In the dusty Hindi heartland of Makhanpur in Uttar Pradesh where Gayathri’s father had been posted as a collector, Feroze’s and hers was an odd sort of friendship.
“In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that technology is not a boon but the bane of society”, I, Neha Sharma of Greenhedge school, oppose the motion. Thank you.”
Holding a pen, Gayathri listened to the big words the kids spouted, sounding mature beyond their age. She scored the speech-giving weightage to content, voice modulation and stage presence.
“The last speaker, from Orchid International school, is Alia Reza.” the compere announced.
There was a sudden, violent cessation of Gayathri’s heartbeat.
Was it, could it be Feroze’s daughter? Reza wasn’t a common surname and his daughter’s name was also Alia.
Conflicting emotions ran through Gayathri. She wanted to throw up; she wanted to stay rooted in the same spot and see this girl who was Feroze’s shadow; she wanted to turn around and search the audience for Feroze.
With the supreme exercise of self-will, Gayathri managed to listen to Alia. Thankfully she was the last speaker.
The results were collated and Gayathri went to the stage to announce them. She spoke in a mechanical fashion about how difficult it was to judge and how everyone was the winner. She continuously scanned the audience as she finished announcing the names of the winners. She finally spotted Feroze. He was sitting on the far left, looking thunderstruck.
Feeling like she would crumble, Gayathri quickly got off the stage and sat heavily on the chair she had been judging from.
Half-dreading, half-hoping to chat with him, she still felt a jolt of electric shock when Feroze came over to talk.
“How have you been Gayathri?” His voice sounded so sad. What a life they could have had together.
She wanted to say, “You don’t know how I struggled to get myself out of bed, to get the taste of despair out of my mouth, Hell! to continue to smile,” but instead managed “I’m doing good Feroze, How are you?”
As if he couldn’t stop himself, he asked, “married?”
She nodded, deliberately dropping a paper so that she had an excuse to turn away.
“Well then, bye, was good catching up” he muttered.
He still looked good. His hair had silvered at the temples and his cheeks had filled out but he had managed to avoid the thickening at the waist and the inevitable male pattern balding.
Gayathri had a smile plastered on till she escaped the auditorium. Clutching her bouquet, she got into her car, cranked up the volume of the radio and put the accelerator on full throttle.
Have you come here for forgiveness,
Have you come to raise the dead,
Have you come to play Jesus,
To the lepers in your head.
Did I ask too much,
More than a lot,
You gave me nothing,
Now it’s all I got
Mary J Blige crooned Gayathri’s anguish.
Turning off the main road, Gayathri swung into a lane and finally gave in to the grief engulfing her. Sobs wracked her body.
Feroze and Gayatri didn’t mean to fall in love; they weren’t even friends. But love strikes when you least expect it, with emotions you never could have imagined. There’s no logic, no rationale and definitely no meeting of backgrounds.
Horoscopes aren’t matched nor stand on religion or politics defined. It just happens.
Gayatri belonged to an orthodox, God-fearing, South Indian family that lit the deepam before twilight every evening. Feroze’s father threw the biggest biryani party in the district on Eid. There was no convergence in their lives at all. Their paths would never have crossed if it hadn’t been for that fateful day. That day when he walked into the coffee shop. Gayatri wondered if the stars had aligned in a particular pattern that day. Did we have any role to play at all?
She looked at her watch. Feroze was late. It was very unlike him. Every Thursday he drove down to Delhi. Their conversations lasted for hours. They talked about philosophy, books, sports, movies, music. No topic was taboo, no topic was boring.
Suddenly her phone beeped. He had sent a message. “On my way. Have something important to tell you.”
Gayatri stared at it and realised she had knots in her stomach. Thoughts flooded her mind. What did he want to tell her?
She remembered the day they had met. She had ordered coffee for herself while waiting for a friend. Engrossed in the book she was reading, she had brushed away at a mosquito buzzing near her ear and accidentally knocked piping hot coffee onto the legs of a guy walking past her table. Embarrassed beyond words, she had apologized repeatedly. Though wincing from the burn, he tried convincing her he was fine. The whole coffee shop watched the unfolding drama. He went to the washroom to rinse his beige chinos and she tagged behind guiltily.
Again he reassured her “look it’s not such a big deal, I’m not burnt, I know it was an accident and you didn’t mean it.”
He led her back to her table which had been wiped clean by the staff; even the shards of broken glass had been swept off. He pulled out a chair for her, indicating that she should sit and then to her surprise pulled out the opposite chair and sat on it. “I’m Feroze, a student of history and political science at D.A.V college.”
“I’m Gayathri, I’m a third-year English Honours student.’
What an innocuous start it was!
In the dusty Hindi heartland of Makhanpur in Uttar Pradesh where Gayathri’s father had been posted as a collector, theirs was an odd sort of friendship.
Their affair conducted in secrecy had been as sudden as it was unexpected. He was certainly not her type or her family’s type. Even aside from the religious difference which was a huge millstone; he came from a family of politicians, a breed her whole family despised.
They were old zamindars and his dad practically owned Makhanpur and was adored and despised in equal measure depending on whom you spoke to.
Gayathri’s dad was called Collector Rao Saab. Scrupulously honest and efficient, he was respected everywhere.
Gayathri knew that news of her affair would cause a huge scandal. But it was an addiction she couldn’t shake off.
Their physical chemistry was so overwhelming, they could barely keep their hands off each other.
After their first meeting, Gayathri kept looking out for him. It wasn’t long before a car suddenly stopped next to where she was walking and Feroze leaned towards her and asked her if she needed a lift.
The streets seemed to have been abandoned by everyone to escape the scorching midday sun, Gayathri, looked around, saw there was no one around and nodded her acceptance and sat, heart, thumping wildly, in the air-conditioned car.
Feroze flashed his dimples. It was almost her undoing. She had been dreaming of him in ways she was embarrassed to acknowledge even to herself.
He said, “I’d been hoping to meet you, I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind”.
The air seemed to get overcharged and Gayathri blushed and looked away and said shyly “me neither”. She couldn’t believe she had said that and covered her mouth in comical dismay.
Feroze laughed delightedly and asked if she would like to go to the forest’s edge.
She nodded assent. Thankfully, when they reached, not a soul was to be seen.
They walked along the electric fence, Feroze directed her to the gate, guiding her lightly by the waist. She had goosebumps but tried not to show her arousal. Deliberately walking slowly, she allowed him to come so close that she could sense his breath on the nape of her neck and it sent shivers down her body. He seemed to be equally drawn, he moved her long hair to one side and bent down to nuzzle her neck and she arched backwards in total abandon. Pulling away from her, he said: “ I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention, or at least it was, but not so soon.”
Gayathri laughed, delighted to see him as smitten.
They sat on the grass and chatted for hours together. About everything. About how strict but loving her parents were, about his political ambitions.
Everything except how they ached to get intimate. That was in the air, but unspoken. But that too happened a month later. Youngblood, passion and opportunity could not be denied.
As months passed, their ardour didn’t cool. Gayathri started getting worried, her father was due for a transfer.
He finally received transfer orders to Mirpur.
Feroze was disconsolate too. Gayathri resolved to pursue her master’s in Delhi so that he could drive over and they could continue their trysts.
Six long months later, they happily met up in North campus.
It seemed unreal, two and half years had sped by in a haze of ardour. He drove over every Thursday. Often staying over till Monday morning.
Gayathri looked at her steadily cooling coffee and wondered what could have delayed Feroze. There he was! He came in with a spring in his step.
“I have great news.”
“The party’s nominating me to Abbu’s seat. He is feeling his age and doesn’t have as much energy as before. He’s retiring from politics. This is a great opportunity for me.”
Gayathri’s heart sank. Muslim was bad enough, how would she ever convince Appa to let her marry a politician. It was inconceivable. She kept a smile fixed on her face while internally hoping he would lose. She felt guilty about it, but couldn’t help it.
She prayed to every one of her Hindu Gods but obviously, the Prophet was more powerful. Feroze won by a landslide.
Feroze, flush from his victory, wanted to speak to both sets of parents but she dissuaded him.
Told him to understand his political duties before embarking on the campaign of winning her folks over.
Gayathri, who was, by now, teaching at a school, was kept busy enough through the day. She came back from school one day, made herself a cup of tea and opened the newspaper. She turned to the tabloid section of the paper after some time and read “MLA of Makhanpur marries childhood sweetheart in a hush-hush ceremony. It was attended only by close relatives. The handsome groom has said his wife would join him in social welfare”
The teacup fell from her hand. Gayathri lay slumped on the sofa for a long time. Tears streaming unabated.
After several hours, she rose, and like a robot on auto-mode cleaned the splashed tea, carefully picked up the broken ceramic cup and swept to make sure no small chips remained. She looked at her phone, there were fifteen missed calls, all from Feroze.
The sun still rose, the birds still chirruped; all uncaring at Gayathri’s unhappiness.
She deleted all his text messages unread, then went to the Airtel office, surrendered her old number and asked for a new one. The next day she submitted her resignation. They let her go without a demur as vacations were starting soon. She joined a boarding school, which provided her with accommodation, as their high school English teacher. She wiped out every trace of Feroze and made it impossible for him to contact her.
From time to time she googled him. Feeling like a stalker, she learned to control herself and stopped doing that as well.
Her parents tried their best to arrange alliances for her but she refused to meet a single one. Till finally, they too gave up.
It was a lonely existence; one that she tried to fill up by surrounding herself with students.
Feroze drove away with Alia and his wife. He told Alia that he was proud of her. Reaching the finals of an inter-school debate was an achievement in itself. Once they reached home, he locked himself into his home-office. Meeting Gayathri had shaken him. He realized he had never gotten over her. He also knew she had distanced herself from him post his marriage. He had nothing to offer her, so he stopped chasing her or trying to explain things to her. It was pointless.
He remembered that fateful evening. He reached home to find Abbu, engaged in discussions with Nawab Ali Khwaja. He had forgotten or deliberately put out of his mind the intended alliance between himself and Noor, the Nawab’s daughter. It was something that was understood, had been spoken of since they were kids.
The Nawab and Abbu had been great friends and had always wanted to cement their relationship into a bond.
Feroze had not been opposed to it till he met Gayathri. He hadn’t told his parents anything, however, figuring he would deal with it when it became an issue.
It looked like it was going to be an issue when the Nawab called him over. He greeted him respectfully and was trying to beat a hasty retreat when his father said: “Feroze, now that you are an MLA, the Nawab and I feel it’s time to seal the alliance.”
“Abbu, can I speak to you alone before we formalize this?”
Frowning, his father followed him into the ante-room. When Feroze told him about Gayathri he just sat down heavily in one corner but didn’t say a thing. Suddenly he collapsed. Panicking, Feroze called Ammi and the Nawab; they lifted him and put him into the car and sped to the hospital. Feroze was wracked with guilt. Had he pushed his father to death? The man who had stayed up nights when he was sick, the man who had once told him “my sun rises and sets with you, beta.” Could he not sacrifice his life for Abbu?
But what about Gayathri?
He didn’t know. There were no easy answers.
Pacing up and down the hospital corridor, Feroze prayed desperately.
The doctors explained that there was a growth in his brain and survival chances were slim. Whatever the medical terms, Feroze knew he had precipitated it.
He went to the Nawab and told him,”as soon as Abbu regains consciousness, let’s proceed with the Nikah. Keep it small, don’t call anyone except immediate family.” And so he got married one day before his father died.
Lost in rumination, Feroze walked to his desk, unlocked a drawer and took out a crumpled piece of paper that had obviously been read many times.
Dear Mr Reza,
What you suggest is an excellent idea. I’m sorry of course to hear that you are very unwell and that your days are numbered.
I agree with you, that guilt-tripping your son may be a more viable idea than trying to force the two apart.
Hopefully, our future generations will carry our value systems.
Love, a many splendored thing?
Hah, more like a knife that cuts repeatedly, gouging out the same wound,
Renewing a pain that never ever left.
An anarchist who got away, Nivedita Hegde has been known to create chaos where none existed. A dentist by profession, her patients are torn between joy at getting treated and despair at having to listen to her stories.