Working in a distant city away from your native has its own pros and cons. It is like uprooting yourself from where you were and getting planted somewhere else. We grow alright; but there is always a sense of alienation. Sometimes while I traveled in the cab that my company arranged to work through the night, flashes of the river bed and the green fields appear. They go away on a flash giving way to the concrete jungle that I was actually in.
The holidays and dates which brought so much of excitement didn’t mean anything to the American company I was working with. It was just a day in which I won’t be working. Dusshera holidays were such a thing for them. But it was more than just a holiday for me. A thousand memories flooded when I thought about the Dusshera celebrations in my home town.
Dusshera does something to me that even Diwali or Sankaranti wouldn’t do. It will take my yearnings to several notches higher than it usually is. I am not sure if I missed the temple hopping hoping to get the glimpse of girls in half sarees, whom we saw only in school uniforms.
Tirunelveli is called as Oxford of south India for a reason. The quality of the education is higher. However it also meant that most of us studied in schools and colleges run by Christian missionaries. We wouldn’t find a girl with jasmine in her hair. Sometimes even gold jewellery was not allowed citing safety reasons. Coeducation was unheard of. So naturally when we got to our adolescence our curiosity reached new heights whenever we saw celebrations of a girl’s puberty. Bala was our friend who was better than any big data companies that are operational now. He stayed back in Tirunelveli. But I had always thought what he did as a single person would put these marketing research companies to shame.
Naturally when I was 18 we formed a group. A group which had all the details about every girl who passed through our street. Every single detail like the time she went to her tuitions, the days and time her subjects needed help and even their bicycles. We would all gather up at Bala’s house by evening where most of the school girls would cross as it was closer to most of the girl’s schools.
We had a bro code. It is funny when I think of it now. We would all sit together at the gate, staring at the girls who pass by. When one person in the group decides he like a particular girl she becomes a sister figure for rest of us. That was the only explicit rule. In seven months most of our gang members had their girl friends. The trouble was none of those girls knew. But that didn’t deter our gang to make fun of me. I was the only one who didn’t have a “girl friend” yet. I was anxious too. Finally when our boys had gathered courage to talk to the girls, some cried fearing their parents. Some wanted the boys to embrace their religion. Some were just coy and smiled which was considered a party worthy achievement.
Needless to say I was never a party giver. That irked me. Though I was not really looking, I wanted to belong. It was Dusshera season for my rescue. It was easy to raise the suspicion of our gang. I just had to dress better. And pretend to act like following one of the girls who came to the temple. I had no particular girl in mind. But I was enjoying the sight of shy girls pretending to not notice us while they walked with their head down. In a short while I forgot my purpose and was filled with excitement of stalking the girls. The sodium vapour lamp and the small horizontal streak of the holy ash in their foreheads took us to a different world altogether. At that age, we had the license to dream; to get lost in a fantasy world we created where we sang duets with the girls whom we saw minutes ago.
After the feast to the eyes we had to attend our growling tummies. We were at the local idly shop eating to our heart’s content when Bala came to me “so I saw she was shy” I had no clue what he was talking about. But I didn’t want to show it. “What do you think?”
“Cool man. She must be a new girl in the street or someone who came for the vacation. Let me check” I know he would have her details the next day. It would have been better if I knew about whom he was talking about.
“You don’t have to. I will try and talk to her.” I still had no idea which girl he was talking about. But it was good to be one among them.
The last three days of Navrathri is celebrated as Dusshera. During that time of the year, each house is decorated and will don a festive look. The living room will be cleaned and nine stairs set up will be done with the benches, tables and boxes we have at home. We would then take down the boxes of deities made of clay from the shelves and start arranging it. It would take a solid two hours job. All the friends go to each other’s home arrange everything and beautify it as much as possible. The girls of the street would come home with a small kumkum holder and invite the ladies of the house to have a look at their decoration. While they are at our place, they wouldn’t leave without singing few devotional songs. The atmosphere would be pleasant but yet surreal. I usually don’t stay at home as our gang would be patrolling the temples and collecting “sundals” from our friends’ houses.
I was late that day but few ladies footwear were at the door. I was hesitant to go in. But since there was no chatter or singing inside the house, I stepped in. My mother was cleaning up after the day. “Whose slippers are those?” I asked her. “Oh! I don’t know. Somebody would have forgotten it. They will take it whenever they think of it.”
“Listen! Your father and I are going to visit your sister’s place tomorrow. This is her first Dusshera at her in-law’s place. We have to gift them. Are you coming?”
“No. The village is boring. I also have my exams around the corner. When will you be back?”
“We should be back for dinner. Can you manage your lunch outside?”
“I will” I said and went to bed.
They were gone before I woke up the next day. I vaguely remembered getting up to lock the doors behind them. I leisurely woke up, brushed my teeth and sat in front of the TV when the calling bell rang. Few girls were standing at the door.
“We forgot our slippers here yesterday.” They said. I nodded and showed them where it was arranged by our maid in the morning. In a minute all the slippers disappeared except silver lined, small heeled footwear.
“Hey wait!” I said to the girls, who were shy and almost ready to run out of the gate. “Whose are those?” I asked.
“Oh. That must be our friend’s. We will let her know. She will come and collect it.”
“Ok. I will keep it just outside the door. I may not be home. Ask her to take it from here.”
They just nodded and took off. It was time to get ready for tuition. I took of my shirt and wrapped a towel around my waist to go take a shower. The calling bell rang again. I was in a hurry and I didn’t think about what I was wearing. I rushed to open the door to find Bala.
“Sorry sorry. I came at the wrong time”
“I was just going to take bath”
“I understand. I will catch you after the tuition” he said and rushed off. Was he smiling mischievously or was it just my imagination? I didn’t think much of it and rushed to tuition.
The footwear was not there when I came back from the tuition. I was supposed to join the gang in our adda by six thirty and almost everybody was there waiting for me.
“So are you tired?” Was the first question.
“Why would I be tired? I am as fresh as any day” I said joining them.
“Bala said us everything. How was it?”
“What did he say?”
“That he disturbed you when you were in ‘action’. He was so sorry and embarrassed.” Bala was still not looking at me.
“What was it to feel her breast?” the question came out of the blue.
I didn’t know what they were up to. I would be the last person to know how it feels. I gave them a blank look.
“Oh! Cut the drama. Bala told us everything” I looked at him.
“Come on! You were with your towel wrapped around you and didn’t let me in. I saw her footwear outside your house. You still want to deny it?” Bala joined them.
My mind did a quick calculation. This is my moment of fame. I have to recall everything I had saw or read about the experience to give them a story.
“Now tell us. How did it feel when you felt it first?”
“I don’t know. It was like pressing a wet cotton ball. You know what I mean?”
“Do we look like people who had pressed a wet cotton ball before? Anyway go ahead”
I narrated whatever came to my mind from the B-grade magazines I had hid in my cupboard fighting my erection. I was not even sure if such things would happen in real life. But what the hell? It was just a figment of imagination. According to the guys I was making out with a girl when he came to my house. I decided to play along. I finally felt like I belonged in the group. It took me years to realize that I was the first one to have bedded a woman according to my friends in the group.
It was more than ten years back. I had come to Chennai in search of job and my friends stayed in Tirunelveli not willing to part with the familiar atmosphere. I didn’t have to go to Chennai as my family relocated with me as well. I just wanted to be in Tirunelveli for Dusshera that year. I called up my friends to inform that I was coming and took a bus after my manager reluctantly accepted my leave application.
Tirunelveli was not the same as I had left. There were lot of changes. The roads were widened. I had changed. The first thing my friend told when I got down the bus was “You are bald.” Yes, night shift does that to you, I answered him. I was expecting Bala to come and pick me up. I wanted to trace him. He fell off the radar three years back and I was not able to reach him at all. It was almost like he tried to avoid me.
I had purchased few T-shirts for my friends. I turned down the requests to stay at friends’ place and booked a hotel room. It felt different to be a tourist at my native. The festive spirit had died down. Both boys and girls were open enough to grab an ice cream which was unthinkable ten years before. There was no skirt chasing. We decided to catch up with friends at a local bar. We started off on a great note. I couldn’t stop thinking of Bala. It would be great if he could join us. I learnt that he got married. Bugger, didn’t even invite me. I decided to check him out the next day.
It wasn’t too difficult to track him down. He was still in the same house. He was not at home, I was told. The voice came from the kitchen, which I guessed should be his wife. I didn’t want to go in without him. So I walked to the end of the street and lit a cigarette while waiting for him.
Bala came before I could light my third cigarette. He had put on weight. He was carrying a bag full of vegetables and groceries. He didn’t have the cycle in which we had patrolled the town ten years back. He was walking. It took him a moment to recognize me when I stopped him.
“When did you come?” he asked. I was disappointed because I expected him to be excited.
“Let us go home and talk. I will kick you for not keeping in touch” I said.
“Do you have cigarettes?” He asked. We stood under a shady tree. We would sneak a puff or two in that exact place ten years back. Out of fear, we looked to our left and right, even though now we are grown ups and nobody would say anything. Some habits don’t die.
“You didn’t even invite me to your wedding. What did I do to you? Beat me if you want, but just don’t stay away” I said.
He dragged and filled his lungs with smoke. “I got married to her” he said finally. I was rolling my eyes. “Who?”
“You are still the same” He let out the smoke. “It was not a planned wedding. I was invited to her wedding. There were some rumours about her character which her in-laws made a big deal about. The marriage got stopped. Thankfully I was her caste and I had to marry her to save their family from disgrace”
“You did a good thing man. But you could have at least told me after that.”
“Do you still not remember? This is the girl you slept with”
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to tell. I was not a stupid 18 year old anymore. Bala was in no mood to believe when I narrated him the whole story. “You are telling me this to make me happy. But believe me; I am really happy with my life. My kid is two years old. I did that because I had to own the mistake you did. Because I am your friend”
“Why wouldn’t you believe me? You believed me when I lied to you, but you don’t value the truth?”
“She didn’t even protest when I named my kid with your name”
“You did what?”
“Yes. I guess we can go home. I am not sure how my wife would react. But I trust you. It was kind of uncomfortable to make you both meet. Now that you are here, you have to come home.”
I couldn’t even recognize the lady who was smiling at me. I handed over the sweets and greeted her. I didn’t know what to talk and what not to say. I wanted to grab the collar of Bala and shout that I had nothing to do with the lady. She is like a sister to me. But I was just there, sitting with a timid look on my face.
“I thought your reunion would be much more vocal. After all, he named our child after you. I respected your friendship and didn’t protest. But you don’t seem to talk much” she said.
“Sometimes a marriage changes everything” I said and gave her a weak smile.