Silence… And then...
Tip… Tup… Tip… Droplets fell noisily from the Neem leaves onto the terracotta roof of the verandah. It appeared to be the proverbial calm before the storm, or in this case, between the storms.
Beep! There goes my phone again. Another reminder. Should I go for the get-together? The weather was a dream… Overcast skies, pungent aroma of freshly wet soil, cool breeze teasing the curls on my forehead… It was divine, an unlooked-for gift on a much awaited holiday back home. In fact, it was the perfect time to snuggle deep under my duvet and read my new novel.
Beep! Oh god!!! I’m coming, I’m coming, my mind replied in frustration. It was too late. I cannot back out now. Hastily combing my hair, I snatched my handbag and ran out of the house.
My friends, Vikram and Mahesh waited outside. It was years since I had met Vikram, who had, along with his partner, set up his own business in Delhi. After shaking hands with him and exchanging the usual greetings, I turned towards Mahesh, smiling brightly at the familiar huge figure. He had not changed much since the last time I met him, two weeks ago, but still for an instant I felt intimidated by his enormous size.
We casually strolled down the road, discussing how best to get the others, Lina and Shruti, reach our meeting point at the earliest. Mahesh called up Lina’s mother so that she could wake up her daughter and send her out. As luck would have it, we met Shruti’s brother at the crossing, and he stopped to speak to us. We asked him to request Shruti to join us at the coffee shop on the top floor of the Hidesign mall, just a street away.
As we approached the coffee shop, I chatted with Vikram, trying to catch up on the missing years. Mahesh followed us, talking on the phone. Entering the mall, Mahesh asked the door keeper how to go to the coffee shop. He silently directed towards the stairs.
“Do I have to walk up?” he exclaimed in surprised dismay. Vikram and I started giggling. Two people in their late twenties giggling aloud on a busy market street should have embarrassed us, if we had stopped to think about it. But we were busy teasing Mahesh as we made our way to the tiny lift at the end of the shop floor.
In the coffee shop I made a beeline for the longest table and the best view. A waiter approached and pushed aside the curtains giving us a bird’s eye view of the entire town. Awww!!! we chorused… At the horizon dark thunder clouds threatened. All around the buildings glistened, completely cleansed in the storm. Perched high above, we could not hear the rude horns nor the cries of the walkers below. The dusky atmosphere did not dampen our spirits instead filled us with joy. It was a beautiful evening, the best time to meet up with old friends over a hot cup of tea.
While waiting for the others, Vikram and I discussed business, exchanging all the relevant contact details. Mahesh listened patiently, putting in an occasional word or two. Soon the girls arrived, one after the other, and the chats turned to the usual class gossip… Who was getting married, who had secretly already done so… Which couple was expecting a baby soon and so on… At any other time, it would have seemed so banal and petty, but on that evening, it seemed the most appropriate chatter.
Actually, I often despised such gossip, yet just then, I realized that it broke through the sudden unsettling awkwardness and brought us close. From the first, we had been a united group, having spent the most important years of our lives, the formative years, playing and studying together. But after graduation, we went our separate ways. In the ensuing years, as we strived to establish ourselves, we were often unable to keep in regular touch. However, now, when we are able to meet after so many years, these apparently superficial talks had an underlying significance.
It was as if an invisible thread of affection tied us all together. In spite of years of non-communication, we still cared for our oldest friends. Eager to know what the others had achieved, I tried to listen to everyone at the same time. The rapid questions, the abrupt answers, the chaotic cross talks and the sudden exclamations exposed all our pent up curiosity. Yet strangely, not once did I sense any real derision or mockery.
Time flew by. The shadows grew, night fell lightly unheeded. The soft yellow lights encased in intricate lamps enhanced the cozy ambience. Although we had missed other appointments, none of us felt guilty. Mahesh called for the tab and paid, ignoring our protests. At the lift, we teased Mahesh, since his towering size prevented all of us from getting into it together.
Shruti, Lina and Vikram went in first, laughingly inviting us in. I refused, leaning against the wall languidly. Mahesh flushed and refused too. All of sudden, I felt depressed. It was time to leave, and I felt that I was leaving behind precious moments.
They waited for us at the reception area, and we went out together. It was drizzling again. Quickly we hugged Lina, speeding her on her way. Then the four of us walked towards my house. As we turned into the residential street, Shruti bid good-bye, turning left for her home. Vikram and Mahesh accompanied me home, since they had parked their bike nearby.
Stopping at my door, we chatted for a few minutes. Then Mahesh announced that he was extremely late and had to rush to meet his father. Promising to keep in touch more often, I sadly went in. No one was home yet, and I felt the emptiness weigh heavily on me. Lying down on my bed, I closed my eyes, thinking that luckily I had not given in to my usual laziness and forgone the get-together.
Flurries of images flashed on my inner eye… the happy faces and casual poses, the teasing tones and the laughter, the tasty chips and the hot tea… All merged into a single impression of warm contentment. It had been an evening to remember!