Nupur stepped off the sidewalk with a slight leap that took her springing across the road, careless about the traffic, unusual for her. She wondered if Aman could see her from his window, and a small smile hovered on her face. She stood on tiptoes on the road divider, and she felt ridiculously young. She used to love walking on a road divider, pretending to be performing an incredible balancing act. She cringed now at what a show-off she had been. But when you are young and pretty, even the embarrassing things you do, are cute.
The non-existent traffic on this quiet side-lane did not warrant her standing on the divider for long, and she crossed the road with a bouncy walk that she had long forgone. These days, her gait was that of a graceful elephant, according to her husband Prateek. But if Aman were watching her right now, he would think her as agile as he had known her.
She entered the 5-star hotel foyer with a familiar but long-forgotten sense of doing something forbidden. How enjoyable that feeling was! So sweet, and exciting. Only Aman and she had never met in a 5-star hotel before. The receptionist called Aman’s room, and asked Nupur to wait for a few minutes. Aman would come down to the lobby as soon as he finished his meeting with a prospective employee. Nupur sat down, relieved to have these few moments to calm her before Aman came.
Aman had called her this morning; he had wanted her to come over as soon as she could. He thought she could hang around while he conducted the interviews he was down in India for. But Nupur did not want to sacrifice a day of her holiday to her Maa’s house in Bangalore, and hang around Aman the whole day.
Besides, what would she tell Maa? Her mother knew all her friends in Bangalore, and in fact, she had finished meeting all of them in the last few days. If her mother knew she was meeting Aman, she would be very worried, even if Nupur pretended to be cool about it. Even if Nupur told Maa that she had spoken to Prateek about it. In fact, that would worry Maa more.
Finally, she told Maa that she was going to Trupti’s house for her son’s birthday. That had allowed her to doll up a little without Maa wondering what she was up to. Nupur thought she should call Trupti and tell her about the lie, but it seemed too juvenile. She’d just leave it, and if Maa found out her lie, she’d explain. In all these years, that’s one thing Nupur had learned. It was easiest to get away with a lie, if one didn’t set it up too elaborately.
She had spoken to Prateek before she came to Bangalore about this meeting with Aman. Prateek had not paid much attention to her nervousness. She felt a little irritated that he was not more jealous, but then, at a traffic signal, he suddenly said – “You must wear that blue saree of yours. You look lovely in it. You must dazzle that Aman. Let him know what he’s missed.” She looked at her husband with disbelief. He was laughing, and he punched her affectionately on her shoulder, she began laughing too, comforted as always by his good humor. It was moments like this that she felt incredibly lucky to have met Prateek and married him.
Remembering Prateek now, she felt herself again, a happily married woman, who had no reason to feel these butterflies in her stomach, because she was meeting an old boyfriend. Aman had been her first love, but it was she who had broken up with him. Right now, she could not quite remember why. Even back then, her decision had confused her friends and family, and Aman himself. Everyone thought they were the perfect couple. Aman, handsome, laughing; with all the signs of becoming a successful man, a sports champion. Nupur, pretty, shy, but very clever. But Nupur had been bored by Aman, a little, and that had frightened her. Perhaps she was too young for the relationship, who knows?
Today, she had not worn the blue saree Prateek loved her in. She remembered that Aman liked yellow, and she had worn a yellow shirt and her blue jeans. Aman had mailed her his family photograph, and his wife had been wearing a dark purple saree. Nupur did not want to wear a saree like Aman’s wife. Today, Nupur did not want to be the 38-year-old woman she was, but the 16-year-old girl she had been. She wondered what the receptionist must think of her, sitting here, waiting for a man. Did she look the sort of person who usually did that? Nupur laughed to herself, and wondered if she should call Aman again, and tell him she would leave if he kept her waiting any more.
Even when they were in college, Aman kept her waiting for hours on end. Sometimes, they would have arranged to meet at the corner of a road, and Nupur would circle around endlessly on her moped, until she caught sight of him. She would be upset, he would be laughing. And even today, she was waiting. It only increased her anxiety. What would Aman think the first moment he saw her? “Oh thank God, I did not marry her. She is not pretty anymore.” Nupur wished now she had worn the saree. She looked plumper in the jeans. And perhaps he would not like her in this boyish outfit. Why did she have to be so perverse?
When Aman did walk towards her, she felt dazzled by her own emotions. She forgot the jauntiness of her steps a few minutes earlier, and rolled up to him, clumsy and awkward as usual. He was laughing with all his brilliance, and he engulfed her in a hug. She wondered frantically whether she smelled all sweaty. Aman looked down at her from his imposing height and said – “Hey, do you want to go out? Or shall we just sit in my room? It will be cooler there.”
Nupur nodded quietly. It did not even occur to her that she should suggest they sit in the coffee shop. She followed Aman to the lift. She thought the receptionist’s eyes were boring into her. Aman looked at her up and down in the lift and said – “Hmm, you’ve put on a little weight. But so have we all. What?” He looked at his own little paunch and laughed again. For the first time, Nupur noticed that yes, Aman too had put on weight, and he too had strands of grey in his hair, and his hair too had thinned, and he too had signs of a double chin. She sighed deeply; she didn’t feel so bad anymore.
Aman’s room was quite swanky. The TV was on, some music channel. “I love the remixes. I watch this channel all the time when I’m here. I don’t get it back home.” He went and switched off the message tone on his laptop. “Otherwise people will keep beeping me.” Nupur looked around, and tried to remember the days they had spent together, in small inexpensive coffee shops, or better still, on open pasture lands just outside the small town where they grew up. Their moments of intimacy had depended on finding either one of their parents out for a couple of hours. They had been luckier than their friends. Their parents knew they were dating, and they did not have to sneak around too much. But even then, being alone in a room was taboo. And here today, they were alone in this hotel room; expensive room, air-conditioned luxurious room, and they were sitting across a small coffe-table chatting about this and that. Nupur glanced at the big, soft bed behind Aman and then smiled inwardly at her own helter-skelter thoughts.
Mainly, Aman was talking, about his family, his parents, his wife, his children, his work, his success. Nupur listened, and put in another question whenever he seemed to stop talking. Somehow, she was reluctant to talk about Prateek. Reluctant to talk about the last 18 years she had spent growing away from Aman. She hoped he would not come out with the anguished cry he had sent out to her for months after she had broken up with him. “But why did you do this?” She had an aversion to answer him then, and she had no answers even now. Perhaps all her nervousness today, was her desire to avoid this question.
But Aman was too demanding a personality to leave well alone. The next time, she asked him an inane question, he did not answer. He only looked at her, and said, “Why?” She shrugged. This time there was no anguish in his voice, and she wished she could have given him a more honest answer. But she could not tell him that he bored her a little.
Aman said, “You know I never forgot you all these years. I still love you, somewhere deep within my heart.” She looked at him confused. “But you never tried to get in touch with me all these years.” He shrugged. “I figured that you did not want me to. I loved you enough to set you free.” He laughed, “You know, all that romantic idealism.” Nupur said, “You never came across as a romantic. I thought it didn’t matter too much to you.” “But there was never anyone else.” “But you didn’t say it”. “But I didn’t need to.” Both of them laughed sadly.
He hugged her again when they left the room. In the lobby, he booked a taxi to take her home. At the last minute, he jumped in. She held his hand in the taxi, and said, “Maybe we were too young.” “Hmm.” Later, she watched the taxi leave. She wanted to cry, to stop him, surely there was something more, so many things that they had not said or done.
At night, she called Prateek. “Prateek, do you know something funny happened. He said he loved me still.” “Oh probably, he just wants to sleep with you.” Nupur wanted to hit Prateek, “How can you be so mean? You are not romantic at all.” Prateek grunted. “Yeah maybe. All I know is you are my wife. He has his own. That’s the love I believe in.” Nupur put the phone down, huddled up in bed alone. She thought as she always did, “Love, what was love after all?” All these years, and she still couldn’t figure it out, quite.