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As I stepped in, she looked up. Did she really smile or I thought I saw her lips curve into something akin to a smile?
The car slowed and I craned my neck out of the window in anticipation. Yellow. Yes, the walls were still yellow but not as yellow as those daffodils – bright and lustrous. I gaped at my childhood home for a few more seconds as Ma’s smiling face appeared, and I was suddenly a teenager walking the alleys of house number 21, Gulmohar Lane.
“You look frail. Are you trying those fad diets to keep away the weight? Don’t do that. They will give you deficiencies and you will turn pale Shona,” Ma remarked while replenishing my plate with another bowl of home-made curd.
Some things never change. Even if you are forty, your mother retains the right to frown upon your habits and go mad with concern. And surprisingly so, at forty, as much as you may feign indifference or even show a blithe disregard to her outpourings, you find it endearing.
After a hearty lunch, I wandered around the house. Every nook and corner had a part of me still transfixed within its threadbare existence, be it those musty yellow walls or the balmy scent of the pink bougainvillea flowers near the verandah. Houses stay but people outgrow and move on. As I stood on the first-floor balcony my eyes unwittingly turned towards the house diagonally opposite. 30, Gulmohar Lane. The name was still etched in the same wobbly drawl though it seemed to be freshly painted.
A smile escaped my lips. Memories traversed along unrelenting.
Two girls ran through the garden as peals of laughter reverberated through the house. Shona and Mona. Always in sync just like our names- separated by a syllable or two but united by friendship and love- a love which was to remain unblemished by the tyrannies of time, or so we had reckoned.
“Ma, where is Monika these days?” I uttered trying to sound as casual as possible.
“Oh, Monika! You don’t know? She is home. Not well I suppose. Came back a year ago. Left her husband. You don’t know about her Shona?” Ma peered at me with disbelief and with a hint of disapproval.
“I told you long ago ma. We lost touch. You know how it was. She got married and I was busy with work…”
“Yes, you were busy with work and you chose to stay single,” Ma smirked.
“What did I tell you ma? This is why I am skeptical whenever I am coming to visit you.”
“I know. It is about your choice. I don’t understand it, Shona. But if it makes you happy, so be it. Maybe someday you will find someone. Now, look at your friend. She did everything right and yet here she is. Her parents are both crestfallen and angry.” Ma exclaimed as she laid down a flowery teapot on a wooden table that stood at one end of the balcony next to two garden chairs.
“Ma there is no right or wrong when it comes to life. You do what you perceive as the best thing at that point in time. We are just pieces in this vast universe stumbling and standing upright as we navigate through life,” I digressed a bit and went overboard with my ranting much to Ma’s chagrin.
“I don’t understand these talks beta. But, whatever pleases you and keeps you happy,” Ma said looking listlessly towards the wall as she sipped her tea.
“So, do you plan to visit Monika now that you are here and she is home too?” Ma looked straight at me.
I looked away. I looked away for I didn’t know if I could bridge the years that lay between us which had almost alienated me from my best friend. I looked away because a part of me longed to believe that I could.
Darkness slow and deep, quiet, still, unmoving, unbreathing in a dark, sugary sleep: no pain, no joy, no sight, no sound, no taste; she remained floating, distant. She wouldn’t wake up, she’d stay in this cotton-wool world, its soft, sleepy music lifting her up through the roof, the banisters, the rooms up above, through the entire weight of the building, its steeple. She rose like a wisp of cloud. But she was not alive, she seemed so but she was merely gasping for air with frantic desperation. And then she saw at a distance a lanky girl of seventeen calling out to her, Shona…
I woke up with a start. It was not the first time that darkness pervaded my dreams. The constant battle between being pushed down and then coming up thwarting those demons was something that had become a part of my existence.
That day as I rose I felt different though. She was here. I had to see her. In the afternoon I found myself standing at the blue coloured iron door of 30 Gulmohar Lane. I was coming here after years. Everything looked the same yet everything had changed.
“Shona…I thought I saw you the other day. What a lovely surprise beta,” Monika’s mom embraced me and soon we were sitting in the living room.
“How have you been? You rarely come home. Your mom tells me you are doing very well in Mumbai. And how wonderful you look! Haven’t changed a bit.”
I nodded but my eyes lingered around the room.
She probably understood that I was yearning to meet Monika.
“Why don’t you go to her room? She will be happy to see you after so long. It will probably do her some good. Hardly goes out. It has been a few months since she came here. Maybe you can put some sense into her.”
She sat on the bed flipping the pages of a book.
She looked away.
We stood transfixed, none of us wanting to take that step. For what felt like ages we stood in that room. The room looked the same yet different.
“So, Mona darling, what has been ailing you? You managed to get hitched and divorced while I was away. That was fast.” I broke the silence at last.
She turned around. Her brows furrowed, her eyes bored into me as if rummaging my very being.
“How many times have I told you don’t you dare call me that. I hate it. And I have not filed for a divorce as yet,” she said with a sense of urgency.
And then she smiled displaying that big wide grin of hers.
And just like that, we were seventeen-year-olds again.
The next few days were breezy and we started off where we left. It felt right. Gulmohar Lane had never been the same for me without her friendship- ‘Shona and Mona- BFFs’.
But, there were still things that hung dangling in the air. It broke us, and though we never spelled it out loud, we knew we couldn’t push them into oblivion- not anymore.
She told me how her husband cheated on her multiple times, and how it left her devastated.
“Shona, he was the love of my life. How could he do something like that?” she said with tears brimming the edge of her eyes.
“Do you think he can change? Do you still love him?”
“I don’t trust him. I don’t respect him. I think I cannot go back to loving him Shona,” she said her voice wavering.
“Then don’t mull over it. You do know that I am a lawyer. I will make sure it happens smoothly. Good riddance I say.”
Ten days flew away in a jiffy and they were by far the best days of my life. We were friends again.
I had to leave for Mumbai the next day. We had already said our goodbyes. Mona had promised me that she would start afresh and would stop brooding over or blaming herself for all that had happened.
“You are a good friend Shona,” she said to me with a faraway look in her eyes.
“I wish…I could,” she continued but I held her hand and the moment passed.
That night, as I sat folding my clothes, stacking them inside the suitcase, she came in.
“What are you doing here Mona? It is late.”
“There is something I want to talk to you about,” she sat on the edge of my bed.
I felt knots forming in the pit of my stomach. I was not ready for this.
“We will talk later. I need to pack Mona. We will plan a trip together soon. Didn’t we decide that yesterday?”
“We have already waited for twenty years, Shonali. Not anymore. Aunty told me that you have been seeing a therapist for your nightmares. I am sorry Shona. I am sorry I couldn’t be with you like you are with me today. You needed me and I abandoned you. I have despised myself everyday for not standing up for you.”
“You didn’t abandon me, Mona. And it was nothing. Nothing had happened.” I felt beads of perspiration forming on my forehead.
I slumped on the bed and everything flashed in front of my eyes for the millionth time. The wedding, the attempt at molestation by my friend’s middle-aged uncle- the horror of it all came back to me in a split second. Had not Mona walked in out of the blue, worse could have happened. But for a young seventeen-year old girl, maybe the worst had already transpired. The scars of that night gnawed at me every day. Those dreams had hounded me since then. They followed me everywhere.
Mona sat holding my hands which were cold now.
“I should have stood by you then my friend. I should have called out his devious actions. I shudder to think what would have happened had I not barged in that day. But, I was scared. I kept mum. And so did you because he was my uncle. He is dead now and I realize it won’t make a difference but I felt I needed to call him out. I told dad and mom about him, Shona. I know it’s too late but I had to- for you and for me.”
I looked at her and tears fell unabated. It was as if the weight that I had been carrying all these years was suddenly lifted. We sat there huddled at each other for hours. We talked. We laughed and we cried.
That night I slept. The darkness that encompassed my dreams was dispelled. There was light now. And there was hope. I felt free.
As I sat in the cab I turned around. The yellow walls of my childhood home suddenly looked as bright as daffodils. Voices lingered in my head- ‘Mona and Shona- best friends forever’. I opened the window and let the cool mountain breeze in. I was leaving home but for the first time in years, I truly felt at home.
This story had been shortlisted for our February 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: OpenClipart-Vectors on pixabay and CanvaPro
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