Here's a short story I wrote last year. Thought it was apt to publish on the 25th anniversary!
THE EYE LOCK
Those were the early nineties. We were separated by our jobs – Shobhs was working in Hyderabad with a financial services company and I was employed with a bank in Mumbai. Having been together for two years at the Osmania University in Hyderabad followed by another two years together as ‘good friends’, we missed each others’ company. Our chosen ways to vent and circumvent our feelings in those days of separation were frequent letters that resembled weighty manuscripts and long late night phone calls from public phone booths - but we would still want to meet as often as we could. To escape our jobs or to be with one another we can’t say, but fact remains that we would. I headed Hyderabad-ward whenever I could stitch together a long weekend with some leave and Shobhs would come to Mumbai on some pretext or another. But these trips were once a quarter at best, too long and far between.
To counter this issue we worked out an easier option to meet midway at Pune where her parents lived. Pune fell on the Hyderabad Mumbai route and had direct overnight trains which meant that we could catch up on weekends. We had fond memories of Pune having spent two years at our first jobs after University there; me staying as paying guest at her parents’ house perhaps played a significant part in building up the memory album well. We knew the town, had our favorite haunts and routines, not to speak of all the uncles, aunts and cousins we would meet and spend time with.
With this piece of history behind us, our weekend meetings at Pune were naturally packed affairs. We’d arrive on Saturday morning and after chai and breakfast, we planned visits to our main haunts. Camp was the first choice, where we would walk around a bit, drop in at Marzorin café for a sandwich and rose milk or go to Diamond café for a beer and mutton cutlets. Diamond café was our favorite place to go because it was our own discovery and was a great space to catch up on life over beer. Sufficiently enlightened post that session, we’d stroll down MG Road where Shobhs shopped for clothes or a book and I spent my hard earned money on buying a cassette or T shirts that would not fit me. On days when a cousin or two joined in, we’d visit the fancy ‘The Place‘ round the corner for a steak.
When the trips to Camp seemed rather tiresome, we would make do with a trip to Deccan Gymkhana which was much closer home. There was always a mandatory outing to Chitale Bandhu to buy a few packets of bakharwadis that ended with a Goan meal of rice and fish curry at Kinara, the new restaurant we had discovered. Back at home there would be endless cups of chai and snacks and a stream of cousins who popped by to see us. The evenings always led to some partying and singing at home.
Needless to say, life was a song then with no thought of the future corrupting the party. Shobhs and I were clearly drawn to each other and completely loved the time we spent with each other and all that we did together. Not too much by way of talking though, I think our relationship was built more on the strong and silent foundation of sharing experiences. Books, movies from the Chandan video library, people, food, watching sports on TV, odd adventures like hiking up Sinhagad, riding Shobhs Kinetic to Mumbai and escaping from the harsh realities of life at which we were both so good, were the basis of our relationship. We did everything as a couple, without the baggage of being branded as one and that allowed it a lot of flexibility. Thankfully no one in the family tried to brand us as anything either and took us as two individuals who enjoyed being together. (In retrospect, no one probably knew how to slot us!) Which meant that there was no talk of marriage by anyone, even by us. We never pushed or pulled at the idea prematurely, and let it unfold and it lay ripening, until we decided to.
There’s only so much we can pack into a day and a half, and our meetings in Pune came and went in a flash. We realized by lunchtime on Sunday that we’d done a lot of things together but perhaps haven’t spoken to each other as much as we’d have liked. As the trip came to a close, a sense of urgency crept into the talk, into the silences. All that was left unsaid was now left for the other modes of communication - letters said the most because our phone conversations were normally full of dizzy headed jokes and an optimistic tone that everything would turn out alright in the end. Face time clearly lagged behind in our list of communication modes for efficacy - not much ‘real’ conversation took place.
Suffice to say that when the time to part came on the Sunday afternoon, there was always this heaviness, a sense of whether we were doing the right thing by staying away from each other in search of ‘life’ and livelihood. A lot of stuff would bottle up within, time seemed short and before we knew it, we’d be off to the railway station in an auto rickshaw talking of mundane things like when we would meet up next and promising to write and call that very evening. Everything but the real thing.
The Mumbai-Hyderabad express came to the Pune station at about 450 pm so we’d go at about 4 pm to the railway station. Get Shobhs seated in her seat, buy a film magazine perhaps because she liked those, share a symbolic chai for comfort, chat until the train moved and then heroically bid goodbye, alighting a running train. After seeing her off I would hop across to board one of the many Mumbai-bound trains that passed Pune. The wait for my train was always characterized with an empty heart, made slightly easier by the fact that I had seen her off properly.
This one time though, soon after Shobhs settled down in her seat and we had just begun chatting about this and that when a train pulled up in the platform next to ours. It was a Mumbai-bound train, making an unscheduled appearance. We looked at it and decided, practicality ruling our hearts for the moment, MBAs that we were, that instead of getting sentimental and waiting till her train left as we normally did, I should find myself a seat on that train right away. A quick chirpy goodbye that hid a lot of emotion and I was away, waving my hands at her as I walked down the platform. I found a compartment at the end of the train with an empty seat, sat down and made myself comfortable.
All my practical thinking vanished the moment I found the seat. Sentimentality came screaming in.
Any moment now the trains would move.
I must also mention that this was also the time in our relationship when we were looking to take it to the next level. Some sign was needed to tilt the space that was now so full that it was hurting to keep it within. It was confusing. I knew that Shobhs was feeling it too, and I also knew that she was even better at being stoic and silent in these situations than I was.
The next few moments in this new train that appeared out of nowhere and threw a spanner in the works, were filled with restlessness for me. I knew that I had left her a moment too early, before something that needed to be said had been left unsaid. The feeling of incompleteness grew rapidly inside. I felt like I was imploding.
It took only a couple of moments for me to decide – to hell with this train and this practicality and this job. I wanted to get off and go speak with her. I needed to sort my life out. Another couple of words. Another smile. Something that would soothe. Decision made, I got up and walked to the door avoiding people who were loitering in the passage.
That was when God decided to pay us some attention.
My train lurched to a start. No problem. My mind was made up. I did not care if I missed this train and its precious seat. I pushed past the crowd at the door and was about to hop off the train when I could see that God was active on the other platform too. Her train had started moving as well. I stood at the door helplessly, feeling stupid. For my practical decision. For my late idea to jump off to meet her. How would I ever convey what I was feeling now? Worse, how will I find peace knowing that she feels exactly the same way as her train pulled away - incomplete? I could have been more considerate, sensitive instead of being selfish about my comfort.
There was no time to lose. Something had to be done.
I did the only thing that made sense. Since her compartment was towards the end of her train and mine was at the other end in the opposite direction, there was a possibility I could still catch a sight of her. It was as improbable as hitting a six off the last ball to win but that was how the game was placed now. There was still a minuscule chance that I could lay these demons to rest if I played the last ball well. I quickly found myself a window seat that was partly occupied by other people bidding goodbye to their loved ones and in a gradually heightening madness searched for Shobhs through a sea of people on the platform, in the train. The trains gathered speed in the opposite directions; I could not even read which compartment was what. Never have I concentrated more, never have I been more desperate. The only thing on my mind was that in the crowds that were quickly flashing past there were a pair of eyes looking out for me in exactly the same way that I was. Knowing that Shobhs was not even at a window seat on this side of the train didn’t deter me. I sought out only a pair of eyes that were seeking me, cursing all those who blocked my way, wondering if I had missed this last chance.
And then the miraculous happened. From between the tiniest gap in a milling crowd of people, my eyes locked into a pair of eyes; eyes that turned from anxiety to recognition to relief and to peace.
And then it was over in a split second. But it was enough.
The trains sped past the platforms. People settled down. I headed for the door, a strange peace raining down on me. Everything slowed down like in a dream. The signal had been given. In that incredibly small space and time, I knew I had conveyed and received what I wanted to express. And know.
When I asked later, Shobhs nodded in affirmation. She had caught my eyes too in that frozen moment. God was surely paying us a lot of attention that day. But in my own vain way I feel that it was perhaps my love and my intensity that made it happen. And if I had to pick one moment in all these 24 years thus far that we spent together, I would choose this as the one that epitomized it all for me.
That fleeting moment when time stopped. When I knew.