She squeezed and sniffed the mangoes before buying them, and moved slowly from one stall to the next, purchasing tomatoes, onions, and potatoes. I watched her from a couple stalls away in that raucous produce market, unsure if it was Sameena but recognizing her without a doubt moments later, as my heart raced. There was no mistaking her gloriously long, black hair, though it had lost some of its luster in the 20 years since I’d seen her, or the sinuous grace of her movements, the result of her years of training in Indian classical dance.
We were more than just classmates at the University of Madras, Sameena and I; we were friends, study partners, and even a couple, although we were the most distant of couples. We kissed only once—what a kiss that was!—but mostly we held hands and hugged, always surreptitiously, always outside campus, always far from prying eyes and loose tongues. No sense in creating a buzz on campus about Hindu-Muslim love-love, not when we had high marks to secure, higher studies to pursue, and reputations to preserve.
Then I moved away to America on a graduate scholarship, and whatever chance our romance had to blossom died when I left on that Air India jet. Rather, I made sure that it died. Seeing no possibility of things working out when 8,000 miles separated us, I excised her as though she were an appendage. Neither did I write to her, nor did I read her letters. Neither did I provide her my phone number, nor did I retain her contact details. I did all that despite my promises never to lose touch; promises I intended to fulfill when I made them while in Madras, but promises that sounded resoundingly silly once I set about fashioning a new life in Maryland. Ah, the folly of a man in his 20s! If only she knew how much I now regretted my stupidity; how guilty I felt for my heartlessness; how many times I’d kicked myself for not having afforded her the courtesy of at least a goodbye letter …
I debated whether to greet her at the market. I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure how she’d react. I wasn’t prepared for an emotional scene in public. As I waffled and even tried to hide my face, she ended the matter by walking over to the stall where I was buying the beets and carrots my mother had requested for dinner that evening. She caught my eye and stopped. She furrowed her brow and smiled uncertainly. Perhaps she wouldn’t place me, I thought. My beard was fuller now and flecked with gray; my hairline had climbed way up my scalp; and there were dark circles under my eyes due to the myriad sleepless nights caused by the nasty divorce proceedings between Kavitha and me.
But a moment later, Sameena beamed. “Mahesh? It is you, no? Oh, it is you,” she said, touching my cheek.
I smiled and said lamely, “I thought it was you, but …”
We took each other in as we searched for words. I, clutching my bags of produce in front of me like a shield.
We went to a new café that had framed photographs of the New York skyline and the Taj Mahal on the walls, and offered Madras “filter” coffee along with blends from Sumatra and Kenya. It smelled just like the Caribou Coffee I frequented near my Baltimore condo.
“Do you remember that stall we used to go to near the university?” Sameena asked as we sat down.
“The one with the thatched roof, which used to leak when it rained, remember?”
“Oh yes, how could I forget?” I said. “Strangely enough I miss it. Coffee served piping hot in little glass tumblers. So sticky and humid, um, stifling, yes, that’s the word. Stifling. And that owner—remember how he always used to wear a grimy shirt, drape a piece of cloth over his shoulder, and yell at anyone and everyone who worked for him?”
“He had his eyes on me, actually. When I used to go there by myself sometimes, he used to looked at me—how shall I put it—lustfully,” she said.
“He did, did he? I am going to find him, and I’m going to beat him silly with that dirty shoulder cloth, and hang him from a banyan tree,” I said, grinning.
And I thought, this isn’t stressful in the least, why was I so worried? Her demeanor surprised me and put me at ease. The Sameena I knew would’ve angrily peppered me with questions as to why I’d never written to her, and why I’d disappeared from her life so rudely. She would’ve rejected my explanations outright and we’d have argued, and she’d have wept. But the Sameena who sat across from me now was bubbly as though nothing bad had transpired between us, as though we were still good old friends who saw greater possibilities.
I loosened up. I told her about the stress involved in opening up my own consultancy and the fierce competition for clients. I told her I was in Madras for my brother’s wedding, and was scheduled to fly back to Baltimore in two days. I spoke for a long while but through it all I omitted salient details. I told her nothing about Kavitha or our bitter divorce, or the fact that Kavitha had won sole custody of Anand despite the spirited battle waged by my three-hundred-dollar-an-hour attorney, or about my worry that Anand would soon forget about me and regard the British troglodyte Kavitha was now seeing as his dad. No sense in clouding things up with such dark details, was there?
When I asked her about her life, she revealed nothing. “I’m the same old Sameena,” she said.
“That’s it? Come on. Surely you got married, right? And how about kids?”
“Are you asking me if I moved on after you abandoned me?”
She said it so innocuously and in such a soft tone that it took me a moment to detect the raw edge in that sentence. Abandoned. That word was glass-sharp with accusation.
“Wait a minute now, abandoned is a strong word,” I said.
“Eh, forget I said that,” she said, waving off my protestation with a sweet smile. “Tell me about your flat. Do you have a balcony? A view of the harbor?”
That was so much like the old Sameena: Warm and playful one moment and cold and cutting the next. That inconsistency used to irritate me.
“No, let’s talk about what happened between us. Let’s air things out,” I said, rubbing my temples. “OK, look. When I left Madras, we were kids in our early 20s. What did we have? True love? Please. We liked each other, I even loved you or so I thought, but I never got the sense that you loved me. I never felt that even when I was living here. I felt angry, sad and disappointed, but I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want us to argue when we had so little time to spend together alone. You were distant when I wanted us to come close. Do you remember how many times you insisted that things would never work out between a Hindu and a Muslim? Why did you do that? Why did you make it so easy for me to—to use your word—abandon you when I left for the States?”
“Are you blaming me for your lack of communication? It was your decision, Mahesh,” she said evenly, crossing her arms under the chest.
“I’m saying it was easy to lose touch because I didn’t think I mattered that much to you. But my failure to write to you was plain wrong. I accept that. I should’ve …”
“You should’ve, I should’ve,” she cut in. “That was all so long ago, Mahesh, drop it. Listen, I thought about it a lot after you left, and I agree I was standoffish. But do you know why? Because I didn’t think your parents would ever accept a Muslim woman. We had to be distant because we couldn’t be close.”
“That’s ridiculous. I told you I could convince my parents that you were the woman for me if only you stopped pushing me away. For me to make the case for you I needed your full commitment. But did I get that? Did I?”
She didn’t reply, but her eyes told me that I’d hurt her. Her look, so soft-eyed and suddenly vulnerable, made me ache.
“I’m sorry I never wrote to you,” I said. “But when I got to the States I had to start fresh. And that meant cutting off my past. I found it easier than I imagined because I didn’t know where I stood with you. Hell, I didn’t know a damn thing back then.”
I sank into my chair, spent, as though I’d just run a million miles, when I should’ve felt relieved for having unburdened that which I’d carried with me for so long.
Sameena smiled at me neutrally, neither accepting nor rejecting my explanation. She was inscrutable, even serene. I wished she’d say something, but all she gave me was that maddening smile.
“Did you get my letters?” she asked.
I sighed and said, “The letters. Yes, I did. But I threw them away unopened.”
She frowned and said, “I knew you didn’t read my letters. You know how? Because if you’d read the letter I’d written on May 5, 1986, everything would have been clear. How did you put it? Where you stood with me? I answered it in that letter.”
“What did you write?”
She shook her head as she gathered her purse and her bags of produce. “I won’t spoil the mystery, Mr. America.”
“Sameena, look, I said I’m sorry. Would you please tell me what you wrote?”
“What does it matter now?” she said, dropping a 50 rupee note on the granite tabletop. “It’s getting late, and I have to make dinner. Which way are you going? I’ll walk with you if we’re going the same way.”
Chaos reigned on the road along which we walked in silence. Motorcyclists got up on the pavement to get around traffic jams in which cars, buses, and trucks honked long and loud. We were forced to walk in single file to maneuver around the stray cows and growling dogs that competed for space on the curb. I paid all this little mind, wrapped up as I was in the memories that were welling up, rippling with specificity.
I recalled the audience that watched Sameena’s bharatanatyam performance in awe-struck silence, and the pride I felt when people remarked how humbling it was to watch a Muslim display such mastery of a thoroughly Hindu art form. I could almost taste the roasted peanuts we shared from a paper cone at Marina Beach the evening before I left for the States, when I’d had fight off the impulse to cry. And our kiss! It came at the end of a hot day in Mahabalipuram, where we’d gone for a day trip. After dinner, we walked amidst the ancient stone temples, which rose spectacularly along the Bay of Bengal. We settled into the sand under some eucalyptus trees and listened to the waves, our arms around each other, her head on my chest. As the violet twilight gave way to the darkness, as the enormous orange ball of a moon rose over the horizon, we exchanged a long, deep kiss that lasted for a long while and made me tingle deep in my bones.
Perhaps it was the recollection of that kiss or the immense weight of nostalgia pressing upon my soul. Whatever the reason, I suddenly wanted us to rekindle our love, to resurrect something I’d let die so long ago, to give it a go again. Distance wasn’t a barrier in this age of cell phones and Yahoo chat, I reasoned, and airline tickets are getting cheaper by the day. We could try again, surely we could. Such wild hope, so brightly it flared!
But I extinguished it a moment later. It was asinine to think like that. How could I ask her for another chance after having ended things so long ago? How could we nourish love from such great distances? And for all I knew she was joyously married. Perhaps she had gone on to Delhi for a doctorate in English as she’d planned and procured a professorship as she’d dreamed about. Or maybe she’d acceded to her parents’ wishes and settled down with a nice Muslim boy, borne them a clutch of grandchildren, and stayed home to raise the kids. My Sameena would’ve suffocated if she’d chosen that latter course …
“I don’t want this to be the last time I see you or talk to you,” I told Sameena as we turned into the street that led to my parents’ house. “Could we stay in touch as friends? Maybe call or email each other from time to time?”
She turned to face me. “You must be crazy,” she said. “Actually seeing you like this, unexpectedly, was not a good thing for me. It brought back sad memories. Keeping in touch is out of the question, Mahesh. What do you want to do that for?”
That stopped me cold. I did manage to recover enough of my composure to say, “I’d never say that. Seeing you for a moment is better than not seeing you at all.”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “Mahesh, you’re a fool. Seeing me is not good for you either. It’s just going to make you feel sad when you’re back in the States.”
I kept quiet as I sifted through the muck of my vulnerability to find something convincing to say.
Before I could frame a response, she smiled and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be harsh. I know I said I wanted us to be in love forever. But I would’ve done the same thing you did if I’d been in your position. I also would’ve ended things. It was impractical to expect us to remain in love when we were so far apart. The difference is I wouldn’t have cut off contact like you did. I read this somewhere recently: ‘I let her down gently.’ That’s a good one. That’s what I would’ve done.”
“Are you punishing me now for what I did to you? If so, let me know. I can accept it. I won’t like it but I can accept it. But once again, I’m sorry for having been so heartless.”
She put a finger on my lips. “We all make mistakes, Mahesh. Maybe you don’t remember but you told me a long time ago that your future is in the U.S. and mine is here. I argued with you when you said that. I said distance doesn’t matter, only love does. I sounded just like a proper Bollywood heroine, no? But after you left, I realized that distance does matter. Things wouldn’t have worked out between us because of that distance. So I let you go, Mahesh, and I didn’t look back though it was the most painful thing I’ve ever done.”
As she hailed an autorickshaw, I said, “Sameena, I’m not asking us to look back or get back together or anything like that, though one part of me says that would be nice. I’m asking if we could stay in touch as friends. Just friends. Where’s the harm in that?”
“Come on, Mahesh. Be honest with yourself. One thing would lead to another for you. I know you. First it will be an email; then a phone call; then this, then that. I don’t know your situation—and I don’t want to know— but I’m married now. Contacting you wouldn’t be proper.”
Something disintegrated within me right then. I wanted to sit down and let the sadness wash over me. So she had moved on. Now I knew. I also knew that I sought to lean on her now because my life had grown dark, my way forward was opaque, and everything was in a tumult. All I knew for certain was that I was about to return to an empty condo in Baltimore. I wouldn’t have been eager to stay in touch with her if Kavitha and I were still together; I knew that for sure. And Sameena was right to refuse further contact—that would only lead my monkey mind to imagine possibilities where none existed because our paths would never intersect much less merge into one. My brain knew all of this but that didn’t make it any easier for my heart to accept the reality.
As an auto rickshaw stopped, I handed her my business card in a desperate attempt to keep her in my life, but she gently pushed my hand away.
“Is this it then? Will I never hear from you again?” I asked, my voice shaking.
Her eyes shone with tears as she shook her head.
“You’re so beautiful and yet so stubborn,” I said.
She offered me a handshake, but I hugged her, pressing her close, kissing her cheek and whispering that she should reconsider, though I knew that she wouldn’t and shouldn’t. She kept her hands to her sides but finally put an arm around me and said, “Let me go, darling, please?”
I was numb as the auto rickshaw putt-putted down the street, turned the corner and merged into the blaring, fuming traffic on the main road. I hoped she’d wave or at least cast a backward glance, but she offered me nothing. Clutching my bags of produce, I stood there in the gathering darkness, watching her plunge into the swirling madness of that Madras evening, watching her disappear from my life forever.
Raju Chebium is a journalist in Washington, D.C. He covers Congress for Gannett News Service and has worked for The Associated Press and CNN.com. He has also freelanced for publications including The Indian Express and The New York Times. Raju has won two awards from the South Asian Journalists Association. His fiction has appeared in India Currents and sulekha.com, and his essays have appeared on desijournal.com.