Faazia is and always has been just the opposite of me.
I have known her now for the past 25 years, straight through middle and high school and college, somehow having managed to land up in the same class. People always thought that we were inseparable as we were always seen in the same class, that we planned our dreams together so that we could always be together. For a while I almost believed it myself but I know better. We hardly had a conversation that lasted beyond, “give me your lecture notes”, or “tell aunty that I want some rum cake”, or “bring that box of colours your mother gifted you. I want it.” Well, that’s how it was and always had been. Her few words were spoken literally under her breath whereas my “alright” was usually loud enough for the whole class to hear.
Classmates and teachers always asked her, usually well within my earshot, why she had me as her friend. In response, she would just turn back and look at me, give a glance over, shrug and move on. After a while it stopped hurting me. I just got used to it. Before we move ahead, I think I should describe her to you first.
Faazia was tall and willowy, beautiful not in the strictest sense of the word, but always well turned out, immaculately dressed and extremely dignified in her mannerisms. She maintained her figure very well; she swam, played tennis, was part of the dance group, ate like a miser and was extremely good in her studies too. She was part of all the elite gangs in college, steered clear of boyfriends, and all such similar vices, as she herself liked to call them. Her parents were part of the nouveau riche gang in Shimla, having grown overnight in their business. Perhaps because of this, they always remained a closely knit family, not drifting away from each other.
To understand me, you just have to picture the opposite of everything that she was.
My mother ran the local bakery. She had a real talent for baking the most delicious cakes and stuff. Most nights, our dinner comprised some leftovers from the bakery. I at least got to know the names of all the gateaux and kuchens. Unfortunately, her talent did not extend to keeping husbands and money.
After our graduation from the college nearby, I decided to leave my mother to her latest husband and left, hoping never to return. I did not have many people coming to say bye and wish me luck. I had told Faazia, but I am not sure she had heard. My mother came with me to the station, a box of leftover cookies and bread in hand. There was no money that she could press into my hand, no emotion on her face that said that she would miss me, no love in her eyes that said please come back. It was as if my 20 years in Shimla had never existed.
So maybe, this was a rebirth of sorts for me. For some weird reason, I had hoped that Faazia would come to say bye. Perhaps because she was just the opposite of me, I had always craved her approval. She did not come.
The train chugged off from the platform. I looked back to say bye to my mother. She had already left.
The next few years went by in a blur. I worked in many different places and did a lot of new and old things. I experienced something new everywhere I went and learnt more about how to pretend and why not to. I made several mistakes, which I have taught myself not to regret. I got into and out of several relationships, vices and taught myself how to get out of them too. I began reading. I read every single book that I could lay my hands on. I read on my way to work, on the way back, as I made my modest evening meal and ate it, as I lay in bed for sleep to catch up, in the bathroom, well, just about everywhere. That was probably the best friend I made in all the years, the only one who really stayed. Most of the other friends came and left, some of their own accord and some due to mine.
In all the years, I never reached back to Shimla in any way; not to my mother, not to any of the people I knew there and most definitely not to Faazia. My mother may have just have written back if I had, but I knew Faazia never would even bother opening the letter. So I never bothered writing one.
Slowly but steadily, I began to carve a good career out for myself. I was good, really good at what I did and for once people looked beyond the short, stumpy me and actually began to look up to me for what I was up in my head. Work poured in and so did the promotions and the money. I met Tahir at one of the conferences I was hosting in Luxembourg.
After a long day’s work I had gotten into the habit of walking around on the cobbled streets of the quaint city and sitting down at one of the road side cafes to enjoy a cup of Irish coffee. I still could not bring myself to eat anything from a bakery, no gateaux, no kuchens, and no exotic reminders of a not-so-exotic childhood. A tall man walked up to the café and stopped. He hesitated between this café and that and finally turned both his feet in the direction of the one that was next to the café I was sitting in. I could watch him from where I sat. Tall, well built, deep set eyes hidden behind the smallest pair of glasses I had ever seen, big and sturdy hands, long legs that had a tendency to be bulky, not a very muscular body but definitely not one that was used to indulgences, thick wavy brownish hair and...he turned around and looked straight at me. A little embarrassed, I looked down at my coffee, emptied the cup quickly, put the necessary change on the table and left. I was quite sure that his eyes were not following me.
The next day at the conference, we were introduced to each other. He worked in one of the vendor companies in a very good position and before long we were talking. When we went from the talking to the holding hands to the living together stage I really cannot say. Maybe this is what people call a whirlwind romance.
We moved to Delhi to be closer to his place of work and I continued my work from a branch there. After a few years, two children came along as well. Despite the proximity, I still never reached out to Shimla. I can’t really say that I have told Tahir all about my childhood; there doesn’t seem much to say! The only time I had some news of Shimla was when I met the son of my old school teacher at a party in Noida. He touched upon the lives of several of our old acquaintances and mentioned that Faazia was married and stll living in Shimla. My mother, apparently had given up acquiring husbands and had sold the bakery off to a big company which was on the lookout for a franchisee. She had made a pretty penny and moved to Pune. That was the last they had heard of her and I knew that this would be the last I would ever hear of her either. Our conversation turned to other things when Tahir joined us and I did not dwell on the topic any further.
Out of the blue, one day, Tahir announced that it was time to explore the hill stations in the vicinity and for some strange reason I chose Shimla. If you ask me why, I will very truthfully say that I do not know. It was probably the first name that came to my lips and I uttered it before I could give it a thought.
During our stay in Shimla, we were invited to Tahir’s colleague’s home for dinner one evening. He was a man who was well past his youth, closer to fifty I think, small built, short with a mop of white hair. He had these huge pools for eyes that looked like they could shed tears at the slightest provocation. He was the son of a man who had negotiated a hard deal with a failing businessman. He had agreed to buy out the company at a decent price provided his son could marry their daughter. He had not divulged at that point that his son had exhibited signs of mental instability for years now and would continue to do so because they thought treatment was beneath their dignity. The fathers made their mistakes and died. The children were now living their lives together, childless. I almost pitied his wife. She was probably some undereducated, small-town girl who thought marriage was in itself an honour bestowed on her. She probably took it in her stride that they could not have children and had devoted her life to taking care of her childlike husband instead. Given his mental instability, it was, however, clear that the reins of business were in someone else’s hands. His wife’s, we came to know during the course of our conversation.
The kitchen door opened and out came Faazia, immaculately dressed and well turned out as always. She carried herself with the same quite dignity that she had always had. As she looked at me, I knew that she had recognised me, but she shrugged that same old shrug, said hello and moved on to greet Tahir. I half expected her to turn around partially to me and say, “Give him to me. I want him”.