“Where do we go?” asked Anirban.
“Let’s go to Ganga dhaba,” she said.
Where else? Tea, coffee, nimboo-pani and bun-omelette – Ganga dhaba was the centre of JNU’s culinary universe. “I am no fan of its nimboo-pani,” Anirban complained. “Have you seen the way they wash the glasses? And have you ever seen any Chhotu wash his hands? All of them are forever scratching themselves everywhere. And I am not sure of the quality of the ice either.”
“Gosh. Which country do you live in?” she was genuinely rebuking him.
“That’s typically Leftist, right?” Anirban hit back. “I talk hygiene and it becomes elitist.”
“Of course, it does,” Geetha wasn’t backing off. “If it is okay for most of JNU, it is good enough for you.”
“Of course, it is good enough for me. But that doesn’t mean we cannot ask for better hygiene in the dhaba. Have you ever noticed the dogs licking the tea cups?’
“I have. And it doesn’t bother me. They wash the cups, after all.”
“But have you seen how they wash them? They put all the cups in a bucket of water and take it out seconds later. No rinsing, no cleaning. And they use the same water the whole day.”
“God, you seem to be the sort who would ask his girlfriend to rinse her mouth before kissing.” Geetha was getting peevish.
“Not at all. I have never made such demands whichever part of the body I am kissing.” For once, Anirban was pretty ready for a scrap.
The bun-omelette arrived in a plate that looked like a relic from the Harappan Age. Geetha nearly winced before she realised that complaining would mean losing the argument. Anirban smiled. After the ideology-driven row, he felt a little more relaxed. Suddenly, he asked Geetha, “Would you like to go and sit near the trees? It is so lit up here.”
Having said it, Anirban was surprised at his own audacity. He was even more surprised when Geetha loved the idea. “Yeah, there is a small patch of grass that side,” she said, pointing towards a corner. “I enjoy lying down there.”
Anirban was disappointed that she had already been there with someone else. But he made an Oscar-worthy job of concealing it.
On reaching the spot, Geetha fell to the ground, like a Hindi lm heroine collapsing on a haystack, her arms and legs creating a T. When she turned around, she was smiling brightly at him, “You are good at fighting with words,” she said. “You will make a fine councillor candidate for the Free Thinkers.”
“But I am not a Free Thinkers” candidate,” he countered.
“No, you are not,” she replied cheerily. “But you will soon be. Wanna bet on that?”
“I won’t,” Anirban said. “I don’t bet.”
“See…and now that you have betrayed me,” she said with mock anguish, “you must recite a poem to make me happy.”
“What kind of poem?”
“A poem that troubles you,” she said emphasising the word “troubles”.
It doesn’t take much for a small-town boy to lose his heart. And there, as he saw Geetha’s face in the thin light of the dhaba bulb, he wondered if he was falling for her. The girls back home behaved like they were trophies to be won. But Geetha was different. She had individuality and a commitment to the cause she believed in. She was the first politically aware woman he had ever spoken to.
“I don’t know if this poem will trouble you or not but it was the result of the poet’s troubles,” he said. “It is a love poem.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Just don’t recite the Neruda poem that ends with the line, ‘I want to do to you, what spring does to the cherry trees.’”
“I wasn’t going to recite that anyway. But why such an advance warning?”
“Well, I have heard it several times before. It is such a tender poem and the guys always make it sound like a pass.” A ripple of jealousy surged through Anirban. He was troubled by her confessions. Is she telling me that she is much sought after? he asked himself. Thankfully, the darkness concealed his face, which had become a cardiograph of his heart.
“Well, you might consider this as a pass too. It is by a little known nineteenth-century English poet named Ernest Dowson. He fell in love with a waitress named Cynara. It went unrequited and his heart was shot to pieces. Dowson took to whoring and drinking. is poem is dedicated to Cynara, almost a sayonara in verse, pardon the pun. Here it goes:
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
“Very bourgeois but nice,” Geetha said, tucking a strand of hair that had strayed to her face, back to where it generally belonged.
“Very patronising but thanks,” Anirban replied.
She laughed, almost admiringly, because Anirban had spotted the double-edged compliment. And then asked, “Are you a romantic, Anirban?”
“I like to believe I am.”
“Well, I am quite the opposite of you then,” she said. “I believe that romance is a bourgeois luxury. You cannot and should not love for love’s sake.”
“So what does love mean to you?”
“I have never felt it deeply enough. I am being honest. I understand passion. But I really don’t know what it is to be consumed by love.”
“What about the guys you have gone out with? Haven’t you ever felt anything for anyone, something that makes you vertiginous, turns your universe upside down?”
Anirban had deliberately used the word “vertiginous” having come across it in a Time magazine film review at the library. He was learning new words every day and had decided to try them out in conversations.
“For me, love isn’t about finding someone attractive physically. I have never considered guys merely as work-outs. You like a guy for what he is, what he stands for, the way he looks at society, interprets the world. I like people who are involved in changing things around them. It doesn’t matter what or where. And it doesn’t matter how much he succeeds. What matters is that he believes in something and that he tried. Once you start liking a guy like that, it doesn’t matter how he looks. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter whether he says I love you or takes you out for a romantic dinner. Such men make you feel alive. Which is why, though I would sympathise with a guy like your poet, I would find it hard to empathise with him. He is not, as one would say, my type.”
Anirban had long fantasised about having meaningful conversations with attractive women. Now, on an idle autumn night, he was finally having one.
“You seem to be confessing or suggesting that you don’t believe in heart for heart’s sake. You make love sound as though it is part of a larger mission. But love is not an appendage of ideology. When you think you love a certain kind of a guy for what he believes in, you actually don’t love him but the idea he represents. You love him imagining him to be the man that you want him to be. That’s not right because in your mind, you create a hero and a god. And when he falls short of your expectations, you feel let down. First you glorify him, then you crucify him.”
Geetha listened quietly without a word. Then, she gently took his hand into her own, and said, “Let us say, Anirban, that our ideas on love are like parallel lines that don’t meet. But I like your clarity.”
Anirban was touched, in more ways than one. “Thanks for saying that. I like you too – for what you are, and wouldn’t like to change any of that.”
They had finished dinner. Geetha wanted to leave. Anirban remembered he had to submit a term paper in Russian intellectual history. But he had a problem. The bulge in his pants was too pronounced. He had a tried and tested method of killing erections: Take a very deep breath and hold it for as long as you can. But how could he do that in front of Geetha? So he just sat down, pretending to tie his shoelaces. When he got up, the swelling had subsided but his walk was more erect than ever before.
Excerpted with permission from Up Campus, Down Campus: The Adventures of Anirban Roy in JNU, Avijit Ghosh, Speaking Tiger.