“Your coffee madam.”
Meenakshi peeped up from the novel and thanked the waiter with a brittle smile. She was served with a special cappuccino. She stared at the heart, artistically crafted out of whipped cream, floating on her frothy coffee. She smiled inwardly, bookmarked the page in her novel and sipped her coffee.
Meenakshi Raghunathan, an environmentalist by profession, was on a two-year deputation to Varanasi for the grandiose project of ‘Ganges Cleaning’. A graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she presently worked in her company’s corporate social responsibility division. She owned a condominium in the upscale area of Manhattan and possessed a hefty bank balance but her reputable status amongst her peers and elite class couldn’t fetch her inner contentment. Pushing thirty-four and almost a decade of experience in a multinational conglomerate, she was still single amidst some tangled relationships. She wished for a change. The newly proposed project presented a unique opportunity to escape the monotony of a workaholic life and wreathe herself in Indianness all over again.
She looked through the glass door of Café Rendezvous. Brilliant rays of the sun seemed to be unrelenting. Nature presented Thursday wrapped in SUN-day. It was already 5.10 P.M. but Waqar was nowhere to be seen. This upcoming café could hardly compete with the legendary street food of Varanasi. However, the prevailing silence and an air-conditioned ambience were suitable for Meenakshi to spend some quality time with her newly found love.
Waqar and Meenakshi never moulded themselves for love. However, does love wait for anybody’s permission? Love just creeps up when it is least expected. Love doesn't pester about anything. Religious beliefs, cultural differences and every aspect of the human world take a back seat when it comes to love.
Their names speak everything. She was from a family of kumkum-vibhuti while he celebrated ramzaan with utmost fervour. Fate was the culprit which made them cross each other’s path.
She looked at her watch. Waqar was late. Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. "I am coming. Have something to tell you."
Meenakshi glared at her phone while discovering some butterflies in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her? She was thrown back in time where a new phase showed its face in her life.
Waqar Ismail, Marketing Head of a UK based financial agency, was posted in the holy city of Varanasi to cultivate the company’s business needs. A graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, he bore a tarnished past on his personal front. Meenakshi and Waqar met through a common friend. They couldn’t realize that a mere rendezvous amongst friends would give birth to a desire to meet each other again and again. They say misery seeks company. Probably the hidden emptiness in their hearts and a soulless job profile united these two souls. Waqar was just 28 when he first met Meenakshi. The beauty of his hazel eyes was accentuated by dense black artistically designed eyebrows. An aquiline nose, easily distinguished jaw line, well lined luscious lips and a dimpled smile; Waqar could easily masquerade as a cover page model of any glamour magazine. On the other hand, Meenakshi was not drop dead gorgeous but she bore a serene look. Her big black impeccably kohled eyes symmetrically highlighted by naturally arched eyebrows, dense curly eyelashes, a nose perfectly proportioned for her face, voluptuous rosy lips and her naturally curly hair could garner enough attention from Waqar. In Waqar’s words, she was a carefree beauty. Meenakshi’s reluctance to accept her beauty actually enhanced her prettiness. They did not look like a fairy tale couple. It was never love at first sight but they developed a healthy chemistry with each other right from the first day.
It was last year’s New Year Eve party which actually brought them closer. North India witnessed one of the coldest nights. Almost everyone at the party was under the influence of alcohol. Waqar got up from the couch, donned his windcheater, bade adieu to his inebriated friends, left the cosy ambience of the hall and came out to embrace nature’s wintry chill. He glanced at the sky. The dense fog created a hazy screen to shroud the crescent moon and the canopy of stars. The hedges lining the boundary wall seemed to susurrate about nature’s splendour. He looked around. The prevailing ethereal silence provided him with the much needed solitude he longed for.
“Happy New Year.”
A sudden loud whisper in his ears broke the chain of his thoughts. He swivelled around and discovered Meenakshi glancing at the sky. Her glassy eyes glittered like an innocent child trying to unearth what Waqar was looking at. He looked at his watch. The minute and hour hand had converged on twelve. He smiled and reciprocated her wish.
“Don’t you drink?” Her chirpy tone made her sound a bit tipsy.
“I do. But water, juice, soup and all. Not alcohol.”
“You are funny.” She laughed. Her laughter slaughtered the silence of the night. Before Waqar could say anything, she uttered “Oh! I am sorry. I shouldn’t shout. The holy city will feel bad.” Her words made him laugh too.
“Actually Varanasi is still growing. Not in dimensions but definitely in the thought process.”
“Is it? Do you think so?” She questioned like an innocent child. Alcohol was in her breath and influenced her tone but not her thoughts. Waqar nodded his head in affirmation. He smiled and asked her if it was okay to go for a stroll.
“I am always ready.” She giggled.
He held her hands and they both walked to the nearby bank of the Ganges. Every wave that lapped the steps of the bank lent wetness to the chilly breeze. Their thoughts reveled in the idyllic ambience. They both dipped their feet in the freezing water. Oppressed emotions progressed on their faces akin to the ripples in the water. Waqar looked at her. Tears welled up in his eyes. His heart wished to unfetter certain truths what he had imprisoned for many years.
“My parents were slaughtered before my eyes during Godhra riots.”
“What?” Meenakshi’s voice almost reached a feverish pitch. Till date she had read and watched about the communal riots only through the media. She had never imagined facing a victim ever.
“I was waiting for Ammi in my room. She always used to fondle my head to make me sleep. Abbu and Ammi were finishing the household chores. All I could hear was a scream.” He sighed.
“Abdul chacha held me back and clamped his palm over my mouth. In a while, a ghostly silence prevailed. The curtains parted and all I could see was my parents lying face down in a pool of blood.”
“How did you survive?”
Waqar shuddered from trauma and said, “They didn’t expect anyone else in the house.”
“Why did you tell this to me?”
“When parental love was snatched from me, I blocked every form of love from knocking my door. Then I met you. No logic could stop the flow of emotions within me.”
Her sardonic laughter overwhelmed the peaceful atmosphere. She uttered, “I am 34. My Grey hairs are covered by a well-parted hairstyle. Wrinkles have already taken birth.”
“So? Still, I fell in love.”
She pierced through his eyes. Her heart was willing to come out of her body and accept Waqar’s proposal. However, she preferred to reveal something more.
“My parents are very conservative. They tried their best to get a suitable guy for me matching my qualifications and accomplishments. That too from the same community. But nothing worked out. With my growing age, my sexual desire grew too. I have slept with many men but nobody uttered this love word.”
Waqar remained impassive and betrayed no emotion. “Let me sow the seeds then.” He said undeterred.
They remained silent for the rest of the night. With the first ray of the sun kissing the earth, not only did a New Year arrive in their lives but a new phase began as well. They met again, talked, laughed. With each passing day, their intimacy intensified. The void that ruled their hearts became mortal. Contentment stood at their thresholds. By the time May marked its presence in the calendar, this May-December relationship had blossomed. Love brought an eternal bliss to their lives. Marriage was still far-flung in Meenakshi’s thoughts, while Waqar had a different plan.
They went on a long drive to Agra and Waqar chose the monument to love, Taj Mahal, as the perfect place to pop the question. Meenakshi truly loved him but her mind was muddled not knowing how to proceed further. Waqar was really a self-made man. After that disastrous night, he was left only with his Abdul Chacha who had nothing to opine for Waqar’s marriage. He was literally an orphan who had only one member in his family left to celebrate Eid with. However, Meenakshi had a big family trying for her marriage for the past seven years. She couldn’t imagine her parents accepting Waqar and instead counter-proposed to elope to preserve their love. Waqar had a difference in opinion nevertheless. The gentleman in him decided to talk to her parents, not for a grandiose celebration but to seek their blessings instead.
Meenakshi looked out again. Her impatience was barefaced. She peeped into her coffee mug and ordered for one more. Waqar was due to be back in Varanasi this afternoon. He had had a conference to attend in Chennai and decided to meet her parents too. In the past four days, Meenakshi had not received any call from her parents. Waqar spoke about everything except their marriage. Her prejudiced opinions about her own family actually framed their decision for her. She was not at all hopeful for their approval. Waqar came to her life when the institution of marriage had lost all its significance. Somehow love bloomed and she wished to spend the rest of her life with him come what may. Her parents’ decision was immaterial to her; still, she let Waqar fulfil his wish. When Waqar did not utter anything about her family, she inwardly feared her presumptions had borne fruit. She came to the café only to meet Waqar and not to hope beyond hopes. However, what was that ‘important’ he wanted to tell?
Her phone beeped for another message.
“Coming out of masjid. Will be there in two minutes.”
She was a bit surprised as Waqar offered prayers in a mosque only when something really good had happened. Probably he bagged a good deal at work or secured a lucrative offer outside India. Meenakshi kept speculating all probable sources of good news. Not even once she assumed any link between his visit to the mosque and their marriage. Her ears were ardent to hear the ‘important’ news.
She received yet another message. It was from one of their friends, Rohit.
“Don’t remain in the café for long. The city is not at peace.”
Meenakshi puckered her eyebrows to decipher the message. The waiter who served her coffee informed her about the early closing. She smiled and requested him to wait for five more minutes.
She kept sipping her coffee while counting each passing second. Her eyes were fixed on the door. A sudden appearance of a mob in that almost vacant road perturbed her thoughts. She was flabbergasted but soon shuddered on recognizing the raised swords glinting in the setting sun. They were running towards the mosque. She banged the mug on the table and fidgeted with her mobile to dial Waqar’s number.
She dialled and Waqar’s phone rang too. He was at the door, dressed in a cream colour afghani dress, bent down holding the handle with his left hand and holding his throat with the right hand. He pushed the door and entered. Meenakshi was ossified. She stood still like a lifeless sculpture and witnessed him swaying out of control and falling on the floor. The white flooring was drenched with his blood. They pulled down the rolling shutter and every staff scurried to save him. Meenakshi looked comatose. They tapped his cheeks impetuously to detect some life in him. Waqar’s head moved for the last time. His hazel eyes were now fixed on her face. Tears rolled down from his lifeless cheeks one last time. Waqar was dead. Everyone around stood still but Meenakshi slowly walked. Tapping of her stilettoes echoed in the eerie silence. She stared at those eyes which were always enigmatic for her. Her mobile beeped with another message. The large screen of her smartphone flashed with a message from her father.
“We liked Waqar. If you are ready for this marriage, we will bless you both. One thing for sure, He has the best marketing acumen.”
Meenakshi blinked twice. All her speculations regarding the important news were wrong. Waqar was referring to their marriage. Her eyes could no longer hold back the tears. She held Waqar close to her bosom and screamed till her lungs gave out in despair.
Fate never etched love in Meenakshi’s life and probably Waqar’s death was an ill-fated jihad which never quite resonated with its true meaning. If this Hindu-Muslim love story could have a better end, it would truly have been a jihad in love.