Friday, May 23, 2008

Flat 608

He pulled up near her house, in that familiar jam-packed parking lot, uncanny in its crowded resemblance to all other parking lots in Vasant Kunj. Nothing about the place had changed, as he had half-expected to – the flats with their illegal balconies jutting out, the parking with every car from 800 to Tavera on show, the sheer cave-like look of the place. After all, it was only two years before that he was here last, walking up to the 3rd floor of the apartment and ringing the bell for flat 608.

He did the same again today, but with an inexplicable urgency, as if he wanted to start or end with something very quickly. The servant answered and when he took her name, the man quickly disappeared into the house, no hint of emotion on his face, as he was expecting him already.

Then she came, walking up to the door, trying to get a glance of who it was through the netting. She finally did recognize him, and with the faintest of smiles, she said, ‘Is that you?’

‘What does it look like?’, he replied.

She through the door open, and looked at him carefully, as if to check whether he was really what he sounded like, what he looked like, what he claimed he was.

‘Hello’, she said, after she was convinced that it was indeed so.

‘Hi’, he said quickly, not wanting to say it.

Both stared at each other for a moment, not knowing what to say, afraid that one word might spoil everything, just trying to let the moment sink in, examining each other’s faces as if they expected to see sagging wrinkles, white hair or deep hollows below the eyes, as if it had been not only two years but eternity since they had last set eyes on each other.

‘Come in!’, she finally exclaimed, first conscious to the un-reality of the moment. This woke him up from his trance too, and he nervously shifted his feet.

‘Can we go out for a cup of coffee?’

‘You know I don’t like coffee.’

‘Yes. Tea then?’

‘That’ll be good. Give me a minute.’

She rushed in again, leaving him at the door. He was confused. It was almost as if he had been sure that his invitation would be refused, as if he had expected or even wanted her to say ‘Oh yeah?’ and slam the door on his face. But she hadn’t. This was what he had come here for, this was what he had feared. He suddenly found himself wanting to run down, get into his car, and drive away as if nothing had happened.

But he didn’t.

Then, she reappeared. She hadn’t changed anything really, she was her casual self – a blue worn-out top, dark blue jeans, a black hair band - failing miserably to fulfill its purpose, and dark green Puma floaters. On her way out, she murmured something to the servant, and rushed down the stairs, leaving him behind, as if it was not he but she who had invited him for the outing.

As it has always been, he thought, trying to catch up with her, and failing as usual. When he finally got down, she was already alongside his car in the parking, her hands on the door handle, waiting for him to unlock it. He smiled weakly when he saw her, and she smiled back.

Tea was had at a roadside ‘settlement’ near the Central Market. Five rupees. Full with sugar and milk. Like he liked it. And she.

They walked around the place for a while, flipping through the magazines on sale, gazing mindlessly at the passing traffic, she pausing to ask the man at the music store for a cassette he knew she would never buy.

‘How’s college?’, she finally asked him, casually, in a tone more suitable for asking someone whether he liked strawberry ice-cream.

‘Good, good’, is all he could say in return.

‘Found good friends?’

‘Ya. Was a bit lonely in the beginning but its getting better slowly. Found a nice group of people.’

He was not sure whether this was the most correct thing to say, whether this was what she wanted to hear, whether she even wanted to hear something in particular.

‘What about you?’, he asked, trying to be polite, trying to keep up his end of the conversation.

‘Ah I’m still trying to adjust. I had expected an engineering college to be this way. And it has surely lived up to my expectations!’, she said, laughing with sad eyes.

Desultory conversation followed, straying to the courses they had studied, how and where aunts and uncles were, how and where old school friends were. It never got too personal, how-are-you-s and why-don’t-you-s where spared - things both wished passionately they could say or ask, but none having the final required courage to do so.

And then slowly, it was dark. They headed for the car without saying anything, as if the time to leave had been fixed by prior understanding.

When they reached the parking lot near her house, she got down slowly. Then, having closed the door, she bent down and looked at him in the eye through the window.

‘When am I going to see you next?’, she asked. It was the first remotely intimate question of the evening from either of them.

‘Soon. I’ll be here again in the summer.’

She nodded, and said ‘Don’t say Bye this time.’

And in an instant, she turned, ran and sprinted up the stairs of her apartment, not looking back. He was a little surprised with the abruptness of it all, but he thought he understood, and tried to smile to himself. Then, he backed his car, and left the parking lot, longing already, in a very strange way, to visit it again.