One of the saddest things in life is to know we cannot go back to a place where we had made a thousand memories.We were in the mall near our house to pick up some groceries. For whatever reason, my husband prefers the supermarket in the malls. Whenever I am in the mall, I make sure I go to the bookstore on the second floor. The bookstore also had various sections like arts and crafts, stationery, DVDs and Game consoles. One could easily spend a whole day in the store and still yearn for more. But what was once a two- floor store had now shrunk to a small shop with racks overflowing with books. There were young mothers running behind their kids who were shrieking at the sight of X-boxes and Play stations.A few middle-aged men were patiently flicking through the pages of new releases. Non-intrusive music played on the store stereo, music that I had heard somewhere but found hard to place.
Thankfully my husband had agreed to take the baby with him. He was never fond of book shops. I felt he consciously avoided them. I could have some peace now. My husband loved everything that was earthly and practical. Grocery shopping for instance. He would patiently sit on a Sunday morning taking inventory in the kitchen and making a list of things to buy. He would weigh in the budget he had prepared at the start of the month and when we returned he would patiently update the expenditure details on the excel sheet he maintained. I once even caught him making charts comparing the expenditure with previous years. The baby showed his resemblance to his father. He would be at peace whenever we went to a supermarket. I thought it was the neat arrangement which amazed him. But that was not the case. I had brought him to the bookstore when he was 8 months old. He cried his lungs out till I took him out of the store so others at least could choose their books in peace.
I have always loved bookstores. It feels every book in the store has a part of me hidden in it. The books invite me to search and find that missing part to which I always succumb. The studio apartment we live in hardly has space for the baby’s essentials. Buying new books had become out of question. My husband had bought me a kindle e-book reader when I was pregnant with the baby. That was the only relief from constant nausea. It felt like reading from a physical book. I cried, was thrilled and got excited with the characters in the book even when I read the books in Kindle. But there was something impersonal about it. Like the photographs of scenery which we had taken when we hiked to the valley of flowers on our honeymoon. It was too personal a moment to be photographed, I told him. The long walk hand in hand, pushing and motivating each other to walk faster only to collapse in a bed of flowers. My husband wouldn’t agree. Nobody will know we were here, he said. But we know, I wanted to tell him. But I was just getting used to him. I just smiled and posed with him when he took pictures of us, in a great landscape which had millions of colors and trillions of newly blossomed flowers. I had never felt less significant in my life before that day.
I found myself walking towards the children’s section, looking for brightly colored story books for my baby. I wanted him to read. I didn’t mind somebody calling him a nerd. I would teach him how blessed he was to read books rather than spending time in mindless video games. They say video games have evolved so much; they educate children even as they entertain them. I don’t buy that theory.
The young adult racks were placed near the cushion by the window. They had poetry books there before. I had spent entire afternoons reading those poetry books, sitting there, oblivious to the disapproving looks of the staff. They never interfered when I read, but just gave disappointed lookswhenI placed the book back on the rack and moved on. They got used to it soon enough. However, I had to buy the books in which I had cried into. I didn’t have a lot of reasons to cry. I had always cried for only him, the one whom I shouldn’t let inside my brain. I cried at his thought. I cried at the mention of his name. Shit! I hadn’t wanted to think about him. Now his name and his memories wouldn’t go away for a long time. Until my child catches a cold or my husband’s family visits us.
His memories were exactly like him. They slowly gnawed at me and made sure they left a mark changing me for good. It was hard to not notice him. He later confessed me that he did all his little antics to gain attention. Ajit was not just a name in the college. He was a celebration. He had the knack to make any crowd sit up and take notice of him. He would joke all the time without hurting anybody. I fell for his spontaneity.
“You know what we should do?” I once said as we were walking under the shady trees of IIT Madras leading to Gajendra Circle, “We can do graffiti on the wall opposite to the bridge. Something nice and useful for the kids in the government school nearby” He smiled and nodded as we walked. Soon I was engrossed in chatting with others and didn’t notice he had slipped away. Soon enough he reappeared in his bike.
“To paint the wall” and he pulled me to his pillion as he handed me the bag containing spray cans.
We didn’t do a good job, but that didn’t matter. The police let him off after he convinced them and the kids loved the colors we managed to splash on the walls before the cops came along. “I felt like Michelangelo,” he said.
“We could have done it at midnight,” I said.
“What if there was a zombie apocalypse?” he smiled. I gave a playful slap on the back of his head. “No, really” he continued. “Why should we postpone something that we can do now?”
‘Thank God I didn’t ask him to marry me,’ I thought to myself. But that was just a matter of time. We both never really talked about it but everybody knew that we were together. Except us, everybody in our gang and our batch had discussed our relationship in length and breadth.Even the professors asked about us together if we came to the session or gave it a miss. It was a blissful feeling to belong to just one person and feel like you own the world. But I was in a dilemma. I loved hanging out with him and all that. But marriage was a huge decision and we were still in college.
He had the knack of knowing something about everything. He would spend day and night in the lab during his assignments and he always looked fresh. He would surprise everybody with the depth of his research. Later at night after the exams, he could be found at the auto stand sharing beedi with auto drivers, listening to their stories.
“You wouldn’t believe how good they are” he would say to me. “You should come with me sometimes. All these books you read have a pattern to it, a technique or template. I am sorry, but that is how I feel. But when you hear the stories from them, it is a totally different experience. You cannot expect a linear narration from them. They would start a story somewhere and then bring on an earlier event that happened. They will introduce a character out of the blue and have a backstory for him which would totally justify his actions. There is something magical to it.”
“Sure. I will join you someday” I said.
“Why do you keep postponing things?”
“I am not. I am just prioritizing.”
“It is like this darling. If you let your thought go to something you want to do, you will never do it. Remember the big book you bought that day?”
“Malgudi days is not a huge book”
“But you said you will start reading as soon as we come back to the hostel. Did you actually read it?”
“But there was no time. I got busy with assignments and you wouldn’t let me sleep..”
“Oh enough! This is what I was talking about. If you want to do something, do it then and there”
“Like read the book in the bookstore itself?”
“That way we don’t even have to buy it”
“You are crazy” I threw a pillow at him. But that was exactly what we did that weekend. There was a new bookstore opened in the mall and I was the one who made the plan. The earlier book store in the mall closed for some reason and there was a new one opened. They had entirely redone the interiors. I loved the way the wood floor felt under my shoes as I walked in the store. The books were neatly arranged, the helpers were friendly and knew a lot about books and I picked up few suggestions as I browsed the store. There was a nice corner in the bookshop just near the poetry section with cozy pillows, inviting us to have a seat. I had picked a book by R.K. Narayan and started reading there. He sat there with me, just looking at me, with a smile playing at the corner of his lips.
“What?” I asked unable to ignore his gaze.
“Nothing. You look beautiful when you’re immersed in something you like.”
“You are kidding,” I said trying hard not to blush.
“Not really” he tucked a strand of my rebelling hair behind my ear. “Oh.. Perfect song,” he said as he got up. I couldn’t place the song. It was similar to some old Tamil song I knew. I was not so much into lyrics when it came to music. The music and the beat sounded catchy, though.
“This is perfect for a dance,” he said extending his arm towards me.
“You are crazy. There are lot of people here”
“But this moment will never ever come again,” he said. He was already moving with the beats. A baritone voice just started to sing.
When Marimba rhythm starts to play.
Dance with me; Make me sway
He was still waiting for my answer. I was too shy to dance even in the shower. I couldn’t do it in front of people. It was not a pub. And I was not high. I put my nose back into the book.
“Come on” he pleaded. I didn’t dare to look up from my book. I knew he had moved away. But I didn’t follow him. But soon enough I heard the claps and people cheering. That couldn’t be it; I thought as I went and joined the crowd. In a brightly lit walkway which led to the kid’s section and soft toys section, he was shadow dancing imagining somebody following the lead. The song itself was a short one and when he finished everybody cheered him. He bowed in front of them and stood in front of me.
“Why are you embarrassing me like this?” I asked,
“I just felt like dancing,” he said. For the first time since I had got acquainted with him, he seemed to pause for a moment and then asked me. “Listen, Will you be mine, forever?”
“You have gone crazy”
“No. Just don’t think about anything else. Just close your eyes and tell me. Will you marry me?”
“This is not a joke, Ajit. I need time to think”
“When you think, rationality comes into play. You will think about what I would be in five years from now, fifteen years from now and all that jazz. Listen to your heart and tell me. Do you want to be with me?”
“All I can think is, I need some time”
He looked disappointed. But I couldn’t go with his whims and fancies. The technique may work for him but not for everybody. It would be nice to spend time with him, but to share a life? I had to think a lot. But he didn’t give me a chance. He slowly started disappearing from our crowd. People stopped talking about him to me. I saw him hanging around with a new set of people. I was too proud to talk to him and waited for him to come and talk to me. But he didn’t. People say break ups suck, I came to know drifting away hurts much the same. Soon he discontinued his course and went off to his town. People said he had a start up and it was doing fairly well.
The wooden flooring had lost its shine and nothing looked same as the way it looked the last time I was here. But still, I couldn’t go through the books. My mind was too crowded to buy books. It was already closing time and the crowd was thinning at the store. I checked my mobile. There were few missed calls and a text from my husband. My husband texted me that he was coming up to the store as he had finished grocery shopping and managed to stuff the bags in the car. As I waited for him, I looked at the faces of the helpers in the store trying to remember if there was anybody I could recognize from my last visit. But no, they were all new. A lot of water had flown under the bridge.
And then, it started.
I could remember the rhythm of the song and suddenly everybody disappeared in the store. All I could see was Ajit dancing in a brightly lit spot of the store, oblivious to others and perhaps even himself, like a projection swaying to Frank Sinatra’s voice. I was awoken by a little tap on the shoulder. My husband had come and the baby was asleep in the trolley.
“How about a dance?” I asked him, extending my hand to him. He was surprised but he shrugged and took my hands and we were swaying away.
Other dancers may be on the floor
Dear, but my eyes will see only you
Only you have that magic technique
When we sway I go weak
There were no customers in the store. The helpers of the section looked at us in amazement and some tried to suppress their laughter. The dance lasted for 2 minutes and we both bowed, hand in hand to the people who were watching us.
“That was a perfect song to sway to,” my husband said as we drove out of the parking lot. He seemed to be reflecting on something “You look beautiful when you immerse yourself into something you like,” he finally said.
“And you are the perfect partner” I pecked him on his cheek.
“We should have done a Facebook live video when we did that,” he said. I was staring at the road. After two minutes of silence, he said concentrating on the road “Scratch that, it would have robbed the beauty of the moment”
“I love you, monsieur,” I said.
“I love you too,Rhea,” he said and bit his tongue.
My name is Meera.