At nine o’clock on a Sunday morning Ritu was sitting in front of the Sony Bravia 40-inch LCD TV. The TV was airing the morning news but what engaged her attention was a 15.6-inch Dell Inspiron laptop screen.
Seeing some photographs that her friends shared on the facebook she smiled within herself. Her index finger was softly caressing the touchpad. Intermittently, she typed out replies to some tongue-in-cheek pokes.
Half an hour later, she went into the kitchen for a replenishment of her large coffee mug. On the way back she peeped into the bedroom and found Deepak impossibly entangled among the pillows, bed sheets and stuffed toys. She smiled and gently shut the door and resumed her seat on the floor in front of the portable laptop table.
A little later her roving eyes caught something interesting. It was a verse in Hindi, shared on the facebook by Farida, a friend of hers.
Tumhe bhoolna chahata hoon, par bhooloon kaise?
Shoonya mein bhi tumhara chehera prakat hota hai.
Tumhe paas bulana chahata hoon, par bulaoon kaise?
Fasla hamare beech ka mitanese nahin mit-ta hai.
Tumse door jana chahata hoon, par jaoon kaise?
Jahan bhi jaoon tumhara vajood hi nazar aata hai.
Tumhare noor ki roshni dhoondhta hoon, par paoon kaise?
Charon ore jeevan mein andhera hi andhera dikhta hai.
Ab duniya chchodna chahata hoon, par chchodoon kaise?
Idhar dekhoon ya udhar, rasta nazar nahin aata hai.
Na jee sakta hoon na hi mar sakta, jiyoon to jiyoon kaise?
Har tinka lagta hai ek pahad aur har pal ek yug lagta hai.
Ritu’s eyes instantly moistened.
‘How emotional…’ she thought.
She followed the link that led her to the page of a faceless male who called himself simply Raj, located in USA. She made a mental note to ask her friend, Farida, about the writer.
“Hi Farida, how are you?”
“Hi, sexy. I’m cool. How’s life?”
“Busy with your school?”
“Yes, very; and busier with Deepu. He won’t stay without me for a minute.”
“Yeah, dear, I can understand. He’s a little imp.”
“Before I forget; that verse you shared…it was simply out of the world.”
“The Hindi one, ‘Tum Bin’ or something?”
“Oh! Come on, don’t say something. It was very poignant. I tried to locate the origin and ended up with some faceless guy named Raj; in USA.”
“Is that so, in USA? Must be a friend of my friends. Why are you asking all this? Hey…chor…love at first sight, I mean, first verse, or what. Why don’t you send him a message or friend request?”
“You are incorrigible; just wanted to know who wrote those beautiful lines.”
They spoke for a few more minutes and hung up.
A week passed by…
“Deepu…Deepu…it’s time to go to bed, dear.”
But five-year old Deepak was reluctant.
“Nnnooo, mummy. I want to see Tom and Jerry, please…”
“It’s past ten, your bedtime. You can watch it tomorrow. Tomorrow is Sunday, right?”
“Yeees…I want pizza with lots of cheese; garlic bread with lots of sauce; and…”
Ritu hugged him and planted a dozen kisses on his chubby cheeks.
“OK…OK…darling. Go to sleep now. Good night.”
“Good night, mummy. Won’t you sleep?”
“I’ve got to do some work, dear. I’ll come soon.” She tucked him in and went to her laptop.
She worked on her school matters for an hour, sent mails to her teachers and then switched to her facebook page.
She was sifting through several inane posts when she saw a friend suggestion from Farida. It was the mysterious Raj.
Ritu debated for long minutes whether or not to send the friend request. Finally, she clicked the button and sent the request. She shut down the laptop and went to bed.
With her extremely busy work schedule, Ritu doesn’t get to socialise on the net frequently. On yet another Sunday morning, she was munching mouthfuls of toast with cholesterol-free butter and typing away emails on her Dell.
She checked and found that Deepak was still asleep. Having refilled her coffee mug she sat at her laptop and switched to facebook.
Instantly, she found an alert. “…you are now friends with Raj…”
She thought for a few moments and typed a comment.
“Hi Mr Raj. Im Ritu. That’s a beautiful poem, ‘Tum Bin’; very emotional & sensitive.”
Knowing the time difference between Chennai and California, she didn’t expect a reply until the next day, if at all. But she was surprised to see a reply within a few minutes.
“Thnx Ms Ritu. It’s nice of you.”
Ritu knew that the comments would be visible to Farida and other friends. Knowing their proclivity to unbridled mischief, she switched over to the chat window.
“Tell me abt urslf Mr Raj.”
“U came on chat! OK. I am settled in California for abt 25 yrs. You?”
“Im in Chennai since long. U haven’t uploaded any photos not even profile picture!”
“Im a private person; don’t have much time for social networks; once in a way i post a poem or comment. U haven’t uploaded any profile picture or photos either”
“jus like u…ha ha ha…and everything is public and i find it risky”
“true…how big is ur family? U working?”
“I have a son; Deepu…Deepak. 5 yrs. I run an elementary school.”
“So u r a teacher. Gr8.”
“By profession teacher. By occupation Principal & owner. U?”
“Im in business. Own a restaurant and a couple of motels.”
“My, u must be a busy man. R u not working now? It is Saturday night for u, Mr Raj.”
“Only Raj pl. Business is livelihood. Weekends strictly for family.”
“Nice to hear that…sigh…for me weekend means only Sunday. I spend with Deepu.”
“School work must be very exacting, Ms Ritu?”
“It’s Ritu. Im managing for over 15 yrs now. Got used to it…”
“OK…Ritu. Im being called. Got to go. Nice talking to you. Bye.”
“Bye, Raj. Catch up another day.”
Another Sunday morning, this time a little earlier, Ritu was at her Dell.
“good morning Ritu…”
“shld i say good NIGHT Raj…LOL”
“no, no, no… :(”
“ok, ok…how was ur week?”
“as usual hectic. urs?”
The chatting went on for a quarter of an hour.
“Ritu can i ask personal question?”
“hmmm…depends on how personal…LOL”
“Wot does your husband do?”
There was complete silence for a couple of minutes.
“Ritu r u there? hav i crossed my limits? Im sorry.”
“No Raj…nothing like that.”
“It’s ok if u don’t want to answer.”
Ritu thought for a few minutes whether to reply or tick him off.
“Ritu Im sure I offended u. Im very sorry 🙁 Pl say something”
“Im not married Raj”
“What? but your son…”
“Sorry Raj I cant say anything more now. V will chat later. OK? Pl.”
“It’s ok Ritu. I understand. Some other time maybe. Sorry if I hurt u. Didn’t mean to.”
“No Raj it’s not ur fault. Good night.”
Ritu was deeply disturbed by that one question.
‘What does your husband do?’
She tried to get busy with other work on the computer but could not concentrate. She shut down the laptop and plunged into daily chores. By the time she finished the chores and prepared breakfast the grandfather’s wall clock struck eleven times. The chimes were followed by Deepak’s frantic shouts.
“Deepu, what happened, darling? Had a bad dream?”
He snuggled deeper in her lap and let her cuddle him.
“Get up; brush your teeth; have breakfast. Do you know what mummy has prepared?”
“What?” The question floated up from deep inside her lap.
“Your favourite pizza with cheese, vegetables…Come, come, come…”
She had to run behind him to the bathroom.
“r u still mad at me?”
“no raj. Im not mad”
“then y u didn’t come on chat? It has been 3 weeks.”
“yeah I know.”
“did I upset u?”
“i was reminded of my past.”
Silence for several minutes.
“raj r u there?”
“yeah. Im sorry 🙁 i caused pain”
“Hut pagal…u did no such thing.”
“What did u say?”
“u did no such thing!”
“no, no…before that”
“What? Didn’t say anything!”
“u said hut pagal”
“Oh that! Yes i did. Why?”
There was long silence.
“raj r u there? y r u mum?”
“LOL…now it’s ur turn”
“wots ur full name? Ritika or …”
“ha ha ha…it is a loooong name :-)”
“ok baba ok…it is…RITAMBHARA LAKSHMI PRASANNA…r u happy”
Again a long break in chat.
“Wots ur surname ritu?”
“IYER…not surname though…why”
“were u ever in Lucknow?”
“yes…why are u asking all this?”
“omg…omg…Im sorry…Im sorry…ritu…Im sorry…”
“Raj what happened. Why r u upset?”
“Ritu don’t u want to know my full name”
“Sure…but 1st tell y u r upset?”
“U will know if i tell my name”
“OK tell me wot ur full name is”
“What? rajvansh? Vansh?”
‘Vansh…Vansh…Where are you?’
Silence greeted Ritu.
‘Vansh…Vansh…Where are you? I am scared. It is not funny.’
Her desperate questions echoed off the walls of Bhool Bhulaiya.
She covered her face in her palms and started crying.
A few moments later, two hands gently pulled her hands away and wiped her tears.
“You crazy girl; crazy, crazy, crazy girl; crying for such a small thing?”
Ritu softly punched Vansh on the chest with a clenched fist.
“How could you do this? I was frightened when I couldn’t find you.”
“It’s only a couple of minutes, darling.”
“A lifetime for me, you stupid. I won’t talk to you.”
“Don’t say that, Ritu. I’ll die standing here.”
“Don’t ever say such things, dying and all.”
“Not mad at me anymore?”
“Hut pagal, how can I get mad at you? I’m mad after you!”
“ritu r u there?”
“ritu can v talk?”
“give me your number i’ll call you”
“just wait…i’ll call u”
“i have waited long vansh…”
‘I’ve waited long, Vansh.’
‘I know, I know, Ritu but I’m nervous…’
‘Facing your parents.’
‘But, darling, you’ve got to, someday. Don’t you?’
‘True but I’m not sure they’ll agree.’
‘You won’t know that unless you broach the topic.’
‘I’m certain. You are a Tamilian Brahmin; I am a backward caste guy. They’ll never agree.’
‘Let me tell you something. I truly love you and you me. We’ll seek their blessings. And if they don’t agree, we’ll marry anyway.’
‘That’ll separate you from your parents forever. How can I let that happen?’
‘Muruga! What is that you want to do, finally?’
‘OK, OK…I’ll meet your parents.’
‘Hut pagal. You nagged me all the while for nothing.’
The Blackberry gave out a soft ring.
“Vansh…Vansh…” Ritu broke into an uncontrollable paroxysm of sobbing.
“Ritu, are you alright? Ritu…Ritu…calm down.”
“Why, Vansh? Why did you do this to me?”
“Calm down, Ritu.”
A few moments later her sobbing died down.
“Ritu, I met with your parents when you weren’t home and told them about our love for each other. I told you all that in detail, didn’t I? Tell me, what I could have done?”
‘Tell me what I could have done? They threatened to commit suicide. Your mother sprinkled kerosene on her body and stood ready with a match box in her hand.’
‘But we decided to marry even if they didn’t agree.’
‘Over their dead bodies? Are you crazy? They are your parents, Ritu!’
‘So, what do we do now, Vansh?’
Vansh fell silent for long minutes. When he spoke, there was a world of pain and sadness in his trembling voice.
‘We must go our separate ways, dear.’
‘Don’t say that, Vansh. I’ll die.’
‘We can’t build our life on their pyres, can we?’
“We couldn’t have built our life over their pyres, could we, Ritu?”
Ritu didn’t speak for several minutes.
“Ritu, are you there?”
“Yes, Vansh. Where else will I go?” She paused. “You know, my parents realised their mistake after a couple of years?”
“Immediately after we separated, they started looking for alliances for me. I refused to marry. They tried to pressurise me. I warned them that if they continued I would kill myself. Then they stopped. It went on like that for a couple of years. They saw life go out of me. They saw me become a machine. Only then they realised.”
“It is sad.”
“Dad retired from the U.P. State Electricity Board and shifted to Madras. I did teacher’s job for a few years and then started my own school. After realising his mistake, father frantically tried to locate you. He tried for many years. But you vanished without trace.”
“How are your parents?”
“They are no more.”
“I’m really sorry, Ritu.”
“It’s OK. Tell me about you.”
“Me? I left Lucknow within a week and went to my friend’s place in Bombay. Struggled for a couple of months and got into a Sales Representative’s job in a pharmaceutical company; worked for a few years. One thing led to another and I migrated to USA; worked with a friend of mine in his business. Finally, I started the Indian restaurant. Several years later, I added two motels to my business.”
“Your family, your wife and children; how are they?”
“I didn’t marry. It was you or none.”
“But you mentioned your family?”
“That’s my friend’s family; like my own.”
Both fell silent for a couple of minutes.
“You said you are not married. But Deepu…”
“After my parents passed away I was left all alone. Once, I accompanied a friend of mine to an orphanage. Every year, on her birthday, she distributes clothes and sweets to the children. I was moved to tears when I saw the cute tiny tots playing around or sleeping or eating; they had no parents; it was their world. I immediately contacted the Manager and initiated the process for adoption of a child from their orphanage. I especially fell in love with Deepak – he was just over a year – who came running to me and hugged me. He was dodging an attendant as she was giving him some medicine. It took almost a year to complete the formalities and bring Deepu home.” She paused. “He is my life now.”
They spoke for a long time before hanging up reluctantly.
Several months passed. Ritu and Vansh were in constant touch over ’phone and internet. Vansh doted on Deepu. One day Vansh called Ritu.
“Ritu, I’ll be visiting India in a fortnight; will attend an important wedding in Kanpur. From there I’ll come to Chennai. Is it OK with you?”
“Hut pagal. Not just OK, it’s wonderful, Vansh. I’ll come to the airport.”
“Will you bring Deepu also?”
“Of course, Vansh.”
“OK. See you in two weeks.”
“I’ll be waiting for you. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Not on my life; not this time.”
Ritu took Deepak to the visitor’s viewing floor to see the landing of the plane. It was difficult for her to contain him or his enthusiasm or the torrent of his questions. After the plane landed, she brought him to the arrivals gate and waited for Rajvansh to come out.
A quarter of an hour later, the passengers started coming out. Ritu looked carefully for Rajvansh among the sea of faces.
‘Will I recognise him?’ she wondered.
An elderly man of about fifty-five, who was dragging a suitcase, waved at her.
They looked at each other dreamily for long and silent minutes.
“I almost didn’t recognise you. You’ve thinned down very much and have lot of grey hair.”
“But you are the same old Ritu; a little stouter and few strands of grey hair.”
“Deepu, say hello to uncle.”
Vansh looked long and deep into Ritu’s eyes.
There was no stopping their tears that day. There was no stopping their smiles that day.
The call taxi reverberated with child’s prattle as it drove towards Ritu’s home – the rendezvous of Ritu Lakshmi Prasanna Iyer and Rajvansh Bharti.
By Shyam Sundar Bulusu