; I am not your wife.”
“I’m not asking you to be my wife; just asking you to try one.”
“Oh God, why did I bring him sevai on id?”
The doorbell chimed.
“Here cometh the pizza…da deed da…”
“Let us go to Marina beach.”
There was eagerness in Naseem’s silent acquiescence.
Half an hour later, they were sitting on the water’s edge, after thoroughly wetting their feet and dresses, delving deep into their third miniature newspaper cones of sundal respectively.
“Let’s go to a movie,” Naseem proposed.
“Jason Bourne latest…”
“Only Hindi, Shah Rukh’s Fan…”
“Then, Mohenjo Daro…Hrithik…”
“No Shah Rukh…”
“What is it with you, Naseem? Is it because he is a Muslim?”
“What is it with you, Surya? Is it because he is a Muslim?”
“No, because I don’t like his looks…and he stammers…Nnnnaseem.”
“It is Kkkkiran, you dolt…Hrithik has six fingers…”
“What has it got to do with his acting?”
“Same as SRK’s Kkkkiran.”
“Oh God, how did we end up arguing? Any movie you suggest is okay.”
“Now, you are a peach…Sssurya.”
“God, we must be looking like the proverbial hare and tortoise.”
“Are we taking an evening walk or are we racing, Surya?”
“No one would have heard of a hare trying to keep pace with a tortoise.”
“You heartless brute, this is the last time I’ll ever go for a walk with you. You go, jog, I’ll settle on this bench.”
“Be seeing you. Don’t fall asleep.”
“Hey, Naseem, I am going to Hyderabad; some unfinished work with my flat sale. Want to come?”
“Nnnno…” She paused. “Wait…where’ll you stay?”
“My uncle’s place.”
“A hotel, then?”
“Mmmm…okay…I guess, but no hanky panky, you rowdy.”
“Strictly Platonic, I promise and cross my heart; have faith.”
“Isn’t that for Christians?”
“What, copyright infringement?”
“Nnnno, I guess.”
“Now, you started to imitate Shah Rukh. Two rooms, okay?”
“Thank God, I’ll be safe.”
“Yeah, from you; Shah Rukh is a gentleman.”
“We must ask … her…”
“Shut up, you Romeo.”
“I’m afraid my wife won’t agree.”
“Uncle, this is Naseem, my next-door neighbour and friend; Naseem, my uncle, Parthasarathy.”
“Good morning, sir.”
“Good morning, madam.”
“Hope you liked my cooking, Naseem,” Kasturi, Parthasathy’s wife, asked.
“Out of this world, aunty; especially, the onion sambar, divine is the word for it; never tasted anything better.”
The discussions continued for a long time. Naseem described how she and Surya Rao met, and how friendship developed between them.
“Are you two in love??” Kasturi blurted out the question.
“Why would she ask such a question?”
Surya Rao was silent. They were sitting comfortably in the second-class air-conditioned compartment in Hyderabad-Chennai Express.
“Did you say anything to them that led them to believe…”
“Of course not, Naseem.” Surya Rao sounded offended.
“Well, I am offended, too.”
“They are elderly people, worried about how I am getting along after my wife died. It was a simple question. You replied frankly that there was nothing of the sort. Just let it go.”
Naseem was silent for a minute.
“You are right, I guess.”
Silence descended between them for the rest of the journey.
Several days later…
“Where are you going?”
Surya Rao stood in the doorway of Naseem’s apartment, watching her scurry around the house packing personal items in a duffel bag.
“Nagercoil; received a call; my grandmother expired late last night.”
“I am very sorry…she must be quite old…”
“Over ninety…I was quite attached to her.” Naseem sniffled.
Surya Rao made to put a consoling hand on her shoulder but Naseem moved away to complete her packing.
“How do you plan to go? There is no train at this time.”
“Okay.” He paused. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
She looked at him with tear-filled eyes.
“Will you go with me to Nagercoil? I can’t handle the situation on my own, I am afraid; if it is no trouble to you.”
There was no hesitation in Surya Rao’s spontaneous reaction.
“Of course not, Naseem. What are friends for?”
Her eyes glowed with silent gratitude.
Surya Rao dropped Naseem among her near and dear at her ancestral home and settled in a hotel near the bus stand. The funeral was scheduled for the following day.
Naseem was inconsolable and was continuously wailing in unmitigated grief. Surya Rao understood how much she was attached to her grandmother. Much as he desired to, propriety precluded his putting a consoling arm around her quivering shoulders. He chose to don the role of the silent supportive friend.
The funeral rites over, Surya Rao sat for lunch, while Naseem watched. An old woman, the younger sister of Naseem’s grandmother, was narrating anecdotes from their childhood, while serving food to Surya Rao.
“We never had any formal education but aapaa was well informed about the affairs of the world. I learned a lot from her; still have to, but now…” Her voice trailed off.
There was silence while Surya Rao ate his lunch.
“Are you two in love?” The old woman popped the question.
“What?” Naseem and Surya Rao exclaimed in unison.
“See, even your reactions are simultaneous and identical. Are you going to marry?”
“Whatever gave you the idea, choti naani?”
Surya Rao shook his head.
“Don’t fool me, Naseem, I can see it in your eyes, in the way he cares for you; nothing wrong in it, if you are, actually.”
“Nothing of that sort, choti naani,” Naseem mumbled.
“You, young fellow? You don’t have anything to say?”
“Madam, we are friends, good friends, that’s all and I am past sixty.”
Naani chuckled. “As if age had something to do with love.”
A brief silence.
“Listen, children. Love is the most beautiful emotion. It is not restricted by age. If you are in love, you should marry; time is not on your side, you see. I am with you; I know aapaa would have been, too. In fact, she was sorry for Naseem’s loss and wished that she would remarry and find happiness in life once again.” She paused. “Living alone in old age is a huge problem, as you must be experiencing. Think of it.”
She got up to clear the lunch plates. Naseem and Surya Rao looked at one another with undefined feelings in their hearts and eyes.
Surya Rao rang the doorbell.
Naseem was panting when she opened the door.
It was months since their trip to Nagercoil. Neither of them spoke of the conversation that took place there. There was tentativeness in the air.
“Hi,” said Surya Rao.
He did not realise that he was staring at her until she accosted him.
She was in an off-white full-length housecoat with large black abstract designs printed on it. Her thick hair was bound with a bath towel. Obviously, she had shampooed her hair.
“Come in; why are you standing there?”
They settled in the sofas in the drawing room with their coffee mugs. Surya Rao placed a plastic container of sweets on the coffee table.
“I’ve brought some sweets…”
“Why? What’s the occasion?”
“You still celebrate! That’s sweet of you. You love your wife so much.” She bit into a kaju katli.
“It’s for us.”
She was speechless.
“Yes, you brought me sevai exactly on this day last year.”
“Oh my God! I completely forgot about it.”
“…about me,” he succinctly said.
Naseem fell silent.
“I think the time has come for us to talk.”
A few moments later Naseem concurred, “Yes, I think, too.”
“Naseem, what went wrong after our visit to Nagercoil? You’ve forgotten about me on id!”
Naseem was silent for a minute.
“Not after Nagercoil; it started after our Hyderabad trip, actually.”
“The question from Kasturi aunty…it hit the nail on the head, didn’t it?”
A moment’s silence.
“I started thinking. Why? Was our conduct improper, which raised the…doubt? Did you speak to your uncle and aunt about us?”
“I spoke in general about how we met. That’s all, nothing derogatory about you. I’d never do that.”
“I know but the question was asked, you see.”
“So? What about Nagercoil? You asked me to go with you.”
“Yes, I never planned to invite you but when I saw you in the doorway I realised how much I came to depend on you during those few months. The grief of my naani’s demise was devastating. I needed the comfort of the company of a confidant. I sought your company and you readily agreed. I cannot express in words the solace I got in your company at Nagercoil.”
“Your choti naani was very eloquent about us!”
“Yes, and I value her judgement and my deceased naani’s, and also your aunt’s.”
Surya Rao looked surprised.
“Don’t look surprised, Surya. You know and I know that she was speaking the truth.”
A feather could have felled Surya Rao.
“About our mutual feelings…they were accurate, weren’t they?”
A few moments later Surya Rao nodded. “Yes.”
“Look, Surya, I’ll lay bare my heart in front of you. Think of me as brazen if you will, but the time has come to speak the truth.”
“After losing my loving husband, I decided to continue living in our abode, where all his memories are afresh, always. I was trudging in my lonely life until that fateful day, until that id, when fate prompted me to bring you sevai. In you, I found a kind and affectionate person, a friend, who was afflicted by the same torturous loneliness as mine. Gradually, your company started growing on me. I was depending on you more and more. You were knowledgeable, witty, and you had great sense of humour. I began yearning for your company. Given my background, I could not express my feelings for you openly. The visit to your uncle’s place at Hyderabad opened the floodgates. That inadvertent question laid bare my hidden feelings for you. My choti naani clearly expressed what was going in my mind. I couldn’t openly accept the truth, but when you rejected her theory as incorrect, I was stung. What would Surya think of me? The thought was nagging me. After returning to Chennai, I thought it better to keep a little distance before the situation exploded. I am sorry, if I hurt you; I didn’t intend to. I thought it was best for us.”
She finished her coffee and placed the empty mug on the coffee table.
“My God, Naseem, you are candid. I’ll try to match your candour.”
He placed his empty coffee mug on the coffee table and continued.
“In fact, I can simplify the whole thing by just saying ditto.”
“What? So, you…you, too…”
“Yes, Naseem, I, too…”
“But you never said anything!”
“Touché.” She smiled. “So, what next?”
“Naseem, I’ll speak my heart out. If I unintentionally offend you please pardon me.”
“Why are you talking like this, Surya?”
“It is a sensitive matter, Naseem.”
She nodded imperceptibly.
“I adored my late wife as you did your husband, no doubt. So, what does that make us, sinners? No. Our spouses will never return from heaven. We part with friends; we make new friends. There is no problem. So, if we think along the lines suggested by my aunt and your naani, would we be wrong? No, not at all. In you, I found a great friend – understanding, accommodating, dependable, and wise. I like you very much. If I decide to share my life with someone, it would be you; I would be lucky to.”
“What? Why are you saying if? Aren’t you…”
“I am, Naseem, I am. But…”
“But, what, Surya?”
“I don’t think it will succeed.”
“Why? Because of our religions?”
“Bullshit. It isn’t that at all. Frankly, I don’t give a damn at this stage of my life, even though it may stir some trouble in our relatives’ circles”
“Your son, daughter-in-law, and your other relatives?”
“Mine and yours, too. Again, I don’t give a damn. It’s our life. If someone must decide, it would be us and only us.”
“Then, why did you say if, Surya?”
“You and I are not new to married life; we aren’t unaware of the pressures and problems. We are still to come to terms with the loss of our spouses. In that struggle, we have found solace in each other’s company. It has offered a new meaning to our lonely, humdrum lives. We eagerly look forward to meeting with each other, but things would abruptly change drastically if we were to marry and live together. Despite our maturity and experience we would go through, once again, the inevitable process of taking each other for granted, the soaring of expectations, and the entire gamut emotional conflicts that a marriage entails without fail. How will we handle it?”
“You said it, Surya, we are experienced and mature. We can handle.”
“Can we? Can we forget our spouses, when we are together? I know I can’t. How will we overcome that? Recollect all the conflicts, all the tensions that we subjected our spouses to the last time. I wouldn’t want to put us through that trauma once again, especially you, at this age. If it doesn’t succeed, our friendship would be lost, too. Tell me, Naseem, what additional benefit would marriage bring to us?”
“That we have, already.”
“We will live with each other, under one roof.”
“Again, our present setup isn’t much different from what you are saying. Or…” He paused. “Do you mean…sex…?”
“What? You horrible fellow, I didn’t say that.”
“But you meant; that would be a significant part of life, won’t it?”
“At this stage of our lives, that is not as important as companionship, right?”
“Right.” She sounded disappointed and he looked sorry for disappointing her.
They were silent for long moments.
“So, finally, what do you say, Surya?”
“One way or the other, it cannot be my decision alone. Both of us must understand and decide. I say, let us be friends – best friends – for life. Let us be there for each other until the last breath, in happiness and sorrow, in prosperity and adversity, in vicissitudes of life. Let us care for each other forever. I feel life would be more meaningful for the two of us. We can share our experiences, our knowledge. We can enrich each other’s life. Let us have faith in ourselves, in each other, and in our friendship.”
Surya Rao fell silent. He could see a sparkle of understanding behind the sheen of tears in Naseem’s eyes.
“So, what do you say, Naseem?”
A year later…
“Id mubarak, Surya. I have brought you sevai.”
“Id mubarak, Naseem. Won’t you come in?”
… Shyam Sundar Bulusu