Insert. Turn. Flick. Swish.
As the key fits in the lock and the door hinges open, I cannot help but notice the dismal air of loneliness that has come to settle, like an uninvited guest, inside the two-room apartment I reluctantly call home.
The couch I had so proudly bought last year, seats nothing but dust. The walls I had so excitedly splattered with graffiti, Urdu Poetry and posters of Shah Rukh Khan no longer help reduce the piercing pain of being alone in this unfamiliar city.
Just two months into the job, and less than a fortnight into this apartment, I have begun to nurse a strong dislike for the Maximum City, the City that Never Sleeps, Mumbai.
And I cannot help but wonder how despite the cheerful juxtaposition of the yellow and red lights of the moving traffic beneath, despite the mad rush of people, vendors, buyers, service-people, salespeople, housewives and businessmen just two storeys below, I have absolutely no one to call my own. Not here, not anywhere. Not since Maa and Papa left me to fend for myself in this world, trapped in the beautifully brutal business of being alive. Not since I remember.
And I realize, with a certain degree of self pity that today is the 31st of December, touted as the loneliest day in the entire calendar.
I dump my half full shopping bag on the second hand couch. 5 minutes later, as I am about to dump myself there, too with a cup of instant coffee in my hands, I hear a swish. The sound is made by an errant piece of paper that has come in through the gap between the door and the floor, resting beneath my feet, as if in a futile attempt to alleviate my loneliness.
I put the cup aside and bend down to pick it up. The first thing I notice is its colour, a beautiful shade of green. The second thing I notice is the message, written in a strong, masculine cursive:
Lunch at 2, Café Purple Platter!
‘Insane’, I think to myself.
First of all, I do not know anyone in the city, except some of my colleagues. Second, I know none of my colleagues who will send me an invitation for lunch, and that too at this hip new restaurant that Mumbai can’t seem to stop raving about.
I tear the paper into a hopeless jumble of words and finish my coffee.
2 minutes later, having checked my phone for non-existent messages and calls, perhaps due to the stupid rush of caffeine to my brain, I begin to entertain the hopeless, crazy idea of actually going to Purple Platter to check things out.
All my life, I have never taken risks, finding security in predictability.
A safe, conventional desk job, a safe apartment in a busy neighbourhood, a safe, set routine of working five days a week, I have never been the kind to seek adventure or thrill from life. For me, the mundane has been the magical, always. And, so I surprise myself too, when the clock chimes a 1 and I get up to survey my wardrobe to find a suitable dress for the lunch. Five minutes into the assessment of my inadequate, make-do collection of clothes, I settle for a turquoise kurti, navy blue jeggings and a light coat in the same shade to top it off.
I don’t bother to put on make-up, because, honestly, I have no idea what or who I am going to stumble upon, there! I brush my hair, and let it fall in loose waves over my shoulders, brushing my insecurities aside. With great difficulty, I manage to slip my feet into the one-size-too-small blue peep toes that form the only pair of footwear that matches my dress!
Bolt. Insert. Turn. Flick. Swish.
I hesitate for a split second as I lock the door and watch it shut behind me, as if it is propelling me forward.
‘Whatever it will be, it will be definitely better than sitting at home and watching cheesy reruns on the last day of the year.’
It takes 10 minutes by cab to reach the café and I make it before time. It is 5 minutes to 2 and my heart does a weird somersault as I take in the table that the maitre d’ points me to. I take my seat on the beautifully upholstered purple chair and reach for the bouquet of lilacs that seemingly awaits my touch at the table. The bouquet smells like heaven and it takes enormous effort to come back to reality as the waitress lays before me an assortment of starters.
“But, I am supposed to be expecting someone, here!” I mumble, confused. Her perfectly painted scarlet lips part in a beautiful smile as she points towards the note attached to the bouquet, and leaves.
I open the note, sheepish at having missed it. The same strong cursive greets me again:
Feel free to order anything you like. The bill has been taken care of. This is just a new year’s treat from me! Bon appétit! J
PS: See you at St. Joseph’s Church at 6! And, do not forget to take the bouquet with you!
Intrigued beyond measure, now, I decide to play along and find out who this mystery letter-person is and what he wants from me.
I order the house specialties and a cup of cold coffee with ice cream, relishing a great lunch at a great place. The soothing amber lights, the fragrant lilacs at my table, and the lingering bittersweet taste of coffee in my mouth tell me how bad I treat myself, reminding me that life is not just about existing, but, also about living! I thank him, this stranger, whoever he is and wherever he is, for giving me this welcome break, for this amazing feeling of not being lonely when I am alone!
I return home with a spring in my step! I have not been this happy in so many months. I sit down on the bed, changing into my pajamas and hoping to fall into the inviting arms of an afternoon siesta on a full stomach. I lie down but my eyes refuse to shut. My thoughts keep spinning around the enigma that these notes are. Calculating, rationalizing, anticipating…nothing seems to work. Lost in thoughts, I do not notice that it is already 5.30 and I am late for the appointment, if it could be called that!
Not bothering with the details this time, I dress myself in the same clothes I had worn to lunch and rush out of the apartment.
Juhu in winters is a pleasant place to be. There is the salty tinge of the sea in the air, peppered with the delicious tang of the roadside bhel. The flock of tourists reveling in the weather adds colour and vibe to the entire atmosphere! I reach the church at 10 minutes past 6 and hear my breath catch!
The setting sun filters through the stained glass windows like magic oozing out of a wizard’s wand, beautiful and bright in its rainbow-hued splendor! All around me the devotees have started to assemble for the evening mass and I catch sight of the pristine burning candles at the altar. It disturbs me how long it has been since the last time I prayed; how long it has been since I thanked the Almighty for all that he’s bestowed upon me and how I have become thankless, cold, distant.
I decide to stay back for the mass, recognizing the wonders He has gifted me with! The peace I receive startles me, but the note that the Archbishop hands me over after the prayers, does not! I find myself smiling at this stranger’s illogical plan! The note says:
Thanked Him for a wonderful year, did you, now? I am glad, you did! Never too late to say thanks, is it? Can I request the pleasure of your presence at Hotel Sun and Sand for dinner at 10?
PS. Pray for me, too, before you leave the church! Thank you! J
I pray for him. Because, even though I do not know him, today, he has made sure that I go back to the days when I used to know myself.
I do not go back to my home. It is 2 hours to go before the clock strikes 10, but, I decide to wander at the beach. The sand feels tricky in my high heels, so I take them off and walk barefoot instead. The cold pinches but after half an hour of aimless loitering, I find that a strange calm, a strange contentment of being in my company overcomes me. I watch a group of artists perform tricks along the sea side and laugh, unscathed, all my worries evaporating suddenly!
Slowly, the stars begin to peek from a blue-black sky, like those tiny blank white spaces left while scribbling on paper with the darkest ink and the sea glows, bathed in light. It is a quarter to 10 and I reach the hotel comfortably on time! The dinner is like a rerun of today’s lunch. He still is not there to give me company. It is disappointing now. The whole day has gone by and I do not know who my benefactor is! It is unsettling. I want to thank him for giving me one of the most memorable days of my life in the recent times but how do I do that, given, I do not have a name or a face to thank!
I need not have worried!
My mocktail comes with a note attached to the straw!
I will meet you, tonight! There are a lot of explanations I owe you and a lot of words you owe me, I know! I will wait for you at the Versova end of the beach. All your questions will be answered there! :) Let our conversations begin at the exact instant when the New Year does!
Just an hour and all my questions will be answered! I have questions, a lot of them!
They start with ‘why’ and ‘how’ and go on till they reach ‘what next’!
The hour is the longest I have known in 23 years of my existence! It stretches on, longer than the six kilometers of the Juhu Beach, longer than all the sleepless nights I have spent in Mumbai, longer than the longest of ordeals. I keep walking till I reach the designated spot. The note rests in my hand, ensconced firmly, as a proof of my identity! The beach is crowded, with families, couples, kids, vendors, the police and the tourists! I wonder how I will recognize him in this sea of people!
As if in an answer to my soliloquy of thoughts, a bouquet of lilacs, similar to one that awaited me at Café Purple Platter, intersects the span of my gaze! I walk towards it, towards this surprisingly lonely stretch of the beach and pick the flowers up. Yet another note yearns for my attention:
Having become adept at following instructions, I do so!
Friendly brown eyes sparkle at me from the face of a youngish man, probably in his thirties. He is dressed in a sharply tailored black tux and sports stubble on his striking face. It takes me a full minute to turn away from that impeccable smile he flashes for me.
Behind us, we hear the beach chorus…..ten, nine, eight, seven….three, two, one….Happy New Year!!!!!! Above us, the sky erupts in a brilliance of fireworks of all colours!
“Happy New Year! I am Arjun!”
“Happy New Year, to you, too! Myself Sara!”
As the party for the New Year begins, Arjun tells me he does this every year! He calls this his New Year’s Gift. He has no family to call his own, but thanks to this trick of his, he claims to have made a lot of friends in Mumbai. On the loneliest night of the year, he tries to share another person’s loneliness and gift them a friendship that would last. He has a story behind this, of how someone once shared his loneliness, too and motivated him to do the same for others!
“It gives me immense satisfaction to make someone happy, even if it is just for a day! It has been seven years since I started doing this and each New Year’s Eve brings me a new happiness and a new friendship!”, he says.
I tell him how grateful I am for his gesture. I tell him about myself and we share stories throughout the night, sitting, talking, and laughing by the seaside. Loneliness is chased away as we share the first sunrise of the New Year. We stay there, for how long, I do not remember.
It has been four years since I met Arjun. Knowing him has helped me inch closer to knowing myself! His friendship has given me the strength I needed to fight in this city. Mumbai is no longer a lonely place to be. Mumbai has become a place to find friends, a place I proudly call home.
I am supposed to see him today, at 12 midnight again! Now, we find friends together. 2015 is going to be another Happy New Year! Because, even though we are a city of strangers, we carry on this legacy of friendships, knowing that this is the best New Year’s Gift!