“Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic”…my son Rahul, chanted the names of oceans in an attempt to memorize them for his school examinations. I sat reading the stale news off an open page of the newspaper on the coffee table, slowly sipping my evening concoction of honey, lemon juice and some pungent tonic, which my wife had procured from a distant relative, who asserted himself as a master of ‘Ayurveda’, every time he met her.
I did not disturb the newspaper from its position on the table, continued pouring down the light brown, piss-warm liquid down my throat in sheer resignation. There was not much to do otherwise. Every evening I was brought face to face with this abominable lull in my routine. I came back from office and with nothing to do, tried to camouflage myself into the household. The TV could not be switched on. It was my son’s study time and living in a small apartment, where I did, it was practically impossible not to distract the child with the streaming visuals. My wife busied herself in the kitchen cooking the last meal of the day. And I sat around, in the living room, very much as a part of the furniture.
I initially offered to help her with her chores, however could never get her to approve anything of what I did, even if meant peeling potatoes. I peeled too thin or too deep, she would tell me and would snatch the knife and the brown misery out of my hands to do it herself and I would return to the woods (the table and chair in the living room).
This evening was no different. I sat and sipped and shuffled and sipped more.
“Can we build a bridge from Pacific to Indian Ocean?” Rahul broke my slumber. I was amused at the audacity of the question.
“No”, I replied.
“Why”, he wanted to know.
“Because an ocean does not have banks like a river, over which one would want a bridge to be built to go to the other side. In fact all these oceans comprise of one global interconnected body of salt water and are given different names to identify them with respect to the continents.” I explained.
“So why can’t we have only one name for all?” he continued.
I had no answers and did not try much to build one. Instead, felt the urge to just evade all unnecessary conversation and picked up the news paper.
“Study”, was all I said.
He looked at me for what was just longer than a moment. Obviously unsatisfied and feeling discouraged, lowered his neck into the book again and continued his chant. “Arctic…Indian…Pacific…”
I closed my eyes and continued to distance myself from the living room and let my thoughts wander off. I jumped off the balcony, floated over the parking spots and flied over the fencing, continued to rise reaching fluffy clouds and sped south, gliding over landscapes till I found myself on a beach with roaring waves and orange sun diving in water to extinguish itself. I always dreamt of seas and oceans and large waters when searching solitude.
It gave me a heightened sense of my being. Feeling miniscule at the sight of a water body that could lap up your existence in a flash, yet standing on shore with firm feet looking at the spectacle, feeling you ruled it and ordered it to come and splash water at your feet.
However today, my thoughts turned to a different ocean. A decade ago, I stood on the shore when the tide lifted and threw me to the other side of the ocean.
It was about eleven years now since I last saw or heard of her. Those were different times, crazy days – days of obsession and dreams. Nights that followed gradually burnt with words that flowed from mind to paper like a stream.
I had then just joined National Science Institute as a junior research scientist. Dr. Das introduced me to her as a bright young chap who would be working under her supervision and guidance on resolving chemical compositions for Forensics department.
Dr. Neha looked at me through her glasses, smiled and extended her hand.
“Welcome to NSI.”
“Thank you, Madam.” I adjusted my tie and clasped.
“We have been overworking for quite some time now, hope you make yourself useful soon.”
Though she was only about a year senior and almost had the same job description as mine, there was an authority in her voice. She called the peon, who led me to a desk outside her small cabin and brought me a couple of manuals to help me be on board.
Days went by and I did make myself useful. I usually was a patient, hardworking type, just the right kind to deal with slow titrations and acid mixing and was soon in good books of my supervisors. There was an early promotion and I soon shared the same profile as Dr. Neha. While I saw her as a senior colleague earlier, I started noticing her as a friendly peer now.
It wasn’t long that I found myself being attracted to her flowing laughter and bright eyes. I was smitten by her smile and often swooned by her personality and the way she carried herself. She entered the room and lighted it with her radiant countenance and resplendent eyes.
Individually we were poles apart. Having come from a small town & a conservative family, I often found myself tongue tied before her and gaped at her knowledge of the world. I started seeing her as a bright shining star and was always in awe of her magnetism and charisma. She was a fluent talker and seldom lost an argument. I normally stuttered and could hardly even begin any. Long before I started putting my point across, the debate was usually over. I had nothing significant attached to my persona or credentials to have some one even notice me. I was lanky and average looking, while Neha came off just a little less than a screen diva.
I would hang around her attempting to strike a conversation and the day I could have a word with her off the professional jargon, I would beam all over. I would go back that day knitting yarns of possibilities that I could create to talk further on the subject, in fact any subject.
She normally reached for a cup of coffee before beginning work. I made it a point to reach office earlier than her so as not to miss a single minute of her being around and very often ‘accidentally’ ran into her at the vending machine. I still can’t say if she ever noticed.
I realized that I had to do something to make an impression, for her to notice me. I had no special skill apart from my work. I started working over time to win appreciation. Started reading ferociously and regularly took initiatives to improve things around. Once back from work, I looked forward to the next day so as to see her at the office. Needless to say I never missed office or ever got late. No sick leaves, No vacations, never late. Gradually and surely my work earned me respect and I rose in ranks. Promotions, rewards and compliments followed.
During this period, it was announced via a public notice that I was to be appointed the head for the forensics team and would receive a shield for my overall performance in a coming annual function – a shield that would state in golden letters that I was a winner and amounted to something in life.
For the first time in my life, I felt elated and grew in confidence. Graduating from a mere acquaintance and colleague to Neha to a profound relationship seemed possible for the first time. The function was a week away. I assumed that it would be the best day to confess my love for her. I planned the details. I would go to her straight after receiving the shield and go down on knees and ask her to marry me. I even toyed with the idea of requesting the presenter to ask Neha to hand me the shield.
I sat in my office watering the saplings of my thoughts. My cerebrations soared from talking to her parents, getting my folks to approve this, planning the wedding, the getaway thereafter, naming the kids and growing old with her. I was high on life, my spirit rose, I smiled and felt tickles all over. Life was perfect. I went home that night a fanciful young man intoxicated by the wine of life and love.
I returned to office the next day to face the worst day of my life. I was aghast. I stood stupefied, gasping for breath. I was choking, heavy and lumpy and on verge of tears. The peon carried the box of sweets around, sponsored by Neha. She had got engaged last evening. The groom was a NRI and she would be married in a week and flying away in 4 weeks.
I felt small again. Humiliated and shattered. The shield was now only a piece of crafted tin on a block of wood. I left early that day and took the remaining week off, something I had not done in my 3 years stint at NSI. The next day Neha dropped in her resignation and left – notice period waived off owing to her previous exemplar performance.
Three years went by.
I was reading the in-flight magazine while traveling from Delhi to Bombay. I had absorbed myself in work for all these years and had grown to become a speaker and trainer on certain subject matter on forensics and was slated to attend a seminar in Bombay. The flight was running on IST, delayed by over an hour and stranded at Ahmadabad.
I was almost done with the magazine when I heard a familiar voice request me to shift to the window.
“Could you please move, Sir. I have a baby with me and would prefer the aisle to be able to get up easily if need be?” she asked.
I looked up to find a young mother carrying a baby wrapped in pink tweed and resting on the lady’s shoulder. I remembered her as my Goddess.
“Neha, Is that you?” I exclaimed.
“Not you, after all these years? Where have you been?” It was her turn to be surprised now.
“Where have I been? I have been there all the while, where you left me“? I could not believe I had the nerve to say that.
She did not reply and patted the baby.
She was traveling alone and going to Bombay to meet her husband who was now posted there. She, after quitting her job, went to the states with her husband and returned a year ago, stayed a while with her parents who still lived at Delhi and had come to Ahmadabad to see her sister who was settled there. She informed me with an uncanny detail that I never earlier associated her with.
“So how has life been treating you?” she wanted to know.
“Nothing, pretty much the same; still working with the same chemicals, just got a few more assistants to do the mixing for me now.” I fumbled and stuttered again.
“Married?” she wanted to know.
“No, not yet.” I found myself groping in darkness with the answers. I wanted her to know the truth. I wanted to tell her, had her engagement been delayed by a week, I would have let my heart open. I found myself choking on the same lump again.
“I read in the papers about some research that you had carried; must say that you have come a long way. Congratulations, really.” She smiled.
I was caught unawares. I was lost in time. Her smile still mesmerized me. I could see my shining star and never before I had been so close. I wanted her to know how much I owed her for the recognition and the work that I ever did. All my research papers were dedicated to her. All my words, all my work, my entire being; I didn’t know any more if I existed without the meaning that she gave to my life. I didn’t remember if I ever existed without her thoughts.
“Thanks.” It was all I could muster.
I had nearly 45 minutes before the flight would reach Bombay. Probably I would lose all contact with her once again. She would probably step out of the flight and I would never see my angel again. I was caught between the fine line of ardent devotion and adultery. She was somebody else’s wife, mother of a child, probably living a life of joyful marital bliss. She was also my guiding light. My palms were sweating, my throat was parched.
Her perfume evoked my senses. Her arm touched mine as she rested the baby in her lap. I ran cold, turned stiff and felt frozen to death. It had never happened before. I was a man of principles. I never ever had displayed any traces of any inappropriate behavior let alone being immodest with a lady. Yet here, I controlled a huge rush in my veins with greatest discomfort. I found myself being flushed inside out. I badly wanted to feel her touch, much like a hermit coming out of a trance to see the divinity. I wanted to hold her once and cry my heart out. It was agonizing. I yearned for a gentle brush that could set me free. I never dared.
I looked at the baby –a bonny cheerful bundle of delight. She moved her hands and feet gleefully, swimming in the air. She was light eyed as her mother. Neha did something to her belly and she let a huge toothless, mute giggle. I could not suppress a smile.
“She is quite a bundle.” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, loves to hold my fingers” The mother beamed in pride.
I looked at Neha’s face. She didn’t seem to be there any more. Neha I knew and which swelled my heart with my emotion was lost in background to a doting mother who smiled and played with the baby and was a different person, a stranger to me.
I closed my eyes. Neha, I was crazy about, which turned me head over heels, only existed in my thoughts and dreams now. She was a part of my being and continued to thrive there, living with me day and night, sharing my dreams and my sorrows, my highs and my sighs. I was in love with the Neha I knew so. The lady next to me only shared her name & that too, I must admit only partially (the surnames changed).
I felt at ease. The dilemma ceased to exist. It was pointless to express my feelings to the lady next to me. She didn’t know me and I didn’t know her. Neha, my Goddess was swept away by a large wave and was taken to the other side of a huge ocean that existed between us now, an ocean – vast and deep, one that could not be swum across. It extended from my being to hers, from my sleepless nights to her sunny days. Every wave that broke upon the shores of my barren land released foam of my half dreams and a spray of little stories of my life.
We talked little over the course of the journey. She busied herself tending to her daughter and I submitted myself to the in-flight magazine all over again. The plane touched ground and she looked relieved. She gave me her E-Mail id. It was a shared account with her husband. They shared everything she said brightly. I pocketed the card and nodded in agreement.
I walked her to the gates of the airport and helped her move her luggage cart. She took the taxi and I waited a while at the gate. She looked back and waved.
I waved back and watched her take the journey once again – to the other side of the ocean.
“I have learnt the names of all the continents, countries and currencies and the names of all the oceans. Can I turn on the TV now?” Rahul stood next to my chair, rolling his round brown eyes, just like his mother, bringing me back, to my side of the ocean.