Trees along the road brooded on their faint shadows as night drew nearer. Vish walked up to the door of Mr. and Mrs. Mehra’s house and knocked gently. A few seconds went by. His eyes wandered towards the doormat on which he had once spilled a cup of tea. Then the door opened.
“Ah, Mr. Engineer himself at last! Come on in, we were waiting for you,” Mrs. Mehra said as she almost dragged him inside. He stumbled into the living room. Mr. Mehra sat on the couch working intently. All the different parts of a watch lay in front of him in the exact positions they would be relative to each other when assembled. Vish had seen many watches in this state. As a kid he used to imagine the watches had started to explode but then frozen in place by some inexplicable force wielded by Mr. Mehra.
“Glad you remembered to say goodbye to your old aunt and uncle before you left son,” Mr. Mehra looked up and said, “taking the early morning train I hear?”
“Very good, you’ll do us all proud, I am certain of it. Just remember, hard work and discipline. These are…”
“Oh enough of your lectures,” Mrs. Mehra interrupted, “you’ve told him the same thing a million times! Let him sit at least,” she turned to Vish and continued while he pulled a chair, “Now, have you got everything packed? Enough Lentils? Oh you know what, I made some pickles for you, let me go get that, these days…” She continued speaking as she turned and walked to the kitchen, but her voice soon dissolved to an inaudible murmur. She had a habit of doing that; Vish wondered how much he had missed over the years.
A silence hung in the room. Mr. Mehra had gone back to fixing the watch. He really only knew how to talk in sermons, Vish realized. Suddenly, he remembered all the evenings spent in this room, just like this: Mr. Mehra working on a watch; him reading a book, playing guitar, or staring into nothingness. It was twelve years ago that he had walked in this house for the first time. Mrs. Mehra was his art teacher, and he was struggling with a painting. “Don’t you live just a few block away from my house?” she had said, “I’ll talk to your mother, come to my place after school today and we’ll see about this painting.” It was a moot question: everybody lived a few blocks away from her in this little town.
And then, suddenly, without warning, all the memories came rushing back. For a moment, he felt as if this was all part of a big misunderstanding, a grand joke. That school hadn’t ended, that he didn’t have to leave the next day. That tomorrow evening, he would walk past this house again and there would be Mrs. Mehra, pacing in her garden, admiring the flowers. “Vish, come on in, have tea with us!” she would shout, and he would jump over the gate, “Okay aunty, but I can only stay for half an hour. Mum wants me to do some errands, guests coming at home tonight. Is uncle inside?”—”Yes, yes, working on another watch, go on, I’ll join you guys there….”
And then it hit him that none of that was going to happen tomorrow, or the days after that. What would tomorrow bring? He knew he would be in the college dorm with other students. But that was the extent of his knowledge. Tomorrow was a large blank canvas with only a few outlines, broad strokes that offered no clear picture. In that moment, he realized that everything was changing, that the easy familiarity with which days, months, years had passed till now was over and of tomorrow, nothing was certain. Except that it wouldn’t have Mrs. Mehra’s tea, Mr. Mehra’s silent companionship, mum’s complaints, dad’s summons, friends’ calling for cricket despite blazing heat, lazy strolls in the park, samosas from Aggarwal’s shop, kites covering the sky in spring, the colors of Holi, the lights of Diwali—nothing would be the same.
He felt an emptiness grow in the pit of his stomach. What did he feel? Fear? Sadness? He couldn’t put a finger on it. And he did what we often do when faced with the first taste of a raw emotion: first he flinched, then, he looked away. In later years, he sometimes tried to remember this time, when he had first left his house. But as time passes, yesterday becomes as hazy as today had appeared when it was still tomorrow.
Mrs. Mehra walked back with a large box and disrupted the silence, “Here, enough pickles for six months,” she said and handed it to Vish. He stood up, holding back tears. It was growing dark outside. “One last cup of tea, aunty?” he said.
Mrs. Mehra smiled. “Of course.”
Vish walked back home. Night had fallen and the darkness was punctuated by streetlamps that created intricate shadow patterns. He saw his shadow multiply into many copies as he walked away from one lamp and then collapse back into a single entity when he got closer to the next one. He felt his emotions performing similar tricks. Last walk on this road, he would think. Then suddenly tell himself—of course you’ll walk on this road again, your parents are still here, aren’t they? And without a pause he would answer back—Yeah, but it wouldn’t be the same would it?
He walked like this for a while, feeling like an incompetent moderator in a discussion gone out of hand, till he saw the silhouette of a girl some distance away walking in his direction. He recognized her—he would from a million miles: it was Anita.
Anita! His first memory of her was being embarrassed by a flying kiss that he had sent her way in class, after having seen the hero of a movie do something similar the night before. Real life had turned out to be very different from the movie: the teacher had made him stand on the bench for the entire duration of the class. He was teased for months.
After that, he had kept a strict distance from her for a long while. As they grew older, and the memory of that terrible day faded, they slowly became friends. They were in the same class after all, and given that they lived very close, frequent trips to exchange homework or exam notes were inevitable. But all this time, he had always maintained a cool, almost business-like indifference to her. He wasn’t going to be embarrassed again.
It hadn’t been easy. Every time he saw her, he was filled with strange warmth—an unbearable happiness, some would say. He became very familiar with the colors of the grass in the school playground because he would have to look down whenever she talked to him to avoid staring at her face. He always stopped these conversations early using some pretext, afraid that she would notice that he did not want to stop talking to her ever. Later he would try to reconcile his feelings with strange logic. “Of course I am enamored by her,” he would say, “she is beautiful. Any boy my age would fall in love with her. So what’s special?” And so on. But every once a while, he would ask himself the question.
Did he love her?
Anita had reached him by now.
“Said all your goodbyes?” she said.
“Yeah yeah, only Mr. and Mrs. Mehra were left”, he said and looked down instinctively.
“Well, it looks you’re all ready to leave us then.” Anita said.
Did she seem happy at the thought? Or was there a pang of sadness in her voice?
“You’ll be leaving in two weeks as well, right?” he asked, looking up.
“Yup, starting college in Hyderabad. Very far away from you Mr. Vish!”
Was that good or bad? Should he ask for her phone number? Did she want him to?
“You coming back from the market?” he asked instead, noticing the small plastic bag she was carrying.
“Oh yes, resolving a little crisis at home”, she said carelessly swinging the bag, “we ran out of milk!”
“Oh! My mom had asked me to get milk too, glad I ran into you,” he said, suddenly anxious. “Good luck Anita, hope to run into you sometime” he added, and, without waiting for her reply, started to cross the road.
If he had the time, he would have thought about how abruptly he had ended his conversation. But the next few seconds went quickly, as if pressed together into putty. He thought he faintly heard Anita shouting, “Watch out Vish!” but the two headlights running into him took most of his attention. Next instant he found himself on the ground, and he heard the sound of several feet running towards him as consciousness left him.
He opened his eyes a little and the smell immediately told him he was in the hospital. He saw his mom in a chair next to his bed, apparently having dozed off. There was a cool breeze coming in from the window, dawn must have broken just now. He tried to get up but found he didn’t have the energy. He looked around. He could hear his dad talking to the doctor just outside the door. Other familiar voices came from further down the hall.
He noticed his room had a small glass window looking into the hall. On a bench, barely visible from the corner of the glass window, she sat. And like the shadows approaching a lamp, all the questions collapsed into one answer.