“Focus, Avinash. Focus!”
Avinash looked. He saw the Sun dropping beyond the horizon. The lake looked placid, ruffled occasionally by the wind. The crowd thinned as the evening advanced. Dark cumulus edged forward from the East and hung like a canopy over the darkening water.
“What do you see, Avinash? Please talk to me!”
“I see her,” he whispered. “She is on a boat with her friends, fellow picnickers in an alien land.”
“Look at me, Avinash. Do you see me?”
“I see you.” He responded. “And I see her. As clearly as I see you.”
“What am I wearing?”
“You are wearing shorts. You are looking at the bridge. The boat is going fast. You wanted to touch it.”
“Avinash! You are not looking at me. Is that what I am wearing?”
“You are like the leopard that is about to spring. You want to leap…No! Don’t do that!” His voice rose in anguish and despair.
“Avinash. Look. You need to look. Look at me.”
He looked again. He saw her stretched over the railing. Bent over it, and any minute she could keel over. Into the lake below. Into the hyacinth-infested murky waters. Into the hole in the ground from where the living don’t rise and walk the earth again.
“Hey! Get down, will you? I am looking at you.” Avinash sounded hoarse and rushed to her side.
“Look, Avinash. I am right here. By your side. What do you see now?”
He felt her hands, small, frail and delicate like a flower. The hollow of the palm was soft to the touch, like velvet. The painted fingernails arched like the thorns of a cactus.
“I feel you. And I can feel her too. She is right over there in the boat. About to leap into the air.”
“Why? Why would she do that? Why, Avinash, do tell me?”
His eyes shone like glass marbles. A film of tears screened them. And he looked, but what he saw was not what she saw.
“She wanted to feel the underside of the bridge. Feel the moss on it. Smell its mouldering walls.”
“Why, Avinash. Why would she want to do that?”
“She loves jumping about, Syamala, her feet are not planted on the earth. She loves to leap and fly, you know, soar like the eagle in the sky.”
“Here, Avinash. Hold my hand. There, you see?” She caught him by his arm and spun him. The two gyrated like tops on a concrete floor.
The Sun went down for good and the moon came up lazily over the horizon, casting a long shimmering column of light over the lake. The December chill set in and the last of the picnickers left, leaving the two careening in each other’s arms.
“Come, let’s get something to eat,” Syamala said. “I am famished.”
They went to an eatery overlooking the lake. The awnings flapped in the light breeze and the colors all around – the chairs and the tables, the pillars and the counters – all the colors dazzled and contrasted sharply with the dark sinusoidal flow of the waters below.
Avinash bit into the sandwich, let go of it and settled to nibbling the edges. Syamala looked at him and her eyes moistened, ready to brim over. She checked herself and quickly downed hers with coke.
Avinash looked at the sandwich as though he was seeing it for the first time. He gave her a weak smile and ate hurriedly. “Don’t waste your time on me, Syamala. You go to your hostel now.”
“And what will the master do here alone? Your children will expect an alert mind tomorrow?”
“Oh, I have only one class tomorrow and I planned to give them a test. You will need to get some rest, you know. Your have two classes to take tomorrow, remember?”
Syamala sighed. “I won’t leave you here, Avinash. Not when you are … You know … Er, please, at least let me drop you at your place.”
“Don’t worry about me. I am seeing a psychiatrist. Didn’t I tell you?”
Syamala shrugged and looked away. “Let’s talk it over, Avinash. We will try and get over it, together. Don’t just leave it to the shrink.” She paused, shook her head, and then she said, “It may not help you at all.”
“What do you know about them? You seem pretty sure about it.”
She squirmed a bit and looked at the lake waters lapping on rocky soil. Avinash regarded her keenly and for sometime the daemon in his head retreated, leaving him free to live in the present.
“It’s a long story, Avinash. Could we talk about it some other time?”
Avinash felt the utter lack of conviction in her voice. She seemed to hedge and he felt all the more drawn towards her.
She sensed the change in him and wishing it to continue played along catch-me-if-you-can.
“What is that book you carry in your pocket? Do you keep a diary?”
Avinash pulled out a little red notebook from his back pocket and put it on the table. “I keep some notes in it. I record the precious moments in my life and my thoughts surrounding them.”
“Interesting. May I see it?”
He pushed the notebook towards her, watching her eager eyes sparkle in the light from the lampposts. Her hair looked tousled from the breezes that rushed into the eatery from time to time. She kept pushing her chunni over her shoulders even as the mischievous wind played truant, exposing now and then the buxom fullness of her womanhood. The edge of her faintly orange kurta flapped against the table, revealing the white pajamas that hugged her long slender legs.
She opened the book at a random page and found a small folded paper snuggled in the middle of the book. She looked up inquiringly and found Avinash watching her.
She felt a strange sensation coursing through her body, like a wire suddenly coming to life when it is connected to a battery. She closed her eyes and felt the sleeping cells awaken in her body.
“Don’t like what you see?”
“Huh?” She opened her eyes and looked at Avinash. Following his gaze she saw to her horror that her fist had closed over the parchment paper from his diary. Flustered and thoroughly contrite she released her hold on it. Avinash picked it up as it rolled towards him.
“I am sorry, Avinash. I am terribly sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Tears sprang to her eyes. He smiled softly and laid his hand over hers. “It’s nothing,” he said gently, squeezing her hand.
“Tell me; what is it?” She pushed her tears back and swallowed the lump in her throat.
“I found it in one of my father’s books when I left home. Nothing much to it really. See,” he said and held it out to her.
She rubbed her thumb in the hollow of his palm and took the paper. It was a fading photocopy of a boy in the garb of a mendicant – loin cloth, ash-smeared forehead, long walking stick from which hung a cloth bound bag, flat wooden sandals that had one ringless butt and the face, the face of a monk, of Little Avinash in search of the Great Truth.
“Wow! It is soooo cute.” She pressed it to her cheek and rubbed it gently, up and down, up and down. Avinash puckered his lips into a smile when she said, “need to remove the wrinkles you know…” and winked at him. What he said next shocked her.
“That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
Her face withered like a flower. Her fingers trembled as she held the photo between them. She blurted out: “At least you would have been spared the torture of losing her.”
Seeing the look of intense sadness in his eyes, she grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the chair. She wedged the xeroxed monk between the pages of his notebook and dropped it into his breast pocket.
“Come, Avinash. Let’s stroll along this lake.”
He allowed himself to be led, but the eatery’s clock reminded him of the time. “You must go now, Syamala. It’s getting late.”
The moon played hide-and-seek as dark clouds loomed in the sky. The wind raced stronger and the chill intensified. The street lamps blinked, and momentarily mirrored the darkness on the lake.
She threw her hands in the air and mimicked a jaunty gazelle as she walked. “The night is young,” she declared, lifting her chin to the sky. Stretching her arms, she intoned: “Life is long. Let’s be strong.” She looped her arm around his and looking into his eyes sang: “March along and tarry not for the sunken boat.”
Avinash found her ardor infectious. “Did you make that up?” he asked a little incredulous at her spontaneous rhapsody.
She winked at him and the stars twinkled in her eyes. She pressed her face into his arm and interlocked her fingers with his.
Avinash felt the blood rushing through him as if a river bound were in full spate. Color rouged his cheeks. Shaking himself, he said, “what do you know about shrinks?”
“Aha, the shrinks. Don’t the Americans know what to call them? They shrink your mind into believing what they think is the truth about you. Don’t be fooled by their theories of guilt and sexual mumbo jumbo.”
“You must have been to at least one to be so categorical about them.”
She nodded. Her head bobbed up and down and up and down. Her chest heaved in unison. And a vein in his arm, now arrested under the heaving bosom, throbbed with each successive wave of emotion.
“I saw one when life became unbearable.”
“I ran away from my husband.” She coiled round his arm and looked up into his eyes. He found them beseeching with an invitation to come and share her plight.
“You are a married woman,” he said matter-of-factly. The chill in the wind grew, but his voice utterly lacked it.
The pressure on his arm increased. The warmth flowed freely between them, like heat in an induction coil.
“He butchered me everyday, like I was a lump of flesh.”
He let his head hang on the back of his neck. The sky clouded over and the lake sprang to life from time to time lit up by flashes of lightning. A spot of wetness touched his eyes: he did not blink.
The road became bereft of passers-by. The lamps lost their intense glow. The wail of a suburban train pierced through the gloom as it rattled over the tracks. A bird had apparently lost its way for it hopped from tree to tree in desperation.
“Man,” he whispered. She was all ears. “Why did he ever leave the abode of God and build his own world? A world of immense suffering for fleeting moments of joy?”
A squall of thunder drenched the entwined figures. The water went into every nook and crevice in their burning bodies. It riled into his pockets and made pulp of the little book. It washed her face and filled her bosom. She felt clean and new and upbeat. For him, it was the answer. It was the cleansing of all that he held dear to his heart, all that he carried in his mind, all that he felt was elsewhere but here and now.
“Syamala, I see you clearly now.” He looked into her eyes and drew her closer. “Come. The storm has passed. Let’s go home.”