Sometimes a smile is enough to enter somebody’s life.
It was just such an innocuous and spontaneous smile that first drew his attention to the girl. She was browsing the bookstands in Colaba with the assured ease and familiarity of a housewife bargaining over the price of tomatoes everyday with the same vendor in the familiar market. In spite of her bright orange sundress and tall stilettos, she looked as if she belonged there, amidst the dust and noise and the rows of second hand books on the pavement stalls. She could have been smiling to herself over a phrase or a sentence in a book but when she looked up and her eyes collided with his, her smile was still there, radiant, generous and warm enough to envelop the whole world in it.
Five minutes later, they found themselves in the corner cafe, frequented mostly by foreign tourists, the jukebox playing a popular 70’s number. They laughed openly and chatted animatedly over everything and nothing in particular as only two strangers can. Their impromptu date seemed to be the most natural course of event in the world.
Over the next three months, they met again several times, mostly in and around the same area. They lunched, dined, watched movies, browsed bookshops and music stores, bought each other simple, silly gifts. Then one day the letter came. And it opened a doorway to her dreams.
It had been Isha’s most intimate aspiration to pursue her Ph D in Microbiology at the University of Purdue. She had applied last winter wholeheartedly following every detail in the process, yet not daring to hope lest her heart be disappointed. That one letter brought in a surge of relief which was then replaced by pure and wild euphoria. It opened the gateway to her ambitions, her future. It took some time for her to take it in, to believe that her dream was unfolding before her eyes. Instinctively she picked up the phone to share her joyous delirium with Ritesh when she was suddenly struck by the realisation that the very letter which opened up her world of future possibilities would take her very far away from him.
They met at the corner cafe for lunch. They laughed and celebrated the good tidings of a great future. Then they lapsed into a contemplative silence and finally she broke down into a fit of sobs. He found himself consoling her in spite of his own heavy heart. Their love was real and what is for real must also be forever. They vowed to keep in touch regularly. After all, this is the age of the internet and long distance calling is not as exorbitant as it once was.
A few weeks later she was on a flight, embarking alone on a great journey towards a promising future. He had been with her at the airport till the last moment and they renewed their vows through a mist of tears to stay in touch every day. Now, comfortably seated in the airbus, she found herself alternating between joy and sorrow till she gave up her attempt to read a magazine and succumbed to a few hours of sleep.
The USA greeted her arrival with a casual blend of diversity and action. From the moment she landed her feet on US soil, her each moment was engaged in exploring, making various arrangements, seeking out people, understanding rules, and finding herself hostel accommodation. She termed that phase to herself as the tornado of ‘settling down’. Her academic pursuits started almost immediately in full vigour. And along with it, she found herself making a few new friends over the next few weeks.
Back in Mumbai, Ritesh found his days to be empty and his evenings melancholy. He immersed himself in work and stayed back late evenings in his office to put in that extra bit. His creativity, vigour, passion and energy all found expression through his work. His life became a ritual of erratic meals and insufficient sleep that all revolved around his main focus, i.e. his work. Within a span of six months he was promoted from a marketing executive to an assistant manager of the international courier company where he worked.
As promised, they kept in touch every day through emails, chats and phone calls. They shared each other’s triumphs and failures, joys and woes. However, pursuits of dreams have a way of demanding unwavering dedication and time and very gradually, almost imperceptively, these aspirations and the punishing schedules they demanded began to loosen the connection of emails, chats and phone calls. They always explained to each other their respective schedules, were forever understanding and accommodating of each other’s struggles and deadlines. After a while, their mail exchanges dropped to once a day, then twice a week and then the perfunctionary one mail in a week. Their chats almost disappeared and phone calls became less frequent.
Isha excelled in her academic pursuits and soon gained quite a few admirers and friends. One of her new found acquaintance was an Italian named Piedro. He was amusing, entertaining, always full of jokes and high on life. In short, he was a good fun to be with. They started hanging out together along with a few other friends, all foreign students. Perhaps it was the loneliness hidden amidst her daily activities or the absence of someone to unburden her irritation or trepidation on, or it could have been the sheer chemistry of two different people in a foreign place, but the fast companionship between Isha and her Italian friend soon graduated to a level of intimacy where they started sharing each other’s hopes, fears and getting a glimpse of each others’ aspirations and lives.
Ritesh busied himself by taking on challenging projects and impossible deadlines and making them possible. He came across various women in the sphere of his work, even dated some, but he was not serious about any of them. His longing for Isha was hidden and locked in a safe deposit zone of his mind and he became fanatically passionate about his work.
Away from sight, away from mind....spelled true in essence for Isha. In the absence of Ritesh with whom she could once share each moment of each day, she found herself gradually gravitating towards Piedro as the nearest contender for all her attention. Within six months she moved in with him and they embarked on a delightful and adventurous affair. Focussed in her research and busy with her affair, she hardly had the time or the energy for anything else. Communication with Ritesh became scarce and infrequent and one fine day she decided to write to him and tell him about Piedro.
His eyes were blurred. He had drowned a bit too much of Scotch and his head was feeling light and dizzy. When he had first read the mail, he had quickly closed it and shut the contents from his mind, meaning to reread later, at ease. But somehow her words found a way to haunt him throughout his busy day and even busier weekend which he spent attending a management seminar. He found himself unable to concentrate on the seminar and the picture of Isha with an imaginary Italian guy invaded all other thoughts in his mind.
In the evening, he left early which amazed everyone, including himself. He went home, showered, listened to some music, tried to compose himself and then opened the mail again. Her words pierced him like a dagger and he realised for the first time how much he had taken their relationship for granted. He could live a solitary life knowing that she was pursuing her career dreams but he could not imagine living a life where she was not the unconscious centre of all his emotions. He locked away her words, along with the emotions it triggered in him, in the same safe deposit zone of his mind and tossed away the key. He resumed his life.
Two years later.....
Isha had proved herself brilliant in her chosen subject of research and was working part time as an associate lecturer as she neared the completion of her thesis. Her affair with Piedro had run its course. They had traversed the whole path from not wanting to spend a single moment apart to not being able to tolerate anything about each other anymore. Piedro was too casual, irresponsible, immature and too happy go lucky to be an achiever. Isha was too serious, focussed and career oriented to enjoy and live life every moment ...the way Piedro would live. They separated like oil and water. Isha devoted all her time to her academic pursuits.
Ritesh was now the area manager of a multinational travel agency. He was engaged to marry to a good looking, homely girl arranged by his parents and approved by him.
Sometimes it is a stroke of tragedy and intense sorrow that can bring some forgotten person back to one’s life.
Isha’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly from a road accident. Isha flew all the way back to Mumbai to attend to the last rites of her mother and whilst fighting the tide of loss and depression, she had a desperate urge to check base with her old friend. So she took a deep breath, and dialled the familiar number etched in her memory with the ease and comfort of someone who has been dialling the same number every day.
He practiced in his mind how he would offer his condolences, how he would greet her after all the time that had lapsed and the events that have changed their equation. Yet, when he met her at the familiar cafe in the corner, all his practice was tossed to the winds. He went up to her and they hugged and let the tears wash away the years. They ordered their same coffees and talked small talk. Then gently, sincerely, he tried to assuage her pain with unrehearsed sincerity that arose naturally and spontaneously from some long forgotten ‘safe zone’ of his psyche. She cried unabashedly and smiled naturally. They laughed without reason. They laughed for all the reasons. She did not care a damn about her smudged eyeliner. He was least bothered about all the weight he had gained. They sat in that cafe, listening to the familiar jukebox, living the moment as intensely and naturally as only soul mates can; savouring their time together; each moment containing more depth and meaning than a whole decade of living life for irrelevant reasons.
One year later....
She has an offer from a leading pharmaceutical company in India. He had broken his engagement and has several career options in the USA.
The tides of fate can turn this way or that but what is more important is the assurance which lies beyond the twists and turns of the paths of life, of the love that resides somewhere just beyond the reach of reason.
And miles away from each other, they chase and pursue their life missions with the assured ease of having known all the things that lie between a smile and a tear; of finding love and then losing love only to rediscover that love can never be lost.
Sometimes a sincere smile and a genuine heartbreak are the only true gateways to the heart.