He has changed.
Will everything be different now?
She mentally cursed herself for thinking those words. That was undoubtedly the most selfish thought that had ever crossed her mind. Of course, he had changed! It would have been extremely unsurprising if he hadn’t. He had spent the last whole year fighting for the country. She couldn’t expect him to return as the same happy-go-lucky young guy whom she fallen for. He had witnessed incidents that traumatized people for life. He had watched the people he loved, his own friends, take their last breaths. He had spent one whole agonizing year without his family, not knowing whether he would ever see them again.
How could she expect him to stay the same after all of that? She needed to stop being so self-centred. In no way was she behaving like the fiancee of an army man. Here he was sacrificing his life for the country and all she could think about was the impact it would have on their love life. Selfish, selfish, selfish!
She was still cursing herself as she joined the welcoming crowd. He was surrounded by their family and friends, laughing and crying in his arms. She marvelled the way he tolerated all the public display of affection so amicably; a trait which she deeply envied. Plus he seemed completely at ease amongst the melodramatic gang. But then again, when had he ever been ill at ease? He was always the charming, talkative guy; the one whom people easily gravitated towards; the life of the party. He was the one who could comfort anyone and everyone. He was their depression therapy, their stress-buster. She stared at him with a sudden pang in her heart. What on earth had she been worrying about? She had got more than she had ever wished for, more than she deserved.
His eyes scanned the crowd briefly and stopped at her. His lips turned up into the kind of smile which brightened up his entire face. The smile which he had always reserved for her. And all the doubts in her mind were just washed away. He was here. In front of her. They were together. Finally.
And nothing else seemed to matter.
Or did it?
Throughout the journey and even after reaching home, she barely got a chance to interact with him. This was one of the few disadvantages of living in a joint family. There was almost too much love to share. Everyone was so delighted to have their brave son back home that they all wanted to be with him. Her parents were behaving as if he was their own son. She had always loved the way he had blended effortlessly into her family. Her parents trusted him completely. So much so that she sometimes had to wonder which of them was their own child. But right now, she wished everyone could just love him a little less. After all, she too was meeting her fiancee after one whole year. She deserved some alone time with him.
She didn’t take her eyes off him throughout lunch. She wanted to soak up every single bit of him, now that he was here. And that was when she started noticing stuff. They were just little things, things no one could really point their finger on. But she had always been more of a listener and so she noticed stuff that other people didn’t. Especially about him.
She could see how he skillfully changed the topic every time someone asked him about his days at the border. He had an unfathomable expression on his face, every time someone praised him about his bravery or gushed about how proud they were to have him in the family. His lips were pulled up into an appropriate curve but the spark in his eyes was missing. He laughed at their jokes but she could spot the pain in his soft voice. He was doing everything right, there was nothing out of the textbook. But it wasn’t real. He was acting. And he was doing it well. Her trail of thoughts was distracted as his eyes bore into hers. She forced herself to paste a smile on her face, the way she had been doing throughout the day. Yes, he was acting. And she was the only one who had noticed this.
But then again, it takes one to know one, doesn’t it?
He was standing in the enormous terrace with his back facing her. She wondered what he was doing up here alone, instead of joining in their traditional routine of post-dinner chitchat. That had always been one of his favourite traditions. Even before their engagement, when he used to come over for dinner at her house, he would stay till late talking and laughing with her family. Even after she got bored with all the gossip and went upstairs to sleep, he would still be down talking to them. It took her a while to realize that he wasn’t just doing this to impress her. He genuinely enjoyed being a part of her family and that was one of the best compliments for her.
She walked up to the railing and placed her hand on top of his. He looked up with a startled expression, like she had disturbed him from some deep thought. When he saw it was her, he relaxed and weaved his fingers through hers. “Hi,” she whispered, staring into his eyes unblinkingly. He lifted their interwined hands and gently brushed his lips against her fingers. “Hi,” he whispered back.
And they just stood there in the moonlight, holding hands, looking out at the sky, not finding it necessary to fill the silence.
He was the one who spoke first. “How’s the job going?” She scoffed without meaning to. Out of all the things in the world, he had chosen to talk about her 4 into 4 metres cubicle life.
“It’s going,” she replied, grinning at him.
He smiled back apologetically. “I’m sorry. It’s just I am seeing you after such a long time and there’s so much that I want to say. I don’t even know where to begin.”
She turned sideways to face him. She lifted her hand and gently caressed his cheek, brushing her fingers tenderly against the scar on his jawline. “You can start by telling me how you got that.” He winced slightly, not attempting to compose his expression like he had been doing all day long. She knew him well enough to understand that it was not the physical pain that was bothering him. This was the same guy who sauntered around in the garden with three fractures. “Does it hurt?” she asked softly. He paused before answering, knowing what she meant.
“Sometimes.” He shifted his eyes from her to look at the dark sky. A slight smile spread across his lips. “But for the most part, it feels great.” She waited for him to continue. “Do you remember our old neighbour Mrs. Chatterjee? She was one of the greatest story-tellers I have ever met.” She nodded, wondering where this was going. “She had Alzheimers’. Her memory was slowly fading away. I had overheard her talking to my grandmother about it. She was saying that the worst part wasn’t being ill or helpless. The worst part was that she was slowly starting to lose herself. She could no longer remember the most important parts of her life, her smiles, her tears, her pain….everything that made her who she is. Her memories. And when I told you that, you said that we should help her remember.”
She smiled at the memory of her 10 year old naïve nature. His hold against her fingers tightened as he continued.
“And so while everyone else spent her last days in gloom, crying about losing her and wondering what such a loving lady had done to deserve such fate, you took me to her house everyday with a photo album. You would sit with her and tell her stories about her own self, about us, our families. You would narrate the stories she used to tell us when we were kids. Inspite of the fact that she never remembered the stories on the next day, you never repeated them. She had eventually forgotten us but you continued with your daily routine. She didn’t even remember your name but she would smile every time you came over.”
She listened to him in amazement. She had never known that he remembered every detail about their childhood together.
He continued, with his lips turning up into a smile. “My grandmother once told you gently that Mrs. Chatterjee’s condition wasn’t something that could be cured. She had only got a few days left. No matter how hard we tried, we would never be able change this fact. And you simply told her that you weren’t trying to change anything. You were merely doing your own part in making a difference. No matter what the outcome was, you would keep trying till the very end.” He turned to smile at her shocked expression. “That was the moment when I fell for you. I gave my heart away when I was just ten years old. And that was the first thing I remembered when I was fighting. That no matter what the outcome was, no matter how much it hurt, this is my country I am fighting for. I didn’t care about what happened to me, I was merely doing my own part.”
She didn’t realize she had been crying until he bent down to kiss her tears away. “It’s the most beautiful feeling, you know? Devoting every part of your mind and soul for something. Fighting for it, defending it, feeling fiercely protective about it. Knowing that you are so deeply in now, that’s there no way out of here. This is your life now. This is a part of you.” His eyes were shining as he turned to look at her. “Have you ever felt that? Loving something so much that no matter what happens, no matter how much it hurts, or what you will lose in the process, you can never fall out of love with it.”
She stared at the person in front of her. The five year old boy who had introduced himself as her new neighbour. The little boy who had filled her silence with nonstop chatter. The boy who had listened to her stories over and over again. The boy who had accompanied her when she had been doing ‘her part.’ And now the person whom she was going to accompany for the rest of their life, while he did his part.
He was right. Once you fall in love with someone, the reasons why you fall for them do not matter anymore. It doesn’t matter how much the person changes or whether he stays just the same. It doesn’t matter that you have to survive everyday not knowing whether your last time together would be your last time ever. It doesn’t matter that one day, just one bullet, one wound would be enough for fate to snatch that person away from you. You chose to love them, you chose to walk on a path where the only way to go is straight ahead. Once you love someone with your entire heart and soul, there’s no way to stop. Once you’re in, you’re in forever.
And so she smiled through her tears at the little boy with the bright smile and the scarred man with his eyes full of passion, knowing that she would never want anything more.
He will be even more different the next time.
And I will fall in love with him all over again.