She greeted him with a “Hi!”
“Hi Sweetheart!” he replied. The mere mention of ‘Sweetheart’ made her heart skip a beat. How could she stay away from him for a week! Unfortunately she wouldn’t even be able to call him up during her stay at her auntie’s place.
“Hello? Are you still alive?” he asked. She laughed.
“Yes,” she answered, “I will be out of town for a week.”
“Well, I am visiting my aunts.”
“What ‘Oh!’? You know that I hate that word.”
“Cool down dear,” he cooed, “I was just wondering how can this be possible.”
“How can ‘what’ be possible?”
“Well, we both will be out of the city during the same time.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Arey buddhu! I am also leaving tonight and will be back only after a week.”
“Now who is saying ‘Oh!’?”
“I thought you would say: ‘Sorry’,” he grinned, “What do you want me to get for you?”
“Shall I get a book for you?”
“No. Don’t waste money on books, dear. I already have memberships in two libraries. Moreover, I can’t maintain books and I can’t bear to see them rotting in the shelves or the attics.”
“Okay, okay. I was not asking for a lecture!”
“Now you tell me. What do you want me to get for you?”
She loved to chat with him over the phone. She loved his voice and his laughter. She always wondered how they managed to talk for hours together, though both of them knew each other’s responses.
During her journey, she sat gazing at the changing landscapes through the train’s windows. But her mind was elsewhere. She was reliving the moments with him. How could she ever live without him? But deep inside her, she knew that separation was certain to happen sometime or the other in future. She thought about what he had asked her to get for him. If it had been someone else, she wouldn’t have bought such a thing. She did not believe in purchasing gifts but this time it was different. She was buying it for her special friend. It was the first time he had asked something. Every time she had asked, “what do you want me to get for you?”; he would reply, “I hope you never return” or “just stay there and don’t come back.” These responses would hurt her feelings a lot, but she would shrug them off with a brave heart.
“Do you want this bag?” asked auntie.
She and her auntie were out shopping. They were passing by a lane full of small makeshift shops. All the wares were displayed on bandis that were pushed around or in baskets that were carried around. There was a lot of hustle and bustle with people bargaining more and buying less!
She and her auntie walked around the shops, scanning all the articles and pausing once in a while to check out an item that caught their interest. She did not like buying girlie things like rubber bands, clips, bindis etc. yet did not want to disappoint her auntie’s offers of buying hr this thing or that.
While her auntie was bargaining over the cost of a cushion cover, she was looking at the adjacent stalls. All of a sudden, something caught her attention. She could not believe her eyes. The article that her lover had asked for was right in front of her eyes. He had said that it was rare and very difficult to get. Then how could be in a bandi like this? The shopkeeper, sensing her interest in the item removed it from display, dusted it and placed it in her hands. She flipped it over. Was she dreaming?
Meanwhile, her auntie came and stood beside her. “I didn’t buy the cushion cover,” she said, “he was not willing to reduce its price and moreover…” she stopped her sentence mid-way and looked at her niece. “What happened Kanna?” she asked, “Do you buy this?” She tried to talk but could not find her voice. All that she could do was to nod her head vigorously. But her auntie disapproved of the item. “You should not buy such things on streets. I will take you to a big shop near our house.” But she was not at all listening to her auntie. She asked for the price.
“110 rupees,” replied the shopkeeper.
“Is there any discount?”
“Well, we hardly get any profit in selling these, but I can give it to you for 90.”
“I will give 75,” she said. She had learnt some of the art of bargaining from her auntie. “80. Nothing less,” retorted the shopkeeper, putting the article in a cover and thrusting it in her hands. She couldn’t get it anywhere else. Moreover, there was no time left for shopping. She was leaving on the same day. She paid the shopkeeper and put the poly-bag in her shoulder bag. Her auntie was startled. Her niece never spent money on unnecessary things. She wouldn’t buy things that were used only once and later were of no use.
“You usually don’t buy these,” her auntie remarked.
“Yes, but this is not for me but for a friend.”
“But still, one can always borrow it from someone. Why buy?”
“Absolutely right! But he is different. He likes not just to borrow but to own them.”
She was on her way back home. There was a naughty low on her face. Her mind was flooded with thoughts of the gift she had bought for him. How will she wrap it? If she wrapped it directly, he would make it out by its shape. She decided to put it in a cylindrical box and wrap it so that he would not be able to guess it until he saw it for himself. There was a problem of giving it to him. Should she call him to the office canteen and give it? Or should she place it at his desk? No, if she put it at his desk, anybody might open it; or worse, they might be wondering why she out it at his desk, without giving it to him directly. Should she write some note and put in inside? No, in that case, he will know that the gift is from her. She wanted it to be a surprise for him. Should she post it? She didn’t know his postal address. Could she make use of the internal courier service in the office? Then the gift will be delivered to his desk but how would she get an acknowledgement without specifying her name (as sender)? She might tell another colleague of hers to courier it to him. But she did not want another soul except him and her to know about the gift. Finally, she decided that she would put it in her desk and give the desk keys to him during the weekend. Now that all the things related to the gift were sorted out, she could sleep in peace!
It was her first day (after the vacation) to her office. All the while she worked, she sang and hummed. Every once in a while, she would open her desk drawer and look at the gift. All her friends observed the mysterious smile on her face and asked her if she had found a boyfriend at her auntie’s place. A smile was all that they got in reply!
“A little. What is it?”
“Well, how was your trip?”
“Great! And yours?”
Instead of replying, she asked, “What did you get for me?”
“I came back. Don’t you think that’s a great gift for you?”
He went on and on about his office work and about the tasks that were assigned to him. When she could not tolerate any longer, she interrupted him, “Will you not ask me what I have got for you?”
“What did you get for me?” he asked.
“Try guessing,” she teased.
“You returned. Is that the gift?”
“Then you tell me. What is it?”
“I can’t. Nothing comes to my mind.”
“Okay! Fine! Try thrice. If you still don’t get it, then I will tell you.” While he was still wondering, she added, “For your information, I haven’t been to the beach. So, it can be neither shells nor sand!” Before she could finish, he said hurriedly, “I think I have got a call from the onsite coordinator. Will talk to you later.” Then the line went dead.
“What will you have?” he asked.
“Curd rice,” she replied.
They were at a hotel having their lunch. She was biting her nails and was muttering to herself.
“Why are you looking so disappointed?” he enquired.
“I should have got your gift. How could I forget! I am a big fool!”
“Sometimes you do say the truth!” he teased but had to shield his face from her punch.
“It’s okay,” he assured her, “The gift is not going to run away. I can take it anytime.”
They chatted while they ate. Most of the time, books were the sole topic of their conversation. Both of them were avid readers. Reading was as important to them as eating or sleeping. They would take out at least half an hour in their daily routine and dedicate it for reading.
“Do you know, I bought a lot of books last week?” he said eagerly.
“Is that so?”
“Yes. I have also bought the book of Agatha Christie: ‘One, two, buckle my shoe’” I never thought I would get it. It is probably out of print and…”
She tried hard to concentrate on his words but could not. How could he do this to her/ why did this happen? Whose fault was it? Was it a misunderstanding? She struggled to retain her calm.
“Why are you so silent?” he inquired with a concern in his face. She ignored the question and asked him, “I think you presented a book to your nephew for his birthday?”
“Yes. ‘Aesop’s fables’. Why do you ask?” he was wondering why she was so interested in something that happened two months back.
“Well, if he had already read it, what would you have done?”
“No, I asked him when I gave him the gift. He said that he hadn’t read the stories.”
“Suppose, he had already read, then?’ she insisted.
“Then,” he said after a pause, “I would have forced him to read it again!”
There was a twinkle in his eye. He did not notice the tears that were waiting to burst out of her eyes. She stifles a sob and asked him, “What if he already had the book?”
He was oblivious to her state of mind. He thought for a while before responding. Finally his answer was: “I would ask my nephew to preserve it and use it as an antique piece after 20 years!”
She sighed. She did not know what to do. All her dreams were shattered. Now what would she do with the book that she bought for him. She remembered how she had forced herself not to read the book in the train. She had told herself that he had to be the first one to read the book. She had hid it from her auntie lest she should read it. She did not even allow her family members to glance through the pages. It belonged to him and only he had the privilege of reading it first.
Later when she went to his house, she saw his copy of the book lying innocently on the shelf. When he caught her staring at it, he offered, “Take this book and read it. It is a very good one. You will like it.” She felt like snatching it out of his hands and throwing it onto the floor. Instead, she ran a finger on its cover. She refused to read it. “Oh! You must be reading something else. A Wilbur Smith?” “No,” she replied. How could she read anything? Whichever book she saw, reminded her of this book that she had so lovingly bought for him. The moon and stars on the cover page would flash in front of her. She would not be able to enjoy reading. She sighed deeply.
She was getting ready to go out with her friends, when he called her. Her hands were full of hairpins. She managed to balance her mobile between her neck and shoulder. There was no ‘Hi’, no ‘Hello’. He immediately started complaining.
“You haven’t given me my gift yet.”
“You will not get it,” she said firmly.
“Why? Don’t I deserve it anymore?” he frowned.
“The gift is not worthy of you.”
“What does that mean?”
“You don’t need it anymore.”
“Why not dear?”
She did not reply. A long silence followed. He was the one to talk first.
“Do I already have it?” he inquired.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Now, stop beating around the bush. What is the gift? Tell me.”
“You don’t need it, dear.”
“But still it was bought for me.”
“So, I have a right over it.”
“In that case, it is in my desk drawer. You can see it but I know, you will not take it.”
“Is it a book?”
She kept quiet. She could not answer. When she couldn’t bear the silence, she said, “I can’t say. You find out.” He got angry and cut the call.
What would she do with the book? She didn’t want to read it. Should she give it to their office library? Then, every time she went to the library, it would catch her eye. Should she throw it away? No. Should she keep it? But it would remind her of this incident whenever she saw it.
The End :-)