February 15, 2004 - 8:32 am: It was the third and final day of the tournament. The gallery was only half full yet there was a general buzz of excitement in the atmosphere. Try as I did, I could not understand the motivation for the curious few who had woken up so early on a Sunday morning to come to this rundown mansion posing as a club. I guess we all had our agendas and mine was very clear - I was on a mission to see if I could catch her again.
As I ambled towards my designated table, I realized that I was a couple of minutes late but then nothing in Bangalore ever started on time. I surveyed the other five tables and identified a few of the losers from the previous day's matches, waiting either for their opponents or for the referee to turn up. It did not look like any of the matches would start for the next half hour. Resigning myself to the inevitable delayed start, I sat back and wondered at how events had led up to where they were now.
It had been a week to the day when I had first received the invite to the tournament. Of course, I was the defending champion and it was more of a For-Your-Information note but little did the organizers know then that I would not be participating this year. On hearing that I had not competed in the Mumbai prelims, all hell had broken loose and after an angry exchange of mails and phone calls, protocol had been broken and I was granted a wild card. One part of me dreaded making the trip all the way to Bangalore for fear of courting disappointment and heartbreak but there was also the other voice, deep inside, which wanted to face the truth. The latter had easily won - I had accepted the invitation and set out in the hope of reliving a small but unforgettable incident of the past. The long, arduous train journey from Mumbai in an unreserved compartment had clearly taken its toll and my first round on Friday the 13th (how rudely ironic) had been a total disaster. I'd lost to a novice, a kid all of 17 years and was condemned straightaway to the Plate playoffs. Left with nothing to do for the day, I had wandered aimlessly across the city, revisiting places from that unforgettable evening two years ago, hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of her. Needless to say, luck had not been on my side and I had finally returned back to the hotel tired and crestfallen. Saturday had brought with it a punishing schedule - I'd been slated to play twice in the morning and if I won both, another in the evening. By the time I had got past all my opponents, it was 6 in the evening and the city had come to life. It was only then that I realized it was Val day. With renewed vigor, I'd repeated the routine of the previous evening but Lady Luck continued to elude me. This time however, for some strange reason I was uncharacteristically optimistic about the next day.
Jolted out of my deep thoughts by a booming voice from the loudspeaker, I woke up to hear the Tournament Director announce from the make-shift podium that matches would start in the next couple of minutes. My opponent for the day was a thin wiry lad with an icy stare who introduced himself quickly as Sidey. (Sidharth??) Since some of the referees hadn't turned up yet, a few of those present had to officiate on more than one table. However this was a Plate Playoff final and we had a dedicated referee allotted to our table, a pan chewing cheery ex-serviceman. Mr. Scindia. We exchanged perfunctory pleasantries and tossed to see who would start. I won and told myself that maybe this was a sign. I glanced around the hall and scanned the small crowd to see if she was hidden somewhere. No luck. I shuffled the bag, randomly drew out 7 tiles and arranged them one by one on the rack. I-D-S-N-T... My heart was thumping with excitement as I overturned the last two tiles.. E-Y..Something inside me was screaming. My eyes lit up. The palms were sweaty, fingers numb. I knew it was my day. Here was the biggest sign I had seen in my life. For the first time ever, I believed in DESTINY. And then I saw her...There she was, standing silently in one corner of the hall, leaning against a refreshment stall that had been temporarily erected for this last day. She hadn't changed a wee bit - tanned skin, frizzy brown hair tied in a messy bun, ready smile, even those horribly loud orange slippers. I could barely suppress my delight and for a mad moment considered abandoning the game and running over to greet her. Better sense prevailed and I signaled to her to wait till I was done with the game. The next hour was probably the longest of my life and I played at a furious pace, hell bent on annihilating Sidey. At ten to ten, the game was over and I had won comfortably. Filling and signing the mandatory tournament card (official formalities be damned), I rushed to join her at the gallery.
"Nice orange slippers"
"Thanks and you look good in those sneakers"
Even the lines were the same - it was as if time had simply been in Pause mode in our lives.
"So how much time do we have ?"
"My bus is at 11:30. I didn't quite hope to meet you here. But then I came over to visit my uncle and read about the tournament in the Engagements column of The Hindu..."
"And you thought you'd drop in just to see... ?"
"I guess so..."
"So who do you work for in Chennai now ?"
"You still act like Sherlock Holmes, dontcha ?"
"Calculated guessing - I thought I'd seen that purse in Ranganathan Street a few months back."
"MI6...Omigawd..Was I too loud there ?"
"A license to kill for Ms.Drop-Dead-Gorgeous ?"
"Stop flirting. This match is so boring. Mind if we go out ?"
"Of course not. Let's go to Residency Road."
I hailed a rickshaw and we jumped inside, giving directions to the driver to take us to Rex.
"You don't give up, do you ? Hell, I am a journo with Tehelka now..."
"So its license to pry, huh? What's the next sting operation ?"
"Do you still talk with rickshahwalas like you used to ?"
(smile) "Of course, I haven't changed much since we last met"
"You've put on weight.. and you look fuglier."
"Stop kidding me. Hey, who are you gonna vote for this time ?"
"I thought that was supposed to be kept a secret."
"C'mon you right wing nationalist, you really want the BJP to win, don't you ?"
"My philosophy is simple - I shall vote for the party that has made a difference in my life"
"C'mon, the last 4 years has only seen the divide between the rich and the poor widen - people in Rural India are still waiting for roti, kapda and makaan and you talk of an India Shining. The old man should stick to reciting poems to Neha"
"You are becoming a goddamn Commie. Anyway why argue over this - Time will tell."
A wise ol' fella once said "Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get." We had reached the Residency Rd - Brigade Rd junction and just as I alighted, the autowallah added what was the final word in this meaningless argument.
"Saar, Madam ennu helutha idhaale aadhe seri. Congress party gellathe, Sonia Madam Pradaan Mantri aaguthare mathe nam Bharatha rajya tum halle olle hesaru tiruga thogolathe."
I turned towards her and the look on her face said it all. I felt foolish. Was I so stuck up in my own world that I was blind to ground realities ? We quietly walked along the pedestrian's footpath, deftly avoiding the hawkers from Nepal who were trying to peddle their woollen sweaters.
"Hey, have you observed this sudden proliferation of English writing by authors of Indian origin ?"
"Read any nice stuff ?"
What followed was a stony silence broken only by the occasional sound of her slippers squeaking on the newly tiled pavement.
"Hmm...Did you like 'The Bridge Across Forever' ?"
"Well.. After the last time you mentioned it, I picked up a copy at Crossword....It was ...er...So-So"
"So do you believe in soul-mates ?"
"Do you believe in rebirth ?"
"If you want to put it that way."
We had reached Crossword and though it was only 10:30 in the morning, it was already crowded with the usual weekend bookaholics. She went over straight to the comics section and picked up a Calvin and Hobbes. Under normal circumstances I would have sneaked towards the music side but time was short and I wanted to spend every minute with her, beside her.
"Have you ever wondered if behind that veneer of disgust that he apparently displays for Susie, Calvin probably likes her lots...even loves her ?"
"Jeez...He's just 7...C'mon, you are confusing Calvin for Juggie"
"Its actually 6.. Btw, who says there is an age to fall in love?"
"Not that way.. But surely not at 6."
"And what was that thing about Juggie?"
"He had a crush in high school who dumped him... and he still carries memories of her..Dat's why he avoids Big Ethel and other women."
"I thought Juggie was just gay !"
I frowned. She giggled and flashed a sly grin. I realized a little too late that I had fallen for her bait yet again. She was too good for me.
"Let's go. Ten more minutes and I will end up spending the whole day here."
"Ya, you've got a bus to catch in 45 mts"
"Hmmm...Isn't it inexplicable how time flies just when we want it to linger on ?"
"I don't quite agree..I could barely wait for a year to pass since the last time we met."
"You came back last February, didn't you ?"
"Of course I did"
It was an unusually warm and sunny day, a welcome relief from the cold wave that seemed to have swept Bangalore the whole of last week. As we walked down, it was another chilly silence punctuated only by her short, deep gasps for breath as she struggled to keep pace with me.
"Aren't you gonna ask ? Sometimes I just wish you spoke more."
"If you wanted me to know, you'd have brought it up yourself. Isn't it as simple as that ?"
"Not always. Women like to be asked."
"Well...then.. tell me"
"I was driving home from office the night before I was to leave for Bangalore when I got involved in a horrible car accident. Almost killed a child. Felt so guilty that I had to stay back for the girl's operation the next day."
"I am really sorry to hear that"
"Are you ?"
"Of course !! If only you knew what I went through.. "
"You hated me for not turning up, didn't you ?"
"Hate is a very strong word to use."
"Isn't life a bitch ? Maybe we were just not meant to be !"
"You can't blame fate for stupid games that crazies like us play. Refusing to exchange phone numbers was sheer madness."
"Forget it. So I see that you are married ?"
"Well done Miss Marple"
She playfully attempted a kick on my shins which I artfully dodged. I carelessly fidgeted with the ring in my finger trying desperately to think of a way to wriggle out of this line of conversation I didn't want to pursue.
"Engaged is more like it."
"So tell me about her"
"Well.. Her name's Preeti...She's 21"
"Oooh... 28 and 21...You cradle snatcher...Where did you meet her ?"
"C'mon, I ain't that old.."
"Don't you dare give me that"
"At an exhibition"
"So do you love her ?"
"...and she was there trying to con people into testing their eyes..."
"You love her ?"
"...and offering free Bausch & Lomb contact lens"
"That still doesn't answer my question"
"Which is ?"
"You know it. Tell me"
"Well...We've been going around now for 6 months and she is happy and...I guess..."
"Don't say it. I know."
"What about you ?"
"C'mon. Not fair. I just told you everything about myself"
"How would it change things if I told you that the first three months after we met were miserable simply because I could not get that evening out of my mind....Summer was even worse - I got posted in Orissa, totally cut off from friends and family. Three horrible months later, one fine day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I quit. Tehelka happened almost immediately and my first assignment was in Delhi. Winters in the North can be horrible especially if you are alone and mentally tortured. The only bright spot in my meaningless existence those days was our planned meeting in February. You know what happened next."
"So how come you are now in Chennai ?"
"After the accident, I just wanted to leave Delhi for good. I shifted base to Mumbai and had a 6 month stint there. I know you might think I'm mad but during weekends I used to hang around Prithvi hoping for the miracle... You still watch plays ?"
"I wanna know"
"I think I saw you in March - you ever watched Manto-Ismat Haazir Hain ?"
"Of course - at Prithvi with a friend of mine. You must have seen me with Rahul, right ?"
"Yeah..some hunk...I didn't believe it was you..."
"Haan.. We were dating and then we broke up and there were a few other short, stormy relationships.. None lasted. And then I had to run away from Mumbai too...Finally to Chennai.. and lo, here I am..."
"I am sorry to hear that"
"Don't be. The story of our lives."
"Can we have an ice-cream ?"
"Now you tell me. Corner House was just outside Crossword"
"Don't crib buster. I wanna have Death-By-Chocolate. Let’s go back"
I glanced at the watch. It was 11:05 and we would be lucky to finish our ice creams and reach Madiwala on time to catch her bus.
"That's the third time you have looked at the goddamn watch in the last 5 minutes"
"Baby, you are gonna miss that bus"
Acknowledgements: Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Jesse Wallace and Celine.