This short story is little darker and more long-winded than the first two ones. The major part of the story is based in Nagercoil, which is infinitely more beautiful than I can hope to describe. Hope you like it!
It seems like just yesterday that I was boarding the flight from Chicago to India. But here I am, seat belt buckled in, waiting in the Jet Airways flight to take me back to the land of dreams. I thought back to my flight two months ago, when I had boarded the flight, all excited, for I was returning to dear old India after 4 years. To Singara Chennai. To home.
I remember thinking about my college life on the long flight home. And of course, I could not think about college without thinking about her. For the last two years of bachelors, going to college meant going to see her. Spending time on campus meant spending time with her. She consumed the whole of the opposite sex for me. Her meant only one girl. I loved her with all the passion of a first love. And what particularly comes back to me is that I almost never talked when I was with her. I was content to sit back, to let her talk, both for her and for me. With the benefit of hindsight, I could see that she was not that stunning. But at that time, she was the peak of beauty in my eyes. I loved her flawless complexion, her expressive eyes, her cascading tresses. I could never have enough of looking at her. Just as a drug junkie keeps coming back for more and more, I devoured the sight of her with that cute ponytail, bobbing up and down as she passionately argued about something. The arguments were entirely lost on me, of course. They say girls want a guy to talk romantically to them. Not her. Somehow, she understood. And I would sometimes catch her looking at me with an intensity that would send electricity shooting down my spine.
It was not meant to last, however. We started fighting about every small thing. In my mind, she was always the one who started it, but that could be just me. We felt the magical rope that connected us start to fray. In the end, after one epic fight that lasted the entire night, and during which I waited as she changed her mobile phone battery in the middle of the fight, she asked me to get lost. And after that, we never talked again. I behaved worse than Chandler in that Friends episode, texting her, calling her, begging her to take me back. But she never did.
It was at this time that I left for higher education in the US. To forget all the pain, I became a different guy, one who would never have to deal with this kind of thing again. Parthiban vanished inside the guy whom my american friends fondly called the Parti-man. Even to my own mind, it was clear that I had become some sort of a cross between Sigappu Rojakkal Kamal and Manmathan Simbhu, without the dreary killing part of course.
I had the trifecta of being tall, dark and reasonably handsome. I learnt to be funny, but not too funny. I put on that show of slight arrogance that women enjoy. After a time, the right words just came naturally. After my masters degree, I got a job at a financial company which paid me more than enough money to fund all my dalliances. I loved the flirting, the moment the eyes meet, the moment you know that she is spending all her time thinking about you. This was a game, and I was becoming an excellent player. I moved from girl to girl, never letting a deep relationship form anywhere. I delighted in being bad, in making them desperate enough to say they loved me, and then leaving them. After my first relationship, I figured word would spread, and that would be end of it. But no. The more of a jerk I was, the more they came. At times I could feel it, like a dark liquid running through my veins, egging me on to manipulate, to wound, to hurt. And I knew I would always give in.
I was roused out of my reverie by the flight attendants giving out food. Ugh. No matter how expensive your ticket is, the food always seems to be prepared by someone who hates the human race. These people should get Anniyan unleashed on them. At least the flight attendants could have been cute. I quickly wolfed down the food and my thoughts turned once more to the events of the last two months.
Once I landed in Chennai, my mom pampered me with avial, biriyani and chakra-pongal for fifteen days. Then she shipped me off to Nagercoil at my periyappa’s house (or Narool as we call it) since I hadn’t been there in forever. Once I landed there, I expected more pampering with the US-return extra status as well. But my periyamma was having none of it.
“Kaikari vaanga therila, ennathaan padichiyo anga”.
You don’t even know how to buy vegetables, what did you learn there?
Her version of tough love was to make me do all the household chores and drag me off to all the social functions there. Manishaloda pesa kathukanum was her advice. You should learn how to talk to people. I hid a smile and played along.
After the teeming cities of amreeka, Nagercoil appeared fresh and pristine. The air itself felt cleaner. Greenery all around. The mountains in the distance, and the clouds floating lazily on their peaks. The countless thennam-thoppus (coconut groves). The cool shade under a banyan tree. The nongu sherbet that they sold on the roadside. The rattling town buses. The weird feeling when you pay with cash instead of card at every shop. The shops where they still gave you chocolates or butter biscuit if they did not have the change. The kaara kozhambu for which even the spiciest vietnamese or thai dish is no match.
It was at one of the innumerable marriages which periyamma made me attend that I first saw her. The marriage was a high profile one, and all the ladies had turned out, decked in their finest glory. When I saw her, I knew what Michael had felt in the Godfather when he said he was struck by lightning. Till then, I had always preferred girls who were fair. But this girl, with her dusky mystique, put all the fair girls I had ever met to shame. One of my cousins leaned in and whispered, “Bekka bekka nu paakatha da”. Only then did I realize that I had been staring at her like a kid looking at his first crush.
Even after this warning, I could not take my eyes off her. Her mookuthi. Her ottiyanam. Her long black hair. The musical sound of her bangles jingling. The red saree. My eyes followed her around the marriage hall, watching her talk and laugh. One of her friends noticed my staring and pointed me out to her. She looked at me and blushed. Not even the pink of the sky during the sunset can rival the beauty of that blush on her cheek. If I was drawn in before, I was positively sunk now. I had to find out who she was.
Discreet enquiries revealed that she was Poonguzhali, the daughter of an accountant, who had died two years ago. She was currently living with her sister. Employing the standard tactic of frequenting the places she usually goes to, I struck up a conversation with her one day at, of all the places, the bakery. It was over a veg puff that our relationship started. I found her charming and refreshing. She was completely oblivious to my city tricks. I could see that she was quite taken with me as well. And so we started meeting more and more.
My family had a thennam thoppu nearby and that was where we would always go. Under the cool shade of the trees, we would sit and talk. She was always curious about me, about my life overseas, about my velinaatu padipu. When I was telling her about my work, it didn’t seem to be the grind that I had felt it to be, back in the glass and steel towers of Chicago. She looked at me with incredulous delight when I told her the electricity and water never failed there. It was so weird connecting with someone this way, face to face, without texting, without facebook, without twitter. Being with her seemed natural, weightless, as if this was how it had always been meant to be. I found myself opening up about my first love, about her, about the insane lifestyle that I had adopted in Chicago. She listened to it all, without so much as a single judging glance. The hug that she gave me at the end felt like the blessing that a pastor bestows after confession.
I felt light hearted for the first time in years. I was sleeping on Poonguzhali’s lap when she started talking about herself and her family. Her hushed tones, even though we were totally alone, told me this was not something she had told anybody else. Her mother had passed away when she was six. Her father had been an alcoholic, turning into an absolute monster when under the influence. She did not cry when she talked about how he would beat both sisters after coming home at 3 AM. A catch in her voice, and the pressure of her hand on mine alone betrayed how difficult this was for her. In-spite of all this, I could feel her sadness when she talked about his death. I took her in my arms. When we broke apart, she smiled, and this time I could sense the strength she needed to smile like that.
We never needed words after that. It was like our relationship had moved past the glorious blaze of passion and had settled in that twilight that is the delight of those who are lucky enough to grow old with their loved ones. I could read the meaning in her eyes and in her silence. I felt that this was the real deal, and all the relationships that I had gone through before merely net practice for the real match.
I borrowed my periyappa’s ambassador and we drove to Kanyakumari. The different shades of blue as the three seas mixed, and the shades of red and pink at sunset formed the perfect backdrop. I knew this was it. Some people think that proposing to a girl is hard. Phooey. You should only propose when you both know beyond the shadow of a doubt that she is going to say yes. I put my arm around her waist and drew her to me. I looked into her eyes and said simply, “Na unna kadhalikaren. Unna kalyanam pannanum nu aasapadren”. That smile, that blush again. And I knew from her eyes that she was cherishing this moment, storing it away in her mind to be relived again.
And then it was all gone. She set her face the way she does it when she is steeling herself to perform an unpleasant task. She talked about the difference in our status. She talked about how she would never fit in Chicago. She talked about how we wanted different things in life – Enamoured as I was with Narool, I could not spend my entire life there, and Poonguzhali wanted to settle here. She did not speak a word trying to convince me to stay. Thank god, she did not say, “Let us just be friends”. I was at a complete loss of words. She sensed this somehow and just enveloped me in a hug.
I was startled out of my thoughts by, “Sir, would you like anything to drink?” Drinks were being distributed in the cabin. I heard that we were going to land in an hour at Chicago. Somehow you are always thirsty on a plane. I ordered a drink and the flight attendant set a glass down upon my flipped open table. I twirled the glass of scotch in my hand, thinking about how quickly the rest of my trip had flown.
I was so angry with her. This was supposed to be my redemption, my coming out of the ashes, my leaving behind my drunk alter ego and settling into the good life. But no, just when I had thought I had found love and inner peace, it was all snatched away from me. But there was something about her that made it impossible for me to remain angry with her. Maybe it was her serenity. Maybe it was the way she smiled at you when she saw you. Whatever it was, I found myself devoid of any anger at her – the pain was still there, but the anger was somehow stripped away, leaving resignation in it’s place. The day before I left Nagercoil, I met her again. She sent me off with a hug. We both knew we would never see each other again.
I was musing on the weird turns that life takes as the plane landed in Chicago. As usual, people were impatient to get off the plane, standing up and blocking the aisle even though the business class people had not yet left. I switched on my phone and waited. My phone vibrated – it was a text message from one of the girls I knew in Chicago. A very flirty text that left no doubt of what was intended and what was to come. I closed my eyes as the darkness, suppressed for the time in India, got loose and rushed through my veins. I opened my eyes and grinned looking at the phone. The game was back on.