‘All this noise’ she sighed, attributing her lack of concentration to the sounds that drifted in from the adjacent room.
People laughing, talking in loud voices, clatter of dishes…
It sounded like a small party in progress which in actuality it was.
None of this was new to her though. This is what always happened whenever they came down for a visit. It was a re-union of sorts.
Dr Sen was her dad’s college friend and both families had been close for years now.
Maybe she lived in a different world altogether.
Yawning slightly she put the book aside and looked out the window.
‘I need a walk.’ she thought.
After having changed her clothes she made her way towards the bed to retrieve her cell-phone. She was about to stuff it in her pocket and leave when something inside her half-open travel bag glinted in the fading rays of the sun.
Curious she inserted her hand inside it and brought out a silver photo-frame.
‘Of course.’ she thought. She had brought this thing with her even to this short trip which didn’t make any sense.
The last thing she needed was a reminder of the painful truth.
It was a picture of both of them. He was forcing a huge piece of cake into her mouth and even though there was an expression of shock on her face, she could also discern the slight smile that was playing about her own lips.
It was taken on her 20th birthday two years back.
These words were scribbled at the edge of the frame-
~THE BEST OF TIMES~
‘What a lie!’ she thought.
The beach was almost empty as she had assumed. This was the wrong time of the year to come down here in the first place.
So no tourists. Not many of them anyway.
She only noticed a few fishermen tugging at a huge fishing-net at a distance and a few other people most of whom appeared to be locals.
She saw a family of three splashing in the waves, a couple of kids, a middle-aged guy and a solitary panipuri-vendor.
And this suited her just fine.
It was just her and the sea. Just like old times.
She sighed and inhaled deeply. The sea smelled the same.
Slipping off her pink flip-flops she bent down and rolled up the edges of her jeans and moved forward fearlessly.
The warm waves lapped gently at her feet. Then as she kept going forward the waves grew more frolicsome. But she didn’t care.
And yet something felt different. Something had changed.
And that something was probably-her.
And suddenly everything came back to her in a flash-the happenings of the past few months-the day she found out about him, their confrontation, the way he had shouted at her blurting out all those ugly truths, the way she had walked away without a word, the way she had still waited for the call which never came, the way her parents started feeling anxious and decided to bring her here to ‘take her mind off things’.
This brought Akruti back to reality and she turned her head to find a middle-aged man clad in a full-sleeved white shirt and a pair of black trousers looking at her curiously. In the brief moments he seemed to be scrutinizing her,she took in his disheveled appearance and surprisingly grey eyes.
He was the same guy she had spotted strolling casually along the beach a few moments ago.
Now that she looked carefully at him he didn’t look middle-aged to be precise-maybe 35 or 36.
Akruti suddenly felt a little wary.
This must have been evident from the look on her face ‘cause the stranger shrugged and said ‘It’s just that your shoes are about to be er engulfed by the waves.’
And sure enough as Akruti turned around she found both her slippers afloat on water and steadily drifting away a little distance from where she stood.
Without a second glance at the man she made a dash across the waves and picked them up. A few seconds more and they would’ve been lost to the sea forever.
She put them on and started walking away from the sea.
How had they managed to drift away? She had placed them carefully on the stretch of sand she thought was safe from the water.
She always did the right things didn’t she? There was nothing in this world that she trusted more than her own judgement.
She was always right. Everybody said so.
So why was everything failing her? Or was she failing herself?
And suddenly without knowing it she sank to the ground on her knees. Her body could support her weight no longer. She didn’t know what was the right thing to do anymore.
She hid her face in her palms.
She had never been the one to mope. She was always a ‘strong girl’, just like her mother believed.
Maybe she was wrong, wrong throughout.
And just like that the tears came-the ones she had been holding back all these months.
‘Take this.’ someone said in a deep, soothing voice.
Akruti looked up to find the same man who had informed her about the slippers holding out a kerchief.
Oh god she hadn’t even said a ‘thank you’ to him and just walked away like that.
The man just looked at her for a while and then repeated what he had said earlier…
‘Go on…take it.’
And this time she obliged. She took the handkerchief and dabbed her eyes with it. But that did not stop the tears.
Instead she started crying even harder.
The man did not leave her side nor did he say anything. But he just stood there staring at the open sea with his
hands in his pockets while she kept crying.
It was embarrassing to cry in front of a complete stranger. But somehow it also felt highly satisfying.
‘Thank you.’ She finally looked up and held out the handkerchief to the man who just shook his head.
‘No you keep it.’
‘I can’t. It’s yours.’
‘Never mind that. It’s just a piece of cloth.’ he insisted.
And giving her an uncertain look started to walk away.
It was weird how a few minutes earlier Akruti would’ve given anything to be alone on the beach, disturbed by no one or nothing.
But right then as she looked at the stranger’s back she wanted anything but to be on her own.
‘Wait.’ She shouted out over the sound of crashing waves not sure whether her voice would reach him across this distance.
But thankfully enough it did ‘cause he stopped in his tracks, turned around and looked at her.
The sand still felt warm from the afternoon heat of the sun. But it had started to cool down. The wind was a bit stronger now but she liked the way it blew her bangs out.
Sitting right there far away from home with a total stranger, watching the progress of the sun along the western sky, Akruti felt a strange sense of calm spreading through her. It felt as if it were healing her from within.
‘So…’ said the man finally breaking the silence and interrupting Akruti’s chain of thoughts.
‘Boyfriend troubles?’ he asked without looking at her.
‘Can’t there be anything else troubling a girl in her twenties except boys?’
‘Well..’ he mused… ‘there could be I guess.’
‘…If you’re either on drugs or pregnant’ He added.
Akruti glared at him.
He just shrugged.
‘I was just trying to cheer you up.’
‘Wow that’s a real nice way of doing it.’ she said sarcastically.
He looked at her squarely in the face, his expression serious.
‘I’m right ain’t I?…someone ditched you and that’s why you were crying so hysterically before.’ He said.
This time Akruti couldn’t avoid the question and strangely enough she didn’t even want to.
‘I ditched him.’ she said stoically.
‘Why?’ came the counter-question.
‘He was two-timing me.’ she said simply.
‘Ouch.’ he said.
‘It’s okay if you don’t wanna talk about this.’ the man said wrenching his gaze away from Akruti and concentrating on the panipuri-vendor instead. A group of teenaged girls had gathered all around his tiny stall by this time.
A few moments of silence followed.
‘It’s not his fault. Who’d want to stay with a control freak like me?’
She said bitterly.
‘I used to call him to wake him up for college, nag him 24*7 to finish his assignments on time, be more serious about his life and career…’
She went on.
‘I didn’t even allow him to get as physical with me as he wished to…now who’d want to put up with all this crap?’
She finally looked at him.
‘Do you think this is why he cheated on you?’ he asked.
‘He shouted at me saying all those things.’
She tried to swallow her tears back but couldn’t.
‘He looked so angry…’ she sobbed pitifully.
‘I..it felt like there was nothing in this world….he hated more…’
‘All those times were a lie weren’t they?..’
‘I lived a lie for 3 years..’ she continued sobbing.
‘I’ve never quite liked the beach.’ he said suddenly.
Akruti looked at him.
‘I’ve hated the sea ever since I was a kid. I feared I might drown.’ He continued.
‘But then Meera came into my life and things changed. She loved coming here on short trips, gorging on sea food,clutching my hand and walking barefoot on the sand.’
‘And slowly I fell in love with the place too. We used to come down here every year…until..’ his voice trailed off.
‘Until?’ Akruti asked breathlessly.
….until she fell sick.’ He sighed.
‘She died of cervical cancer last year.’
Akruti felt like the wind had been knocked out of her.
‘The 7 years I had with her were the best years of my life. We shared everything-the good times, the bad times,the sadness and laughter….
And every one of those moments are dear to me. ‘Cause being with her made me happy.’
‘Esha….my 5 year-old.’ He smiled.
Akruti just stared at him.
‘So would you say that all the times I spent with my wife were a lie too?’ he finally asked her.
She had no answer.
‘He was the wrong guy to be with. But you did love him, didn’t you? And that can never be a lie.’
And suddenly she understood what he was trying to tell her.
Even though it was meant to end in heartache all those moments she shared with him had given her memories to be treasured for a lifetime.
Maybe right then they were causing her a lot of pain. But someday she’ll realize the significance of it all.
She could see the silver photo-frame in her mind’s eye-
~THE BEST OF TIMES~
Maybe it wasn’t such a lie after all.