It took some time for Ahaan and Mili to get out of the forest. The dense canopy, which almost completely filtered out the light, impeded their progress considerably, causing Mili to stumble several times. Finally at Ahaan’s insistence she accepted his arm and was nearly carried the rest of the way.
“Thanks.” Mili murmured detaching herself, once back on the road.
“My pleasure. We should do this more often.” he replied, grinning when he saw her cheeks blaze with color.
They strolled back, savoring this new found companionship–the lovely formative phase of a brand new relationship which was supposed to last a lifetime. Mili almost wanted to skip with delight. She curbed the instinct with difficulty. It won’t do for me to appear undignified and childish in front of Ahaan. Though he has probably formed that impression already, she thought, unhappily recalling the events from earlier that afternoon.
On the other hand, Ahaan was pursuing a slightly different theme. Good God! She is proving to be quite a handful; a very beautiful one though. I’ll have to keep my wits around all the time in order to survive. Still, I bet I’m going to enjoy every single moment!
A surreptitious glance found her aiming a vehement kick at a pebble. His hands itched to reach out and pull her into his arms. He stuck them into his pockets instead. Damn this life!
Startled, he looked up. The object of his preoccupation was beaming at him.
“Guess where we are…”
His vision followed her outstretched arm. Of their own accord their feet had taken them down a familiar path, one which led to their old Alma Mater.
Right now his mind was hankering for some distraction. Yet he felt in no hurry to end the evening, “I would like to visit again, for old times sake. Shall we?”
“Yes.. its been awhile…” She replied, excited at the prospect.
The gates were locked. Fortunately the gatekeeper recognized them and let them in.
Dropping by the principal’s office and finding it closed, they chose to wander around on their own.
It was dusk, hence the main school building lay abandoned; most of the activity having shifted to the dorms and student halls. The long open corridors with their series of archways as well as the ancient cobblestone paths which circled the entire campus, echoed with the sounds of running and screaming children.
“Things haven’t changed a lot, have they?” Mili asked, as they sauntered by their old classrooms recalling fondly memories of a gay and carefree past. She paused outside one of them. The door had received a fresh coat of paint and a new board on the side wall announced student achievements and on coming events. She peered inside. The desks and chairs were brand new.
“They haven’t… nor have we. Not much.” Ahaan replied as they continued to walk.
“Yes we have. At least I want to believe I have.” Mili said, coming to a standstill outside the auditorium, her face taking on a grim expression.
“Ahaan…, I can’t believe how nasty I was to you. Do you remember the day when you were on stage leading the debate and I interrupted you constantly, pelting you with questions, trying to upset your rhythm. I don’t know what got into me then, but I regret it now with all my heart!”
He seemed unperturbed, “I do recall the occasion very clearly. To tell you the truth it has been one of the fondest days in my memory.”
“You must be mad!”
“I’m not,” he replied calmly. “Don’t forget that I was the one who won the debate and I believe you helped me win it.”
She stared incredulously at him.
He smiled, “…because your questions were not inane. They were awesome, thought provoking and actually made the whole affair more lively and meaningful. In fact if I remember correctly it was a dead heat in the end and I scraped through just because of my answers to your questions. I’ve never thanked you for that. Let me do so now.” He pulled her around by the shoulders, “Thank you Mili.”
“You are crazy! I had no intention of helping you. It was a bloody coincidence!” She retorted, suddenly feeling breathless.
“Then why did you seek only me out? I wasn’t the only nerd in school. Why didn’t you pick on Sanjay, or JT or even Vish? They were far worse than I ever was!” He demanded sternly.
“I don’t know…” She protested.
“Perhaps because they didn’t interest you as much? Perhaps they didn’t react the way you wanted them to?”
“Ahaan! What are you implying?” She asked, her throat going dry.
He drew her closer, his tone softening, “I just wanted to say that maybe there was something between us even back then… We just didn’t know what it was.”
She broke away from him, laughing nervously. His words made way too much sense. “I just think that you are crazy that’s all!”
“No I’m not.” He said, reaching for her again.
“Let it be Ahaan. I’m not going to argue with you, just because I may win.” She grinned dodging his hands. “You realize what day it is today?” ..then seeing his puzzled frown, “movie night!”
“Yes, so it is… Thursday.” His lips curving into a warm smile. Mili’s heart began to thud hard. She darted out into the yard, fearing that he may hear it.
“Let’s see if they are still carrying on the tradition.” She said, running towards a small circular building.
“Mili.. wait for me! Gosh you are such a kid.” Ahaan laughed, following behind.
And she was right. The tradition was being followed to the T. Even the movie being screened was one of the same.
“Yikes! They are showing Good Will Hunting again! I must have seen it a 100 times already.”
“Recycle, renew, reuse. Don’t fix something that ain’t broken. Most of us weren’t here to watch the show anyway.”
They stood side by side against the back wall. Mili pitied the plight of the students. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she began to look curiously around to see if she could spot a familiar face.
But what she saw had her rushing out the very next moment.
Ahaan found her in the yard, looking quite flushed and agitated.
“Didn’t you see what I saw?”
“See what?” He asked perplexed.
“Those two.. in the back.. they must be barely 13 or 14!” She said in an almost accusatory tone.
“Oh…” He relaxed.
“You saw them.”
“Yes, of course. They were necking and having a very good time I must say.” He snickered at the puzzled look on her face.
“Ahaan, you aren’t shocked?”
“Why should I be? It was commonplace even during our days.”
She looked flabbergasted.
He laughed, “OMG Mili…you are so naive! Guess why Sam and Ravina used to come in late all the time. If you think they were studying you are mistaken.”
She collapsed on the low parapet wall which surrounded an old mahogany tree. It took awhile for her to digest the information. What Ahaan had said was probably true because soon after school, she’d come across rumors that both of the so named culprits had eloped.
“Yes, I guess I’m naive,” she said smiling at him. “But I’m glad that none of us, neither you nor I was interested in anything of that sort.”
“I was.” He replied quietly.
“You were what…?!”
“But the girl I harbored those feelings for was in no mood to reciprocate.” He said, his gaze meeting hers.
“You must be kidding!” She felt a shudder run through her frame.
“No I am dead serious.” He looked it.
“And you kept me in the dark?” Her eyes were dark pools of distress.
“How could I tell you?” He continued bravely. It was time to come clean. “I…I did write a couple of letters but never got around to mailing them.”
“Why…were they disgusting?”
He laughed … “No they were just insanely idiotic.”
“Still you should have said something!” She reproached him.
“I couldn’t, because if I did, you would stop talking to me altogether and that would have been unbearable.”
Mili jumped up, “I.. don’t want to hear anymore.” Her mind was in a tizzy. Turning on her heels, she marched briskly towards the school garden, then onto a narrow path which led to a gate that happened to be one of her favored escape routes during her student days. It looked tinier than before. She scaled it blindly, carelessly pulling on her dupatta (long scarf) that got caught in a thorny rose bush, and broke into a run.
Assailed by a riot of emotions that she couldn’t make any sense of, her head roaring with a flood of confusing thoughts, she didn’t pay heed when Ahaan called out her name. Those school days weren’t as innocent as she had always believed. Her stupidity lay exposed for everyone to see.
It was a wonder that she reached home without any mishap. She fumbled with the heavy shutter of the cast iron gate which refused to budge an inch. She cursed aloud.
“Stop it Mili!” Ahaan grabbed her shaking hands and held on tight, while she struggled.
“Mili…Please you have to calm down!”
“There’s so much I.. don’t know. I wish you hadn’t.. told me.” She muttered haltingly, refusing to look at him, trembling like a leaf.
He sighed softly, “you had to know…sometime or other, better now than later. It is about me…who I was, who I am and I’m not ashamed to own up.” His thumbs stroked her fingers as he spoke. She felt a wonderful tingle spread down her spine. He continued, his voice like melted honey, “initially I thought that it was the same adolescent crap everybody goes through, which will pass with time. But no… the feelings resurged much more stronger than before when I saw you again.” He bent his head close to hers, “but let me assure you…, at no time were my intentions dishonorable. I’ve always held you in the highest regard.”
She looked up, and even in the dim light of the street lamp could clearly see the sincerity in his eyes. Instead of feeling repelled and horrified, she felt strangely thrilled at his revelation and it was downright disconcerting. The heat of embarrassment pricked her cheeks.
“Are you alright?”He asked anxiously. But soon the light of perception dawned in his eyes. And yes,… the beginnings of that gorgeous smile on his lips that had lately become her undoing.
Oh no! He can read my mind. I can’t let him. She wrenched her hands away, pushed the gates open and ran through.
“Mili! Oh c’mon now! You can’t run away like this!” He let out an exasperated sigh.
“I can and I will because I have the right to. Good night.” she retorted with a defiant glance over her shoulder. Yet was persuaded to smile by the sound of his amused chuckle that followed her as she ran towards her room.
Milan (A Wedding Story) and all my other books are available on kindle!