The sound of the flapping wings and the guttural noise, made Suchitra, sitting on a settee by the window, turn her head and look out. The darned bird was perched on the parapet of the balcony next to the tulsi and pecking into the soil in the pot. She rapped her knuckles on the window pane. It worked. But, the stretching out left wing of the pigeon almost got the pot. It gave the slightest of shakes, making her start unfolding her leg from under her, before it settled down.
What a day to spend the Sunday. She would rather have been arguing and teasing Arvind than be chasing the city pests from messing her balcony. She caught her breath as the thought entered her mind. She said aloud, “What was that again? But,…but…how can that be?” She jumped out of the bean bag, throwing the book in her hand to the floor, and paced a few steps around the room. Her ankle length crinkle skirt twirled as she walked about. She stopped at the mirror at her dressing table and looked up to see tears streaming down her eyes. She stood there staring at her reflection and wiped her wet face with the back of her hand in a quick swish. She paced about some more. She seemed to make her mind up as she picked up her mobile phone from the bean bag.
Almost as soon as she picked it, she threw it back. She picked up the phone again and looked for a number. She pressed ‘call’ and quickly disconnected it. She thought a minute and dialed again. She got the response “The number you are trying to reach has been switched off”. She said loudly, “No!” She flopped on her bed and buried her face in her hands. Few moments later, she looked up wiped her face and dialed another number on the phone.
“Hello Shweta”, she said not waiting to hear a response on the other end.
“Hi Suchi!! What a long time. You finally remembered me. What’s up? Are you alright?”
As soon as she heard the concern in her friend’s voice, Suchitra almost cried again. She said in a hurry, “Where is that damned brother of yours? Arvind?”
Suchitra heard a sigh on the phone line and then, “Suchi. Honestly, I don’t know. I am coming over now. You stay right there.”
Suchitra looked dazed. When she finally stood up, she reached over to the book, and sat on the bean bag just looking at the plants in the balcony her landlady watered regularly. She got up only when she heard the door bell.
Shweta was seated on the couch in the living room next to Suchitra. She handed the take away glass with milk shake to her friend saying, “The banana in this will pep you up. Have it. I picked it up on the way from your favourite hangout.” She then said, “Arvind only told me he has quit his job and that he needs a break. He asked mom, dad and me not to try and reach him and that he will connect with us. In the last couple of months, he has called us once. But, he did not say anything about what he is doing and where he is. Mom is really going bonkers trying to figure it out. Dad is trying his best to pacify her, but I can see he can’t understand why after having spent so much money on his Ivy league MBA, he could just one day give up his ‘Senior manager’ position and vanish. He can’t get over the fact that his son has come back to India after that big education and now this…” Shweta paused to look into her friends gleaming eyes and asked in exasperation, “When will you both stop being crazy?”
Suchitra could only splutter, “What did I do? I did nothing.”
“Did you not send him away?”
“Send him away?! Most definitely not. I just told him that he does not understand my world and way of living. He has grown up in all this money and has everything. I did not have any of that. I was lucky to have got into college and a scholarship on merit and because of my hockey, managed an MBA in this city college. Your dad paid for his education when he wanted to do the same in Harvard. There is no connect, you know. After that I did not hear from him. How can I be responsible for his actions?”
Shweta took a sip from her glass before responding, “But, Arvind did not want to go abroad to study. He kept saying he wants to work in India and does not care for a US degree. Dad did not listen to him. And mom said that once he has his degree he can decide what he wants to do. Finally, that is what he did. He finished that degree and took up a job here, much to dad’s dismay. You know that!”
“So, where is he now?” Suchitra scooped the milk shake from her glass with a spoon and then licked her lips.
“See, he quit here in Bangalore and went to meet mom and dad. He just told them he needs to do more directly for the people who really need help. He would not say more.”
“How do I reach him then?” Suchitra had an edge to her voice. She did not wait for a response. She stood up and said, “Ok, I will make a couple of calls to work and then I head to Majestic.” Shweta could only gasp before Suchitra continued, “I suppose busses to Nagpur leave only at night?”
“But mom and dad themselves…” Shweta could not finish as Suchitra interrupted her and said, “Somebody there would.”
Shweta said hurriedly, “I am coming with you. I will tell dad to send a pickup…”
Her pal said firmly, “No Shweta, I need to do this alone. I will anyway be in touch with you on the phone”.
Shweta sighed and said softly, “Alright. I know you. But do not vanish, ok?” And then she added, “Anyway, that’s my girl. I know you will find him.”
When Suchitra reached Arvind’s parents’ home the next morning, they received her warmly and not a bit surprised. His mother let her freshen up and gave her a hearty breakfast. They knew her as Shweta’s friend and it was tricky for her to ask about Arvind. She tried to be casual about it and finally asked about him while digging into the poha. His mom looked at her a second longer before she said, “Beta, Arvind does not tell us where he is. His father is so angry with him. But I know my son is made differently. Why does he not tell us what he is doing?”
Aunty told her of the various ways they had tried to get the information from him, but to no avail. It had been two months now and all they knew was that he was doing well and told them he was happy when he had called once, about a month ago. But she had heard the sadness in his voice. His dad had tried to find out from all his connections, and he was not working in any of the cities where they had branches to their business. Suchitra could only say, “Aunty, is there any hint or clue you could get from his discussions? Anything he suggested?”
“No beta. Before he left I was so upset that I had told him, “At least be like your papa. He is doing seva for people by giving them jobs and salaries. You do something similar too. You know he said that he is planning on the same lines and that he will let us know when the time is right. All he said is he is still close to us.”
Suchitra almost dropped her glass of fruit punch she was holding in her hand, and jumped up. “Aunty that is it. I know what he is doing.” She was made to finish breakfast before she got up and this gave her time to get details on the various bus stops and places around.
Taking her bag and a basket of food, which Arvind’s mother insisted she carry, she set off. She had to brush off aunty’s insistence of sending a car with a driver or coming along too, but not before she had said, “Beti, now only you can probably make him see sense. And you take care of yourself as well!”
As the bus started on its two hour ride to Sevagram, It kept halting at every stop to pick up people who kept streaming in. Suchitra could not even spend time with her thoughts. The bus was barely moving. Did it have to stop at every bus stop and why did so many people want to travel anyway? They seemed to somehow conspire and not let her think of Arvind…No…Not let her read…
She opened her book to page seventeen. She could not see what was on the page. All she could see was Arvind and his expression, when she had said, “What do you know of my trials. You see them through the comfort of your home.” He had come that eventful Saturday evening to talk about being together.
Arvind had said with infinite patience to what now seemed, her agitated rant, “Suchi, have I not seen you since you were with Shweta in the first? I…”
She had not let him speak, “That is different. You have to live this life to know.” She had picked up the “The Tale of Two Cities” lying on her desk, that she had got the unabridged version of, and waving it at his face had said, “See what poverty does to people. What the rich can do to the poor and how they take advantage of it. It can change peoples’ lives.”
Why had she over reacted? She could have been more sympathetic. He had never shown an attachment to his wealth in his ways. She had not seen him go out to party or flaunt his dad’s glitzy new cars. He had not wanted to go for an international education. He had been so supportive of her and her family’s situation and had helped them with opportunities and sometimes even monetarily. It was her fortune that she had got into the school with Shweta due to the generosity of the school management where Arvind’s father was the board member. Arvind had somehow made sure she and her younger brother went through school without having financial worries.
Hearing her reaction, Arvind had just stood there looking down. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it. He tried again and then gave up. He had then turned around and left.
She had not heard from him since then. She looked back into the book and saw she was on page nineteen. What had happened from page seventeen anyway? She turned the pages back angrily. Then she looked at her watch. Wow! She should have reached by now. Why was the bus taking forever for this short ride? She shut her book, put it in her handbag and quickly cleaned up her windblown hair with her hand. She adjusted her dupatta over her head to protect from the sun outside as she stepped off. She sat up straight with the bag on her shoulder and ready to run off the bus the moment it stopped and the door opened.
The bus halted finally and as she stood up, she could see that she could not get off as she had planned. Passengers had to collect the baggage from the rack above, the small baby had to be picked up, belongings checked and it did not help her growing consternation. When she alighted at last, she stood still. Her thoughts had been so focused on reaching this town that she had not thought of what she really would do next. As the woman behind, stepping off the bus, bumped into her, she looked up and froze.
Arvind was standing in front of her taking her bag from her hand. He was saying, “Just step here.” She could only look at him. He was wearing a light blue short sleeved shirt over faded jeans, his trademark. When they were a few steps away, she stopped and could just say, “Arvind,…”.
He looked at her intensely and said, “Two months, twenty two days six hours…” and looking at his watch added, “…and fourteen minutes”.
She was still staring. Realizing he had said something, she said, “What?”
“Since I saw you last.” He had the slightest of smiles on his face.
She had never noticed, he had the sweetest of smiles. And his eyes were so deep brown. What had she been thinking all these days? She said, “How did you know?”
“I decided to speak to mom thinking she would be worried. When I called her she said you were coming here. I asked her not to call you on the mobile and say anything.” Then with a grin he said, “I have been standing here for forty seven minutes watching the three other busses that came here before this one. But tell me how did you think I would be here?”
“I remembered what I told you last. Aunty said she had asked you to do seva. So I thought Sevagram is close to Nagpur and so…”
“You, silly! I am not here. I am in a village an hour away from here. I had to hire a cab and drive here as fast as I could.”
They had started to walk now. She had to shade her eyes from the blaze of the setting sun ahead of them. She said, “What the hell are you doing there?”
“I found this village where farmers were in deep shock over some of them taking their lives. I was with them for a few days when I was reminded of your comments on Nehru’s socialism. I am setting up a cell to help with their cotton production…”
She burst out, “Why Arvind?”
He stopped, looked at her and said in a hurt voice,” Suchi, you told me I had to live the life to know it. There was no way I could do it where my parents could find me. I had to do this on my own.”
“Why did you not choose a different part of Nehru’s personality to follow!?” She said agitatedly.
It was his turn to say, “What?!”
“Why did you not have an affair or something?”
“You want me to have an affair??”
She said softly “Do you have to do all I ask you to?” She walked close to him and put her hand out to hold his.