He went to the Nescafe at the corner every day at six. This was the time when there was a lull in the office, with the edits yet to arrive and the other parts of the edit page formatted and subbed and more or less done. Sometimes he was accompanied by Anil, who was a friend. But some days, Anil was too busy to accompany him and he went alone.
It was a small cosy place, with a few tables and light air-conditioning. Blown-up posters saying "Relaxation sold here" with white men and women laughing their hearts out dotted the walls so that one got the feeling that there were more people in the room than there really were.
He liked to go there by himself and order a muffin and a classic, short form for a basic, no-frills coffee. The guy at the serving counter went about serving quietly, taking orders and taking out coffees and teas and making burgers with calm precision. He really liked the serving guy, and wished they were friends.
It was on one such day, a non-descript, ordinary day really, when he went by himself, that he spotted her. She was there with a bunch of her friends, all of them whispering conspiratorially and laughing uproariously, huddled together. He always found this charming -- when girls did their girlie things and boys stood at the side watching them. It just seemed like how things ought to be.
He sat down at a table with a classic and opened the day's Indian Express. He always brought along the newspaper with him because he was wary of sitting by himself, doing nothing but observing the others. He felt he was being watched and maybe even pitied, and he hated that. He did not want people to think he was friendless, which he wasn't -- not really -- and read the paper to be occupied and also to be seen to be so.
He looked up and noticed that she was looking at him. He realised he was looking at her with that mix of curiosity and disinterest that one harbours when looking at oneself in the mirror. There was nothing penetrating in his stare, just surprise and wonder at watching someone who could be so different yet so similar to oneself. He stared at her eyes, her lips, her cheeks. Almost on cue, he tilted his head and ran his fingers on his face to remember the sensation of being himself. He imagined he was two people, both himself and herself, and seeing her comforted him. He imagined that he could live with himself, that the warmth of this new feeling would keep him in good stead. This girl, this someone who was really another him, would be his friend and help him in a crisis. These images, for no real reason he could fathom, brought him calm. She was standing there throughout, chatting up her friends and basically doing little.
It was not just this girl. People’s faces brought him to the verge of extreme emotion. He fell in irreversible expectation of how they would react when they got to know him. Would they like him? Would they love him? He wanted everybody to love him. He wondered if he didn’t have enough self-respect. But no, it was not that. If anything, he thought he possessed a very strong ego. He was also extremely sensitive and wanted lots and lots of unbridled love. A curious combination, he thought. His eyes found her again. She was leaving the coffee shop.
I can love anyone, he thought, as he saw her go away in the glass window. She was very regal, walking with a hint of a smile that carried the memory of some glorious moment. But, he wondered, as he eyed her almost-liquid frame, will my love for her, for anyone, ever match up to my love for mother? He was too attached to her -- it seemed he would not be able to survive another day if she wasn't around. She was there. Right now, she was a presence. Even though she was in another city, she was always a presence. She lived on the leaves that he touched before leaving the gates of his society in the morning. She existed in the draft of air that made its way through the grime and heat of a packed DTC bus. She sat upon the knobs that rested on the doors of the office’s washroom, and it was she who made the opening of the door an act of supreme dignity, so that at such a moment, he felt he was staring life in the face with a resolve that welcomed anything, nearly expected it. With her around, he felt the strength to live life from one moment to the next, and this knowledge imparted a bearable benevolence to the whole enterprise. The colours were brighter and the entire edifice of place and time was constructed for his exquisite pleasure. That was the knowledge that he sought in love, that was the knowledge that ma’s presence provided him.
He knew of a person who was so traumatized by his mother’s death that he had sought a medium to get in touch with her. But it had come to nothing. His thoughts turned to death. Where would Ma go when she died? He wondered if he would be reborn as her son in another life and know this love again. But he couldn't say for sure. Nobody really knew. And it scared him and also hurt him. He wished he could do something about how cruel things could be, but he did not know anyone who had outsmarted death. Perhaps he would have another mama in another life but what was the guarantee that that mama and he would share a love as powerful as this mama and he do? There was no such guarantee, and one could not but wait for one to learn. But wait for what? He had read as a child that when people died, they were reborn and when they died again, they were reborn again, and the cycle continued until one's actions had all been accounted for -- one's good deeds and sins -- and then one became a star, hanging for all time in the sky. When he had read this, he had hoped that his star should hang next to Ma’s. But all these were mere hopes and there was no way to know how things happened after one really died. He thought all this and wondered why must we be given this love, such strength of emotion, and then know it will go away. He could not imagine surviving the passing of that love, that bond.
Life is too much, he thought, as he saw a bunch of youngsters stream inside the coffee shop. He thought he ought to capture all this in a story. It was time. He had been expecting a push towards writing. When he read that people started writing at, say, 30, he felt a change must have come into their lives, a break from the past---a passing into full adulthood with not just the realisation of, but full experimentation with pain, fragility, longing… He had been waiting for some such experience himself, but in his mind it had eluded him. He expected too much from the scheme of things. It was pockets of experience he sought. But he had been denied them, he felt. He felt if he had to write, he might as well start, however haltingly, and not wait to be pushed into it by some personal earth-shattering event. Such an event may not come by.
But he feared he ought not to write. To play with characters' lives took upon a reality he was uncomfortable with. He was anyway too given to modifying his own actions to suit what he thought was appropriate. He feared that if he let go and played with his characters freely he would not be able to rein in his tendency to closely monitor his own conduct.
It was getting dark outside and it was time to return to his desk at the office and work on the letters that would be published in next day’s edition. He folded the Indian Express, crushed his coffee cup, nodded at the serving guy and broke out into the world. A world where simply the action of stepping on the pavement was an act of will that he found pleasingly definite against the now burdensome, now fleeting weight of life.