Lipika Dey

Unknown | 5/09/2014 |
The Waterfall

Five eventful years were about to come to an end. Batches were about to disperse, ready to take baby-steps into their career paths. Most of them would be flying abroad to join US Universities for a PhD degree. Few would be joining the Indian IT industry which had started making its mark on the global economy. Mila alone would be staying back here to join a Master’s program which she wished to convert to a PhD later. She wondered how it would be to stay back in this campus without her raucous batch-mates, without this group which had spent the larger part of the last year under this Banyan tree rather than in the classrooms. She was not strictly alone though. Rwik and Mila were planning to tie the knot in a short while. Rwik represented a generation of idealists - a patriot, a Marxist, a philosopher, a poet, an actor all rolled into that one serious frame. Mila was swept off her feet in their very first meeting at the Dramatics Club. Rwik admitted later that though he was swayed at the orientation function by this saree-clad, bespectacled girl with long hair, reciting Tagore, he had serious reservations about hobnobbing with a junior girl. So what if Tagore-reciting girls were a rarity in the Technology Institute. It simply did not go with his image. But then, Que Sera Sera, whatever will be, will be!

“Hey Grannie, where are you lost?”, Arko poked Mila. Arko was the proud author of this moniker for Mila since the time when both of them were in school at the steel township of Burnpur. Mila, the serious student who was also a teachers’ pet, was made fun of by Arko, the frolicking brat. Mila used to feel so much more mature than Arko and the other boys in her class that she happily conceded to this. 
Mila was still in a trance. Shabnam waved her hands in front of Mila’s face. “Mila, Arko’s latest passion is palmistry. We want to try him out. But he insists on starting with you, you know for obvious reasons,” Shabnam rolled her beautiful eyes which finally rested at Arko’s face, complete with a wistful look.
Mila, though dazed, was immediately dismissive - “Arko and palmistry! Why, he could not even master Linear Algebra in the last five years!” 

“That’s half-truth,” Arko protested. “That Sarkar fancied you and hence deprived me of marks. Anyway, life is a non-linear journey, in which Ms. Linear Algebras like you can hardly succeed. So just shut up and let me see what’s in store for you.” 

Without giving Mila any further opportunity to protest, Arko pulled Mila’s palms into his and peered over them with great attention. Mila protested. “Isn’t one palm enough?” Arko appeared to be deeply pensive, taking turns to press the mounds of Jupiter, Venus and Mercury on both the palms. He traced the heart and life lines with his finger. After a few more minutes of profound silence, Arko declared “Look Mila. I can see you will be blessed with job offers, wealth, love and children. However, I am sorry to see that you will never be able to go abroad. Please don’t mind, intellectual pursuits are also not for you. Not much by way of head-line there, all heart. Wish you a very happy and contented married life with at least half-a-dozen children.” The others applauded at the end of this performance. Mila, a bit downcast, tried to put on a brave face. “Of course, that was obvious, isn’t it? All of you are flying to US Universities for your PhDs. I shall be slogging it out here for a Masters. That was easy, isn’t it Arko? You fraud!”

Arko had not come to the airport to pick up Mila. Though it was a Saturday, he had booked a shuttle for her to travel from Toronto to London, where Arko stayed in a small apartment. Mila’s flight was delayed at Paris. The shuttle had already left by the time she landed. She had to wait at the airport for more than an hour before the next shuttle came. By the time she reached Arko’s apartment, it was almost dark. The main entry was locked and there seemed to be no way she could call anybody to open it for her. Her cell-phone had no charge left to make a call. Thankfully, most of life’s problems usually get solved on their own. A man came out with two buckets of clothes, took pity on Mila and called Arko.

The night was still young. Arko and Mila sat on the balcony with chilled beer, enjoying the cool breeze. Though they had exchanged emails on and off, both of them realized how little they knew about the changes that had taken place in each other in the twenty odd years that had gone by. Both of them had lots to share, but did not know how to start. A bit of trivia - they asked about each-other’s jobs, the aging parents, the siblings whom they knew from childhood. Neither of them wished to touch the life in between. It lay like a huge monster on their minds, the foremost thing that was consciously pushed back. Arko went back to the kitchen. He had loaded the refrigerator with exotica he assumed Mila did not get in India. She did not have the heart to disappoint Arko, but felt too exhausted to appreciate the barbecued chicken-wings or the fresh blue-berry custard that Arko had cooked specially for her. She inquired about the shuttle for her onward journey after two days to Regina for a conference. 

The night rolled. Arko had arranged for her to stay in the sole bed-room. He would be sleeping on the sofa. Mila was aghast. But Arko said that is what he did anyway most of the days. He fell asleep while watching one of his favorite Hindi movies. Mila did not believe him. This is what she hated about Arko. Always trying to project himself as a stupid non-intellectual guy as far away as possible from Mila’s cultured intellectualism. The phone rang. Arko quickly glanced at his watch and suddenly froze. Mila realized Arko wanted her to go out of the room. She withdrew to the bedroom without any further argument. Mila went to sleep with a sense of desolation. She had hoped to share her story with Arko. Arko did not seem to be interested.

By the time Mila woke up to a bright Sunday morning Arko was already in the kitchen preparing breakfast. The warm aroma of eggs being fried in butter made Mila happy. Arko declared that he did not want to take any chances and it being bright and sunny, he had arranged for a car to drive Mila down to see the Niagara Falls. Mila teased Arko about the phone-call. “Hope your girl-friend was not upset with me!” 
“She is. In fact all my girl-friends are a bit perturbed with your reappearance in my life. These Canadians are really very suspicious of Indian women. She thinks you are an enchantress! Wanted to come and see you. I had a tough time in talking her out of it. Not all my girl-friends are like this though!”

“And how many of girl-friends do you have?”
  “Let me see. One, two,…Five. One Canadian, one Indian, one Bangladeshi and two American Indians. Good that you brought up the topic. I need some serious counseling to decide which one to stick to.”
“Numbers are impressive. But I have to say the variety is missing. Why not add some Red Indians, West Indians or French to the repertoire?”
“You think I haven’t tried. You know I am really torn among these five - need your help to decide which one to marry.”
“Marry?” Mila almost choked on her toast. “Are you planning to marry again?”
“Well, sort of. You know what they say - third time lucky! May be this time I will find my soul-mate. At least I do hope to find someone who will cook for me.”
“Why don’t you ask your Mom to send a certified cook from India instead?”
“Are you jealous?”
“Me? Jealous?” Mila was speechless. If there was a name for the jumbled feeling inside her, she did not know it. Mila clenched her fists so that she did not pounce on Arko to tear him into pieces.    
Later, while driving towards Toronto, Mila asked Arko, “So tell me what help do you need from me. I hope you do realize that I am a bit too old to be the bridesmaid.”
“Well, the problem is as follows. I have to select a bride from among the following. A widow with a kid, a sinfully rich foreigner colleague five years elder to me, an aging Bengali scientist who is also a beautiful singer working in India, a Bangladeshi poet who works in the Embassy and a software professional who is currently separated from her ruthless husband, a batch-mate of ours whom you also perhaps knew. Tell me what would be my wisest choice.”

Mila, whose face was turned the other side, cried out in ecstasy as Lake Ontario loomed large outside her window. This was no lake! The serene blue-green water extended right up to the horizon. Arko said, “This lake is indeed very wide. I have seen both sides of Ontario only once when I was flying to the US. By the way Ms. Linear Algebra what is tan 75 degrees?”
“Tan 75?” to say Mila was bewildered, would be an under-statement. But she had to respond to the barb hidden in “Ms Linera Algebra.” “Well, if you had asked for tan 45 or tan 30, I could have rattled it off from the top of my rusted brain. But 75?  Come on!” 
“30 and 45 will do. I can use the formula for sum of angles. See I still need your intellect for the basics - can manage on my own after that!”

The condescending attitude she hated so much! But Mila was tired of quarrelling. She decided to keep quiet and concentrate on the landscape. They stopped at a winery. Mila was ecstatic. She had not travelled much. The purity of the air, the freshness of the vines, the sheen on the grapes - everything exalted her. Arko was clicking furiously - “Capturing your ecstasy for your children and grand-children.” 
A glass of wine later, as soon as they were inside the car, Arko exclaimed, “Done! The width of Lake Ontario must be around 82.5 kms. Thanks for your help!” Thankfully the wine had dulled her senses a bit, otherwise Mila would have socked him on the eye! Getting no response from her, Arko picked up his phone, called somebody and requested him or her to Google the width of Ontario. A few minutes later he thanked the other end and turned to Mila. “See I was correct! Google says 85 km. 10% error limit is allowed for all calculations.” 

 “Who ever doubted your capability?”
“No one! But I have always wanted to impress you.”
“I am impressed. Now how far are we from Niagara?”
“Half-an-hour. Why don’t you take a nap? You must be still jet-lagged!” 

There was something inside the car that both of them were trying to fight. But niehter of them could fathom what it was. Mila had travelled more than half the world to meet Arko. Arko had waited so eagerly for her. Now neither wanted to acknowledge any acrimony between them. Mila waited eagerly for the falls. It had been one of her dreams since childhood. Sometimes a few childhood images get imprinted on the mind with indelible ink. Lessons from a Geography text-book had done that for Mila. From time immemorial she has longed to see the largest water-fall, the highest sweet-water lake, the land of the mid-night sun, the land of a thousand lakes and so on. Now when she was so near to one of those dreams, she did not wish to spoil it.
Arko parked the car and led her to the boulevard. Resolute not to be disappointed, Mila decided to ignore the souvenir shops, the hotels, the crowded benches. Staring straight at the gushing grandeur, she tried to recreate the childhood magic inside her head. This was indeed magnificent. The richness of the molten emerald soothed her. She wished she could freeze a slice of the foaming white atop the turquoise green and take along with her. She enjoyed the droplets on her hair, her eyes, her burning skin. Arko chose this moment to ask her “How is Rwik?” Mila did not answer. She wanted to be alone in her dreams. None of these people were actually there when she had dreamt of visiting Niagara as a child. She would not let them in now when she was face to face with her dream waterfall.   

Arko took her to one of the green-houses. With the flowers and the plants, Mila turned into a child. Arko’s camera clicked vehemently as Mila merged into the splash of colors, radiant in her gold and maroon churidar-kurta. They walked along the river. Arko showed her the rainbow. It was soon dark.
It was Mila’s last day at Ontario. A friend of Arko was taking them out for brunch. After that Arko would drive her down to see the countryside.
Zach drove them to a Chinese restaurant in his Cadillac. Amidst filling up their dishes multiple times, Zach quizzed Mila about how long she had known Arko. Long, long time. He was not satisfied. So they counted the years - thirty years to be precise. Zach was still not satisfied. Something seemed to bother him. Finally, unable to check himself any longer, her asked Mila, “Did you know Arko before you met your husband?” “Of course!” Mila turned to find that Arko had turned a deep pink!

Later when they drove through the country-side Arko said, “Please don’t mind Zach. He loves me and wants to take care of me.” 
“Everyone loves you,” Mila quipped.
They had reached the shores of Lake Eerie. The air was laden with the crisp fragrance of fir and pine. White clouds floated on the clear blue sky. The water was crystal clear. Mila ran into the water, balancing herself on the underwater pebbles that showed through the transparent surface. The azure water stretched as far as her eyes could see. Mila bent down to touch the water. She wanted to splash it on her face. 
Arko was standing afar watching her joyful face. He wished he could freeze this point in time and gift it to Mila. Mila called him to join her. As Arko walked towards her, Mila stretched her hand. Arko held it in his palms and looked into her eyes. The soft grey clouds played on the sky-blue reflection. Arko asked again, “Mila, how is Rwik?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“What do you mean? Why are you being so evasive? You know I am a simple person. Can’t understand complex answers. Tell me if something is wrong. I can’t afford to see you unhappy.”
“I don’t know why. But I do know that it’s the truth. And so does Shabnam.” 
“Shabnam? Are you seeing Shabnam?”
“Yes. We might just get married provided you approve.”
“Why do you need my approval? And isn’t Shabnam married to Rehan? I thought they also had kids.”
“Rehan met with a fatal accident two years back. Shabnam was devastated. You are right. She has a teen-aged son.” 
 “The widow with a kid! My God, I did not know you two loved each other!”  
“Mila, love is only for dewy-eyed teen-agers and dreamers like you. For us, who stay in this cold and distant land, with all our dreams buried deep under the snow, all we need is a bit of warmth.”
“Who buried all your dreams deep under the snow?”
“Fate in the form of a young handsome all-rounder named Rwik. And now may I ask you for the umpteenth time, how is Rwik?”
“I want to do some shopping Arko.”

Mila had left in the morning but the whole house still smelt of her. Arko sat with the gifts that Mila had brought for him - a Johny Walker, a white shirt and some music CDs. Arko put one of the CDs on the player. He sat on the bed clutching the shirt. He had waited for Mila for so long but somehow nothing seemed to go right. He had stuffed her bags with gifts, till Mila cried she would be in deep trouble trying to tug along so much weight for the rest of her journey. Arko wondered whether Mila would come to visit him again. Mila had hugged him tight before entering the shuttle. She had paused very briefly before climbing the steps, as if she wanted to tell him something, but then smiled and sat in the van. Arko was left alone once again. But life had to move on. Arko sighed and proceeded to smooth the sheets on which Mila had slept not so long ago. The pillow still had Mila’s head sculpted on it. When he picked up the pillow to fluff it up, there was a small note waiting for him - 

“Arko, Rwik is seeing somebody. I know this is commonplace and foolish of me to brood about, but you can’t imagine how ashamed I felt of myself when I came to know about it. Though I had crossed half the world to tell you this, I could not. I realized I love Rwik so much that I could not bear to see you despise him. Believe me - I hate myself for this, but I have decided to stay with him till our son finishes his schooling. Don’t worry about me. You know how strong I am. Despite being swathed in shame, ignominy and anger, I can take proper care of myself. I sincerely hope that I have given you enough reason to loathe me from the core of your heart. Go out and enjoy your new life.”  


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