When did it all begin? I can't say. Which one of us first fell in love with the other, I can't say. But I first met her at a bookstore. Seeing me picking up one book from the shelf, she had spoken to me, "That's a beautiful book. Go for it!" I looked around and saw a spectacled girl of wheatish complexion gazing at me. I had two books in hand. So I asked, "This one?" I raised the book I just picked. "Yes", she replied. "How do you know? Have you read it?" "Much of it." It was an anthology of short romantic stories written by a dozen unpopular authors. "Okay, if you say so. It's bit costly though." I remarked. For a mere 250 pages, it was priced at 275 rupees. "They are offering ten percent off." She was quick to point out. "Still..." And I retained the book in my hand. If it was not for her, I would perhaps have put it back to its place. "What are you checking out?" "Undecided so far. I've read all the goodreads I can see here." "Oh!" So she is a voracious reader. I should guessed that from her specs. "Do you want to suggest any?" She spoke in a low voice. I thought for sometime and then showed her the other book in my other hand. I was expecting to hear that that too had been crossed off her reading list. It was a collection of medieval fairy tales. I don't think many new age readers visit this genre unless someone is an avid indiscriminate reader who gulps anything of good literary merit. Well... for me the font also matters. And both those two books were printed in fonts that turns me on.
On my recommendation, she took the book from me and browsed through it. "Are you okay with fairy tales?" "Of course! I adore them. In fact, some of these tales I'm familiar with already." "Okay. Then you don't want it I think." "Are there more like this?" "Not sure. Let me check." I walked to the shelf where I had found it. She followed me. After a tiresome search for half an hour, I stumbled upon one. I thought of adding it to my cart as well. I could find only one copy. So I enquired the shop assistant but he was clueless. She had migrated to another shelf in the meanwhile. Should I just include my find in my cart and check out or should I sacrifice it to her? Incidentally, this one was priced 50 rupees less for the about the same amount of material. I chose to approach her.
"Here you go." I presented my find to her. She briefly investigated it and decided to have it. That was the only book she purchased after spending an hour or so there. I would have to stay longer there as my aunt had not yet arrived. She had asked me to wait and had not showed up yet. My texts and calls too went unanswered. She had told me not to call though. "Are you not done yet?" The girl asked me. "I'm done but I'm supposed to wait here till my aunt comes." "How long will it be?" "Can't say. An hour at most I guess." "Did you contact her?" "I tried but didn't get a response." "Let's go to the cafe nearby. If she comes, she can call." I thought for a while and then left with her and my two companions. "It'd be a nice way to spend the money saved from discount." I said to myself. The street was not much crowded although it was a holiday. But the cafe was all occupied. We waited for ten minutes or so. And as soon as we were about to go elsewhere, one table was clear. Meanwhile I received a text from my aunt that she would be back in half an hour. I was supposed to treat aunt to lunch.
We occupied the only table available and started reading the menu card. There were a dozen kinds of coffee and a dozen snacks. We ordered and started to absorb the surroundings. "Are you also waiting for someone?" I posed my small curiosity to her. "No... not like you." She replied. "Not like me?" I repeated in my head and kept quiet. Seconds flew by. "We haven't yet introduced ourselves yet and we are hanging out in a cafe." "True! You go first." "Fine... I'm Anvita, doing my masters in botany." "Botanist!" I mused. "I'm Vipin, doing my bachelor's in mathematics." "Maths!" She reacted. I felt I've come across another girl in a hate affair with the subject. "Yeah, why? I don't think girls with glasses hate it." "Is it so?" "Usually." "Well... then here is one." "Why do you hate it? Did you have any bad experience related to it?" "No, nothing in particular. I just avoid it. It's not the most hated thing then in my life though." "What is that then?" "Bad writing. A badly written book. Incorrect language..." "Oh... I can relate to it. I also like it good and correct." I made an ambiguous comment. "Which year are you studying in?" "You?" "Second." "Me too." I sounded as if we are even whereas it certainly wasn't so.
I learnt that she was in the locale with her friend who left with her boyfriend before she stepped into the bookstore, and her friend was not coming back because her boyfriend is not bringing her back! She learnt that I may leave with my aunt for lunch because I've qualified in a scholarship exam, and congratulated me. "I've no idea how I cleared the exam as I was not so confident and satisfied with my performance." "But you did." "Yeah, I got through." "That's all that matters." She spoke assuringly. The order arrived and we set on our way through it. She took off her glasses. She looked different but she's pretty with or without it. "Do I look better?" She enquired. "Is it convenient with them off?" "Right now, yes." "Well... that's all that matters!"
My aunt arrived at the café of which I had informed her by text. We had finished our snacks by then. I introduced her to my aunt who invited her to join us on our lunch date. Anvita was reluctant but complied on my insistence. We walked into an empty restaurant. Enough of crowd! Anvita was visibly relieved too. But she was now in a swarm of words. My aunt is quite a talker and was taking good interest in her. We sat ourselves at a corner. I began the flipping the pages of the romantic anthology in my possession. Suddenly, the title of one of the tales halted me. The title was "That's all that matters", and the writer, Anvita Paul. "Is this by you?" I did not suppress my curiosity. "Yes... but before you infer incorrectly, I'm not a writer. This is my only writing that has been published." "What else have you written besides it?" "A bunch of stories like this and some incomplete novels. That's it." "Hey, I think I read one of your piece online and I emailed you my praise for it. We exchanged a couple of emails following that. Am I right?" "What's your name, aunty?" "Rasna." "Rasna! Oh yes... I remember. You drew a portrait of me and you wished to meet me." "Right! And you expressed your inability." "Yes, I was living in Shimla at that time, caught up in my studies. But I said I would meet you if you visit Shimla and let me know." "I've not been there in the meantime, else I'd have told you." "Well... destiny has brought you two together after all." I remarked, and added, "And it has also brought the food to us." A part of our order had arrived." All of us had a good short laugh as we proceeded to satiate our appetite.
My aunt acted as a catalyst in our budding relationship. Anvita and I started meeting often and spent lots of hours in each other's company.
After that day, I met Anvita on the weekend of the same week. She had asked me to join her on a nature trip. Her friend and friend's boyfriend would also be there. One of her professors, Dr. Kusum, would be leading them. I had told Anvita the directions to my place, and at 9:30 in the morning, she arrived at my gate in her professor's car. I joined them on their journey. The other two joined us soon as the five of us rode on to the botanical garden. In the car, I sat in the front while Anvita and the couple sat in the back. But both of us managed to have a good conversation through texts. The teacher appreciated my interest in the trip and assured that it would be a rewarding experience. She was in her thirties, fair complexioned, healthy body, charming face, expressive eyes and hair reaching half way down her back. She had a dynamic and exuberant personality anyone would admire. Anvita knew quite a lot about her and she eagerly educated me.
Dr. Kusum Kulkarni is a vegetarian, hails from an affluent family, trained in both Kathak and Bharat Natyam, married to a computer engineer and has a daughter and a son. Her father is a retired maths professor of considerable reputation in the maths community. Her mother has been living at a sanctorium in the outskirts of the city for twelve years. Her father had a relationship with an American student, Roxanna, and fathered a daughter. The affair did not last long and she moved away with her daughter to the US.
We reached our destination in an hour. There were several other people, some in groups, some on their own, moving around taking interest in the diverse flora of the sanctuary. We had some refreshments and embarked inside. The weather was sunny. It was the time of spring. Mild breeze tossed her wild hair every now and then. It was a verdant sight all around. She was keeping close to me. And I was careful not to stay adjacent to her as long as she likes it. Her friend was walking hand in hand with her boyfriend, humming romantic numbers and clicking random pictures. The teacher had a catalog of all the species of plants in the garden. Sometimes, she would point at some rare species and mention its identity and some of its features holding a camcorder in her right hand. It was a leisurely fun to be in that place at that time with those folks.
Anvita's friend, Antara and Antara's boyfriend Vasant were Anvita's classmates. It so happened that one day both of them were punished for some petty individual offences by one of their teachers who requested them to keep out of his class for that day. So they hung around, gossipped and enjoyed each other's company. Since then they were inseparable.
We entered the gorgeous orchid garden at noon. Those exotic flowers with their rich colors and scent thrilled our senses. Teacher was busy reading about them from the information plaques. The lovebirds were getting cozy and kissing each other every once in a while. I'm sure it had not escaped the eyes of our teacher but she was cool with their open romance. And so were us — Anvita and I.
But an unpleasant incident spoiled that fun — for her and me. It was pretty crowded inside the orchid garden. And Anvita and I were struggling to stay together. We had not yet held each other's hand at any point of time since our first meeting. But suddenly when once again we lost each other among the people and Anvita rediscovered me, she came up to me and asked, "You think you can get away with that, huh?" I did not get what she said. "With what?" "Don't pretend. I know it was you." "What are you talking about?" She said in a low voice, "Did you not feel my breast a while ago?" "Certainly not. Do you think I'd do such a thing?" "Well... I don't think. But please be honest. I won't mind if it was you." "I definitely did not. What happened?" "Someone sneaked his hand under my top and felt my breast. By the time, I could realize what happened and figure out who it was, I found myself lost once again in the swarm of strangers. I thought it was you." "Assume that it was me and get rid of the bitterness. I'm sorry for I offended you." "You should be sorry for leaving my side." She said this and held my hand. A strange feeling of responsibility dawned on me and I adjusted my grip of her hand.
Shortly thereafter, we with our teacher walked out of the garden. Vasant and Antara were already outside. We had a good lunch at an eatery and resumed our tour of the park. Anvita was now with her teacher conversing on the way. Was she talking about the unpleasant experience she had at the orchid garden? I went near and tried to overhear. No, they were discussing Botany. I did not want her to relive that moment.
Tired of the wanderings, we sat at a spot amidst the nature. Vasant and Antara requested their teacher to recite some dance which the latter generously did. That cheered us all as well as some onlookers who chanced to look in our direction. Antara sang some of the songs she was humming earlier. Vasant did a stand-up stint which cracked everyone up, except me. I was enjoying watching a girl in splits.
We returned by 4 o'clock. Anvita looked fine during the rest of the trip. On our way back, she sat in the front, while I sat in the back with her classmates. We did not chat like before. She said her phone had run out of battery. Was it an excuse?
She did not speak to me for the next five days. No reply to my texts or calls. We were in different colleges situated quite far apart. And on the Friday, I went to attend a seminar at her college. I had not informed her of my visit as she was not talking to me. My last attempt to reach her was on Tuesday. She had not blocked me though but I feared she might. I considered blocking her before she would but I did not. The seminar was over by 5:30 and walked to the refreshment area. I grabbed a plate of snacks and took a seat at a table. There was a girl sitting by herself having the same set of snacks. She was fair with freckled cheeks and curly brown hair. Dressed in a white top with horizontal blue strips and grey jeans, she looked fabulous. How should I start a conversation? I reflected for a while. Luckily she had no headphones in her ears, so she would hear me if I say something.
"Are you from this college?" I did not begin with a Hi, did she mind? It took a moment to get her attention. "Yeah." She responded. "Which course?" I extended my conversation. "B.Sc. Chemistry" "Third year, right?" I made a guess to surprise her in case I'm right. "No. I've passed out. Having a year off." She explained on her own. "Okay." Should I ask her name? Why was I taking interest in her? Should I introduce myself? Not until she was not interested. I quietly finished my food. She was still working on hers. I collected a cup of coffee and walked away from her. She did not bother. And then I saw her as I was having the last sip. Anvita was talking enjoying her food with her classmates. I started in her direction for sometime considering whether I should confront her. But I shunned the idea. I grabbed another cup of coffee and was on my way out of the cafeteria when my phone buzzed. "Don't leave. Wait for me." Anvita texted me. A streak of joy creeped inside me.
I did not leave the area and fixed myself at a spot where she could see me. As was having the last sip of my second cup, a voice asked me, "What's your name?" I turned. It was the girl I ate with. "Vipin." "Hi, I'm Nancy. Waiting for someone?" What should I say? I looked towards Anvita. She was not looking. Had she already seen me with her? Then or earlier? I wondered. "No." I said, just being curious about what she would say following "No". "That's good." And she stood next to me without an utterance. Anvita left her seat, took leave of her friends and walked towards us. Then ignoring me completely, she took Nancy's hand and left the place. I was bewildered. Her behavior froze me for a moment. Should I go and enquire her about the message? Wasn't it meant for me? Or did she expect me to follow her? I went after her to see if she had stopped for me. She had not. She was getting more and more distant from where I was watching her.
"Did you like it?" "Sorry?" "Hi, I'm Nancy." "Hi, you know me?" "Ya, kind of. I've admired you from a distance." "Admired me? For what?" "For the way you are." "Okay." "May I have your number?" "Sure." They exchanged their numbers. "Ya, I liked the talk. What about you?" "I liked it as well, but I did not ask you about the talk, did I?" "Didn't you just ask if I liked it?" "I meant something else." "What's that you meant?" "Turn around." Anvita turned around and in a moment she felt a hand under her shirt over her chest. It shocked her. Nancy swiftly withdrew her hand. Anvita turned at her and laid a slap on her face. Nancy did not move as Anvita walked away to join her friends.
Nancy sat down at a table with her food. A boy soon joined her and began a chat with her. She recognized him. He's the same boy who was with Anvita that day at the botanical garden. She entertained his interest in her. How nice it would have been if Anvita had entertained her interest in her! Nancy glanced in the direction Anvita was sitting. The latter did not notice the covetous glance. Nancy finished her course and left her seat. She saw that boy standing at a corner having a cup of coffee or tea. He had not mentioned it. She had not asked him his name. She walked up to him.
They had just entered into a conversation when suddenly Vipin looked away and naturally her eyes followed his. Anvita was coming in their direction with her eyes hooked on the girl. "What is she going to do?" And before Vanita could surmise any answer to her thought, Anvita pulled her by hand and took her away from Vismay.