It was the same routine for her everyday.
She woke up at 7 am, got ready for work, had some fruit and toast for breakfast and ran. Come rain or sunshine, her routine never changed except for the time taken to commute to office…Bombay traffic was infamously unpredictable. The day was usually filled with meetings, reports, articles to read and edit, people to interview, events that needed conceptualizing and executing. Time just always flew. And then, it would be time to head back - to the space she called 'home'….
As Avantika waited for the signal to turn green, she glanced at the car next to her. A middle-aged man was at the wheel, talking animatedly as he kept gesticulating. She leaned forward to see who the recipient of such animation was. A petite girl sat on the next seat, looking at him timidly, not uttering a word. The scene took her back in time … “Arts? What are you going to do with Arts? You should aim for Sciences at least. If you do not score enough, then Commerce will do. But, Arts is just rubbish,” her father had chided her years ago as she sat, staring mutely. They had fumed for days when her marks hadn’t been good enough to get her into Science or Commerce.She didn’t have the courage to tell them that she didn’t want to do Science or Commerce. Hell, she didn’t even understand those subjects.
Growing up with her parents hadn’t been easy. They’d always been critical, never happy with anything she or her sister did. They would always push them to do what was ‘prestigious’. “Join a Vedic maths class to sharpen your mind. Learn to play the piano or do the Bharatanatyam. Or, play chess – an ‘intelligent’ game. Don’t waste your time playing childish games with the colony kids.” To appease her parents, they did try out various activities. Even though Avantika’s sister managed to stay afloat, they would mercilessly point out her flaws and ridicule her if she fumbled. As for Avantika, she hated to even go to those ‘torture sessions’ as she referred to them. She was happiest sitting with her nose buried in a book…lost in the world of words. Eventually, Avantika was written off as a dunce by the time she completed her schooling. Her parents were sorely disappointed that they had no sons. Perhaps, they also realized that their daughters would never make it as bureaucrats or engineers or even doctors. Their daughters were just not good enough….
Avantika was 35 years old, medium in height, fair and pretty - the answer to any of the ‘Wanted Bride’ ads. However, to the utter incredulity of all her family and friends, she was still single! “Avantika, are you seeing someone? Why aren’t you seeing anyone? Is everything ok? Are you gay?” her friends would ask.She would retreat into a shell. What was the point of discussing it? Things could have been different if her parents had approved of her choice …She could never have married the kind of man they would have chosen which was why she was married to her work. She got to meet interesting people, learn new skills and discover herself in turn. Besides, as long as there was a decent paycheck coming in every month, she didn’t have to rely on her parents for financial support. The customary call that she made to speak with them was filled with pregnant pauses that would threaten to burst the minute their recriminations started.
Just as she got the key out of her handbag to open the door, she heard her cellphone ringing. It was her sister from Delhi - her parents had met with a car accident- both of them hadn't survived.
Avantika felt tears sting her eyes. Then, she heaved a sigh of relief.
Soon, she found herself sitting in an airplane headed home, her parents’ home. The two hour long plane journey was spent in rumination. “I am free now,” she thought. “Free of the ties that bind and gag. They cannot make me feel guilty with their remarks or the looks on their faces anymore. I don’t have to make that weekly call out of politeness only to be made to feel like a failure.”
After college, her sister had acquiesced to marry a boy of their parents’ choice, while Avantika resisted their plans and continued studying. Much to their chagrin, she got herself a job soon after. When the pressure to marry a boy built up, she grabbed the first job offer that came her way and moved out of Delhi. It was a miracle that she was living a life of her choosing – a miracle that she was grateful for every day.
She could hear the wailing and howling as she alighted from the taxi - friends, family and neighbors had all gathered to express their condolences. She could see her sister, brother-in-law and their kids - all huddled together. Her eyes met her sister’s – they mirrored Avantika’s relief.
The next few days were a blur of ceremonies, community meals, condolences and people. As things settled, everybody began to go about the business of living and left them to sort out their lives. On one such day, Avantika sat in her parents’ room, going through the files containing their insurance, medical, house and bank records. Possessions had to be sorted and divided or disposed off as decreed. A tedious job but it had to be done.
Suddenly, she came across an envelop was addressed to her – Avantika Pratap Singh, in a very familiar cursive hand–Rahul’s.
Like a really slow waltz, her mind wandered back to her college days….
They were a couple then, spending a lot of time together after classes - grabbing a bite at the numerous subsidized canteens the University had to offer, strolling and chatting in the winter afternoons, catching a matinee, watching an amateur play or listening to a free musical performance. They spent many hours exploring the city and its myriad facets; as also, each other. Sex had opened up a new world for them. Hesitatingly at first, with more confidence as intimacy between them grew. They would steal kisses whenever possible – walking in the deserted corridors of the college campus, pretending to study in the library or even while watching a performance in darkened auditoriums. Rahul would lovingly tuck her stray hair behind her ears when they fell into her eyes as she sat reading. Avantika would bring food from home in tiffin to share with him. She knew he was tired of hostel food. She loved to see him devour a simple meal with gusto! They made no plans for the future or dramatic promises to be together forever. Avantika had enough melodrama in her life with her parents around; she didn’t want it in her love life too. They took each day as it came. Love infused every moment with ecstasy, even the painful moments of temporary separation.
It was towards the end of graduation that her parents came to know about Rahul. They were not pleased. “He does not belong to our caste, he is a baniya. He is still studying, when will he settle? They don’t even own a house or car….” The objections were endless. Avantika could not battle with them. Rahul offered no solution or solace. She had never felt so alone in all her Life. They had a falling out soon, after which they broke up.
He went on to pursue his career ambitiously while she tried her hand at the Creative Arts. Although they did not see each other, talk to each other or even write to each other; she waited for him to come around, silently praying. She thought of him off and on till her career consumed more and more of her time leaving her with no time for nostalgia or tears. Even now when she thought of college, she knew she would never trade those three years for anything.
“Should I look for him now? It’s easy to trace people on Facebook these days…this could be my chance. But, what if he doesn’t remember me? Or if he’s married with a family and all?” Avantika thought a million thoughts in that one second.
She opened the envelope and took out the letter. It was from Rahul’s parents. He had died…was killed in action. She felt her chest tighten and something stung her eyes till they blurred with tears so she could barely read. When she could focus again, she began reading –“He had lived his life on his own terms. He had joined the army against our wishes. Despite our many remonstrations and attempts at match-making, he never married. He said he hadn't found anyone he loved enough to share his life with. And, he had lost the only one he had loved.” That made her smile.
She resumed reading the letter,“You were always on his mind; he would have it no other way.” She paused in her reading. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. “The contents in the black valise are yours, they were meant for you.” She looked up at the shelves in the cupboard as she wondered what the valise contained. Quick as lightning, she rummaged through the cupboard, chucking things here and there, searching hungrily. She finally found it tucked away behind some sheets. Taking it out gently as it was heavy, she placed it on her lap and fingered it tenderly…where he would've touched it once. She snapped the lock open and the valise suddenly opened up like the folds of a harmonium. As she scrambled to grab it, it dropped on the floor and out tumbled a thousand envelopes - all addressed to her, in the same handwriting….
A mournful wail escaped her body, giving release to all the pain she had pent up for so long - frustration with her parents, regret at not having fought for her happiness, the unending loneliness, a broken heart, fading youth…but most of all, for the chance they had lost, forever.