Nametag – Sanchit Gupta, Maharashtra

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He held it in his hands, not knowing what to do. The digits colored red and blue, two way slide, LED flash double and an array that badgered the head. It is the wait that kills us, and he had waited.  Hours, weeks, months? Maybe many, maybe none. He tossed it back and forth, up and down like a juggler, juggling with the thoughts. Insolence has a way to escape, but guilt? It sticks around like the nametag that shone on his suitcase, unused, unnoticed, unscathed. The mind matures to the test of time, the heart fuddles at the cusp of wine. And it was the mind, the discerning, the wise, the one that had stood the test of time, and had guided the steps to where he stood today, pondering over the array, fingers swaying over the reds and blues. The suitcase had arrived, shoveling through a long queue of similar ones with similar nametags, though different in sizes, shapes and manner, a habit it had developed over time. He placed it on the trolley and made his way out.

Didi’s house was only a few miles away, and the cab didn’t take long. The neon lights marked the silhouette of the city into a glowing radiance. The technological wonder as it was, the city of Bangalore, no longer just the city of gardens, but now the city of IT. Didi worked in one of those firms, tall glass buildings, rock climbing, free pool and round the clock food. She had recently been transferred, about a month ago. It was for the better she said, and offered good money. He took out the luggage and ambled along to the elevator. It was Ten PM, the weekend was beginning to stretch its legs. As expected, Didi was surprised. She hadn’t expected Sanjay to be there, all the way from Mumbai ! Hope the spirits are fine as they should be, for the charm was missing. The face was dry, eyes swollen, revealing that sleep that had been a casual visitor, the lines of fault drawn along the temples, like a meandering river that disappears into the gorge. She reached forward to hug him through the door, he lunged all his weight on her, resting the chin on her shoulders. Men have broad shoulders, women it seems, have broader.

‘She said no, Didi’, the aroma of coffee permeated the room, as he spilled the beans. He rested his arms on the table, fingers wrapped around the mug, staring at the reflection in the brew. Didi was sitting on the adjacent corner, one leg placed on the chair, digging her face between the arms, watching him speak. ‘I don’t know how, I…I don’t know why. I was happy Di, I really was. You know Di, she is the most beautiful women I have ever met. Her gentle hands, the way they would hold me and rest me when I was down, the way she would laugh at the jokes I cracked, like no one else ever had. The way she would take me to places I didn’t know of, walking down the alleys as night befell. Her soft voice, the way she would take my name, the sly smile, the mischief, her long luscious hair flowing down the shoulders. Her eyes, oh Di her eyes, I tell you, you would have lost yourself in the charm of her eyes. The way she would look at me, with love in those eyes, with truth in those eyes. How can I believe it Di? How can she say she did not?

‘Believe it not’, she said, ‘believe it not Sanjay, accept it.’ Maturity, it is said, brings wisdom, and Didi was the wisest person he knew. Or was she?

‘No Di, I can’t, and I won’t. She is the one, I know it. I know she would come back, come back to me. There is no other face, there is no other name.  The course of true love never runs smooth, doesn’t it?’

‘I shouldn’t have let her go’, he continued, mumbling to himself, ‘I should have held on to her when she was there for me. I should have listened to her when she had called out to me, but I didn’t. Now, now she is gone. What should I do Di? How should I tell her I can’t live without her? Is there no way to take time back?’

The pots of coffee had emptied themselves. She took them back to the sink and turned on the tap. Water gushed on as if the dam had been let open, cleansing the scars that had marred the face. Consolation, she knew, was a lost man’s solace, and she had none to offer. She took him out to the roof. The clear September sky was lit with glittering stars, dazzling the spawning stretch of land into a panoramic view of the city. Their faces were brushed by a gentle breeze, calming the volcano brewing inside his head.

No replies yet, she hadn’t called, or even sent a message. The eyes couldn’t prevent the tears from pouring out, flowing down the cheeks. Eight months ago she had walked into his life, and he couldn’t say when, walked out. A blanket of clouds came over and covered the stars. Di said Bangalore might receive a brisk shower and they should head down. The night was getting dark, and long.

*-*

She held it in her hands, not knowing what to do.  The digits colored red and blue, two way slides, LED flash double, and an array that badgered the head. It is the wait that kills us, and she had waited. Three years was it, or maybe four? No LED then though, and no flash. How did he even have her number? But she had, never lost sight, always the courage. The heart jumped a beat as the ringtone crooned away, and what would she say? Those four years breezed through in front of her eyes, in a flash of a second. What a time it was, back in college, the carefree days of engineering, the golden days of insouciant rubbles and blithe conversations. And Sanjay? She could still remember the first time she had seen him, some club competition in first year. When the seniors would drag them all into the numerous extra currics that ensued, the way he had spoken. Elegance, grace and command, oh, how she had dreamt about him since the day. Yet couldn’t say so, ever. Four years, he hadn’t called, not even on her birthday. And there it was, Sanjay calling, it ranted on.

‘Hello’ said a voice on the other end. It was Sanjay all right, years might go by but she couldn’t forget the charm of his voice, the one that had allured her yet eluded her.

‘Hi’ she said, her demure voice trying hard to conceal the quiver in her lips.

‘Is this Naina?’ he enquired.

‘Yes, may I know who is on the line?’ by mustering composure as much as she could, and a nonchalance as much as she could fake.

‘Hey Naina, this is Sanjay, remember? From college?’

‘Sanjay, ofcourse. From electronics right? Long time no see. How have you been ?’

‘Doing good. I was in Bangalore for the weekend. Got to know from a friend that you too are put up here. So thought of calling you up. She also gave your number. I hope it’s not too late for a call?’

A thorough gentleman, quintessential Sanjay, she thought. ‘No it’s not, nice to hear from you. How come you in Bangalore? Where are you these days?’ she asked.

‘Too many questions together Naina! Why don’t we meet up tomorrow, maybe lunch? Catch up the good old college times! What say?’

How she had waited for him to ask this question, for months altogether, while in college. She looked at the calendar. It was a Saturday tomorrow, a day off from office, but her boss had called her in. The whole team infact, they were running late on a project, so had to work through the whole weekend.

‘That would be great Sanjay, but I kinda have office tomorrow’ she said, disappointed with herself, ‘would you be free on Sunday?’

‘Sunday would be tough, Naina. Infact, tomorrow afternoon only, for in the evening I gotta leave for some place. ‘

‘Oh I will try’, she said, and we hung up.

It was not unusual for Naina to work on a Saturday,  IT professional as she was, used to such makeshift arrangements. Nevertheless, a working Saturday would come with a license to be light on the schedules. Maybe come late to office, casual attire, light banter all around. Naina could not wait. She keyed in at 8 the next morning, finished halfway through by lunch, and told her boss she had to take the day off on a personal call. She messaged Sanjay the time and place, went home, had a bath, refreshed herself, got ready. The heart jumped a thousand beats as every second would pass by. She checked her hair again, should she tie them around or let it fall open? How did it use to be while in college? She had cut them short now, would he like it? Should she wear a suit or jeans? Or maybe a kurti? She galloped on, waving berserkly at the autos. Brigade road, she said. It was getting late, but maybe, there still was time.

Brigade Road was the most celebrated, much vaunted corner of the city of Bangalore.  Like Park Street of Kolkata, Cannought Palace of Delhi or Marine Drive of Mumbai, the place was a cherished resort for everyone, from tourists to localites, lovers to shoppers, young to old. It captured every emotion that the city had to offer, like a reflection of the ups and downs its dwellers lived with everyday. Today as well, the place was bustling with energy, more than the usual it can be said, being a Saturday. Laughter was dancing in the air, joy was serenading through the streets. Charm in the eyes of those who had come with their loved ones, holding hands, clicking pictures, sharing smiles. Sanjay sought a tree in one corner of the road and arranged to sit himself beneath the shade.  He could remember a time, few months ago, when there was a similar street once, where he would wait for her to come. A tree nearby, similar to the one that stood today, and a bar of chocolate in the pocket of his jeans, for her, for she loved it. Once he had brought two of them, she savored one before dinner and one after it. No wonder he could spot extra layers growing around the waist, even if she said they did not. He slid his hands in his pocket, foraging through the cave, scouting for the past. She hadn’t called.

A few minutes later the phone rang up. It was Naina calling. He tried to recollect her from the times of yore. The sleek, thin girl, a beautiful smile though. The voice was peculiar, was it, like speaking with an accent, though there was none. He tried to remember, how many times had he even talked to her while in college? Twice, thrice maybe? In a whole span of four years? There were rumors though, that many would say and he had heard, credulous or incredulous he won’t say, that she had a liking for him. Truth is a farce, and the farce diffuses through the air like a spilled tanker of oil, polluting the life that lay within, unwarned, unheeded. And for the farce, he had had no alacrity to rest the case. Four years, things change he knew, and so do people and emotions.  There was a coffee shop nearby and they headed in.

It was a brown color kurti she wore, braided with dots and linings on the side, or carvings through the mesh. Peacocks crawling along the neck like the hands of a bride spread out, festooned with the green, that would soon turn brown, maybe. Little feet with striped sandals, earrings that were gold but not golden, as she would claim to be. The big purse she would always carry, contrary to her small arms, and to what Naina had today. And no golden ear rings even, but silver. She had grown fat he could see, not like the one he had seen before with two cakes of chocolate, but more than what she was four years ago. The extra weight suited her, he thought, accentuating a glow he had not seen earlier, or maybe, didn’t remember. She asked him how he had been, and he replied. He asked her how her job was, and she replied. Apparently, she was single, as he found out, and confidently so, as if by choice. Her demeanor had a substance that commanded respect. Her smile hadn’t changed though, as vivacious today as four years ago. She sat on the chair, resting her back to the hilt, looking into his eyes and smiling at him. Just like the way she used to, yet, she hadn’t called.

It should have been the green one, its lucky for me I know. Yet what a fool I am. Purple kurti with chikankari on the neck, and a sky blue dupatta. A new one, never worn before. And there are no mirrors on the streets. Eyes of the strangers maybe, but not the ones that should be, as she searched through the packed contours. There he was, sitting in the corner under a tree. She spread her hand through the hair, tucked the dupatta, the final touch. He said a hello, she reached out, and they hugged. Maybe a half one, guarded, unsure. Coffee was good, and he was talking about how life had been. The same, honest voice, and the passion that there was. As if he was standing on a podium addressing a congregation, and she be at his side.  The fingers were fiddling with keys, and her head was tilted to one side, and then the other hand, and the other side. Her phone rang up in the middle sometime, she switched it to silent and placed inside her bag.

The sun was beginning to set as they walked out.  More people pouring in to enjoy the evening, while they walked down the alley as night befell. Sanjay had to catch the flight back to Bombay, visit her the next morning, if she would that is. Naina had to walk down the street with him one more time, if he would that is. It was the past trying to creep into the present, and the present trying to ward off the past. They ambled around the corner, as the road meandered towards the highway.

‘It was really nice to see you Naina’ he said, holding out his hand, bidding good bye. ‘Same here’, she replied, placing her palm in his stretched out hand, as she looked at him, with love in those eyes, with truth in those eyes. And walked away.

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