She walked up the stage and took her place at the podium. She looked at the captivated audience in front of her and smiled. “I know that you all expect me to read a paragraph from my book and get this over with.” There was appreciative laughter at her dialogue. “But that’s not what I am going to do. Today, I’m not here to simply promote my book. I’m not here just to pick out the best paragraph from my novel and narrate it. I’m not here just to make you believe that this book deserves being a bestseller. I am going to do this a bit differently. Today, I’m going to tell you a story.”
TEN YEARS AGO
She was being unrealistic.
She repeated the sentence over and over again, hoping it would sink in at some point. She blamed all the mushy Bollywood movies and fairy tales for her current state. Hans Christian Anderson and Yash Chopra had collectively ruined her life. She had started longing for her own soulmate now; the kind of guy who would just sweep her off her feet and nothing would be the same anymore. Every love story has its own unique beginning. Hers was the notification symbol blinking against the cell phone screen. Yes, he had accepted her friend request.
So what? We have so many mutual friends. Almost everyone accepts requests based on mutual friends nowadays. He probably doesn’t even remember me. Why would he? We live in two completely different worlds now.
She looked at his display picture grinning in front of her eyes and shook her head slightly. They went to the same high school. They were in the same class. And yet they couldn’t have been more apart from each other. People simply assumed that school days were the times when everyone was friends with each other. The entire school was one big happy family. Her mother would randomly refer to people in her school as ‘your friend so-and-so’ and she would remain silent, not bothering to clarify. High school was a place full of cliques and each clique was a small world within itself. And of course, in the typical cliché way, she had fallen for the ring-leader of the popular crowd.
She watched him enter the classroom and greet everyone heartily like always. He walked through the row of benches, chatting and laughing with everyone in his way. His eyes flitted across the classroom and stopped at her. That one glance was enough to set her heart thudding hard against its rib-cage. And that was it. Even before she had managed to gain a control over herself, he had joined his gang and become the centre of their attention. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the cool wall. It was so unfair that a look which could affect one person so much meant nothing to the other one. Unrequited love had been very smartly named as a crush. The term almost made her laugh. It suited everything so perfectly. He crushed her heart, everytime she looked at him. And being the masochist that she was, she fell for him all over again.
They used to be best friends. She wondered if he even remembered that. The teacher had assigned him a seat next to hers in fifth grade. Technically it was only 5 years ago but in a world where people changed their personalities day by day, it seemed like another era altogether. She clearly remembered how he had turned to smile at her and had said,” It’s going to be a fun year.”
And he couldn’t have been more right. It was one of the most memorable times of her life. It was the time when she spent every single moment of the day with him; be it cycling to school together, playing in the recess, going to drawing class, sipping chocolate milkshakes in the evenings. He was her best friend, her first priority.
She had known and still remembered those little details about him. As she looked at him laughing in the corner with his arm resting casually on the shoulder of one of the girls, she wondered whether he still buttered his bread on both sides while making a sandwich. She wondered if he still listened to that old romantic Hindi songs cd which he would stuff into his wadrobe everytime his friends came over; if he still secretly preferred long walks to video games, if he still wore mismatched socks to exams because he believed it was lucky for him, if he still spent Thursday evenings with his grandmother and missed cricket practice. She must have been staring too obviously cause he looked into her eyes once again, this time to hold her gaze. She stared at him magnified, her lips letting out a small sigh. She looked at him at wondered, if even after all these years, she still stood a chance with him.
“I thought we were supposed to be doing the assignment together, not logging on Facebook.” She ignored her best friend’s words as she scrolled through the chat list. There was that green signal flashing against his name. She clicked on his name and waited for the chat window to open. Taking a deep breath, she typed ‘hi.’
“Are you even listening to me?” Her friend slid on the chair next to her and peeped at the screen. “Ooooh it’s Mister Soulmate huh? Does he remember you exist?” She sighed impatiently, without looking away from the screen. “Sometimes I think you know too much about my life, Pri.” Her best friend laughed, gazing at the screen along with her, and suddenly let out a squeal. “OMG he’s typing!”
“I can see that.” Inwardly, she wanted to scream even louder than Priya but she controlled herself. It’s just chatting. Calm down.
Him : Hey
Her : What’s up?
Him : Geometry assignment. What about you?
“That’s what we are supposed to be doing too,” Priya sighed.
Her : I’m watching a movie.
Him : Cool which one?
Her : Skyfall
Priya snorted. “Seriously?” She nodded. “Shut up. It’s his favourite.”
Him : Wow I didn’t know you are a fan of action movies.
Her : There’s a lot you don’t know about me.
“Aren’t you being a bit too obvious?”
“I have been crushing on him since forever and he hasn’t even noticed. Obvious is the only way to go.”
Him : Maybe because you have never given me a chance to find out.
“Is he actually flirting back?” Priya asked in shock.
She herself was too stunned by his response to get insulted by Priya’s obvious disbelief.
Her : Maybe because I didn’t think you wanted a chance.
Him : It’s time for everyone to stop assuming they know what I want.
She stared at the screen, speechless for a moment. She hadn’t expected such a deep response.
Him : I’m sorry. That was a little over dramatic.
Her : You don’t have to say sorry. That’s life. It tends to be over dramatic.
Him : Your life looks remarkably peaceful though.
Her : The grass is always greener on the other side.
Him : Hmm..I guess no one is as carefree as they seem huh?
Her : Nothing’s too depressing that can’t be fixed with strawberry jam, right?
Him : What?
Her : Nothing, forget it.
Him : No I want to know.
Her : It’s just….a really long time ago.
Him : I used to say that. I can’t believe you remember.
Her : I do.
She tapped her feet against the ground at looked at her phone screen impatiently. It had been two whole minutes since she had sent the message.
Him : Hey I’m sorry I have to go. It has been fun catching up with you.
She stared at the screen blankly, unable to think of a response. This was it? This was his reaction to the fact that she remembered little details about him. Priya peered into the screen above her shoulder. “Fun catching up? That’s really formal. What did you do?”
“Nothing!” she protested. Priya scrolled up and read the previous messages.
“Uhhh dude stalk much? Stop being so desperate!”
“I love him Pri! If that makes him desperate, so be it.” Priya raised an eyebrow at her best friend.
“Babe you two hardly interact with each other. This can’t be love.”
“I can’t get him out of my mind. It’s been five years and I still can’t move on. If this isn’t love, then what is it?”
Priya just looked at her wordlessly. She sighed and looked at the feeble goodbye she had typed in reply. It was a messed-up world.
She was making a mistake. Everyday she repeated those words to herself but they refused to sink into her head. Just one look at him and all her firm resolves crumbled. It had all started on the day after their first online conversation. He had sauntered into the classroom in his usual style. She had been looking at him from the corner of her eye, in her usual style. But this time when their eyes met, he had actually smiled at her. A real smile with his eyes crinkling up at the corners and that dimple popping in his left cheek. She had been too stunned to react but managed to pull her lips up in what she hoped to be a decent smile.
They started chatting often after that. Their conversations were about anything and everything. From mundane topics like their daily schedule and school to deep ones like secret ambitions and the purpose of their lives. Facebook and texting was converted to conversations at school. If their classmates noticed anything unusual, then they didn’t bother to gossip. Or maybe she wasn’t accessible to the popular gang’s gossip. Even if they did talk about her, she didn’t care. She got to be with him and that was all that mattered.
Winter vacations were going on. She would have eagerly welcomed the break if it did not mean not seeing him everyday. She willed herself to not check her phone and see if he had replied. It had been three days since their last conversation. She hated that she was constantly checking his ‘last seen at’ and yes, he had logged in just five minute ago. Yet she couldn’t stop herself. This sinking feeling to find absolutely no communication from him was becoming unbearable, almost torturous. And then, just as she sat down in her chair, her phone vibrated. With her heart thudding in her ear, she unlocked her phone and stared at the screen. Finally! It was his message. But when she opened it and read it, she nearly stopped breathing. She didn’t know if he was joking or not. What was this?
Him : I am moving to the States tomorrow.
This was not possible. He couldn’t suddenly move to another freaking continent. They had just become friends. There was still such a long way to go. She hadn’t even got a chance to tell him how she felt about him yet. Their story couldn’t end even before it had begun.
Her fingers trembled as she hurriedly dialed his number. He picked up at the first ring. “Hello.” Even without seeing his expression, she could feel his anguish. It must be so hard to suddenly leave your entire life, your school, your friends behind. Even for someone as outgoing as him, leaving your entire life behind couldn’t be easy.
“I need to meet you,” she whispered, trying not to let the pain slip into her voice.
“I can’t.” His voice broke at the last word. “My parents are making me pack up. It’s been so crazy. Dad suddenly got a huge offer which is supposed to be a really big deal. We are moving tomorrow, can you believe that? Moving to a whole new country! I am supposed to leave everything behind. I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to everybody. I have been fighting with my parents all day long. And now I’m tired….I’m just so tired of everything.” She felt tears stream down her cheeks as she listened to him break down.
“I don’t care I’m coming. I need to meet you.” She didn’t bother to hide her sobs this time. She looked at the clock against her wall. It was already late. She knew her parents well enough to guess that she wouldn’t be allowed out of the house at this time. She scrutinized her window, wondering if she could slide out between the grills and climb down the pipe. Wow, she really had been watching too many romcoms!
“You can’t come to my house at this time. It’s too late.” He interrupted her trail of thoughts. She sighed. Of course. Always the gentleman! “I have got an early morning flight tomorrow. Do you think you can come then?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Anytime! I will be there!”
“You don’t understand! You have to let me go!” She was well aware that she was screaming on top of her lungs. Her first grand sneak out and she had got caught. Why didn’t she remember that this was the time her father did yoga? “It’s 5 o’ clock in the morning! You can’t roam on the streets alone at this time!” her father reprimanded sternly. “I am not roaming alone. Aarush is going to be there with me.”
“Oh wow so you are going to be roaming with a strange guy? That makes it so much better!” her father said, sarcastically.
“Don’t you get it? He’s leaving! He won’t be coming back! This is my very last chance.” She was crying out hysterically now.
“That doesn’t mean you go out to meet him now. Talk to him on the phone later. And stop screaming just because you don’t get to meet a friend.”
“He is NOT a friend! I love him, okay? I am in love with him!” This earned her a slap against her cheek.
“Have you lost your mind? This is not the age to think about such things. You are supposed to be focussing on your board exams right now. Some random boy cannot brainwash your mind and ruin all your chances of getting into a good college. It is a good thing that he’s leaving. You can forget about him now and focus on your studies.”
She sank down on the floor, in a bundle of sobs. Her hands were clutching a crumbled note, pouring out her feelings for him. The note she had meant to give him today. The note with a ‘I love you’ written in bold. But this was it. It was over before it had begun. It was too late.
She looked at the audience in front of her, who were staring at her with bated breath. “I know what you all are thinking. You are waiting for the happy-ending. You are waiting for an ending where he comes back after all these years and we end up together. An ending where he realizes that he loves me too and we make things work. But I’m sorry that’s not how this story ends. I was right when I said it was over. It was too late. We spoke online for a few times, a few phone calls but that was it. It was pretty clear that he was going to settle down there and I was continuing with my education in India. We lost touch. I don’t know where he is anymore. I never searched for him. He never found out how I felt about him.”
She scanned the crowd in the front of her and smiled at their confused expressions. “I can understand what’s going on in your mind. You must be thinking this is a stupid story if the hero and heroine don’t end up together. But that’s not true, you know? Love doesn’t always mean two people who end up together. Love doesn’t always symbolize a perfect ending. Love is reality. Sometimes it hurts, it wounds you, it causes you pain but throughout the journey it makes you learn. I learnt not to wait around for things to happen. I learnt not to be afraid of saying what’s on my mind. I learnt how to open myself up to people. I learnt how to love unconditionally, with my entire heart and soul. I learnt that the only risks are the chances which you don’t take.”
Her eyes stopped at a person in the crowd and her smile widened. “I found true love after all. I learnt that in spite of how much it hurt the first time, I was willing to give love a second chance. And that’s how I met my amazing husband Gaurav who has encouraged my immensly throughout my journey of writing this book.” She took a deep breath and continued. “So this book isn’t about a perfect fairy-tale couple. It isn’t about two epic lovers. It is a book about reality. It is a book about life. Life, which isn’t always fair. Life, which doesn’t always have happy endings. Life, which often causes you agony, which often makes you want to die, which often makes you want to end everything for once and for all. It is a book which will tell you that no matter how unbearable life gets, you still have a reason to hold on.
She was engrossed in the thunderous applause to notice the man in the last row stand up slowly. He had a content smile of his face. The same smile which crinkled at this eyes, causing a dimple to pop out of his left cheek. He watched her husband run up to the stage and embrace her proudly. He watched her smile in her husband’s arms and then look at the crowd with a satisfied smile. He watched her eyes flicker to the poster of her hugely successful novel. His hand slid to his pocket from where he pulled out an old crumpled note.
A note which said ‘I love you’ in bold. A note which he had meant to give her during their last meeting. A note which told her how he had fallen for the shy, sweet girl right from the moment their teacher assigned their seats together. A note which confessed how he could easily talk to everyone but talking with her always made him nervous. A note which described how excited he had got when she had remembered every little detail about their time together. He folded the note and placed it back. He watched her laugh freely and walked towards the door. She had described everything about love so perfectly but she had missed out one important point. He turned for the last time and felt content as he looked at her happy expression. Love teaches you to be strong enough to let go.