What struck me as I entered coffee shop was the ambiance and interiors and also the taste of the person who set up the meeting at this place. The little yellow fold chairs added a nice touch to my fascination to all things which had disappeared in course of time. The coffee shop was not very crowded but not deserted too. Two lovers sat facing each other, with very few words, looking each other in their eyes for a second and averting it in the next. In the farthest corner of the cafe, two foreign tourists were sipping lemonade, poring over a map. Do people still refer to physical maps? I wondered. The coffee shop was equidistant from both our houses. The music flowed through the speakers like a lazy brook as I sat down with my espresso. She had chosen the place. With her balance and taste, I am already in love with her. Meeting her would just be a formality. The families had liked each other and I had seen her pictures in social media. We had no mutual friends.
When she came, I was not sure she actually hurried or pretended to hurry the last ten yards in her scooter. She parked her scooter perfectly between two bikes without breaking a sweat and briskly walked into the cafe as though she had been there a thousand times. Or perhaps she was a confident woman who is comfortable in any setting. Apart from her profile, the calmness in her stride attracted me . She wore a bright color salwar suit, had her hair plaited. The aroma of fresh jasmine in her hair almost took me to the temple flower shop. As she came near me, I stood up, shook her hand and pulled the chair for her. She had spent some time with her makeup to make it look like there was no makeup at all. Not a hair was out of place but just below the bridge of her nose, holy ash and Kum Kum were sprinkled carelessly. It should be from the priest who put it on her forehead and the excess would have fallen on the bridge of her nose. It reminded me of the granules that the sparrows leave behind as they finished picking their food. It reminded me of somebody.
“Do you not wear a helmet?” I asked her.
“I do. But today it was so hot and I was afraid if I would get a headache because of all the sweat. And also we are meeting for the first time, so I went to the temple.”
“Ok. Here is the thing. If everything works out and we are going to get married, I would really like you to wear a helmet even when you go somewhere near. I get restless when people drive without a helmet” I said. She smiled. She was not afraid to show some her perfectly arranged teeth. I have seen that too earlier. There is an unmistakable resemblance. Suddenly it took me back to 1997. I quickly shook my head.
I liked to sit on the wet washing stone as soon as someone finished washing their clothes. We lived in something called a ‘compound’ back then. Basically, they were row houses arranged five at a side. Though there were thick walls between the five houses, the backyard was a common area. It was in this area, people brushed, washed clothes, did the dishes and sometimes took bath. I was brushing my teeth when Neela Akka came to the backyard. I rushed to take the towel which was drying in the clothing line.
“Let it be, young man.” Neela Akka said.
“Amma had said I shouldn’t be bare chested before girls”
“Oh is it because you have so much of hair and muscles there?” Neela Akka laughed. I was very lean for my age. Neela Akka and Sekar mama were our next door neighbors. Neela akka was my favorite. She was working in the post office and sang very well. She went to Temple every morning without fail.
“Come here after washing your face,” she said to me. I had covered myself with the towel. I brushed my teeth, washed my face and stood in front of Neela akka. She applied the holy ash to my forehead and guarded my eyes with her palm and blew the excess from my forehead.
“Akka, you bend down a little. There is excess sprinkled in your nose too.” I said.
She smiled. “Does it look nice?”
“Super, it is,” I said.
“Your uncle likes it this way,” she said with shyness overlapping her smile. I was just a boy but she broke eye contact with me.
“I like it too”
“Shh. Don’t let uncle know. For him, only he should like these things.” Neela Akka said. “Uncle will be ready. We are getting late to office. Will you come to post office in your lunch interval?”
“Yes. We are going to take all the gooseberries from the post office trees.”
“Ok, come and see me. I will give you new stamps.”
It was the golden jubilee of Indian independence and the government of India had released new stamps. There was a competition going on to see who gets their hand on the stamps first. I knew I was going to win because of Neela Akka. Our school was quite close to the Post Office. Even though we had space to eat at school, we walked to post office and sat under the big canopy of trees behind the post office and enjoyed lunch. Moreover, the subsidized canteen in Post office gave away vadas for 25p. The person who managed the canteen had received standing instruction to give me vada at the same price. It felt good to be treated specially.
Sekar Mama dropped Neela Akka at her office in the morning and picked her up from her office every day. I would see her waiting when I walk past her office to home. Some days I will stop to talk with her. One day she decided to come home with me and bought me soan papdi from the roadside vendor. But Sekar Mama scolded her in the road when he caught up with us. I rode to home standing in the front of his scooter while Akka sat in the pillion. Sekar mama kept scolding her till we reached home. Since then, Neela Akka would just sit in the office however long it took for Sekar mama to pick her up. I have seen her write in a blue diary. I identified that diary because the fifth house printing press uncle gave one diary to all the houses in the compound. I thought she was writing laundry accounts and monthly budget in that diary like my mother did.
One particular morning Neela Akka was late from the temple and Sekar Mama was ransacking the house searching for his Shirt. I just meant good to him when I said to him about the diary and the laundry list. He was surprised to know that there was a diary which Akka had maintained. Sekar Mama for some reason stopped looking for the shirt and started searching for the diary. My mother called me inside and said that she had started the fire in the woodfire stove in the backyard for hot water to bathe.
I was drawing water from the well to fill the vessel when Neela akka came running with the diary. Sekar mama was not far behind. He tried to grab the diary from Neela Akka. At first, I thought they were just playing with each other. But Sekar mama surely wasn’t playing.
“What is in there that I shouldn’t read?” he shouted with few expletives added to the sentence.
“There is nothing in there. It is bad manners to read other people’s diary” Neela Akka wasn’t budging.
“What are you hiding? What do you write in it? Whom do you write about?”
Neela akka looked at Sekar Mama’s eyes with such ferocity that I could feel the place got heated a bit. Even Sekar Mama took a step back. Using that moment of weakness Neela akka tore the pages from the diary and threw it in the wood fire stove. The papers became ashes within minutes. The half burnt Independence day stamps flew in the air and got carried away to the bushes behind our backyard. I didn’t want to chase it as I didn’t know if I should be with Neela Akka who was in crying, sitting on the washing stone.
I didn’t see Neela Akka since then. My mother told that Neela Akka went to her native for few weeks. Sekar Mama was also not at his house and a big lock was hanging at the door. I didn’t even see Neela Akka in her office. When I was asked to pay One and a half rupees for a vada instead of twenty-five paise, I realized that Akka got a transfer. I had hated the name Sekar ever since.
After two hours which seemed like two minutes, I paid the bill and came out of the cafe. She said she would be paying the next time. Even though I was happy about the possibility of next meeting, I didn’t want to end this one so soon.
“About the helmet… I hope you didn’t get offended” I said.
“No, absolutely not. You told only for my good. I have one at home. I will start using it”
“Do you have anything like that? The conditions. Something that I may do which may make you feel restless or uncomfortable?”
“I can’t think of any,” she said as we neared her scooter.
“Oh come on. There must be something. Anything.”
She took her time to think. Maybe she weighed my reaction for her conditions. Finally, she said “I won’t share my phone password or social media passwords. You don’t have to do too” She was too eager to see my reaction. I didn’t even have the habit of locking my phone.
“Sure. We should have our personal space” I said.
Just like how she skilfully parked the vehicle between two bikes, she retrieved it without a single scratch to the vehicles. She started the ignition and nodded to me saying bye. I placed my hand on her hand in the accelerator and asked.