The Volvo sped through the highway. It was a dark night, only illuminated by two bright headlights. Among the 40 passengers on board, all but one seemed to have fallen asleep. This unsuspecting one, Aan, an introvert in nature but a wanderlust to the heart, was deep in his thoughts. For some time now, he had been terribly lonely. In a city that never sleeps, Mumbai, Aan felt out of place. Everyone seemed to be going somewhere. There was always a rush. Sometimes standing at the crowded twin FOB of Dadar station, Aan wished he could pause the time and chat with the lady passing by who seemed a bit stressed. To ask her about her day. Maybe he could have helped her out. Alas! This wasn’t a world of fantasy. This wasn’t fiction.
The Volvo jerked sideways to avoid the traffic. There was a brush of silky hair against his skin. The girl sitting beside him was deep in sleep. Her head was close to his shoulder as her long hair fell onto his forearm. Aan could not help but feel a bit uncomfortable as her face came too close his shoulder because of the jerking of the bus. He could feel her breath. He tried shifting slightly to create some space between the two of them. But then he feared waking her up and somehow, he did not want that. He just let her be, trying to ignore the awkward closeness.
Aan never came this close to a girl since his last relationship. Arnrita was her name. She was nothing like the stressed-out lady rushing over the Dadar station FOB, who wouldn’t stop once to say hello. Arnrita was the kind who would stop you, for the sake of knowing you, mostly if she is interested in you. But then, after talking to her for 5 minutes, you would love to be stopped by her every day. That is how they met – through a simple chat message to an unknown girl, who immediately caught his attention through her intelligent replies which would break all clichés of introductory chat messages.
There was something soothing to think about Arnrita. Even though she wasn’t with him anymore, Aan would close his eyes every now and then, trying to relive every moment with her. He turned his face towards the window. It looked like a starry sky tonight. He suddenly missed her as he caught a glimpse of the moon – something they used to share when they were miles apart from each other. Aan closed his eyes hoping to relive her once more. Immediately, he was taken back to a train journey. He found himself sitting in a window seat staring outside. The train was traveling through a city, between skyscrapers and slums. The most famous bridge in the world was approaching from the distance. Aan realized where the train was heading to, what was this memory about.
There was a vibration on Aan’s phone. “How far are you?” was the message from Arnrita.
“People are getting ready to get down it seems. Wow! It’s just a matter of moments baby!” replied Aan through text message.
“Can’t wait to meet you again!”
“Yes! You know when I left home for traveling to Kolkata, it was actually quite casual for me. Maybe because you were too good to be true. Maybe because I still did not believe that I have a girlfriend like you. But now that I am inching closer towards you, my excitement level is rising with every minute and distance reduced between us.”
“Me too! Even I was all okay you know since morning! But suddenly I am super excited – like I can’t wait for you to be here!”
“So, what are you wearing? I am trying to imagine you waiting at the station.”
“A black top and blue jeans. But ami khub mota hoe gechi (I have become fat). :( ”
Aan was about to reply when he noticed that there was now a big queue of passengers deboarding the train. While standing in the queue himself, Aan tried to recall their first date. It was more friendly than romantic. She was looking gorgeous in her simplicity, wearing just a gray top and blue jeans. He tried to add up a couple of weights to that Arnrita he could remember, just to make a guess how she might be looking right now. He added a few extra kilos just to be sure.
As the train pulled into Howrah station, Aan thought he caught a glimpse of a girl in a black tee and blue jeans, but she wasn’t fat at all. So, she couldn’t be the one, though Aan. The train came to a halt and Aan got down as soon as the queue before him cleared. He looked to his left and found her. He could not stop smiling as he saw her walking briskly towards him. Her big round glasses which were new this time only made her look cuter. And the thoughts of those extra kilos vanished from his mind. She looked just the same.
Arnrita came up to him with a big smile on her face. “How was the ride?” She asked.
She and her polite formalities. Thought Aan. “Yeah, it was good.”
They started to walk down the platform when Arnrita said, “Can you please meet my mother and grandparents? I told them about you and they are really eager to meet.”
“And what did you tell your father?
“Arrey yaar I really didn’t want to tell him. You know how embarrassing it can be with fathers? My mother is like cool, but she just could not keep from telling –“, and she stopped speaking abruptly. Instead, she was staring down, blushing with a huge smile on her face. It was because Aan had held her hand suddenly. It was the first time they held hands since their relationship began. And their palms were interlocked tightly by their fingers – like two pieces of a Jigsaw puzzle.
The Volvo bus jerked again. The girl beside Aan shifted, turning her face slightly. Aan was finally a bit comfortable with the distance between the two of them. His thoughts were scattered. He closed his eyes and tried to gather them again.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a beautiful palace in the distance. He was sitting in a two-wheeled horse cart, moving towards the palace. His girl was beside her. Both scared and excited at the same time. You could tell from the smile. As they reached the palace and started to walk past the big archway which served as the entrance, the entire place suddenly lit up. The view was amazing as every single design within the architecture shone brightly with the golden aura of the small bulbs. As Aan looked around, trying to capture the beauty of the moment, he was lost in one thing. It was the expression on Arnrita’s brightly lit face.
It was evening and there was a huge crowd. All were mesmerized by the elegance of the Mysore palace. It was the era of smartphones and selfie sticks. Everyone was busy capturing the moment in bytes; but not Arnrita. She simply stood there, ahead of everyone, capturing the moment within her mind. Aan stood behind her. While everyone was enamored by the palace lit with golden lights, Aan was busy capturing Arnrita in his smartphone memory. After a brief moment, they started walking past the garden.
“Wait! Photo time!”
“Uff Aan! Cholo ebar deri hochhe. Ar koto photo tulbe? Hoei to gelo. (How many more photos will you take? What we have is enough.)”
“Yeah. But we don’t have us.”
Aan called out to a man passing by. He seemed to be a fellow tourist in his 50s.
“Sir, can you please take a photo of us?”
Aan stood beside Arnrita with his hand wrapped around her shoulder. The man took his own time to try different angles before clicking the picture.
“Thank you very much!”
As the man handed over the camera, he smiled and said “Well these are the moments you will cherish forever. Enjoy!” And with this, he left. Aan and Arnrita stood there for a moment, checking the photo. It was one of their most beautiful pictures. Because it captured how happy they were, as their smiles told that they are the reason for each other’s happiness.
Suddenly the entire place was filled with darkness as the tiny bulbs which lit the place brightly had switched off.
“What bull!” cried out Arnrita.
Aan reached out into the darkness for her.
“Hold my hand! Or you might be lost.”
The darkness grew stronger but there was no sound of Arnrita. It started to scare Aan. “Arnrita! Arnrita!” The darkness grew too strong and he was blinded completely. He turned his face in all direction. That is when he saw. There was a patch of light in the distance exactly behind him. A group of people was standing there. Arnrita was standing between all of them, feeling distant from everyone, and a bit lost. Someone wrapped his arms around her shoulder, told something to the group, and everyone laughed. It got her attention. She replied something back which made the crowd burst into laughter.
Aan was suddenly at peace, seeing her smiling and enjoying herself like that. Even with all the darkness around him. But he wanted to be a part of her happiness. He started walking towards the patch of light. His legs suddenly got tangled in a few loose papers. He picked them up. It was a newspaper and he could just barely read the headline – “World economy is hit hard! Thousands of jobs at stake!” He couldn’t care. He kept walking towards Arnrita. Suddenly the ground got slippery and he slipped. In front of him was a letter. He tried to read it despite the darkness:
Subject: Termination of Service Notice
With great regret, we have taken a decision to…
Before he could finish the letter, two pairs of legs walked towards him and stood right in front of his face. Aan looked up. It was an old couple, they had pale faces looking into the distance. They seemed familiar. Was it them – Aan and Arnrita? He called out to them asking for help. That is when they turned their face down and look at him. Their smiling faces was too familiar to him. The strangeness of the darkness made it difficult for him to recognize his own parents. While his mother looked as caring as ever, his father extended a hand towards him. Was he offering help or requesting one, Aan could not tell. Before he could hold his hand, the ground beneath him seemed to suddenly vanish and he started to fall into an abyss.
The patch of light with Arnrita, his parents – everything grew distant with every second. Aan waved his hand in the darkness hoping to reach out to her or his parents, somehow. His hands hit something hard in front of him. As he opened his eyes, he noticed that he was holding the back of the seat in front of him in the bus. He was relieved to see that the darkness he saw was only in his dream, rather his nightmare. But then an emptiness sank into him as the dream took him close to the bitter truth of reality.
The bus stopped. This was just for some refreshments. Their destination was still far away. Aan felt like he could do with some fresh air. He got up to get down from the bus. He stole a quick glance at the girl who had been asleep beside him throughout the entire journey. He thought of waking her up if she would like some refreshments. He decided to let the thought go.
The sky was dark decorated by millions of stars. The wind was strong and cold. Aan decided to get a coffee for himself to keep himself warm and awake. After the last nightmare, falling asleep and reliving old memories was definitely not a good idea. But he was amused how strong some memories can be. They are the oldest form of time machines – carrying you back and making you feel exactly the way you felt at that moment. One might call it time traveling, but Aan preferred to call it “wanderlusting through time”. He sipped some coffee from his cup and walked towards the edge of the road. It was basically the edge of a cliff. Standing there one could enjoy the brightly lit city down below.
The scenery helped him soothe his mind. He was amused to see how the horizon between the sky and land vanished through the darkness. As he looked up, he suddenly got a glimpse of a shooting star. Aan didn’t believe in superstition. So, he simply closed his eyes, not to make a wish, but to relive one last memory. Maybe it was finally time to let go.
Aan was taken back to Marine drive. He still remembered the time. It was 3 AM in the morning. His bike and Arnrita were the only other ones there. They both sat silently on the concrete wall facing the sea. The waves crashed upon the rocks, as if trying desperately to reach them but failed with each try. Aan decided to break the silence between them.
She didn’t respond. She kept staring into the distance.
“Arnrita. Hey. What’s up? What are you thinking?”
She looked at him. With a cold stare, she replied, “I came to spend some time with myself. I needed some distance. But you still had to follow me here.”
“I want to help. With whatever you are going through.”
“Yes. Just let me be. I will be fine.”
Aan knew it would be difficult to reach her now. If he knew her at all, he would know that she was confused. Thoughts are like muddy water. The more you shake it, murkier it gets. He knew he had to give her some time to settle her thoughts. But as he looked at her, her eyes spoke of sadness. She is desperately trying to reach somewhere but she is unable to. And that pained him. He had made a promise to himself to always keep her happy. But this time, he failed. He opened his mouth to speak. But stopped himself. He knew he would only make things worse. He also could not leave her alone there. Nobody deserved to be alone. So, he got down from the concrete and walked a few distances away from her and sat alone, staring into the violent Arabian sea.
He thought about all the good times Arnrita and he shared. But lately, he had been distant from her. She never complained. That actually helped him swim through those tough waters in his life and be a survivor. But maybe, if she had complained, things might have been better now between them and the distance might not have existed. He knew it was not her fault. She was just trying to help him by not complaining and keeping her insecurities to herself. She did not want to be a burden on him at difficult times. It was nobody’s fault. You cannot also really blame the circumstances even. Shit always happens. And nobody can predict the future no matter how well you plan. Shit always happens. It is how you deal with the consequences will define how your life will be.
Aan was lost in his thoughts when he felt an arm slip under his. It was her. She rested her head on his shoulder. As the winds blew her open hair, strands of her hair brushed against Aan’s face.
“Arnrita….”, he began whispering.
“Ssshhh. Let me rest a while. I am so tired.”
They sat quietly for who knows how long. There was a police siren in the distance.
“Come. Let’s go now. It’s very late.”
They started walking towards the bike.
“Hey baby, I am sorry for everything.”
Arnrita was still silent. She just kept her arm wrapped inside his, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I wish I could turn back time so that we had more time than we got.”
She touched his cheek with her palm and brushed his hair. Something she always did when she wanted to show that she cared. Aan closed his eyes to shut all other senses, in order to feel that one touch, and remember.
When he opened his eyes, he was still standing by the cliff side. His coffee had grown cold since he forgot to sip it while being lost in thought. Dropping the cup at a dustbin, he went to the washroom to freshen up. As he washed his face and stared into the mirror, he was taken aback by the stranger staring back at him. It seemed straight out of a horror movie, where the mirror reflects someone else! But was it someone else? He was scared but he wanted to know. He stared closely at the reflection. It was remarkable, it was Aan’s younger self, staring back at him. He could not believe it. Was he dreaming again? He pinched himself. He did feel the pain and the reflection was still there, mimicking his actions. He thought he might be hallucinating. He searched for his smartphone. But when he felt through his pockets, all he found was an antique Nokia 1100.
What the hell was going on! Wait! Was it the star? Or am I just going insane?
The bus outside honked. Yes! The bus! So, it is still the same. Maybe this was just a weird happening which couldn’t be explained.
He rushed back into the bus and back to his seat. It was still vacant. It had to be! It is my seat after all! There! The girl in seat number 34 is still sleeping!
He sat and looked around him. The crowd seemed different. Even the bus looked different. Rather, it looked outdated. Was he on the wrong bus? But it was too late. The bus had already started. His adrenaline increased with every minute as he tried to figure what was happening?
The bus hit a pothole and jerked violently. Not a Volvo definitely!
And then he heard it:
“What bull! Arrey these people can’t even drive properly!”
Aan turned his face to look at her. He had seen her pictures when she was younger. The similarities were uncanny!
She turned to look at him with suspicion. You can tell that she was a bit shocked.
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
He smiled. Wanderlusting through time.