When the sun is at its peak at twelve in the afternoon, every singular beam seemingly turns up at the window, filtering through the fine cloth of the beige curtains as they sway to the rhythm of the breeze from the fan. The ripples made are perfect like the deft strokes of an artist’s brush, created with a swerve of a skillful wrist. The corner remains illuminated with a hue of pomegranates.
The arrangement was a composition in itself, like a stage waiting for its own show to unfold, until a day came when the actors showed up. There were no audiences or applauses. The performers played their part and left. The story was absorbed by the walls that bore witness to many such stories and kept those to themselves.
Aparna was a regular at the Coffee House. She spoke to no one, looked at no one and treated the crowd in general like something trivial as a benign cyst one is occasionally reminded of, but is generally disregarded in the humdrum of daily life. No one knew why she came at the exact hour when she did, or where she disappeared to half an hour later. No one could say they had seen her sauntering along the busy sidewalks or stopping by at the countless second hand bookstalls lined along the place, although she did carry a different book with her on each of her visits, books bore strong resemblance to the ones sold at the second hand bookstores. The Coffee House welcomed a new set of customers every day and to the staff and the recurring ones, she was the woman who sat by the window with the beige curtains, ordered coffee and read a different old book every single day. She never brought friends; neither did she seem to accidentally stumble across anyone. Such was the whole setup with her as the central figure that as time went by, people began to treat the corner in the same manner as one treats a canvas with an absorbing painting on the wall. Aparna had unknowingly become an integral part of the establishment, a portrait of languid aloofness and intense contemplation at the same time.
The show was finally staged on a Tuesday at half past twelve with a tap on the shoulder.
Aparna furrowed her brows slightly. A lull hovered around her wrist as the circular motion of stirring the coffee paused for a while. Turning around, her eyes met those of a puzzled intruder, who seemed somewhat guilty following his thoughtless act a while ago.
“Aparna…?” the uncertain voice resounded with a husky baritone.
“Yes?” the other peered from above her black framed spectacles with a thin orange line running along the border. The russet eyes were alert and quizzical, perhaps a tad irritated.
“Aparna it is, then!” the person revealed his self completely, standing right in front of her, a smile laced with hesitation.
“Do I know you?” Aparna spoke, a brusque disinterest mingled with genuine skepticism.
“Wha…? Know me…?” the man seemed somewhat taken aback.
It would be improper, perhaps, to call him a man. He was rather an adult on his way to becoming completely so. The thin line which demarcated him from one was the way in which he gawked with disbelief. Perhaps he did not think it improper, but Aparna did, and mentally made a note. She disliked gawking, and found people practicing that to be of poor taste. Maybe she had been taken for someone else, but the name…
“I’m Shrovan, remember? We were in the same school…before you left abruptly sometime in the middle of the eighth… or was it the ninth grade…? Anyhow, thereafter there was no news from you…,” Shrovan blurted all at once, thereafter fell to thinking if he had spelled out something unsuitable in the hurry, and if he had got his words right.
“Did it really matter?” Aparna asked coolly, staring intently at the foam collected in a circle around her fresh cup of coffee. Shrovan stood uncomfortably before her table, not sure whether he was expected to make any reply.
“Take a seat,” said Aparna carelessly, looking beyond the glass of the window. The view outside resembled a show on television with the volume turned off. Shrovan had been on the verge of making a remark but Aparna’s cold response cut into his thoughts, and he sat down mechanically.
The waiter came to take an order, not concealing his astonishment on seeing a second person seated at the sacrosanct corner which seemed like it had always been meant for only one.
After placing his order, Shrovan turned towards Aparna. There was something akin to haughtiness reflecting from her demeanor. Clearly, she wanted him to leave. It is strange how even the most outspoken of people often fail to speak exactly what they want to, and how the one at the receiving end continues to pretend like nothing is the matter even though they know that they are the ones making things uncomfortable. Shrovan and Aparna continued with this tradition, although the latter did not seem too inclined to keep up appearances for the sake of it.
There was a prolonged spell of silence during which Shrovan felt nothing except painful jabs of humiliation owing to Aparna’s disregard. Finally he attempted at a casual discourse.
“So…how have you been all these years? Where did you take off suddenly like that? I didn’t know you lived in this city…or are you here…?”
“Can we stop pretending that you are even remotely interested in my life?” Aparna cut across. Her words had the effect of a blade making a slight but impressionable mark, spilling a drop of blood or two. Shrovan got up.
“I’m sorry for bothering you,” he said stiffly. “Clearly, you are not desirous of my company and my being here was nothing more than an intrusion on your private space.”
Aparna looked up at him, her lips curling into a crooked wan smile, amused as if by this sudden outburst.
“Sit down,” she said, her voice steady and sure. “I did not mean to offend you. I only spoke the truth. You cannot care about what happened to me in all these years any more than I could about you. Your interest is a sham; it bores me. I have little patience for it.”
The waiter arrived with the coffee and placed it before Shrovan.
“You have changed, Aparna,” said he with some aspersion.
“Change is the only permanence, have you noticed? Nothing else is permanent in any way,” the crooked smile hovering on Aparna’s lips broadened into a sardonic smirk.
“You’ve always had your way with words, Aparna, right since school…”
“Did I? I never thought anyone paid heed…the least of all, you – Head Boy, a topper throughout – ‘an academic phenomenon’, as they called you… Too popular you were, to pay heed to a girl who was just another name to you. That reminds me, I’m surprised you remember my name at any rate.”
Shrovan disliked the metallic tone of her voice although he was aware that not all of what she was saying was untrue. Not all of it.
“Of course I paid heed. Everyone did,” said he, trying to swallow in the mockery. “You were among the best writers we had at school.”
“Either that is the biggest lie ever told or the worst form of consolation ever offered. You can take your pick,” Aparna said, feeling the texture of the curtains against her thumb and index finger.
“You seem determined to be offensive. I can only take so much and leave,” Shrovan said with an unusual calm in his voice.
He was about to get up for the second time when he noticed an open book on Aparna’s side of the table. Shrovan could not recall whether it had been lying there all along, or if she had just brought it forth. The pages flailed like the wings of a trapped butterfly and gave the appearance of a Chinese fan.
“Have you read it?” Aparna asked suddenly, noticing Shrovan’s abrupt raptness of attention.
“Never been a great reader. Although I don’t know what book it is…”
“You should read it,” said she, pushing the book towards him. “The first page at least.”
Although he took it in his hands, Aparna could tell he was not interested.
“That was your problem. You were never a great reader, just like everyone else,” she said absently. “You could never, and still not, read me although I was and am as transparent as an open book. Neither you nor anyone else could see how isolated I was from the two hundred other people in the ninth grade. You talked with me, but superfluously, just like everyone else did and that made me think, ‘How is he different then, from the two hundred odd assortment? And yet everyone speaks of him as though his intelligence is something to be coveted.’ I was just a face in the crowd for you, same as anyone else. And after all these years, you come up to me pretending that you care about what I did with my life in this span of time. When I pointed that out, you found it offensive, although I am not wrong from my side. I am tired of pretences, of false civilities, and with you there is no conversation to be had.”
It was difficult to tell if Shrovan was truly interested in the book or whether he was using it as an escape from listening to what Aparna was saying. Aparna sipped her coffee. Her throat contracted and expanded as the liquid slid down, although the movements betrayed that the flow was not an easy one. Either Aparna was resentful at having spoken what she did in the heat of the moment, or the relief of unburdening her bosom at one go had been too much to take.
At length, Shrovan looked up from the book.
“How many pages did you read?” said Aparna.
“Half of the first,” said Shrovan.
“Just half? And how did you like it?”
“I did not understand it. The diction was too difficult for me to comprehend.”
Aparna looked with queer disbelief.
“Difficult to comprehend? And what was so difficult to comprehend? It is written in English. You have a fair understanding of the language, I’m sure,” she sneered.
“I have a fair understanding of the language, Aparna; it is the style that fails me. But you will not understand that,” Shrovan said, a wistful smile gathering on his brows. “You were this book, Aparna, open but incomprehensible. There were words written in the common tongue, but the style was abstract. I am a simple person. I do not understand such complex thoughts. I am not literary, you know.”
“Yes I know. You were always good at equations, but unfortunately, life or people are not complex equations with formulas provided so that solving them becomes easy,” said Aparna.
“Maybe you are right, but most people take life as a complex equation. They know that there can never be one specific formula to derive the correct answer, so they keep trying different methods. None of them gives out the correct answer, but an answer that is the closest to being correct. All our lives, we keep looking for that method that will give us the closest possible right answer, isn’t it?”
“So what you are saying is that there are no formulas to simplify the equation that is me?”
“I wish you were an equation, but you are not,” Shrovan sighed. “You are an open book with abstract writings all over. They definitely make perfect sense to some, but I will not pretend it makes sense to me. There are some books everyone dubs as being brilliant, but not even a quarter of them on being asked are able to point out what it is in them that makes them brilliant. You are that book, Aparna, and I will not wear the garb of a pretentious intellectual to give the selfsame verdict. It is not as if we never tried to ‘read’ you, Aparna. It is just that you were way beyond our ability of comprehension.”
“It is strange how people have been made accustomed to things easy,” Aparna’s voice trembled for the first time. “But what of the convolutions of a human heart or the knots within the labyrinths of a perplexed mind? Is there a way to make those simple? Was there ever?”
In a few minutes, Aparna and Shrovan were on their own ways and were soon lost in the brimming crowd that walked the roads of the city. They made no promises of meeting again and the probability of them coming across each other was the easiest answer ever to an equation. The conversation, although poignant, had no relevance in their lives thereafter. Shrovan continued just as he had been before he met Aparna, and possibly forgot the contents of the exchange before the week went stale. Aparna probably remembered parts of it, parts that knifed her like an unnamed insult, although she never made anyone a solicitor to her thoughts.
The show had ended. The curtains were dropped. No one applauded because the Coffee House was too busy that day to pay heed to the idle talk that was exchanged near the window with the beige curtains.
24 July 2014