I Saw the Sign
I watched Vijay walk out of the Arrivals terminal, unaware of my presence. His dark brown hair glinted in the harsh airport lights and he was simply dressed in a blue long-sleeved shirt and a pair of black pants – one of the three decent pairs that he possessed. He slid along gracefully, almost gliding and as always, he gave me the distinct impression of being a giraffe on skates, but one who had been practising with great dedication for years for some sort of championship. He looked like he was just out of college – the one and only thing that he had ever displayed any sort of vanity about.
It was only because I was observing him closely that I noted that as usual, his brown eyes were not steady but shifting about at lightning speed. He had once told me that the reason he was able to drive so well was that his eyes were never still and he was constantly looking about all over the place and was very aware of his surroundings. Of course, I started calling him shifty-eyes after that, although this rapid eye movement was barely perceptible to the naked eye of other mortals. Sure enough, those shifty eyes now cut through the colourful confusion of the airport and settled on me, even though he hadn’t been expecting me. He smiled and raised his hand slightly in a cautious wave. Unlike me, he was always wary of public displays of affection. Still, for me, that little wave was sufficient to cause another tiny skip in the cardiac region and I hurried towards him.
‘What?’ I asked warily.
‘Nothing. I was just wondering if you’ve thought about it some more.’
I started to observe the scenery outside the window and said coldly, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
I knew exactly what he was talking about. And he knew that I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew. This was getting slightly complex, so I was glad when he cut into my thoughts with ‘Oh come on, honey. How much do you think we’ll be able to put it off anyway?’
This was too much. ‘You’re rushing me, Vijay. It’s too soon for anyone to make such a big decision.’
‘Arrey! But I’ve decided, na? I want to marry you only. So why would it take you much longer?’
‘Because ... I’m just not ready.’ ‘And when will you be ready?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I said honestly.
‘What do you mean you don’t know? And how will you know you’re ready, by the way?’
I decided to adlib. ‘It’s one of those things, Vijay. You just know. I’m sure I’ll just know. But please give me time.’ I preempted his next question with ‘At least a few more months, maybe one year.’
His face fell. I knew that this would be tough for him to digest, but I had to buy myself more time. A year wasn’t that long. I heard him mutter, half to himself, ‘I love you but I’m not really sure I want to marry you ... I don’t understand this thinking ... is it supposed to be very modern or something ... aaj kal ki ladkiyan ...’
Sometimes Vijay acted like he was not only from another planet but another generation altogether. This only served to strengthen my resolve that I would wait for a long time before making any sort of commitment.
He stopped talking about it, clearly having decided not to pursue the matter any further. Instead, he rolled down his window and produced a cigarette. I watched incredulously as he lit up in front of me, knowing fully well that I absolutely abhorred his smoking. I decided to give him the royal ignore, which would probably have worked well if he hadn’t started giving it to me first, and turned away from him to look out the window. The taxi was crawling along in the traffic – it would have been quicker to walk.
As we sat there in a moody, smoky silence, I thought bitterly that maybe it would even take two years before I knew I was ready.
Three months had clearly not been enough, in any case. My mind began to wander over the various small incidents that had taken place over the past few months.
Unlike Vijay’s pretence of being some sort of champion solo drummer in college in a lame bid to impress me, I had always let him see the real me. Take it or leave it types.
The only time I had stretched the truth slightly was one morning when he said that he had to go out for a haircut. Since we were at that happy lover’s stage where every minute apart is seen as a minute wasted, I told him that I was great at cutting people’s hair.
‘Really?’ he asked and I replied that I had been quite the lady in demand when it came to haircuts in my earlier days.
What I omitted to mention to him was that I had been in demand one day when I was ten years old – and that it was only my mother who was demanding to know where I was hiding, after a rather unfortunate haircut that I had given my younger sister. The result had come out rather uneven, although I stoutly maintained that I had intended it that way and that I quite liked it. As I had crouched in the cupboard of my room, listening to my little sister’s inconsolable wailing and my mother shouting for me, I had understood even at that early age, that I was destined to be something of a misunderstood genius.
After hearing about my supposed expertise with the scissors, Vijay eagerly asked me to give him a cool haircut. I said, with an appealing combination of generosity and modesty, ‘Sure, why not?’
He sat on a tall stool in the bathroom and I assumed a professional stance behind him. He was gazing into the mirror so I didn’t dare to touch the front much, but I snipped away happily at the back, pausing to admire the effect now and then. I gave him an attractive series of about five steps on the back of his head. He couldn’t see it, but when he reached back to touch it, he said it ‘felt nice’ and that he had never had this kind of haircut before.
Our different temperaments also resulted in many fights. Given his tendency to make silly wisecracks and say whatever he felt like all the time, I often flared up about something that he did or said.
At the time, Vijay’s elder brother Ajay and his wife Garima were living with Vijay and I got along well with them. They had been witnesses to quite a few of our fights, which usually ended in my flouncing out of the house. I discovered that they usually took my side, especially Ajay, who would always explain to Vijay, ‘Tu bada hain. Tujhe samajhna chahiye.’ Quite sweet of him, I thought, and my heart would warm to Ajay when Vijay reported this to me.
One late night, Garima found Vijay sitting on the balcony of the flat, staring forlornly at the children’s playground below. When she asked what he was doing, he pointed to a lone figure sitting on one of the children’s swings and said, ‘Yashodhara. She’s angry with me again.’
Garima breathed, ‘Oh how sweeeeet.’ Vijay stared at her in incredulous annoyance. It was anything but sweet, according to him.
It had all started with a casual remark he made about one of my favourite kurtas – an ethnic looking black-and-yellow long-sleeved, beaded number that I often wore with my jeans. I had always been under the impression that I looked really cool in it, but Vijay had lovingly asked me, with no small degree of interest, while toying with the beads, ‘Tell me, na – why do you always wear this Hare-Rama-Hare- Krishna kind of stuff?’
It was all downhill from there and ended with my walking out of the house in a huff.
Not having any place to go so late at night, I headed to the playground, thinking that I would console myself with a little swing. A few minutes passed and I was sniffing and feeling very sorry for myself when Vijay suddenly materialized out of the black night, holding two Orange Bar ice lollies, one of which he held out to me. I took it without a word and he sat on the swing next to me with the other ice lolly, saying, ‘Garima said we fight like kids, so we should make up like kids too.’ We ate our ice lollies on the swings in philosophical silence and went back upstairs after a while.
He rarely lost his composure. Only once, when I had started getting upset about some small thing, he had announced, ‘I’m telling you, I don’t know how to deal with such tamper tentrums.’ It was then that I discovered his tendency to lose his already tenuous command over the English language in moments of high emotion. He kept repeating the phrase ‘tamper tentrums’, obviously not spotting any flaw in it, until I finally melted and broke down in a fit of laughter. He thought I had lost it until I breathlessly explained to him why I was laughing. Thereafter, we often used the words ‘tamper tentrum’ to
As our taxi pulled to a stop, I briefly debated with myself whether to try and use this phrase to lighten the mood, but decided against it. The blatant smoking in my face was really the limit. Maybe, I thought as I moodily slammed the cab door behind me and stomped towards his flat, it would take me three years to decide. Who knew?
We had a quiet dinner at his place with Ajay and Garima. We routed most of our conversation through that hapless couple, addressing each other only a few times with exaggerated and dangerous politeness. Once in our room, we simply turned our backs on each other. I was only pretending to be asleep – I really wanted to talk to him and make up but just as I finally turned around to do so, he let out a gentle snore. I tried to shake him awake and whispered with increasing loudness, ‘Vijay. VIJAY!’ but he was out like a light. Irritated, I turned my back on him again and grumbling to myself, tried to go to sleep. It took me a long time.
I woke up late the next morning, the bright sunlight hurting my eyes. I licked my dry lips and realized that I was feeling very sick. It was probably my lunch of leftover Maggi and chips the previous day that had done me in, because my stomach was hurting terribly and I felt nauseous and weak.
This was the first occasion in the past few months that I had fallen sick and so I had not yet discovered Vijay’s weakness for tending to the sick. He immediately forgot all about our differences of the previous day and started to fuss over me in a way that even my mother had never done.
He asked me whether I wanted to eat something and I replied in the negative – I was feeling too sick and didn’t think I would be able to keep anything down.
It was kind of cute at first, but then it started to get a bit out of hand. I insisted that all I wanted to do was go to sleep, but he kept fussing over me and suggesting that I eat or drink this or that and started measuring my temperature at fifteen- minute intervals. I just lay in bed with a thermometer in my mouth, while he pottered about with an enthusiasm that he had hitherto not displayed. To my horror, he even declared that he was planning to take off from work the next day – Monday – in order to nurse me back to perfect health.
He kept coming up with new and inventive ways to fuss, but it was clearly in the matter of nourishment that he felt he had found his specialization because he kept offering me all the food and drink in the house, until I finally agreed that maybe I would try something after all.
Thrilled by this first sign of success, he made me drink a huge mug of chocolate milk, reasoning that ‘milk is generally good for health’ and ‘even if you don’t eat something, it’s important for you to drink and keep your fluid levels right.’
My condition showed no visible improvement. In fact, my stomach felt significantly worse after the milk, leaving me groaning and clutching my belly in agony – until he made me sit up in bed and consume a large bowl of papaya. ‘I know papaya is really good for the tummy, my mother said so.’ Against my better judgment, I somehow gulped down the pulpy fruit. I had never liked papaya and now started to feel even more queasy.
‘You’re feeling queasy?’ He had the remedy for this too. He grated some ginger and asked me to chew on it, assuring me that this would make me feel better instantly. If there was anything I disliked more than papaya, it was the taste of ginger, but I was too weak to protest and began to chew on it with an air of resignation.
Then I caught sight of Vijay in the mirror. He was gazing at the back of my head, still stroking my hair affectionately and muttering in self-reproach, ‘Oh yaar ... it’s my fault ... I should have added some lemon juice to the ginger. That would have worked ... come on, I’ll make you some nimbu paani, okay?’
It was then, at that exact moment, that I knew.
I drew in a deep breath and my words came out with the slow exhalation. ‘Okay ... let’s do it.’
‘Okay?’ he said with the same undue enthusiasm. ‘Okay, you wait, I’ll get it ...’
‘NOT the nimbu paani, you dumbo ...’ I hissed. ‘Okay, as in ... okay, let’s just get married.’
***End of Chapter***
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