(Dear reader, This post is a little too long so kindly be patient till the end. And credits to Hagrid for the edits and cleanup in my messy text.)
Restless waves flirted ferociously with the shore towards my left. The extravagant resort to my right spread its expanse like a phoenix’s wings, and the ground underneath was dotted with distant wooden tables, engulfed in evening shadows. The familiar gush of the evening breeze delivered incomprehensible whispers into my wide ears. The tides swelled impatiently, and the sun had called it a day. The moon had not come up yet.
The ocean riveted in anxious anticipation and foamed in impatience. So did my insides.
Both of us were waiting for our lovers.
She had asked for this specific spot for our third date. And a very specific table number. And here I was, at the table farthest from all others and closest to the sea, wondering how she knew which table to pick.
My OCD had made sure I was fifteen minutes earlier than our reservation. It helped me calm my nerves and observe my surroundings. This was one of the plush resorts in Chennai, with a public cafeteria that spaced out into a small private beach. People staying in the resort had started to come out and relax as the sand cooled. The shadows stretched further away, emboldened by the increasing darkness.
The canopy of the thatched roof ended just after my table, and the stone pavement below it transitioned into the sand that sheepishly ran towards the sea, a good fifty meters away.
The dim lights were getting more noticeable as sunlight fizzled, and dusk put a gentle blanket on what had been a hot and humid day. The restaurant did not play any music. I appreciated it. The only background sound was of the happy waves and the whistling wind. The wind carried more than just air. The adjacent tables were far enough to be barely audible.
It was just the perfect public private space I would have wanted.
I kept staring at the big entrance gate, waiting for her to walk in. First seconds and then a few minutes passed. Then one thought led to another, and I lost myself in oblivion.
A month ago, on a Wednesday, she had walked into my life, wearing a business suit and joyful curls, donning the prettiest dimples I had ever, ever seen. It was a business meeting. I had to close the purchase orders for 5 MVA transformers and its spares, quite a big volume, with her firm.
For two days our teams had been at loggerheads, negotiating price and quantity. For two days she had sat across me, throwing contract clauses, and looking unlike any girl I had ever seen. While the cost and bill of materials were tabled and debated, I often found myself counting the curls her short hair left hanging on her perfect face.
There is always something more to a girl with short hair. Always.
The red appeared on her face every time I said something callous or witty, and confident words followed, hiding what I could bet was a definite blush.
Never before had I seen so much red in someone’s face.
How could I not have fallen in love?
I had left the meeting happy, sealing a good margin for the transformers. Before she left, we had coffee in the pantry, and I had looked right into her big, black eyes and found myself lost, wondering if I should ask her out.
And in that exact moment, she did just that.
“Weird name guy. What are you doing this evening?” She had said, and on my flummoxed countenance, added “From the look on your face, you wouldn’t say no to dinner tonight?”
And luckily, I had not.
And it was instant fire. Lightning in a bottle. As if my life had been a sin up until that point.
And she had walked in like forgiveness.
She did not know fear. And I did not know joy. We got along excellently. Match made in heaven… that sort of thing.
Back to the present, and my reverie was broken by the sound of children playing. The strands of twinkle lights swayed in the breeze, resembling fireflies flying in circles. The lanterns swayed back and forth, moving the shadows on my table with them.
If you had to ask me, everything was waiting for her eagerly.
She had still not walked in from the gate.
I kept staring at the entrance, anxious to catch the exact second she walked in.
People came and went, and the last colors of day faded from the sky. And then, looking like a dozen lightning bolts, she walked through, and my heart skipped a beat.
She wore deep purple kanchiwaram silk suit, decorated at the edges in golden embroidery. The sleeves ended just after her elbows, and her multiple bangles shined noticeably. Her curly hair was having a fight against the wind already, and her expression did not betray the energy she carried for this evening.
She was carrying her big infinity bag, her constant companion on all her unofficial visits. Her handkerchief lay partially visible from the barely closed bag, and I bet I could see the tip of her kissan bottle she used to drink water from.
She looked at me, halted in her steps and smiled. Then walked right over and sat right across me. Her hair was still partially wet. She smelled like potpourri and fresh love, and I could feel the butterflies in my stomach wake up from their slumber and go for a flight.
Without saying a word, she took out an old book with loose, yellow bamboo pages and dislodged cover. She pulled out an older worn out bookmark and to the page she had selected to start this meetup with.
This is how all our dates had begun.
Not with a hello or a hug.
But with the reading of an excerpt of our favorite books.
The last time I had read out the first page of “The Forest Again” from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I had recited Mark Antony’s famous speech on our first.
I had come unprepared.
But she was. Each time.
And her sweet voice in excited modulation.
She cleared her throat, and in a voice between a lullaby and an English teacher’s dictation, started to read. I listened with all my heart. This was important to her.
So, it was for me.
“Besides, readers aren’t viewers: they recognize their pleasure as different from that of being entertained. Once you have pressed the on button, the TV goes on, and on, and on, and all you have to do is sit and stare. But reading is active, an act of attention, of absorbed alertness—not all that different from hunting, in fact, or from gathering.”
“In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can’t lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head….”
She paused to reorient the book and her hands and continued. I tried to count the curls dangling on her face, as I did every time, she talked uninterrupted.
“… A book won’t move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won’t move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won’t do the work for you.”
There were five separate curls of hair hanging on her face. Her eyes drowned in the book, her lips taut, and jaws moving in happy enunciation of the text she was reciting.
“To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it—everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not ‘interactive’ with a set of rules or options, as games are: reading is actual collaboration with the writer’s mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.”
She closed her eyes, and then the book. Inhaled a deep breath and slowly opened her big eyes, her smile reaching her ears, dimples deeper than ever.
She held the book close to her chest and blinked, egging me on to do my reading.
I took out a novel from a Russian author I had read long back in the forgotten days of engineering. And opened the page with its top folded. She noticed that. I knew instantly she would be buying bookmarks before our next outing.
I started to read, making sure there were no hesitations and no “aaas”. Slowly, I modulated each word in careful ease:
“The centripetal force on our planet is still fearfully strong, Alyosha. I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring.”
I paused for effect, and continued: “I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I love some great deeds done by men, though I’ve long ceased perhaps to have faith in them, yet from old habit one’s heart prizes them. Here they have brought the soup for you, eat it, it will do you good. It’s first-rate soup, they know how to make it here. I want to travel in Europe, Alyosha, I shall set off from here. And yet I know that I am only going to a graveyard, but it’s a most precious graveyard, that’s what it is!”
Her eyes were fixed on me. I had not blinked since I started reading. And I think neither had she.
“Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach.”
And with that, I shut the book, and motioned to take a bow.
She clapped, her eyes even bigger with applause. “I am impressed.” She said.
“Yeah I guess that goes into my appraisal.”
She smiled some more and looked down. The table and its accessories engrossed her instantly.
“Hey! Look. There are wax spots on this table!” She exclaimed.
“Yeah! So?” I said.
“They are different colors, too! Do you know what that means?”
“I don’t. Maybe they did not clean it properly. Wait I will call the waiter.”
“What! No! Stop Mr. Soo! You are ruining it.”
She went on, adding expressively, “These spots mean someone lit a candle on this table. People light a candle when there is no light…”
I could not see where this was going. She continued, “That means a meal was shared on it in candlelight. This table has witnessed love before.”
I did not want to argue on the words “love before”. I wanted to point out that it may just have been the hotel staff smoking pot after dark, but her excitement to see a furniture that had a history was my greatest source of awe at the moment.
She further stressed her point, “I like tables with wax stains. It means they have been sat at during dark times.”
I do not think I have ever looked as stupid as I did then. I kept staring at her in awe.
“Stop ogling, Mister!” She said, frowning, her dimples deeper than they were earlier.
“Why? I just got to see my girlfriend after two weeks!”
“And you are so lucky! So lucky”
Her work took her all across the country. She had just returned from Ahmedabad after a week there to streamline the production process at factory. And she had been in Mumbai the week before for corporate meetings and client calls.
“Do you know why I brought you to this restaurant?”
“Because this is the only place, they allow homemade food. And I brought you some.”
“So basically, we are eating home food but in outside setting.” I said, curious and still intoxicated from the smell of her shampoo.
“Yes! Sir, Basically. And not just any homemade food. Deliciousness cooked by me.”
I stared at her, again.
She opened her bag and took out one box after the other.
I kept staring. She was unique. Rare. Different. Her.
Her dangling curls brushed against her dimpled cheeks as she fiddled with the boxes, her eyes busy, face focused, lips curled.
“I cooked masala dosa for you because that’s the only dosa you know. Stupid Bihari. I wanted to bring podi dosa, but you aren’t much of a try-and-see person. And a proper chutney. And this one is sambhar! It will not taste like “Sarvana bhawan” or “Sangeetha”. Because it will taste better. And here is some idiyappam as well because I still want you to try something new, despite all your dilly dallying.”
I was barely listening. The thought this woman put in little things was beyond my comprehension. And in that moment, if someone had asked me my name, I would not have been able to recall!
I did not know what to say so I took off my heavy Casio watch, stopped her moving hand, and slipped it though her fingers, onto her forearm. It dangled as steel clunked against steel, too loose for her thin hands. She lifted her arm, and it would have slipped down to her shoulders if she had not stopped it.
“You have animal sized wrists. But why did you put your watch on my hand?”
“Relax. It is not a ring! Just a watch. And I am just marking my territory!”
And I winked.
She did not say anything. Just smiled and wobbled her head. She further rummaged around her big infinity bag, as my watch slipped up and down her arm.
“Look at this!” She said, extending a rolled piece of paper.
I took it in my hand and unrolled it to see a painting of a couple walking on the beach, leaving behind footsteps in the sand, and looking at the sea. There were distant ships and the moon gazing down with all the other stars.
The guy had a noticeable belly and large, ugly fingers. And the girl wore a polka dot skirt, her curls swaying in the wind, smiling with visible dimples.
“It is us. On our last date!” I said.
“But it was morning. We went to the beach at six in the morning!” I squeaked, “Why is the sun missing and why are there stars and a moon in the horizon?”
“Yeah don’t complain!”
“Because I like nights better. So I drew the picture imagining it was night.”
“Ugh…!” I expressed my displeasure. “I love mornings!”
“Yes, I know.” She argued, pouting her tongue in an O, and added, in a deep, flat pitch voice to mimic me, and quoted one of the poems I had sent her, her head wobbling in the cutest way possible.
“I am the promise of the rising sun,
I am the whisper of the night sky…
Blah blah blah”
I sighed in protest and drooped my shoulders.
“Why Soo! Are you scared of the dark?”
“We the children of morning do not fear the night.” I said, “But why are my fingers so big in this. They are almost as big as my arms!”
“Because you have big and rough fingers, Soo. Like a gorila!”
“Right! So, you can draw us on the beach and turn day into night and change my hands into that of an animal and I am still not allowed to protest!”
“Yes! Mister. That is how it is! And you were the one who hates taking a selfie!” She winked, “Lovers have been around for millennia. And you are in Stone Age. And guess what they did then? They drew!”
I sighed again, and yawned.
“Didn’t sleep properly?”
“Why? You up texting some pretty girl last night?”
“Yeah! But not because she is pretty”, I said. “I was having an argument whether dindigul biryani is better than chettinad biryani.”
“Still on that huh! I made my case for chettinad, but it was not much of an argument. You barely replied to one out of five texts yesterday.”
“Well it’s not my fault. You type too fast.”
She blushed. And added in an undertone,
“Can’t handle chettinad or a grown-up woman!”
“I heard that!”
“Well, if I did not want it heard I wouldn’t have spoken it at all!”
I ignored. I handed the painting back to her and adjusted my feet so that it intentionally hit her on the shin.
“Grow up, Soo! Speaking of… here is something for you!”
And she handed me a small glass bottle, full of dark brown liquid. I turned it upside down and a small bubble popped up to the inverted bottom.
“What is this? Felix Felicis?” I asked, ogling it with creases on my nose.
“No. It’s a little decoction I made. For your filter coffee tomorrow. So that you do not keep yawning at important people!”
“And do not forget to finish it by tomorrow or it will go bad!”
“Roger that, Ma’am!” I smiled and put the bottle in my bag. As far as I was concerned, it was my Felix Felicis for the next day.
“And I notice you are wearing the same T-shirt as the last day we went out”
“Yes! I am wearing the same trousers too!”
“Okay. I am sensing I shall not ask if they have been through a wash in the meantime.”
“Bleh. If it makes you feel any better, I am wearing a new underwear!”
“Already? Mister! Did you bring your condom too?”
“Why? Did you bring your consent?”
“Get a different tee next time. And preferably not black. Feels more like a funeral than a date.”
“Oh, that’s sad. I thought we were killing it.”
“Speaking of killing, how about we slay some of the demons that keep you up at night?” She said, and did not stop for my answer, “And where are these demons? In the past or the future?”
“Well not in the future, I hope. But I have enough demons in my past. And do not worry. The past is certainly dead. I see its ghost all the time.” I spoke.
“Mister. If god sent devils along your way, how can an angel like me have been far behind?” she said, shrugging.
“Isssssh. My cute demon slayer in a business suit. Don’t you have demons in your past that you regret?”
“Don’t we all?”
“So, someone walked away with your heart?”
“Duh. No if anything, they walk away with the ability to trust.”
“So why trust me then?”
“I don’t know. Cause you are a maybe”
“So, I am an experiment?”
“Isn’t everything the first time?”
“But still… Why ask me out?”
“Ha-ha. The love we do not claim does not return!”
“So, is it love I see in your eyes?”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Mr. Soo”
“Then what is it I see?”
She smiled, and glanced away, avoiding eye contact.
“You ask difficult but honest questions, Soo.”, she whispered, still looking away.
I smiled. A long silence of understanding interrupted our conversation.
I did not stop smiling.
“That is what I like about you. You do not talk like every other human being. You converse.”
She looked back at me, this time eye to eye, full of mischief. “Maybe it was the first time I came across a guy this good with English and who did not claim to be a feminist.”
I leaned back; my hands folded to the back of my head.
“Ha-ha! And you are the first person I know who has an MBA and did not bring it up in the first ten minutes of conversation!”
She chuckled. “But how did you know?”
“Ha-ha. No. Consider me a weatherman. I like to find out how bad the storm is before I set my sails.”
“Okay mister weatherman. You are calling me a storm instead of your stalkee?”
“No, Miss. In fact, I think you are the rainbow after the storm has passed.”
She paused, her eyes twinkling.
“Aren’t you a sweet talker, mister weatherman?”
“Ah no. I think you are just that sweet.”
“Oh my. My.”
A silence ensued. I had spoken more words that I was used to in normal conversation in five minutes. She decided to continue doing the talking.
“You know I visited L&T with expectations of meeting boring engineers and securing plum orders for my company. But you proved me wrong.”
“Ha-ha. I am glad I am not boring.”
“Also, you are not an engineer!”
“What?” I said, perplexed. “How am I not an engineer?”
“No. You, Mister, are a poet who is employed as an engineer. And one has to be a little broken to bleed poetry.”
I opened my mouth. And closed it again. Her last sentence was something I had told her on our very first dinner.
The things a woman remembers.
We spread out the dishes she had bought with her and ordered wine from the restaurant. She passed me dosa on a plate, and the smell instantly rang my taste bud bells.
“Oh! You look delicious.” I whispered.
“Thank you. That’s the first compliment I have received from my miser of a boyfriend today!”
“I am sorry, I was talking to the Dosa.” I blurted.
“Cheesy! What does one have to do to get a compliment around here?”
“What! You get compliments all day!”
“Yeah! But not from my boyfriend!” She said, and rolled her lower lip out downwards, expressing displeasure.
“Girl you delicious”, I said, still looking at my plate, trying to cut a morsel out.
“What! You give me a compliment and make a grammatical error in it. Now what do I do!” She said, leaning back in what was a definite irritation.
I smirked, “Okay I am not good with compliments…”
“That was intentional, wasn’t it?” she cut through. “You, of all people, know how to compliment someone!”
“… You didn’t let me finish!” I said, looking her directly in the eye. I put down the spoon and swallowed the rest of the morsel in my mouth.
“I have not given you the compliment you deserve, because you know “male ego”, but here is what I can tell you…”
And I took a deep breath, leaned forward, still maintaining eye contact and continued.
“… is that… so far, I can tell you have at least one business suit. You wore black jeans on our first dinner and a red top. You have a polka dot skirt and a majestic white top you wore to the beach that day. One yellow tee that reads “peace maker” because you are wearing it in your WhatsApp dp, and you changed it three weeks ago on a Thursday night. Before that you dp was a Pikachu. Your WhatsApp status is set to “silent clarion” in all the time I have known you. Your Facebook dp is from a trip to Pondicherry last year with your friends. In that you are in all blacks.”
She smiled, her even teeth were all the symmetry I needed to go on.
“You always carry this bag when you are not working. Your handkerchief is pink at the borders and I have seen two of them so far. You are never without them. For someone who travels so much, you carry the same kissan bottle for water everywhere. You wear dress shoes when you are working, but you also have a ballerina and a sneaker. The sneaker you wore to the dinner we had at Thalapakatty and the ballerinas you wore to the beach. You wore the ballerinas with a band aid to the back of your heels because it cuts you. That day at the beach when you took it off, the bad aid came off and you did not realize but I saw it getting washed away. Your phone’s wallpaper is a photo from Tirupati temple. During office meetings you wore a more crimson lipstick, while on our dates you prefer the darker shade.”
I paused to take and break, drank some water, and continued,
“You are most online between 8 pm to 12 am. That is when you are reading or catching up with media. You most used smiley is facepalm followed by 😊” (I made the expression with my face.), “You usually wake up by seven but on Wednesdays you wake up earlier because that is when you have to shampoo. Speaking of, you use different shampoos when you are working and a different one on weekends when you are not. Because you smelled different at Thalapakatty than you did at the beach and today. And I can tell because your weekend shampoo smell is more addictive to me.”
I was exhausted. I had spoken more words than I did sometimes in a whole day. She did not speak, but instead immersed in eating. Her hair kept brushing against her forehead, and I could not make out what she was thinking.
We kept eating for a while in silence. The kids were done playing and were being forced by their parents to go back inside the resort. The moon had come up finally and one could see the elation in the oceans’ behavior.
The cafeteria was still full, but the beach had started to thin. Dosa and wine are a weird combination but it everything tastes good if you are having it with the person you like.
“What did you just do?”
“Nothing!” I mumbled, my mouth full of the dosa I had just bit, a little still dangling outside my lips, and my hand still holding the rest of the nibble.
She lifted her hand to point, and my heavy watch moved to her elbows. “You just unraveled the dosa, then took the sambhar first and then you took the chutney!”
“So…?” I said, guiltily, unsure of the criminal act I might have committed.
“No. You never unravel the dosa. First you rub it on chutney. And then you dip in into the sambhar.”
“What! Why…” I started my protest, “Where is it written that chutney comes first? And dosa is not to be opened up.”
“Then why is that the chutney must come first?”
“Because I made it, stupid Soo!”
I did not say anything. I chewed on. I realized she was not done speaking about why eating chutney first was important. My watch on her hand rubbed again the table, filling the chewing sounds with steel clangs in between.
“Do you know that google had to change the Burger emoji? Apparently, cheese was at the bottom and people debated that it should not be! So, they changed it.”
She paused a bit to drink some water and continued, “Even google knows there is an order of things. Have you no sense at all?”
I kept chewing. She went on to conclude, “So yes! The chutney comes first!”
“Ma’am, yes Ma’am!” I saluted, and she giggled.
We finished our dinner. I packed the idiyappam in my bag and we properly tipped the waiter. I preferred not to eat dosa at night, but it was so tasty than I did not even leave a drop of sambhar on my plate.
Then we strolled around the beach. The dark sea and the huge, unexplainable hollow above it that bore the moon and the stars. And we sat there in the dark, listening to the wind. We did not talk much, just looked at the clouds forming dotted patterns over the moon. The happy stars twinkled down at us, to be disturbed occasionally by a flight.
All my life I had been beat up, bullied, chewed up and spit out. All my life I had wandered city to city, friend to friend, one roadblock to another, without a home. My kindness had been people’s opportunity and I had been used and disposed of by people I loved, and the lessons in life stood hard by me like scars from wounds that may never heal.
But this was different.
All my life I had only ever known pain. This was more than love. It felt like healing.
For a change, I was not lost in a memory. For a change, I was adding one.
She put her head on my shoulders and whispered, “You have broad but comfortable shoulders Mister Soo.”
I replied, “And you have a big but beautiful head.”
She chuckled, and said, “Here onwards, your shoulders are reserved only and only for me. No one gets to put their head on it. And if someone does…” She looked up into my eyes with mischief, “I will know.”
I smiled. There is a rare someone who we value more because they walked in so late in our lives, splitting it into before and after. She was that. Up until now, I was a broken heart. And the head on my shoulders felt like a fresh start.
We sat there until the cafeteria started to close. We walked out of the gate, and I joined in her hurried steps towards the bus stand, my hands locked behind me, matching her step by step.
There were distant cars and their many headlights reflecting in the rain puddles on the dim road, scattering colors all over the evening Chennai landscape.
“What are you doing? Why are your hands behind your back?”
“Isn’t this how gentlemen walk?”
“Yes. But not when they are with their lady!”
And she held my hand.
Her soft palms seemed to dissolve in my rough gorilla fingers.
Ahead of us, the cars and the headlights and the dark evening were still there.
But the colors were missing.
Because they were all in my hands!