The Winding Road Back Home

(Published in Good Housekeeping in September 2010)

“Honey, I really hope they turn up. But just in case they don’t… you know, it has been a long time after all, don’t be upset, ok?”

Rhea opened her mouth to say something. But changed her mind and sighed.

“Okay”.

“Yes, yes, I know what you were going to say. I must have said the same line ten times already…”

“Twenty…”

“Okay, twenty. But you know why, I worry about you. You’d take every little thing to heart. I don’t like seeing you hurt.”

Rhea picked up her handbag from the couch and turned to look affectionately at her husband of fourteen years. Even after all this time, she had no trouble remembering what had made her fall in love with Avinash in college.

“I promise I won’t sulk if they don’t turn up. Promise. But you know what, they will.”

“I hope so, honey.” Rhea let the stark lack of conviction in Avinash’s voice pass.

“God, I am going to be late,” Meenal muttered under her breath every time she looked at her watch.

She was typing at a furious speed. She didn’t pause for a second even when Namrata walked up to her workstation.

“Hey, Meenal,” Namrata said in her nasal voice, frowning into a sheaf of papers in her hand “I think there is some glitch in this. This is just not adding up.”

“Save it for tomorrow,” Meenal replied while shutting down her computer, “I am already running late for a meeting. And you should also go home, Namrata. It’s a Sunday for God’s sakes.”

“Where are you going?” Smriti’s mother-in-law bellowed while fixing her with her piercing gaze over thick glasses.

Smriti froze at the doorway and took a moment to close her eyes and bite her lips before turning to her mother-in-law.

Mummy-ji, I had told you, I am going to meet my friends, remember?”

“No, you never told me,” the older woman said in a cold, flat tone, “And why would you? I am nothing more than a maid in this house. Why would anyone tell me anything? The mistress of the house would dress up and go out partying, while I rot in the kitchen.”

Mummy-ji,” Smriti said, her voice tired, “I did tell you, several times, you must have forgotten. And you don’t need to cook dinner, I will do it when I come back. Get some rest.”

“So now I am a liar too?” Her voice cracked as it rose several octaves.

She didn’t have the time for this today. Not today. Smriti set her jaw, turned her back to her mother-in-law and walked out of the house, closing the door behind her with a bang. She could hear the older woman’s high-pitched complaints even as she walked down the corridor, muffled by the thick mahogany door.

From twenty feet away, Rhea could see there was no one in front of the café. She looked at her watch. She was ten minutes early. A glittering Café Coffee Day had replaced Polly’s Coffee House, Rhea noticed with a little pang of… something. Maybe this was nostalgia. In fact, wasn’t this the perfect occasion to feel nostalgic? Ten yards to her left, stood the school. Unchanged, proud. Seems to have got a new coat of paint. It used to be a lighter shade of yellow when she was there, or was it the same…?

“Hi!” somebody said in her ear, and she jumped.

“Smriti! Hi!” And instinctively their arms were around each other. “You came!”

“Of course I did, wouldn’t have missed this for anything.” Tears were gathering at the corners of Smriti’s eyes, but she was smiling a very happy smile.

“Guys, hi!”

“Meenal!”  Rhea and Smriti screeched in unison as a taxi screeched to a stop right beside them, and Meenal lunged forward and enclosed them both together in a bear hug.

Rhea bit hard on her lips to hold back tears of intense happiness. Something in her wanted to burst, to jump and skip, to sing…

As Smriti hid her face in Meenal’s shoulder, she fought to swallow the lump in her throat, but it seemed to be getting bigger…

Meenal’s eyes were sparkling with poorly suppressed excitement. She didn’t even remember how it felt to be so completely happy…

As the three best friends stood wrapped in a group hug, each of them felt a distinct sensation of being sucked back in time, to what seemed now like a different era, a different world, when everything was fine…

Rhea, Meenal, Smriti – three best friends. They were always spoken of as a set – Rhea-Meenal-Smriti. Rhea – small, petite, timid, docile, vulnerable, who frequently generated in people the desire to protect her and take care of her; Meenal – smart, witty, daring, adventurous, always up for a good laugh. Smriti – the gentle, sweet, well-behaved, studious girl, who was every parent’s dream and every teacher’s pride. They had met in kindergarten and with each passing year in school, their friendship kept growing, solidifying into a bond so close that they felt themselves to be extensions of each other rather than individuals. They were inseparable, not by choice, but by an intense need to be with each other. They didn’t talk about everything like other best friends did, because they knew without being told. They could read each other with one swift glance, instinctively identified almost imperceptible changes in mood, and seemed to be internally trained to say and do the right things at the right times as far as the other two were concerned.

On the last day of school, they clung to each other and cried, even the ‘toughie’ Meenal. The world had seemed to come to an end.

“We will remain best friends for ever, and ever, and ever,” they had pledged.

And inspired by a short story Meenal had liked so much she had read out to the other two on the phone one late night, they had made a unique pact.

“We will meet at Polly’s Coffee House exactly twenty years from today, 4’o clock”.

‘Forever’ always has other plans. Meenal opted for an engineering college in Delhi. She wrote regularly for two years – detailed, long accounts of her life in college, the crippling homesickness towards the beginning, her excitement with the course, a couple of people she liked hanging out with, a cute guy who always smiled shyly at her across the classroom, another who was a pain, review of the latest movie…

Smriti and Rhea always wrote back with minutest details of their lives which no one would have cared about but they were sure Meenal would hang on every word of. Smriti and Rhea continued to meet on most weekends, and sometimes even on weekdays after college. But with a crucial link of their friendship – Meenal – missing, the magic seemed to fade a little, though they would never admit it, even to themselves. Things started becoming steadily strained as Smriti accompanied her parents back to her hometown, Pune, to pursue her post graduation in English and be with her aging grandparents, after graduation. They still wrote to each other, but the letters started getting considerably shorter and scarce. The last they heard of Meenal was that she had been accepted at a school in the US for her post graduation. Eventually, Smriti chose to join a reputed college as an English professor and Rhea stepped out of the cocoon of her home to join work in Chennai. As they got caught in a wave of confusing crossroads, stormy times, hard work and growing demands of life, the Rhea-Meenal-Smriti set was gradually reduced to chance remembrances induced by an old song or a photo tucked in a yellowed slambook.

But here they were – not just one, but all three of them, in honor of the childish pledge they had made twenty years ago, to seek friends who it wouldn’t have been impossible for them to have passed on the road without recognizing.

“I don’t…”

“You know…”

“Are both of you…”

Seated around a little round table in the café and having ordered cappuccinos, and Meenal pointing out Rhea had put on quite a bit of weight, all three of them were bubbling with things to say, hundreds of questions desperately waiting to be asked.

“One at a time, one at a time,” Meenal ordered, pulling off a perfect imitation of their Geography teacher, Mrs. Sinha. And after all these years, they still cracked up.

“Okay, me first,” Rhea said in between chuckles. “Married, husband’s name, Avinash. Met him in college. One kid – Rishav. Eight years old. Working for FPC here in Bangalore.”

“Slogging like a madwoman for FP&C in Mumbai. Especially scheduled a business trip during this time to make it to this meeting,” Meenal paused for effect. “Divorced. No kids.”

Both Smriti and Rhea stopped in the middle of their act of putting their cups to their lips. A few silent, uncomfortable moments later, it was Meenal herself who eased the situation.

“It’s okay, my dears. Smriti, your turn.”

“Umm… I got married ten years back. Arranged marriage – dad’s aunt’s cousin’s neighbor’s son’s friend,” Smriti scowled as Rhea hid her face in her hands and shook with laughter and Meenal threw back her head and chuckled so loud that the only other people in the café, a contented looking couple at the farthest corner, almost fell off their seats.

“Insane. Anyways, getting back, one kid – girl – six. I came back to Bangalore right after we got married… my husband was working here. And… what else… oh yes, I am a housewife…,” Smriti almost flinched as she said that word.

“Housewife?! You left your job?”

“Yeah… well, I didn’t have a choice. I had to look after Tiara.”

Meenal raised her eyebrows. And Rhea simply said ‘Really?” All three of them shocked themselves. Even now, after all these years, they could still detect little tremors in each others’ voices.

And out poured the story. Of the mother-in-law who subscribed to the not-so-original idea that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, who, though a doting grandmother, felt she was being reduced to the position of an ‘ayah’ if she were asked to look after Tiara while Smriti went out to work, whose only source of recreation seemed to work on breaking Smriti down, bit by excruciating bit, a husband who was torn between the two women in his life and spent his little time at home dodging and ducking verbal bullets that flew everywhere.

A set of solutions was instantly offered, ranging from practical to hilarious. Smriti knew that she would never have the guts to try even the ones she agreed were ‘worth a try’. But it felt good, it felt incredibly good, to just sit and have two people try to sort things out for her.

“I am telling you, she needs a boyfriend, your mother-in-law,” Meenal said with every bit of seriousness she assumed at company presentations, ignoring Smriti’s stare and Rhea choking on her coffee, “I have an uncle, widowed – nice man, rich, just a bit loose in the head. Want me to set him up with her?”

And the little café erupted in another bout of very loud laughter. The waiters caught each others’ eyes and grinned.

Finally wiping tears of laughter off her eyes, Rhea said, “So Miss Crazy-Solutions, what’s your story?”

“Hmm, I married Asutosh right after post grad. Met him through a common friend. I don’t know… it was great for a while… then, things started changing. You know, I can’t honestly say it was his fault, no. It was both of us I guess. We just drifted apart, just like that. And when it came down to both of us hanging around our offices longer than necessary to cut down on home time, we decided that was it…,” Meenal trailed off with a little chuckle.

“How long has it been?”

“Nine years.”

‘Nine years, whoa, that’s along time, so… you would never get married again…?” Rhea ventured timidly.

‘I don’t know, yaar,” Meenal drawled, “I am thirty-eight, I don’t know if I am up for it. But then, I do want to have a kid, very badly… and I can feel my biological clock racing…”

The others waited expectantly, while Meenal paused to collect her thoughts, “There is this guy in office, nice chap, very close friend, you know, the ‘always-there-for-you’ type. He proposed last month. I said I wasn’t sure.”

With a little bit of probing, Meenal delved into such a detailed description of Prakash, that the others felt they had known them all their lives. While she talked about the little things she liked about him, the oddities she found endearing… for the first time in her life… she saw Prakash in a completely different light. She found herself talking about feelings she didn’t know existed within her…

“It’s obvious this guy means something to you, Meenal,” whispered Rhea, with her hand on her friend’s, “Promise us you will consider it.”

“Yes, I will.”

“So, it seems Rhea is having it perfect, huh? A doting husband, no mother-in-law, lovely kid…”

“I had a miscarriage last year.”

And not for the first time that afternoon, the table went quiet. Smriti had tears freely rolling down her cheeks and Meenal sat shredding her paper napkin into bits as Rhea recounted for the first time ever how she had cried for days and months at a stretch, not eaten, spent hours staring into space, woke up in the night screaming and how grateful she was to her husband for bringing her back to her feet while dealing with his own grief…

It all felt no different from the times when there was no problem in life which couldn’t be solved over samosas and strawberry shakes at Polly’s.

“Remember Vikas, Rhea?” Meenal asked with a wink.

Smriti’s nose instantly turned pink, just as they remembered it. “Stop it, Meenal.”

“Oh Vikas… he is soooo cute….” Rhea mimicked a Smriti of twenty-two years back as the pink spread to the rest of Smriti’s face.

Minutes passed like seconds as conversation rolled. They picked up debates and discussions from twenty, even twenty-five years back, talked about the moments they had felt they had stars in their fists, the moments they had felt so low they wanted to curl up and die, the petty mischief, the late night phone calls, school excursions, favorite teachers, dreaded teachers, the long string of crushes, first heartbreaks, the agony of putting on weight, the ecstasy of losing it, the pimples that seemed to be trying to avenge some old grudge, ugly duckling phases…

Hours whisked passed as they talked, giggled, cried, sobbed, laughed, frowned and reflected over three rounds of coffee. And when Rhea finally noticed it was eight thirty, they still felt they had just got started.

“Wow, nothing has changed. This still feels like the old us. This… this feels like home,” Rhea smiled as they gathered their handbags.

“Well, whoever said change was constant certainly didn’t have best friends,” Smriti said proudly.

“Listen, we will have to do this more often than once in twenty years,” Meenal asserted. “We have too much of ourselves in each other to let go.”

Rhea gave Avinash a bear hug as soon as he opened the door and sloppy kisses to Rishav who had trailed behind his father.

“Avi, I have loads to tell you. Loads,” Rhea said over her shoulder as she bounced towards her bedroom.

“Who-a, honey,” Avinash stuttered and smiled after her, steadying himself, “Wow, I have never seen you so happy since… since… I don’t know when.”

Meenal lay on the plush bed in her hotel room, gazing at her cellphone lying beside her. After a while, she picked it up, pressed a few keys, and put it to her ears.

“Prakash, hi… yes, I am doing good… umm, listen, I would like to meet you, first thing after I get back. It’s important…”

As soon as she walked through the door, Smriti’s mother-in-law spitted out a torrent of lines that were clearly rehearsed for five hours.

But they didn’t reach her. Smriti just stood there, looking at her mother-in-law’s lips moving, Kunal trying to calm her down, Tiara crouching behind Kunal…

She needs a boyfriend…” laughter spluttered deep down her throat as Meenal’s matter-of-fact solution came back to her, then spilled out before she could stop herself. With her mother-in-law, Kunal and Tiara staring at her open-mouthed, Smriti doubled over with laughter, clutching her stomach…

But even as they swapped phone numbers, addresses and email ids, they knew somewhere deep down that once they again get caught up in the mad rush of the real world, they might just … slip away from each other again. But then, it was no little a matter that even for a few hours, three thirty-eight year women could pretend that the real world had ceased to exist, that all was fine, and realized there were at least two people who knew everything that was there to know about them and loved them anyway, who understood them better than they understood themselves – a companionship that transcended time and distance, a bond that made even the most pressing problems of life pale into insignificance, even for a few hours…

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