It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend's wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batchmates. But what I didn't know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was she. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. My ex-girlfriend stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell.
They say, the past has a strange way of catching up with you and clobbering you on the head when you least expect it. I guess that was the case with me today.
I fervently wished Archana wouldn’t spot me. I wasn’t ready to meet her again. I almost considered calling the trip off. As I stood undecided, she suddenly spotted me. Recognition dawned in her eyes and she smiled. I forced a smile onto my frigid features. Thankfully the crowded counter didn’t offer much scope for extending our reunion beyond this wordless exchange.
I boarded the flight with my heart pounding and was relieved to see that Archana’s seat was nowhere near mine. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible in my seat and as the flight started on its three hour journey, I just dozed off.
It was the same nightmare all over again – Those childish brown eyes, shining with innocence smiling at me and calling out “Rajesh anna , Rajesh anna..’’ and vanishing – melting my heart with all its love in one moment and then freezing it with cold fear the very next. I woke up sweating profusely. We were two hours into the flight. I couldn’t go back to sleep again – not when the nightmare had opened up the recesses in my heart that I had so painstakingly tried to keep locked.
I hadn’t had the nightmare for many months now. Seeing her after four long years had to be the trigger.
When the invite to Raghav’s wedding had arrived, my first thought was to toss it in the trash, there was no way I was going back to Bengaluru, not for a million bucks... In the end it was mother who convinced me to go with her entreaties.
“Rajesh, it’s been three years since Appa’s death. Not once have you visited our old flat... God alone knows in what sorry state it is! Why don’t you check on the flat when you go for Raghav’s wedding?”
She cut short my all my protests and gave me a final parting shot. “If you won’t go, then I shall go all by myself.’’
Amma’s fixation with our old flat perplexed me. I mumbled something about selling the flat, but finally gave in as I couldn’t risk her carrying out her threat in her fragile state of health.
I packed my clothes with much trepidation. It had been a full four years since I’d set foot in the city, but the past that I’d left behind had erased all fond memories of the place.
Now, I was going back – into my sordid past to confront the demons that tore at my conscience in my recurring nightmares. It wasn’t a pleasant thought and my nightmare had begun even before I’d set foot in the city.
I tried my best to avoid her once we landed, but met her again at the taxi stand.
“Hey, good to see you!’’ she said, smiling brightly. She was pretty as ever.
“Good to see you, Archie.’’ I said, calling her by the name I’d christened her with while we were dating.
There was an awkward pause. We hadn’t exactly parted on great terms.
“I guess I’ll see you again at the wedding. Bye!’’ she said and got into her waiting cab.
I dreaded seeing her again. I spent the afternoon in our old apartment, which bereft of family and furniture failed to evoke nostalgia of any kind.
Raghav’s reception was a spectacular affair. I walked into the midst of a cavernous reception hall filled with gaily adorned women and men. The sound of music and laughter, the overpowering smell of flowers, perfume and food, all merged into one melange of ostentatious vanity.
I was trying in vain to spot a familiar face in all the hullabaloo when a voice bellowed, “Rajesh! Finally seeing you after ages!’’ It was Krishna.
“How have you been? Where are the guys?” I asked beaming.
“Vishal and Deepak are over there, being scolded by the wives for making inappropriate jokes! Shambu is in the restroom helping his wife change their baby’s nappies! Talk about being hen-pecked!’’ Krishna said with a sly grin. “The last I saw, the nerdy geeks were headed that way, probably to compare notes on which pretentious jerk of their lot shits the most money!’’
“How about you Krishna? What about your family?’’ I asked grinning at his sarcasm.
“Did you really think I’d be crazy enough to bring my wife for the reunion? I have an image to maintain, man!’’ He gave me a wink.
I couldn’t help feeling jealous – Life had been good to my old buddy – it hadn’t taken away any of his bubbly enthusiasm or his wry humour. It hadn’t defeated him and made him a wreck like myself. I remembered myself four years back. With a devil-may-care attitude towards everything, my life had been a giddy romp with my friends, flunking in exams, bunking classes, party hopping and flirting.
The only anchor to my harum-scarum life back then was Archana. She was my grounding force, the person who could make me do anything with just a little frown of her eyebrows or a sigh. Our families were okay with our relationship. Archana was the type who would put you at ease at once with her demeanour – she’d walk into your house, chat you up in a jiffy, breeze into your kitchen and whip up cup of chai and offer you. That was how awesome she was. Amma simply adored her.
Though Archana’s parents would have preferred someone better, they liked me despite my riotous life. They could see that we were really in love. And then there was Manu – Archie’s little brother, the apple of her eyes. Her amazing, autistic 5-year-old brother Manu. He was born when Archie’s mom was touching her forties – the doctors said, that probably was the reason for his delayed development. To Archie and her parents, he was perfect despite what everyone thought or said. Uncomplainingly they'd take turns babysitting him as he constantly needed supervision.
To me, he was a weirdly wonderful little kid, with big saucer-like brown eyes, shining with innocence and brilliance. He could solve jigsaw puzzles in a jiffy and spell like a pro. It was ironic because he could hardly speak a complete sentence that we could understand and yet had talents associated with the most gifted among us. He’d tag behind me all the time calling me “Rajesh anna...’’, asking me for cookies, chewing gum, toys and what not. I loved spending time with him. And Archie loved the fact that her little brother adored me so.
I snapped out of my reverie and joined my friends as they walked over to congratulate the newlyweds. After posing for tiresome photographs, I decided I’d had enough of festivities and tried to make a quiet exit.
“Rajesh, are you leaving?’’ It was Archana.
She looked ravishing in her pearl white anarkali suit.
“Hmmm...yeah. I was kind of feeling tired.’’
“I was hoping we could talk. I’m somehow getting a feeling that you’ve been dodging me all evening.’’
I squirmed inwardly. “Of course not! Don’t be silly Archie.’’ I lied.
“’I won’t hold you up. Would it be possible for you to come over to my place tomorrow for a while? It would’ve been Manu’s ninth birthday tomorrow... It’s been four years since he left us all. We’re having a small memorial service with a few close family and friends. He always liked you, Rajesh. He’d have liked it if you were there.’’ Tears welled up in her eyes and couldn’t speak further.
I felt a gut-wrenching pain at the mere mention of Manu’s name. I looked away lest the guilt in my eyes give me away.
“Sorry Archana, I’m flying back to Delhi tomorrow.’’ I said.
The hurt in her eyes struck me like a physical blow.
“Oh, I see. That’s ok. So I guess it’s goodbye then.’’
I shall never forget the look of blighted hope in her eyes as she left me. It haunted me all night and as the day dawned, instead of taking the cab to the airport I found myself making my way over to her place in KR Puram. A deluge of nostalgia washed over me as I navigated my way through all too familiar streets.
As I opened the gate and walked in, I noticed that there weren’t many guests. I spotted Archana’s cousin Asha consoling a wailing baby in her arms. She welcomed me with the usual pleasantries. Archana for a moment looked flustered on seeing me. Then she walked up to me smiling. “I’m so happy you decided to come.’’
Archana’s parents were ecstatic. Her mother hugged me tearfully. I was surprised and touched at the same time. I realised they were indeed fond of me and what had I done them in return? I shuddered at the thought. Lunch was a quiet affair. No one asked any uncomfortable questions and the exchange of conversation was pleasant and enjoyable. After lunch, I wandered around the house, which was once my second home, pausing here and there as vivid memories flashed across my mind. I paused in front of Archana’s old room. I was so lost in gloomy thoughts that I failed to notice Archana beside me.
“Brings back old memories, huh?’’
I was startled. “Oh yes.’’
“I’ve been waiting to get a few minutes alone with you. I think we need to talk,’’ she said and gestured towards her room. Her room looked the same except for a framed photograph of little Manu on the wall. As I sat down, I could almost feel those big brown eyes in the photograph stare at me with unspoken reproach.
“Thanks again for coming,’’ she began. “I was surprised to see you at the wedding. I thought I’d never see you again. Four years back I lost the two most important people of my life. Manu, I lost to an unkind twist of fate. As for you I still wonder, what happened. This is not an attempt at patching up , trust me, but ever since you walked out of my life, I’ve wondered what was it that I said or did that made you give up on us and so completely erase yourself from my life. You left me when I needed you the most; all my attempts to contact you went in vain... You left me all alone to deal with the loss of my Manu. I cannot even begin to explain how hard it was for me.’’
I looked down at my cold clammy fingers guiltily and said nothing.
“Now I think you at least owe me an explanation.’’
We looked at each other for a long minute. All of a sudden I felt tired of the burden of guilt that I had been carrying around. I wanted to get it off my chest and be done with it, even if it implied dire consequences. Something snapped inside of me. Perhaps it was her melting gaze or it was the sight of the framed photograph of the little boy who was loved dearly and missed so sorely , I decided to speak up – “I didn’t leave because I wanted to, I left you because I had to – I left because I was a murderer and a coward.’’
Archana looked utterly confused.
The truth tumbled out of me, thankful to be released from their imprisonment – “I’m sure you remember the final days of college, just before the farewell. We were going through a rough patch – I was hearing rumours of you two timing me with that nerd Ashok. Being an insecure jerk, I decided to find out if there was any truth to it. That fateful day, I came over to your place after the farewell party, when you weren’t around. I was in your room going through your stuff, checking your emails, for anything that would confirm my suspicions. Manu was tagging along begging me to do a puzzle with him. I was so wound up that I yelled at him, took him to your parent’s room, gave him a bowl of peanuts to snack and left the room locking it behind me to continue with my search undisturbed. Oh! How I hate myself for doing that! After a futile search, when I’d cooled off and feeling disgusted at myself, I opened the door to let Manu out. What I saw shall haunts me to my dying day. He lay on the floor pale and unresponsive, with the peanuts all strewn around him. He must have choked to death. By giving a child like him peanuts and leaving him unattended, I had killed him. As I was rummaging through your room for proof that never existed, an innocent child lay dying in the next room. Your brother’s blood is on my hands, Archana! I was a coward to own up for what I did, so I ran away... What I didn’t realise was that my past would always haunt me wherever I went or whatever I did with my life – dark dreams that haunt me every night. Every little boy I see reminds me of Manu. I live a doomed life ridden with remorse and painful memories.’’ I broke down and sobbed like a child.
Tears glistening in her deep-brown eyes. She spoke softly – “Rajesh, Manu did not die that day. He died three weeks after you left due to pneumonia. I recall mother telling me about the incident when she found him passed out on the floor, having accidentally choked on some nuts. Nevertheless he was okay after mother did CPR on him and some first aid. This has happened with Manu a few times earlier as well. It wasn’t anything serious. I didn’t know that you were here when it happened. Neither does mother. Manu was his usual cheery self until he caught pneumonia a few weeks later and died.’’
I stared at her unbelievingly. Slowly it dawned on me that I wasn’t a murderer. Oh! the relief , I felt.... warm blood coursed through my system easing out the gnawing pain. The release and assuagement I felt was cathartic.
“It’s alright Rajesh, you’ve punished yourself enough. Now try and start living the life you were meant to live.’’ She said smiling sadly.
At that moment, I realised I could never love anyone more than I loved her. She had provided me with my redemption. I wondered if she would be a part of my new life.
Almost as if she’d read my mind, she called out, “Asha, could you come here for a minute?’’
Her cousin walked in with the wailing toddler, who was now contentedly sucking his thumb and staring at us curiously. “Rajesh, this is my son, Manu.’’
I slowly reached out and took the startled baby in my arms and pressed his soft, chubby cheeks against my moist one. Perhaps, in those innocent eyes, so alike Manu's, somewhere lay my deliverance.