Three days before Arnav and I left for graduate school in Pennsylvania, I quietly left my house, walked swiftly to the row of houses behind, and surreptitiously climbed up to his barsati. It was five am and still dark.
I was staggering under the weight of all that I was carrying up to his room. My buried story, for one. The earth under which it lay was moving. Not that I had any intention of speaking about it to Arnav. How could I when I couldn’t even speak of it to myself? Yet, as I went upstairs to his room, it was what I bore.
On top of it were the two lies which I had practised all night. One lie was in anticipation of Arnav’s question, why. In the spectrum of lies, this was a small and harmless one, yet as I climbed up to his room, its weight was threatening to break my back. I had practised the lie all night, not just to get my words right, but also my tone. I had to utter it without looking guilty, without stuttering, and without going red in the face. The last was the most unsurmountable.
But, as one of our neighbours had charitably said, “Such-a-good-girl this Mallika is, only problem is, she is little-darker-than-wheat complexioned, that is the thing.” That was, indeed, the thing, and I was grateful for it because most people couldn’t see me blushing. Perhaps Arnav would not notice either?
The second lie was in case Arnav’s landlady, Mrs D’Souza, the biggest gossip in our colony, caught me going up to his room. I was breaking her rule of No Girls Allowed. That too, at five am. Of course, she would assume the worst if she caught me. Even my Sati-Savitri, pure-as-driven-snow reputation wouldn’t withstand the scandal that would follow. She would immediately inform my mothers and then proceed to discuss my transgression with everyone in the colony. For my part, I’d never sneaked into a boy’s room at five am. At any am. At any pm. What Arnav’s reaction would be, I couldn’t imagine.
My nerves were shot.
But what to do? Randhir, whom I’d known my entire life, wasn’t here. He was studying in America. Otherwise he was the one I’d have asked. And there would have been no sneaking around at five am, because he lived right next door with his family. His mother and Ma were best friends. At the age of 14, weeping and blowing my nose copiously into his pristine white handkerchiefs, I had confessed to him the true story of my life. It was a story straight out of a Hindi film, but alas, without the happy ending.
Rapt, 16-year-old Randhir had given me sage advice, and after that we were irrevocably bound to each other. You can’t imagine what it was like to be bound in this manner to someone who looked like a cross between a Greek god and Heathcliff, or at least what I imagined Heathcliff looked like, dark and brooding. Except that Randhir was fair and brooding. Although, I suppose, Indian-fair is Heathcliff-dark. It was heavenly, his brooding look. On the rare occasions that I felt less than charitable towards him, I told myself he cultivated it. But Randhir knew how to wheedle me out of such moods. He had mastered the art. All he had to do was look at me as though we were kindred souls. That was it. Nothing made me levitate more rapidly than Kindred Souls Day.
So, I couldn’t ask Randhir for help. My mothers were out of the question. And my two childhood friends who were still in Delhi didn’t have that kind of money. Which left Arnav. Who was neither Heathcliff nor a Greek god.
He was sunshine. He had lovely, startlingly light brown eyes against that deep brown skin, eyes fringed with thick lashes and always full of laughter. That is, when he wasn’t smoking marijuana – in those instances, he looked sleepy and heavy-lidded but still lovely. He was tall, lean, and often unshaven; he wore the same old jeans and carried that dishevelled look with a carelessness that was horribly appealing.
My heart could barely withstand his presence in those days, and it would retreat into a place deeper than shyness. As for him, he just about knew I existed. During the course of our unexpected friendship, I had trained my heart to withstand him a lot better. But...Well, I’ll come to those buts later.
Randhir and Arnav had been bosom buddies since they were in the first class in primary school, and then later in boarding school, and you couldn’t think of one without the shadow of the other falling into your consciousness. Although I never felt I was on steady ground when I was with Arnav, there was no questioning his fidelity. He was fiercely loyal to Randhir. To me too. As a friend, that is. I breathed in deeply, exhaled, and knocked. There was no response. After half a minute, I knocked again. Not loudly, because Mrs D’Souza had a reputation for hearing everything.
After a minute, I knocked a third time. Still no response.
I heard a sound below me and panicked. I turned the handle down, the door opened, I rushed through and softly shut it behind me. An hour later, I rushed out equally precipitously. Shutting the door again, I stood on the landing, breathing so hard that it was as though I’d been running. I needed a minute to compose myself. Closing my eyes, I took a couple of slow, deep breaths.
When I opened my eyes, Mrs D’Souza was standing below the stairs at her door, looking up at me, arms akimbo, eyes glittering avariciously.
“I must say you’re breathing very heavily, my girl. That too, with eyes closed. What all have you and Arnav been up to?”
I looked at her in horror.
“Don’t keep standing there – come down.”
I went downstairs.
“Good morning, Aunty. I just...I went up to ask Arnav if he wanted to go for a walk.” This was the lie I had prepared and practised the previous night in case she caught me. The blood rushed to my face as I uttered it.
“You went inside Arnav’s room at five am. It is now six am. It takes one hour to ask him to go for a walk?”
She’d seen me going in. She must have been peering out. I hadn’t prepared a lie for this.
“Answer me, my girl, I’m waiting.”
I searched hard for an answer.
“And now you’re going for your walk without him?”
I shook my head. Then I nodded. Then I became paralysed.
“Listen to me, my girl. I know you and Arnav are going to university in America in two-three days, that too, together, and who is to say what all you’ll do there? In America, anything and everything goes, but right now you are still in India, and don’t think that just because Indira Gandhi has come back as Prime Minister that changes anything – a young woman does not go into a young man’s room. I had expressly forbidden it when I rented my barsati to that boy.”
“Aunty, we were talking,” I burst out.
The boulder of emotions that I had been rolling up the hill Sisyphus-like all these years must have surged to my face, because her expression changed. Her eyes filled with tears. She was overcome. In trembling tones, she said, “I shouldn’t believe you, but I do.”
My body sagged with relief.
“To anyone else, I would say, “this is a cock-and-bull story, a girl asking a boy for a walk from five am. to six am,” but not to you. My dear, dear girl, even if it is not the entire truth, I believe you are innocent. My own son, Mark, I do not believe, but you, I believe. I said to your mother the other day, “Padma, Mallika is so good, not only does she not go out with boys; she does not even talk to them. Where will you find such a girl in Delhi in the year nineteen-hundred-and-eighty?” That was what I was telling your mother.”
My Sati-Savitri reputation had come to the rescue.
Excerpted with permission from Fear and Lovely, Anjana Appachana, Penguin.