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The Rest


Short Story: Love beyond the coniferous trees

The invitation said it all.

"Priya weds Prem"

She always had this fascination for alliteration, and my name did not enjoy this distinction. I remember one lazy afternoon we spent together under what I then thought must be the largest mango tree -- it certainly was not as I found out later -- on a wide expanse of rare green in a city where one generally breathed in poison, when she tried with all the seductive feminine charm she could muster to coax me into changing my name.

"What difference would it make to you whether you are Mohan or Prahalad", she had taken the Bard of Avon's line of thought.But to me, sentimental that I was, my name had a deeper meaning than that. It did not merely serve as an identification. It was the name my father had chosen. The image of the man
himself was blurred by time, but death, they say, is a great leveller, and in the months that followed this tragedy, I could sense many changes in my till then secluded life.Still at school, I felt I had shot up, if not in height, certainly in years. Overnight I had ceased to be my papa's pet. The hand that held me steadying me ever so often was gone even before the clock could chime the next hour.

But I was not completely lost.

There was Priya. Yes, it was a school romance, indeed. I still remember that January morning, cold and misty, when I walked into my new school, my new class. My principal, a tall and hefty Anglo-Indian who must have been way beyond six feet, escorted me from his office to a gathering of boys and girls among whom I was to stay for years.

Shy and self-conscious, that was me, and it was virtually a torture standing in the presence of what then seemed like hundreds of eyes, each pair trying to rip me apart. In reality, there were not hundreds, but a mere forty-odd. It was one of those quaint, little schools whose management felt that individual attention was far more important than making money in a pursuit as noble as moulding a human.Priya was one of the very few girls in a class that was overwhelmingly made up of boys. I still wonder whether I did feel a sense of pang when boys growing up in manhood animatedly discussed her, and were even bold enough to walk up to her to strike a conversation under the vaguest of pretexts.

Of course, I did. To me Priya was just a dream that might disappear with the first rays of the sun. She was so distant that it appeared to me that I could touch the sky with greater ease than exchange a glance or a word with her. Probably, I did not exist at all to her. Did she even notice me ?

For the world of me, I could not tell this. But some winters and summers later, spring did creep into my life. With a little more than a year left for me to finish school, one afternoon I came into Priya's field of vision. Thanks to a cinema hall next to my flat, and there was this great Hindi blockbuster playing. In one of my casual conversations with friends, she had heard me boast with all my schoolboy innocence that I could get tickets minutes before the show.

"Would you get me some ?" Priya had sounded excited.

She had planned this treat for her friends during the approaching winter vacation, and what better errand-boy could she have found than one who admired her secretly."I would telephone you", she had said.

Seven days into the holidays, there still was no sign of the magic ring. I thought she must have seen the movie by then, and there really would have been no need to get across to me.But surprises never cease, do they ? Priya called me on the eighth day, and wanted seven tickets for the matinee that was to begin in the next three-quarters of an hour.

"I have promised my friends that I would show them the picture. I hope you would not let me down", she had got me into a corner.

However, Dame Luck smiled on me. The tickets were there for the asking, and I found myself beaming when I realised that the entire exercise had been a walk-over.

I had to wait almost three weeks to ask Priya whether the film had been fun. The long, leisurely lunch-break that we used to have at school gave me a chance to confront Priya with this question. I found her warm and friendly that afternoon, and was delighted to find myself listening to her as she, oblivious of all the din and confusion a school playground can present, narrated the screen story.

For the next six months, life was a whirlwind of examinations and results, still more examinations and results. We were on to hectic preparations for the school-leaving certificate, and between these trysts with educational destinies, there were occasions when I could find time and opportunity for a chat with Priya.

It was that summer that I said to myself that I would tell her what exactly I felt about her. Did I have the courage to walk up to her, and proclaim in all its dramatic intensity that I loved her ? Perhaps not, but I did devise another method of getting the message across to her.

It had to be immediately after the vacation, and to my misfortune, I could only catch her in the company of her best friend. When I look back on that day, I cannot help feeling that I began like a quiz master.

"Do you know what the three magical words are" ? I had shot the question after we had had discussed the weather and the willow.

"What are they", she had asked me, her big eyes even bigger with curiosity.

It was then that I found my courage deserting me. I could have disappeared inside the earth, and fervently wished that the recess would be over.

"What are they" ? Priya had begun to sound impatient.She was not going to let me go. No way. And there I stood wondering whether I could possibly tell her what I wanted to.

"Now, do not tell me that you cannot answer your own question ", she had rebuked me."Oh", I had said, "it is quite simple. I LOVE YOU".

I still remember the expression on her face that afternoon. It went blank first. Then there was this sense of disbelief, which gave way to irritation, even anger. But the school bell came to my rescue, and we had to get back to class. As I walked on, I cursed myself for getting into a situation where a beautiful but fledgling relationship appeared to be jeopardised.

Priya ignored me the entire afternoon, and for the next three days, despite the fact that I sat right behind her. It was the fourth day, soon after lunch when our English teacher decided to give us a free period, when things took a different turn.

Ten minutes into this freedom, and I was getting restless when I hit upon an idea to break this barrier of ice with Priya."Priya", I had begun a little nervously, "let us play noughts and crosses".

She turned around, stared at me with a look that at first seemed to say "how dare you". But seconds later, I could see a faint smile at the corner of her lips.

"Okay", she had agreed.

And to me that was the signal I had been waiting for.That afternoon, I knew Priya loved me as much as I loved her, and when she did finally say those words, though months later, it was a mere confirmation of what my eyes had seen and my heart had felt all along.

School turned into college, and though we were in two different institutions -- an all male affair for me, and an all female affair for her -- there were fewer restrictions than what we had faced earlier.

We met. We walked around. We talked. We ate. We watched movies. We visited museums. And we dreamt of a future where we did not have to say adieu so often. Those times could not have been lovelier. The night, in a metaphoric sense, stretched eternally, and we were not perturbed by the fact that dawn would break sooner or later. We were deeply in love, and the power of the sun could not destroy what the glimmer of the moon or the twinkle of the stars had created. Love had to lead us to the altar.

But it did not.

Marriages are not even made on earth. They are made in the closed confines of prejudiced minds.She was the only daughter, and her parents were not going to
let her spend the rest of her life with a chit of a boy, who also spoke a different language, and hence came, for all intents and purposes, from another planet !

Still in college, powerless to the core, I could merely watch in despair as Priya slipped out of my life.

It would, of course, be unfair to say that we went down without a fight. I vividly remember the rainy day, when in one of those clutching-at-the-straw-kind of efforts, I telephoned her father and asked him if I might see him.

"Is it something to do with Priya ?" he had wanted to know."Yes sir", I had stammered.

"There is nothing more to say...", he had sounded obstinate, brutally so.

"But I would like to marry your daughter", I had persisted."Why do you want to marry her ?" he had sounded vaguely amused.

"Because I love her", my heart had cried out.But that is a language very few care to understand, and Priya's father was no exception.

Priya's mother lived less for her daughter, and more for her neighbours. To her that Priya wanted to go away with someone like me must have sounded like a bad nightmare, and the threat of suicide she held out would have shaken even the brave and the mighty.

And Priya was neither mighty nor brave. She was tender as a flower, and succumbed to this emotional blackmail. Love died young.

Six months later, the postman brought the invitation card. Its gilt edge seemed to mock me. Her father had written my address on the envelope. How could I forget the cold and cruel hand; I had seen it often while we had been at school. He had this habit of writing a comment or two on the progress card.

The invitation killed the little hope that I might have had. It was the last nail on the coffin, the coffin that curiously held some of the most cherished memories of our days together.


The toy train chugged up one of the most scenic mountains on this earth. The Nilgiris can take your breath away. The lofty peaks, and the awesome valleys hidden by giant coniferous trees were a feast for my mind.

I was going to Ooty to fetch my son. He was in the first year of junior college in a residential institution. That summer, my business took me to Coimbatore. I ran a publishing house, specialising in fiction. It was a world by itself, where the real was often eclipsed by the unreal to a point where it was tempting to take refuge in fantasy.

The train had conspired, so it appeared, with the crisp mountain air to rock me to sleep. And it was the din of a wayside station with all its colour and chaos that woke me up.

There was still a couple of hours to go before I could be at Ooty. It was a slow ride all right, but I had deliberately chosen it to unwind and relax after a rather hectic period at work. Writers may be the most endearing of specimens to their readers, but they can drive a publisher round the bend.

The train seemed to halt for a long time, and I got this sudden urge to stretch myself. Hopping on to the platform, I must have barely taken a few steps when I saw her.Priya.

She was sitting by the window of another compartment of the train.

She had aged. There were streaks of grey in her hair. There were a few wrinkles on her exquisite face. But her eyes were as brilliant as ever. How could I forget them ? They were mirrors of her mind.

Those eyes saw me. And they lit up. The light touched my soul. Love never dies. Years and years later, I found my heart fluttering exactly the same way it had done when I was in my teens.

I got into her compartment. It seemed to be the most natural thing to do, and we took off from where we had left. Time just melted away in the misty sunshine of the day as the train began to climb.

It seemed more than a mere coincidence that she should also be on her way to the same campus -- to fetch her daughter. Since Priya's husband was away in Europe, she had decided to take this little break and bring her daughter home for vacation.

Those couple of hours I was with her were the most delightful in a long, long time. Since the distance from the railway station to the college was not very much, Priya suggested that we walk the miles.She had always been a great walker, and in the city that we lived and loved, there probably would not have
been a street without our footprints !

We ambled along the main bazaar and the kutcha road till we were there at the college. There was still half an hour to go before we could meet our children. Eager to spend a few more minutes together, we walked along the  sprawling college lawns, dotted with the most magnificent coniferous trees. Their scent filled me with divine rejuvenation.

The sun began to play hide-and-seek with the clouds. And in this atmosphere of light and shade where images appeared surreal, I spotted my son, far away behind one of those tall coniferous trees. He was, it looked, bidding farewell to a girl.

I stopped. Priya stopped, and followed my gaze.

"My son", I muttered, and was about to turn around when I caught sight of the girl's face.

It was Priya. All over again.

There was no need for Priya to tell me anything.

Priya's eyes looked into mine. They were imploring. They were pleading. I smiled. And the years of pain that had gnawed away at me was gone.


(Wrote this short story in 2000)

(Posted this short story on this website on April 5 2004)

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