Leaving home wasn’t easy for Meera. She had fought with her parents before shifting to Delhi. She had always dreamt of becoming a filmmaker. It was a big dream for a girl born to a middle class conservative family in Meerut. Though she was just 21 her parents were already looking out for a prospective groom. The idea of getting married and losing her identity like her sisters irked her. Her only wish was to create her own path in life and become financially independent. With the help of her best friend she had applied for the Indian School of Dramatics and Theater and much to her surprise got selected. When she revealed the news to her parents all she got was a slap on the face instead of a pat on the back. All hell broke loose when she protested. There was no other way but to walk out of the house. She had made her financial arrangements in advance knowing very well that she would not get any help from her parents. Her friend Smita was the only person who knew about her plans and encouraged her to follow her dreams.
A Few months passed since Meera had reached Delhi and started her classes. She worked part time at a cafe to meet her expenses. Her resilient spirit had learnt to fight the odds of settling down in a new city.
Two things made her very happy- the interactive lecture sessions at the drama school and chatting with her classmate Ayushman. They talked about films, theater and literature and their conversation never seemed to end. They bonded at a very intellectual level and Meera made it a point to squeeze out half an hour from her busy schedule to chat with Ayushman. This quiet Delhi boy had never found a friend like her, she is unlike the girls he had met before. He could not define their relationship, it is too early to do so anyway, but he was happy that there is someone he could share his interests with.
Meera was busy at the cafe on Saturday evening, she could feel the phone vibrating in her pocket. She couldn’t take the call standing at the counter attending to the customers. A frustrated Ayushman couldn’t fathom why Meera was not taking the call. While glancing at the events column of the newspaper he had discovered that ‘Manto ki Duniya’ would be screened at the India Habitat Center at 5pm. He quickly called up his cousin who is a journalist and arranged two tickets for this show. He wanted this to be a surprise for Meera. He dialed her again and also left a whatsapp message, yet got no answer. She cursed her job and the never ending line in front of the counter, but she had to carry on with a fake smile on her face.
It was at ten when the shop closed for the day, she took out her phone and checked the messages. She found 10 missed calls from Ayushman’s number and a whats app message, “Where are you? Why don’t you answer the calls?” She could sense that Ayushman was irritated. She knew him for only two months and thus hesitated to tell everything about herself. Especially, that she had to work in a cafe to support herself financially. Meera had discovered that Ayushman was the son of a famous cardiologist Mr. Parth Gupta whose clients were famous politicians and actors, so naturally she thought that it was difficult for Ayushman to understand her situation. Even Smita had discouraged her not share personal problems with him so soon. She advised, “Don’t reveal anything about yourself too much to anybody, you are alone in a new city.” Yes that’s true, she didn’t have any friends yet and the girls in her class were a little aloof.
The first thing she did after reaching the hostel was to call Aysuhman. “Hey I am really sorry I couldn’t take your calls, I was a little busy today. Will meet up during the coming weekend.” Ayushman replied, “Where have you been? I thought to give you a surprise today but you didn’t take the calls!” Meera replied, “Sorry yaar, I was a little stuck with family issues, what was the surprise anyway?” He said, “I bought two tickets for the show ‘Manto ki Duniya’ and I thought I would pick you up from the hostel before I leave.” Meera replied: “Oh no I missed it! Will the show be on next weekend as well or we can go tomorrow after class. I am so sorry to disappoint you, I hope you didn’t wait for me.” Ayushman replied, “I went with my friend and I wish you were there too! Meet you tomorrow, good bye and good night.” Meera said, “Ya, good night, take care, bye!”
After a quick meal Meera sat with her film appreciation book but soon fell asleep. It had been a tiring day and the day after would be a long day too. The alarm rang sharp at 6am, she got up and checked her mobile for all the news updates while brushing her teeth. She finished her breakfast quickly and got ready for her class. As she walked out of the house and was about to get on to the auto she found Ayushman standing at the opposite side of the road waving at her. She went over to him, “Hiiii, you here?” He replied, “Thought to give you a surprise!” She smiled and replied, “That’s so kind of you.” Ayushman and Meera walked down to their college which was just fifteen minutes away from where Meera stayed. He asked, “Meera do you study 24 hours a day and what kept you so busy on Saturday evening.” Meera responded immediately, “I keep lessons prepared beforehand to avoid last minute stress and since I live in a hostel I have to do all the work myself.” She had rehearsed these sentences in her mind and the answer sounded believable. Ayushman nodded seriously and started talking about the event and said “Next time don’t miss it, these shows are important for a film student like you and me, practicals are as important as theory.” Meera just smiled back and said, “Right”.
The weekend was nearing and Ayushman invited her for a coffee this time. He wanted to know Meera a little more. He called up and asked whether she could come over to cafe’ Java Unlimited for a chat over coffee so that he could share some story ideas for a new short film. Meera’s throat went dry and her face turned white. This is what she was fearing the most. She didn’t want Ayushman to know that she works there as a waitress and sits behind the cash counter. She didn’t want to discuss about her circumstances that made her work but at the same time hates to tell lies to a dear friend like Ayushman, her only friend in the class. She fell silent in confusion. The voice at the other end said anxiously, “You there!” She replied, “Yes of course, just checking the calendar.” He said, “Arrey come on! Please make it this time. I have something to share, to whom will I tell, if not to you?” She replied back, “Can you make it on a weekday post class, say Wednesday, when we are getting off a bit early, actually my roomie is sick and needs my help.” She bit her lip and she said this white lie. Meera stuttered when she lied. He said, “Okay done” but was curious, he was now even more resolute to find out what she did on a weekend. He could sense that she was hiding something.
He planned a coffee and guitar jam session at cafe Java Unlimited with two of his school friends visiting Delhi on a Saturday afternoon. The cafe was spacious, it served great food and was pocket-friendly too. He looked forward for this meeting but he couldn’t fathom that he was in for a major shock!
Rajesh played a soft tune on his guitar and both Ayushman and Sid were reclining back on their seats taking turns at the hookah. Ayushman sat facing the entrance door. He could see a girl who resembled Meera paying the auto wallah his fare. He couldn’t stop staring outside the glass windows of the cafe. The conversation then shifted to his college but Ayushman kept an eye on this Meera lookalike from the corner of his eyes. He saw her coming in to the cafe and head straight to the room and closed the door, the two words ‘staff only’ was written in green on it. She came out wearing her uniform and sat behind the cash counter. Ayushman excused himself from his friends and went towards the washroom, on his way he purposely dropped his wristwatch on the ground near the confectionery section.
Meera had to talk to one of the chef and give him a customer feedback regarding an under cooked filling in a patties. She found the chef handing over a tray of pastry to the waiter behind the counter. She went over for a discussion, on her way back her eyes fell on this watch. She picked it up and looked at the Tissot watch. Meera had no idea that Ayushman was there in the cafe and had noticed her. She asked the waiters if they knew who the owner of this watch was, nobody could say anything. She took it to her cash counter and brought out the lost and found register. She announced, “I found this Tissot watch near the confectionery counter, the person who owns it has to describe the watch before the handover and sign the register.” Ayushman heard this announcement and came out of the washroom, his plan had worked. He went to the cash counter and said, “Hi, I want my watch back.” Meera raised her eyes and went white, it was Ayushman standing before her. Her mind was racing. Was he following her? How did he find out that she was there?” She asked in a professional voice, “Sir can you please describe it.” He mumbled slowly “You know fully well.” These words made her wince. She was about to say, “Sir but…” He stopped her midway and said, “Give it back!” She handed him the watch and made him sign the register. Then he paid the bill and told his friends that he was leaving the cafe the very moment. His friends were surprised but followed him out of the cafe.
Meera couldn’t concentrate on her work at the cafe that day, but she had to, since it was a karaoke evening on Saturday. Neither could she ask for her early leave especially on a weekend. Her mind was wandering. She was speaking to herself, “I have to tell the truth whether he believes it or not!” She only hoped and prayed that Ayushman will listen to her atleast once. She was there at the cafe the entire Saturday evening and could only go back home at around 10pm.
Meera returned back home at 1am and was tired but couldn’t sleep. She tried calling Ayushman but there was no response. She left a message on the phone, “Please give me a chance to explain myself!” She couldn’t afford to lose a friend like Ayushman. Her roomies were party animals and hardly stayed at the hostel at the weekend. They didn’t even bother asking her to join because they knew she couldn’t. There was no one for her, she was her own best friend. She laid down with a textbook on film theory but couldn’t concentrate. She wished that her parents were understanding. Had they been so, she could have averted this unpleasant situation at the cafe. She never had to tell lies to the person she loved to talk with. She wondered what Ayushman had to say about the short film. She knew the friendship was over, tears poured down from her eyes. She put down the book and kept checking her phone for a reply.
The weekend was over and classes started as usual. This week Professor Shankar asked the class to form groups of four for a paper presentation. There would be a seminar in the coming weekend where film director Mahesh Bhatt would come to give a talk on the history of Indian cinema. Everyone had to be present. Meera saw that everyone formed their own groups, even Ayushman joined a group of two girls in the class. She was asked to give a presentation all alone, hers would be an individual paper. This was her first challenge, her second challenge was to convince her manager that she won’t be able to come that weekend to work at the cafe. It meant that her salary would decrease. She wondered how will she pay her hostel fees and phone bills? She couldn’t even call her parents up and talk about her situation, she was afraid that they will come to Delhi and take her way and then she will be married off to some boy in Meerut. Meera was fiercely independent and wouldn’t let anyone murder her dreams. She had her head on her shoulders and started planning a strategy to resolve her own problems. First she had to find out how she could make up for the loss of work time at the cafe so that she could be self reliant. She also planned her move to win over Ayushman to her side. She found it uncomfortable that he was talking to other girls in the class but couldn’t fathom why she was feeling this way. She told herself, come on Meera he is just your classmate who has similar interests!” Her mind whispered something different to her ears which she was just choosing to ignore.
After the class she went outside the classroom and stood there waiting for Ayushman. She had to sort this problem first. Once Ayushman came outside she blocked his way and said, “Please give me a chance to talk please.” He moved her out of the way and said, “I don’t trust you!” She pleaded, “Please don’t say like that, you are my only friend.” He retorted, “So you chose to tell lies to me because you don’t trust me, you think that I am like any other guy, why didn’t you tell the truth last weekend what would it cost you.” He kept marching forward, She ran and stood before him, “I know I have told lies and it is a big mistake and I deserve this behaviour. Please give me a chance to say something.” Ayushman rested himself on the pillar and said, “Say”. Meera looked slightly relieved and said, “Look I always wanted to study about films and theater but my parents wouldn’t allow me to. I am just in my 20’s and my parents are already looking out for a suitor to marry me off, I come from a very conservative middle class family in Meerut. I want to do something with my life for which I need money. I don’t get any financial support from my parents and thus have to work to survive. I am deeply ashamed about it and I couldn’t tell you all this because I just know you for only a month. I know this is not a fair excuse because we talked so much about so many things and you are my only friend in Delhi. I don’t want to rely on someone to fulfill my dreams, even my parents, I can’t tell them how hard I am working at the cafe to pay my fees, I am afraid that they will take me way to Meerut and get me married off. I will lose my identity and become a housewife. I don’t want the life my two sisters have. That’s why I lied to you I don’t want anyone in the class to know I work at a cafe.” He was listening silently all the while, he then said“Why do you have to be ashamed if you are working in a cafe, so many people do work to support themselves. What hurts me that you didn’t trust me.” Saying this he left the place and didn’t look back when Meera said, “But Ayu….” and then she stopped. She had to give him some time and space to get over this.
She attended the next class and her eyes kept drifting to where Ayushman was sitting, in the furthest corner of the last bench, he was unusually quiet. This hurt Meera. She wished that she could go sit beside him and place a friendly hand on his shoulder. After the classes were over at four, she went to the library and picked up few books for her research and headed straight to the cafe. Another challenge was waiting for her there.
It was very difficult to convince the manager at the cafe to give her a holiday on Saturday, she promised to work for an extra hour to make it up on the next weekend. The cafe was located at the throbbing city center which sees a hundred footfall in the weekends. Missing work on weekend meant that a big portion of her salary amount would be deducted, however much she tried to make up for it. She couldn’t miss the seminar that was important too!
The day of the seminar arrived. Ayushman’s group was allotted the 1 o’clock slot to present their paper and Meera was given the 5pm slot to read out hers. Everyone was nervous since Mahesh Bhatt was there to judge their paper and based on that a scholarship would be given to the best paper presenter. After a lecture by Mahesh Bhatt, a cultural program and lighting of lamps took place and then the program started. Ayushman’s group was the first to go on stage and talk about the ‘changing nature of roles women get to play in theater and films’. His voice was that of a tenor but he didn’t have a face that would make girls go weak in the knees. His face was calm, he wore a black horn rimmed spectacles that made him look serious and the Tissot watch flashed in his broad wrist. He pointed at the white screen where his power point presentation was displayed while he read his paper. He completed his lecture at 2pm and then he left the room quietly. Meera thought he would come back, but he didn’t. Professor Shankar also saw him leaving without his permission.
After the presentation by the other two groups were over it was Meera’s chance to present her own paper on ‘The creation of new art films and its influence on the society’. Her lecture was over by 7 and it was followed by Mahesh Bhatt’s address to the audience. The results of the presentation was to be declared coming week. Based on which scholarship was given to meritorious students. The program ended with a valedictory address. Ayushman was still missing, she thought, ‘he is not a guy who will bunk lectures and important programs.’ Professor Shankar approached and asked her about Ayushman but she nodded her head, he looked very perturbed and grave. It was no use calling him since he will not pick up any calls. She messaged, ‘Professor Shankar is furious with you. Please talk to him.”
The next day Meera went to the cafe and found out from her colleague that a boy had come to work in her place. The Manager also informed that her monthly salary will not be deducted due to her absence on Saturday. She looked relieved and wondered who it was. She asked her colleague how did the guy look like. He replied, “Arrey that man who had come to the shop and lost his watch.” Meera’s eyes widened with surprise and she felt scared for Ayushman. She thought, ‘The award for the best paper should go to him and not to her and this is how he has spoiled all his chances.” She said to herself, ‘This is now my chance to give him a surprise.’ The rest of the day went off as usual.
On Monday she went to college before time and knocked on the staff room door. A voice said from inside, “Come in”. She went in and saw professor Shankar sitting with a pile of papers and books busy in his research. She said, “Sir sorry to bother you, this is very important, it is regarding Ayushman.” He looked at Meera from above his square rimmed glasses, she looked back pleadingly. He asked her to sit. She started explaining her financial circumstances to Professor Shankar and then told him what Ayushman had done for her and the reason for his absence from the class. She took his blame on herself. The professor listened to her quietly but remained silent throughout. After the first bell rang she left the staff room and reached her class on the first floor. She saw Ayushman from the corner of her eyes sitting at the last bench on the other corner of the huge classroom. She sat at the other end pretending not to have seen him at all. The class was over after an hour and Ayushman was called to the staff room, this made Meera very nervous. She prayed that his scholarship does not canceled at any cost. Ayushman’s expression told her that he was mentally prepared for the worst to happen.
Meera went to library after this and then to the cafe as usual in the evening after all the classes were over. Her mind was wandering towards Ayushman and she was wondering what might the strict professor tell him. On Wednesday the results of the power presentation was to be declared. Her constant fear was that Ayushman’s scholarship will be scrapped because of her and the girls in his group will come and blame her. She had seen a nightmare on Sunday night.
Wednesday was a grand day at the Drama School. There was a script writing workshop by Mahesh Dattani and it was followed by speech by Girish Karnad. Then came the most tensed moment the prize distribution for the paper presentation. The winner will get the scholarship to support his or her education for the rest of the semesters in the college and the second runners up will get a prize money worth Rs. 50,000. The prize would be handed by both Girish Karnad and Mahesh Bhatt who were sitting at the panel. Professor Shankar announced “With great delight I announce the winner as Meera Rizvi for a brilliant paper presentation on the present and future of art films and its influence in the society. He went on praising her paper. She went red in the face and was thinking that she shouldn’t have gone to Professor Shankar at all. She was wondering, Whether he was giving to her out of pity or did Ayushman told him to do so and then she thought why would the professor listen to him. Just then the Professor declared, “Second prize goes to Ayushman Gupta and his group.” She couldn’t just believe that she had won the scholarship and this had resolved a major part of her financial woes.
After the prize ceremony was over she went ahead and thanked professor Shankar profusely. He said, “You have not won the prize just because you came and related your financial problem or that Ayushman had worked on your behalf at the cafe. I have given the first prize not because you need the scholarship but you deserve it. I would say that you give up all work and concentrate on your coursework from now on. “
Next she went ahead and blocked Ayushman’s way though she knew his mood was off. The girls in his group were blaming him for not getting the first prize and for letting Meera win it. Meera caught his hand as he tried to move ahead, “I know I don’t deserved to be talked to after what I have done. Thank you for your sacrifice, it was very considerate of you. You understood me when my parents failed.” He replied gruffly, “This is no sacrifice I have just done what I thought is right at that moment.” She smiled mildly and said, “Thanks a lot for that, you don’t know what this prize means for me and….” He stopped her and said, “I know fully well, so now leave that cafe and start studying hard because this year will be tough.” She went ahead and embraced him. A disarmed and stunned Ayushman went red in the face and whispered back “Leave me, everyone is watching.” Indeed, a huge crowd had gathered around them. She replied, “No”. This time Ayushman smile and embraced her in return. They were in love with each other even before they had even realized…..