A routine day at the office turns around due to a chance encounter in the bus.
He woke up with a start.
Trying to make sense of his surroundings, he grappled to reach for the throbbing, painful central portion of his back, where an almost hammer-like force had jolted him out of his deep sleep. But in vain. His hand was well and truly stuck, high above his head, wedged in place because of the stubbly, well-dressed, taller (AND fragrant!) youth on his right and the swarthy looking, heavily sweating but equally tall 50 year old on his left. The smell of Navratna Tel from the 5-foot-5-ish guy in front of him had already scalded the pepper-white hair inside his nose, and as such the dragon-fire exhalation of the person behind him on his right-ear gave him uneasy chills from time to time.
His confused mind took a second more to realize that he was in the crowdiest local train, on a Monday, going to work. Yes, on a Monday!
He knew that trying to find the source of the blow would be an exercise in futility. Wiping the condensed droplets of sweat off his nose with the folded sleeve of his shirt, he instead tried to re-wedge his chin inside the L of his elbow and engineer a makeshift support for his drooping head. Hardly noticing the tingly feel of his half-week old stubble, he tried to recapture his lost uneasy sleep.
He could feel the soft touch of an arid breeze on the bald top-most portion of his exposed head. He could slightly recognize the far-away sounding lyrics of the song emanating from the headphones of the boy on the right. Head still slung over his bicep, he opened one blood-shot eye to give the nuisance-creator a dirty look, catching instead a glimpse of his (well-built?) shoulder. Violently pushing air out of his nose, he re-tried concentrating on the weird shapes forming inside his eye-lids.
He could have sworn he saw a barren, claustrophobic wonderland, filled with long swarthy faces he could vaguely remember, swaying rhythmically to a song he could almost make out, when he was jounced to his heels by the force of a 1000HP strong male force from behind him. Before he even realised what was happening around him, he was stumbling with queasy legs onto Pf No. 3 at his destination.
Still swaying arhythmically, more out of inertia, he unhooked his bag from his chest and swung it around like a dupatta, draping it habitually on his back. The air around him still smelled heavily of sweat, industrial gas, piss and mogra (probably from the nearby ladies compartment), but still, his nose was more inclined towards enticing him to eat at the world's most unhygienic, but equally lip-smacking samosa stall at the platform.
Averting his eyes from the friendly baniya with a greased checked shirt at the front counter of the samosa stall, he continued onto the unevenly paved platform towards the foot-overbridge. Moving apace with the thousands, no, millions of others on that same overbridge like some human-skittles assembly line, he strained to catch a glimpse over their shoulders towards the bus stop for any signs of a bright paan-stain colored bus.
What happened next did not surprise him at all.
The bus left in front of his very eyes!
Exhaling deeply, and cursing under his breath, he carried on with a loiterous pace and got in line for the next bus. Since the just departed red soul-crusher had been able to pick up only about 10% of the waiting populace, leaving in its wake a serpentine coiling mass of flesh and sweat, he felt relieved that at least he had pre-compensated for this misfortune by arriving early.
After what felt like 3 hours (but were really 20 minutes), he ambled reluctantly into the overcrowded bus. Quashing his 35-year-old (which felt and looked 50-year-old) body in between a pudgy woman and an untidy man, he had a strange sense of dvu when he was struck again on the back. Rubbing the throbbing wound earnestly, he turned around to obliterate the perpetrator, on that very spot, with his much feared (or so he thought) murderous gaze. On finding a lithe young woman, with an almost revoltingly meaty middle-school kid, gazing apologetically back at him, his anger evaporated, and he turned around sheepishly, determined to finish his sleep-task once and for all. Trying to balance his weight as best as he could, but instead almost toppling over the pudgy woman, the untidy man and the meaty kid AND his lithe mother, all at the same time, he gave up all resolve of his sleep-dream, and instead tried to concentrate on evenly distributing his substantial weight on two very tired legs.
With blood-red eyes, still drowsy with early morning misery, he scanned his surroundings, barely able to focus on a single object. He could see the conductor struggling against the mass of bodies on all sides, trying to ascertain which riders he missed. The vague cackle of early morning traffic felt like a shadowy silhouette inside the balmy compartment of the overcrowded people carrier. He tried scanning for a seat, almost reluctantly, as in his almost 15-year long association with this route, he had barely managed to climb on a bus that was less than 150% full.
That was when he say her. Or so he thought.
Her perfectly symmetrical hair were tucked nicely into a single braided ponytail, and a semi-circular patch of olive white skin, complete with a raisin black mole, radiated light from all sides of it. An identical set of dark white wires disappeared inside the cleft of each curvy ear, and her head rocked periodically to what he imagined was the same song whose lyrics he had forgotten. He could vaguely make out the dark red, flower printed Punjabi kurti draped around one of her shoulder.
Even from this angle, he did recognize her.
But he had to be sure.
When he first saw her, a bolt of white electricity had passed from the tip of his tailbone to the extremity of his scalp, and he momentarily felt half suspended 10 inches off the ground. It took him an entire second to recover from the shock and another second to regain his balance, and just as well.
With wide eyed disbelief, he counted the no. of rows between him and her (1..2..3..4). By this time, his eyes had acquired a sense of tunnel vision, focusing entirely on those criss-crossing braids, oblivious to the incensed queue of people getting off the bus. He saw a window of opportunity, and joined the crowd to move 1,2,3,4,5 rows ahead of his original position. There he squeezed in-between a quarrelsome looking aunty and her equally wary looking husband, trying to ascertain the most unsuspecting position where he could erase his suspicions.
Glancing both sides a couple of times to make sure no one was taking any interest in him (the quarrelsome woman had taken up a challenge with a scared looking middle-aged man-child), he twitched his neck sideways just a little, trying to capture the image of her face from the corner of his eye. All pretense of sleep had left his body the moment he had seen her, replacing it with cat-like senses fueled by curious adrenaline. He got a good look at the woman by the window, a dusky teenager intent on the world outside. But he couldn't see her yet. He muttered silently under his breathe, and did a full gymnastic twist of his waist.
She was looking out the window. Her light magenta bindi, perched perfectly between two arches of flawless magnificence, complemented the shade of her lipstick. Her cleft chin gave a certain kind of uniqueness to her features, which lit up brightly when she radiated with happiness. Her semi-straight, semi-curvy hair fell idly on her bosom, periodically dancing to the tunes of the passing breeze. But what he liked about her the most, ever since he met her, were her eyes, which were peering absently out of the window.
For him, she was the dictionary definition of perfection.
For that moment, it felt as if the world had gone dark around them, the years had rolled back, and here they were, just she and him. In that smoky dark haze that had engulfed them, and separated them from this world, he could sense a certain degree of heat emanate from that moment. He could sense a strong sense of magnetism pulling them together, like flies to a bulb. The urge to call out to her, talk to her, hold her, was too great for him.
When her gaze shifted, and she locked eyes with him, his moment of joy turned into utter despair and his heart skipped a beat.
She had not recognized him.
She had momentarily paused when she saw him, analyzing him with curiosity, trying to place him. But in the end, with a slight twitching of one eyebrow (how he loved her when she did that!), she had dismissed him completely to continue gazing out the window.
He hardly had time to assess anything, or to react, as the milling crowd around him half-carried him out of the bus. The acrid plumes of the passing bus burned his eyes, trying to erase her image. Dazed, shaken and still trying to comprehend what had happened, he stood rooted to the spot.
The crowd around him jolted him to his senses, and he continued walking onwards dispiritedly.
By the time he reached the hallowed gates of his office, he had sweated almost 3 liters of body-water and lost calibration with the inner gyroscope of his body. Oblivious and lost in thought, he ambled heavily along the gravel path, reached the elevator lobby, and pressed the UP button. A cold sweat had started waterfalling down him shirt, but his hands had gone rigid, like his mind.
As he ambled in a straight line inside the elevator, he felt the strongest urge to shout at the top of his voice. To cry out, to scream. Scream so loud that the inner side of his throat would fall out. Instead, he just stood there silently inside the elevator cube, along with the other granite faced human colleagues besides him.
He got off at the top-most floor.
He turned right below the sign indicating "GYM". Although he had started coming here with regularity for the past month or so, it was still incredibly painful to climb up top and go there. It was all very blurry to him, but in the last few years or so, his favourite hobby of binging with crisps and chocolate on his comfy sofa had finally caught up with him, converting him into a flabby, gassy uneven mass of fat. He was quiet oblivious to the fatness of his body, but that changed one fine day. He had stayed at a 3-star hotel during a client meeting, and the hotel bathroom had a human sized mirror. He had stared for the entirety of his 20-odd minute bath at his naked form, each second hating himself for what he had become. After returning, he had started on a semi-strict gym regime and never looked back.
Today, it was especially difficult. For any random observer, he seemed as normal as any other human. The expressions on his face were those any regular office-goer, struggling with the "Monday Blues".
But, his mind had completely come unhinged.
It was as if some imaginary mental floodgates had finally been thrown open, and it had forced out some deep, long supressed emotions that he never knew existed. Thoughts and memories started churning a cauldron full of vile inside his head. His face was set, almost composed, but his eyes had taken up a completely vacant look.
With shaky hands, he fidgeted in his bag to find his gym wear, and changed into them with mixed results, wearing a sock backwards and his pants inside out. He was afraid of looking at himself in the mirror, looking at his own expression staring back at him. He felt tired, both mentally and physically, but he was too lost to acknowledge that.
Picking up his small sized sweat towel, he entered the gym's cardio area.
The office gym had recently opened, and as such, it had a strangely pleasant smell this early in the morning. Today, that same atmosphere seemed suffocating, almost toxic. His vision had taken a strangely blurred fish-eyed view, and he was hardly trying to fix that. He avoided looking at the mirror, instead facing the other way.
Taking deep breathes; he proceeded with the warm-up routine. Stretching his legs, then raising his hands high above his head, he dived towards his feet, with his fingers touching unto the edge of his toes and held that position. When his back started hurting, he pulled his body up. As his eyes refocused, he could not believe what he was seeing.
The gym was replaced by a classroom full of schoolkids. A classroom from HIS school.
He could see rows and rows of benches, with girls on the right and boys on the left. In spite of the hundreds of students, his eyes found him sitting at the third last bench, fake scribbling something on his notebook. With pitch-black, oily, spiky hair and an untidy white shirt, he looked as unlike himself as ever. He shielded the gaze of his bench-mate by keeping one side up of the book, and the shy smile on his face gave little away as to what he was up to.
Every now and then, he would take cover behind his book-shield, and peer at the girl sitting diagonally across him. The girl who had caught his fancy.
Even then, she was incredibly beautiful. Blue pleated skirt with white blouse, short school-approved hairstyle. Sitting in rapt attention, her hand supporting her head, concentrating on the teacher.
Making sure that his teacher was busy scrubbing the board, he hissed at her stealthily from behind his barricaded safe-spot, to which she would just tilt her head ever so slightly to her left and glance absently at him.
For a second, their eyes met.
At that moment, he was himself, many many years back, sitting on that desk, looking at what he considered the love of his life, enjoying a moment of bliss that only innocent love could bring. At that moment, everything seemed perfect, everything seemed possible, and he could swear he felt himself lift 2-inches off the ground.
And suddenly, like the popping of a giant bubble, he was back in the gym, staring at the shoulder press machine.
Sweating profusely, he looked around, wiping his face on his towel. The beefy youngster on the bench besides him was looking at him suspiciously.
Trying to gain a semblance of control over his actions, he walked around the gym, trying to gather his thoughts. But no matter how hard he tried, memories flowed like a dreamy slide-show through his mind's inner eye.
He went to the water cooler to take a sip of water. Filling the stainless steel glass with lukewarm water, he looked around. People were going about their regular exercise routines, the gym trainer was counselling a new joinee by the desk, and the janitor was sweeping at the far side. Everything felt like it was happening in slow motion.
Alternately, memories from the past kept popping up in front of him, as he took a sip of water.
He could see himself standing on tiptoe, stealthily pushing a crumpled piece of paper through the window to the girl sitting on the other side, and then waiting patiently until her face popped out of the open door, inquiringly. He would beckon her closer to him, and when she did, plant a kiss on her cheek and run away.
He took another sip of water.
He could see a girl and a boy in their early teens, squatting side by side on the floor with a book on each of their lap, fake listening to their tuition teacher, and secretly holding hands behind their backs.
Now they were sitting on the fence separating the school playground with the main road, with a single earphone in each of their ears. He held her tight, protecting her from the deadly looking fall on both sides, as she listened intently between bursts of laughter.
Now in their late teens, it was obvious from their posture that something is wrong. She was standing, arms folded, facing away from him as he stood there passively. A tear ran down her cheek as she took one step away from him.
With a deep sense of resignation, he took two steps ahead, turned her around, wiped her tears with one hand and inserted the other inside his pocket. From in there, he fished out a rectangular cardboard box, took out a metallic ring (fashioned out of an old keychain), went down on his knee, and held it out.
Her expression changed from that of despair to utter disbelief, and then unbridled happiness. Vigorously nodding her head, she had flung herself on top of him, toppling him over.
They had kissed, for what seemed like an eternity, lost in that blissful moment, as one.
He kept the glass back on the pedestal and walked back towards the cardio area. Memories he can't remember existing were tormenting his mind, and he felt a little bit dizzy. A part of his mind told him to stop, to rest, do anything but walk.
But he had become completely robotic by now, following instructions from corners of his mind he had no control over.
Absentmindedly, he went towards the treadmill, perched perfectly symmetrically before the mirror. He climbed onto the machine, and looked at the mirror for the first time that day.
What he saw knocked the breathe out of his lungs.
Standing in front of him was a handsome, bearded, athletic 23 year old; staring back at him.
And he seemed oddly familiar.
His reflection in the mirror, from all these years back, oozed confidence. The beard brilliantly complimented the neatly parted man-bun on top, giving him the look of a greek-god. Instead of loosely hanging by his side, his shirt perfectly accentuated the hours and hours of hard work spent on the college ground and swimming pool, with forearms popping out like lamb-chops out of his shirt sockets. His eyes sparkled with life, a spark he never thought existed before today.
A mechanical whirring informed his mute ears that the machine had started. His hands automatically moved towards the speed knob, increasing the pace with his thumb.
As he started to walk, the 23-year-old reflection of him also started walking, with a casual smile on his face that seemed to mock the 35-year-old.
Feeling a pang of guilt, he closed his eyes.
Almost on cue, the images started flooding back to his mind.
He was angry, almost fuming. He could feel the adrenaline rush that comes only due to an unbridled rage that had fully engulfed him, and he was pacing almost menacingly towards the girl with the perfectly symmetrical, unbraided ponytail, that he so hated (loved?).
'Why couldn't she understand that this is important for me?'
Catching up with her, he caught hold of her hand, and violently turned her around. Seeing the utter distress in her eyes, his rage softened, but his resolve didn't. Twisting his hand vigorously, she turned around, and was gone in a second.
He started to jog lightly, as the numbers on the speedometer kept increasing.
He was desperately searching for something (someone). As he dodged the increasing crowd of people on the outstation platform, he peered inside the train for signs of her. A cold sweat had started spreading on his brow, as he looked from one window into another. The barrage of passengers constantly kept bursting out of nowhere, and he kept pushing them away.
Just when he had lost all hope, he saw her face, sitting on the other side, looking out the window, and with relief spreading throughout his veins, he caught hold of the door of the just departing train.
The machine croaked at a solid 6 km/hr, as his thumb kept pressing on the UP button.
Zooming along in the taxi, he held his bag closer to his chest, as he tried hard to suppress the feeling of foreboding. The moment that he had been preparing for more than a year was finally here, and he could hardly sit straight. His phone was ringing, for like the 20th time, and he kept rejecting it.
He switched off his phone, and stuffed it deep inside his bag, as his taxi reached drop-off point of the airport.
The trainer at the gym gave a mildly curious look at the guy on treadmill 3 from his desk, as the beeping from the machine indicated that it had reached well beyond 7 km/hr.
He unloaded his luggage from the taxi. Paying the taxi driver hurriedly, he wheeled his substantial luggage towards the airport entrance. As the gates of the airport loomed large in front of him, his legs suddenly felt heavy. He felt immensely tired, as the enormity of the situation finally dawned on him. His eyes suddenly filled up with tears.
7.5.......7.7..... 8 km/hr...
Taking the first right, as instructed, he wheeled his baggage towards the ticket booth. In the surrounding crowd, he felt small and insignificant, suddenly too scared to walk ahead. He tried to distract himself by looking at the scores of people walking all around him. He tried to soak in the ambience of the place, but that feeling of dread would just not go.
Still lost in thought, he collected his ticket, and went ahead towards immigration.
8... 8.5.....9 km/hr....
His heartbeat felt loud and erratic in his chest as he moved towards the moving walkway. The feeling of breathlessness was gripping his chest. Pools of sweat began to form everywhere on his shirt. He stepped on the walkway, and his legs almost gave way.
Holding onto the railings as if his life depended on him, he tried to concentrate on the cozy environment of the airport.
That was when he felt something.
Suddenly, he whirled around, almost instinctively, and saw her standing at the end of the walkway, holding onto the shirt, his shirt, that she so loved, the epitome of beauty, with tears swimming in her eyes. Her eyebrows were arched in agony and cheeks rose-red with sorrow. All his resolve, his dreams, his "grand plan" melted in that instance.
Turning around, he started running towards her, towards his love.
No matter how fast he ran, she kept inching further and further away. Grunting angrily, with all his might, he started running harder. He could see black spots and bright lights pop in front of his eyes, but he ignored them, instead concentrating on increasing his speed.
He almost lost his footing, not once, but many times, but he still ran. Ran for his life. His life that was standing just out of reach from him.
But this time, he could see her moving closer. Moving closer, ever so slowly.
He was used to running. Having been an excellent football player all his life, it was almost effortless for him. He could outrun even the state-level athletes of his college.
But today, things felt different.
He felt like an old man, hardly able to breathe. His heart rate had gone through the roof, but he still kept running, intent as he had never been on reaching her. And he was succeeding.
Closer. Although she had reached so close he could almost touch her if he raised his hand, she felt distant. As if she was on a far away galaxy. A different dimension, even.
Swearing loudly, trying to collect the last remaining ounce of energy in his chest, he reached out both hands, and gave a final lunge.
As his mind cleared, her image faded and he felt the felt the first pang of pain, a sudden realisation dawned on him.
It was too late.
Almost instantly, his eyes popped open.
Just before his heart stopped, and everything turned white, he saw the gym trainer, about a meter or so away, rushing to get close, but in vain. He could see his fellow colleagues, staring white faced, stunned in place. He saw the reading on the speedometer, which read a mind-boggling 23km/hr (Is that even possible?).
Just before his heart stopped, he saw his entire life story flash once more infront of his eyes, this time at a dizzyingly fast pace. He could see her, he could feel her. He tried to grab hold of those beautiful moments, only for them to pass along.
He also saw himself climb comfortably into the air-conditioned flight, happy and content, his mobile tucked securely inside his backpack.
Just before his heart stopped, his legs gave way. The side of his head crashed into the whirring machinery of the treadmill, his face caving in from the impact, his eyes poping out, his arms twisted above his head, his teeth clattered out of his gaping mouth as a pool of blood began to form.
Just before his heart stopped, he saw, for one last time, into those eyes, her eyes, that he loved so much.
He saw them smile, finally recognizing him.