These days the afternoons are getting warmer. It is the middle of February. Three months of summer looms ahead—heat, with its chafing slowness, a snail’s pace. The prickly wetness and burning shadows, the dragon-like breaths of fire.
The thing about summer is the mangoes. They will be everywhere. Just like the sweat, day and night.
The afternoons are lazy too, so lazy that nothing is expected to happen. Lunch done, I sag into my chair. The fan is noisy. This is exactly the time a surprise can happen. And it does. Just that it is twenty years in the making.
A blood-red envelope lands on my desk along with the day’s mail. THE blood-red envelope. The same type of envelope, made of rough handmade paper. Just like it was years ago. You might remember me writing about it last year.
Wow. I didn’t see this coming. Most of the time, we don’t. Take for instance what happened today morning. When I reached office, I saw a small group of people in the compound next door. Strangers, bare-chested and lungi-clad. Couple more up in the giant mango tree, perched on the branches that spread-eagle into the adjacent compounds. The tree is more than a hundred years old, its trunk wrought with age, its leaves a shade greener than the usual. They are cutting it down, I realise, pruning the branches first, a calculated decimation. The plot has new owners: they dismantled the old tile-roof house first and now it’s the turn of the mango tree. The men are still at it, I can hear the electric saws doing their work—the persistent bite of steel, branches crashing down.
The envelope has arrived a day early. The postmark is faint, I cannot make out where it has come from. Somewhere in India. Whoever sent it expected it to reach me on Valentine’s Day. The postal system has let someone down.
The address is in capitals, written with a black sketch-pen, just like years ago. The handwriting has changed a little bit, in a mature way. It is amazing what the years can do to one’s handwriting: the slant of the alphabets now more pronounced, the dots and crosses surer than the recklessness of one’s youth. Gone is the flourish that I remember.
I retreat to the pantry. Lunch is over; everyone’s back at work. It is now populated by a multitude of food odours—curry, pickles, biriyani—an epilogue from everyone’s lunch-box. I switch on the exhaust-fan and settle down. The sun is curious, the beams of light bright inside the kitchen. One of them lands on the water dispenser, turning it into a vessel of molten.
I tear the envelope open and all the years just pour out into my lap. The Pooh Bear monogrammed single page greeting card, almost the same in design. Somebody has gone a great length to preserve things close to original.
Whoever it is hasn’t grown up, at least with respect to the card episode. If it’s someone continuing to play the prank, it is too remarkable. If it is the real thing, it is a teen-aged love that refuses to grow up. A blip in time sealed away in a red envelope. It’s how memory fights against the waking world. A delusion that the march of time can be stopped. For we must not forget a better world as we knew it.
This handwriting is remembrance imprisoned in strokes of ink.
The writing is in lower-case. Apprehension flutters within—a flurry of feathers tumbling gently in silence. The world has stopped breathing. A tremble—I am both in the past and the present, a transit zone. Being nowhere. Strange, but I want this feeling to last.
I know this is crazy.
So you finally put that story online, didn’t you?! Now, what do I say? I admit it made interesting reading; I found some of the comments hilarious too. Really glad people didn’t play detective then! How long would it have taken to find out anyway?
It wasn’t a prank at all. Trust me. You will be glad that part is settled.
Who am I? Something tells me it is not the pertinent question. We should bother more about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of it.
I remember you were always the one in love with the idea of love. It didn’t take much to read that side of you. For you, it was always about the feeling, isn’t it, the head in the clouds, as they say? You can write about it. But does love really find its way to you like that? As in the books, the movies you see? I know this—there’s nothing wrong in wanting things to happen the way you like; but then, you will miss things just because they don’t appear the way you expect. You missed seeing me.
You are bright, you know things. The sensitive one, as I used to know. You can write about what we all feel but you fail to understand it in your own case. It must be the bane of those who write? Is it that you miss the obvious because you see things so closely? Or is it that you do see, but you somehow think it is not IT because it can’t be that easy to get? Is it the pursuit that interests you, the idea of love that flits ahead of you, out of reach? I knew you had missed seeing me. That is a pain I have since understood.
I will always love you. God, no, not in the ‘butterflies’ sense. But I wish I had some kind of clue to tell me that you noticed me then. You write stories, so you might make this into another story of yours. But that is OK, I can live with that. At least, I will feel noticed when you mention me in your stories.
The other day, my daughter asked me why I keep some yellowing sheets of paper in an old jewellery box. She is fascinated by the thick red velvet that covers the box. The sheets of paper – they are your writing from so long ago, for the college wall-magazine. Do you remember that, my dear? Everybody read you then and I would wait a week for everyone to finish. I removed and hid the pages inside my journal. For the longest time now, they have remained with me. I read them now and then. You know what? I always thought you would catch me stealing those articles! You had all of three years to do that. But you never noticed them go missing, right? I guess you were done with them the moment you posted them — you lost interest. You lose interest so soon. What others consider precious doesn’t seem to have a grip on you. Such things are lost on you. I wonder what it is you would consider precious in this entire world. But again, that is what I like so much about you. This world cannot own you.
You are still young in these pages. Somebody told me about your blog last year and that you do still write; that is how I read your Valentine piece. But I prefer what you wrote long ago. These yellowing pages are so imbued with you. I keep them in the jewelery box because they are my most precious things. This is what I told my daughter. Someday, she will understand. Women do, they are good at it.
Who is this woman?
This woman who gently pushes the truth towards me as if it were a cup of coffee? She sits across the table relaxed in her knowledge of me, eyeing me with a half smile. She hasn’t written an unpleasant word anywhere. How does she reach across the years with this note and unsettle me? Keep me in her thoughts for 20 years, all the while silent and then shaming me with the truth? And it stings hard because I know she doesn’t intend one bit of harm. There is nothing deliberate here. Just the truth.
I wish something would give way in the letter, a random word colluding with my wish for the mystery to unravel itself. This mysterious woman, who I know in a sense but don’t know at all. Is this why I have always felt that I have known love, this intensity of hers carrying me places, being my greatest strength unknowingly? To realize that I never quite known it; something that pleases me enormously yet at the same time pains me much. Is this how love humbles?
Maybe this is the truth I needed to know. She wants me to know that I am truly loved, that I can say I have known it. And now she will know that I know. This story is the only way I can tell her that.
PS: I am including one of those pages from long ago. It belongs to you, anyways.
I look at the attached sheet of paper; it’s almost a parchment, heavy with the years it carries. It is a ten-line poem I had written back then; inspired by the sight of a solitary girl who walks to the bus-stop from college in the evening, lost in her thoughts.