It had been raining and his bike had chosen to skid over, spin and land him by the gutter...... coating his blue windcheater with a spray of mud and grime. Pangs of hunger had attacked him since morning as he had survived the past 24 hours on caffeine and the occasional cup noodles. Thus, famished and drenched with sweat and muck from head to toe, he finally reached the hostel lounge and headed for the canteen to have a quick wash and console his ravenous stomach with something like a proper meal. It was in the single, small mirror above the only wash basin at the corner that their eyes had met for the first time. She had splashed some water on her face and had just looked up briefly at the mirror. Startled at looking directly into someone’s eyes, she had held the glance a fraction of a second more than necessary and then walked away.
Rahul had always been the chosen child of destiny. Born of wealthy parents who had a trendy apartment in Malabar Hills, amongst the most posh and elite crowd of Mumbai, he had been doted on by his grandmother when he lost both his parents in an accident at the age of five. He was brought up in lavish splendour with a good mix of culture and discipline. From the time he attended primary school, it was clearly evident that he was way ahead of his class. When he reached fifth grade, he was the only contender of all academic awards as well as the recipient of various medals in sports and performing arts. In eighth grade he became the captain in both cricket and basketball (a feat which remained throughout his terms his college and university). By the time he reached tenth, there was no question of any elections for the position of Head Boy.
His achievements continued when he stood first in entire University in Electronic Engineering and proceeded to complete his MBA from the most premiere institute in the country. It was during his summer internship at the end of his second semester that he lost his grandmother to a long and painful ailment. As she withered and shrunk each day before his eyes, he felt an opening vacuum slowly engulfing him and about to swallow him up totally in a blanket of unspeakable loss. When she died, along with her she took away his only concept of belonging.
The long and cumbersome drive to his institute seemed meaningless now and he quickly replaced the comfort of his apartment with a single room at the campus hostel. His car was locked up in the garage and he bought himself a brand new Yamaha Suzuki which would serve his purpose in his new setup.
Rahul had never remembered any moment of his life when he was friendless, but the void that engulfed him after his grandmother’s death seemed a space where no friend had the key to enter.
That was till he met her.
Human Resource was the subject that fascinated her. It had taken her months of practice, solving sample questionnaires into the wee hours of the morning, to finally qualify through the written entrance exams that made her eligible for a chance to get access to the top management institutes. Her scores reflected that she had barely scraped through, just crossing the borderline between the 20% selects and the 80% rejects. The next round was Group Discussion. Her nervousness had not allowed her to eat a morsel since morning, and when her name was finally called and the groups formed, she thought she would faint of nervous tension. However, when the topic of discussion was selected by drawing chits and it read “Women make better managers than men”, she found herself to be on home grounds. She spoke with zeal and substance, not aware that her nervousness had easily ebbed away and she was sailing familiar waters. She qualified. The final round, a personal interview, was a cakewalk. So, still dizzy with disbelief, she found herself, a month later, attending classes in the business school of her dreams.
Sonia had never had a single proper lunch in all the years of her life that were sketched within the easels of her memory. To her, lunch had been equivalent to a sandwich and coffee, at the most a plate of steaming idlis (rice and pulse mixture grinded and steamed with a touch of salt and spice). But then Sonia had never had anyone to cook her a warm meal at noon time. The aunt she lived with, who was a spinster, was off to work at 8 AM sharp, only to return late evening with a bag of some takeaway or the other. Home cooked dinners were random. Sunday was a luxury when her aunt made the effort of boiling some eggs and potatoes to go with buttered rice.
It was probably this very indifference towards food that propelled Sonia to start her own culinary experiments at the age of fourteen. By the time she was eighteen and had moved out to her undergrad hostel, she had mastered a variety of creative recipes, but her favourite was spicy north Indian. In spite of all this achievement, she still gave lunch a miss, it had almost become a ritual. And then, one day, on her fourth month after joining MBA, a friend pestered her to join a lunch party at the hostel canteen to celebrate India’s win in the first T-20 World cup cricket.
She had arrived a bit late, straight from her class on Industrial Relations, breathless and slightly wet from the untimely drizzle that had drenched the late summer morning. She had no time to change or apply a coat of minimal make-up that she did on such casual occasions. She just about managed to hustle into the hostel canteen as the wash basin there would save her the trouble of climbing up further three flights of stairs to her room. As she splashed the cool water on her face, taking care to remove the smudge of her black eye liner, her eyes, damp and slightly unfocussed, settled on another pair of eyes in the mirror above. Startled, and suddenly conscious of being caught in a private moment, she was frozen for a second. She fancied that she saw vivid humour in the eyes that looked back. And with the random trail of feelings it stirred, she ran out of the room, away in the warm sanctuary of sunlight. The erratic rain, having caused the intended disruptions, in the routine of life, had stopped.
He was almost as obsessive as he was brilliant. And when he made Sonia the object of his obsession, it took him around seven days to find out everything that was there to find out about a girl from a small town. She was the only child, parents divorced and both remarried; neither had kept any active involvement in her life. She was brought up by a disinterested aunt who neither loved nor hated her as she was indifferent to everything in life. Her father still sponsored most of her expenses which was not very much. She was shy, terrified of the big city, sincere in her academic pursuits, had two close female friends, and was a terrific cook. And she had no boyfriend. That was the story of Sonia Neogi, twenty two years of age, student of HRD.
Well it was another story that the female who everybody else perceived as average looking and a trifle too serious, was the most attractive woman he had ever set eyes on. Whenever he saw her....browsing through pages in the library, sharing a tea-break with her friend, rushing along between classes...hair unkempt and flying, it stirred a deep, primitive longing in him and he knew that if only she could someday belong to him, he would belong to life again.
Their date was strangely not over coffee or movie, it was over a book reading by an upcoming author whom both admired, in the local bookstore. It was followed by tea and bhel (salty rice crispies with dash of lime and seasonings). In fact it was hardly a date. When he had first made acquaintance with her during a student’s campaign for AIDS awareness, she had seen the mix of confidence and humour defining every bit of him. She had felt his easy charm embrace everyone within his periphery. She had noted, how all his friends worshipped him, and she had been fascinated, slightly frightened, and deeply attracted all at the same time. Now, close together, sitting across from him, sipping ginger tea, she was touched by the intensity of longing and passion in his eyes, in his voice, even though all they were discussing was a novel experiment of an unknown author whom nobody would read anyway.
She had never been a romantic. Life had always demanded of her to persevere in her efforts to earn a place, where she will not have to worry about sustenance. She had hoped that love might follow, eventually. But now, sharing an evening with a man she hardly knew, she discovered feelings deep within herself, which she could neither define, nor understand. Probably, it was only the magic of an enchanting twilit evening, or maybe the hangover of a stimulating discussion, but if he had proposed to her at that time and moment, she probably would have accepted.
She was gone. Exactly one day after their first and only tentative date, she had been summoned by an urgent letter and left. That is all he could unearth from anyone. She had disappeared without an address or a number. Her first semester exams arrived and concluded. But when the marks were displayed on the notice board, there was no mention of Sonia Neogi.
He graduated from campus with top rank and got the best job. He threw a lavish party for all his friends. He spent a fortune on an endless fountain of beer and rum and vodka. They laughed and joked and toasted the night to the life of opportunities awaiting them. The life he would live, without Sonia.
to be continued............