Love in the Autumn Zone
Love in the Autumn Zone11 mins 683 11 mins 683
The aging lines on the face were not heavy enough to prevent Raj from recognizing Rashmi, who stood amidst the waiting crowd at the gate of the St Joseph’s college, on that cold January afternoon. It was almost noon and the guardians were waiting for the gate to open to pick their wards from the college. Raj had been coming daily for this chore, dropping and picking his grandson, and had developed a routine of sorts. The crowd at the gate was more or less the same everyday. Except a few glances and a short wave of the hand, no one seemed interested in striking a conversation.
Things had not gone well for Rashmi this morning. She had to wake up in the wee hours because her daughter became suddenly unwell. There was a crisis of sorts at home because there was no one to take Anand, her grandson, to school. Her daughter suggested that she accompany Anand to the St Joseph’s college and also bring him back.
Rashmi waited for the college gate to open standing at the far corner of the waiting area space. She found the crowd immersed in their mobile phones. It was almost unexpectedly that her moving gaze caught the sight of the man in blue shirt with a countenance that was on the other side of sixty, standing in the far corner. Somewhere in the recess of her brain she could recollect having known this person. Her mind went into overdrive trying to recollect her memory. It was on the third gaze that she recognized Raj who was her batchmate almost half a century back while she was a student of undergraduate at Allahabad University.
Rashmi’s thought catapulted her to that January morning, about fifty years back, when she had entered the Allahabad University Science Faculty for attending her first B Sc class in the Botany department. She had stepped into the University for the first time and the thought of coeducation was both exciting and strange. She found that the girls were huddled in a discreet bunch. She gingerly joined the group of girls not by any preconceived thought but by pure instinct.
Thoughts came tumbling forth in that moment of waiting for Rashmi. She vividly recollected how, almost as an unsaid rule, the girls would sit in the front benches and the boys would take the back benches. Rashmi’s mind also played back the moment when a boy coming late had sneaked on to the second bench where she was sitting and she had instantly put her bag between herself and the boy. Rashmi recollected the sight of that boy and the sheepish grin thereafter. She realized that despite the age, Raj had not lost the sparkle in his eyes.
Rashmi’s ongoing thought was suddenly punctuated by the ringing of the school bell and the creaking of the college gate. She looked towards the point where Raj was standing. Raj had already gone inside the school. Rashmi found Anand, her grandson, in front of his class and walked to her car.
That evening Raj felt more energetic. While he walked his daily evening stroll he did not feel pain in his knees. His mind took him to the moment when he was a student of B Sc at Allahabad University. He remembered Rashmi, the beautiful girl who was so well behaved. A smile crossed his lips when his mind reminded him the moments when he had reached the Botany class late and sat on the second bench where Rashmi was sitting. He still remembered the brown bag that suddenly found its way between him and Rashmi.
Rashmi’s daughter was still unwell and this necessitated that Rashmi would again take Anand to school. An unknown emotion made Rashmi look forward to the task at hand. The scene at the St Joseph gate was without any change. Rashmi’s eyes wandered, without any overt reason, looking to spot Raj. She found Raj in his same corner. He was gazing towards Rashmi, trying to fathom the events that might have happened in her life in these fifty years. Their eyes met each other’s gaze. Both felt uncertain how to react. It was on the second eye contact that Raj could sense some affirmation from Rashmi. He smiled, she nodded. He started walking towards her. The school bell rang.
Returning home that afternoon, Rashmi’s thoughts kept on drifting to the fleeting moment when she met Raj. Fifty years is a long time to remember anyone. She realized that while in University she had never talked to Raj. Her strict upbringing at home kept her out of bounds to most members of the opposite sex.
Raj found it hard not to think about Rashmi. He realized that there was a surge of adrenaline when he had walked towards Rashmi this afternoon and exchanged a few words. The school bell had rung before giving him more time beyond the pleasantries. Looking at Rashmi, his eyes had taken him back in time. He found that he was looking at a beautiful eighteen year old girl with a bag slung over the shoulder. As if on impulse, Raj realized that he was already looking forward to the chore of going to the college the next day.
In a few days, the small daily interlude at the gate of St Joseph’s college became the most pleasant moment of the day for both Raj and Rashmi. Raj could find out that Rashmi had a troubled marriage and that she was now separated. Beyond this information Rashmi had never divulged more details. Raj was more forthcoming in his life story. He confided that his wife had passed away a couple of years back and that he lived with his son.
It was the third week of February. The routine of standing together at the gate with intermittent conversation had become a regular feature in Raj and Rashmi’s daily life. That day, just before the scheduled time of school giving over, there was an announcement that due to some sports related activity the school will give over one hour later.
While some guardians opted to stay put at the gate, others dispersed to attend to their routines. Raj suggested to Rashmi that they walk to the Alfred park just on the other side of the road. An awkward moment later, both Raj and Rashmi crossed the road on way to the park. They found an empty bench in the shade. Raj suggested that they sit down for sometime. Rashmi felt uncomfortable, her eyes involuntarily scanned the presence of other people in her peripheral vision. The guilt of sharing a bench with Raj reminded her of the day when Raj had found a seat next to her in the Botany class and she had put her bag to keep a distance. Despite the guilt, an unkown instinct made her happy. There was a feeling of content which she had not experienced for a long time.
On the way back to school, the traffic on the road had increased with guardians vying for vacant spaces to park their vehicles. A scooterist lost balance and Rashmi had to take an evasive action. She tripped. On an impulse Raj caught her arm and steadied her. In that moment of tripping, Raj caught a glimpse of Rashmi’s wide open eyes. Rashmi felt a rush of adrenaline. She momentarily blushed.
The school gave over and it was routine again. That afternoon, Rashmi’s thought reminded her again and again of the moments she spent with Raj. She was getting utterly confused. Why did she walk with Raj to the park? What would happen if anyone had recognized her? Despite the pressing questions which her mind threw at her, Rashmi felt an uneasy joy. Today she felt hungry and looked forward to dinner.
Raj also replayed the events of this afternoon. He realized that he felt much younger and healthy in the company of Rashmi. The garlanded picture of his late wife Sunita stared at him from the wall in the room. Raj felt confused. His mind took him to the moment when in an impulsive gesture he had held Rashmi’s hand preventing her from tripping. His mind could not answer why that gesture gave him a feeling of happiness?
It was Holi time. The school was going to close for a week for festival holidays. It had become almost a practice that Raj would come about ten minutes before and take the spot where he would be joined by Rashmi in a few minutes. In the last few months, their conversation had slowly veered from pleasantries to mundane. Rashmi now felt a lot more comfortable in the company of Raj. This afternoon, on the eve of Holi, Rashmi found Raj with a glint of mischief in his eyes. As Rashmi looked towards the other side, a hand brushed her cheek. Raj had applied a token of gulal on her face. Rashmi didn’t know how to respond, Raj also felt uneasy but found courage to say ‘Happy Holi’. Rashmi blushed. An uneasy emotion engulfed her. After several decades someone had touched her in this fashion. Her mind went blank. She savoured the moment.
For decades Holi had been a subdued affair in Rashmi’s life. She had for long compromised on her destiny. An early marriage, a traumatic miscarriage and a troubled pregnancy had already taken a heavy toll in her life very early. She vividly remembered the time when she had discovered the extra marital affair of her husband. After a protracted divorce she had moved on and lived with her daughter a retired life while she was still in her third decade of life.
Rashmi’s daughter found it surprising that this year her mother took more than the usual interest in preparing for the Holi festivities. She found her mother in an unusual happy demeanour.
It was around midnight that Rashmi felt a bout of nausea. The day had been long and strenuous. Visitors had dropped in to say hello. She had also taken the liberty of eating heavy in the evening. Rashmi ignored her nausea and tried to sleep. She reminisced her sojourn to the park with Raj. The thought of Raj with gulal smeared fingers brought a thin smile. Her nausea had receded. She fell asleep.
The second bout of nausea engulfed her sometime around the early morning. She felt sick. Rashmi wanted to yell and call her daughter but her tongue did not move. She made an effort to pick the glass of water from the side table but her hand remained limp. Rashmi realized she had been paralyzed.
Realizing that her mother had not come out of her room, Rashmi’s daughter decided to check her. Reality dawned as she entered the room. Rashmi lay silent on the bed with her face contorted.
Ambulance was called and Rashmi was carted into the vehicle on the stretcher. The siren of the ambulance made the neighbours curious. The ambulance sped towards the Nazareth hospital. Rashmi was awake but she was unable to move or talk. She heard the shrill siren of the speeding ambulance. The speed of the ambulance slowed, she heard the driver curse the traffic. Someone said that they were passing in front of the St Joseph’s college. Rashmi wanted to get up and have a look at the gate. She remembered the day when she first saw Raj.
Raj woke up this morning with thoughts of meeting Rashmi at the St Joseph college gate. He remembered how he had mustered the courage that afternoon when he applied the gulal to Rashmi’s face. The sight of a dumbstruck Rashmi with gulal highlighting her flawless complexion was still too fresh in his mind.
Raj reached St Joseph college a few minutes early than his usual time. His eyes kept scanning the road for the glimpse of Rashmi. Minutes passed and it was almost time for the school to give over. Rashmi had not come this afternoon. Raj felt a deep sickening feeling. Suddenly he felt tired.
This afternoon Raj contemplated a thousand different reasons why Rashmi did not come to the college to pick her grandson. In one of the options, he found he was cursing himself of taking the liberty of applying gulal. Was this the reason why Rashmi had opted not to come to the college? Raj felt exhausted. He fell asleep.
The next day, Raj again reached the St Joseph’s college a few minutes before his usual time. His eyes continuously looked for the sight of Rashmi. She didn’t come. Depression had already crept in Raj’s mind. The trees were shedding their leaves in April. The wind had already become laden with dust. Summer was visible. Raj felt he had grown old. His knees today felt heavy.
Rashmi’s condition worsened. She found it difficult to focus her thoughts, her mind drifted in states of wakefulness and sleep. She tried to conjure the image of Raj, her mind failed her wish. She slipped in a coma. The monitor showing the heart rate and pulse in the ICU became erratic. It took another fifteen minutes for the green florescent line to become straight. The doctor on duty found it routine to pronounce her dead.
In the last few days, Raj had found the chore of fetching his grandson from St Joseph’s college extremely hard. He felt weak and old. Standing at the gate had become an arduous task. Today as he walked with his grandson up to the car, a vehicle blocked his path. A hearse van was slowly traversing the crowded road. Raj saw the hearse van and said a silent prayer for the unknown person who was being transported for the last time.