Horns wailed all around, as the traffic came to a halt. There was confusion everywhere and I calculated that I would have to wait for an hour or so before the traffic cleared up. I decided to spend the time in a nearby cafeteria. The cafeteria was pretty crowded. I placed my order and looked around for an empty chair.
I finally found one and walked towards it. My view was suddenly blocked by a woman in her middle thirties.
"Excuse me," I said.
She did not hear me or pretended to not hear me.
"Excuse me, Miss. I need to pass," I said again, a little loudly.
She made an annoyed sound and turned. "Oh! It's you!" She exclaimed.
I swallowed uncomfortably; I had not expected to run into her, not here, not now.
"Hello, Neeta" I managed to say.
Neeta, the last person I wanted to see was here. Neeta, the first friend I ever made. Our parents were friends, so we grew up together, almost like sisters. We were always together, conspiring, pulling each other’s leg, giving life to some prank. We even went to school together, played late in the evenings together.
Since we were little kids, Neeta had always been the epitome of beauty with brains. She topped in all subjects while I struggled through school. She had the prettiest smile, the kind you see in dental advertisements. As she smiled at me, a little hesitant smile, I was struck by its beauty. My heart skipped a beat and I looked down, flushing pink.
"I didn't know you were in town. I thought you had shifted."
"I am here for a conference meeting, nothing more. I will be off as soon as I am done with that." She replied.
I hesitated and then asked her if she wanted to sit and chat over a cup of coffee. I thought she would say no, but to my surprise, she agreed. We hunted for an empty table and sat down. I wanted to ask her so many things, wanted to know if she would accept me back as a friend. Seeing her again, twirling her hair lightly as she talked brought back so many memories. The first time I had acknowledged to myself that I was in love with her.
It was during the summer break of class 10th. She came to my home in the evening after her dance lessons; she was all excited and breathless.
"Guess what!" she exclaimed, "Rohit asked me out. I met him outside the dance studio; he was waiting there for me. He must have waited for over an hour. Can you believe it? And he asked me out. I am so excited!"
I tried to smile and look happy for her sake, but the news of Rohit asking her out had troubled me more than it should. Rohit, a tall, lanky guy, who lived a few blocks away from my place. My dog, Fluffy had once run away and hidden in Rohit's garden. Neeta and I, we had looked everywhere for him until we found him cuddling to Rohit's dog. That was the first time we met Rohit, and that is when the first brick of their relationship was laid.
That night I could not sleep, I kept thinking about Neeta, trying to understand why it bothered me so much. She had every right to go on a date, every right to love another person; I knew all that yet it felt like my heart was breaking into a million pieces at the prospect of it. That is when I knew, I loved her, I loved her as deeply and as passionately as the moon loves the night.
Neeta would often borrow Fluffy and take him out for long walks, an excuse for meeting Rohit. I remember I grew increasingly possessive during the course of their relationship. Neeta would always find excuses to spend more alone time with Rohit and I was left with my sketches.
"So do you still sketch?"
"Yes, yes I do. I have put up an exhibition too. It’s only a few blocks down from here. Would you like to come and see it?"
"Ummmm okay. Why not, sure. Should I catch up with you in the evening? We will go to your exhibition and then go for dinner too, if you don't mind." Of course I didn't mind, though I didn't say it, but I guess she understood, for she stood up abruptly. "The crowd has cleared, I should go now." She said and walked away.
"How about this dress Ma'am. I think it will go beautifully with your body type."
I shook my head. I wanted something better, something more pretty and elegant. I didn't know why I was going to such lengths to get my dress right. Neeta had only proposed a tour of the exhibition and then dinner. There was not going to be anything more, she was in love, and happily married. Married.... I had completely forgotten to ask her about Rohit. Last I had heard he was starting his own business. I couldn't believe they had actually married, Neeta had not even invited me to their wedding, but Rohit had. He had come up to me when I was sitting on the porch, with an old Fluffy in my lap.
He had scratched Fluffy behind the ears and pretended like he was happy to see me. Maybe he really was, I don't know. But, I was sure he knew how I felt about him and Neeta, but Rohit being Rohit insisted that I be there. Insisted that I come and make their day special.
And I had promised to come. I should not have, but I did.
"Ma'am. Mrs. Sethi!" The shopkeeper called, drawing my attention back to the present.
"Miss Sethi, Mrs. Sethi is my mother." I smiled at him. "I will try on the purple dress now."
"Your daughter is a freak Mrs. Sethi," Neeta had said accusingly, pointing a finger at me. "She loves women, she is not normal, she is a freak," she said again.
My mother stood there, absorbing the meaning of her words. She would have never believed it if Neeta had not flung open the last pages of my notebook and given it to her. She read it slowly, the words I, her daughter had filled those blank pages with. I looked down at my feet, embarrassed by such a sudden revelation.
She looked at me, disgusted. "So this is who you are? Didn't I raise you to be better? How can you be in love with Neeta, how can you dislike Rohit and want her for yourself. You selfish monster. You didn't even think about your father, you didn't even think about me." Her eyes raged too.
I had never seen my mother so angry. She was always soft spoken, always sweet and kind. Everyone I knew loved her, how could they not. I felt miserable, I did not want to disappoint her with who I was.
I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath and finally chose a dress I was going to wear the following evening. It was red evening dress, with embroidery work at the hems. I was sure I was going to look lovely in it, but what if Neeta didn't come? What if she forgot the appointment or didn't want to see me again?
I tried not to think about it on my way home. I lived alone now, thirty-four and unmarried. I could never bring myself to marry any man, since I knew I could never love him. My mother thought marriage would cure it, but I knew deep in my heart that marriage would have only made me miserable. Not that I was particularly happy right now, I hardly ever socialize. I avoided meeting new people because I was afraid they would find me weird. There was a girl, in my building who had once asked me out on a date, but I was afraid to go out with her too. Not that I didn't like her, Soumya was very attractive in her own way, but I couldn't bring myself to shake the idea that I was an anomaly and that my mother would be disappointed. I had chosen a life of seclusion for myself, and I did not have the strength to break free from it.
I started dressing up an hour before the appointed time of the meeting. I could not seem to get my hair right and decided to let them fall freely in the end. I took one last look at the mirror and went to the exhibition. Neeta had said she would meet me there.
"Hello there. Wow! You look great."
I smiled a thank you and we went inside together. I took her from one painting to another. Looking for a sign of approval or a word of praise as we passed.
"This one is beautiful. What is it about?" She turned towards me and asked.
"It’s about a farmer. You know how in our country farmers are increasingly affected by the natural calamities. Untimely rain or drought can wreak havoc in their lives. They are exploited by the Babus too and if the government doesn't intervene then many of them are forced to take their own lives. It’s very sad actually, the state of farmers in our country."
"Oh okay. Anyways you know what the traffic hold up was about today?"
I shook my head, so she continued. "Well one of your oppressed farmers had come to the Ministers house to ask for aide, when he couldn't reach the Minister he decided to attract attention by jumping in front of a car and taking his own life." She said in a matter of fact tone. "Really they should have some sense don't you think? I mean yes they are poor and all, but think of the poor driver who will be blamed for this death now. If only they worked harder they might not even face such an issue."
I looked at her aghast, the offhand way in which she regarded the life of the dead man.
"Human beings should have more sense than to do that. Animals, they don't understand what is right from wrong, but humans do. As a matter of fact I wager my dog has more sense than that man. My dog had I mean. He died a few months back." She looked at me sadly. "He got run over by car, that poor thing, he just wanted to play outside and...." Her voice broke and she wiped a stray tear from her eyes.
That moment, it seemed like I saw her for the first time. She did not look as pretty, her habit of playing with her hair was not as flattering and made her look uninterested. I took a step back from her as the sky darkened outside and the moon came up.
"I have got to go. I will talk to you later. I am sorry about the dinner." I said and took another step back and turned away from her. I hailed a cab home and sat hunched at the back. I had let others define me, people who maybe did not even have any regard for another human’s life; I had let them define my life. I looked out of the window at the racing light of the city as the realization came to me.
I felt calm for the first time in my life, for I knew who I was and others were not worth bringing myself down for. All of us carry our past in our heart. We allow it to shape our future. However, some of us do know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am meant to be now, who I chose to be now. I was meant to see Neeta once more, for me to realize that. My phone rang, it was my mother. I answered her usual questions about my day.
"Had your dinner yet?" She asked.
"No, not yet. I am on my way to pick up Soumya, I am thinking of asking her out. I will ring you up after that.”
"Soumya?" My mother voice came as a shrill whistle. "I thought you had mended your ways Shuddi, I thought you were over this, this illness."
I shook my head, "It is not an illness, Mother." She grew quiet, and I heard the phone click. She had hung up.
"We are here madam". I got out of the taxi and asked the driver to wait. I had someone special coming, I smiled.
I raced up the stairs. Soumya lived on the third floor while I lived on fifth. I knocked the door of her house, and she came out in her pajamas.
"Will you go out on a dinner date with me? I will get you flowers on the way," I said in a breathless voice.
She hesitated and then nodded her head.