Everything came undone the evening Ila rushed home at eight in the night. A letter was lying that would affirm her belief within the travesty of an unmitigated relationship. She couldn’t believe that the ghost had come knocking on her when she least expected. The microwave kept beeping as it had done heating the food, the laptop was placed on the table with the loose chord dangling before the plug point and a few books were piled on the bed. Ila took her plate out of the microwave, opened the window to feel the breeze in the stingy heat of June and sat on the bed.
Ila knew an apology from Avinash was a far-fetched reality, so holding on to this letter, she was way too skeptical to open and read.
Instead, she swayed back in time. It seemed like an era, so further from her present torn between anxiety and loneliness.
Ila remembered sitting in the college theatre, watching a documentary, it was supposedly one of the finest works from a contemporary director. People gasped around her in chorus, ‘See, this man isn’t sold out to the contemporary money hankering community. His work looks so refreshing’. But for Ila, it was sort of peering into a Picasso-esque art creation with an inability to extract anything coherent. Ila couldn’t swallow the idea that her college believed in ruining their weekends with documentary screenings and roundtable discussions. She looked around, only to find her batch mates and juniors sitting inside the theatre in awe of their opportunity to witness art at its zenith. ‘What a puny little army has this man built?’ Ila couldn’t believe the pretentious high brow attitude of her clan!
Ila had found herself to be an outcast in Delhi. Her life in Meerut was miles apart from the one lived here, the tastes and etiquettes never made her feel welcomed into any of the groups.
Once the film rolled out the end credits, Avinash, the director of the documentary walked on to the stage. A tall, lean man with salt and pepper hair and moustache. ‘Seriously not my kinds and way too older’ came inside Ila’s head, as if the podium was a match making platform. Few moments later, what caught her eye was Avinash’s laidback attitude, a sort of old-world charm, clad in a sepia-coloured khadi kurta with jeans and a pair of slippers. Avinash’s eloquent speech on his work had the audiences spell bound. ‘Don’t you think he is a mesmerising piece to behold’, wheezed the girl by her side and Ila realised that she couldn’t help but agree. Though only a nod with an awkward ‘Yes, yes,’ is what finally came out of Ila’s mouth.
After the screening, there was a one-on-one discussion held where the man spoke about his craft and the inspiration to make a foray into meaningful cinema. Ila thought Avinash was an animated man and a passionate one, his hands conveyed more meaning than words. His first impression of an older man gave way to a younger one who just flaunted his greying hair to exude maturity and experience. ‘Definitely one to hold on to as that girl had suggested’, thought Ila but she wasn’t anywhere near his league. Anyways, Ila just wanted to get through with the college and find a decent job.
What is serendipity, if fate not deciding to collide two completely different paths in a series of accidents. That hot afternoon, after the session, Ila headed off straight to the metro station to reach her place. Inside the station, waiting for the train to arrive, Avinash stood with an unassuming expression as Ila came rushing down the stairs to the platform. Ila saw the man infront of her but couldn’t possibly go up to him and introduce herself, and let the world know that she was smitten by his charms. She did what came naturally to her, to camouflage in the crowd and lower her eyes which meant she didn’t exist for other people, and in turn, she turned blind to the presence of others.
For the next few days, college seemed boring with run of the mill happenings. Inside this old south campus college, a few pamphlets stuck on the walls in an untidy array, some announcing exam dates and others stated random job interviews and internships opportunities. But nothing interested Ila these days, she was confused about her decision to be here, away from her family and in a course that hardly anyone at home understood.
Two and a half years back, it was purely a rebellious decision to outsmart her extended family, who seemed to be having opinions on everything related to her life, right from which subjects to take up to when to get married.
One day, while cajoled by her aunt, Ila went straight to her father and declared her wish to join media studies in Delhi.
In a couple of months, Ila was in Delhi, away from her life, literally facing the world, fighting with the autorickshaw drivers on daily basis to saving her clothes from roommates to finishing chores and studying. Everything was sapping her out of energy. And nothing had been life altering. After entering the college, she never felt a moment of inspiration. However, hearing Avinash and his utopian ideals on documentaries as a medium for opening a new paradigm of development for far flung communities changed something in Ila. She wanted to believe in this discourse and wanted to be a part of it.
While walking past the dilapidated corridor, Ila overheard something and stood for a moment. ‘Are you sure you want to leave this internship?’ sighed the course co-ordinator. ‘You don’t get such opportunities lying around…Oh God, indecisive girls these days!’ As Priyanka came out, her head hung in shame, Ila thought it proper to show her some sympathy. And, in her caring reciprocation, accepted the internship with the company that eventually meant working under Director Avinash’s tutelage. Everyone in the class gleamed at Ila striking gold with the internship though Ila on her part tried to keep things calm.
Ila phoned her parents to let them know that she would be involved in an internship after class hours and on weekends, which would leave very little time on her hand. She felt that suddenly her life was bubbling with numerous possibilities.
A week down, the new found enthusiasm had somehow died down and office turned out to be quite horrendous. People smoking, constantly sipping tea…they looked more like zombies who had not eaten a morsel of solid food in ages. Sadly, Avinash popped up once in three days or so when he came with some footage or a story idea or simply came to introduce another filmmaker.
‘Why do you behave like a puritan?’ Ila couldn’t believe Avinash had spoken to her but what was with the tone. ‘You think people actually behave like this in the normal world? What are you, 16 or 17 to write such fantasy land script expecting people to spend their energies reading it.’
‘I can make some tweaks if you suggest’, Ila gathered the courage to reply.
‘You got to be kidding me, I am trashing the whole bundle and better start working on the outline that was circulated previously…also…’, at which point Ila couldn’t restrain her tears and it came tumbling down. Looking at the scenario, Avinash left the room in visible rage, lighting a cigarette on his way out.
In the evening, as Ila was packing to leave, she saw Avinash coming in her direction.
Avinash asked Ila to walk with her, she followed him in a trance. They went out to a coffee shop, nothing fancy just the minimal things required to function with merely four tables and chairs. No paintings adorned the walls, none of the shenanigans! Ila could see the coat chipping down and the blue on the wall mixed with the smoke fading into a sort of dirt hue. Just as Avinash ordered coffee, he began ‘I see the potential in you but there has to be gravity in your work.’ It was the sort of soliloquy where the other end had no part to play but to be present as a muted spectator.
At the end of it, he paid the bill and the two began to walk back. Avinash accompanied Ila up to the terminal and a smile crept up his face, ‘Would you mind staying back for some more time?’ Ila couldn’t believe what just happened, probably, she was just dreaming…waiting to be pulled out of the moment.
‘I would love to, but you see, the landlady is particular about our timings…maybe some other time when I would have informed her,” said Ila furrowing her eyebrows in confusion.
Next day onwards, Avinash was way more regular in coming to the office and he ensured to join Ila for lunches. Though never did they have another opportunity to be left alone, Ila could sense Avinash’s eyes following her and him trying to be present around her. Things unsaid make the deepest impressions on our minds, we assume the unmeant cues to build castles in dreams and protect it fiercely from shattering. Ila’s encouragements were thwarted by the office gossip that linked Avinash with the pretty looking accountant. She sat a couple of cubicles away from Ila and most of the time, Ila could see Avinash perched over her seat and her casualness in hugging him. However, daydreams never evaded Ila for her heart was smitten.
One evening, as an office party was planned, the whole team set out for their favourite Aradhana Bhawan, a beautiful dining place with a lawn infront of it. Greenery with open sky was a treasured thing in this big city. Some people trickled inside, saying they had to reach home early while a few to the likes of Ila wanted to have a stroll around the lawn. Avinash had decided to stay outdoors, merrily chatting with a colleague with that contagious smile on his face. Ila turned her eyes down and sat on a wooden bench facing the gorgeous amaltas, imagining Avinash sitting beside her and holding her hand but then, in a second, he was gone, probably to have a smoke. On that thought, Ila couldn’t stop a smile coming to her face and as she turned to look for him, she saw him with a woman in an immaculately dressed cotton saree.
Three months down the line, and Ila couldn’t believe her foolishness at not asking this man about his marital status. Women do turn blind in love, once they set their heart in course, they lose track of reality. But her heart argued, you couldn’t blame a girl in her twenties on her penchant for finding a partner or devoting herself to a righteous man on a righteous path revoting against the injustices of the capitalist world. The sort of romance that begins with a sort of reverence and flows through a meandering path.
There was a knock on the door, the milkman had arrived jolting Ila out of her reverie. Once she had taken the bowl of milk, she opened the letter and read, “Take the train to Palhardih and from there a taxi to reach my address, written at the end of the next page.” Ila’s fury had no bounds for what was written in the two pages, interspersed between the beginning and the address was Poet Kalidasa’s Meghdoot and Avinash’s take on it. Her solace came from thinking of this poem as an affirmation of his heart’s yearning for her arrival. Reading romance or for that matter fiction of any sort had never caught Ila’s interest, not even during the tumultuous teenage years. But Kalidasa’s Meghdoot is etched inside every Indian’s heart, the poignant tale of a Yaksha banished to Central India for neglecting his duties, bidding the passing by rain cloud to carry a message to his wife who lives far away in the Himalayas. The verses that follow elucidate the longing and love of the Yaksha for his beloved.
Last moment bookings on trains are a terrible endeavour to undertake and Ila was lucky to get a ticket and a sleeper berth. The dirty blue seats, the clanky chains attached to the seat above her head and the dangling bottle holders that didn’t seem to be serving any purpose, made Ila irritated and exhausted. She questioned her decision taken in such haste to see Avinash. She sat through half of her journey trying to concentrate on her cheap copy of Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini bought from the station. As bad luck would have it, the paper quality was terrible, and then the ink bled through half-way mark that gave way to a few blank pages. After which, Ila gave up on her endeavour to be besotted by work of fiction. And as passengers in the coach kept increasing, Ila thought it better to climb on to the top berth and doze off. Her destination was to arrive the next day, so she had ample time to while away.
On the dusk of the subsequent day, the train halted with a great clanking and screeching sound of the iron and Ila stepped down. It was a quiet place. Almost deserted, where the cemented floor hardly went for half-a-kilometre with no porters or passengers waiting in a haggardly manner guarding their luggage. Only a dog roamed about the drinking water post and some women clad in brightly coloured sarees crossed from the other end of the station. Inhibitions caught Ila but the train had started with the hooter howled on topmost decibel, and Ila walked past the archway of the station to the exit. Relief donned on her face only when she saw three auto rickshaws parked in a line and one of them agreed to ply her to the desired address.
All along, Ila was expecting a knight in shining armour running and hugging her in contrast to what had happened. On reaching the place that the letter had led her to, she was informed that Avinash had left town for two days on a campaign in one of the villages. Ila was shown around the office and her accommodation, that she found it to be a frugal one, but she was too exhausted to voice out her dissatisfaction. In a widely ventilated room, that seemed like a balcony or a veranda on the first floor of this old building was made into a room in haste with bricks, plywood and some grills. A foldable, old-style bed was laid on one side of the room and a table was placed by its side. There were a couple of amber coloured curtains fluttering in the breeze that sort of hid the room from the outer world. Ila couldn’t believe that she had taken the trouble to be here and how her castles had come crumbling down. There was no Avinash and no sight of a decent living condition.
“So, that’s your room…I think you would be with us for about a month. I mean that’s what Avinash told me’, said the girl in magenta suit who was showing the place around.
‘Oh, just that I shouldn’t expect you to be well-acquainted with out ways and work aesthetics’, she just grinned after the line, as if intending a sort of joke. ‘And if there’s anything, take my number, I will be available all day.’
‘I am fine…oh…just what about food. Do I eat outside or something?’ asked Ila, still feeling queasy with the whole situation.
‘Yeah, my bad, forgot to tell you. There’s a small canteen upstairs, on the second floor. The man is always drunk, don’t mind that but he cooks. So, if you need tea or food, ask him. But don’t ask him for snacks or an extra dish. Also be polite to him. He is the owner of the building. Just in a bad shape after his second left him too but that his situation worked out for us’, Ila thought a grin would follow but the girl was quite straight faced.
As the girl left, Ila took out her phone and sighed. She had called Avinash four times and there had been no response. The last response from him read, ‘will be so glad to have you here. Really looking forward’. Had Ila read way too much between the lines, did she take an honest friendship for something more. She would only think for several hours, there were times when Avinash made clear that Ila was the only person who did matter to him.
Ila had called her parents to let them know that she was away. “I have this exposure trip here; it is a sort of recce. I will be back in a few days and yeah, the voice seems to be breaking. This is an interior place with poor reception so don’t expect me to call you every day.”
The next two days were chalked out by the girl in magenta who continued to don different hues of the same colour. She rode a scooty and Ila took along as her pillion. They skirted around villages, sometimes filling up certain forms or other times sitting cross legged during village meetings. There was way too much for Ila to soak in and understand. Documentaries about people didn’t actually mean going beyond capturing their lives on camera, she felt. Ila was confused but she had to wait till Avinash returned.
She tried to retrieve the last conversation with Avinash, hoping a verbatim replay to understand what just happened with her. A day before Ila’s internship was to end at the media house, she had heard Avinash blustering on top of his voice, evidently in an argument with the Chief Editor. Ila lifted her head to get a better view, what she saw was Avinash walking out the room and the Chief Editor shouting, ‘Don’t you ever step inside this office..or…’ Avinash had left.
In the days to come, Ila took her recommendation letter from the office and went back to finish the last semester of the college. It was one random day that her phone buzzed, and a message showed from Avinash. He sought to meet Ila in the evening, and she agreed. The office had flamed against the Chief Editor, for siding with the advertiser to change the story slant of the proposed short video. Though it was a hushed opinion doing the rounds, no one meaning to risk their jobs for an ousted employee, no matter how decorated he was, but it surely made Ila proud of Avinash.
Then that one evening at Madras Cafe turned around things and Ila reaffirmed her believe in Avinash and his advances. This time it was more direct, he was ready to profess his inclination for her. They met a couple of more times; he introduced her to his friends. He praised her naivety and rectitude. On coming back to her place, Ila could only blush and brim in the joy of cementing her place inside Avinash’s heart.
Almost a month later, at a party, someone mentioned Avinash’s erstwhile wife. Ila was shattered, she went up to Avinash and blurted out, ‘who came to meet you at Aradhana Bhawan?’ Avinash couldn’t believe Ila was capable of erupting this way, he took her to a corner and said, “we can speak about it later, this isn’t the place”.
“Then don’t you ever call me or ask me out!” Ila left the party. That day, crying her heart out, Ila had theories that supported Avinash’s behaviour. She wanted Avinash to call her, she waited for him, desperately. Clinging to every comforting word that he ever spoke to her. But there was nothing from the other end. Ila was sore with what had happened, within a couple of months, her life had seen the most tumultuous relationship of all time.
In December, her college ended, and Ila took up a job with the same media house and set up her life closer to Avinash’s circle. Every day, she expected him to come back to her. She was sure that she wasn’t delusional of their relationship. She had pictures and her journal entries, the proof that they were close. And then the letter had arrived.
On the third day of her stay at this desolate place, after breakfast, as Ila came down from the second floor, Avinash greeted her. ‘How have you been?’ with a big smile on his face. Ila wanted to cry out aloud and tear his kurta for putting her through a horrendous train journey and the gruelling three days with strangers in an unknown location. Somehow words failed her, and she could only say, ‘Yes, I am doing great’, pasting a smile with great difficulty.
‘Really, that’s what I told Netra when she asked if I knew of anyone interested to assist for about a month at the foundation’, seemingly victorious at his understanding of Ila’s feelings.
‘What a month! Avinash, you sent me a letter…you wanted me here. You did not write about a job requirement!’ as these lines propped up inside her head, Ila realised that probably she was hanging on to the last straw of their relationship. ‘So, lets meet up in the office room at 10’, Avinash didn’t wait for a reply, he gestured to his stomach and climbed up the stairs.
Those confusing situations made Ila’s life hell. Ila was never a clingy child, her mother would boast of her little girl infront of guests at home, ‘you know she is such an amazing girl, so independent. She insists on doing everything by herself.’ But then why did she end up with a person who seemed to put her in unjustifiable situations.
She would keep thinking, was Avinash actually headed for the canteen and meeting her was just a chance or was he on a lookout for her and then couldn’t gather enough courage to express his feelings out in the open? What was this arrangement, an official parlance for a romantic inclination. It didn’t happen this way in books, Darcys didn’t roam about scorning Elizabeths of the world because they were in love, and in the end, the great revelation that it was only pride restricting them from owing an acceptance.
Inside the office, where Ila had only peeped from the outside, lay an oversized table with an ebony chair meant for bosses. Avinash sat there, the board said V Gadnayak. Ila seemed confused but a quick response came, ‘Well, that’s the name of the trustee, I like to keep my name under the carpet, you see I have the added responsibility of reaching out to film festivals and screenings’. Avinash chipped in to clarify doubts rising inside Ila’s head.
“It doesn’t matter, why did you ask me to be here?” Ila asked straightaway, she was tired of the little games played by Avinash.
“I told you this is a perfect opportunity for you to learn and understand my world. I thought you would be excited to know about my work from up close.”
“Really, that’s about it”, tears started to well up and Ila stammered to add, “If that’s all then I shall take your leave, I have a visit planned to the nearby communities.” She left the room before Avinash could see her deteriorate emotionally.
A change of place brought change of heart too, what kind of dementia overtook Avinash, Ila couldn’t stop thinking this her entire way to the communities. Her companion, a boy from the locality had a pestering presence, he kept interrupting with nagging questions, if she felt comfortable or hungry or if she wanted him to stop the motorbike to bask in some fresh air. It was a tormenting day, which neither the bright red of palash in full bloom could elevate nor the quietly flowing Damodar was able to calm. Wherever Ila turned, she saw black soot from the industry, children wearing dirty vests playing in mud and older boys carrying bags of coal. Men played cards under the trees and women with colourful dupattas over their head were either carrying pots of water or cleaning the verandas. There were no symmetrical lines joining her understanding of the country to what present itself to her. She wanted to go back to her life in Delhi, perhaps better to leave everything and be at Meerut. Her heart yearned for stability and patterns. So, when the day ended, Ila was glad to return.
In the evening, as she sat in the canteen for a cup of tea, the girl in the magenta hue asked about the day. Ila wanted to be polite, so she said that things were fine. Just then, Avinash entered in his usual laidback style and raised his hands to ask for a cup of tea.
“Atleast the people are kind,” Ila said, shrugging. “I saw children playing and having fun.”
“You mean, your portrait of rural people was of old people, rude people, up in arms against every outsider,” Avinash laughed off as he finished his sentence.
“I didn’t mean that,” retorted Ila.
Ila had lived in New Delhi for about three years, enough to sculpt her to the ways of the city. She had set her life on a sort of auto pilot after the job. She acknowledged that some day she would return to her parents, live there for some time and get married. The eventuality of a marriage always shook Ila, she somehow couldn’t foresee how Avinash took to the subject. He was happy to be her companion, speak about a million possibilities professionally, sharing his dreams of a partner…one that on the hindsight always matched Ila’s persona and characteristics.
During one of the office meetings, she saw the woman in a cotton saree. She remembered her from the other day. ‘Oh, you are here’ gushed Avinash, ‘I had been meaning to introduce you to Netra’. Ila was taken aback but showed a polite gesture. Netra was Mr. Gadnayak’s daughter and was currently engaged in running the foundation after her father passed away. Everyone in the office seemed to like Netra and she had a kind of power over Avinash that was unknown to Ila.
Ila felt like a shadow, a non-existent presence when Netra was around. Netra managed to engage everyone on the table with her animated discussions. She had plans, plans for the people, plans for the volunteers and more plans for anyone who ever happened to have crossed her path. Ila had a peculiar response to things when Netra happened to be around.
Avinash and Netra had a past. Inconceivable to Ila for they seemed to be locking their heads for the smallest of decisions. Netra was about four years older than Avinash. She stressed on this fact to shush Avinash every time there seemed to be a deadlock in a discussion. They had met during a professional assignment, had a fling, got married and then separated. Ila was yet to know of the entirety of the situation, Avinash had an evasive streak when it came to talking about self. Ila was hurt but Avinash went about his world without a hint of what she felt.
Netra, on her part, was never mean to Ila. Her presence never bothered her, she was too committed to her work and people around her were just the tools to pursue the objectives laid by her late father. An oblivion existed between the two!
Evenings were the time Ila looked forward to, climbing up the treacherously steep stairs inside the claustrophobic hollow of the dilapidated building, reaching the open space on the rooftop. She would often hum a tune and watch the sunset beyond the pond filled with lotus flowers and its enormous leaves. At some point, as the dark descended, it seemed the murky green water and the green of the vines and leaves camouflaged into a giant bed for the lotus flowers to shine under the moonlight.
The iron gate to the rooftop creaked, it was Avinash. ‘How unexpected of him to have come here’, thought Ila. Avinash preferred to walk along the riverside smoking a cigarette during those hours. But here, he was asking Ila to join him for a walk.
“Ila, do you really like here?’ Avinash wasn’t interested in a reply, so he continued, “I am not sure if I want to commit myself to anyone, for that matter to any particular profession even!” Ila was furious, not at Avinash but at herself for believing him.
“And what about Netra?” that was what came out of Ila. She was rather outraged at Avinash for being sly about his past relationship and then staying at a place professing to work for a larger good. “Did you ask me what I wanted to do…you dragged me into this place. You send out messages in some twisted cryptic way.” Avinash wanted to respond but for the first time, he was at a loss for words.
“Maybe I’m cynical, but I really don’t think any of that stuff works for anyone who is truly broken. Serves us better to just keep barrelling forward and hope the demons can’t keep up, so you might as well be who you are.” Saying this, Ila walked past the pond, in the direction of the village mandap. She would sit there and listen to the birds chirping as they made back to their nests.
Next morning, Ila left the place. She deleted Avinash’s number from her phone.
A few years later, Ila went to the state library for a reference work she undertook for a research project and saw a familiar silhouette. The man looked at the red bangles clanking on Ila’s wrist and turned around, pretending to be occupied with a book mending job. Soon a man in dirty white shirt and grey trousers with blue slippers came forward to help me with the list of reference books.
Avinash with his back to the library counter was reliving a moment from the past. He was walking by the riverbank, too shy to hold Ila’s hand in public and too reluctant to commit to her. At one point, she left but he stood by looking at the smoke constantly wafting out of the tall furnaces from the other end of the bank.
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