He sat at the dinner table surrounded by three of his closest friends and their family at an upmarket restaurant. It was a family dinner, arranged after a lot of cancellation and planning. Life had truly moved at a break neck pace. He felt as if he was leading life as if in a haze. There he was with friends whom he had met at college and now they were not just successful professionals but also family men with wife and kids. As he looked around he felt accomplished as he was surrounded by people who meant most to him, his wife, his 8 year old daughter and a set of friends and their family who were much closer to him than his family ever was, but there was a sense of unrest an incompleteness that he was never really able to fathom...
His mind wandered, and he reflected upon how his life had shaped in the last years. His friends would say that after a period of madness he has finally found his moorings and his life was finally on track... but was it really? Every day he came home to his beautiful daughter who was a source of joy and a very driven wife who was efficient, responsible and everything that one would wish for in a wife, she was a good mother, a dutiful daughter and a great homemaker. Then why was it that he yearned for her, he kept thinking about her, longing for her even after so many years.
Where would she be now? Has she married? Does she have children? Does she still smile in her sleep? Does she wake up only to snuggle deeper into the sheets? Does she ever wonder what happened to him? This trail of thought disturbed him. After so many years he had no business thinking about her. After all he had done the right thing, moved away before it rocked his settled life and she had agreed to the entire arrangement as well. Even though the mind is at ease the heart never was, it kept yearning for what was and what never will be.
A roar of laughter brought him back to the dinner table and he looked around smiling and it was then he noticed the most adorable girl he has ever seen walk up to the table next to theirs. She must be all of three, dressed in a red frock, hair falling till her shoulders fixed with clips and matching bunny shoes to complete the look, she was a pretty kid and for some reason he could never move his eyes from her. The kid was making fish faces at a person who was probably her mother on being denied her favorite toy, as his gaze left the kid and settled on the mother who had her back towards him something tugged at him, a familiar feeling coursed through him yet he couldn't really place it. Just then the lady turned to the daughter swinging her into her arms and turning around.
For a few moments time stood still. He was glad others at his table were too engrossed to notice his expression. He couldn’t believe it was her standing right in front of her even after so many years. His eyes drank in her sight. He loved the way she wore her hair long as it fell to her waist in soft natural curls. The beautiful white and red salwar kameez moulded her body as small diamond studs glittered in her ears, which got reflected in his nose pin. Her left wrist wore a simple elegant watch and the right wore two thin intricate bangles and her shapely fingers wore two rings one on each hand. Her eyes wore the familiar heavily kohled look and a touch of colour brightened her full lips.
She had maintained her no makeup look even after so many years which made her look elegant and breathtakingly beautiful and for a moment he was lost in her sight. It was the little girl’s giggle that brought him back to reality and he felt a rush of anger boiling in him. So she had gone ahead and married and had a family and had forgotten all about him with ease. He felt angry and stupid about himself for thinking about her till he felt possessed. For a moment he felt like walking up to her and slapping her but then he looked away.
Feeling a stare she looked up to see him and her face turned while and she hugged her daughter closer to her for comfort. It wasn’t just him who had noticed her, Arti had too, and she turned to her husband and whispered.
“Isn’t she Noyona, Neel?”
“Huh? Who? Aah... yes Noyona...” he tried to say smoothly hoping that she and others at the table wouldn’t notice the discomfort. Before he could figure what should be done next Arti pushed back her chair and walked up to Noyona. For a moment he felt uncomfortable, he felt a little guilty, Arti never really knew what he had shared with Noyona, but she had been really insecure and rather bitter about her which had led to a lot of spats until he stopped mentioning her at all. It had been four years since it was over between him and Noyona, but she lingered around in his marriage for no fault of her own. Arti could sense that Noyona was someone very important to Neel but could never accept it nor was she able to keep her off from her husband and the knowledge made her angry and inadequate.
Noyona turned to Arti in surprise.
“Funny how we never met but we know each other”
“Really...so how have you been? You guys are now settled in Delhi?”
“Yes we have been for the last two years... didn’t you know?”
“I’m really sorry I guess I have been out of touch for a long time...”
“So are you based out of Delhi too now?”
“No I am still in Bangalore. Nandini my niece stays here and we had come to visit her and her fiancé.”
He had been listening on to the conversation for some time and felt it was time to chip in as the air
was turned on to be very uncomfortable.
“Hi Noyona...How have you been?” He asked trying to keep all emotion out of his voice.”
“I have been good and you?”
“I have been good too, funny how we seem to bump into each other all the time.”
A strange looked passed Noyona and he knew she remembered how they had first met. They had literally collided with each other on the office staircase. Arti fidgeted and he moved on to say something.
“So what brings you to Delhi? Planning to move here?” Arti gave a panicked look.
“No actually my niece has finally met someone and we have come to meet him.”
“Is this your daughter?”
“Err... yes her name is Ankhi.”
This time it was Neel who visibly recoiled. He remembered how she had once passionately said that she would name her son and daughter Ayon and Ankhi, as it meant eyes and she had always loved eyes as they she believed were the windows to the soul. And after so many years she had married and had kids and she had named her daughter Ankhi, her daughter but not fathered by him. Pain made it hard for him to breathe.
“Aah so you married? Where is your husband?” Arti chipped in.
Before she could reply they were joined by Nandini her niece and Arnab whom he recalled was her best friend from college. So finally Arnab got to marry Noyona, a girl who was his best friend and also someone he had had a massive crush on which he could never recover from. They had even met once. He reached out to greet him.
“Hi Arnab been a long time...”
“Yeah it has been... how have you been Neel?”
“Been pretty good, now settled in Delhi itself. Hey hi Nandini...we have never really met but we have spoken, I don’t know if you remember me?”
“Hey hi Neel I do remember you, it’s hard not to... it’s been a really long time na? By the way have you met Ayon the little monster?”
“O my!! Are Ayon and Ankhi twins?” Arti exclaimed.
“Yes they are... but that’s where all the similarities end. They are diametrically opposite but love each other nonetheless” Nandi exclaimed.
“Hey I think you should get back to your dinner, your friends are waiting!” Noyona said.
“I think we should, but you do keep in touch, it was really nice meeting you.”
“Thanks Arti it was the same for us, bye Neel.” With that Noyona turned away, trying to settle her kids. Ayon choose to sit with his Masi on her left as Noyona took to her right with Ankhi beside her and Arnab taking his place right across the table.
After the order was placed, it was finally Nandini who finally spoke out.
“Are you okay Noyon? Look if you want we can do somewhere else. I know this must be hard.... i
dint know he was in town or i would never have brought you here...”
“Relax its fine. I didn’t expect him to be here too but then given the history of running into each other I should have known I’d bump into him. Dont mind me, when is Rannvijay joining us?”
“He will be along any minute now.”
As he sipped his drink he felt drawn to her. She seemed happy; finally she had found her anchor in Arnab and decided to give life a chance. While at one level he was happy for her at another level anger and jealousy ripped him apart. He couldn’t believe she had lied to him. All those tall talks about not being able to envision sharing life with anyone else but him and deciding to be all alone throughout life because she loved him and couldn’t not love someone the same way, all was a lie! A small voice in his head told him what he was thinking was all wrong. He had chosen to end this unexpected relationship and decided to go back to his wife and kid and had given up on her, it was his choice not hers. But she knew from the beginning that there was no future yet she let herself be in this relationship, he reasoned. So does that mean even after he let go of her she was supposed to die mourning for him? He figured he was being unreasonable but the thought that some other man was in her life was disturbing enough let alone the fact that he had fathered her kids and was
a permanent part of her life. He died several deaths just thinking about how another man touched her, made love to her.
He imagined her waking up only to nuzzle her face against his chest, her smile brightening her face even before she fully opened her eyes. He remembered her painstakingly scrubbing his feet and throwing soap suds all over him because he wasn’t cooperating. He remembered her draping her saree and him watching her every move, the way it caressed and moulded her body. She had not made it to the puja pandal in time; he had ensured that his hands traced the contours of her body, kissed each and every curve of her body. It had been hours before she went out, the marks was there for all to see who cared enough to take a second look but she had not complained. That was the beauty of her, even in the dead of the night when she would lay deep in sleep and he would trace his fingers along her bare back, caressing her nape and kissing her ears, she would just languidly turn and submit herself in his arms.
But it wasn’t for the sheer beauty of her body that made him long for her, but the childlike quality in her. When she would decide to make dinner or lunch, food would be scattered all over the place, she would be clumsy and sloppy which led to innumerable fights. She would end up pissed giving him the cold shoulder and he would criticize her some more, until later things would be resolved in a moment of uncontrollable passion. He wanted to take care of her and hold her and take away all her pain but he knew he was not meant to be around forever, he had a home and family to go to and strangely she never seemed to challenge that. Maybe that’s why he loved her so much.
Now as he looked across the room he saw a mature lady who was sure about herself, the childlike innocence had been replaced by wisdom, her eyes were veiled but almost sad and the smile even though permanently adorning her lips was not natural. So much had changed, they had gone their separate ways just as they had known they would but then why even after so many years does heart still long for her? He wondered for the millionth time, what if he had decided to shirk his responsibilities and chosen her over them? How would life have been then?
His daughter laced her arm with his and he came out of his reverie only to meet Shekhar’s eyes. A friend of many years he knew exactly what transpired much more than anyone could ever imagine. He nodded to him and smiled signaling that things were in control. Seeing the happy faces around him he couldn’t help but feel disconnected. This was the first time in so many years Arti made an attempt to participate in any kind of conversation or be in a good mood in such gatherings yet the knowledge didn’t please him, he knew something was not right, was it her? Why did it bother him that she had chosen to settle down in life? He looked across to the kids perched on their high chair
feeding ice cream to one another. With ice cream smeared all over the face and a messy bib, they looked quite adorable, almost a reflection of their mother. And the familiar tug was back, they could be his if only... Arnab had linked his hands to hers under the table and his eyes rarely left hers. He knew at that very moment that he had truly lost her when he had chosen his family over her few years back and what they had had surely succumbed to the tests of time.
The cheque arrived and after paying he made his way out with his family and others. Before the restaurant door clicked shut he looked back, she sat there smiling hugging her kids close to her, her hair falling on her face masking her expression.
“Dad...... come on...”
After Arnab and Noyona saw Nandini and her fiancé off, he settled the kids on the front seat of the car, securing them with the seat belt. He arranged their bags neatly on the backseat and kissed them goodnight.
“You okay?” Arnab said as he pulled her close for a tight hug.
“Been better before but will survive this.”
“Come on now smile.. Okay enough of brooding let’s get going. It’s getting late.”
“Drive safe Arnab. Goodnight.”
“You too Noyona. Goodnight.”
As Arnab saw the car turn into the driveway and disappear, his phone started ringing.
“Hi baby, how are you doing? You want me to pick something up on the way? Some ice cream? No cravings tonight? Are you sure? I’m not going out again once I’m home... uhuh!! Okay... yea the dinner went off well... Nandini’s fiancé is rather nice... yes IIT Delhi... good chap.. kids were great... yes we missed you.. Nandini understood that in your condition coming out would have been tough... yeah they can’t wait for the baby to arrive... you won’t believe who we met today... no no it was Neel... Noyona was stunned at first but then she seemed collected... did she tell him? No she didn’t. They kind of assumed that I was with her and no we didn’t not tell them otherwise. No she seemed perfectly okay with it... Anyway let’s discuss this once i get home? Okay see you in sometime then.”
He hung up and reflected on the events of the night and sighed. He felt sorry for Noyona for all that she had been through all alone for the last four years but more than that he was proud that she never for once faltered or complained. She accepted whatever life brought her way smilingly and braved all hardship. If only Neel knew... would he have done things otherwise? He didn’t think so. He started the engine and drove away.