Our Eyes Met And She Froze
Our Eyes Met And She Froze9 mins 492 9 mins 492
The bus conductor announced that our destination had arrived. The town of Mohammadabad Gohna, near Azamgarh, was too small to have a proper bus station. A couple of roadside tea stalls under the shade of a neem tree was the only landmark for the bus stop. Weary from the six hour bus ride in summer heat we slowly got down from the bus counting our bags and taking care of the earthen pot which was the water storing option. A few rickshaw with slanting seats beckoned the passengers. Walidpur, our final destination, was still a couple of kilometres. We were about to reach our maternal grandparents' home for spending the next two months far from the sweltering heat of the city.
As the rickshaw made its way through the narrow mud splintered paths, I could sense that nothing had changed since last year. Time seems to take its own time in these villages. Every soul looked contended, no tension and no worry was visible on smiling faces. Even the pace of walk was slow compared to the always-on-the-run attitude of my city.
The scene at grandparent's house was no different. One year had passed since my visit last summer but nothing looked different. Afternoons seemed so long. There was a perceptible evening time when kids of similar age from the locality assembled to play the country games be it kabaddi, kho kho or gulli danda. I found no difficulty in melting into the village lifestyle.
The next day somebody brought a rubber ball and we decided to play chibbhi-phod. The game involves two teams each taking turn to dislodge the pyramid of clay pieces by throwing the ball. If dislodged, the team had to again assemble the pyramid while the other team try their best to hit an opposite member with the ball.
We had divided the eight individuals into two teams. Except for my younger brother who was seven years old and a good five years younger to me, I didn't know any of the other members of the two teams. Despite the unfamiliarity, there was no dearth of camaraderie. Leading the opposite team was a petite girl by the name of Ghazala. She was a livewire with a face that had an overdose of smile. She must have been ten or eleven.
The game continued for almost an hour with both teams doing their best to hit and reconstruct the chibbhi. Abruptly someone called out Ghazala from the other side of the boundary wall and she ran off without even completing her teams's turn to throw the ball.
After a few days, the late afternoon games became routine. I came to understand that Ghazala was also visiting her grandparents for the summer vacations. Once she told me that she was in class eight. The other kids were from the village itself and studied in the madarasa which was on the other side of the village lake.
The days gave way to weeks and the two months passed within no time. My father had come to take us back to Allahabad. We started early morning from Walidpur crossing the pontoon bridge over the river Tons, found the bus from Mohammadabad Gohna and reached Allahabad in the evening.
This was the year when I was to take the Class X board exams. Life in Allahabad was so different. We were mad about cricket. TV was a new addition to our home and it was extremely difficult to coerce oneself into studies. Exams came and went. I got 67% marks which was a great moment of joy for my parents. At that time getting a first division was important, percentage did not matter.
Summer vacations came and again we were outbound to Walidpur to our grandparents' home. I found my fishing rod exactly at the same place where I had tucked it last year. The village bazaar oozed the same aroma, and the river Tons flowed as if one year interval was just a dot in its history. In the afternoon I met the same friends. Everybody had grown in the last twelve months. Junaid sported a visible beard and a white skull cap. My eyes wandered aimlessly as if something was missing. It was late in the afternoon that Ghazala appeared. She had changed a lot from last year. The most noticeable difference was the headscarf that she wore.
The afternoon games were played with the same intensity, however, I could sense a change in the attitude of Ghazala. Now she was a little circumspect of coming close to any of the boys. One day in the midst of a game she had the ball in hand and it was me who she had to throw at. At this time, I looked into her eyes. For a moment she froze. The look on her face said something which was difficult to understand. I also felt a dash of adrenaline. All this happened in a flash. She hit me with the ball and the game continued.
Time passed and days became weeks. The afternoon games became a moment of anticipation for me. Somehow I would find pleasure in all that Ghazala did. She was running for the ball and suddenly she slipped. She was in pain and I was the one nearest to her. I knelt beside her and touched her ankle and she looked towards me. The loud thud of her falling was heard inside the house also. My mother came running and saw me sitting beside Ghazala. She helped Ghazala on her feet and guided her to the narrow path to her house in the neighborhood.
The next day, everybody came for the afternoon game except Ghazala. I played but my mind was not in the game. I recollected how she had looked at me when I had touched her ankle. The moment had been frozen in my mind and I played it again and again. My summer vacations were almost finished and in a few days father came to take us back to Allahabad.
This year when we returned to Allahabad, among the routine village items which included jaggery, vinegar, and mango pickles, I carried with me the sweet memory of Ghazala. It was after my return that I realized that the thoughts of Ghazala brought a certain kind of pleasure which was felt not in the brain but in the heart. This feeling I had not encountered before. Ghazala had become a constant companion in my thoughts.
The year was indeed very long. Months passed slowly. Days were long and nights full of dreams. Memories of Ghazala continued to haunt me. I longed for the summer vacations and our trip to Walidpur. It was the mid of April, the day when I returned from college, I found my mother in a sullen mood. She told that letter had come from Walidpur informing that grandmother was very ill and that we will have to visit Walidpur in a few days.
This trip to Walidpur was so different. The mood in the house was of sadness. Grandmother was in a diabetic coma and the village had no hospital. That night she passed away peacefully in sleep. After a few days we returned to Allahabad.
The whole perception of summer vacation changed. Walidpur now had a different meaning. Grandfather was alone and everyone was concerned to find a solution. It was decided that grandfather would leave the ancestral house and move to Allahabad with us. This decision was in effect the end of Walidpur for me. Deep in my heart, I wanted to have a glimpse of Ghazala. Did she come to Walidpur for summer vacations this year? I had no way to find an answer. Life moved on.
The University days were fun. The experience of co-education brought new excitement into life. I realized that girls in the college were much more forthcoming in their attitude compared to my cultural upbringing. Going out for fun or to a movie was no big deal. I also realized that relationships were ephemeral. It was in these complex human associations that moral values took a back seat. In the din of glitz and glamour accentuated with fake beauty, I sometimes missed the rustic innocence of Ghazala.
Time flew. My life was preoccupied with books, studies and college. Free time meant reading Frederick Forsyth, Sidney Sheldon and Leon Uris. The time spent abroad for higher studies was also encapsulated in defined roles. The joy of science preoccupied my mind and I became a loner with few friends. Returning to India was never difficult and fortunately found a teaching job very soon.
I had seen thirty summers when one afternoon I was confronted with the idea of marriage with mother informing that she had a very good girl in mind who was doing masters in Aligarh. I did not say anything. It is an interesting situation that in our culture, no answer is presumed to be a passive 'yes'. That night when I lay in bed, I realized that I had reached the point in life where I must fulfill the Darwin's purpose of life. I was expected to find a mate for generations to continue.
Before I slept, my mind wandered to the time spent with numerous girls at different phases in life. I also remembered Neelu, my muse during two years of college, to whom I could never talk. With these romantic thoughts I dozed off that night. Her face was tantalizingly close, our eyes were locked. Her sinless face was beaming with an innocent smile and the open lips wanted to say something. Ghazala came into my dream. I woke up at 2am, I realized I was perspiring.
The marriage had been fixed. Uzma, my prospective life partner, had completed her M Sc from Aligarh University. Indian marriages are more inclined towards the joys and pleasures of relatives than the likes/dislikes of bride and groom. So was mine. Finally, the barat returned from Aligarh and Uzma was my bride destined to be with me for the rest of my life. From now onwards it was a sin to even think of Neelu or numerous girlfriends. Ghazala should also be a part of history.
The room was heavily decorated. The bed had a canopy of flowers. Uzma was in bright red traditional clothes with an assortment of jewellery. Her drape, heavily embroidered, covered her face. My mother had silently pushed in my hands a box while I was entering the bridal room. I cautiously opened the box and found a ring and an anklet. Some sixth sense told me that these were intended to be my first gift to my wife.
Gingerly I took Uzma's left hand in my hands and placed the ring on her ring finger. Then I took out the anklet and slightly put my hands on her feet exposing her ankle. With both hands I tried to put the anklet in place. I experienced a strange sensation; the touch of her ankle caused an adrenaline rush. I froze. Ghazala overtook mine senses. Ghazala was on the ground clutching her ankle and I was comforting her. For a moment I forgot that I was sitting beside Uzma. The unexpected turn of events made Uzma apprehensive, she removed her face covering drape and looked directly at me. Our eyes met, we both froze in sight. This moment had no end. In that bright red bridal suit, sitting amorously before me, was indeed Ghazala.
Twenty years had passed since our last visit to Walidpur. My grandparents' house was in bad shape. The hand pump stood its place although the handle had broken off. The courtyard was empty. Ghazala picked a few pieces of mud pebbles from the ground and placed them one top of another. She was recreating the chibbhi-phod game which made us come together.