Rishaav kept getting roped into attending his school reunion parties every year, in spite of not liking them much. They were the same boring re-runs identical to each other, with a bunch of middle-aged men and women forcibly trying to pull out old stories from their stash of fading memories. The more they forgot the actual facts, the further grew the heights of the fictitious addendums, to color the stories, just to make them narration worthy, fetching a few more belly laughs. It was an impossibly useless endeavor, one that held no charm for Rishaav.
But his neighbor and long-time school friend Akash always discovered a way to arm-twist him into saying yes. He understood Akash’s interest. He was the caterer of the food on all big school occasions—Sports day, foundation day, teacher’s day, even the annual school picnic. Though now he was a famous restaurateur in Kolkata, his profile featured in food magazines and blogs, he still provided catering for his school, that too at a discounted rate, for he liked being around people he grew up with. Rishaav looked at Akash flaunting his latest gem studded gold ring and an easy smile spread on his face accentuating the crow’s feet that was deepening with every passing year.
He is such a proud fool, thought Rishaav. But he liked him, for his big heart, for his loyalty towards the institution that gave him his first friends. Growing up, Akash was shorter than others in his class. He had a pinched face and always wore clothes too big for his thin torso. Now he had filled up, looked almost chubby. In spite of all the physical changes, one of his qualities remained the same. He could make friends fast both then and now.
But Rishaav was still the more popular boy in school. He was one of the all-rounders. Excellent in academics, tall and well-built at the age of fifteen, while others were gangly and awkward, eloquent and smooth, while others stuttered in front of girls. Yet, he could not tell the one girl he fancied, how much he was in love with her. That was years ago. It was she who had finally divulged her fondness for him and not the other way around. They saw each other for a year. Archies greetings cards were exchanged; Cadbury chocolates were gifted to each other on Valentine’s day and phone bills shot up in both households.
And one fine day it was over. She had cried and told him that they could not see each other anymore. Why he had asked crestfallen and she had said blandly that because her mother thought that she was too young. She had added with a sigh, and also because Bengali and Marwari cultures don’t gel.
Don’t gel, what do you mean? Are we ponds and nivea cream that we have to gel together! he had quipped a tad angrily, encouraging another bout of sniveling from her. It was that undecided, confusing age when you are in the last few years of school, when events just happen and you have no control over them. So, just like that, their mutual love disappeared one fine day, pointlessly. Rishaav shook his head. Perhaps it was the familiarity of being back in the school premises that brought back memories of incidents he didn’t think he would retain.
His father engaged him in his family business right after he completed his B.Com education. He grew their garment business with care and in a decade’s time, Somani and Sons had become a popular chain of garments in Kolkata and parts of Bihar and Orissa. He fared well as a business man and made a mark for himself. He was fortunate to marry well. His wife was sensible and practical, even took an active interest in his career and business. He had a grown-up daughter on the verge of joining his business and a teenage son who believed that he was a budding artist. He was an indulgent father, not believing in unnecessarily controlling his children.
His parents were elderly and frail. They were in and out of hospitals as is normal after a certain age but Rishaav kept their spirits up by promising them a bigger and more colorful Mata Jagraan at home each year. They all lived together in a big house in Salt Lake. He had been leading a busy and full life and had certainly nothing to complain about. Yet he wished that there was more to his life than the daily routine, the quiet march towards completing all that was expected from him towards a content senectitude.
Rishaav nodded his head to shake off his jumbled thoughts and headed towards the coffee stand. He had no wish to stay for the entire evening and was looking for an opportunity to leave. The early December evening held a crisp coolness in it, unlike the rest of the year when the air was heavy with steamy moisture. He took a sip of the expresso coffee and savored the taste of bitter sweetness the beverage offered. He closed his eyes for a moment to take a few deep breaths of cool air. As he opened his eyes, his gaze fell on a blue saree. His eyelids that generally hanged at half mast, giving him a sleepy look, opened wide for a change. He felt alert, his heart beat picking up randomly.
There she was, which was truly unbelievable. Just a moment ago, he was thinking of her. She did not seem to have accumulated much years on her, though she appeared frumpier than before, fuller around the hips. Her once angular face looked fleshier, but her laugh seemed the same. Tinkling, high pitched and unrestrained. Seeing Sanchita like this filled him with a hope. This was a sign, a sign that life was more than what one grows to accept just because it promises equilibrium. That life can be much more than the usual jumping through the hoops, following the rules, being the reliable and perfect human being.
He almost dropped his cup of coffee, overwhelmed with the wave of emotions taking over his rationality. Just about then Akash floated towards him with a flock of talkative men. “Hey there you are, see who are here to see you, the batch of boys a year junior to us.”
Rishaav hesitantly turned his attention to Akash, whose voice seemed too loud and cheerful. “Meet the star,” he said with an air of drama. “Says a star himself!” teased Rishaav. In school when someone earns the status of a celebrity, it’s difficult to lose it easily even after many years. Rishaav was considered a big-shot and that reputation was difficult to shake off. No wonder his juniors were curious about him. He tried being polite to them and answered their questions patiently, but he could not focus for long. How could he? He had seen her after such a long time.
He excused himself and went looking for her. There was an amusement show going on in the main hall. Some kind of music recital. It was so crowded. Did so many people come every year, wondered Rishaav. He never noticed such a big gathering before. He drained his cup of coffee that was suddenly tasting stale and threw the paper cup in the trash with an energy he had not felt sweep him for a while now. There she was standing near the podium. She was chatting animatedly. He thought he would never see her again. But there she was, right in front of him.
He had looked for her everywhere. Alumni list, Facebook, LinkedIn, even googled her up randomly but she did not show up anywhere. He had asked friends about her. They had no clue where she was. Where had she been hiding all these years, he wondered. He went to ask Akash about it. He might know something about it. He was a repository of a bizarre amount of information, much of which he had no use for.
“Sanchita is here? Where?” said Akash, surprised and keen to help him. “I don’t remember seeing her on the list of names attending today. Someone will know. Let me ask around…”
“No, it’s fine. I said that I saw her.”
“Okay well, then she is here,” said Akash looking confused. “Go talk to her! What are you waiting for?”
“I don’t know. It’s been such a long time. Will she recognize me?” Rishaav suddenly felt self-conscious.
Akash shot him a knowing wink. “You are fifty, old man, the perfect age when men slip, so be careful my dear friend.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Rishaav shook his head infuriated.
Akash rolled his eyes and walked away.
This was such an unusual situation. Rishaav was wondering what to do next, when she turned and their eyes met. Recognition changed her smiling face into a blank one. She was trying to decide whether it was really him, guessed Rishaav, with a sigh of relief. He gave her a little smile but she did not return it. As she was deciding her next move, dinner was announced and the crowd started moving towards the food queue. She followed her companions to the dinner hall, much to his disappointment.
He followed her from a distance. How could she still look so young after so many years? Some women don’t age, he thought dipping the flat bread in his paneer curry. She was eating with her friends a few tables away. She threw him surreptitious glances now and then, as he ate alone silently. Why did he want to meet her again at this age? What could this mean, really? He smiled to himself as he realized that he was unnecessarily over-thinking it. After dinner, he would most probably say bye to his friends and leave for home, the evening forgotten, behind him. So, if he was allowing himself to think about Sanchita for some time, why should he feel bad about it?
A rock band started playing soon after, summoning everyone to the dance floor. He should have left by now, but this particular evening held him back. He still had not gathered the courage to talk to Sanchita but who knew what the night would rake in? He felt a strange sense of euphoria today, one that he had not felt in a long time. Sanchita was looking at him again, with a hint of an unsure smile on her lips. He knew that she recognized him and that made his heart sing a happy tune. Will they talk again? Will they meet again? Was she in Kolkata presently? The prospect of meeting her after so many years filled him with an inexplicable joy.
As the band started belting out joyful numbers, and people started dancing, Rishaav allowed himself to wrap his mind in licentious dreams for a while. He closed his eyes and started swaying to the music. He would meet her in a coffee shop, they would start talking again, he would touch her hand and she would draw her hands away and then ease up to him, even caress his hands. He started seeing her lips, touching them and his breathing grew uneven. He twirled around in his imaginary bubble of wantonness for what seemed like an eternity. Why was he being so juvenile?
He saw her coming his way. She walked slowly to him, leaving her companions behind, with a mild smile on her face. As she came nearer, Rishaav started noticing what he could not observe from far. She did look different now. The nearer she came, the more he realized that. He did not trust himself to talk so he kept quiet.
“You are Rishaav Somani, right?” Her voice sounded all wrong. It did not sound like her at all.
“Yes, I am Rishaav.”
“Oh my God! You are the same Rishaav my sister used to talk about. I am Sarbani, Sanchita’s sister.”
Now it was Rishaav’s turn to stare at her.
“You are not supposed to remember me, I am five years her junior. My sister was so absolutely crazy about you. She would have been rather happy to see you.” Sarbani did not wait to see Rishaav’s reaction. “Wait, I will show you didi’s picture.
She scrolled through her smart phone and the screen lit up framing her face with a soft glow. “Here is didi. She is in Canada now. I will tell her the next time we talk that I met you.” She held out the phone screen for him to see and Rishaav squinted his eyes to focus. A bloated woman stared back at him, her features swollen and hazy. Grey covered her temples. She looked like an old woman, out of focus and frayed.
Rishaav talked to Sarbani for a while. She said bye after sometime and started walking back to her friends. She looked back and smiled one last time. “It was good to see you here at the reunion Rishaav da.”