‘Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me!’ Meera sang to herself in a low voice as she sliced the choco-lava cake and took in a spoonful of the same. It tasted heavenly.
She sighed in contentment. So far so good!
Call it a growing-up issue or something, but the prospect of her thirtieth birthday had felt daunting. A week ago, she had changed the settings in her social media profile so that no one could see her birthday. She had wanted to spend the day in solitude and peace. And today, on her birthday, as she sat in the café and relished the cake, the thirtieth birthday didn’t feel as overwhelming as it had, a few days ago. No one would be wishing her in the office, there were no greetings in her chat groups, except from her family group and her social-media page was also thankfully devoid of any newsfeed proudly declaring her birthday.
As the glass door of the café opened, she turned around and gaped in wonder. Ajinkya stepped inside the café with a bouquet of yellow roses. The falling rays of the sun cast a glow behind him and it was as if he had just stepped out from another portal. The whole scene felt utterly surreal.
There was no single word to describe her relationship with Ajinkya. They had been batch-mates in school, had ended up in the same college and now, were working in the same corporate complex albeit in different companies. Were they friends? She couldn’t say for sure. But they were allies, often meeting at the café, sharing interesting stories from their respective offices, having more of similarities than differences and generally had a great time whenever they were together.
Ajinkya presented the bouquet to her. “Happy Birthday, M!” He sat on the chair opposite to hers.
“You remembered!” She murmured, her attention on the beautiful bouquet. When he didn’t reply, she looked at him and found him staring at her.
“Is this the first time I am wishing you on your birthday?” He asked her, sounding hurt.
“No, of course not! You always wish me and bring me yellow roses. But I had changed the settings in my social media profile so that no one can see my date of birth and I thought that…”
“I won’t remember?” He raised one eyebrow as if daring her to answer. “We have known each other since the days when there was no mobile or internet, not to speak of the social media. I do not need any reminder for your birthday.”
“Thank you so much for this!” She said as she lovingly ran her finger-tips over a yellow rose. She looked at him and grinned. “You and your yellow roses…”
He groaned. “You had to remember that! Oh the price I had to for that particular flower!”
17th July, 1992:
“Happy Birthday, Meera!”
Everywhere she went, the greetings followed. Meera was definitely having the best time of her life. Dressed in a red frock and matching accessories, she was feeling very pretty. She had distributed chocolates in her class and also to teachers of other divisions. Her mom had packed her favourite Puri-chole for lunch. Her best friend Chitra had brought home-made cake for her. What more could a birthday-girl wish for!
She was walking towards the exit with Chitra when a boy came running towards her and halted in front of her.
“I am Ajinkya from 6th C Division.” He grinned and presented a yellow rose to her. “Happy birthday!”
Meera was pleasantly taken aback. “Thank you! This is beautiful! I am in 6th A Division.”
Before Ajinkya could say anything more, someone hollered his name. He turned around and visibly paled. It was the P.T teacher, Mrs.Rao who had shouted his name. She was furiously gesturing him to come to her.
He looked at Meera and gulped. “Happy birthday, once again! Have fun!” Before she could respond, he ran towards Mrs.Rao.
“Wow! That was unexpected! Who was the guy? I have seen him but I don’t know his name.” Meera said, keeping the rose in the outermost section of her bag.
“How come you don’t know his name!? He is Ajinkya, ace in all sports. He wins a lot of medals every year. You would know if you ever take your nose off the book and spend more time in the playground than in the library!” Chitra admonished her playfully.
As they stepped out of the school premise, Meera looked over at the playground and did a double take. Mrs.Rao was scolding Ajinkya who was standing with his head bowed. The reason for the scolding was clear. They both were standing beside a shrub having yellow roses. Meera felt awful. Ajinkya lifted his head and his gaze fell over Meera. Suddenly he straightened himself, ran his hand over his hair and grinned, a tooth missing in his upper jaw. But the grin didn’t last long, for Mrs.Rao chose that exact moment to twist his ear. Meera quickly looked away, feeling sorry for him.
“If it helps, I felt very bad for you.” Meera said, trying not to giggle as Ajinkya looked at her in amusement.
“Did you now, really?” He asked, shaking his head as she burst out laughing. “I just saw a pretty girl in a red frock and felt the urge to present the rose to her.”
She hoped he would not see her blushing. Blushing? What was she, a teenager?! The things this guy was making her feel today!
“I think you were chosen to coach our Kho-Kho team in the 8th standard.” she said, trying to steer the conversation into safer grounds.
He squirmed in his seat, looking sheepish.
“I have a bone to pick with you, Mister! You used to be so unapproachable those days! I remember how you shouted at me once for not paying attention to the game.”
Ajinkya nervously ran his hand over the back of his head. “I had to wear braces on my teeth that year. They made me feel very conscious. I thought if I put up a rough front, people would not make fun of me.”
She hesitatingly asked. “Did I ever make…”
Before she could finish her statement, he leaned forward and comfortingly patted her hand. “Nope, you never made fun of me.” He leaned back and smiled. “You were always sweet.”
Huh! Meera found herself at a loss of words.
“It is serendipitous how we both landed up in the same college, right?” She said, munching on a burger, courtesy of Ajinkya. She had to bribe him by accepting a treat from him, to keep him from disclosing her birthday to anyone.
He covered his eyes with his knuckles. “Promise me you won’t label me as a psycho after hearing this.”
“No, I won’t label you as a psycho. Please go ahead!” She said, feeling curious about what he was about to say.
He cleared his throat. “Actually, it was not serendipity. I came to know which college you had applied for and I too chose the same. It was the send-off function in our school….”
2nd May, 1996:
It was the send-off function for batch of 1996. Meera looked radiant in a blue organza saree with matching ear-rings, bangles and hand bag. Surrounded by her friends with whom she had spent the past ten years of her life, she felt emotional and occasionally swallowed the lump that kept forming in her throat.
“Atleast you and I will be in the same college.” Chitra whispered to her tearfully while listening to a student’s tribute to the teachers and the school over the stage. Many of their friends were parting ways, applying to colleges in the city-side.
“Yes, even though Model College is not as hi-fi as the city’s colleges, it has a homely and comforting atmosphere. I fell in love with the college in my very first visit to submit the application. I decided then and there to not to apply anywhere else.” Meera said and clasped Chitra’s hand tightly. “I am glad that you will be with me.” Chitra nodded, wiping her tears.
There was a sound of someone clearing their throat. Meera turned around and saw Ajinkya seated behind her.
“Hey.. last day of school and all ha…” He hesitated for a while and cleared his throat again. “I just wanted to apologize for giving you a hard time during the Kho-Kho practice. You did very well in the finals.”
“Thank you. I had a great coach!” She winked at him and laughed. He, on the other hand, had the perfect deer-in-headlights look.
“You… you are looking very beautiful.” He said, shyly looking to a side. She smiled and thanked him.
“I was wondering whether you would agree for a group photo with…” Before he could complete his sentence, Meera’s friends came and whisked her off for photo sessions.
“With your sports quota and grades, you would have been selected by any college in the city.” Meera said, trying to sound casual while the truth was, his revelation had shocked her. She was now seeing Ajinkya in a new light. Had he always been this attractive, or was it some weird harmonal side-effect of reaching her thirties?
He looked at her intensely for a while. Then he turned to look out of the window and said. “I didn’t want to attend any other college.”
Meera ate her burger, outwardly staying cool but inside her, there was sheer chaos. She had gradually realized two things.
One, probably Ajinkya had had a crush on her in the school days. And two, she herself was crushing on him now.
Before she knew it, half of the day had already passed. Her mobile beeped a message notification. She smiled when she saw that it was from Ajinkya.
Hey… want to catch up at the café for lunch? Remember, it will be my treat. Or else, I will come marching inside your office, singing the birthday song loudly and out-of-tune.
She shook her head. The rascal was resorting to blackmail now. She typed a reply. No need of that. See you at the café in 15 minutes.
Winding up her work, she stepped out of the office, surprised to find herself eager to meet Ajinkya.
He sat back on his chair, sending out very cool and relaxed vibes. “So, what’s next? Do you need to go back to the office after lunch? It is your birthday; you should do something special.”
She shrugged. “What’s so special about turning 30!? There are still unrealized dreams and almost-impossible goals to achieve. And then there is the whole issue of my entire family ganging up on me to find a guy and settle down.”
He tapped his fingers on the table. “No boyfriend?”
She shook her head, feeling conscious. This was the first time she had spoken to Ajinkya about something personal to her.
“Spend the rest of the day with me at the beach.” He said with a totally disarming grin.
Meera tried not to gape at him. But the guy was now unleashing the full power of his smile, a smile that probably helped him to walk away free from all his crimes.
“So… will you…” He asked her, suddenly looking very vulnerable. Unable to help herself, she nodded.
The beach was just a kilometer away from the complex. The afternoon sky was exhibiting beautiful patterns of soft, cottony clouds. As she walked, taking in the beautiful panorama around her with the soothing sounds of waves coming from the shore ahead, she couldn’t help feeling grateful that she was able to witness this beautiful display of Nature. She sneaked a look at Ajinkya and found him smiling at her. For some reason, she felt that his presence completed the whole pretty picture.
“I should come more often to the beach. It feels so blissful.” He said.
“You don’t come here often? No girlfriends?” She asked him playfully. He shook his head and looked at her. She tried not to trip on her feet. What was happening here??
“I make it a point to drop by every now and then. It is my escape from the real world.” She said. They passed a stall where Bhel-puri was being served. They grinned at each other and by a mutual understanding, they decided to go for it. Having ordered two plates of the delicacy, they sat on a bench near the stall.
“Do you remember that Aunty’s stall near our college? She used to prepare the best Bhel-puri in town.” He said.
Meera froze. She had just remembered an incident from her college days.
3rd December, 1997:
Meera stood staring at Aunty’s stall. The Bhel was temptingly calling her out. The cold climate made it all the more imperative that she should eat the spicy and delicious Bhel.
“Hey.. what’s up?” Ajinkya stood beside her, looking alternatively at her and at Aunty’s stall in confusion.
“That.” She pouted, gesturing to Aunty’s stall. When he raised his eyebrows in amusement, she explained. “I want to eat Bhel. But it feels awkward to eat alone.”
“If you wish, I can join you. My treat!” He called dibs on it.
Meera’s eyes widened. “You will?!” She asked in disbelief.
He laughed at her excitement and gestured her to walk towards the stall. “You only had to ask me na… how long have you been standing here?”
“Far too long, I feel. But the wait was worth it! I have been fantasizing about eating this Bhel right since morning.” Meera said eagerly.
Ajinkya ordered and paid for two packets of Bhel.
“So how is life in college?” He asked casually.
“It is great. Except for the lectures, I am enjoying everything else. Friends, the special days to celebrate..”
“That reminds me…” He interrupted her. “Where were you on Friendship Day!? I had come to your class but could not find you there.”
“Can you believe it?! I fell ill on Friendship Day! I was at home, feeling all sick and miserable.”
He nodded. “And then I did not get any chance to talk to you thereafter. You are always surrounded by your gang. I had brought a yellow…”
“Ajinkya! Aren’t you having fever? What are you doing here?” Ajinkya cringed as the vice-principal of the college, Shetty Sir, halted his bullet-bike in front of the stall and shot daggers at both of them. ”I allowed you to miss the last two lectures since you are unwell. Clearly you are well enough to eat Bhel!”
Meera turned towards Ajinkya and to her dismay, realized that he indeed was looking sick, his face all red and flushed. She touched his arm. His temperature was high. “Why didn’t you tell me?” She asked him.
“Off to your home, Ajinkya! Right now!” Shetty Sir commanded.
With an apologetic look at Meera, he left under the watchful supervision of Shetty Sir.
“Hey! You still with me? You look lost.” Ajinkya gently asked her. Meera returned back to the present with a heavy heart. He had wanted to give a yellow rose to her on her first Friendship Day in college!
But that reminded her of something.
“Hey, correct me if I am wrong. In our second year in college, I saw you carrying a bouquet of red roses on Friendship Day.” She smiled as she saw him fidgeting in his seat and bumped his shoulder with hers. “Whom did you give them to?”
He laughed nervously. “It is nothing. Let go!”
“Come on! For old times’ sake, please tell me who was the lucky girl and what happened to the relationship.” Meera pleaded.
He was silent for a moment. A moment, an eternity, she lost track of time. When he looked at her, she already knew what he was going to say.
“I had brought them for you.” He said in a low voice.
2nd August, 1998
“I am nervous. What if she throws this on my face??” Ajinkya asked his best friend Amol who shook his head in exasperation.
“Have you loved her since the school days or not? You have already wasted a lot of time pining for her. For God’s sake, pick up the pace, man! Go ahead and profess your love for her. Everyone knows red roses are for love. Just give the bouquet to her already!”
Ajinkya rolled his shoulders and walked confidently towards Meera’s class. He was about to enter the same when he took in, what was happening in front of him. His steps halted. He saw everything and silently walked away, holding the bouquet of red roses in his hand, his heart shattered into a million pieces.
“I waited to see your response to Sachin’s proposal. A very public proposal, I have to say.” Ajinkya chuckled. “What happened later?”
“It was too soon, I guess. I got carried away in the fantasy of first love, romance and all that teenager-y stuff. He broke up with me after five months. It hurt a lot at that time, but I managed somehow.” She looked at him who was staring off into the sea. “You changed colleges.”
“Yes, I changed. I just did not have any reason to continue there.”
They fell silent, each lost in their own thoughts.
“Look, I do not want all this retrospection to affect our relationship.” He said uncertainly. “I enrolled in a different college, got through my studies and career and made peace with myself.” He looked at her and smiled. “You were an impossible dream for me, someone whom I felt was way out of my league. And yet you were that dream that kept me going.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “I am out of your league??”
He laughed lightly. “Have you ever looked into the mirror? Freaking beautiful woman…” He shook his head.
The waves crashed and frolicked in the shore.
“Why did you never tell me anything about this?” She asked.
“I went through my days pining for you. After a while, it became easier to just accept that things would not work in my favour and that I should move on. Except, it seems I could never really get over you. When I saw you in the café for the first time in years, it was as if all the years of longing for you had caught up with me again. Three years have passed by since we first met at the café. Why did I never make my move, you must wonder. It just became easier for me to accept that some things aren’t meant to be. And here we are, gorgeous you and I, the sucker, still pining for you after all this time.” He finished with a self-deprecating laugh.
“I hope nothing will change between us. Trust me when I say that I have made my peace.” He said, sounding worried. She remained silent.
“Say something.” He pleaded.
“Ask me properly.” Came her reply.
“What?” He asked.
“Ask me out properly.” She said firmly.
He gulped. “Will it be a happy outcome if I ask?”
She nodded, the hopeful note in his voice almost undoing her.
He got up from his seat, carefully placed the plate of Bhel on the bench and rolled his shoulders. She brought her fist to her mouth to prevent herself from giggling.
“Meera, I have loved you all my life.” He rolled his eyes at the obviously anti-climactic question that was to follow after this declaration. “Would you go out on a date with me?”
“Yes, I will.” She said, finally bursting out into laughter while he shook his head in amusement and took his seat beside her.
“With all the revelations and declarations, there should have been something more than just agreeing for a date.” He murmured, trying and failing to maintain a grimace on his face. He looked at her. “Are you very sure about this?”
She had been loved deeply by this guy who had, somehow, always been there for her. He had set aside his own hurt to just to be with her. How could she not be sure of wanting to be with him!?
She linked her arm with his and grinned at him. He looked down at their entangled arms and then at her, his eyes going all soft and warm. If she hadn’t looked at him, she would have missed the brief glimpse of vulnerability that came over his face that spoke of longing, yearning and suppressed love.
“Yes, I am sure about us.” She smiled and laid her head on his arm as he sighed in contentment. There in the sea, there came a brief lull in the activity of the waves, as if they were soaking in the moment when finally, love won and two hearts united like they were meant to.
Really, she thought in amusement, thirtieth birthdays are fine.
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