20 years earlier
There were toys scattered all over the kitchen floor, Legos littering the dining room table, and torso-less doll heads gazing deep into our souls from the island. Not that any of it bothered us. We were too busy in our own world, Arush and I. I had a whole collection of dolls and Legos back home, so I didn’t make a big fuss, I played along with what he liked, a small city boy, so far away from giant toy stores and over-the-top supermarkets.
Arush was from a tiny town, on the outskirts of Maharashtra, the exact same location my naani birthed and brought up my mother. In fact, they were neighbours. And sitting on the kitchen floor right now, surrounded by innumerable dolls and toys, I wondered where naani was. I looked both sides, up and down for dramatic effect, but couldn’t locate her.
“What are you looking for?”
Arush asked me. I shook my head. However, he knew how to read a room despite being only 10 years old. He nudged me and wouldn’t let it go. So I told him I was scared to be alone for so long, without naani watching over me. He nodded thoughtfully, and abruptly grabbed my hand.
He pulled me out into the front porch, standing guard at the lawns, overlooking the beautiful suburbs of the western town of what I liked to think of as the best state in the entire country.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
He looked at me as if it was the silliest question I could conjure up.
“Obviously we are going on a hunt, our first investigation, looking for missing naani.”
Despite being reprimanded for straying out of the house with any supervision, it was the best day of my life.
15 years earlier
Setting my spectacles on my nose, I flipped the pages of my chemistry textbook angrily. Like every other summer vacation, I had driven down to naani’s house, except this time, everything was going wrong. I expected it to be like how every summer goes –
ice cream for breakfast, naps in naani’s bed, playing with her dogs, and lazy evenings spent talking about nothing with Arush. He was like a summer treat, like mangoes, only seasonal, but sweet just at the sight of him.
This time, ma wouldn’t budge. She wanted me to focus on my exams this year, given how much I was lagging behind the rest of the class. She made me a timetable and packed my bags for me, giving naani instructions that I was only to study the whole day, taking breaks only to eat meals, and was completely forbidden from meeting Arush. I think this had something more to do than just exams, it was probably the fact that naani had seen us hold hands the summer before, and she was absolutely NOT okay with it.
I couldn’t help but think of him every minute though.
His awkward moustache growing in, sideburns bigger than his ears, lanky limbs sticking out like a sore thumb. The hand holding was a big deal for us too, stealing glances at each other, no idea whether what we were doing was wrong or right.
The moment was interrupted by my naani barging into the room, chiding us both for wasting time instead of peeling the peas as we were instructed to do. After this incident, it didn’t come as a shock to me that I was not allowed to see him any longer.
Bringing me back to my present, I was in a no-blinking battle with my textbooks, almost on the verge of tearing my hair out, followed by tearing the whole book apart. There was no point explaining my ordeal to naani or even mom, because they were both well-read, toppers of their school, and they just wouldn’t be able to put themselves in my shoes. Silently, I munched on the snack she made for me, praying for a miracle of some sort.
The miracle came in the form of a hushed knock at the door. I knew this knock. I knew it very well. And I knew it could only be him at this time, exactly between 3:30-3:37, when my naani would step out of the house to greet her friend. Only one person apart from me knew this exact timeline. I ran to the door, unaware of the chemistry book still in my hand, dropping it on the way, in a hurry to open it and let him in.
I never did see him after that.
I told myself that it was just a summer fling, that I needed to focus on my studies, get into a good college, and forget all about him. But it wasn’t that easy.
I don’t know when and how, but they knew something was brewing between the two of us, and since that summer, I never went back to naani’s house.
That’s why everything now felt weird, sitting in the backseat of mom’s car, driving past the same roads, watching all the houses, highways shops, people; nothing had changed. Somewhere in my heart of hearts, I really wished nothing had changed. Nobody had changed.
The car ride was quiet. After naani had passed, everyone in the house had generally been quiet. I’m sure nobody was even thinking of Arush, probably forgotten about him after all these years. But that was the only thought on my mind.
Reaching the house and entering my room felt spooky; like I was visiting myself from another lifetime. With all the cermonies and discussions about the future of the house taking up everyone’s time, I didn’t even think about going over and knocking at his door.
For me it was pretty clear, we had to keep the house. It wasn’t just a piece of property, it was memorabilia, a piece of my grandmother that I could look after. I knew she would want that. But for the sake of convenience and a whole lot of money, my parents and uncles and aunts insisted on selling the house. Obviously, I didn’t budge without putting up a fight, but my opinions were neglected.
“I am an adult now! Are you still not going to seriously take any of what I say into consideration?”
I was furious. But it didn’t matter to them. They had already found buyers.
After I stormed out of the house, I made my way to Arush’s house. To talks after all this time. See what he was up to in life.
I rang his doorbell, suddenly anxious, just realizing that I didn’t even know if he still stayed in the same house, what he looked like, whether he ever got out of this small town. I wish he hadn’t. I didn’t want the city life for him: I wanted his innocence to remain the same forever, surrounded by the same people who raised him. Did I even have the right to wish that for him?
The door opened to a woman, same age as me. She was beautiful with curly hair, full lips and high cheekbones, everything that I didn’t have. A storm of rage bubbled inside of me. “Is Arush here?” As soon as I said that, I saw him walking towards me. I couldn’t read his expression; I expected him to be happy, engulf me in a bear hug, give me a kiss even though the idea was far-fetched, or maybe just a smile. But all I got was a, “hey, how are you?”
The bubbling rage was on the verge of spewing. “How are you?! After all that we’ve been through? What do you mean how are you!?” The strange woman shifted uncomfortable and Ayush seemed like he was ready to get into a fight too.
“I don’t want to pretend to have a friendship or any sort of relationship with you for that matter. In my eyes, there was never an us”, with that one sentence, he broke my heart.
Tears welled up in my eyes, “I’m sorry, I know, I should have called more.”
“Called more? You never answered any of my calls or texts, you threw me away the moment you got into that fance college of yours! Well, you know what, you can get the hell out and head back there!”
Sniffling, I turned towards the new woman in the house, “is this your girlfriend?” Her eyes doubled in size, but she dared not speak.
“Whoever she may be, it’s none of your business. Now, get out of my house.”
I didn’t put up much of a fight after that. I decided I would leave this town tomorrow, head back to the big city, get busy with my fancy new job, and spend the millions I was making on things that didn’t matter. I had it all.
My life was piling up with one regret after the other.
Naani’s house seemed lonelier than ever. My family was having one last meal in the house together, out in the living room, before all of us parted ways again, and went back to our fancy, unhappy lives alone. I couldn’t bear the thought of spending any more time with those people, so I lay on my bed, far away, one final time, in my room. I stroked the pillow case, silently, as tears raced down my cheeks. I felt so helpless, so small, like nothing I ever did mattered in any universe. I felt silly for thinking Arush would still care about me after all these years, after all those phone calls I never answered.
I heard a yell, my mother calling out for me. “I’m not hungry!” I screamed back. I heard her shout again, in reply perhaps. I unlocked my room door, and yelled “what?!”
“Come downstairs and meet the buyers!”
That was something I was not interested in, even a little bit. But then the thought struck me, didn’t I want to know who was going to be living in naani’s house? Shouldn’t I make sure they are good people?
I was convinced they would not be. I had the entire act set up, I would greet them and make a big scene, tell them about the insects in the house, the foul odour, and if they still didn’t back down, I would throw a bigger fit and get personal. Grumbling, I ran down the flight of stairs, eager to see who was ready for this challenge.
I saw mom sitting on the sofa, eagerly waving me over, “come, say hi!” I frowned at her, turning around to see a woman next to her, strange but still eerily familiar. “Hello,” I croaked before it hit me. It was the same woman in Arush’s house, sitting there, smiling at me sweetly. In the corner, next to the door stood Arush himself, looking at me with the same blank expression as before, “Hi.”
I didn’t say a word. “You’re buying naani’s house?” I finally asked. He smiled at me for the first time and I couldn’t keep it together anymore. I didn’t care who the woman was, but I ran towards him and egnulfed him in a hug. Looking into his eyes for a mere second, I could still see the twinkle, the little hint of love he had for me, I could tell in the way they curved at the edges at the sight of me.