Three months is equal to 92 days. It is a long period to spend waiting at the exit of a metro station, with a bouquet of red roses in hand and a silent appeal in the eyes. Each day was a fresh reminder of past rejections. Hope, in those days, was just a passing emotion that I momentarily experienced around 6.30 in the evening on week days.
I am not new to rejections. It is such a natural part of my life that I now look upon acceptance with great suspicion. No one says ‘yes’ these days without a motive of self-interest. The first time I knew rejection was when my mother left me for reasons that I still don’t know. I have my own theories about it, which I keep changing to insulate myself from the feeling of hurt it brings every time I think of her. It is so long now that I can barely recall the actual day of her disappearance and the immediate emotion it evoked in me. I am not sure if I was shocked, sad or scared. I must have cried then. I must have felt betrayed. It’s an old pain that now surfaces only occasionally.
I haven’t met my father, which thankfully spares me the ordeal of seeking reasons for his rejection. To me, he didn’t exist. He was merely a cause for my birth, ‘a disgraceful way to be born’, in my mother’s words. Every time I asked my mother about him in the years before she disappeared, she would threaten to sell me to the kabbadiwala if I ever spoke about him. The horrible prospect of ending up in the kabbadiwala’s sack that I was certain was infested with cockroaches stopped me from asking anything more about my father.
Ask me my age, and I will not be able to tell. Age is an account of life for people who celebrate birthdays. And I have never celebrated one. I am not exceptionally good looking either. Beauty thrives on women who nourish it with powder and lipstick. I have a lasting grouse against my mother for not bequeathing her good looks to me. Every time I look in the mirror, I feel disappointed that the man she allowed to father me has left behind his traces of uncouthness on me. Nevertheless, at some point, I realised that I was worthy of being ogled at, at least by idlers hanging around the place. Although the lechery in their eyes used to make me cringe, it also made me feel like a woman of some desirable beauty. It isn’t a comfortable feeling entirely, but I have now learned to deal with it internally. I have steeled up to the depravity of the malevolent male gaze.
It was when my life was waltzing between everyday rejections by the decent people I approached and gawking by the lewd men I shunned that he entered my life. What it was that made me take notice of him amidst the scores of people I see every day, I don’t know. It would be ridiculous to claim that I fell in love with him instantly. Women like me cannot fall in love with men like him. At the most, we can stand and stare, imagining life and love in the arms of handsome men like him.
I don’t know what came over me when I first saw him on the escalator descending to where I was standing trying to get people’s attention. Transfixed, I let him pass by me. Once. Twice. Thrice. On the fourth day, I went up to him, extended the red roses and said, 'Lelo na saab. Sirf pachees rupaye. Aaj boni nahi huyi hai.'
It would have made no difference whatever the price might have been, for he had no apparent interest in it. But for my heart’s sake, for the three days that I had spent waiting for him at the entrance of the metro station and for the red roses that I had saved for him without peddling it to anyone else, I made a massive concession. It was inducement I made for my own sake.
Looking at the manner in which people avoid me, I wonder if the days of red roses are over, and with them, the romantic seasons too had ended. Don’t men and women buy flowers to each other these days? Champa, my friend, who does henna and tattoo designing outside the Hanuman Mandir, says flowers are things of the past.
'People exchange more fashionable and pricey things these days. Things they buy from the malls,' she would say every time I complained.
'Like what?' I asked curiously.
And she, like me, with no exposure to the world of the wealthy, had no clue.
'Many things,' she said dismissively, 'but certainly not roses. Why would anyone waste money on something that will die in a day?'
She always gloated over the fact that her henna lasted longer on people’s hands than my roses. And the tattoos will be there forever. It made me feel less privileged than her, as though she had a better claim on life than me by virtue of what we did for a living.
It was true that roses were rapidly losing their appeal among people, but I was determined to sell my bouquet to the man for whom I had at some inexcusable moment pledged a curious fascination.
I don’t know anything about him except that he arrived by the metro around 6.30 in the evening every day. I waited at the station exit to see him walk past hurriedly, and on occasion, I managed to grab his attention in a silent, unsought manner. On days when I felt emboldened, I extended the flowers half-heartedly towards him, muttering an entreaty which he either ignored or dismissed with a casual shake of head. But on most days, I just stood impassively. To me, just standing there content in the knowledge that he saw me as he passed by was enough. The roses were witness to an unspoken sentiment that I was still trying to understand.
Waiting has a value that craving doesn’t have. It has greater chances of settling into acceptance. However, the fact that my subject of waiting was obscure made each day fraught with anxiety. I didn’t know what I was expecting of him – just a passing connection that a flower vendor will have with a random, prospective buyer or, as it occurred to me in flashing moments of heightened hope, something that would last longer? I feared to give the tenuous liaison that I was beginning to imagine a convincing name.
'You must be insane,' Champa said to me when I admitted to her that my single objective in life was to sell a bouquet of red roses to the man whom we now call ‘saade cheh.’ Curiously, the time he arrived at the station was the only reference we had to tag with him. She had no doubt that I was hopelessly infatuated with him and made no bones about its absurdity.
'I am not that mad,' I retorted, not entirely convinced of my pronouncement. There were times when I had hoped love could happen to me too, with someone like him.
'Good for you if you are not decking up wild dreams. Who knows, he might be married too, or have a girlfriend. Moreover, no sophisticated young man would even spare a glance for girls like us. There has to be some kind of matching,' Champa added, a bit tartly, rolling her eyes.
'How many times should I repeat that my only objective is to get him to buy my flowers, at least once and nothing else?' I snapped back at her. It worried me that secretly I was wishing for something beyond my means. Was I smitten with something imaginary?
It annoyed me to think that he might already be in a relationship. With a girl better than me in every respect. The kind who had better and richer things in their lives than mere rose bouquets. It irked me to think that I was no match for him. But what if our conjectures were false? What if…? I didn’t let Champa know what was on my mind. I remembered a line from a Shah Rukh Khan movie and smiled on the sly.
'Agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho to puri kainaat use tum se milaane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai.'
Movies are such hope givers. Looking fondly at my roses, I promised them, 'He will come for you one day.'
And he did. Ninety two days after I first saw him.
It was a Sunday. Being a holiday, chances of commuters stopping by for a bouquet were higher than on other days, and I made extra efforts to coax people to highlight their holiday with my red roses. Happiness thrived on human faces on Sundays, and love, at long last, seemed to find its rightful place in their lives.
My heart missed a beat and I squealed inwardly when I saw him walking up to me with certainty, as if he had always known where to go if he ever wanted to buy a bouquet. I tucked my loose lock of hair behind my ear and lowered my eyes, pretending to have not seen him, and held my breath till I heard his voice in front of me.
'How much?' he asked, with a half-smile. It wasn’t as much a smile of familiarity as it was of politeness.
I looked up with a start and stared, not knowing what to say. How much? Suddenly, I didn’t want to sell the roses to him. I wanted to give them to him as a present. But that would be preposterous. I couldn’t have gifted him the roses. I was a stranger to him. And he was only a customer who knew nothing about how I had been stalking him mentally for 92 days. There was no scope for mutual love in a proposition like this. Suddenly, all that I had conjured up in my mind in the past three months seemed to dissipate in a moment’s realisation.
'How much is it?' he asked again interrupting my wobbly thoughts.
‘It’s the last piece left, saab. You may give me anything for it,' I blurted, handing out the bouquet. I wondered if he heard the tremor in my voice. It pains when something you want to give for love goes out for money.
'Do you have change?' he asked holding out a 500 rupee note.
'No,' I lied without looking at him. 'But you can give it to me later, Saab. I am here on all days.'
'Are you sure?' he asked without betraying any emotion, before putting the currency back into his wallet. 'I don’t like leaving dues. But there is no choice now. I will pay you tomorrow. Thank you.'
I was elated at the thought that there will be a tomorrow to wait for. And it will be a different kind of waiting. It will not pass unobtrusively. This anticipation will have a meaning and a certitude, although it was not clear what lay beyond the tryst for me. For the first time in my life, I felt the genuine thrill of acceptance and I wondered if the roses too must have felt vindicated after all these years of anonymity.
'Don’t worry, saab. The world isn’t going anywhere. Neither are you and I,' I said, barely managing to look into his eyes.
As he nodded and smiled, I wondered in a flash of fluster who he was taking the roses to. I could have let envy consume me, but I ducked it successfully, and watched him walk away with my present. Yes, present. It will be so till I took the money from him. I had my eyes pinned on him till he melded with the city outside. I don’t remember having rued my poor, seedy state so much as I did on that day. And I don’t remember having loathed myself for coveting love as much as I much as I did on that day. But there was the assured hope of tomorrow. And there was the universe that could conspire for me.
It took a long time for it to be Monday, and even longer for it to be 6.30 in the evening. I kept a bouquet of crisp red, partly bloomed roses for him. It will be easier to persuade him to buy one today with the familiarity of the previous day, I thought. I sprayed water on them from time to time to keep them from withering in the peak noon heat.
The evening crowd morphed into a mass as I fixed my attention on it, shifting my glance from place to place. My eyes began to hurt with search as time passed from 6.00 to 6.30 to 7.00 to 7.30. The sweat that gathered in my underarms began to sully my senses and I felt its pungent odour permeate in the air around me. The old feeling of rejection returned and enveloped me, even as the crowd slowly thinned and melted away, unaware of the miscellany of human agonies scattered in its midst.
'He didn’t come,' I said to Champa later that night, holding back my tears. Champa simpered, as if she already knew. I looked away, unable to bear the look of disdain on her face.
'Tell me now, honestly. What did you expect of him? Love? That he would have come back and taken you home with him to tell his mother that he had found his bride?' she said mockingly when I asked her what she thought might have happened to him.
I had no answer to her questions. I had no expectations of him. He didn’t owe me anything. Not even the money for the bouquet. I had given it to him as a present. Yet there was something that had remained unsettled between us. Only the bouquet that he took with him on that day could have said anything definite about the sentiment that I still cannot categorically say was not love. I lived with a feeling of disquiet that settled in my heart with time, neither nurturing the agony nor uprooting it completely.
It’s nearly two years since that Monday. I cannot say what might have happened to him, although I have made many conjectures like I did for my mother to escape the pain. Lies are good palliatives. They keep a broken heart beating. A city can do many things to people, I said to myself. It can abduct them, make them disappear forever or change them beyond recognition. There are no certainties in a city, no allegiances. The only thing I was determined not to think was that the universe had failed me and he had found love elsewhere.
I cannot say that I am still waiting for him to appear before me one day and say, 'Here’s the money I owe you.' Such improbabilities happen only in the movies. For once, I dismiss movies as nonsense. They aren’t hope givers. They are a hoax. Bakwaas, I say to Champa, dourly.
Father. Mother. And now saade che. Together they taught me that there is a blurry space between acceptance and rejection. A space as undefined as my existence at this metro station exit.
A space where hopes, like red roses, wither and die every day.