His friend stood there awkwardly for a moment and then sat down next to her.
“You are awfully quiet,” he said after a while, sipping his beer.
“Just surprised, that’s all,” she replied. “It’s good to see you though.”
“Yes, it’s been a long time. But I didn’t expect to see you here. I mean what were the odds of meeting you at Nilesh’s party.”
The sound of others laughing and talking around them. It was a big party. There were about thirty odd people at the house. Malini wished Tarun had come with her. She hardly knew anyone here and was feeling more than a little awkward.
She wanted to ask her new companion if he was planning to look her up, but decided against it. Whatever the answer was going to be, she was not yet ready for it.
“So how do you know Nilesh?” was what she finally asked.
“He’s an old friend from Delhi. We used to rent the same house when we first went to work there. What about you?”
“Oh, his wife was a junior in college. We hooked up a couple of years ago after she got married to Nilesh and moved here.”
“Isn’t that funny? Who would have thought eight years ago that you and I would meet in this part of the world at Nilesh’s place? I didn’t even know him then.”
Life was strange indeed, she thought, trying desperately to push away the memories that came flooding back. Calcutta … her parents’ house … afternoons spent over cups of coffee at the University Coffee House … that night in the guest room …
“Isn’t your husband here?” he asked, carefully watching her push a piece of chicken on her plate.
“No, he had to work tonight,” she said, glad to break the silence.
“On a Saturday night?”
“Yes, he has a deadline coming up.”
“Are you working?”
“Yes, in San Francisco. I am research analyst in a bank,” she wondered why she had to add that detail.
Nilesh was smiling at them from across the room. His wife resplendent in a bright yellow sari and a gold necklace was standing next to him. This was their third wedding anniversary, and Sheila had gone all out to make this a big affair. Malini chided herself internally for being stupid enough to turn up in a plain white salwar kameez. But then Tarun had ditched her at the last minute, they had fought, and she had felt too miserable to dress up after that. Oh, how she wished he were here now!
“So what are you up to these days?” she asked him.
“Well, I’m still in Delhi. And I am still a journalist. In fact, I was in D.C. on business, and Nilesh dragged me out here,” he rattled off. “I am also married and have two sons … twins, but I guess you already know that.”
“Yeah, the marriage part—ma told me, but I didn’t know about your sons … I guess congratulations are in order,” she hoped she sounded adequately delighted. Inside, she felt a little nauseated.
“Here, I have their picture with me.” Before she could say anything, he had fished out a photograph from his wallet. A very pretty, short-haired woman and two fat toddlers stared at her from it.
“She is a journalist too. We met at work about five years ago.”
“She’s very beautiful,” she managed to smile. “And your sons too. You are a lucky man.” She handed him back the photograph. This was so typical of Sumit, to throw her off-balance like this. First turning up out of nowhere, then cramming her with images of his marital bliss … but no, she was not going to do this, not now, not after eight years, when she was married to Tarun, happily married, she stressed to herself, and in control of her life.
“You know what? I have to get home now. How long are you going to be here?”
“Three more days.”
“Great. Why don’t I give you a call later and fix up a time when we can meet?” A voice inside told her that would never happen. Sumit was in her past and he was going to remain there.
“Sure. I would love to meet your husband.” Was the emphasis on the word, “husband” deliberate? She wondered.
“BTW, I didn’t get his name … ”
“Tarun.” She smiled.
Leaving him on the sofa, she proceeded toward her hosts. Another round of apology for Tarun’s absence, a quick goodbye and she was out on the street. She took a deep breath and started walking toward her car.
It was a summer morning when Rina Mitra
had resurfaced in her mother’s life after
years of absence. Malini was an undergrad then, living with her parents.
“Don’t you remember my friend, Rina?” her mother had thrown the question at her father at the breakfast table.
“No,” her father had replied categorically, hiding behind the morning paper. Malini had smiled from across the table. This was a conversation he did not want to have with his wife because he knew exactly how it was going to end. They were going to someone’s place for lunch on Saturday, or somebody was coming over to their house for dinner on Sunday. Someone “absolutely adorable” she had just met at the club, or an “old friend” who had just popped up. His wife’s ability to make new friends and dig up old ones staggered even him, the head of a public relations firm. This morning, of course, it was someone called Rina, who was her absolute best friend in school, and who now lived up north in Siliguri, and who wanted her to put up her son, Sumit for a few days when he came down to Calcutta to interview for jobs. Before Malini or her father could voice their opinion, her mother was telling “Rinamashi” on the phone how delighted they all would be to have him over.
That was how Sumit Mitra had walked into Malini’s life. He stayed for only a couple days, but left an indelible mark. For he was charming, humorous, crazy, funny, sensitive, everything all at once. And over the next few visits, for her parents loved him too, and insisted that he stay with them every time he came to the city, he did what no young man had succeeded in doing so far. He made Malini fall in love with him. Malini, who prided herself in being rational, not “emotional and sentimental” like her mother (in those days she was trying very hard to not be like her mother); Malini who laughed at her silly, romantic college friends for falling in love with every good-looking guy they met around the corner, was finally in love herself.
A year later, Malini had finished her B.A. and joined the Masters program. She was getting ready to apply abroad for a Ph.D. Sumit now worked for a Calcutta daily, and lived as a paying guest in another part of the city. Her parents had wanted him to stay with them—“it was a big house, and they would love some company”—but he had refused. He did meet Malini regularly though. They watched films together, attended art shows, met for tea and chicken cutlets at their favorite restaurant near her university, took walks along the lake, off Southern Avenue. But never did the subject of how they felt toward each other come up. They were just friends.
Then one evening Sumit called her at home. “Guess what? I have got a job in Delhi. I will be leaving next week.” Malini’s heart sank.
“This is so sudden … ” They had met only two days ago and he had said nothing to her then.
“Well, not exactly … I mean I had interviewed for it sometime ago, just didn’t want to tell anyone till I was sure I got it.”
She felt hurt. How could he club her with just anyone?
“Listen, I was wondering if I could come over and see mashi and mesho tonight. I don’t know if I will be able to see them later. Besides I need to talk to you.”
“Of course, they will be delighted to see you.”
They were as always. They even asked Sumit to spend the night with them for old times’ sake. Dinner went on forever, with her parents completely monopolizing Sumit, or so it seemed to Malini, who was anxious to know what Sumit was going to tell her. Actually, she thought she had a pretty good idea. Finally, Sumit was shown to the guest-room, where he had spent many nights in the past, and the lights were turned off.
Before Malini knew what she was doing, she found herself knocking on his door.
“You needed to talk to me … ”
“Yes, but now … ” he sounded hesitant.
She stood there awkwardly. But there was no turning back now.
“Why don’t you come in?” She went and sat uncertainly on his bed.
“I wanted to give you this,” he said taking out a little black box from his pocket. Malini opened it slowly. Nestled in its black velvet interior was a tiny white heart-shaped porcelain locket with an inky blue spot on it. When she looked closely at it, she saw that it was a tiny flower.
“What is it?” she asked
“A blue magnolia,” he replied.
“I didn’t know magnolias were blue,” she laughed.
“They aren’t. This is a special one … for a special girl.” She sat there silently staring at the blue magnolia.
“Look, maybe I shouldn’t be saying this now. I mean it is all so quick, but I am going away next week, and …”
He got up and kneeled in front of her. “I love you. I always have. Malini … ”
A furious sense of elation gripped her. This was the moment she had been waiting for, ever since they had met a year ago. The man she had secretly loved for months was telling her that he loved her too, that he always had. What more could she want? Sumit was leaving for Siliguri the next day. He would spend a couple of days with his parents and then move to Delhi. They could always write to each other, call occasionally. She would have to finish her Masters of course, before she could even think of joining him there. Maybe she could go see him sometime. She did have an uncle in Delhi. Her parents would have no problem letting her go.
A thousand thoughts raced through her mind as she sat there that night. This time next year, she will be done with her M.A. finals. Maybe they could have a summer wedding. Not the best time for a wedding, her mother often said, but … Oh, my God! Malini thought, I am thinking just like my mother. I am being crazy and impulsive. Sumit has just told me that he loves me, and I am already making plans for a wedding! She felt angry and ashamed. Mumbling that it was late and that she shouldn’t be there at all, she quickly made her way to her room.
Later in her room, she decided that she had been extremely foolish. What was she thinking? She couldn’t just marry Sumit and move to Delhi. She had plans of her own. GRE, U.S., Ph.D., Sumit would never understand them. He had already made his choices. Besides, they had nothing in common really. He came from a small town; his father was a school teacher. She was a managing director’s daughter. For all his charm and worldliness, he would never fit into her world of Calcutta high society. She was sure her parents would feel that way too. By morning, she had convinced herself of the futility of the relationship. But maybe she could just savor the moment? Enjoy being in love? It was a tempting thought, but no, she couldn’t change her mind like this. She couldn’t act like a pendulum moving from one extreme to another. She had to choose right now. Besides, was she really in love with him? Maybe it was just an infatuation. But what about how he made her feel? Well, what about it? There would be others. Who said love happened only once in a lifetime?
So she met him at their usual meeting place, the university coffee house, that afternoon and broke the news as gently as she could over a cup of espresso. That it had all been a big mistake. That she was going to tell him something she had not been able to bring herself to say to him last night. She had a boyfriend… she was really sorry that it has to be this way. Sumit moved to Dehli soon after and never contacted her again. Much later, she got the news of his marriage from her mother. “You know, at one time we had hpoed that you two would… you know…” she had told Malini over the phone. “Ma! We were just friends, how could you even think that way?”
Eight years later, as she drove back from Nilesh’s house, she wondered if she had made the right choice then. Did she really notlove Sumit? Was he simply a conquest, in whom she had gloried momentarily and then lost interest? Or had she just chickened out at the thought of having to love him? Not just in dreams, but in flesh and blood? Was that why she had been looking for excuses to break up with him that night? What id she had given in to her impulses then? A part of her regretted not having done so. Another part kept telling her that it was all for the best.
Malini sighed as she pulled into the driveway in front of the townhouse she shared with Tarun. No, he was not home yet. The house still looked dark and empty. She went up to her room and oulled out a burgundy leather case from her dresser. Her jewelry box. In one corner lay a small black box. Inside its velvety folds was the perfectly preserved blue magnolia. A special one for a special girl, he had said. She wondered why she had not gotten rid of it when she had never worn it even once. Probably because she had already lost so much that day. She took it out of the box and held it close to her face to inhale its fragrance. Then she smiled and put it around her neck.