Vasant (Spring) 2020 Short Stories - Supriya Rakesh


What were we?

By Supriya Rakesh


I could not take my eyes off the woman across the street. She stood there, in her soft pink kurta, a white purse across her shoulders, shining brighter than the rest.


The traffic lights turned green, and I slowly began walking in her direction. As I approached, I noticed a flicker of recognition in her eyes. My hear-beat amplified from average to rapid as she gave me a small smile and a slight wave. Yes, a positive indication. I waved ‘Hi!’ in return, then stopped to stand and face her, willing every muscle in my face to keep it’s excitement under control.


At close quarters, she appeared even more beautiful - was it the years that had passed, or the eye of the beholder? The voice in my head prompted me say something, anything, any coherent-sounding opening remark would do. But I just stood there, smiling, looking silly. Her presence, as always, left me dumbfounded.


‘So how are you Nakul?’ she finally asked in her sing-song voice, her gaze fixing on me slightly.


‘How typical!’ the voice chided me ‘shying away from taking the first step, leaving her to do all the work.’


It felt like she hadn’t changed a bit, from the first time I set eyes upon her. I remember the precise moment- it was the second day of the second term of the second year of college, in a crowded corridor outside the classrooms. From that moment on, my gaze would follow her every single day, right from the moment she would step out of her plush white car in front of the college gates every morning.


I would be hanging out with my friends at the tea-stall nearby, sipping the very-affordable cutting chai and nibbling at my vada-pav, playing it cool, waiting for her car to arrive. Finally, at around half past nine, she would appear, like a burst of sunshine from dark monsoon clouds. I would suddenly pretend to look at my wrist-watch, fake urgent surprise, and make some excuse to my pals, about getting late for my class or something.


‘Abey, When did you start attending classes?’ they would mock.


Muttering something about attendance, an impending black list and my strict father, I would gulp the last bit of my chai and make a run towards the classrooms.


My friends’ reaction was not that surprising, you see. Those days, it was not a cool thing to attend classes; unless you were the really studious, padhakoo types. The main purpose of college was an accessible public space to youngsters to hang out with their group of friends, idle all day long- eating the cheapest snacks available, making silly jokes (PJs), and screening the surroundings for attractive members of the opposite sex. True and complete education.


This noble pursuit, hitherto shared with my best buddies, was now interrupted by my new-found motivation to attend classes. It was worth it though. Sometimes, if I said something clever in class, she would turn around and give me a slight smile.


I never told the guys about my crush on Neha. I knew exactly how they would react. First, they would rag me to death, making the information as public as possible, as quickly as possible. They believed with conviction in a singular definition of a saccha dost, a true friend - one whose sole purpose in life is to embarrass you. If they caught even the slightest hint, they would tease me without mercy in front of others, and worst of all, in front of her.


Then, they would try to ‘bring me back to earth’ from the tall tree they could imagine me perched upon. An intervention would follow, aimed at active discouragement of any attempt at a love affair. I had seen this happen, participated in it, and knew very well the motives involved- ‘no-one finds a girl-friend, when I cannot’. They would sit me down and explain to me, with the truest intention in their heart, that she was above my level and there was no way she was going to say ‘yes’ to me.


Now, that wasn’t something I did not already know. I wasn’t a fool or anything!


Of course I knew Neha was several notches above, me and everyone else. Her chauffeur-driven car; neatly ironed kurtas; angel-like smile; pure, fair skin untouched by the hassles of a daily local-train commute. She wore perfume, read books, and spoke fluent South-Bombay English, without any traces of vernacular or slang.


And here was I- a boy from the suburbs, the No-Bo, short for either North or ‘Not’ Bombay. With my scrawny frame, sun-burnt skin, old T-shirts, two pairs of jeans barely washed; and the total and complete inability to hold a decent conversation with a girl. Especially a good-looking girl.


I knew all that, but didn’t mean I wanted to hear it from those losers!


This way I could dream on. Anyways (and for good reason) I had no intention of ever approaching her in any way. I had a good thing going, why ruin it by asking a question to which the only sensible response was a rude and resolute ‘no’?


This went on for a month or two.


Then, Fate intervened. For a change, in a good way. One day after class, she came up to speak to me. Something to do with an upcoming test, I think. We spoke for about two minutes, and I could not stop smiling for two days.


From then on, she started to wave and smile every time she saw me. A few weeks later, we happened to sit on the same bench, next to each other. That day, we spoke a lot. She was sweet, friendly and unpredictable. A bit restrained at times, her quiet, perfect face giving away nothing. At other times, she was a little mad- she would laugh suddenly and loudly (at some odd expression by the lecturer) and it would take me by surprise.


Within a few months, a friendship formed. This wasn’t something I had expected, even in my bravest dreams. We sat together in class, almost daily; and spoke on the phone sometimes, late in the evenings. Her parents did not like boys calling home, so we devised a code language- two rings twice. We talked about our lives, shared notes, made fun of the ‘nerds’ in our class, and then of each other.


Of course I thought of telling her how I felt, sometimes. But mostly my energy was focused on keeping our friendship alive and a secret from the world, especially from my gang of friends.


So, if I was at the tea-stall with them, I would avoid any eye contact if she passed by, and pretended not to know her at all. I would make excuses if I was meeting her after class, or in the library. It was exhausting- like I was living in two different worlds at once, perhaps cheating on two wives at the same time (like that movie with Govinda in it). And I didn’t even have one girl-friend for all my trouble!


But, even the best-kept secrets have an expiry date. Fate was about to act again, this time in a cruel way. I was unaware that my split worlds were about to collide.


One day, I remember, I left something behind at my desk- a pen I think, or was it a book? Anyways, sweet as she was, Neha came looking for me after class to hand it over. I was sitting with my buddies, in the midst of a deep, philosophical discussion. I remember this one clearly- it was about capitalism and the fate of the country, and we (our pockets sorely empty) strongly disapproved of it.


‘Even girls these days, they only want guys with money!’ one guy was lamenting. After five minutes of loud bitter protest, his tone suddenly hushed down, as he noticed a girl appear on the scene. Taken by surprise, I tried to act cool and formal.


There was pin-drop silence around the chai-wallah and all eyes on me when I muttered ‘Thanks! It is a very expensive pen’. Or was it a book? Pen makes more sense; I did not really own books back then.


The ploy almost worked. I breathed relief as she said ‘Ok, bye’ and left, it seemed, without incident. Just as I was about to enjoy my moment of respite, she turned again.

‘What time are we meeting tomorrow?’


Though I was in love with her and everything, at that moment, I couldn’t have been more bugged. ‘Ugghhh girls, so stupid at times!’ I remember thinking.


Then on, as predicted, the ragging began. My worst fears had finally come true! First, as expected, my dosts gave me ‘senti’ about true friendship. Then they got me to confess how I really felt about her. They persistently dismissed all noise I made about being ‘just friends’ till all resistance broke down and I finally and fully, spilled out my guts.


With time and new information, the teasing got worse. One or two of them started showing up to class every day, to ‘keep an eye on the goings-on’. And for some reason which I cannot fathom now, I felt helpless to stop them.


Telling them to stop would be like admitting you care.


‘We are just joking, yaar’ they would go ‘why being so senti?’


Once this drama started, a sort of awkwardness developed between me and Neha. It is not that we stopped talking or anything- just which it wasn’t like before, natural and free. We continued to sit together in class and I even dared to say ‘hi’ to her in public spaces. But our friendship grew weary under the moment-to-moment scrutiny of my self-appointed well-wishers.


In a way, this also brought onto the table the possibility of us being a couple. Perhaps I could have used the opportunity to initiate something. After all, ‘my friends think I like you’ was the most-abused line to break the dating-ice. And, if she could be friends with me, there was a possibility (however small) that she ‘liked’ liked me.


But I couldn’t be sure, not completely, no. It is one thing to sit next to some-one in class, talk, exchange notes; a completely different thing to be some-one’s girl-friend. No, I was stupid to think I even stood a chance.


Kids today, I don’t see them having this problem. My 16 year- old nephew, he decides to ask a girl out by first going through her Facebook or Instagram profile. This provides important information- her dating history, preferences, common friends. That saves him from relying on the very unreliable ‘research’ by friends, based purely on gossip and imaginative conjecture.


Then, he gauges whether a girl is interested in him by sending out a ‘request’ first. If she agrees then he chats with her for a while, ‘likes’ everything she posts, comments generously on every selfie, and then asks her out to Café Coffee Day. Or Starbucks, if he has more ‘dough’. Technology makes things impersonal, and I guess, masks the blow of a possible rejection. But back when I was in college, we had to really put ourselves out there, and face what came in return.

And maybe I just couldn’t.


A couple of times she asked me what was going on with my friends.


‘They are being jerks’ I told her, ‘Ignore them! Their imagination is running too wild’.


She nodded – somewhat distracted, and somewhat irritated. Of course, news of this kind could not be contained within my small-ish circle of friends; their mockery provided fodder to inform and entertain others. They obviously joined in, curious onlookers to the unfolding drama.

Gradually, we stopped sitting next to each other or talking much, other than exchanging glances and saying a formal ‘hi’. I could sense that her friendship was slipping away, but I told myself it was perhaps for the best. It was too exhausting to keep pretending, that friendship was all there was to it. Distance would probably make things easier.


One day, several months later, she called my home land-line at night.


It was after college had re-opened after summer holidays. So Final year, June or July, I remember it had been raining heavily all day.


It was not the first time she had done that, yet I was surprised. She wanted to talk to me the next day, something important.


‘Meet me after college!’ she said.


Her tone sounded serious. I got all worked up and sat up all night wondering what might have happened. We had said ‘hi’ once or twice since the new term began, but I had stopped attending classes. The teasing had also died down with us not spotted together at all.


Did one of my idiot friends actually go and speak to her? Did she want to tell me off and put me in my place? No, that wasn’t like her at all, she was too sweet. May be, it would be a sympathetic ‘I just see you as a good friend’ talk. Or maybe, some of the rumours had reached her family (she did have some distant cousin studying in our college) and they were upset with her. Or could, that couldn’t be.


That night it continued to pour as I tossed in my bed. The next day, Mumbai came to a standstill and there was no way to reach college. Heavy rains continued for the next two days, slowing down just in time for the weekend. On one hand, the anxiety was killing me; on the other, I was glad to avoid this conversation.


What I feared most was, if she asked me point blank, I wouldn’t be able to lie. And what would I say? As the days passed, my avoidance instinct grew incrementally stronger, and my ability to face her, diminished in proportion. Come Monday, I stayed home. When I finally did go, four more days later, I made it a point to avoid her. If I noticed her noticing me, I made sure to look away or hide in the crowd.


In the meanwhile, the boys revealed that ‘research’ commissioned for my benefit over the summer had uncovered an important piece of information. Neha had a boyfriend already. His name was Vikram, he lived in the building next to hers (sea-facing obviously), and was stinking rich and handsome. They had been together for six months now.


This news crushed me. May be this was what she wanted to tell me- ‘I have a boyfriend, so please back off.’ Somehow I could not believe it. Why would she befriend me like that, if she was already with some-one?


And I was jealous, so jealous. Though I had never admitted it before, even to myself, in that moment I realised that I wasn’t content with just the fantasy. I wanted her to reciprocate, I expected her to reciprocate, and that’s what I thought she had been doing. Until that moment!


Utterly confused, I again had no-one to turn to, other than my well-meaning but ill-experienced dost-gang. They motivated me to drink off my sorrows, get over her, and move on. When I finally came face to face with her, almost two weeks after our phone conversation, she looked at me curiously.


‘Where have you been?’ she sounded frustrated.


Still angered by her supposed betrayal, I acted curt and distant.


‘Been busy’ I retorted. ‘Have something to do now, need to go!’


I ran off and she did not try to stop me. Not then and not ever.


The remaining six months of college life passed by in a ‘fast forward’. Some awkward hellos and a ‘take care, keep in touch’ at the farewell party is all I can remember.


But now, about seven and a half years later, here she was.


Standing in front of me, so beautiful, chatting about something or the other. I picked up bits and pieces, said a few things; but it took ten minutes to get my mind out of its memory-daze, back into the present.

As always, conversation with her was easy and natural. I was no longer shy, she was chatty as before, and there was a lot to catch up on. We decided to make a small detour and get Naturals ice-cream. It was a ten minute walk; and for some time, it felt like the good old times, short-lived though they were.


For the next half hour, we spoke nineteen to the dozen, mostly about what was going on in our lives right now. I told her I was recently engaged, the girl was from Pune, and we were introduced by my parents. I was doing well at work and thinking of buying a flat in Thane. She seemed genuinely happy to hear all that.


Then she told me about her life. She had worked with a foreign bank for some time, then went on to do her MBA in London. Of course, I thought, she was always meant for classy things. She had come back to Mumbai last year and now lived with her parents in their new apartment at Parel. She was seeing a guy too, a co-worker at her new investment banking job. I was tempted to ask about Vikram, but instead kept my mouth shut, and focused on my kesar pista ice-cream.

Together, we traced the time that had gone by since we saw each other last. What I did not tell her was how often I had thought of her in those seven and half years.

It wasn’t that I was still in love with her or anything. In fact I had gotten over her surprisingly quickly, once college was over and I wasn’t seeing her every day. I got busy with my law internship, then moved to Pune for a while


There, I gradually got over my shyness with girls and dated a bit. I even had a serious girlfriend; we were together for almost a year. Just that, with the passage of time, Neha had turned into the memory of Neha, distorting and changing colour. She had ceased to be the image of the beautiful girl I had once loved, and had come to live in my ruminations, as a question mark.


An unanswered question that loomed large- What did she really feel about me? Did she like me back? Why had she called me, that night of the heavy rains? What did she really want to tell me, that week when I was in hiding? As the years took their course, Neha and my entire college life faded into the past, but the question mark remained. And it continued to haunt me every now and then.


‘Do you want to cab it to VT station?’ Her suggestion interrupted my train of thoughts, and I mumbled in agreement.


Through-out the cab ride, we were both quiet. The incessant chit-chat in the ice-cream parlour had now come to a halt; maybe we had exhausted all obvious topics of conversation. I glanced at her sideways; she was looking pensively out of the window, the cool evening sea-breeze ruffling her hair. In that moment she looked completely beautiful, that perfect angelic girl I had once fallen for. And in that moment, I had to know.


I did not want to carry Neha around like a question mark for the rest of my life.


I wanted to, I needed to know, if she had cared for me at all. For the remainder of the longest ten-minute cab ride of my life, my mind argued with itself about the pros and cons of this idea.


What did I have to lose now? Even if I embarrassed myself, I probably wouldn’t see her again. At this point in my life, I could handle a rude rejection. Or I could always pass it off as a joke. Yes, good idea! I would ask her casually, as a joke, a funny story from the distant past. We could have a good laugh about it...ha ha ha, we were so young and stupid!

But when I finally asked her, it didn’t come out that casual.


‘Do you remember that phone call in the beginning of Final year? What had you wanted to tell me?’


We had reached V.T. station and were walking towards the crowded platforms together. I wondered why she was taking the train. Did she take one everyday, or was it just to walk with me? I was grateful for the extra time, but impatient for her to say something.


She was quiet at first, looking ahead as we walked. She did not ask which night, what phone call, she knew exactly what I was talking about. After a minute, we came to a halt under the large clock next to the indicators.


‘Why are you asking me now? How does it really matter?’


It was the moment of truth. We would soon be parting ways- heading to separate trains, our respective compartments.


I told her, my real honest reason. I wanted to put the question mark to rest, replace it with a full stop. I couldn’t gather the courage to ask her then, but now...

‘I just need to know. What were we?’


She again paused, thoughtful; my heart beating desperately as I tried to read her poker face. There was nothing funny about the moment, no hilarious laughter about stupid college crushes. Then she finally looked up, looked me square in the face and drew in a deep breath. Her voice was calm and clear.


‘No! You don’t deserve to know, because you didn’t dare to ask.’


With this, she turned on her heels, and walked towards the platform.


My gaze followed her- the girl in the soft pink kurta, shining brighter than the rest. And I knew she was right.


Supriya Rakesh is a social researcher and writer from Mumbai. Her work engages with the notion of 'storied selves' in multiple ways- narrative research, community theatre, and writing fiction. Her stories are often set in urban India, exploring the lives and choices of young adults in a society-in-transition. She has published her work in Kitaab, Dastaan World magazine, Culture Cult magazine, and anthologies titled ‘Dreamscapes’,'The Other' and ‘Rapture'. She is also the Editor of ang(st), a feminist body zine. She loves the Mumbai rains, strong cups of cappuccino and stories of unrequited love.





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