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What happens when a woman who is invisible to everybody, finally finds the man of her dreams? Read an account of this strange meeting.
Daily, Shreeja Vohra took the Delhi metro to work. She worked as a content writer for a prominent matrimonial website that had an office in Kashmere Gate. A creature of habit, Shreeja had somewhere along the way allowed her various clocks to monitor her activities. And, it was not funny. Shreeja had a collection of really rare clocks. And she could vividly recall the details surrounding the purchase of each clock.
Shreeja always boarded the Red Line from Rajendra Nagar where she stayed in a rented flat. A stickler to rules, she never bunked office or took leave. Even when she had the flu, she went to work.
Her work was her kryptonite and she metamorphosed when she engaged her brain cells. Despite a lack of career aspirations, she kept working. Writing poetic lines and impossible stories of how eligible men met eligible women. At work, nobody noticed her. She had no friends. She had given herself a label, Shreeja the Invisible. One word that people around her associated with her was: predictable.
Somehow, romance had bypassed her. Someday, she hoped, some invisible button would be pushed and Shreeja the Invisible would become Shreeja the Beautiful or even Shreeja the Desirable.
All she wanted was one man who would cherish and celebrate her imperfections. Just one man.
One fine day, things changed.
Shreeja saw him first. He was occupying the seat next to the doors and had his nose buried into a thick book. Shreeja was sitting opposite to him. That day, she actually looked around and noticed all her co-passengers in the compartment. He was not extraordinary in any sense. And he did not do anything out of the ordinary. Just that, Shreeja felt he was very different from the crowd. Dressed in a brown leather jacket and denims, he looked very normal and blended in with people thronging the metro at this hour. Shreeja stared at him, feeling the warm energy emanating from the man. The winter morning sun streamed down on him and he continued reading, basking in the warmth. It was common to see people reading in the metro, more common nowadays to see men reading.
She was unable to place her finger on the reason why she had chosen to stare at this man.
Shreeja continued to stare at him and craned her neck to catch the title of the book. Before she could catch his eye, he got up and alighted at the next station.
Shreeja failed to note the name of the station, but she noticed that he was the only one to get down there. She decided to speak to him the next day. She spent the day restlessly, continuously thinking about the strange man.
Next day, Shreeja reached the metro station early and sat down to wait for her train. When she boarded the compartment, she looked around to check if the man was there. Her heart was beating fast. She had this insane urge to see him. She did not know why, but she had to see him.
No, he was not there. Shreeja craned her neck and peered into the other compartments as much as she could. She scanned the platform as the train rushed ahead, but he was nowhere. Maybe he was not a regular, she decided, before slumping into an empty seat.
A feeling of dejection overwhelmed her.
Shreeja spent three days in desperation, scanning every passerby, every face on the road. That was when she realized that she had not noticed his face clearly and that she would not be able to recognize him even if he crossed her on the road.
She felt hopeless and more depressed as this new realization hit her.
Friday morning, Shreeja boarded the train with low spirits and for the first time in her working life, with no interest to go to work. Shreeja sat through the journey vacuously staring at the fleeting stations and almost missed her destination. She went through her monotonous day like a robot and wrapped up early. When she reached the metro station, she decided to grab a cup of coffee.
When her train arrived, she got in thinking about the looming boring weekend. She would do her laundry and visit her parents in Gurgaon, she decided. Having a plan, however small, gives you that small hope to slog on. Shreeja mentally ticked off stuff she needed to finish before leaving for Gurgaon.
A shrill screech disturbed her mental meandering.
A woman was clutching her husband’s arm and whimpering after spotting a lizard on the wall.
People threw murderous glances at the lizard and made tch tch sounds. Now, we have to travel with lizards, a fat man commented.
That was when Shreeja looked up, and, noticed him. A smile lit up her face.
When had he boarded? Am I looking fine?
Meanwhile, he was looking straight at her, taking in the gleefully surprised look, dishevelled hair, stricken expression and all. He was sitting right opposite to her but she hadn’t noticed. Oh my!
She subconsciously ran a hand over her hair and mentally kicked herself for not washing her face once before starting. Today, of all days, her hair was refusing to be tamed and was spread around her face like a black halo. He sat staring at her, not smiling, not reacting, just looking. No malice, no smirk, no blinking of eyes, absolutely no reaction, and no emotion. It was as if he was studying and memorizing every part of her face. Strangely, she didn’t feel weird. It felt natural that a total stranger was taking in so much of her and she was allowing it. It felt normal.
Like how he had started, he suddenly stopped staring. He brought out an adult coloring book from his satchel and started coloring. She panicked. She tried to smoothen her curls, running her fingers through them quickly to tame them down. Anything to make him look, she tried to clear her throat. Nothing moved him. He kept coloring, his bent head not moving, not taking in anything outside the noisy train. Shreeja stared at him, trying to pierce his thoughts with hers.
Hadn’t he liked what he saw? Had he rejected her? Oh, should I ask him? Oh damn, look up!
“Don’t think so much. Let me finish this.” He said it very softly, but Shreeja heard it loud and clear as if someone had said it using a loudspeaker in her ear. Stunned, she continued staring at his bent head. She quickly checked around to see if anyone else had heard him. Nobody seemed to have heard anything. People were all busy in their own personal bubbles.
How did he hear her? He couldn’t possibly have known that I am staring!
Shreeja took deep breaths to control her heartbeat. He was certainly freaking her out. But, along with the furiously beating hard was an overbearing calm and along with it, in a corner of her mind, a bright light was beginning to glow, growing bigger by the second. She could feel it grow inside her head. Soon, it would spill out, she thought. And, it slowly enveloped her entire being. She felt drawn into it, feeling warm and light.
The man suddenly put away his book and held an arm out as if it was the most natural thing to do. Shreeja observed the cessation of noise and chatter around her. She looked around and found people softly floating in bubbles, blissfully unaware of what was happening to Shreeja.
Petrified yet excited, with a wildly beating heart, she held her right arm out and her fingers touched the man’s fingers. He had long slim fingers. His nails were broad and pink. Well-groomed and cut perfectly in an arc, but just enough to be used as a lever to open bottles. Shreeja noted all this. She allowed him to interlink his fingers into hers. The sensation was electric. She realized her breathing had become shallow and she was floating. When she looked down, she was also in a bubble and she was sharing it with the man. The only difference was that their bubble was pink in color and the others were all blue.
What is happening? Am I dreaming? Why am I floating in a bubble?
Inside the bubble, the man drew her close in a light embrace. He ran a finger on her face, caressing her chin, her eyebrows, her mouth, her nose, and ended at her ears. He then bent down and smelled her breath, saying “you smell of cloves, my broken angel,” to which Shreeja smiled.
He stopped her from speaking by placing a finger on her lips. Outside, the train came to a halt. He looked at the disembarking passengers and tugged softly at her hand. Shreeja floated along with him, still inside the bubble. Strangely, it was allowing her to walk on the floor but she could make out the pale edges of the bubble. He walked quickly but didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Shreeja followed him silently, focusing at his head and not meeting anyone’s eyes. They crossed the cops standing at the junction and turned into a narrow alley. Shreeja looked around with mounting trepidation. The man kept walking, lightly holding her hand. Finally, they stopped outside a shop with a green door, which was closed and padlocked. There were no other people around at this hour.
What kind of place is this?
When the man beckoned her inside the shop, Shreeja stepped in, fear creeping up slowly. The door closed softly behind her. Shreeja looked around, trying to peer through the darkness. While she admired the paintings hanging on the walls, the man returned with two chairs and a leather bag.
He smiled for the first time and beckoned. She walked slowly towards him and sat down. He occupied the other chair and opened the drawstrings of the leather bag. Shreeja looked at the bag curiously.
Am I crazy to trust a stranger and come here all alone? Who was he?
“I have a gift for you, do you want to see?” He asked, his eyes twinkling. His voice was soft and he spoke in a whisper without any accent.
Shreeja nodded, gulping to control her nervousness.
He took out a painting set, including a few canvases and a small easel. He handed over the set to her and said, “You must resume painting. Will you?”
Shreeja felt a sudden jolt and her shocked expression made him smile. “Are you wondering how I know about this? I know more than you think I might know.”
“But, who are you? How do you know I quit painting? I know I just came with you…I”
“Who am I…hmmm” the man repeated and paused.
“Shreeja…I know everything about everyone around me, not because I am a voyeur or…a jerk, because I have a special power. I got it from my grandfather, a seer. When I saw you the first time in the train, I learned everything about you. I know about…the little acidity bubbling up inside you right now” the man said and smiled. Shreeja immediately put her hands on her mouth and stifled a scream.
How the hell did he know that? I am feeling a bit acidic!
He smiled and Shreeja realized that she wanted to believe everything he was saying.
He had a soft face with high cheekbones and a chin that jutted out giving it an angular look. His skin was fair and his eyes light, a light beard forming at his chin. Shreeja took in all this while he explained how she should eat carefully and how she had a beautiful face and how she should take more care of her skin.
Shreeja listened to every word carefully registering each word in her mind. She drank in his face, his voice and his hand movements. They kept talking and after a few hours they found themselves on the floor, propped up against cushions. He talked about the world, about the shop, about his grandfather and how he had inherited his power, how he had noticed Shreeja and felt a strong connect with her and about his childhood in Himachal. As he talked, Shreeja felt something stir inside her. A strange euphoria filled her. Sometime in the night, Shreeja curled up on his lap and slept. He rocked her like a baby, singing softly.
When Shreeja woke up on Sunday, it was 7 am, and she was asleep on her bed, in her room. Hurriedly, she sat up and looked around, wide-eyed.
How did I reach here? Where is he? Was it all a dream then?
As much as she tried, she was unable to recollect how she had reached her room. She recalled her conversation with the man and how he had suggested that they should get some sleep and how he would drop her home in the morning.
Had he left her here? Who had changed her dress? Had they exchanged mobile numbers?
Completely baffled by the turn of events, Shreeja got dressed and went out to look for her flatmates. She found them in the dining room poring over the newspaper. She peered over the three girls’ shoulders and caught sight of a news item. A fire had gutted a cluster of shops in the Old Delhi area and a painter’s shop had burned down completely.
The name of the shop sent a chill down her spine.
Where was he? Was he hurt?
“Have they said anything about the owner?” Shreeja asked, snatching and reading the article. The correspondent simply said that there were no victims and that the owner was notified of the accident. He was somewhere in the Gulf and could not come down to check the damage.
Shreeja decided to go check the shop out hoping to meet the man again, when she realized she could not recall even his name. When she reached the place, the street was filled with fire personnel and shop keepers. Shreeja made her way towards the shop where she had spent a magical night.
She just could not bring herself to see the gutted remains. The fire personnel shouted at her to move away from the debris. She asked him about the man. The fireman smirked and said, “Madam, what have you been smoking? Nobody lived anywhere near the shop. It has not been opened for several years. Look at the lock, it is so rusty. Actually, the owner is quite happy it burned down.”
Shreeja’s confusion mounted.
Who was he? Hadn’t he said he was the owner and the lock had opened so easily. Then where was he? Had he left before the fire started? Or had he started the fire?
The fireman shooed her away when she asked to see a picture of the owner. Dejected and realizing quickly that she could do nothing more, Shreeja returned to her flat. Her flatmates had gone to watch a movie and had kept some food for her. After dinner, Shreeja tried to catch some sleep. Maybe, she would meet him on the train.
Excited about the prospect, she curled up and went to sleep. On Monday, she quickly dressed and reached the train station. She scanned the crowds and the platforms to see if he had boarded. He was not there on the train. Her heart sank. For a month, she waited for him to appear. After that she gave up hope. She decided to focus on her work, which she had been ignoring. She had taken many days off and had not completed her deliverables even. When she checked her official email account on her phone, a particular mail caught her attention.
She gasped audibly when she read the latest email. She stared at it, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life–the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build–begin to crumble around her.
First, he had vanished. And now this. Her boss had asked her not to return as she had missed critical deadlines and HR had decided to terminate her services. She turned around and returned to her room. She didn’t eat or bathe or sleep for days.
Shreeja withdrew into a shell. Her implosion was happening without a stimulus, without any involvement from her side. She felt as if a great wave had crashed on her and she was disintegrating slowly.
I want to see him. Just once more, God please!
She sat staring at the leather bag sitting innocuously on her desk. On day nine, Shreeja got up from her bed, took out the canvas, and started painting.
When she finished, she stood back to admire her handiwork. The painting seemed alive and his smile seemed real.
Shreeja sighed and signed the painting.
Images via Pexels
First published here.
Book reviewer | Author of 'Once Upon a Reunion'
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