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Gauri was happy to see her family so elated but she felt a sense of loneliness. She never told anyone why she studied so hard and why she had no friends.
She decided on a whim, as she got off the Shatabdi at Dehradun that while in Mussoorie, she was not going to bond with Ruskin. With James maybe, but definitely not Ruskin.
Getting off the multi-coloured train, she chuckled at her own joke. But really, did she want to bond with either? In her heart, she knew who she was here for. It was that longing to see her just once.
Was she fine after so many years? How had life panned out for her? Would she remember me? With these thoughts clouding her mind, Gauri kept walking towards Paltan Bazaar, a local shopping area. She was sure to find a small gift to take to her childhood friend. They were meeting after fifteen years, after all.
The bustle of the bazaar a blur, her thoughts drifted to their childhood when Himadri had just started school. Gauri had finally found a friend to walk with her. The nearest school was around 10 kms away- the walk was quite a lot. But her father insisted his daughter would go to school.
When mother claimed there were chores to be done at home, but he just hushed her, “She will learn the household chores, one day. Sasural jaake sikhna hi hai! Par meri beti doctor banegi pehle!” he would say with pride in his eyes. Gauri went to school just to see that look of approval in his eyes.
However, there was no other girl from her village who would go to the same school and Gauri would often get lonely.
To Gauri’s immense joy, Himadri also joined school one day. It happened after her uncle, who had a government job and lived in the city visited the family. Himadri’s parents saw the aura around him and how everyone went, “Haan sahib. Jee sahib.” around him.
They were further impressed when he told them about the government’s benefits for the girls who studied. But the cherry on top was when he said that he knew people in the higher ranks who would ensure that Himadri had a job. And wouldn’t all this make her job prospects better? Hearing all this, her parents hesitantly agreed to send her to school.
No matter what the reason, Gauri, now, had a companion! Every morning, she would call out to Himadri from outside her hut and they would walk to school with sticks in their hands. Though these sticks were to ward wild animals of, they would hardly be of use if any wild animal actually crossed their path!
As the sun rose above the horizon, the two girls walked, chit-chatting through the jungle, hitting bushes and stones in their path. They’d reach school mid-morning. Both were immensely interested in leaning languages and math. And somehow, outdoing boys seemed to be an added incentive.
On the way back home, both would gobble their lunch packed by their mothers. This was mostly parathas and onion. And sometimes, when the mothers were exceptionally generous, dhaniya-pudina chutney.
The girls loved this routine as it gave them a break from the usual household chores. Slowly, going to school became something they both looked forward to each day.
Gauri and Himadri also started accompanying each other for the household chores as well. Fetching water from the well, feeding fodder to cows, getting groceries from the market – the two were soon inseparable.
One day there was news of a dispensary opening in the village. There were laddoos being distributed at the opening ceremony. All the kids gathered excited at the prospect of free sweets. Gauri and Himadri were there too.
“Baba, what does a doctor do?” Gauri asked her father that night. “He cures our ills! I really hope one day you would become one too! That’s why I sent you to the school even though it’s so far away. You must observe how he works one of these days. I am sure you will become a big doctor one day!”
After this, Gauri and Himadri would spend afternoons after school peeping into the doctor’s dispensary till he would shoo them away. “Doctor babu, they are just curious kids!” his assistant would say, smiling indulgently.
He would hand them a few popsicles every once a while. Gauri and Himadri loved playing doctor-doctor now. Of course, Gauri would always become the doctor. After all, this was just the beginning of a lifelong dream.
It was one such lazy afternoon that the girls were playing doctor games in the field. “My tummy hurts,” said Himadri. “We will need to check it,” said Gauri in her mock authoritative voice.
Himadri lay on her back and lifted her dress up to her chest. Gauri looked at her in order to give her mock examination and suddenly stopped. She felt a strange stirring. Looking at Himadri’s soft creamy skin, she felt a tingling sensation. She had a sudden urge to lift her dress further and just peek at what her chest looked like.
Gauri’s ears burned at the thought and she averted her eyes away. “Arre, you didn’t check! Check up properly!” Himadri said lifting the dress further up. “No no! Check-up is done! Here is your medicine!” Gauri said pretending to search the field for make-believe medicines.
She tried playing for a while but somehow her thoughts would drift towards what she had just seen. She wanted to see more, touch her skin, feel how it felt under her hand. Gauri could not understand why she was feeling this way. It felt strange and wrong.
She excused herself and said that mother had called here home early. “Arre! But you never told me!” Himadri exclaimed with a frown. She could not understand what had come over her friend suddenly.
Gauri almost ran back home leaving Himadri behind, something she had never done before. Reaching home, she washed her face with icy cold water and sat down for dinner. She went to bed early that night. As she drifted off to sleep, was sure she would be fine next morning and these funny feelings would all go away. “Ma, I am leaving!” Gauri said as she left for school next morning.
She was going early determined to make up for running away from her friend last evening. Though she knew her friend well, Gauri was sure, Himadri must have been hurt by her behaviour. As per usual, she yelled out Himadri’s name before her friend came out smiling. The two, then hopped and skipped away to school, happily.
They chattered away as usual but something had changed. The way Gauri saw Himadri had changed. She started noticing how her eyes sparkled in the sun and how her cheek dimpled on one side when she smiled. But she decided not to tell her friend anything.
Both the girls went on as usual and Gauri never told Himadri what she felt. The sight of Himadri’s thighs tormented her at night and she discovered she felt relief rubbing between her thighs imagining doing the same to Himadri. But she would instantly feel a deep sense of shame and stop.
The girls were growing older and their mothers insisted on them helping more with the household chores. Their time together no longer consisted of hours of free play. Gauri started studying harder. Sometimes this was to achieve her father’s dream of her becoming a doctor and sometimes to avoid Himadri. She never told anyone how she felt and grew gloomier each day.
“Gauri! Gauri! Come out fast!” Gauri heard Himadri screaming one late evening. “My uncle from the city, the one who had coaxed my father to send me to school, has brought an alliance for me. The boy has a government job. Father insists I couldn’t get a better match! But I don’t want to marry right now, Gauri! I want to study!” Himadri wailed.
It was as if someone had struck Gauri’s heart with a sharp stake. Somehow the possibility of Himadri going away had never struck her or rather, seemed a very distant possibility. Of course, girls in their village got married early. But this wasn’t going to happen to them, right? They went to school! The fact that they were being sent to school only to find better matches in marriage had never really came to her mind.
“Himadri, I am sure your parents have thought the best for you. You must not despair,” said Gauri. But what she actually wanted to scream, ‘Don’t go! Don’t marry! Come away with me! I will take care of you forever!’ But she said nothing and quietly swallowed her feelings.
Himadri got married the next month and Gauri bid her a tearful good-bye. Her husband was much older than her and there seemed nothing common between them. But when was that a criteria for marriage anyways? Gauri’s world began to seem bleaker and she threw herself into studies to forget her pain.
Looking at her academic excellence, the headmaster applied for scholarship for her at a government school in the city. She got selected on a full scholarship basis and her father agreed to send her despite protests from her mother. “I told you, she will be a doctor one day!” he said proudly.
True to her father’s words, Gauri achieved one academic laurel after the other. Though her parents could not afford her education and living expenses in the city, she managed to bag scholarships due to her academic merit.
Study was all she did now. She would go to school, come back and study. And did not mingle with any of the city kids. Anyway, their way of living differed vastly from hers.
Her pining for Himadri grew each day but she never tried reaching out to her. The older she became, the more she realised that her feelings were unacceptable in the society. There was no way that she could ever confess her feelings to Himadri.
The sense of rejection that she would feel if ever Himadri said no to her would be worse than living with her memory. So Gauri decided to bury her feelings and carried on towards fulfilling her father’s dream.
Gauri soon cracked the medical entrance exam and there was a sense of jubilation in the village when she came there. The villagers could not contain themselves – one of them would now become ‘Doctor Sahiba.’ No one had ever achieved this level of academic success, not even a boy, let alone a girl.
Gauri’s father’s chest swelled with pride and her mother distributed laddoos to the entire village. Sarpanch announced that Panchayat had taken a decision to set up school in the village itself after seeing Gauri’s success. “Ab har Gauri school jaegi!” he announced in the next meeting.
Gauri was happy to see her family so elated but she felt a sense of loneliness inside. She could never tell anyone why she had poured herself into studies and why she did not have any friends. So she returned to the city with the single aim of achieving her doctor’s degree.
Maybe then, one day, she could go to Himadri and tell her how she felt? Gauri often dreamed of how life would have looked like if she had Himadri with her. They would cook together, go on long walks, oil each other’s hair till one would fall asleep in the other’s lap. But these were all day dreams and Gauri censored her thoughts abruptly because these were all empty imaginations never to be fulfilled.
As Gauri’s degree was coming to completion, rishtas from good families started pouring in. “Beta, we never thought we would be fortunate enough to get you married in such a wealthy household. But look what your degree has done. Say yes!” her father exclaimed, teary-eyed.
“Baba, I have never refused anything you ever said. You wanted me to be a doctor and here I am, despite all odds. But please do not ask me to get married. I just want to work and maybe marry some day when I find love’ said Gauri.
“Hai Ram! See what this girl is saying! I told you not to get her so educated! Now look at her ideas! What are we going to do? She refuses to marry and once her age passes who will marry her?” her mother wailed.
Gauri started working in a Government Hospital in the city and her visits to village became briefer and few and far in between. Outside home, she was lauded as the girl from village who became a doctor. But at home, she could not deal with her mother’s taunts on how the entire village wondered why she refused to get married.
Soon, she decided to move to a city further away where she set up her own practice. She would treat the poor patients for free and this helped her sleep peacefully through the night. On other nights, the image of Himadri’s eyes peering deep into hers haunted her.
It was almost fifteen years since she left the village. Gauri was now a well-known and respected physician in her city. She had tried being friends with couple of men who shared similar interests as hers. But somehow she never felt the same intensity of feelings as she had felt for Himadri.
The thought of getting married to one of these men made her nauseous and she could not get herself to agree, though she knew her parents would be pleased. Her father, whose dream once was to see her in a doctor’s coat, also could not hide the melancholy in his eyes when she visited them. He felt that he was responsible for his daughter not being ‘settled.’
On a wintery morning, she got a message that father was unwell and she rushed to catch the train to Mussoorie. She had found out a couple of years ago that Himadri’s husband was transferred to Dehradun.
As the train neared the platform and she saw the board that said ‘Dehradun Station’ in two languages, and a deep sense of pining grew in her. On a whim, she decided to get down at the station. Her feet drew her to her friend.
As Gauri caught a rickshaw to Himadri’s house, her heart thumped loudly in her chest. How would Himadri react after all these years? Did she even remember her? Would she wonder why Gauri had never reached out to her before? A million questions still bursting in her head, the rickshaw stopped in front of Himadri’s house.
Opening the gate, she rang the doorbell. The door opened and Gauri’s jaw dropped. At the door stood a diminutive widow, a small figure clad in white saree, a shadow of her former friend, a cheerful girl that she was as a kid. Gauri’s eyes welled up as she hugged Himadri and they both cried – right there on the doorstep. Time passed like water as they both stood there – countless possibilities of unfulfilled desires.
That morning Gauri came to know that Himadri had lost her husband just few years into the marriage. A young widow, she had been ostracised by her in-laws family as bearer of misfortune and was living with her aunt who was also a widow.
She had wanted to get in touch with Gauri but always stopped herself as she kept hearing about all the good things happening in her life. What if she really was a bad omen and her being there was inauspicious for her friend too, the only person she had truly loved all her life?
Gauri cried deep tears of remorse as she heard Himadri’s story. All these years of yearning, of pain, they were all for nothing. If only she had mustered the courage to reach out to Himadri earlier. The two girls cried in each other’s arms till exhaustion drifted them into sleep.
Finally, as Gauri packed Himadri’s bags with hers next morning, two longing hearts were at peace. Love had finally found its way, she thought, climbing with her friend on to the polychromatic train.
Picture credits: Still from Hindi TV series Kulfi Kumar Bajewala
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