Hope and I: Revathi Raj Iyer

I was waiting at the coffee shop of the resplendent Taj, admiring the interiors of this iconic hotel that had withstood the test of time. The façade overlooking the Gateway of India with the panoramic backdrop of the Arabian Sea has been the hallmark of this maximum city, Bombay where I grew up, renamed as Mumbai to which my daughter belongs. “Five decades!” This city where I evolved from a rebellious teen to a married woman and then a single parent. Ritika was a toddler. It felt daunting at first. My therapist helped me come to terms that I had to raise her all by myself and it was going to be okay. And it was okay except I had to deal with a tantrum teen, a replica of myself. I smiled at this thought.

“Are you waiting for someone?” The hostess interrupted by handing me a glass of sparkling water.
I nodded and accepted it with a smile. 

“Are you a writer, you look so familiar,” she tried to start a conversation. 

“No, I am not,” I said a bit too hastily, not wanting to engage and happy to be left alone with my thoughts. She left with a forced smile, hurt by my brusqueness.

As I watched the girl walk jauntily towards the next table balancing a tray with teapot, cups and cookies, I realised that I was starving. My stomach was rumbling but I decided to wait. As I gulped the water, the glass slipped and crashed on the marbled tile. The hostess turned around, hesitated and walked away. 

I took a deep breath and started fiddling with the tissue. I hated to admit that I was nervous. A boy sprung from nowhere, scooped the shattered pieces and disappeared.

I was getting impatient. It was only fifteen minutes since I came in. He used to be a stickler for time.

“Why was he late?” I asked myself.

“Search me,” said his voice from a distant memory.

My eyes swept the lobby taking in a group of foreigners having an animated conversation; a couple having a quiet talk. They must definitely be arguing, I could tell from the troubled expression of the girl. In the middle was an infant on a stroller gurgling in between spoonfuls of food.

And then my gaze stopped at the man who was reading. He looked more of the resilient, “disturb me not,” types, deeply engrossed in the wisdom of a book. My eyes settled on the bunch of flowers and candles lit in the corner of the reception. 

That instant it struck me that it was the seventh anniversary of the ghastly attack that had sent shock waves throughout the nation - 29/11/2008. Happened right here in the lobby. Suddenly, I didn’t feel all that good and wished I hadn’t picked this day to be here. 

Ironically, it was also the 30th anniversary of a fond memory, which I had hoped to revive. Hope and I were like twins. 

I struggled hard to not think of those innocent people who had fallen prey to the bullets sprayed randomly and mercilessly whilst waiting at the lobby, little knowing that this was going to be their last tea, last glance at the paper, last chitchat, last laugh, last text, last phone call, last fight, last of everything; their last lap on earth.

“Death was inevitable, but like this? Wasted?” 

I looked around picturing the chaos - people screaming amidst gunshots trying to escape, children wailing, couture dresses soaked in blood, air filled with the deafening sound of excruciating pain where the body had taken the bullet, feet scrambling in search of the exit, lucky ones making their way to safety - amidst the shrill sound of the ambulance, fire engine and police vans with the bomb squad and special team in tow. In a matter of seconds, this serene ambience must have turned into hell.

“No one deserved to die like this.” I reached for a glass of water to calm my nerves, but there was none. I bit my lip and signalled the hostess, unsure whether she really caught my eye.
******
Nikhil and I had our first fancy date at this coffee shop. Until then, it was the college cafeteria and roadside vendors. It took us several months to save for our hi-tea date at the Taj hotel. We belonged to the generation without the instantness of the digital era. Naturally had oodles of patience and savoured the pleasure of waiting for this rendezvous, with an added rush of adrenalin to keep it hush-hush. 

Nikhil was practical. I was a hopeless romantic. We were different, that’s all, but had one thing in common - ambition. I was the sought after designer and spent hours creating posters and charts for the college events whilst Nikhil represented the University in football. I wanted to work in an ad agency. Nikhil aspired to start a business, something to do with IT when computers had not made their presence, cell phones were being talked about and swanky cars were imported. Whoever imagined the luxury of sitting on the couch with a tiny computer on our lap? 

My memory jogged those innocent, carefree and adventurous days that had zipped past in the whirlwind of life. The tender times that we spent together, in each other’s arms - at the college cafeteria, walking along the coast of marine drive unaffected by the mid-afternoon blaze, ignoring the envying and suspicious glances of busy office-goers. We just revelled in the moment.

In pursuit of our dreams, we went our separate ways, confident that distance wouldn’t interfere in our relationship. Life happens, doesn't? And we ended up as somebody else’s wife and husband. Nikhil didn’t come back from the US, he hadn’t promised either. I had assumed that our relationship would win over his ambition. 

“I hope you understand,” were his last words and final goodbye kiss. 
******

The coffee shop was practically empty by now except for the bloke with a book. Tired of waiting and ruminating, I decided to pay attention to my hunger pangs and ordered coffee, croissants and salad. Munching away hungrily, I looked at the mast disappearing beyond the horizon.
******

It had all started on Facebook. One day out of the blue, I found myself staring at this guy who had popped up on my homepage. It was Nikhil. He had changed so much, be-spectacled with beard and silver hair, looking vulnerable and somewhat defeated. But I could tell it was my Nikhil. I sent him a friend request and he accepted instantly. I couldn’t stop myself and on an impulse shared my entire life story, about my daughter Ritika, my divorce and invited him to meet me at Taj. For a week there was no response. In this digital era, a week seemed like a lifetime. I was checking my messages several times a day, victimised by my smartphone.

Maybe he had a wife and children and didn’t want to meet me. I hated myself for acting needy and impatient. And then it came. His response was warm and friendly. My gut feeling was that he was all by himself. I didn’t pry. I was in no rush to know about his past. He would tell me when we met. I was keen on reviving an old friendship and finding out if we still had feelings for each other. 
******

“Amma, please don’t tell me you are having this silly notion of finding lost love and all that shit?” 
I cringed at this insensitive remark. Ritika seemed unperturbed and went on.

“Couldn’t you have found any other guy instead of digging into your past and going after your first love, who dumped you? What am I going to tell my boyfriend? That my gorgeous mother has found her first love, her new love? I will never ever accept that guy as my father.”

“Stop saying that guy, at least say Nikhil,” I said angrily, which she ignored with a shrug. Ritika had this habit of shrugging which meant, ‘whatever, I don’t care.’

“Shall I introduce you to the best online dating site? The success rate is 99% guaranteed,” she brightened up with an expectant look on her sweet, chubby face. Here was my baby doll acting like my mother. I softened. 

“Do they guarantee happiness? In any case, you are way too young to comment on adult relationships.” I said fondly.

She held her head with both hands and stormed out of the room. My eyes followed her. I suddenly became anxious about my daughter. Ritika didn’t listen when I had tried to thwart her attempt to hook up with a guy. 

“Just because he has a tattoo doesn’t mean he is a bad guy,” she defended.  She was always so vulnerable. Growing up without a father had made her a difficult child to deal with. She was just sixteen going on seventeen, when I had yielded and given her the freedom for limited internet usage. As a parent, I had a tough time keeping my daughter safe from all this madness with deference to her level of privacy which had gone a few notches up, as she traipsed into her sweet sixteen.

“Sweet Sexteen,” screamed a poster in her room. She was at an age when she should be cuddling kittens and puppies, not boys, spoke a voice in my head.

“My mother’s stress is not mine,” was a recent addition which felt like a slap on my face, whenever I entered her room. I itched to tear it off.  

She was right, though. How can my stress be hers? But a poster reminding it every single day was a bit much. If I had a husband he would have been a wonderful sounding board and reassured my parenting. Maybe that’s why I sought Nikhil and not just anybody else. 

The coffee shop was nearly empty. I felt odd, tormented and uncomfortable. 
******

It baffled Nikhil as to why Sharmila had got in touch after so many years. What was the point in showing up? It was a momentary weakness when he agreed to meet her. She had not changed much but he had. She would be waiting but he did not have the courage to meet her. 
That family trip from the US had changed his destiny. 
******

I waited another hour and left the coffee shop.
“Did that guy come?” Ritika asked with an edge of sarcasm. 
“No he didn’t. There must be a good reason as to why he did not want to see me.”
“Aww…come on, amma. Why don’t you admit that your choice of men is a disaster? Learn to let go of the past.” She suddenly hugged me and I burst into tears. 
I would never know why Nikhil didn’t show up. Or maybe he would tell me why. I kept checking my messages on Facebook. He was still my friend. But no messages. 
******

Hope and Sharmila were like twins. Not for everyone else. How could Nikhil have met his college sweetheart when he had lost his wife and daughter at the lobby of the Taj and confined himself to a wheelchair, seven years ago?
***

Revathi Raj Iyer: Author of "My Friendship with Yoga” & 
“Syra’s Secret” -  Diverse Short Stories from Siliguri, Singapore & beyond
Facebook: "Expression of pearls"

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