Extract from ‘The Red Flower’s Blue Petal’, a story in The Other anthology
Ramola reached home buzzed by the amount of coffee she had drunk that evening.
She shared a flat with Sanjay, a childhood friend from Jaunpur, her hometown, and to all and sundry he was her ‘brother’. He was really like a brother to her, all big and over-protective (she believed), but fun to be with.
The flat belonged to him. He had looked around for a suitable roommate, she told him she was looking for a place, and everything thankfully just fell into place. Luckily, they shared the same surname, a rather common one, of Kumar. So Sanjay Kumar and his sister Ramola Kumar lived in Nizamuddin East and no questions were asked nor any eyebrows raised.
Her parents had protested at first, but she had quieted them with arguments. His parents were blissfully unaware that he had a tenant or a woman staying at his flat. Away in Jaunpur, they were too caught up in their own joint family life to go into the details of their son’s life, one who was earning the big bucks for them working as a lawyer, and they did not think beyond that…
He placed the plate next to her and sat on the other side. “Now, tell me, who did you have for company to drink so much coffee with?”
“You won’t know her, a new friend. I met her at one of the events I had organized, you know, the Balchand Groups’ fashion show? Well, she was there, covering the event for her own personal reasons, and we kind of got introduced and clicked.”
“Clicked so much?” he looked amused.
Ramola sensed a hint of the sardonic in his tone, but ignored it. She could become too sensitive about such things. “Not really, bro, but you know… Arushi is leaving, Susmita has left and Vinita will be married. I am once again, alone, deserted, lonely.”
“Lonely? How? I’m around, isn’t it?”
“But you are a busybody, and you are brother. Different. I want female bonding.”
“You girls nowadays are really funny. Looking for girls to befriend when generally it is said that girls look for guys.”
“Guys to marry, but girls for friends. Boys become friends here only for one reason, so it is not a true friendship, you know that. And everyone needs a close friend or two.”
Sanjay shrugged. He felt something give within him. He thought he was a close friend. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. “So what about this girl? Tell me about her.”
“Well, her name is Abeer…”
“Ok. Abeer, unusual name, I knew an Abeer in school, she was a class senior to me. Her brother was my junior; his name was Bilal.”
“Strange, her brother’s name is Bilal, he was the fashion choreographer at the show I attended. Remember, I told you about it…well, I actually met her through him. I know him kind of…like an acquaintance…professional.” She opened her black kohl-rimmed eyes wide and Sanjay as usual, was struck by her sudden beauty.
He wondered at his sudden desire to touch her neck, to caress it. He almost leaned over; then stopped himself. He could not cross the boundaries.
“Sweet woman,” he said, exhaling hard, “why do you smoke so much, it’s hot already. Ok, so it must be the same girl? Is she from Jaunpur?”
“Oh no, that’s the thing. She is from Delhi, stays somewhere in Jangpura Extension, not sure where, although the names are the same…” Ramola pushed her plate away. She looked up at Sanjay, gave him a tired smile and he looked at her, wanting desperately to touch her, not playfully, but with an intensity that surprised him.
Instead he said, “Wait a minute, is her surname Syed?”
“Bingo, Sanjay! Abeer Syed! She is the grand-daughter of Amir Syed, right?” Then Ramola’s mouth downturned, “Don’t know, though, haven’t ask her…I do know she paints…”
“Well, that girl painted. So this one must be… the same, I mean. Fair, thin, rather tall for her age…” Sanjay thought back to his school days. How he had envied the girl’s looks, her pedigree, her inborn talent to paint, and most of all, her nonchalance, as though she did not care for anything. He had been nothing and no one in comparison. But now, well, he was a lawyer of merit, and he could cook.
He heard Ramola sigh. “She does sound the same, Sanjay, but then, Jaunpur? It could not be?”
On impulse, she wattsapped Abeer, “Hey, tell me, are you Abeer Syed from Jaunpur?”
Bang came the reply, short, the tone seemingly irritated: “No, from Delhi. What gives?”
Ramola looked at her mobile. No further response from Abeer. She made a sad face at Sanjay. “Looks like the lady did not like being connected to Jaunpur, even in a remote way. Sanjay, she cannot belong to our hometown. Shit! She seems pissed about it.” She reached for another cigarette, wishing she had not asked her.
Sanjay looked up from his dish. “Too many coincidences, it has to be her. You know, I never forget. Do you have a photo of hers?”
“Nope, she hates being clicked, and is not on Facebook, is not in the public eye.”
“Artist, na? How long will she escape, if she gets famous, she will have to be in the public eye. Her brother is, isn’t it? So how will she hide herself? Not for long, not for long. It is she. Same name, same description, and then too, she used to draw. A lot.”
“Well, she did not say she was an artist. I just noticed the paint that stained her hands, and figured.”
“So would anyone else notice, don’t you think? So she is not hiding the fact that she is an artist. But hiding something else, for sure.”
“Sanjay, your lawyer mind is just jumping.”
Ramola wanted to snap at him, feeling suddenly lonely, bereft of friends. Abeer would not return to her now. It was almost as though she had stained her with the reference to Jaunpur. How could she be from that small city, this girl who had ‘uber urban sophisticate’ written all over her in bold letters? One could always figure out a person from a small town from a distance. Like herself, for example, for however hard she tried, she knew that people could place her as someone ‘not from Delhi’… she remained a small town girl. She watched Sanjay digging into his meal and closed her eyes to not watch him make his way through the food. Just like her, he had not shaken off the shadow of the place he came from.
Sanjay said, “She is Abeer Syed who spent some time in Jaunpur for sure, she studied in my school, her brother was in the same school. Why she is hiding from this is now very intriguing…”
“Sanjay, all I want is a friend, and I found one in her, one I can relate to, and how does it matter to me if she is from Jaunpur or The Netherlands?”
“Well, now my antenna is up.”
“Sanjay, please, I am getting a headache.”
“Sleep then, but think about it. It’s just by chance that you know me and I know you and her and you met her and now she is denying her time in Jaunpur, when I have seen her running around in her school uniform…hmm…”
“And now my head is moving in circles. I’ll sleep.” Ramola gave a last glance to her cellphone. Nothing. She sighed. She wondered whether she should answer Abeer’s query of ‘What gives?’ and decided to do so.
She whatsapped, “Just thought you were related to someone famous…” Ramola sent a smile to lighten the heaviness she had begun to feel. “Let’s meet again soon.”
There was no response. Well, sleep on it, Ramola, she told herself. Que sera sera. Sanjay was clearing up. She waved to him and made her way towards her room.
He blew her a kiss from across the kitchen counter. “I’m there for you,” he said.
Ramola gave a wan smile. ‘And I just screwed up a friendship because of you…’ she almost said and then stopped herself.
No, that was not being fair. Neither of them had known that an innocent question would lead to this. Maybe Sanjay was wrong, there could be two Abeer Syed who painted. One of Jaunpur, the other of Delhi.
In bed, squirming around, she gave a cynical smile and tossed off her bedcover. She must free herself from craving relationships. Did everyone need friends like she did? She could call her mother and talk to her. She reached for her cellphone and then withdrew her hand. No, she told herself, she could handle this.
Next morning, Sanjay left for work early. Ramola stepped out of the shower when her phone pinged. She glanced at it, and stopped.
Her heart skipped unnaturally as she opened Abeer’s message. ‘Yes, let’s meet. A city should not come between us.’
That was cryptic. But Ramola began to smile. She picked up a cherry red lipstick and painted her lips, stood in front of the mirror and twirled. So much happiness over a friendship? Yes, yes, today a skirt would be worn. There was something about Abeer that made Ramola want to buzz around her, like a bee around a nectar-filled flower.
She messaged back, ‘I’ll call you at 6 pm and we’ll fix a time.’
A city come between them? Jaunpur? Well, she would know or not know, but something had opened up.
‘Hey Sanjay, guess what, Abeer got in touch,’ she messaged him.
Sanjay sent a grin back. His heart was breaking, but how could he let her know something he had realised just yesterday. She wouldn’t understand.
He sent her a quick text, ‘I’m busy, but this is good news. Want some more of my cooking tonight?’
‘No,’ she wrote, ‘may fix to meet Abeer for dinner. Bye.’
Abeer stared at the painting in front of her eyes. It would be the scene holder at her first exhibition ever. She pierced her finger and managed a rough A.S. as a signature before the blood dried up.
It was time for her to come out, make her presence felt. What could Jaunpur do to her now? She did not want to hide anymore.
She would meet Ramola for dinner. And she’d ask, “About Jaunpur, how did you know?”
At dinner, sitting in a quiet corner, Ramola said to a pensive Abeer, “About Jaunpur…I know nothing.”
Abeer said, “Then let me tell you…”
Abeer held in her palms a very small painting. It was of a red flower with one blue and bruised petal. Ramola had never seen anything so beautiful.
“It’s for you,” said Abeer, “you are my first friend since a very long time.”
Ramola sighed. ‘Thank God,’ she said to herself, ‘thank God’. She took some kajal from her right eye and marked Abeer’s left wrist. “To our friendship,” she said.
Abeer winced and Ramola noticed a scar there. “Just a moment, Abeer,” she said, and quickly messaged Sanjay, ‘I have a friend.’
She smiled when she saw his message, ‘And you have me too, don’t ever forget.’
Sanjay stayed up late that night, waiting for Ramola. He knew she would not come home that night, but still he waited, listening to old songs as the night air caressed his hair. The moon was full, and it broke his heart to look at it, but look he must, for he had to come to terms with the fact that his story with Ramola would soon be over. In a couple of weeks at the most, she would want to move out, move away. She had found someone. She was not aware of it as yet, but Sanjay knew that this other person would soon remove him from Ramola’s life.
He thought of his message to her. ‘And you have me too, don’t ever forget.’ He hoped she would not, he hoped…“Oh Ramola,” he sighed, “I wish you thought of me otherwise. I wish we had a chance.”
He turned away and closed the shutters. The night was young, but he felt incredibly old, incredibly alone.
‘The Other’ is published by StoryMirror and edited by Abha Iyengar and Mona Verma