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Was it the wine or my heady emotions, I wasn’t sure, but I could sense that she somehow knew what was coming. Fear crept in me. Did she knew it all along? Even when we were best friends at school?
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Where Your Dreams Take You”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The second winner of our October 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Sangeetha Jaganathan.
The fiery orange in the sky hadn’t yet given way to the soft glow of twilight. The deck’s floor felt warm under my feet. I couldn’t continue the book without straining my eyes and it was almost time to get dinner ready. I could hear myself heave a heavy sigh when I noticed a flight of birds hurrying to settle down at their nests. They flew in unison, each one knowing when to soar up or duck down, tuning to its neighbor’s moves. No matter how big the flock was, they could apparently orchestrate their aerial ballet, like living on the edge, ready to completely transform their patterns in an instant. It would take years of training, for humans to master such maneuvers and we still may not be as perfect as them. What really stops us from living in unison though?
The musings could wait, I chided myself. Leaving ‘The Gentleman in Moscow’ at the deck, I headed to the kitchen to check on the karimeen that has been marinating with a lot of lemon juice since hours. I lit a couple of scented candles to stave off the cooking smell, as the last thing I wanted tonight was a guest disgusted by any odor in the cabin.
Faint light from a pair of approaching headlights and tires crunching the gravel on the narrow road, alerted me to Manya’s arrival. There could be no other traffic in this remote part of the national park at this hour. The patrol car had already done its evening rounds. I had rehearsed this moment numerous times, but I had also counted on the possibility that she may choose to excuse herself at the last minute. But no, she did make it. Does that mean that we’re still friends? We certainly parted so, but only time could ascertain what we mean to each other from here on.
I walked towards the Range Rover, as the chauffeur opened the door for her. Another sturdy man stepped out from the passenger side of the vehicle and headed to the trunk. She too got out, rolling down the sleeves of her kurta, her eyes scanning the environs which then rested on me. A smile beamed across her face and with extended arms she walked towards me. We didn’t let go of each other’s hands even though our hugs weren’t trying to fill the distance of twenty long years. Her round black eyes had not lost their kindness, despite any array of cynicism that life would have thrown at her. The same couldn’t be said for me, but I wasn’t one to be too concerned about it.
“Am glad you’re here” I said.
“Of course, how could I’ve not come?!” she smiled.
The two men were awaiting instructions to handle her bags. They were her entourage, not just her ride. That didn’t surprise me, as I used to be one of them, only it was masked under the pretense of childhood friendship.
As I tried to show her the way to her room, she held me back, pressing my hand gently and said “Congratulations! Am very proud of you, and so is everyone back home!”
“Thanks, it means much to me” I replied.
She got to the dinner table in her pajamas while I had already placed the food at the table.
“Am famished”, she took a bite out of the fish and said “Let no man go hungry in this world, and we could stop most wars.”
I smiled at her quizzically wondering if she was pranking me. Or is this our way of picking up from where we had left?
“Well, maybe some people would lose their jobs, but we could reskill and transition you folks”, she smiled, helping herself to the rice.
The pangs of hunger must have died down, as she slowed her pace. “Bayeux-Calvados, is that the highest honor for war correspondents?”
“Not exactly, but it is a much esteemed one.” I clarified, refilling both our wine glasses.
“Where are you headed next? Tel Aviv? The embassy move is brewing unrest I heard.”
“No, haven’t made up my mind yet.”
She must have sensed the deliberation in my response and inquired “Are you contemplating retirement?!”
I laughed, clearly not ready to address the question. “How is uncle doing?! Does he insist on attending board meetings, even after relinquishing responsibilities to you and Rahul?”
“Do you really think he’ll stop meddling? I only wish he’d listen more to his doctors than the shareholders. In fact, he’s instructed me to drag you back home the first chance I get.”
“I too long to meet him” I said, clearing the plates.
The fireflies were already busy mating, when we fetched our wine to the deck. I had stocked well, knowing that I’d need it most. The clouds were kind enough to not shut out the moon while we shared our life notes. Did I carry weapons on me while on the field, how heavy the flak jackets and kevlar helmets were, was it was true that I was in a relationship with the photographer who was abducted by the terrorists. Did she really tell the minister to go f**k himself, how lonely she felt when she lost her second child at birth, how wrong she was about the way philanthropy worked.
We had exhausted ourselves in our memories. A comfortable silence ensued.
I finally mustered the courage to ask “Do you remember when we had last met?”
“The day when you had promised to meet me again soon and never showed up until today?” there was no trace of anger in her response. I had steeled myself to bear her wrath, but her kindness undid me.
“Did you ever wonder why though? Or by chance you assumed I was an ungrateful person?”
“You must have had your reasons. And gratitude never made it to my considerations.”
“That day, I fervently hoped to be anywhere else on earth, rather than be with you.”
She looked at me intently and asked “Did you really hate me that much?”
“I didn’t hate you. I only envied you” I didn’t even try to hold back, “not that it would mean any different.”
Her gaze never left me.
“They say war correspondents are addicted to danger. They’ll never stop courting it. Little do they know the motivations behind it!”
Her silence demanded more.
“My dreams, my aspirations, they were not about barbed wires and shallow graves. All they craved for was a new identity which would unshackle me from your shadows. Any identity which would reflect who I truly was.“ I didn’t rush my words.
She patiently waited to hear more. Was it the wine or my heady emotions, I wasn’t sure, but I could sense that she somehow knew what was coming. Fear crept in me. Did she knew it all along? Even when we were best friends at school?
“Anyone who knew me, knew me only as Manya’s friend. At school, at the park, at the tuition center and at college. I was always seen as an aberration and when I stood in the middle of the deafening noise of man’s greed, amidst the charred buildings and intimidating tankers, I didn’t find it difficult to blend in. Those were my big moments which drew me closer to fame and glory. I was there and you weren’t. I introduced me to the whole world.”
I wasn’t done yet.
“I am a testament of your father’s generosity. People lauded his nobility in giving me a life, but I was the only one who was acutely aware of the fact that it was his survivor’s guilt. Had he not insisted his chauffeur to drive at an unreasonably high speed that fateful night, I wouldn’t have lost my father, nor would I be indebted to your family for my entire life.” I did finally empty them all out.
I felt light, like I’ve been relieved from a backache that had been shooting my spine with pins.
“Am sorry, truly sorry that you felt that way around me”, she held my hand and closed it with both of hers. I squeezed them tight. I knew I had nothing to apologize for, but it was my way of expressing it nevertheless.
The stars were still shining bright when we headed back in.
It was nearing noon by the time we got ready for our hike.
“Have you now made up your mind?” she was already waiting at the door as I walked out of my room.
The night’s memories were vivid despite the hangover in me. I hoped the day didn’t turn out to be an awkward one. When I was lost for an answer, she prompted, “About where you’re headed next. Looks like war has lost its charm on you.”
I felt relieved and said, “Not exactly, but my dreams are evolving.”
She smiled sensing the meaning behind my words.
“A memoir? A Hemingway? A Steinbeck?!”
I laughed and said, “I’ve signed up for a docuseries on urbanization and agriculture growth in India.”
“What?!” she stopped abruptly and stared at me. I had managed to surprise her this time.
Beyond the bitterness I had harbored against her, I had always been drawn by the childlike wonder and kindness in her eyes.
I was determined not to stir up yesterday’s events, but I couldn’t resist, “Thanks for yesterday. Though I honestly don’t know if I did right by you.” I looped my arm in hers like how we used to do during our school days, and nudged her to walk along with me.
She obliged and said, “Since you brought it up again, I too have a confession to make. I may not have enunciated this ever before, but I had an inkling of how you felt about our friendship. I did so because I know what it felt to be a prisoner of circumstances.”
“What did I miss Manya?” I was stumped. How could the only daughter of a billionaire feel so?
“What could one aspire for when one’s privileges impede a life of true abundance? I didn’t get to choose a friend, you were handed to me. I didn’t get to dream, this life was handed to me.”
“I had been selfish all this while. I never paused to think what you were going through. Am extremely sorry”.
“We didn’t meet after twenty years to exchange apologies, silly”, she led the way.
“I wish we had this wisdom when we were kids”, I tagged along.
“We’ve taken this effort to reconcile our differences despite the time that has passed by. Isn’t that all that matters in the end?” she glanced at me meaningfully.
“Where your dreams take you!” I gestured a toast.
“Where our dreams take us!!” and she returned it.
I smiled in the realization that we may not be as smart as the birds in maneuvering, but at least we could walk side by side at our own pace keeping each other company.
Sangeetha Jaganathan wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock
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