15th July 2010, 5.00 P.M.
Anitha would remember today for a long time to come. This date represents the determining fork in her career, instrumental in changing it for the better or the worse. A reckless turn might as well be a deadly fall. I have nothing valid to substantiate these claims but the continual recital of this theory by her father, right up to the moment she chose her college to study ‘Computer Science Engineering’.
She attended the engineering counselling today morning around 11. The word ‘counselling’ means, in English I know, providing helpful suggestions or advice to carry out some activity in future. It is one of those words fallen victim to these people’s ignorance in thinking things through rather than follow them blindly. It’s one count where even a lifeless entity like me could take them over; I do not settle for popular beliefs before seeking factual answers by myself. Like a few other words these people use, ‘counselling’ is an exotic term that specifies for them an indigenous meaning, its original meaning forsaken in favour of ostentation. As it turns out, during this occasion they call ‘engineering counselling’, the students who have just finished their higher secondary education pick out the courses they want to study and the corresponding colleges that provide them, in a fashion exactly antipathetic to the actual meaning of the word. Students and their parents start ‘gathering suggestions and advices’ phase well in advance, presumably by the time just after they have got their higher secondary results, gleaning every detail they could from all the sources: friends, relations, Internet, Media and specialists. Engineering counselling is not the enlightening part of it, but just the action ground where, like gamblers in a poker table, boys and girls chance the courses laid out in front of them from colleges across the state - colleges lined up based on the weight of their scores; the higher the score, the better the college and its campus placement prospects - with the help of the cards they have gathered beforehand, well outside the counselling venue’s walls.
Anitha has opted for her favourite course in a renowned college in Trichy itself. I saw her walk into a building with domed roof, fretful and tense, her father chanting by her side. The whole procedure took almost three hours. Out came a happy girl. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I could have sworn I saw a faint glimmer of disappointment buried beneath her gaiety. She could not pick a college in Madurai as she said she would to Raghu last night. She might easily have settled for a college of meagre value in Madurai, but her father is notoriously straitlaced in affairs like these. I don’t think this misgiving would be a lingering blemish for her excitement to come through the rest of the day, though. Today she’s meeting for the first time the wrong-call guy from a midnight almost a month back. His name, as it turned out, is Raghu.
The development of this relationship has been staggering. It started with the apology message Raghu sent her at that night, just after the call. If there ever was a chance to smother the conflagration that would ensue, it rested in Anu’s hands then. It was she who carried on things a bit further by replying to his message, as if to show her good will. On doing so, she kindled the spark he had lit. It caught quickly and started a sustaining chain reaction, feeding on the animal desires of the youngsters. The frequency of the texts sent between each other was rising ever so slowly on the first day. Anitha was expressing concerns about her insecurity in talking to a complete stranger. His messages in turn were soothing, considerate. He must have seen through the surface of her statements an underlying dilemma, a half-hearted longing for a male company. With diligent care and patience he exploited those submerged dregs of her adolescence to fuel the fire. At the beginning, he led the conversation too politely, she, tentatively. With every text message flying back and forth, new ties plied between them. They grew stronger with the passage of days. Anu turned more sociable with him by the day. Raghu walked a delicate line, neither showing the slightest inclination to flirt with her nor making an overkill out of excessive courtesy. Family, friends, hobbies, interests and beliefs served as the rungs of the ladder along which their camaraderie shuffled up. Awkward silences had all but vanished by the second week. And something else happened, too. They started to call each other and talk.
Now, here comes the interesting part of the tale for me. Through text messages Anitha and Raghu could talk for hours with no pain in their asses except for the time lag in communication. But, it placed no stable link for us, SIM cards, to communicate by. Maybe Raghu is not so vile, after all. My prejudice towards him could be the reflection of my envy over their newfound company, particularly after having known I had a companion I could not share things with like they did. It was funny, however, the way they tried to update the nuances in their relationship from written communication to oral. Anitha’s face remained stained red for the whole conversation the first time.
I was happy I could talk with my only partner again. I was also worried he would start asking me endless questions, just the same. Within a few minutes of their conversation, we had made up for all our lost hours. To my surprise (and relief), my friend was not so much a nag as he had sounded previously. He had taught himself quite a lot since our last chat. He sounded mature now and more intelligent. It was his idea to give ourselves names of our own liking. I christened myself Ben, a name from her favourite cartoon. He became A-Tee, an improvised abbreviation of his network provider’s name, AirTel. When Anitha hung up this time, I felt sorry we had to part. I did not know then that we would have all the time in the world to speak our minds out in the days to come.
Anitha’s unspoken schedule had changed drastically by the third week. She did not go to bed at her usual time any more. Before the ‘wrong call’, much of her vacation was spent in front of the TV, the movies she downloaded on Internet or computer games. With Raghu’s advent in her life, her cell phone happened to gain itself a monumental importance. He claimed to be through his second year of Electronics and Communication Engineering in a famous college in Madurai and on a brief span of holidays after his semester exam. Both of them had nothing else to do but talk. And talk they did. Days flew by as rapidly as the improvement in Anitha’s text-typing pace. Nights dragged on with perpetual phone calls. Anu has grown wary over time, not with Raghu but her own folks. She keeps a conscious eye on each of her parents now a days, looking out for any sign of their unnatural interest in her. She made a thorough examination of her quarters sometime back. She checked the acoustics of her bedroom, and the door leading into it, and made sure her voice would not carry over to her parents’ room if only she turned her fan on. Raghu calls every night seconds after her ‘all clear’ message and her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper. She is not the girl who stuttered miserably and spat out her words in half-baked blobs a few days back to this same guy. She has transformed. She talks incessantly now, even when he resorts to silence for the lack of subject.
Tee and I have spent a rough ten-fold elongated time as they did on those nights. We have never let a moment go without talking all this time. If you asked me the details of our conversation from last night I would not remember. But I can assure you I was happy no matter what we conversed. During the first few days, I shared with him many things I had gathered over time. He proved to be a prompt listener. He has learnt much of Tamil within his one month. It stung me to think the feat took me well over six months. He amuses me every night recounting all the events he has happened to witness over the course of the day. Raghu, unlike Anitha, spends almost all day outdoors. Hence Tee is always replete with new adventures. Sometimes, to my surprise, he explains stuff not even I, two years his senior, have heard about. What appals me even more is the fact I do not feel any resentment on his taking me over by the way of knowledge. I am glad to listen. I am glad for an excuse to move along. Besides, ironical as it may sound, I have no one else but him.
Thus grew an inevitable affection between us all. I do not bother the least with how the friendship between Anitha and Raghu might turn out to be. As for we two, Tee and I, each of us has found haven in the voice of the other. Sometimes I wonder if my gratuitous affinity towards him in such a short time has come about not out of kindness for the way he is but just because of my desperate need to cling on to someone like me for mere social reasons. I can tell with dead certainty Tee does not harbour any doubt of this sort, though. Every word he utters carries with it a genuine warmth I have come to fancy much, though I myself do not appreciate what could be so intriguing in a wimp like me. Of late, I find his fondness being reciprocated copiously too.
The next big thing is happening today. Raghu has been intent on meeting her face-to-face lately. Anitha has been equally eager about it. But she is too prudent to risk coming out of her home all alone on a flimsy pretext. Her routine has always been to stay home and let her father do all her required errands for her. She used to consider this a privilege of being the lone child in the family. Now she complains to Raghu it has placed her under the watchful eyes of her parents. She comes out only to catch her college bus, or in other times, in her parents’ company. Not that breaking the habit would make her parents suspicious, yet she thinks not to disturb the cloak of trust, maybe for a probable alibi in the future. So they have planned to meet in the event of her journey to Chennai to attend her counselling. Their liaison has swelled to a scale too much to confine within phone calls any more. Her dad accompanies her, so meeting in close quarters is out of question: Anitha made a point of emphasising it just as Raghu expressed vague hints of coming up with the plan for their first meet in neither Madurai nor Trichy, but Chennai. According to a non-sense pact they agreed on during their initial days of friendship, no pictures have been shared between them. The urgency in finding out if their fantasies about each other lived up to the reality drove them to make quick arrangements for the meeting.
They deliberated a meeting plan over the course of last week. Or, Raghu did. She had left the devising part all to himself, what with she already having been stuffed neck-deep into numerous suggestions for the impending counselling propelled at her from everything that could talk. Not to mention she was unnerved enough for her part to spend much time in front of her mirror, laying out the pros and cons of this college and that throughout last week. He barged in time and again, filling her in with bits and pieces of schemes he came up with, most of which she rejected coolly. Finally it funnelled down to a simple rendezvous for the time it took.
I have been patiently watching Anitha’s moves to manipulate her dad’s mirth over his daughter’s judicious choice-making to her advantage for the past hour. She launched the plan into action just as he made a passing comment about they having to leave by tonight to Trichy, over a sumptuous lunch they were relishing in an air-conditioned restaurant. She held for a moment, then carefully veneered her voice with that mincing, childish tone she knew his dad would fall for, and said, “Dad, can we do some sight-seeing before we leave?” Not long after, they were riding on his friend’s car (the one who had arranged them a lavish room in a decent hotel for their brief stay in Chennai) to Marina Beach under a blazing sun.
Her father was babbling most of the way. I have seen this happen more often than not. She is his only child, and he sees to it that she enjoys every comfort his money could offer. Not that he is as rich as comfy millionaires but only a few rungs below. Down enough, though, to have to be careful not to slip and take a place amidst the impoverished just as readily as the blink of an eye. “I’d peg you a nice place in a college many guys dream for through all their petty lives even if you had not scored such good marks, Anu,” he said. “But you pulled it off all on your own. That’s my girl,” he cackled at this, then ran a tender hand over the top of her head. She managed to smile coyly as a reply. Her only concern when this conversation went on was to try to message Raghu without her father noticing. It was not difficult. He allowed himself to be lax with she around. She threw intermittent glances at his side while her right hand was furtively dipped beyond his sight, its fingers typing away terse messages involving her location and probable time of reach at their destination.
So it has come about to this; She sitting beside her father on the fine beach sand, furiously shaking her head against his persuasion to make her play with the waves pounding on the shoreline, and he stealing sneaky peeks at her from across a distance to their right, sitting with his legs hugged to his chest. He sits unwittingly on a grim boundary the crossing of which would make the distance between Tee and I too far to have our Intelligent-wave-radii touch. If Anitha acquiesced to her father’s pester, I think with a mounting dread, it would not be a good news for us, too. For the time being, however, we are talking like we always do. We exchange news from the last two days lost between us.
As exciting as this meeting proves to be to our owners, I realise now we two have nothing to celebrate, except for the very fact we could talk again. I think I must have absorbed some of the excitement Anitha had built up on meeting Raghu. A part of me, I realise now, has been pampering the notion their ascent from faceless talking to personal meeting could conjure up something new for our own relationship, too. I am disappointed now a bit to find out nothing has changed with our proximity. It’s still the same talking-hearing-talking pattern the way it was with their conversations over cell phones. In hindsight, I wonder what more I could have expected to happen between us two out of their meeting in person.
“Your guy makes a comic figure now. Look around. He’s the only one sitting alone.” I say.
“And yet, the dumb you call your girl’s dad does not find anything odd about a boy sitting all alone only yards away from his daughter and gawping at her.”
“Now, are you really foolish enough to think I’d take sides and talk for them? Because if your remark was supposed to spur me on to defend them, it did not. Nothing will.”
“It was just a statement, mate. But that fits, won’t you say? She proves the authenticity of her lineage by being dumber than her father. She believes everything he says.”
Anitha is, in my view, dark crimson to her face. Her dumb of a father, in Tee’s words, does not observe that as well. The twin sparkling beads on her face roll to her right too often now. Her tone takes a turn toward reticence. Her gestures become more pronounced, sometimes too flashy. She is busy modifying her original mannerisms in order to look impressive to him.
“Why would not she go to the waves?” Tee asks.
“Maybe she is worried if she did her makeup would be smeared.”
“What is it about her with you, pal? I don’t recall you ever talking about her without a derogatory comment.”
“You could say anything you want, but this is just about the truth of it. I know her better than you do, buddy.”
“Is she beautiful? From down here I am not able to decide on that.” He remarks.
“I can judge no better from up here. It’s been a long time since I saw her face clear up close. She’s not bad.” I answer dismissively.
“This guy really fancies peeking at her. I think she must be pretty.”
As if on cue, Raghu takes out his cell phone and starts typing something. A moment later, Anitha’s phone lights up with an incoming message. She blushes even more on seeing his message : ‘Pls don’t tke offence wit tis. Bt u luk beautiful :).’
“He’s hitting on her, I guess.” Tee puts in.
Anu stifles the smile that threatens to escape her, cupping her hand over her mouth in a seemingly offhanded wipe. Suddenly her dad turns sharply to his right and cranes his neck forward to look around her. His sight angles towards Raghu’s direction.
“And he’s going to get hit for that.” I say absently, trying to judge if her dad is indeed staring at him or something else beyond. Anitha’s smile remains etched on her face for a moment before fading. Then she lowers her eyes to her lap as if not daring to see what is about to happen.
To my surprise, Raghu handles it with aplomb. He does not chicken out. He does not look away from their side as if suddenly interested in something to his right, in the other side. He does not shiver, does not so much as flinch. He meets her dad’s eyes defiantly. I wonder for a fleeting moment what would follow if her dad has found out the little prank they are playing right under his nose.
“What the heck is he looking at?” I ask Tee. Contrary to my purported indifference to their affair, I can feel an inadvertent edge in my voice now.
“Dunno. Courtesy of our accurate sight, I should believe he looks right at this guy here.”
Anitha steels herself and steals a look at her dad. “What is it, dad?” her voice quavers.
He stays poised the way he has been for a moment, then starts a little as if coming out of a trance. “Oh, nothing Anu kuty. I just thought I saw someone I knew.” His glance still lingers questioningly in Raghu’s direction. In seconds, though, it traces a slow moving arc to the left, away from Raghu. Far away, a man is ambling along the shoreline with his cell phone clutched to his ear. Her dad slowly shakes his head, and says, “Nah, I’m mistaken. It’s not the person I thought.” Anitha’s taut breasts sag as she sighs out the long-held breath. She texts back to Raghu : ‘Thnk god, I thot he found out abt us.’
‘Me 2.’ He texts back.
“Me too,” Tee chimes.
“That would’ve been fun if he’d found it out,” I say.
“Don’t be cynical,” Tee retorts mockingly.
Her mom calls, and her dad gets busy telling her about their present tour and the plan to leave tonight. Anu looks at Raghu now, directly for the first time. A smile stretches along his lips. She bites her lower lip and makes an ostentatious show of hiding a smile, while showing it to him at the same time. She catches a lock of her hair fluttering in the wind, tidies it up into the crook of her ear. I see something in her eyes. Something I do not wish to identify. At that exact moment, an ominous feeling creeps into me.
“Tee,” I announce, “Someone is going to cry a river soon.”