[ READ THE PREVIOUS PART OF THE STORY HERE ]
“Beep!” “Beep!” The mobile sounded. Shrugging off all thoughts of Shekhar, Jennifer picked up the little device. A message! She swiped the screen selected “Inbox” and read. Oh, finally it’s gone through, she thought out aloud. The file had been accepted. The photos would now be available for the world to see and download at will.
A clock in the distant tower struck two. Net setter disconnected, she shut down the laptop. Gathering up her locks in a small bun on her crown, she picked up the toothbrush from the stand, applied some toothpaste and entered the washroom. The circular motion of the brush over her sparkling teeth had a calming effect. Splashing her face with cold water she looked into the mirror. Tired eyes stared back. Patting the face dry she stepped out and headed for the bed blowing her breath into her hands. The sweet fragrance of mint combined with a cool tingling sensation made her smile. How she loved it!
Her head hit the pillow. Within minutes sleep overpowered her. She drifted off into deep slumber.
The busy street of Karol Bagh in Delhi was teeming with thousands. Every inch of the footpath was occupied. Night had set in. Dressed in shorts and a cool tee, a camera dangling from the shoulder, she made her way through the maddening crowd at leisurely pace. Chains in colorful beads, corals and shells adorned her neck. Big, bright lacquer bangles clinked on her wrists, heavy metal ear rings tugged at her ear lobes. She stood out in the crowd. Heads turned as she made her way through them. Eyes took in her dusky beauty. A passerby or two made a passing comment. She was impervious to them.
Suddenly she had an uncanny feeling of being followed. Her ear lobes twitched. She looked around. The teeming crowd made it impossible for her to pin-point the stalker. Her feet gathered wings.
“Swishh….!” Something whizzed past her ears. Hand to ear she faltered and fell. Two pairs of strong arms gathered her. Jennifer felt dizzy. Blood trickled down her earlobe. “Who can that be?” she asked herself. The hands guided her to a Café nearby. She moved along in a daze.
“Are you Ok?” the stranger asked. She nodded in affirmation and thankfully accepted the glass of water he offered. Thoroughly shaken, she wiped off the beads of perspiration dotting her forehead with the back of her palm and touched the bruised earlobe.
“It just grazed and went,” he said examining the earlobe. “A minor bruise. Thankfully nothing to worry.”
The strong aroma of filtered coffee filled her nostrils. The haze clouding her brain slowly melted away. Color pervaded her face and white gave way to pink. “Oh Jesus! Who can it be and why?” she asked herself. But the answer was nowhere in sight.
“Would you like some more coffee?” the stranger asked jerking her out of her reverie.
“Oh no! I’m fine. Thank you” she said raising her eyes to meet a pair of bespectacled dark ones. The worry lines on the stranger’s forehead slowly cleared out. Putting forward a hand he said, “Hi! I’m Shekhar Dutta. Would you like me to drop you somewhere?” She noticed the half-grown French beard he sported. He reminded her of someone.
“No. It’s Ok. I’ll manage,” she said. He paid the bill. They moved out into the open air. A blast of cold air hit her. She shivered.
Her mind refused to calm down. “Who was it and why?” she asked herself once again only to draw a blank.
Shutters were being downed and hawkers bundling up their ware. She looked at the pendant watch hidden beneath the layers of bead. “Oh no!” she said to herself. “It’s well past 11. I must hurry.”
Shekhar looked at her with worried eyes. She seemed far from ‘Okay!’
“I’ll walk you up to the bus stop,” he said. The fighter in her rebelled and mouthed a “No.” But her vocal cords spoke something else. They moved on along the now virtually empty street. The 200 yards was filled in silence.
With a sinking heart she looked at the bus stop. The ever teeming stop was almost empty. The dogs had raided in pushing out the few male travelers who had called it a day and were ready to head back home. The clock at the stop showed 11.20. The last bus had left. She wondered how she would now reach her destination. “Oh Jesus! Help!” she prayed.
“Come, I’ll drop you,” he said slowly steering her to where his Bullet was parked. She followed him meekly as a cow.
“Can I ask you something,” he asked.
“If you are asking me who it was and why? The answer is I don’t know. I too am searching for the answer,” she said.
She shivered. He gave her his jacket. The smell of crisp starched khadi tickled her senses. She inhaled in the freshness, wore it and got in behind him. The bike started, turned and entered the now empty road. She looked across at the bus stop. It was empty except for a few canines.
The wind ruffled up her tresses. They danced wild. The neck chains adorning her slim smooth neck rubbed each other making a clinking noise. She moved closer to him. A sense of warmth and security pervaded her being. She looked up at the heavens and sent out a silent prayer of thanks. The Lord had sent in his savior to protect her. “Shekhar,” she mouthed his name. He did not respond. The winds howled. The heavy piece of metal, the Bullet sliced through them and moved ahead in the dark.
A crow cawed. Jennifer rubbed open her eyes, a smile played on her lips. Slowly undoing the bun, she swung her legs down by the side of the bed. The cold granite kissed her soles. Closing her eyes, she let out a silent prayer and made a cross on her bosom. Fondling the little cross dangling from a silver chain around her neck, she kissed it and got off the bed. Stretching out her being she let out a cry.
The muscles relaxed. She headed for the window. A streak of orange fanned out across the horizon. The water in the lake below sparkled in delight. The sun slowly started its journey up the sky bringing with it new hopes, new aspirations. Hands criss-crossed, Jennifer rubbed her upper arms in few vigorous strokes then, threw them up skywards. Her eyes locked with ‘It’, a reminder of her past. The sound of a distant hoot broke the spell; she pulled away her eyes from ‘it’ and with determined steps moved to the kitchen.
Quickly finishing her morning ablutions, she donned a saree. Not her kinda stuff but then Sunday mornings was church day. Casuals were a ‘no, no’. Quickly locking the front door she headed for the St. Mary’s Cathedral of Kochi. Mass began. Head covered she sat in the last pew. The next hour was for communion with the Lord.
People filed out in silence. Slowly one- by- one the church emptied. Jennifer sat still looking at the Cross at the Altar bearing Jesus. She felt at peace with herself. A full ten minutes later she stepped out of the heavy brass- studded teak doors, inhaled in the fresh fragrance of the roses and jasmines adorning the flower beds at the entrance. A strand of hair escaped the small bun, at the nape. Slowly pulling off the hair pins she let her hair cascade down over her shoulders, shaking her head slowly she rustled them up. With fingers massaging the scalp she slowly walked down the steps and out of the gate into the narrow alley.
The aroma of hot steaming ‘puttu’ (steamed cylinder of ground rice layered with coconut) and ‘kadala curry’ (Bengal gram curry) wafting in through the small ‘chayakada’( tea shop) reached her. Her nostrils flared up not in anger but in delight. Entering Peter’s she looked around. Her favorite spot the broken table at the far end corner was vacant. Pulling up a chair, she sat at the table and waited for breakfast to be served. The mere look of the tattoo on her right hand took her back to the past once again.
‘She had invited him in. He had politely refused and disappeared into the darkness astride his machine. She believed she had seen the last of him.’
The scent of steaming ‘puttu’ and ‘kadla curry’ woke her up from her reverie. She dug her hands into them and placed the first morsel into her mouth. The taste felt heavenly. Slowly relishing the flavor she looked around. The eatery was filling up with strangers, tourists and local people. She studied their faces as she savored the simple dish spread out before her. They interested her. Each face, each minute expression fascinated her. She must click.
Finishing off her meal she washed her hands and dug into her purse. Out popped the Camera.
“Click! Click! Click!……” the lens captured the innumerable expressions, each a mirror of the mind. Paying at the desk, she stepped out once again into the narrow alley. Her eyes searched, the camera captured. With each click the smile on her face widened until finally something caught her eyes.
A chill ran down her spine. “How can it be him?” she asked herself. The height, the build, the crisp, cotton, starched kurta and the khadi jacket all pointed out to him. The stranger turned. Relief flooded her face. It was not him.
She looked across at the ships and country boats dotting the Kochi skyline. The sight was mesmerizing. Jenifer traveled back twelve years in time.
He left her at the gate to her PG and drove away. The nightmare of the evening overpowered her in her sleep. She tossed and turned in bed. Finally unable to sleep, she got up and started reading the Bible. She read and read till her eyes drooped and her head hung over her shoulder.
The ring of a cycle bell woke her up. She got up and freshened up. Hurriedly finishing off her breakfast of bread and butter, she slung the camera over her shoulder and moved to the nearest bus stop. The bus to the University campus arrived. She jumped in, elbowed her way to the middle of the bus fixing her eyes on a young girl. The bus neared the next stop. The girl got up to leave. Jennifer quickly slid in into the empty seat. The journey was by and large uneventful. Jennifer’s hands fondled the strap of her camera. Her eyes scanned for subjects of interest.
The bus stopped. Jennifer jumped out and hurriedly entered the University gates. She headed for the auditorium. The Arts festival was underway. She occupied a seat in the second row. The extempore was on. The feast was diverse. Humorous, serious, cynical, the takes were different. She listened with rapt attention.
Suddenly she spotted him on the sidelines. “Is it really him? Or am I hallucinating?” she asked herself. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. He was nowhere in sight.
“Respected members of the jury, my mentors and dear friends……….” A clear voice rent the air. Sounds familiar, she thought and turned to the stage. He was right there behind the mike, confidence writ large on his face. Jennifer could not take her eyes off him. Words flowed from his lips. She sipped and savored each one. If applause is the yardstick to gauge someone’s strength and his capability then Shekhar is truly far ahead of the rest, she thought. The crowd was in raptures. Jennifer knew she had to meet him. She got up and moved backstage hoping to catch him before he was lost in the crowd.