Shalini and Ritu had accompanied me to the railway station. Whenever I go on long official tour, they have been coming for years without exception to see me off. An old fashion guy, I prefer the train journey vice airways for obvious reasons of experiencing natural, ethnic and cultural variety of this magnificent land. I had come to Delhi about eight years back on deputation and since then settled here. In a small family with a loving wife and daughter, we never had to look back or have any regrets, whatsoever, while stepping ladders of success and joy in life.
The Rajdhani Express departed from New Delhi as scheduled and the slow moving train caught up its speed soon. In a short while, the dusk had started falling. As I enjoy solitude on such occasions, I was glad to notice that there was no co-passenger in my cabin. After taking some black tea, I had closed my eyes to relax for a while and was brooding over some recent past events when the train suddenly stopped with a jerk. Finding no obvious reason for this unexpected obstruction, I came out of my cabin driven by a sheer curiosity.
It was a small, non-descript station. A majority of passengers, split in small groups, were engaged in conversation on the platform about this undesired halt. A train employee informed me with a tinge of uncertainty that a goods train has been derailed ahead near Gangapur city and this imbroglio is likely to continue for some time till the tracks are cleared.
The small platform was buzzing with live activity. Tea vendors and chatwalah were merry making this rare opportunity to maximize their business. I started getting bored in a short while so I decided to take a stroll on the platform. While slowly walking, I instinctively stopped in front of a mini book stall displaying mostly cheap novels, film magazines and children’s comics. I picked one of the magazines just to pass my time.
After making payment, I was about to turn around when my attention was diverted for the first time towards the man who was standing upright there engrossed in a book. The person had a lean body with wheatish complexion and rather loosely fitted yet costly trouser and half-shirt. His thick beard and black goggles in the waning daylight were adding mysticism to his personality. Had I seen this man elsewhere in the normal circumstances, I would perhaps have not cared a bit about his attire but for the depressing atmosphere in the fading daylight, my attention was perforce diverted towards him. For the first time then, I had a feeling that perhaps I have seen or met him somewhere before.
It was the month of May, the hot summer and loo (A strong hot and dry summer wind in the north India)was at its peak. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that he took out goggle to wipe out sweat drops from his forehead. Oh no! As if hundreds of tiny bells started tingling in my head. It was long back when I passed out from the Lucknow University and so many things had changed ever since but then how I can forget this face. I could recognize it even in a crowd of millions. So this was Avinash, my best childhood and college friend as also the closest buddy at a particular phase in life.
After joining civil service about twenty-five years back, I had gone to Siliguri on my first posting. In the changed circumstances, I didn’t have opportunity to visit Lucknow again. My father had settled in Bhopal after retirement. As such, I didn’t have many close relatives or friends, other than Avinash and his family at Lucknow. Those days, facility of mobiles and internet was not in vogue. Initially, I wrote a few letters to Avinash…I had also sent invitation to him in my marriage but received no response. I missed his absence during my marriage like hell. Eventually, I too got so busy with my occupation and family that old times and friends just remained in memory as nostalgic past.
Notwithstanding above, Avinash was my best friend and the most memorable person even after our separation. He hailed from a good family, the father being a famous surgeon and the mother an affectionate housewife. We completed graduation in Science together. Later he changed discipline and joined postgraduate classes in Philosophy while I continued with my studies in Science. Nonetheless, this never affected our friendship and camaraderie that we shared. After our classes, we regularly used to have our Ganjing (A stroll in a posh market of Hajratganj in Lucknow), and Thandai and Lassi (Milk based popular Indian drinks) sessions at Chowk (An old locality in Lucknow) together in evenings.
It was around this time that Anuradha came in his life. As I recall, for Avinash, it was a case of love at first sight. He was a very hesitant, shy and emotional person by nature. For almost a year, he remained contented with the budding and blossoming affection and love for her in his heart. It is not that Anuradha was unaware of his feelings. While in class, whenever they exchanged glances, Avinash would have a feeling as if the Goddess of love is showering bliss on her devotee.
Avinash often used to deliberately bunk his class so that he could have opportunity to talk to her on the pretext of seeking notes. On the other hand, Anuradha had a quiet and serious temperament. She was familiar with Avinash’s feelings and liked him but on face she would appear to be neutral.
Time was gradually passing and I was unaware of all this because Avinash had kept it a secret even with his best friend. It was perhaps the month of February, I was quite engrossed with my studies as final examinations were closed by. I was not able to meet Avinash for days altogether for the same reason. One day I had gone to Hajratganj to buy some book from the Universal Book Depot. Suddenly I saw Avinash and Anuradha climbing down the stairs hand in hand at ‘Mayfair’. What a pleasant surprise! Avinash in the company of a girl at a movie theatre, it was no less than a seventh wonder for me. Bashfully he tried to move away but there was no way that I could have spared him. It was there that Avinash introduced Anuradha for the first time to me, “Anu, this is Vijay, my best friend and confidant…we are like two bodies and one soul…and that we have no secrets among ourselves.”
Then I insisted both for a treat and led them to the Quality restaurant in the same building. So Avinash turned out to be a Chupa Rustam and I remained Buddhu as ever! When did Avinash and Anuradha come close together? How did their love grow and prosper? I remained totally clueless about this all these days. Avinash had started living over the seventh heaven these days.
Time is almighty – it never stops for anybody and goes on unabated. Those who understand its pulse and go by that, succeed and prosper but others who don’t, they fail and parish. It was almost two years ever since, Anuradha had now enrolled for a research programme and Avinash was doing postgraduate diploma in Public Administration. He was aspiring to join Indian Civil Service. Initial torrent of the oceanic love had turned into a deep and quiet lake. Both were conscious and anxious about their future.
Anuradha’s parents were looking for a suitable groom for her. Apart from the cast barrier, Avinash was besieged with the uncertainty of his professional carrier. Both were apprehensive about their parents’ approval and social acceptability of their relationship.
On one occasion, Anuradha did not come to the university due to her illness for several days. Unable to cope up and resist his anxiety and emotions, Avinash made a rush to see her at home without prior consent. A casual visit of a friend or an anxious hurry of a lover, it was not very difficult for the experienced eyes of her parents to make out the difference and truth of their relationship.
Society was not so receptive and open those days, the way it has changed during last few decades. Her parents imposed several restrictions on her movement after this event. It was obvious that they had not taken their relationship very kindly and this actually accelerated the pace of their search for a suitable match for their daughter. This episode added an unspoken tension with a quantum of hopelessness in their already stressed relationship. As in effect, I was the only witness and a genuine well-wisher, their anxiety and tension used to deeply move my mind and heart.
It was during this period that I was selected in the civil service and had to join at Mussoorie for training at a short notice. For some time, we maintained correspondence through letters. While I used to assure and reassure him giving hope that things will be alright with time, his writings were a reflection of his increasing panic and disappointment about their relationship and bleak future. Gradually, the gap in our correspondence widened due to his irregular responses and ultimately our links were cut. On my part, it was a rather thrilling phase of life …and perhaps I had become too self-centred due to my new found success and prospects of a bright future. Despite all this, my curiosity for Avinash’s love story and welfare remained alive for long. The very thought that I could not be of any assistance to him kept on haunting me for a long time.
The chain of thoughts was suddenly interrupted. After so many years, Avinash was in front of me again. For a few moments, both of us remained hesitant and undecided. And then I recovered my senses soon and ran to hug him with the upsurge of affection and emotions. With a lot of insistence and persuasion, I brought him to my cabin having unending curiosities and queries in mind. On getting a bit normal and on my repeated persuasion, Avinash agreed to narrate his part of story as follows:
“Vijay, you are already aware as to how nervous and anxious we were about the uncertainties of our relationship. After your departure, things turned out from bad to worse. Time was running fast and we were unable find a viable solution of our problems. Today I realize perhaps our own parents could be our best counselor and saviour in any difficult situation but those days it never occurred to our mind.”
“Anu had this characteristic, irrespective of how worried or tense she may be, she would remain composed and calm or at least appear to be so without much effort. On the contrary, you are aware how nervous I used to be that even a minor worry or incident would keep me upset for days or months together. My carrier prospects were still uncertain and Anu was increasingly turning restless and depressed with every passing day. This was constantly straining and spoiling our meetings and relationship. It was so difficult to fathom her mind. On repeated insistence, on one such occasion, she told me that I didn’t understand the gravity of situation. It was not possible for her to go on like that for long. She had her own limitations and that the things were really going out of hands unless I gear up to do something fast.”
After a pause, Avinash continued, “Gradually, communication between us became increasingly difficult. We didn’t have any plausible or amicable solution of the issues we were facing. We would sit together without even speaking for hours. I would occasionally stare at her and try to read her emotions or fathom her mind and she would remain lost in her thoughts.”
“I didn’t know that it would be our last rendezvous when one day in similar moments, she as if awoke from a long sleep, spoke rather sternly to me that I was a coward and escapist. It is not in my destiny or nature to achieve or do anything worthwhile during life.”
“Before I could recover from this unanticipated shock, she had abruptly gone. Despite being so anxious, for the next several days, I had no news of her. Then one day I came to know from one of her friends that she has been engaged to someone and that her in-laws belonged to Delhi.”
“Vijay, despite many hurdles, I always dreamt of a blissful life with Anu at the centre stage. Then I didn’t have the slightest inkling that the dream and reality were like two parallel lines which would never actually converge. It’s hope really which gives an indication as if the dream will become reality one day but this hope is, in fact, a deception; like the earth and sky which appear to meet far away in the horizon but they never ever meet.”
“A thing, however dear it may be, so long it is around us, we don’t realize its worth. But when the same thing is about to go beyond our reach for life, we become restless as if life is slipping. Then we become panicky, as irrespective of cost, we would want to retain it.”
“Same happened with me, the very thought that Anu will become someone else’s life partner, was a shocking and unacceptable preposition to me. I was frantically keen to meet her at once… Desolate and disappointed, I dashed her house one day. There was no body at home except an old domestic help. On enquiry, he told me that that family members had gone to Delhi about a week back and Anuradha Memsaab’s marriage is scheduled there itself. I was completely shattered with this news. I had never felt so dwarf and insulted in life. I kept on wandering aimlessly here and there for long like an insane. On one hand, I was sad having lost Anu for life, on the other hand I was enraged with anger and despair. Having lost interest in everything, I soon dropped from my studies midway.”
Avinash took a long breadth and continued, “Then after some time, merely by chance I came to know about what all had really happened with Anu…and this changed my entire panorama of life. On several occasions, Anu had had altercations with her parents about the marriage plan. On one such occasion, under extreme duress and emotional stress, she even made an attempt to end her life but was somehow saved by timely intervention of her parents.”
“After this event, Anu was completely depressed and stupefied. She stopped making any resistance to her parents’ wishes and command. In the circumstances, her father considering her state of mind as also to avoid social embarrassment of any sorts, decided to tie her knot with the prospective groom at Delhi hoping everything will be alright soon after marriage.”
“Now I had answer for Anu’s inappropriate conduct in the last rendezvous. She had borne so much pain and sufferance all alone because of my cowardice and inaction. And then I resolved, whatever be the circumstances, I shall not share my life with anybody else now. Despite constant persuasion and pressures from my mummy and papa, I stuck to my resolve. After some time I joined a job in a bank but soon I realized that mentally and physically I was not ready for this job, so I resigned. In a few years, papa left us for his heavenly abode consequent to a heart attack and mummy too could not survive long thereafter.”
“Needless to mention, now I was a complete wreck, destitute and entirely on my own. Papa had left behind enough fortune and wealth of which I was the sole inheritor. Such a big bungalow, my loneliness and desolate condition, loss of interest in life…as if I was living castaway on an island. Soon I sold my parental bungalow and started living like a wanderer. To earn my livelihood, I was hardly required to do any work. To keep busy, I started writing and often aimless yet extensive traveling. That is all about the story of my life.”
We remained speechless in a tizzy for a while and then with some indecisiveness and hesitation I broke the silence:
“Avi, there is no point now in wasting life this way. What is bygone is bygone and it can’t be reversed. Many of us dream and aspire for things in life but it’s not that we achieve everything that we wish for. In my opinion it was not your fault either, and even if you committed some mistakes, you have atoned enough all these years. Better late than never, you now please have a fresh start and like a good friend I was, you will always find me on your side.”
After a prolonged silence, Avinash started again with a deep breath, “You know, Vijay! A man lives in moments and I have lived mine. I have no regrets or complaints of any sorts with anybody in life. Those sweet and sour moments ever shared with Anu are my strength and inspiration as well for the remaining life. As a matter of fact, in my solitude I am now satisfied and accustomed to this mode of living. At a time in happier days, we had once taken an oath to live and die together. Anu never faulted on her part and this was me who was solely responsible for the things having gone wrong. She was absolutely right when she called me a coward and escapist. And now for the remaining days I can’t betray my soul anymore or you can say, if you so like, this is my way of atonement.”
This reminded me of an incident about three years back when by a sheer coincidence I had met Anuradha in Connaught Place. She was alone and we had our customary talks in a nearby restaurant over a cup of coffee. I came to know that her husband was a General Manager in a private firm and very often on tour in business connection. They lived in their own house in Greater Kailash with a daughter and son who too are grown up now.
I still remember her simple attire without even minimum customary make up and jewelry on the occasion, usually women are so fond of. I had kept on wondering for days then if her sad smile and rather blank eyes were my illusion or for real, as if she had undergone some trauma and was still struggling to recover from it.
For once I was tempted to share with Avinash about this meeting…but then I resisted my thoughts…It is better not to scratch old wounds. So I maintained my quiet about that incident. Years back, I had opportunity to read Sharat Chandra Chatterjee’s old classic ‘Devdas’ and it flashed in mind if this is not yet another story of Devdas and Parvati. Stories are not deliberately made, they just happen.
In the meantime, apparently the train had received a green signal and had started slowly moving. The small, non-descript station was left behind. It was pitching dark outside and, strangely enough, in synergy with the utter darkness in our minds.
Both of us were silent and sad too. In a few moments, Rajdhani had picked up speed and going full throttle towards destination. The waitor had gone long back after laying our dinner but none of us was keen to eat in the absence of any appetite left. As if trying to cop up with the speed of train, our minds too were engaged, though separately of course, in the analysis of life. Incidents of real life are often far stranger than fiction and some lives are like that too…