ONE OF THE TOP THREE ENTRIES OF BOUND’S VALENTINE’S DAY SHORT STORY CONTEST
It was the last year of Masters in Sociology at the University of Delhi. He was in the north campus and she in the south, so it wasn’t very likely that their paths would meet, both campuses being pretty far from each other. In the days before the metro, it was kind of tough getting to one campus from the other, you needed to change two or three buses, and even then you couldn’t be sure you’d make it to class on time. Still, there were an enterprising few who’d dare make the trip. Rohit and Sunaina were not those.
Their introduction was far more coincidental. They were both part of one of those eponymous reading groups to study advanced sociological theories, and they enjoyed putting their intellect to the test. Vimal, Rohit’s friend, bumped into Sunaina one day as she was rushing to class, late once again because of the creaking, snorting progression of the rickety old DTC bus on the way to South Campus. As she was loping in with long strides, Vimal was bemusedly searching for Room No. 551. Off his glasses flew as they crashed into each other, and immediately the cold grey stone floor was covered in a disarray of paper containing essays on contemporary Indian social systems.
Sunaina fancied herself as sort of introverted, and the thought of Rohit campaigning for student causes tickled her sensibilities.
“Hey you, look where you’re going, aagh!” Sunaina, usually soft-voiced, snapped, and then sighed and started gathering up her files. “What a mess, and I submit my assignment this afternoon! How will I know which papers they are again?”
“Eh, what?” Vimal stuttered, blindsided by the suddenness of the encounter.
“I’m…um…looking for the urban sociology class, it’s taught by Professor…” he trailed off as she handed him his pair of glasses and he was finally able to see her properly.
“Sharma,” she completed his sentence. “I’m going there too. But you, you’re not in my class. Are you from another university and sitting in on this class?”
“No-o-o, I’m from North Campus. And wait, I’ll help you with your stuff. Sorry, I didn’t see you coming.” He smiled, and with that she had to grin too.
“I’m sorry, I’m Sunaina. And you’re…?”
“Vimal, pleased to meet you.”
And that was, rather obliquely, the beginning of Sunaina and Rohit. Vimal mentioned him off and on when he’d come in for the urban sociology classes, and he sounded so interesting that Sunaina wanted to know more. He was a bit of an activist, Vimal said, half-admiringly, and was a prominent face in the north campus theatre scene. Sunaina fancied herself as sort of introverted, and the thought of Rohit campaigning for student causes tickled her sensibilities. That he was in theatre further added to his charms. As the year progressed, she’d seen his face with a wacky expression pinned up on the campus noticeboards—a poster advertising Campus ki Kahaniyaan, the group’s next play. Of course, she resolved to go for it.
Asking a couple of girlfriends from her class along, Sunaina texted Vimal inquiring if they could meet him there.
“Ya ya, come along. And we can catch up with Rohit afterwards, too!” That was all the green light Sunaina needed.
The play, typical of student activist theatre, was in a garden by the road leading to North Campus. Sunaina had dressed carefully, aiming to look suitably arty but also alluring, with turquoise and black bead necklaces artfully tangled up over a long plain dress with tights underneath. On her feet were her favourite Sarojini Nagar chappals. They had a not-quite-worn brown leather effect with a slim gold buckle on the side. A spring in her step, she met up with Shalini and Trisha at the Connaught Place McDonald’s, and they wended their way to the venue in a rapidly hailed autorickshaw.
“Bhaiya, yahan rok dena, stop here,” they shrieked as they caught sight of Vimal at the gate who was peering distractedly in their direction.
“Oh, there you are,” he sighed with relief and herded them inside. He told off the security guards in a clipped fashion, “They are also Rohit’s guests.”
Giggling, the girls cast knowing glances towards Sunaina, who blushed a little.
“Hey, there’s Rohit!” Vimal exclaimed.
“Where…?” Sunaina trailed off.
Rohit’s presence was commanding on stage. His muscular shoulders and arms stood out in his fitted black kurta. Sunaina noticed a hint of beard too. His intense eyes seemed to lock into hers for a moment and then the play began. Sunaina couldn’t quite grasp what the issue at stake was, except there was much hulla-bol and marching of the actors up and down. Rohit, in one of the lead roles, portrayed a distraught student leader, attempting to demand justice for some serious injustice that had been perpetrated on the student body. Was it curfew on girls’ hostels, or a caste listing, or…Sunaina was not too sure. All she was sure of was what she wanted. She had to get to know this charismatic, well-spoken guy and maybe have his eyes bore into hers again.
Vimal was excitedly moving through the crowd. The play having concluded, much of the audience had filed out of the makeshift amphitheatre.
“Guys, guys, here’s…taran ta ra ra, the man of the hour himself.” And there he was, all of his 5 foot 8 goodness, in the flesh, in front of her, like a shadow made true. And he was all flushed with the accolades from the cast and his mentors. As he took her hand in his, he passed on his radiant energy to her, making her feel even giddier than she had already been.
“And this is Sunaina, you know, on my first day in South Campus, she…”
“Ah, the lady who skidded into you with her books,” Rohit remarked lightly, studying her face. Sunaina was thrown off balance.
“Um, it wasn’t exactly like that. Vimal is a big storyteller,” she bumbled her words. Trisha’s dinner announcement rescued her at the right time. The play had left her famished. For dinner, they took autorickshaws to Bengali Market where, over large plates of chole-bhature that Sunaina barely tasted and papri chaat that she hastily gulped down, she was finally a part of Rohit’s narrative. He caught her eye every now and then, and gave her a friendly wink. Clearly, he was attracted to her too.
The morning passed in a lovestruck haze. Tentatively, Sunaina would reread the text after every lesson.
The next day, she received a text on her Nokia. “May I call you? Rohit.”
Heart soaring in her chest, she sprinted her way to class, lit up from within. “There she is!” Shalini looked at her and burst out laughing.
“What’s the matter, why are you in such a hurry? It’s not even time for class yet!”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Brushing her friends’ queries aside, Sunaina busied herself with her bag, pushing back her hair and searching for an errant pen.
The morning passed in a lovestruck haze. Tentatively, Sunaina would reread the text after every lesson. The words were still there. During lunch, Vimal texted.
“Hey, Rohit had asked for your number. Wanted to get in touch about the optional course. Hope it’s okay I gave it to him.”
Without any more overthinking, Sunaina’s fingertips ran over the letters, and her message to Rohit read, “Yes, tonight, after 7.”
They met in Vasant Vihar, in a halfway fancy restaurant. Sunaina felt all grown-up downing a berry sangria. They didn’t converse as much as gaze, and later, as Rohit suggested dropping her home in his secondhand Honda—“It was my Dad’s”—she was overcome with exhilaration. They were starting something, they were brand-new. He opened the car door on the passenger side, and ushering her in, asked her to lower the blinds from her window and from the front of the dashboard. Rose petals fluttered down on her hair and lap as she did so. She was entranced, and this was mostly all it took.
By this time, they were done with their final exams. She had started work with a well-known social-service agency on Lodhi Road even before the results were out.
“But what are you doing now?” she asked him.
“Oh, this and that. I’ll see how badly I’ve scored first and then take a call,” Rohit would brush off her affectionate concern. He’d come to take her out to lunch—sometimes they’d try out a new Mediterranean place, another time South Indian. They started meeting more often after her working hours at Connaught Place. At Oxford Bookstore in the Statesman House building, she liked ordering delicate fruit teas and he flipped through art books, telling her all about the new voices he was reading, especially from America. They’d alternate that with the Vasant Vihar Barista, and read poetry over the swirls of steam that would leave their enamoured visages in a dewy glow. He’d always bring her a flower, just one, that would brighten her up, particularly after a tiring day at work. One time, she brought a change of clothes with her to office, and met him at Khan Market in her off-shoulder blouse, sashaying towards him stylishly and presenting him with a deep red rose. Rohit promised her a whirlwind tour of all the churches of Delhi on Christmas, something she looked forward to with delight and a little trepidation, for what would she say at home, that she’d be driving out all night?
“Baby, I have some good news,” Rohit shifted in the driver’s seat uneasily.
Anyway, they’d see what to say when it came to it. In the meantime, it was all so new and engaging—the music, the books, the companionship for jazz performances, coffee, sometimes a cocktail. The flirting over text, the teasing from Trisha, who worked with her in the same office and covered for her if she left early, and Shalini, who was studying for the IAS exams and lunched with them every alternate weekend. Vimal had taken off for the interiors of rural Punjab, hoping to impact education at the grassroots level, and would email them from time to time, frenziedly explaining the details of his project and how inspiring it all was even though the daily living was tough.
One day, when Sunaina was idly riffling through the music in Rohit’s car, picking out a hard rock album here, a blues single there, she heard Rohit murmur something about her coming over to his family home in west Delhi. Rohit was from a large business family and looked up to his brother. Apparently, his sister-in-law knew about Sunaina’s existence. She’d even explicitly told Rohit he should bring Sunaina home seeing as all he could do was moon over her, kind of make it more official, especially since he was going away soon. A little smile had been playing on Sunaina’s lips until then, “Going away? Going away where?”
“Baby, I have some good news,” Rohit shifted in the driver’s seat uneasily.
“I’ve gotten accepted into a diploma course in documentary filmmaking at the School of the Arts in Singapore. My passport is in process at the Singapore embassy. If all goes well, I’ll be leaving in a couple months.”
“Uh, what, and what of this, of us?” Sunaina gasped, trying to make sense of these alien, unexpected string of words. “And when will we go home to meet your bhabhi and bhaiya?”
“Uh,” Rohit was nonplussed, he put on a hard face and said flippantly, “I told her that she won’t understand that people enjoy each other’s company for the short term then go their own ways with the memories.”
“Is that all I am to you, a short-term fling?” Sunaina thought but was unable to voice this aloud through her tears.
“We’ll make sure to go out tons and have fun, won’t we, baby?” Rohit gave a deadline to their relationship.
She could only nod, lost in her awakening love for him and this fresh, never-before-known pain it brought along with it. She compartmentalised what she didn’t dare articulate yet to herself: that as she thought they were on to a nice beginning, they were actually ending. That he cared for her, but not, apparently, enough to keep up the relationship. She’d even been ready to look for a course in Singapore herself, so they could remain together.
He broke up with her over a text just a few days before Christmas. Those few lines hurt so much that she deleted it instantly. It hit her on the day: there would be no drive to see no churches. She hated that he’d made her a promise that he didn’t intend to keep. It troubled her that he was irritated by her tears, that he didn’t want to sense how much she cared.
A few months later, she received an email from him. He was visiting Delhi for a couple of weeks on vacation and wanted to see her, to apologise for his cowardly behaviour. She met him—he walked somewhat differently, and was a bit standoffish—but remembered not much of the conversation except that he said he’d have been with her if he’d continued living in Delhi. She had smiled brightly and wished him well, and left. She was vulnerable and didn’t need him to see that. A few nights later, she wiped her eyes resolutely and went over to Shalini’s place for a girl’s night in, watching movies, painting their nails, all that. Shortly after, she even started dating someone else.
He said he’d join her for a dosa.
In Mumbai, visiting friends, Sunaina happened to saunter into Prithvi Theatre for a bite. At dusk, the ceiling of the open café area, outside the theatre, was twinkling with fairy lights. Theatre goers swished in with handloom saris, khadi skirts, jholas and junk jewellery, and the small bookstore beside the café stocked tomes on film and playwriting that you couldn’t find elsewhere. Sunaina had bought herself a slim volume on the value of poetry in performance. She had just about sat down at one of the stone tables to a kulhad of ginger chai and was animatedly chatting with her mates when she realised a man had been trying to catch her eye for the last few moments. It was him: Rohit. They hugged, on his part with blustery bonhomie, on hers with a feigned comfort. She introduced him as an old university buddy. He joined their table, gazing at her intently whenever there was a lull in conversation. Now that his course was over, he was in Mumbai looking for work.
Later, as she put out a hand to shake his, he asked what she was up to next. Flustered, she mumbled, “Oh, I was going to get dosa outside the college nearby, and maybe walk past Amitabh Bachchan’s house, haha.”
He said he’d join her for a dosa.
“It’s a chocolate one,” she warned him. He smiled indulgently and lightly touching the crook of her elbow, said he’d be thrilled to share some new experiences with her in this city new to both of them. As they crossed the street, he answered her unspoken question.
“I missed you.”
Guardedly, Sunaina let Rohit walk next to her.