The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 4]

 


Chapter 4


Seven years ago

   ‘How is going for a protest at Jantar Mantar a date?’ I said. We came out of the Barakhamba Road metro station in Connaught Place and walked towards Parliament Street.

She tied her hair up in a bun. With a hairpin in her mouth, she said,

‘Thanks for joining me. It means a lot.’

   ‘What is the protest about exactly?’ I said. She had told me on the phone that it had something to do with Kashmir. With great effort I had gathered the courage to call and ask her out after Rendezvous. She had teased me, asking if I was actually asking her out on a date. I gambled with a ‘yes’. I told her we could go wherever she wanted. Well, she chose a protest.

 ‘The Indian Army is committing atrocities on civilians in Kashmir. We are gathering to protest against that.’

   Like most people around me, I had little idea about the Kashmir issue. I knew Pakistan wanted it, India would never give it up and some people in Kashmir didn’t want to be with either country. It mattered little to me. This was just a chance to bunk classes and spend the day with Zara Lone, the most beautiful, smart and articulate woman in the world.

  We reached Jantar Mantar. Around fifty students sat outside the monument. They held placards.

‘Stop Innocent Killings in Kashmir.’

‘Pellet Guns Blind Protestors. Stop Using Them.’

‘Indian Army, Stop Atrocities on Kashmiris.’

Zara walked ahead of me. She went up to a small group of protesters.

They stood up to hug her. She introduced me to them.

‘Afsana, Zaheer and Karim,’ Zara said, ‘meet my friend Keshav.’

I shook hands with them. Now, I am not communal or racist or anything.

  However, let me just say this, the current situation was a little different from what I was used to. Back in my hometown, Alwar, we don’t really mix with people of other religions. My mother might have fainted seeing me in a crowd of Muslims. My father’s friend circle is almost entirely from the RSS.

Hence, we don’t really know many Muslims anyway.

  ‘Razaq, Salim, Ismail,’ Zara introduced me to some of the others. I shook hands and smiled. I noticed their somewhat surprised expression when they heard my name, or when they noticed my earring. One of them gave me a choice of placards to hold. I took the relatively safe ‘Peace in the Valley’ sign. I clasped my banner in my arms as all of us sat down on the ground.

Zara looked at me and smiled.

‘What?’ I said.

‘Thanks. For coming and supporting me.’

  Yes, I was supporting her. To be with her. But was I supporting the protest? I don’t know.

‘What exactly is going on, anyway?’ I said.

  ‘Last week, the Indian Army fired pellet guns to disperse protestors in Kashmir. One protestor may turn blind.’

‘That’s terrible,’ I said, shocked.

‘Yes, this needs to stop. Kashmir needs peace.’

‘But why did the Army shoot pellet guns?’

  ‘Because that’s what they do,’ Ismail said. He stood up along with his friends and walked away to shout slogans. Zara spoke to me when nobody was around.

‘It’s not that simple, actually,’ she said. ‘The protestors threw stones at the Army.’

‘Why?’ I said, confused.

‘Because they don’t like the Indian Army.’

‘But why?’

 ‘The Army has to find terrorists in Kashmir. Terrorists go mix with civilians. Sometimes, in hunting terrorists, civilians get harassed or hurt. So they hate the Indian Army.’

‘What else is the Army supposed to do?’

‘Not hurt innocent people for sure. Why are they firing pellet guns?’

‘What would you do if someone threw rocks at you?’

‘You don’t understand,’ Zara said, ‘it’s complicated, this Kashmir thing.’

   I really didn’t understand. I could have argued with Zara, but a) I didn’t know much about the issue, b) Zara was a professional debater, and most importantly c) I wanted to have a real chance with her and not blow it over some stupid politics.

‘You are absolutely right. Maybe you can tell me more about Kashmir.

If we meet again,’ I said.

  ‘We will,’ she said and squeezed my hand. A touch initiated by her is good, I told myself.

  As the slogans became louder, Zara leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘Listen, I simply want peace. Violence is never good on either side. I love India. I love Kashmir.’

I nodded and smiled at her.

  ‘Kashmir needs progress. That’s why I want to finish my studies and teach there. Education will bring peace. Nothing else.’

‘You want to do a peaceful dinner later?’ I said.

She laughed. I took it as a yes.

Three months later

  ‘Did we have to wake up at five o’clock? I am so hung-over. How far is this place?’ I said, trying to catch my breath.

  ‘Shh, see that Dona Paula statue on top of the rocks? We are going there. Ten more minutes,’ Zara said.

   I carefully placed one foot in front of the other on the black rocks as we walked towards the point where Zara wanted to see the first sunrise of the year.

‘We came to Goa to chill. Is it even legal to wake up so early here?’ I said.

Zara laughed.

  ‘Seriously, we had such an amazing night,’ I said, ‘and what is this now? A punishment?’

  We had come to Goa for our first holiday, and to celebrate New Year’s Eve together. Zara and I had made love the night before, and I had hoped to cuddle in bed all day and tell her how much I loved her. Of course, it is hard to profess undying love to someone who sets a 4 a.m. alarm.

‘It will be worth it, mister,’ Zara said, walking ten steps ahead of me.

   Dona Paula is located along the sea near Panjim in Goa. The rocky terrain lies close to where the Zuari and Mandovi rivers meet the Arabian Sea. It took us forty-five minutes from our hotel to reach the white statue of a couple made famous by several movies.

We sat on top of a large rock, the sky still dark.

‘We are facing west. The sun rises in the east,’ I said.

  ‘I know,’ Zara said. ‘Still, it is the new year. When daylight breaks, I want to witness it with you, holding your hand.’

  She entwined my fingers with hers as we stared at the empty dark sky and the sea. I thought about last night, probably the best night of my life so far.

There was a hint of pink in the sky.

‘Happy new year, my love,’ Zara said, taking my hand to her lips.

  ‘My love, happy new year,’ I said. We kissed, and didn’t stop till the entire sky was lit up.

I looked at her face. Would I ever get used to so much beauty?

‘Why do you love me?’

‘What?’ Zara said and laughed. ‘Are we fishing?’

  ‘Seriously, why? You are beautiful, intelligent, fun and articulate. You can get anyone. Why me?’

‘Well, I think you are handsome.’

  ‘I am serious, Zara.’ I didn’t want to be humoured out of this. Zara exhaled as she spoke after a pause.

  ‘Well, it’s hard to find a man who can acknowledge a woman’s intelligence and be genuinely okay with it.’

‘What?’

‘I am serious. And I like your innocent politics.’

‘But I don’t like politics.’

‘I know. You are not left-wing or right-wing or this ideology or that.

  And yet you are naturally a good person. Not sexist, not communal, not biased. Just a nice guy.’

I nodded and smiled.

‘But the real reason is the earring.’

‘What?’

  ‘For some strange reason I find it really hot. Come here you.’ Zara reached out for me again and the Dona Paula statue, I swear, winked at me.

  ‘Bhai, where are you?’ Saurabh snapped his fingers in front of my eyes. I looked at the TV screen, even though my mind had just played a Jantar Mantar video from the past.

‘Huh?’ I said. ‘I am here only. What did you say again?’

  ‘I said this country has gone mad. Listen to the college VC. He is saying we can’t take every girl’s complaint seriously.’

‘Idiot,’ I said, my mind still in Dona Paula.

‘Lost in thoughts of her.’ Saurabh rolled his eyes. ‘I can tell from your face.’

I am always thinking of her, I wanted to say.

‘It’s just the whisky.’

  ‘Not just the whisky. I know the date today, bhai,’ Saurabh said and leaned back on the sofa.

‘What date?’ I said.

  I opened my phone to check. Thursday, February the 8th. In a few hours, it would be February 9th, Zara’s birthday.

‘Oh yes, of course. Wow, I actually didn’t think about that today,’ I said.

  ‘That’s a first,’ Saurabh said. ‘Congrats. You are feeling like shit. But at least for other reasons.’

‘I did remember it two days ago though,’ I said. She turns twenty-seven.

   I kept my glass down, pressed the sides of my head with both palms, trying to squeeze her out of my thoughts. I didn’t want to remember her. How we spent her past birthdays together. How I climbed up the mango tree and entered her hostel room through her window; I did this while balancing a cake and flowers in my hand. How we spent the rest of the night in bed, legs entwined, imagining a life together. Or at least I did.

  ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have brought her up. I didn’t realise it wasn’t on your mind,’ Saurabh said.

I shook my head, still squeezing my temples.

‘It’s okay. I can handle this.’

‘Just don’t call her. Remember last time?’

My hands left my head, they had to carry whisky to my mouth.

  ‘I am not calling her, ever. I can’t be humiliated anymore,’ I said. A part of me was dying to see her DP on WhatsApp. Maybe she had a new one for her birthday. The one last week had a selfie of her and Raghu, arms draped around each other. I just hoped she had changed that picture. Hell, I didn’t want to hope for anything. I wasn’t going to look.

Saurabh nodded slowly, not believing what I had just said.

‘Take my phone away if you want,’ I said.

  ‘No, bhai. I trust you,’ Saurabh said. ‘In fact, to celebrate this new strength of yours, let’s have one more drink.’

  He refilled our glasses. The Blenders Pride bottle had reached the halfway mark. I checked the time. It was eleven-thirty. Fine, I could do this.

  I could just enjoy drinks with my friend on a Thursday night and not call her. Even on her birthday. I had felt this control for the first time in years.

  The last four birthdays of hers since our breakup, I had called her first thing at midnight. Of course, she didn’t answer the phone three out of the four times. The one year she did pick up, she said she had family around and couldn’t talk. I told her I had only called to wish her. All she said was a lame, cold thank you. One shows more warmth before ending a wrong number call.

  Is it that easy for some people to move on? To go from one person to the next, like switching TV channels? Sure, the breakup was partly my fault. But could she get over me so easily? Why was I not over her, then? Like there was a defect in my head. It just wouldn’t let go. And why was I thinking of her again? I checked the time, it was midnight. My body tightened, as it prepared to fight an impulse. The impulse to pick up the phone and call her.

To tell her I still loved her, and to give me one more chance, please, please.

  I tried to bring my focus back to the present moment. My drink was over. There was no more ice on the table. It gave me something to do. I went to the kitchen, took out ice from the freezer. I returned and made another drink. Ten past twelve. Wow, I had made it. Thankfully, Saurabh came up with a new topic.

‘That Chandan is having an affair.’

‘No! Who would sleep with him?’ I said.

‘That secretary of his.’

‘Sheela aunty?’ I grinned. ‘Are you serious? She is, like, fifty years old.

And, what, a hundred kilos?’

‘Good enough for our man. The bigger the better,’ Saurabh said and laughed.

‘Sheela aunty and Chandan! That is one gross visual.’

‘Nobody asked you to imagine them,’ Saurabh said.

  We began to giggle. I had known Sheela aunty since I had joined Chandan Classes. She often shared her tiffin with me. Last I heard, her married son’s wife was going to have a child.

  ‘She gave me bhindi yesterday,’ I said. ‘That’s how I imagine her. The woman with the tastiest lunch. Now you are telling me, wait, gross—how do you know?’

  ‘I went to give her the weekly attendance report. Her phone was lying open next to her. Chandan had sent her WhatsApp messages.’

‘What messages?’

‘Those kiss emojis. And a few of the red lips.’

‘Maybe the idiot doesn’t know what those emojis mean.’

‘“Sheela ji, you are too beautiful”, he had said next.’

‘What!’ I said. ‘No way! He could have just…’

  ‘Next was, “Sheela ji. Can’t wait for tonight”,’ Saurabh said. ‘I saw it, bhai. Sideways, but I saw it.’

‘Wow. Where do they do it?’

‘Where else? Haven’t you seen the sofa in his office?’

‘Yuck. I have sat on that sofa so many times.’

‘Hope they wipe it afterwards,’ Saurabh said.

‘Shut up,’ I said. ‘I will never sit in that office again.’

  ‘You think he makes Sheela wipe the mess afterwards? Because, well, she is his secretary.’

  The alcohol made everything seem extra-funny. Saurabh and I went hysterical with laughter. The little scandal in our boring workplace had added a spark to our super-dull life. Saurabh laughed so hard he slid off our slippery fake-leather sofa. He said he wondered if Chandan spat out the gutkha before they kissed. This time I laughed so much I, too, slid to the floor, holding my stomach.

‘Bhai, look,’ Saurabh said, and shook the almost empty Blenders Pride bottle.

‘Okay. We had too much. What time is it?’

‘It’s almost two, bhai.’

‘Wow. We discussed Sexy Sheela and Stud Chandan for so long?’

‘They are probably doing it in the coaching centre right now,’ Saurabh said.

  ‘Shall we go check? Imagine if we walk in. We will say we just came to pick up some notes.’

  ‘Let’s go,’ Saurabh said. The coaching centre was a five-minute walk from our house. Somehow, in our intoxicated and confident state, we felt a sting on Chandan was an amazing idea.

‘Yeah, let’s,’ I said.

  My phone beeped. I had a message. After a few seconds, it beeped a few more times.

‘Who is messaging me so late?’

  ‘Must be some phone company message. Buy more data and shit,’ he said and put his head sleepily on my shoulder.

‘Why the hell do they message so late?’ My eyes began to droop shut.

The phone beeped again.

‘Damn you!’ I picked up the phone.

 I cracked open my right eye to look at my locked home-screen: 5 new WhatsApp messages from Zara Lone

  I shook my head in disbelief. Was I that drunk? I rubbed my eyes and read it again. I had read it right. I shook my shoulder to wake up Saurabh.

‘Golu, get up,’ I said. ‘See this.’

‘What? I don’t freaking want their extra 5 GB, bhai. Let me sleep.’

‘Saurabh, see the screen.’

Saurabh groaned as he lifted his head.

‘Zara messaged you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Did you message her first?’

 ‘No, I swear. I am drunk, but I didn’t. We were talking about Chandan and Sheela. I haven’t touched my phone.’

‘Oh,’ he said and fell silent.

‘Should I open it?’

  Saurabh picked up a Bisleri water bottle from the table. He drank with big, loud, annoying and slow glugs.

‘Tell me, Golu,’ I said.

‘Of course, bhai,’ Saurabh said, wiping his mouth. ‘What kind of a

question is that? You won’t check your own phone?’

I opened my WhatsApp and saw her messages.

‘So you don’t even wish me anymore?’ said the first. The rest followed.

‘It’s my birthday. I hope you remember.’

‘Just was surprised you didn’t wish me.’

‘Anyway. Don’t know why I was thinking of you.’

‘I guess you are busy.’

  She had a new display picture. It was a solo black and white selfie. She looked as stunning as ever. I saw her chat status was ‘online’.

‘Golu, what is this?’

Saurabh read the messages.

‘Either she has realised your value or she just misses the attention,’

Saurabh said.

‘Should I reply?’ I said.

‘I don’t know.’ Saurabh yawned. ‘I am sleepy.’

  ‘This is important, Golu. I need your clear thinking. I am too involved and too drunk.’

‘Wait,’ Saurabh said. ‘Let’s wash our faces. Come back to our senses.’

We struggled to reach the bathroom. We splashed our faces with chilled water.

  ‘Are you there?’ She sent another text. She must have seen the double blue ticks after I had read her messages.

‘Golu, what do I reply?’ I said.

‘Whatever. Just have a normal conversation.’

So bloody insightful.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

  She didn’t respond for a few seconds. I saw the ‘typing…’ message, which went and came back as she corrected herself.

‘I miss you,’ she said.

  A tremble ran through me. Saurabh saw the message. I stepped away from him. I wanted his advice, but I didn’t want him to see all my private conversations.

‘Wow,’ I texted, ‘really?’

‘Yes. Life is quite incomplete without you.’

  I heard a retching sound. Saurabh had puked on the coffee table. Some ambience for a romantic chat.

  ‘Sorry,’ Saurabh said, ‘I will clean it up.’ He went to the kitchen. I turned back to my phone.

‘You serious, Zara? You know what that means to me.’

‘I do. I tried to be tough and cut you off. It doesn’t work. I miss you.’

‘What about Raghu?’

Saurabh wiped the table with a washcloth.

‘Everything okay?’ he said.

I raised a thumbs-up to him.

‘Raghu’s a nice guy. Very nice. But he’s not the one,’ Zara replied.

I choked up as I read her message. Yes, I still had a chance. Thank you, God.

‘I miss you too. So much,’ I replied.

‘Yeah, right. That is why you forgot my birthday.’ She added an upset emoji.

‘I didn’t, baby. I had to control myself to not wish you. Don’t be upset.’

‘I am kidding,’ she said, along with her favourite laughter with tears emoji.

‘Lol. Can I call to wish you?’

‘Why call? You are not going to wish me in person?’

I kept my phone aside. I folded my hands up to the sky. Divine intervention had just taken place. She herself wanted to see me.

‘Of course, I do. When? In the morning?’

‘How about now?’

I checked the time.

‘What? It’s almost 3. Where are you?’

‘In my room. Himadri.’

‘You are in the hostel? On your birthday? Didn’t go home?’

‘Will go tomorrow. There’s a party. Family mostly.’

‘Where’s Raghu?’

‘Hyderabad.’

‘Oh. You want to step out? Can you?’

‘It’s difficult to leave the hostel at this time. But you can come. If you want to.’

‘How?’

‘Oh. Someone’s forgotten. How they’d climb trees to come wish me.’

‘Ha ha. That was years ago.’

‘I miss those days.’

‘Me too.’

‘I guess you can’t do all that now. You have passed out of college.’

‘What?’

‘It’s okay. You don’t have to come.’

‘I can. I will come. Now?’

‘It’s too late and cold. Risky too. You aren’t a student anymore.’

‘Is your room still 105? Facing the mango tree?’

‘It’s okay, K. We will meet later.’

She had called me K after years. I even missed her abbreviations.

‘Just tell me your room number, Zara.’

‘Of course, it is still 105. I love my room. Why?’

‘Nothing. See you in half an hour.’

  She sent a grin smiley back. She knew me enough; I’d never give up a challenge or a chance to meet her.

I kept the phone in my pocket. Saurabh lay flat on the sofa.

‘Wake up, we have to go,’ I yelled into his ear as I shook his shoulder.





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