“Mili!.. You can’t do this. You can’t just run away and leave me high and dry!” Ahaan complained aloud when after searching up and down several narrow streets of the small hillside town, he came upon her standing casually at a relatively large crossroad.
She didn’t say a word, nor did she look at him.
He smiled, understanding the cause of her irritation–herself, and decided not to pursue the topic any further. “Lunch? I’m sure we can agree on that.”
She glanced up at him. He had uttered the right words. “Fine. Where do you wish to go?”
“Hmmm…” He glanced at his watch, “I think La Belle Vie is 15 minutes or so from here. Sid recommends it. Shall we give it a try?”
“Have you made reservations?”
“No. Anyway we should be able to get in. Don’t expect much of a crowd on a weekday.”
“OMG Ahaan! Are you out of your mind? No reservations means no food.” Mili exclaimed. “They won’t even let you hang outside and wait for a table. Annie and I made the same mistake last week and were turned away very rudely!”
Ahaan frowned irritably. “Then the only option left is the Taj…”
“Which is at least 2 miles uphill…”
He let out a frustrated sigh.
“We could certainly go home…Ramu kaka could whip up some…”
‘No way, Mili! I’d rather go hungry,” Ahaan interjected vehemently, “not that I have anything against Ramu kaka…”
Mili smiled, observing him as he cast his eyes into the distance with arms folded across his chest in feigned nonchalance. His earnestness to spend time alone with her was sweet to behold.
“Then there is only one way out. I know of the perfect place where the food is great and there is no wait whatsoever!”
“Then why didn’t Sid tell me about it?”
“Because it’s my little secret and he won’t be caught dead there!”
“Why…? Hey wait up!” Ahaan had to give up on his inquiry, because Mili had already taken off downhill at a fast clip.
He flashed a dubious glance at her when she led him into a tiny strip mall and his heart sank to the pits of his stomach when she came to a standstill in front of a tiny nondescript mom and pop eatery called Marwari Bhojanalaya (Marwari Food Joint.)
“Hush! No cursing in public!”
“I wasn’t… but this is…” Ahaan’s downcast expression said the rest.
“I know but looks are deceptive. Wait till we get in. Besides I have a terrible craving for Daal Baati (lentil soup with wheat dumplings) and this happens to be the only place in Coonoor that serves it.”
Ahaan looked doubtfully at the sizable crowd which had formed a queue outside, “I thought you said that there’d be no wait…”
“I said right. Follow me.” Milli replied with confidence, then marched calmly ahead. After jostling aside a few annoyed customers, she barged into the joint, where to Ahaan’s surprise, they were immediately directed to a table with a plastic ‘Reserved’ sign.
“You had it all planned!”
His fiance managed to look sheepish but only just, “My cravings started in the morning, plus I didn’t get to eat any breakfast. You gobbled up all the idlis (steamed rice cakes)!”
Ahaan glowered at her while reluctantly taking his seat. All he wanted to do at the moment was to rush outside, but incredible hunger overwhelmed his instincts and the aroma in the place fanned it even further. His hopes for a romantic tête-à-tête were completely destroyed for not only was the tiny tavern packed to the gills with noisy customers but their table was also situated in the dead center of the room. He wondered what had caused Mili to bring him over here. Was she afraid to be alone with him?
“Eat your food. You have been frowning at your plate for the past 5 minutes.”
He woke up from his unhappy reverie to discover Mili beaming at him while slurping the thick yellow daal (lentil soup) from a katori (small bowl). She appeared ecstatic, floating in some kind of culinary paradise and the vision brought an indulgent smile to his lips.
You lose some, but then you also gain a lot.
He chose to indulge her, but no sooner had he placed a sampling of the spicy wheat baati (dumpling) in his mouth that they were inundated by a flood… a flood of people—the same ones who had been staring unabashedly at them for sometime. Perhaps they had been biding their time, waiting for the appropriate moment.
Mr. Sundaram, in a starched white shirt and dhoti, ventured to be the initial player. First he asked Mili to be introduced to the young man who was accompanying her. Then turning to Ahaan with a bright smile, he volleyed at him a barrage of queries about his life in the capital, his father’s death, his job (including his experiences in dealing with foreign governments,) so on and so forth.
Ahaan, to his credit maintained his cool, and replied in the most succinct and businesslike manner. But matters didn’t end there, for Mr. S was followed by Mr. M, who was followed by Mr. L, then Mrs. V, all wanting to know the exact same information. Ahaan had never been interrogated by so many people before. Soon he was assailed by profound claustrophobia.
“That was the most exhausting lunch I’ve ever had!” Ahaan declared, making a beeline for the juice stand, where he ordered a tall glass of freshly pressed sugarcane juice.
Mili laughed, following behind and plunked down beside him on a narrow wooden bench, “sorry Ahaan. I didn’t expect it to be so bad.”
He appeared momentarily shocked, “So it was all part of a grand plan. I’d begun to suspect that you were back to your old ways!”
“That is so unfair Ahaan!” She exclaimed and turned her back to him in a huff.
“You know, you are just like that monkey over there…” Mili heard him whisper in her ear, while indicating towards a bonnet macaque ambling on the roof of a nearby store. He thrust a glass of frothy pale green liquid in her hand, “…constantly in motion, capricious, fickle yet immensely entertaining.”
“You called me a monkey?!”
“But you implied it.”
“So what if I did…?” He said grinning foxily at her, while handing over a bunch of notes to the juice walah (vendor) and heading out.
“You think you are so clever, Mr TOI, but you are not.” She said running to catch up with him. “I bet you don’t even know why I brought you here today!”
He stopped to stare searchingly at her. “A silly prank?”
She shook her head, “I couldn’t expect you to think otherwise. The real reason is that, the 15 or so people we met today, will meet 15 more tomorrow and so on. Soon everybody in town would know. No one will give us strange looks or whisper behind our backs when they see us together. We will be free to go around as we please.”
He stepped uncomfortably close, “Does it mean that if I choose to kiss you in the middle of a wide open street no one would raise a finger?”
She flushed, “You will do nothing of the sort!”
He burst out laughing, “Don’t worry, I was just trying to establish the limits to my indiscretions. I’ll test that premise once we are wed. But I must say that I’m impressed. I could have never guessed that my wife could think so far ahead. I count myself lucky Mili.”
“I’m not your wife!” She said, her voice quivering.
“You will soon be. If I have my way.” His demeanor was one of quiet confidence. And I’m sure I will.
After strolling some distance lost in their individual thoughts, they found themselves on an unpaved road surrounded by a dense thicket of trees on either side.
Ahaan’s eyes lit up, “I know this place.” He glanced at Mili, “I’ve humored you enough. Now its my turn. Come with me!” He said heading directly into the forest.
She stood rooted to her spot, gripped by an acute agitation. What was the purpose behind this sudden excursion? “Where are we going?”
He winked, “It’s my little secret. But don’t fear. You’ll be fine,” he extended his hand.
She nodded and took it. Whether he would take advantage of the situation, wasn’t her concern. Rather, she feared her own reaction if he did.
After about 10 minutes of hiking through thick vegetation, they came upon a steep incline.
“You can’t expect me to climb this.” Mili called after Ahaan who was already several feet ahead.
“I can and I will. A good way to work off the extra calories. Come on!” He waited patiently, while she after some initial hesitation started to climb warily.
To her delight she discovered that it wasn’t a tough terrain at all. Thereafter her progress became more smooth and her steps more certain.
After sometime they came upon an outcrop of rock with no obvious footholds. Ahaan scaled it in a jiffy.
“You go ahead. I’ll stay here and wait.”
“Give me your hand,” He ordered, and when she did, hauled her up in a single smooth move, and before she knew it she was in his arms.
“I’ve brought you this far. So it’s my responsibility to see you through to the end. And we shall both make it together.”
Her eyes focused on the buttons of his shirt, while she waited for her breath to slow down. Under the palm of her hand, his heart thundered away. All her fears had vanished leaving behind something entirely different.
Abruptly he wrenched himself away, and said in a gruff tone, “Take a look Mili, at what you’ve been missing all your life!”
She stared open mouthed at the magnificent vista of the entire valley which confronted her. “Is that Coimbatore?” She asked pointing to the city far below.
“Yes it is. Fortunately the sight is just as wonderful as it used to be 10 years ago.”
“Thank you for bringing me here Ahaan. If it wasn’t for you, I’d have never seen it.”
He glanced slyly at her. “I had an ulterior motive though. I was looking for a companion for all my future trekking trips. Are you game? You have no choice anyway.”
She didn’t look away. I’m ready to face anything as long as it is with you.
Not wanting to leave the place which had brought them closer, they laid down on their backs, side by side on a large partially sheltered boulder and talked. While Mili found out about his daily routine, Ahaan was astounded by her knowledge and passion for music and her sitar. They talked about politics (something that Mili admitted she knew nothing about but was willing to learn,) and about various other things under the Sun.
After a while as the Sun started its descent and the temperature began to cool, Mili felt her eyes droop. In order to escape the enticing embrace of slumber, she threw her arm up in the air and began to play ‘catch the cloud’. Ahaan watched quietly amused, as she chased several of the fast moving brilliantly colored cirrus clouds unsuccessfully and grew steadily frustrated in the process.
“Your fingers are like a sieve. Here, let me help.” He said reaching up and enclosing her tiny hand snugly in his. Then pulling her arm down, he folded it across her waist, with his own lying heavily on top.
Her pulse began to race as he propped himself up by her side and gazed down intently into her eyes. The breeze ruffled his thick wavy hair and the sunlight formed a golden halo around his head.
“Oh Mili…” He moved closer.
She held her breath but did not shut her eyes. The moment seemed to last forever and she believed she almost passed out.
His smile saved her. “We should make a move now. We don’t want to get lost here in the dark. Do we?”
She didn’t think she’d mind getting lost anywhere with him. Not at all.
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