The next morning Ria and Mishti left for Bangalore. Mayur dropped them at the railway station. The train was delayed by a couple of hours. Mishti was beginning to get restless. The display in the coffee shops tempted her to no end but Ria was stern. She didn’t want her falling sick during the journey. “Mama Mittu bore”, she whined.
“Come, lets read this book”, she said placing Mishtu on her lap. “New story?”, asked Mishti. She liked new books with bright colorful pictures in them.
“Yes, it’s called ‘The Happy Toad’. Once upon a time, there was a toad.. see this? This is a toad. Say toad.”
“Mama that fwog.”
“No, this is toad. This is not frog.”
Mishti was confused. She decided to go along with what her mother told her. If mama says toad, then toad it is.
Ria was craving for a cup of coffee but she knew if she went to the café, Mishti would surely want something from there. So she sat quietly while Mishti looked at the pictures in her book for a while.
Their train was announced and Ria was finally relieved. The train had not moved yet, but the women in her compartment started producing little packets of food from their bags. She wondered why all the fuss when Shatabdi provided them with food. Besides, it was just a 4 hour journey. Ria grew a little tense once again. What if Mishtu demanded the food that the caterers placed before them? Luckily for her, Mishtu fell asleep and remained asleep on her lap for the rest of the journey while she gazed out of the window and tried to whip up some feeling for the landscape. Monotonous fields, cows and buffaloes grazing or sitting in muddy ponds swatting flies with their ears and tails, naked little brown boys waving at the train as it passed, level crossings with cars, buses, scooters, autorickshaws waiting on either side of the rickety fences, cyclists trying to bend under the fence and be the first ones to cross the tracks soon as the train passes… Ria felt her heart thump in tandem with the chug chug of the train. She was going home again !
Ria hailed a cab outside the station. It wasn’t easy lugging two heavy suitcases, a laptop, a hand bag, another small bag and a 3 year old sleepy child all by herself and jostling out of the crowded station with relatives enveloping each other in loving embraces and gleeful chatter. She managed to reach home by noon nevertheless.
Her parents wouldn’t be back for three days. She freshened up, gave Mishti a hot bath and some food and sent her off to bed. She, in the meanwhile unpacked their suitcases and had some lunch herself. She decided to take a short nap. She loved sleeping in the afternoons and she hadn’t done it in a very long time. So she lay down beside Mishti and tried to sleep. But she had all sorts of bizarre dreams like someone laughing and there was that bicycle again on that lonely road. And there were lots of eucalyptus trees. The dream took a beautiful turn. She was amidst those trees, there was a gentle breeze blowing and she was looking at someone. She didn’t know who it was, but he brought in a sort of warmth and happiness within her. She couldn’t see his face but something in her longed to be with him, touch him, hug him, laugh out loud and cry at the same time. She felt a sense of lightness within her. He held out his hand and said “Ria come”.
She woke up with a start. Mishti was still fast asleep. She tip toed out of the room and walked into the kitchen and made herself a cup of strong coffee. She sat out on the porch sipping her coffee lost in thoughts. She looked out at the neighbor’s house. Her best friend, Adila lived there with her parents. Used to. Now she was married and Ria had lost touch with her. She wondered where Adila was now. Last she heard was that Adila was on her family way. That was a couple of years ago. She decided she’d go and visit Adila’s parents for old times’ sakes. She felt a hand on her shoulder and she turned around and let out a loud scream.
“Adilaaaaaa… Jesus I was just thinking of you!”
“HOW ARE YOU GIRL?”
“I am good. How are you?”
“Oh my god, I can’t believe this. I am seeing you after what four years?”.
“Yeah. Look at you, all fat and round.”
“Cut it out. But hey look at you, what do you do to stay so thin?”
It was a cacophony and Ria totally forgot that her daughter was asleep inside. They hugged hard and couldn’t stop laughing.
“What is wrong with you? Why don’t you even try and stay in touch?”, Ria asked.
“Sorry sweets. But life’s got me in its jaws”.
“Yeah and I wonder how strong those jaws are, if it has to hold a fatso like you.”
“Shut up Miss World. When did you come here?”
“Just this afternoon.”
“But your parents aren’t here.”
“Yeah I know. Wanted to surprise them. Mishti wasn’t keeping well so I thought I’d get her here for a change of air.”
“Little Mishti is here? Boy I can’t wait to see her.”
“She’s asleep now. What about you? Last I heard was that you were pregnant. So….”
“Yeah I too have a little princess.”
“I know. She’s here too. Why don’t you come home? You could visit mom.”
“Sure will. I was just thinking of coming when Mishtu wakes up. So how are your parents doing?”
“Dad passed away a year ago. That is why I am here, for his death anniversary”, said Adila her eyes growing sad for a moment. “Oh shoot I am so sorry. What happened?”, Ria felt very bad. She used to be very fond of Adila’s dad. He used to get her lots of goodies from the cake shop he owned.
Before Ria could ask for more details, she heard Mishti call out to her from inside. “Come in Adila, you can see Mishti and maybe have a cup of coffee with me and then you can tell me everything”, said Ria.
Adila came in and picked up Mishti and kissed her all over his face and neck and tummy. “She looks every bit like you”, said Adila. Mishti was confused and wailed while held out her little hands to Ria asking her to pick him up.
“Mishtu that is Adila, mummy’s best friend from school”, said Ria. Mishti just hid into Ria’s shoulder and peered at Adila from the corner of her eye.
“She’s shy. She’ll get over it”, said Ria making some more coffee for herself and for Adila.
“So, tell me what else is new”, she said setting the cups down on the table and sitting down beside Adila. “I don’t know. You got to give me all the bites. I’ve been out of the country and I know nothing. I haven’t been in touch with anyone.”
“Hmmm, nor have I. Except of course, with Sunil.”
“Sunil? Oooh.. so what is he still…”
“Yeah very much. He’s now with someone called Patrick.”
They both laughed. “I know Sunil is still around. He is in touch with the others. Maybe we could catch up”, suggested Ria. “Yeah sounds good. How long are you here?”, asked Adila. “I am here for a month”, said Ria grinning. “Awesome. So am I. Give him a call or something and we’ll fix up a date”, said Adila. “Sure will.”, said Ria. They sat and spoke about their lives for some time and then Adila left. Ria promised to visit her the next morning.
Ria fixed dinner for the both of them. Mishti’s appetite seemed to be improving already and she hadn’t been sick since morning. Ria was relieved. She then remembered she hadn’t called Mayur ever since they landed. She quickly called him and spoke to him for a while.
She then tucked Mishti into bed. She was still feeling quite weak and she slept almost immediately. Ria opened her laptop and checked for emails from work. There were none. Of course, it was still Sunday, there will be no mails until noon the next day. She shut her laptop and sat in the living room lost in thoughts. She felt a thrill in her veins. It felt great to be back home after so long and she couldn’t wait to talk to Sunil and tell him that she was in town. It would be a wonderful reunion. Adila was there too. She will meet everyone soon. She thought of all her friends from school. Sunil and Naveen and Adila and Prem and Anu and Priya and Neha and …. There was Sanjay too. Sanjay’s thoughts brought a flood of mixed feelings within her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to meet him, but part of her wanted to meet him too. His memories gave her goose bumps. He was the best thing that had ever happened to her. She didn’t know if she still had the same feelings for him. But yeah, there was something about him that made her want to smile and cry at the same time.
She forced herself out of those thoughts and went to bed. After tossing and turning about for a while, she finally did fall asleep. But she couldn’t sleep well again. She was haunted by those nightmares again. There was the bicycle again and the eucalyptus grove. There were lots of leaves blowing. There was a pond. A stone beside it, with someone sitting on the stone, his back turned towards her. She goes a little forward and reluctantly touches his shoulder and he turns… she woke up with a start again. What were with these nightmares? What was about this grove? She looked at the clock. It was half past five in the morning. She got up and freshened up. She knew Mishti wouldn’t be up for at least three more hours. She slept like a log. Ria threw on a jacket and stepped out. The air was crisp. She silently closed the door behind her. It was still dark outside. She decided to take a small walk and come back soon. She took the road behind her house and walked on. She knew where the road led. She didn’t know why she was going there, but something in her forced her to walk that way. And she knew this was the best time for her to go there.
The road was a long one. It was always deserted. There were just a few huts strewn about randomly. She walked on. She remembered how every other day she and Sanjay used to come up here in their bicycles to get away from everyone. They had their sequestered moments here. She couldn’t get Sanjay out of her mind. She felt a little guilty about it too. She walked on the long lonely road. She hugged herself, the air was a little chilly. The people in the huts were still not up. She could see the eucalyptus grove from a distance. It gave her goose bumps. She had always marveled at how it stood before her majestically. She debated if she should continue any further. She heard someone come up behind her. She heard a cycle bell, she turned around and felt like someone sped past her making her hair fly across her face. The road was empty. She was very sure she had heard and felt someone.
She slowly walked on. She thought she saw someone near the barbed wire fence. She walked towards the figure. It was still dark and she couldn’t make out who it was, but as she drew closer, though she still couldn’t see him, she instantly knew who it was. “Sanjay?”, she asked.
“Ria”, he answered in a little more than a whisper.
“Sanjay what are you doing here?”, she asked.
“Waiting for you Ria”, he said.
“How did you know I’d come?”, she asked.
He shrugged his shoulder. She still couldn’t see his face well enough. “How have you been?’, she asked.
He shrugged again. She came a little closer and like a wisp of smoke, he just disappeared into thin air.
Ria stepped back shocked. Had she imagined this? “Sanjay?”, she called out. He must have slipped in behind the trees or something she thought to herself. She didn’t want to go after him. She turned and walked back home, feeling weak in her knees. She suddenly missed him and wanted to see him again. She almost turned back, but then she told herself it wasn’t right and walked on home.
She wasn’t herself for the rest of the day. She was very distracted. She didn’t want Mishti to bother her so she put on her favorite DVD and let her watch TV for the rest of the morning.
Later in the morning she got dressed and went to meet Adila’s mother. Adila’s mother, Naisha, was very happy to see Ria and little Mishti. She fussed over the little girl. Ria took an instant liking towards Adila’s daughter. She was very cute and had black curls just like her mother and had huge eyes with sweeping eye lashes.
“Aunty I am so sorry to hear about uncle”, said Ria holding Naisha’s hand. Naisha took a deep breath as tears welled up in her eyes. “Oh aunty please. Don’t do this to yourself. Uncle was a very good man. That is why God wanted him with him as soon as possible”, she said hoping that would comfort Naisha. Adila sat beside her mother and hugged her. “We got to move on mom”, she said handing a cup of hot tea to both her mother and to Ria. Naisha wiped her eyes and smiled at the girls. “Look at you two, you were two little girls stealing sugar from my kitchen and now you have kids yourselves. The days just fly by”, she said sipping her tea.
Ria had lunch with them. Mishti was very shy at first, but when she saw the toys lying there on the floor, she slowly got down from Ria’s lap and started playing with them. She saw Adila’s daughter and told Ria, “Ma, baby”. She stroked her head and said, “Why don’t you ask baby what’s her name?’. “What’s your name?”, Mishti asked. The little girl smiled at Mishti and clapped her hands. “Baby’s name is Laila”, said Adila. Mishti looked up at Ria as if wanting a confirmation. “Go on, play with Laila”, said Ria.
Towards evening Ria took leave from them and carried a reluctant Mishti back home. “Mama I want to play with baby”, she said. “If she is a baby, then what are you?”, asked Ria playfully. “I am Didi (elder sister). She is two years old. I am three”, she said with an air of importance. Ria laughed. “You will be three after 2 months”.
She played with Mishti for the rest of the evening and fed her some dinner and sent her to bed very early. She hadn’t had her afternoon nap and Ria didn’t want to exert Mishti even though she had shown no signs of sickness. That was a miracle thought Ria. Couple of days ago she was so sick and was barely able to sit up on her bed and today she was all fit and fine.
The time was half past seven in the evening. Ria too had an early dinner and sat out on the porch sipping hot tea. She like to have a cup of hot tea or coffee after her meals. She thought she saw someone by the gate. She put her cup down and walked towards the gate. There he was , a silent silhouette lurking in the shadows of the night.
“Sanju?”, she called out. He was there alright. He had his old bicycle with him which gleamed in the dark.
“What are you doing here?”, she asked wondering if she should call him inside. She felt her knees go weak again. “Do you want to come in?”, she asked. She still couldn’t see his face clearly. It was pretty dark outside.
“Ria come”, he said.
Ria frowned. “Come where?”, she asked.
“With me”, he repeated. “Where to Sanju?”, she asked again. She thought she heard him sob. She looked down for a moment as she fidgeted with the gate’s latch, she then threw open the gate and he was gone again. She couldn’t believe her eyes. There was no way he could’ve hidden himself. Though there were lots of trees around, he couldn’t have possibly hidden himself that fast. She felt sad within her. She wanted to see him again. She walked out of the gate looking for him. He was nowhere to be seen. She went back into the house and checked on Mishti who was fast asleep.
She sat on the bed biting her nails. She looked out of the window which faced the street behind her house. She lay down beside Mishti and was asleep in no time. This time she slept dreamlessly.