I frowned as I looked at my lunch. Dry chapattis, watery dal. It was the same every day. Without tasting it, I knew it would have neither salt nor spice. Such are the “perks” of hostel life.
Nevertheless, I made my way through the rows of noisy tables of the common canteen, looking for a place to sit. I finally found an empty seat, and switched on my mobile phone. I glanced through some messages as I ate. I was nearly done when I noticed someone standing in front of me. I looked up from the meaningless Facebook feed to find the messy-haired, 6-foot frame of my friend, Vikram. I beamed up at him as he said, “Hey!”
“Hey yourself!” I stood up; I wanted to hug him or at least shake his hand, but there was a table between us, and unsalted dal on my fingers. “When did you get back! Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded.
He shrugged and said, “Semester break. Got back day before yesterday. I’m here for a month.”
Vikram was once the star footballer of my college. He and I had been close before. Then he got accepted for a student exchange program and moved to the University of Helsinki. The day we said our goodbyes to him, I wished him luck. He thanked me and that was that. He did not keep in touch with me, nor did I let on in any way that I had been crying into pillows ever since. Of late, of course, the crying had stopped.
I quickly put my plate away and rejoined him, and asked about his plans. “Well, yes, there’s a match happening on the 29th, at the DN Public School ground. I am playing. Will you come?”
“I am not sure. I’ll let you know. But speaking of sports, they’ve done some work on the sports ground here on campus. It looks – “professional”. Come with me!” Without thinking, I grabbed his arm and began to lead him towards it.
“Ohmigod! Is that you, Vikram?” I heard an all-too-familiar, annoying voice squeal out. I turned to see Meenu – tall and broad-shouldered, she almost towered over me. As she flashed her beautiful smile at him, I noticed his expression going a tad sour. But he was more civil than I – I openly rolled my eyes, whereas he still maintained what passed for a polite smile.
“Are you taking him to the new pitch, Shruti? Come with me, Vikram! I’ll show you around – the court, and all the new things that have come up after you left. You can go to class, Shruti, or, wherever.” With that, Meenu grabbed his other arm and began to pull. Vikram’s expression clouded, the smile vanishing altogether. He said sternly, “Could you please not drag me? Please let go of my arm. Shruti and I are in the middle of a conversation.”
It was only then that I realized I was holding his other arm. He had not reacted that way with me, but I let go of his arm anyway. A small smile formed on my face. It was silly, and even mean. But I was smiling not because he had been rude to Meenu; I was smiling because he had not asked me to let go like he had asked her. Perhaps, these simple joys are what we look back on, no matter how silly they sound later.
Meenu walked away embarrassed, her ears red, her long French braid swinging, hissing, “Such audacity!” through gritted teeth. It’s not everyday that she gets spurned! Vikram looked kindly at me and the smile had returned to his face. I smiled back as we walked towards the ground. But a thought lingered at the back of my mind – I remembered all the weeks I had cried. At the end of the month, when he left, I would be back where I was at that point of time. I knew, this time, I could not let myself be vulnerable. At the end of the lunch hour, I told him I had to go back to my lectures. He said he too was returning home. Then abruptly, I told him, “I don’t think I can make it for the match on the 29th.”
I saw a look of hurt cross Vikram’s face but I could not be sure. He nodded and replied, “No problem. See you some other time then. Bye now!”
I watched his retreating figure. Yes, it was easier to say Bye now than to follow up on his “See you.” I quietly went back to my class.
As the 29th approached, I grew restless. It is a terrible feeling, when you want to catch a glimpse of someone, but you know that doing so will wreck your peace of mind. And break your heart, all over again. I sat there and debated if I should go for the match. It’s just a game, you don’t even have to talk to him. Just wave and leave, a part of my mind reasoned.
As a part of me knew I would, I completely ignored the other part of my mind which rebuked me for making a big mistake. I packed a bottle of water and a book to read on the bus, and set off.
I reached the school ground, but I was met with silence. There was no one. Was I late? Was the match already over? I glanced at my watch absentmindedly. I did not really see the time, as my confused mind was busy comprehending the situation. I looked across the field. There was not a single soul to be seen.
Just as well, saved yourself the heartache, my mind tried to soothe me. I turned back and began to walk towards the exit when I heard my name being called. I turned to the voice with a slight frown and raised eyebrows. It was Vikram, jogging towards me. I raised my arm to shield my eyes from the glare of the sun, and waited for him to approach me, confusion mounting each instant.
I wordlessly stared at him, waiting for a few seconds for him to catch his breath. Then he wordlessly stared at me with a wide smile on his face. It must have been realization that dawned on me, because I found myself blurting, “So, there was no match, was there?”
He looked down at his shoes and chuckled. “No.”
I was about to ask what was happening, when he suddenly said, “I knew you’d come, in spite of what you said.” I blinked at him. Sometimes we say mundane things, when we mean something important, wordlessly begging the other person to read between our lines. I knew that’s what Vikram was doing at that moment, but I dared not say it out loud. I offered a mundane question of my own, “When is your flight?”
He held my gaze and replied, “The day after.” I nodded. I did not know how to continue the conversation. What was I doing here? What were we doing here?
“Shruti, I missed you a lot. I hated being away from you.”
“Yeah, right! You didn’t even send a text!” my voice was a few notches higher as I said this.
“Because! Because I didn’t wanna sit there moping! I was being selfish, yes. But studying there, leaving this place, leaving you – it hurt. I thought it would go away, but it didn’t” his voice was so impassioned that it startled me, and at the same time, I did not want him to stop talking.
“Shruti,” his voice was softer now, “I missed you, Shruti. I really l-l-like you.”
“Oh stop stammering, you coward!” before I knew it, an accusatory finger was in the air, and I was shouting, “you don’t know that I’ve missed you too. But you’re such an insensitive, selfish loser that you didn’t even think of talking to me – once!”
“Are you gonna hold that against me forever?!”
I didn’t respond. I glared at him as best as I could, pretending my anger was real. But suddenly, he smiled – the whole of him smiled, messy hair and all, seemed to glow with his happiness
“Doesn’t matter. I knew you’d come here today. I was right. And I know I’m right about what you feel about me too.” Yes, he knew. He was right. I had to smile.