He emptied another packet of sugar into his coffee, knowing very well he wasn’t supposed to. What with his diabetes. And all the weight he was putting on. As he stirred his coffee he had a weird feeling that something was waiting to happen. He saw someone from the corner of his eye. She was standing on her toes to reach counter in a ridiculously bright coloured sari. It was orange, vibrantly sunny and she had coupled it with a red blouse (a red blouse? Whoever wore orange with red? She did. Apparently.) He turned to face her. Slowly. He felt himself move in slow motion. He felt this encounter was going to be momentous. It had that air about it. As he turned she happened to look up at him and the full impact of her hit him. Her kajal-lined eyes, her black hair left loose, her sari’s orange paloo falling off her shoulder in unhurried abandon. Her eyes registered surprise and something else (irritation? Anger? Resignation?) when she recognized him. She still looked beautiful, her eyes still smiled along with her mouth, she still seemed to look like she had somewhere to go, something important to do.
Now she was talking to him. “So how have you been? Oh isn’t it amazing to meet after all these years? (She said amazing. Not nice. Not great or splendid. But amazing. Like how one is amazed at seeing a satellite launching into space. Like how one can be amazed at the squalor people live in. Like how one can be amazed at beauty of a blooming flower.) You look so different!”
He tried to reply coherently. Her enthusiastic greeting had a hollow ring to it. Falsely cheerful. Her smile was shrouded (when had it not been?). “Aah yes it’s been long. I’m working, earning well. I am married and have a baby girl. She’s six.” He felt smug, almost proud telling her of his life. He was living the dream everyone wished for. A perfect job. The beautiful wife. A child – appropriately bright and sufficiently pretty. Then why was he feeling foolish, almost cheap telling her of his wonderful life? As if he was back in school trying to impress his teacher with a drawing he knew was mediocre. He saw her smiling at him. That pretty face exasperated him. He looked closely to find some flaw. He asked her a mundane question, buying time to observe her. “So how have you been?” He didn’t pay much attention to the words being said. He noticed how her hair seemed thinner, the curls fewer. The wrinkles around her eyes became her. She had a scar over her left eyebrow now. I looked like it would hurt if he touched it. There were more lines around her mouth, seemingly there because of her smiling. She wore no ring, there was no red powder on her forehead, her neck was, as always, unadorned. He drank in these details with satisfaction. She was still alone. It made him smirk and he felt slightly light-headed. He had managed companionship, a successful career and a ‘normal’ life. But then how did she manage to make him feel insufficient, make him feel that although he had it all, he didn’t know the secret, make him want to ask her how she seemed so content in spite of the glaring inadequacies of her life? It unsettled him. And the fact that it unsettled him fascinated him. She had always left him perplexed. He went back into time.
She was standing in the doorway, her hair tied back, it was much longer then. A dusting cloth draped her shoulder, her worn-out-spring-cleaning skirt kissed her ankles, one of which had a silver anklet with little colourful beads hanging from it. Blue. Red. Yellow. Green. Her hands were on her hips, she had a cheeky grin on her face. She was calling him, urging him to see what was coming on tv. He was reclining on the pillows, drinking her in. Satiated. Wondrous. Content. Even then her wholeness, her laughter had disturbed him. He remembered often feeling that she was crazy. Mentally unstable. But when you are young you believe strange things. Looking back now, maybe she thought he was crazy. “Perspective, you fool,” he chided himself. That was one of the lessons she had taught him. Then he had believed and that too strongly that they would last. In spite of all her excesses and his insufficiencies. His excesses and her insufficiencies? She made him feel so terribly complete. Snapping back to the present, he fumbled to catch the thread of her conversation. “So now I am living in a house near a zoo. A zoo. It sound ridiculous, but I guess someone has to stay near the zoo. Ha I knew it would make you laugh. It amuses me no end. I just have to hear the elephants trumpet in the evening and I remember the world is just as hilarious as I had imagined it to be.”
Suddenly he was tired of her. She made him feel terrible. The joy in his heart was shriveling. His life seemed a sham. It was OK for him he thought. “I am perfectly satisfied with being ‘conventional’. I like to value things that normal people cherish. So what if she is happy with her singledom, trumpeting elephants and a pathetic zoo-house, her ridiculously bright saris, her thinning hair and aging face, her wild notions and stupid books?” He was sounding mean, a word no one who knew him would use to describe him. That delighted him no end.
She touched his elbow. And asked in that sincere beautiful voice of hers, “Are you ok?”
“Yes. I am.” Yes I am? Blatant lies.
Suddenly he was seized by the urge to get away from her. Tear himself away before he was swallowed into her world again. It glittered and glistened – but for her alone. It was an unhappy world for an outsider. It was complete for her. A colourful world of his orange clad girl.