If not for the foul stench of garbage, he would’ve believed it was a dream, and she, a fragment of a beautiful dream, as she always had been. Returning from his evening walk, he had stopped to buy cigarettes. The ancient looking shop was the closest to the spooky looking house that was to be his home for quite some time. The shopkeeper, a man who looked as ancient as the shop, was curious. Strangers always attracted attention in a small town. The old man was about to pour out his questions, when she arrived. She knew what she wanted; Tomatoes, onions, half a kg each, and garlic and ginger, three each. Yes, you heard it right. No, not the paste. Also a bunch of dhaniya. That’s it… Sagar didn’t have to look at her to know that it was her. Her voice hadn’t changed. Judging from what she was buying neither had her habits. She was going to cook khichdi for dinner, her only solid meal of the day. She didn’t bargain. She paid him the exact change and left. She didn’t look around. Had she turned to her left, she would’ve seen him. But, what if she had? It would’ve been awkward.
He watched her as she walked away. He told himself that she wasn’t real. That she had never been real. But deep in his heart, he knew he wasn’t dreaming. He just wanted to forget that she existed because her existence scared him. With her, he had always felt vulnerable, as if she could just see though him…into his soul, if he had one. That’s why he disliked her. Because she reminded him that he had a soul. He was tempted to follow her and he took two steps towards her. She stopped abruptly. He knew why. She had spotted a plastic cover on the road. She bent down to pick it up and she caught him staring at her. If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. She got up, walked to the other side of the road and dumped the plastic cover on a heap of garbage. She didn’t turn around to look at him again. She walked on. It broke his heart. Not the fact that she had not been happy or angry to see him. Not the fact that she didn’t even acknowledge his presence. Something had changed in her. Her eyes had lost the glow they used to have and there was no trace of the smile she used to have on her face permanently.
Surprisingly, the first memory that surfaced that evening was not of their first meeting. It was one of those obscure ones which one is not aware of having till they flood back abruptly…
“Isn’t it high time they stop teaching Shakespeare?” she was ranting.
They were returning from the library. She with a bunch of books on feminism, contemporary poetry and the history of Indian writing in English, and he with his copy of The Prelude for the next day’s presentation. He had no idea why she was talking about Shakespeare all of a sudden.
“And teach what? Only Chaucer and Milton?” he had retorted.
“I say, stop everything. Enough of Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare. English Literature should be more…contemporary.”
“Like what, Netra?”
“Like translated….well, leave it… You know what? There shouldn’t be an English Literature department. Just Literature departments. Only then we can move on…”
“Netra, you are being too idealistic.”
“I’m not. I’m just expressing my hatred for Shakespeare.”
He wanted to laugh, but he didn’t. It would taint his ‘studious guy’ image. Studious guys were supposed to be serious and serious people never laughed. Not in public. He just wished she would stop ranting. She did. Soon enough. Her smile brightened a little more and she closed her eyes, facing the sky.
“Did you feel that?” she asked.
“It’s going to rain, Sagar. I felt a drop on my face.”
“Then we better get back to the library and wait till it stops…or just rush, before it starts getting heavy…”
“It’s too late for that, sir.” She said, sticking out her tongue at him.
She was right. It had started raining.
“I have an umbrella.” He told her calmly.
“Which we don’t need now.”
“Are you out of your mind? It’s raining and we are carrying books. Books borrowed from the library, ma’am.”
She winked and pointed at her bag.
“It’s waterproof. Now give me your book.”
She stuffed it in along with her books and looked up.
“There’s a solution to everything, Sagar. Now, we are going to enjoy a walk in the rain. I know you have never done it before.”
He had no option.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this!” he said, to no one in particular.
“Don’t tell me you aren’t enjoying it.”
He wanted to tell her that he wasn’t. He was feeling cold and ‘nasty’. That’s how he would’ve described the day. Nasty. But there was a tiny part of him that was actually feeling good. He couldn’t lie to her.
“Okay…I agree, it does feel good, but both of us are going to fall sick.”
“We can take medicines and some rest. We’ll be fine.”
“Look at our clothes, Netra! We can build a hut with all that mud.”
“Clothes can be washed. If you can’t afford a detergent, I’ll give you one.”
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
She laughed. That poking, irritating laughter of hers!
“Sagar, if I die tonight, I don’t want to die with the regret that I could have walked in the rain, but didn’t.”
That was the Netra he knew. The woman who wanted to live without regrets. The woman who was stupid, impulsive and happy, and had managed to brush off a little of her stupidity, impulsiveness and happiness on him. Just a little. And the woman he was looking at was not the Netra he knew. She looked defeated and angry. She looked like a woman who had lost the will to live. He wanted to run to her and ask her where she had lost that smile, who had killed that child in her and why she had lost her love for life. But then, what right had he to ask her these things? What if he was one of those people who had done this to her? Yes, he was one of them…
“Sagar, you are pathetic!” she had said, her eyes brimming with tears and her voice with sadness. “I can’t help you. Nobody can. But I tried. In your deathbed, what are you going to think about? You don’t have memories to soothe you then. You’ll only have regrets when you die. I hope you realize your mistakes now, when you have time to correct them. What have you done with your life till now? Do you even realize that you have wasted so many precious years in trying to prove to your Dad that you are something and in pining for Tara…someone who doesn’t love you? And what have you achieved? What do you think you are going to achieve?”
Nothing! He had heard that monologue of hers nearly a decade ago and now, he knew she had been right. He wanted to tell her that. He would’ve, if only she expressed her anger, instead of walking away like a stranger. If only she had spoken to him once. If only she had asked him why he had hurt her. If only she had told him that he had hurt her… But she hadn’t said anything. Indifference! That was all she had to give him and it hurt him.
He watched her walking, as if the world around her didn’t exist. Another step, or may be two, and she would disappear around the corner. But, she stopped. Before he could make out what was happening, she turned back and started walking, all the way back. When she came close to him, he didn’t move. Now he saw a trace of anger on her face. Before he could speak, she snatched the cigarette from his hand, threw it on the ground, stamped on it and without speaking a word, turned back and walked away. His Netra wasn’t totally dead. There was a trace of her left in this bitter woman who was faking indifference. He hadn’t lost her. There was still hope…