“Please… Go away”, Sridhar said suddenly.
Nandini looked at him blankly. When she shared the news, this was the last response that she expected from Sridhar.
“Sri…”, she managed to say finally, “what’s wrong?”
Sridhar looked at her, his face was calm as ever. “I say this kindly, Nandini. Walk out of my life right now. This is the right time. Tomorrow, when I’m a tiny part of your world, it will be harder, for both of us”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sri. And what is this tiny part? You know what you mean to me”
Sridhar sighed. He remembered the first time Nandini had approached him, after his literary criticism class, to ask some questions. He had patiently explained to her, till each of her doubts was cleared, and not to mention, she had driven home a few points of her won. In his twenty years of teaching career, very few students had managed to impress Sridhar in the very first encounter. And still fewer had actually dared to bridge that socially accepted gap between professor and students, and become a friend.
“He’s in love with you”, Subbu said to Nandini. They were celebrating their anniversary with a dinner date, and were waiting for the desserts to arrive. Nandini, who was back from a visit to Jayesh’s place. Jayesh, Sridhar’s nephew, had forced him out of his cozy one bedroom flat in Bandra, and taken him to his new, swanky flat in Borivili, when on one of his sparse, but regular, visits he had found Sridhar running a temperature of one hundred and three. He had informed Nandini, too, and for couple of days, she was juggling her job, and house, and attending Sridhar, who insisted that he can take care of himself, and that Jayesh was there anyways.
Today, she had been there again, after leaving the office early, so that she could make it to their dinner date in time. Subbu, of course, had been sweet as ever, and had himself suggested that they meet somewhere close to Borivili so that she would not have to travel much again. She picked up some supplies on her way to Jayesh’s house, because she knew Jayesh, with his busy schedule will be stretched as it is. When she rang the bell she was surprised to find Jayesh opening the door, instead of Naru, Jayesh’s cook and helper.
He was as courteous as ever. In a hushed tone he told her that today Sridhar was acting a little strange and had called him home early, if possible. Luckily, he had just a client call scheduled in the evening which he was able to shift to later in the night. Shridhar, he said, insisted that he shouldn’t be disturbed by anyone, as he needed some rest.
“That’s not strange, he needs rest”
“I know, but why did he have to call me home at all then? After all, Naru could have easily made sure that he had rest”
“Unless, of course, he didn’t want to see me”, Nandini wondered aloud.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Nandini. I don’t know what has happened between the two of you, but he would never want to avoid you”
She had smiled at that, and handed him the supplies. “Anyway, I guess it’s better to let him rest. Tell him I was here”
“Are you leaving just like that? I didn’t even offer you anything”, he called for Naru.
“Don’t bother. I’m not a guest here. Anyways, I was in a hurry today. Subbu is waiting for me”
“Oh, okay. Say hi to him. Oh shit, it’s your anniversary today, isn’t it?”
“Yes”, she nodded.
She noticed that he was in a deep thought when she turned to leave.
The waiter arrived with their desserts just as she was about to respond to Subbu. She looked at the Tiramisu, and then at him. He had not ordered anything for himself, as usual. He’d just take a couple of bites from her. She looked at his calm, casual face, which showed no signs of jealousy, anger or even mild displeasure. He should at least show a few possessive instincts once in a while, she thought, and then brushed it aside. It was his most endearing quality for her, after all.
“Come on, Subbu. Not you, of all people”
He smiled at that. “Don’t you think so?”
“Of course I’m serious. I know what he means to you, and I wouldn’t even think of mentioning it if I weren’t serious”
She remembered Supriya, her closest friend back in college. They had grown apart, when she had asked her if there was something going on between her and Sridhar Sir. Coming from Supriya, it hurt her. Can’t there be just a deep relationship without it being romantic, she had asked Supriya.
“Have you ever looked at the way he looks at you?”, Supriya had asked.
“I don’t want to discuss this”, was all she had said. However hard she had tried to put that one stray incident apart, she could never forgive Supriya for asking that question. Subbu knew the story.
That was long back, she wanted to say. And frankly, I don’t have the option of not discussing it today. Not with you.
“Why do you think so?”, she asked, trying to sound casual.
“It’s a gut feeling. I thought it was obvious, even. He’s so possessive about you”
She smiled, despite herself. If possessiveness is the measure of love, then what about you, Subbu?
She didn’t ask that, though.
“You don’t agree?”
That’s what I like about you. You would not even ask me why, unlike me.
“I think it’s not possessiveness. I think, at some level, he’s genuinely worried that he’ll be the third person in a relationship, and he hates that. You know he hates occupying the fourth seat in a local train — not just because it’s a discomfort for him, more so because all he can buy at the expense of that partial benefit is discomfort of three more people. He hates all of it. And that is why he prefers standing. There is a dignity to a total discomfort, he said to me once, you can at least buy peace of mind with it, even if momentary”
“Would you drop it?” she said to Sridhar one day, in the middle of a telephonic conversation that was punctured from the other end by just a few syllables.
“The posing. It doesn’t suit you”
He laughed. She could catch a sad tinge in that laughter. Am I reading a sadness in his every other thing, she wondered. But since she told him about Subbu, he had closed himself to her. She had always found it odd that she was the only friend that he had. He rarely talked about any of his old friends either. But then they had so many things to talk about that it never really seemed important to talk about his life.
“You won’t get it, till it’s too late, and I’d rather not wait till then”
That was the longest sentence he had said to her that day, and cryptic enough to make any number of sense. When she asked what he meant, he just chuckled and changed the subject.
There was no one to talk to, either. So she let it go, and kept in touch with Sridhar despite his obvious attempts at avoiding her.
She had almost finished the Tiramasu silently, when she looked up at him. He was observing her, as if with just half of his mind. She noticed that he had helped himself with his customary two bites, without slightest of deliberation — neither in doing it, nor about not thinking about doing it.
“You don’t want to know why I think so?”, she asked finally.
“No. I think you know him better than anyone else in the world, and if you think so, then you’re entitled to it”
“So you’ll take my word for it, then?”
He smiled his disarming smile.
“You know I take no one’s word for anything. Granted that I know him very little, but I trust what I see. And there is nothing wrong with it. You’re an amazing woman. It’s so easy to fall in love with you”
She chuckled. She remembered the lines, almost identical.
That day she was walking towards Bandra station, early in the morning, after spending the previous night at Sridhar’s place, when a mid-aged lady called her name. She looked at her, but couldn’t recollect ever having met her.
“No you don’t know me. But let me just tell you that you’re not the first one”
“Sridhar”, she said, “It’s not his first affair, you know. At least, this time he’s not married”
“What are you talking about? Who are you?”, she said trying to keep her temper in control. After all, she didn’t want to hear from strangers accusations about their relationship.
“I’m Shalini, Sridhar’s wife. Ex-wife, I mean. I left him ten years back”
“Yes, I know”, she said, in a matter-of-fact voice.
“And did he tell you why?”
“I never asked him”
“You should have. I left him because he was having an affair with one of his students. The whole college was talking about it, just as it would be about you”, she said softly.
“It’s for them to talk. But he’s not having an affair with me”
“And what about you?”, she asked.
“That’s none of your business”, she said, and wanted to add now, as an afterthought.
“I see”, she said with a bitter smile. “I guess it’s futile talking to you. It’s so easy to fall in love with him”
“Why are you smiling?”, Subbu asked.
She narrated the story. Subbu was silent for a while, thinking. “Do you know this other girl?”, he asked finally.
“Yes. Sridhar had told me about the story, or his side of it, long back”
“When Shalini confronted him with his alleged affair, he denied nothing. For him denial was beneath his dignity. And it’s futile, he said to me. Denial is never successful, because when someone accuses you, she’s prepared for denial. There is an ‘I thought you’d say that’ thing about denial that makes it so impotent. Anyways, I was telling you about this other girl. I met her one day, at Sridhar’s place. She was married, with a son; well settled in her life. She was staying in Germany, Her husband worked there, and she was on a tour of India, after five years or so. Sridhar was not around. She waited, and we talked for quite some time”
“She wanted to know how Sridhar was. It was a few months after Shalini left him that she met her future husband. She had introduced him to Sridhar, but he found Sridhar too full of himself. She was madly in love, and Sridhar, who was a mentor and a close friend, didn’t have much place in her new world. Meetings were replaced by phone call, and phone calls by quick information calls. It was almost obvious to her that he’d understand”
“He didn’t. He had never cared for what the world thought. For him friendship was immutable. He had risked his married life on that premise, his whole social life. And her timing couldn’t have been worse”
Subbu listened intently. For a moment she thought he wanted to ask something, but then his face changed again, into an attentive one.
“You won’t believe, but that day I asked her, a complete stranger, if she though Sridhar was in love with her”
It was Subbu’s turn to smile. It was a wise smile, of understanding, not knowing.
She looked at Nandini with an expression that was too familiar to Nandini. “No, of course not. I thought you knew him well. He speaks so much about you”
Nandini looked into her eyes, as she replied. “No, I never had any doubt. He’d have told me if it were the case. I wanted to know what you thought. I always thought it’s very easy to misunderstand Sridhar. And I find it ironical, because he’s very simple if you look at it one way. People are unpredictable. Sridhar is predictable; predictable because he’s life is ruled by a consistent set of rules, however strange they may seem. You know the rules, you know the man. But over the years I’ve started to fear that maybe it was just me who could figure him out”
She shook her head. “No, but I know what you mean. My husband never figured him out. And I wasn’t strong enough then to go with my heart. I avoided Sridhar to avoid questions, and misunderstandings. In the process I lost the closest friend I had.
“You know, he loved Shalini so much that he was completely broken when she left him. He went through a severe depression. And he was aware how hard it was going to be, but he was too proud to explain. I offered to talk to her, but he wouldn’t allow me. And part of the whole problem was that, despite his love, he wouldn’t think of compromising on his other relationships. I guess I would have reacted in the same way that Shalini did, if I were in her place. Ironically the one friendship he put his bets on didn’t survive the test of time. I was to blame. Or maybe it were his idealistic notions that were the root of it all. He was born a little too soon, I guess”
Nandini could make out the thin lines of guilt in her face, after all these years.
“It’s okay”, Nandini said, finally, putting her palm on her shoulder. He paid for his ideas. We must not pity him for that. Everyone deserves to bask in their hard earned martyrhood. Let’s not take away that from him, by feeling sorry for him”
She laughed. “Finally he’s got a perfect friend, I guess”, she said.
Subbu sat still.
“Another irony”, he observed, as the waiter arrived again with a bill.
She smiled. “And another martyr”
They smiled, together.