This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
“ Hi, Heard that you are coming to India in a few days.. It’s been sooo long… Can’t wait to see you again“
I stiffened and logged out of my message inbox in haste. She was the last person I wanted to meet again and for some minutes I considered the idea of cancelling my trip to India altogether. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and I decided to make an urgent inquiry call to India. It would be 3 pm in the afternoon and I could imagine my mother grumbling on being woken up from her midday nap. I took a deep breath and ventured….
“Umm.. Ma, the reason I called you up today … Do you remember an old childhood friend of mine, a girl called Smita ? “
“The one with the curly hair …and the beautiful eyes ?? Of course..”
“Yes ..yes ..the same one.. Have you heard from her lately ?”
“ Ahh..well ..she met me the other day …She was asking about you …I told her you were coming soon..”
“She..she came home Ma..?” I asked aghast .
“ Actually she works in the same office complex as your brother. They have met each other a few times it seems ..I invited her over for Dinner …poor guy ,he has been so lonely lately..”
I disconnected and banged the phone down angrily .It was so typical of her to barge into my life all over again ,as if nothing had happened. And throw it in a disarray all over again !!
My flight from New York to Delhi was a long one . I thanked God that at least I had sufficient time to adjust to the fact that Smita Aggarwal had made an unwelcome entry to my(and unfortunately my brothers’..) life again .Unwillingly I let my mind wander again ,to those childhood memories and school days.. and our favorite playground – the banks of the local river along which our homes resided .
I don’t of course , remember the exact date or the occasion when I met Smita for the first time ….it was too long ago .I could recall broken memories of us playing together in the school sand pit in nursery ,of dressing up our dolls together and playing mom to them ..Later as we grew up , doing homework sitting in our house with the brand new coloured TV ,threatening to distract us every few minutes…
Smita lived close to our house and her mother had died when she was only a few months old .Her father was a well respected businessman ,but too busy in his work to care much about his daughter’s well being .In our early school years , Smita was often lonely and took solace in our house and our friendship .Despite her loneliness ,she wasn’t a quiet ,brooding, sensitive child . She was full of energy and confidence , her mind brimming mischievous pranks and mostly dragging me, the unwilling but faithful , into them .My world revolved around Smita and I almost hero worshipped her . Any fight with her would see me upset for days .There was hardly anything that we hadn’t shared with each other as friends – from the chocolates that my Uncle brought from the US to posters of Leonardio Di Caprio when Titanic was the rage .
Our favourite place to play was the River .We went there almost everyday ,and made sand castles and cakes on its banks .Smita was reckless ,and often jumped into the water where it was shallow ,dragging me along .But I would be scared of soiling my clothes ..and what would mother say .When we were older we often sat there discussing teachers and classmates ,crushes and whatever we knew of our little world.
So together , we passed our childhood years ,the exciting and somewhat nightmarish teen years and stepped into our college lives ,as close as Siamese twins . I was not a very outgoing person , liked by all my teachers for my dedication and obedient nature and easily passed unnoticed by most people . I never craved popularity and was content with my own world – a loving family and most importantly having my best friend Smita at my side .
My flight had landed inDelhi. The temperature outside was soaring and I was relieved to find the familiar face of my older brother Rahul ,waving his hand furiously to catch my attention .One of his daughters ,lovingly nicknamed Angel ,had come along to pick me up from the airport .
Once inside the car ,I tried to study Rahul closely .His face still bore the traces of the tragedy that had shaken our family almost a year and a half ago – the sudden death of his wife ,Meenu , in a car accident . He looked older than his 36 years ,the stress of bringing up two young children without their mother as well as dealing with the emotional vacuum that the death had caused had taken a toll on him .From outside he appeared his cheerful self ,but I could sometimes sense a faraway ,lost look in his eyes and at certain intervals he would suddenly fall silent .
We reached home and I was again given the VIP treatment that my family gave me whenever I visited home after a long time. My mother had prepared all of my favorite dishes for lunch and my Dad had called all our friends and cousins for a family party in my honour . My other niece , Sanya insisted that her favorite Teddy be kept next to her Booa’s bed ,so that I wouldn’t feel scared at night in a strange room .I laughed happily while pinching Sanya’s rosy cheeks .Being in India ,almost after four years ,was a nice, giddy feeling…except for the hankering memory of Smita Aggarwal that it awakened .
Tired and jetlagged , I got into bed early hoping to catch some much needed sleep .But as much as I tried ,my mind would wander back to the subject of Smita and how our lives courses had changed since college . It was as if her Facebook message had suddenly unleashed on me a whirlpool of powerful memories ,memories that I had deliberately tried to lock up for the last few years of my life .
Me and Smita had entered our college life together ,with high expectations from our life. We had taken admission in the same college and same course – Maths Honours ,even though I was interested in literature and wanted to do English Hons .But the subject bored Smita ,and I couldn’t bear the thought of parting from her ,so I convinced myself at the time to take up Maths Hons for her sake .Till many years after our fight ,I did not forgive her for forcing me into this decision (even though admittedly it was in the end my own decision and not hers !!) .
So college life began and within a few weeks itself I sensed that things between me and Smita would never be the same again. Smita was unarguably one of the most popular girls in college ,her good looks charming all the guys and her confidence and spunk attracting attention from all over .From Rocky ,the lead guitarist of our college band to the silly girls of our class ,everyone wanted a bit of Smita …and she loved all the attention .Her horizons had expanded while I still tugged on to the past glories of our friendship determinedly .We began to spend less time together and she often laughed at me for my unsophisticated dressing sense and my steadfast refusal to wear makeup to college . By 2nd year , we had grown quite apart ,and many times Smita excluded me from her plans of going for movies and discos with her guy friends and shopping trips with the gals .It hurt me a little to be cast aside by her in this ungracious manner ,but on the whole I was actually relieved ,as socializing was not my cup of tea .
We still managed to be somewhat distant friends and occasionally went out together for a coffee or had dinner at my home .In the last year of college ,however ,something happened that snapped the bond between us altogether . I had fallen for a good looking senior from our college called Akhil and my inexperienced heart harbored rather warm feelings for him .He knew Smita slightly (who didn’t know Smita in college ,after all !! ) and I asked her to introduce me to him ,after confessing my crush to her .Smita was rather amused and willingly agreed to play cupid . Akhil and I were introduced and Akhil ,I believe started taking an interest in me too .
How it finally came about , I never came to know ,but it seemed that Smita decided the role of Cupid was not enough for her .I guess ,she couldn’t bear the fact that her plain jane ,simple minded friend had managed to attract someone after all and the fact that she hadn’t been able to attract him first .She began to secretly meet Akhil frequently and charmed him till he was convinced they were in love .He proposed to her and they started going out while I was still nurturing happy hopes about him in my heart .
After two months of their secret hitching ,I finally came to know the truth from one of our old mutual friends .The knowledge crushed me ,and I couldn’t forgive her for this .I felt like a silly fool ,deceived by the childhood friend whom I had once almost worshipped .
When I confronted her on the topic ,she was immediately on the defensive .She asked me if it was her fault that she was so attractive to guys and I could’t manage to attract even one .She told me she was tired of dragging the burden of our old friendship all the time and needed some space . It was a bitter fight between two friends turned foes ,and I vowed never to speak to her or think about Smita ever again .I didn’t know what caused me grater pain –the heartbreak over Akhil or shutting Smita out of my life .But I was determined to move on ,and in time the memories of my playmate by the river began to fade away .
I never went to the river again.
The days of myIndia visit were passing surprisingly quickly .One morning I woke up with an intuition that my long dreaded meeting with Smita could not be put off any longer . Sure enough , Smita called on my phone and asked me to meet her for lunch . Her voice sounded strained and I wondered why she wanted to meet me in the first place at all .I distrusted all her motives for trying to renew our friendship and decided to go for lunch with a cool ,formal manner .
Soon after our fight ,college had ended and I went to London to pursue my Higher studies .I had been living there for the past eight years now and hadn’t heard anything about Smita except the fact that she had got married (to Akhil only I believe ) .They had got divorced last year ,my mother said .I couldn’t care less …
I reached the restaurant for our lunch well in time but Smita was already sitting there .As usual she looked ravishing with her hair colored and straightened ,and wearing a dress that complemented her figure . I nervously sat opposite her and looked into her eyes – as uncertain and hesitating as mine .
We chatted like polite strangers as the waiter came to take our lunch order . Smita did most of the talking and I felt as if she was trying to convince us both that nothing had gone wrong between us and things were still the same . It angered me ,and suddenly in an irritated voice I interrupted her and asked –
“So Smita ,why exactly did you call me here today ? “
Smita was surprised and her pencil thin eyebrows arched together the way they did when something disturbed her .Faking a cheerful voice ,she managed to say…
“Just like that Rhea ,as I said it’s been ages since we met .I was hoping on your trip here we could catch up …”
“ We havnt done that these last 8 years ..why suddenly now ??” – I demanded .
Smita’s well manicured hands shifted nervously to her lap as she answered somewhat unconvincingly – “It’s not like I havn’t thought about you ,these 8 years ,you know Rhea..It’s just that I didn’t know how or what to do….”
“What is there to do ? I’m happy in my life and presumably you are happy in yours ,so good..” I responded .
“You still havn’t forgiven me for what happened ,have you Rhea ?“ For the first time Smita looked right into my eyes and I illogically remembered my mother saying on the phone –Your friend,the one with the beautiful eyes…
I took a deep breath to collect my thoughts and answered calmly – “Some things are better unsaid Smita … It doesn’t matter now ,does it ? We have both come a long way in our lives “
“But I guess it does matter somewhere ,don’t you think Rhea ?When I think of all those childhood days ,the time spent with you ,they were like the best days of my life ..We were so happy ,so carefree ..Our friendship was all that mattered to us ….”
I looked at Smita wearily .Why was she raking up all these past memories now ,which were best forgotten ??
“You know Rhea ,I divorced Akhil last year ..”
“I heard Smita ..I’m sorry “ I replied formally ,not sounding sorry at all .
“Akhil ditched me for another girl in his office .It was such a harrowing experience ,to be cheated upon after years of marriage .I had reached the lowest point of my life ,and all my self esteem was shattered .I began to question the people who really cared for me or made a pretense that they did….”
I looked at Smita and wondered ..the confident ,high spirited Smita , who had never known defeat in all her life ,was fighting defeat at the hands of Fate now . I felt a pang of sympathy which I immediately tried to push away .
“I needed a friend desperately .But my best friend was nowhere around .You had gone too far away for me to reach you Rhea …”Smita continued softly .
“I didn’t go far away Smita ,you pushed me away ..remember…??”
I silently helped my mother as she fussed around , getting things ready for dinner .She had invited Smita over ,and I could see she was keen to get things moving between my elder brother and Smita . It irritated me and made me feel somewhat protective towards Rahul ,as I still didn’t trust Smita ,for all her efforts towards a reconciliation.
But I was curious to see the two of them together and especially , Rahul ,who had known Smita as his kid sister’s friend all these years . And I had to admit ,the two did seem rather attached to each other . Rahul , lost the faraway look in his eyes ,and for the first time in my entire visit ,I saw him joking and looking relaxed like the earlier days . Both of them had faced disappointments in their young life ,and they sought each other’s understanding with a warmth and maturity which was hard to ignore .Smita surprisingly was very attached to the kids .Angel and Sanya also adored their “auntie “ and showered her with love and kisses.
After the dinner ,the two girls retired to their rooms for the night .Smita’s visit had reminded me how the kids must be yearning for their mum’s love and I followed them .
“Booa ..“ Little Sanya said excitedly ..”You must tell us a story ..tell us the story of The PARTY that aunty tells na please …”
“The Party ? I don’t know any such story sweetheart …. ” Which aunty had told her the story ,I wondered .
Angel said responsibly – “Sanya I know the story and I will tell you .Don’t worry Booa ..”
In her best adult voice Angel bagan her story –
“Once upon a time there were two friends ,who lived together by the river .They were best friends ,and always played together and shared their toys and dolls with each other .
One day it was the birthday of one of the two girls called Rani .She was very excited the night before and wondered what gifts she would get from all her friends especially her best friend Sana.But in the morning when she woke up ,her father did not wish her a Happy Birthday !! He had forgotten ..She went to school and expected all her friends to wish her,especially Sana,but Sana too had forgotten it seemed .Rani was very upset that nobody remembered and missed her mother ,who had left her long ago .
Rani went home sad and puzzled ,as she had been telling her friends for days about her Birthday .She met Sana on her way back from School but decided not to talk to her .Sana told her to come to her house in the evening so they could play Teacher ,but Rani left in a huff .
In the evening Sana came to her house looking for her .She took Rani by the hand to her house .As they entered the house ,she saw the drawing room was all dark .Suddenly a balloon burst and someone said “Surprise !! “.She saw that all her friends were gathered there ,along with her Papa and granny .They had not forgotten ,they were only playing a game with her !!
Rani was so happy ,aunty had decorated the house in streamers and balloons ..and on the table was a big chocolate cake ,her favourite…..”
“It wasn’t chocolate Angel ,you are telling it wrong “Sanya interjected .
“It was pineapple cake I think, Rani’s favourite..”I said gently .
“Booa ,how did you guess,do you know the story…??!!”
“Slightly..hush Sanya , let Angel continue “ I smiled .
“So Rani was very happy with all the gifts and surprise party and hugged her friend Sana .When the party ended they both went down the river where they played together and there Sana showed Rani the gift she had got for her . It was a chain with half a heart locket ,with the words “Best friend “inscribed on them .Sana had the other half heart and they both wore their chains together ,promising to remain best friends forever …..”