Picnic was an event that I usually preferred to skip. But in engineering I had found a reason to attend it. And the reason was quite simple, logical and primal. I liked a girl and I took every opportunity to be with her. Picnic simply provided me with an opportunity to interact with her without any one raising an eyebrow.
This time we were going to a temple about 200 km from our city which quite conveniently was situated on a beach. And since girls were also going with us, we the gentle boys of CSE department had decided to start early so that we could return before 7 pm. And as such being aware of my love for the bed, I had to forgo my sleep the previous night in order to catch the bus. So when I got on the bus, every female inmate already in there was scared of the red eyed, dangerous looking, new entrant. That suited me just fine. I was looking for a Window seat towards the back of the bus which I found, opened the Window and promptly went to sleep. It was not for the next 15 minutes that I opened eyes. And when I did, I found the bus in front of the girl’s hostel of our college. The thought of seeing her in casual clothes was enough to rejuvenate me. As sincere as she was, I found her already waiting for the bus, leading the vanguard of the girls who were to join us from there.
Her name was Anamika. We were, in her words, Best Friends. She was about 5 feet 1 inch, not too fair, average looking and almost always seemed to be amused about something. Dressed in a black top and denim jeans, she looked quite cute. Every time I looked at her, I felt she was the one for me. She was the reason why I had shed the shell of an introvert and was also trying my best to look more presentable. I had even started jogging so that I would lose the extra blubber that I was so proud of, before I went to propose to her, although I wasn’t much successful. My third year of engineering was coming to an end and I had decided that I would confess before I walked into the last year that I would get to spend with her, that is, unless we got placed in the same location.
She got on the bus, found the hand at the backseat I had raised to let her know that I was present, waved at me and sat at the second bench in the bus as I had expected her to. After all the girls had got on the bus, it started on our destination with but one stop left where Sriram would be getting on carrying the tiffin for our group. At the edge of the city he was standing in front of a tiffin Centre carrying two large polythene bags filled with packets of food for everyone and his entry was cheered like that of a superhero’s by our gang of gluttons.
Sriram was a tall guy who maintained his body well, and was the object of fantasy of over 70% of the girls in our college. And he was the best friend I had in the jungle that we studied in. We shared most of our secrets and allowed no one other than ourselves to have fun at our expense. He was the only one other than me who knew regarding how I felt about Anamika. And he never left out any opportunity to make me regret my decision of letting Him on the secret.
As he walked towards the back seat, he started handing out packets to each of the prisoners, and quite predictably, some girls refrained from taking one as somehow, it would lead to a dramatic increase in their weight.
“You were right. Black does indeed suit her,” he whispered as he sat down on the empty seat beside me that I had reserved for him.
“I do my research well,” I replied as I stylishly swiped my right hand through my hair. “It’s a good thing that she decided to wear it today. It suits my sinister intentions quite well.” I gave an evil smile.
“It better not be what I think it is. Don’t rush into it.”
“It isn’t,” I lied.
As the bus crossed the city limits, the speakers that had been brought for this moment were put to use. The sound that emanated from them was threatening to destroy the virginity of my ears, but for some it wasn’t loud enough. And these ‘some’ had now formed a sort of alliance around the middle of the bus and were busy dancing, if you could call movement similar to that of a rag doll being tossed around violently as dance, to the beats of some of the popular party songs that someone had spent a couple of hours to make a mix of. And my best friend had moved on to be at the centre of all that mayhem.
That suited me just fine. I looked out of the window at the beautiful mountains and the vast expanse of green fields that alternated every five minutes. Everyone else was having fun, singing dancing and teasing their friends. But I was oblivious to it all, staring into the distant scenery contemplating how best to achieve the goal that was the main reason why I agreed to join the picnic party. They were shouting at the top of their voices- but for me it was a distant hum. Sometimes even, they pressed against me while dancing, but I only felt the wind caressing me. I was shaken from my trance when I felt someone pull me from my seat imploring me to ‘shake what my mamma gave’ me. But I shrugged him off with a smile, raising up my hands as a sign of submission. I turned to look at her. She was standing in the middle of the bus, clapping in a rhythmically with the music, encouraging her friends who were dancing. A lonely strand of hair ran from her forehead caressing her left cheek. God! How I loved her!
Soon we reached the destination. The last 6 miles of the journey was through a village, and there was a giant statue of Lord Hanuman standing in the main square of the village which we had to pass through. And I prayed to Him to provide me with courage to pull through without fainting. The bus stopped near the entrance of the temple. It was a bit secluded location, and most of the people there were picnickers like us. The temple compounded a large area, of over 200X200 meters. There were 5-6 temples dedicated to different Gods scattered in the compound. There were also some shops that catered to the needs of the devotees who wanted to offer puja. Sriram called me as he went to the beach. But I politely refused saying I had some personal work to do. He gave me a suspicious glare, but fortunately didn’t say anything.
Everyone had already gone straight to the beach. The help we had brought along for arranging the food started on their business, fearing what our infamous foodies would do to them if they didn’t cook delicious meals, and in time. But I spent some time reconnoitering around for the perfect location where I would put my plans to test. And then I found it. It was roofed marble pandal in the compound that was located at least 10 meters from any other human construction. And the beach was just barely visible from there, which would provide me with the romantic backdrop that I needed. Now all I had to do was bring her there. Alone. I then went to offer my prayers to the Gods; only He and I knew that today I needed all the divine help I could get.
Having completed my job there, I then sat on the beach, watching her play in the sea, running back at the first sight of a wave. Letting the saline water gently touch her feet; never above ankle though. I watched her as she fell into the water as someone playfully pushed her. I watched as she tried to stand only to fall again as a huge wave crashed into her. And I watched her as she made the face of a child who is being bullied by their elder sibling as the wave soaked her entirely. I watched it all, and it only made my conviction stronger that I really loved her.
Then one of the help called up the leader of our group, the one who had arranged it all, and informed him that food was ready. It was surprisingly good. But the only problem was that the location where we were eating was infested with stray animals, and half of us were needed to work as professional animal herders, while the other half could eat in peace. But sometimes one or two animals got through the barricade, and whenever they did, some of the females in our group felt like competing with banshees.
After the stomachs were satisfied everyone started for the beach. This time, Sriram knew better than to call me again. I found a moment to ask Anamika to come with me, as everyone else was moving to the beach again.
As we reached the pandal, I sat down, and gestured her to do the same. She looked quizzically at me.
“Why were you so dull this entire trip? It’s the first time I have seen you so silent,” she asked.
“Was mentally preparing myself for something. I am not much of an impromptu person.” I smiled sheepishly.
“Yeah, yeah,” she gave one of her cute smiles where she curved right part of her lips upwards. Shit. My heart started beating furiously.
“There is something I have to say to you.” I could barely control my trembling body now. “Anamika, I love you.”
She looked at me with an expression of shock, like I had said something deplorable. “You and I can never have a future. It’s not cos of you. It’s cos I never looked at you that way. You were never more than a friend to me. Best friend, yes. But I never looked at you as my lover. I am sorry to say this. I really do. I know that you would make an awesome boyfriend. But it’s been too long that we stayed as my best friend, and now I possibly can’t see you as my love. You should move on.” When she spoke next, her voice was shaking. Nervousness. Anger. I couldn’t know.
“You say that I would be a good boyfriend, but still refuse to reciprocate my feelings. Hypocrisy. If you ever thought of me as good friend, you could have deciphered what was in my eyes when I looked at you. Move on!!! That’s quite easy to say, but impossible for me to follow. You know why? ‘cos everytime you come before my eyes, I will see someone who I love more than anyone else, but I will know that she would not look at me with half the love I feel for her. But every day I will have to hide that pain under a smile, lest you stop talking to me even. All because I can imagine what my life will be without you. So no matter what I feel, I will stay right there beside you, to enjoy your smile, and wait for the time when you realize how I really feel for you, and hope that you feel it for me as well.” All these I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud. Then I gave a mischievous smile and said, “You know me better than to say ‘move on’. I never stay,” I winked. “Let’s go to the beach. Group photo against the backdrop of a setting sun illuminating the green sea would be something I don’t wanna miss.”
We walked up to the beach, with me maintaining the façade of an individual who didn’t have any concern in the world. On the way I even cracked some jokes at the expense of some trees and stray animals, which brought a smile on her face. It was that smile I wanted to preserve. Soon we took the group photo with all our friends, and acted like nothing was amiss.
“So you said it.” Sriram asked solemnly as soon as he found the opportunity to so that no one else could hear what we talked. “And don’t lie to me. I know you well enough to guess when you fake your expressions.”
I silently nodded.
“Well I did say you rushed into it.” He slowly shook his head. “But don’t worry. It’s not over.”
“What do you know of the pain I feel,” I spat. “You got girls falling head over heels for you. Don’t you dare sympathise with me. I don’t need it.” And I stormed off.
Like a zombie I walked up the bus and mechanically sat down on the last but one bench. Sriram came and sat beside me. “No matter what, I always got your back,” he shrugged.
But my mind was completely occupied by thoughts of what had transpired that day. How the day really turned my life around, though not the way I had hoped. How my dreams, my aspirations, my life had come crumbling down with just a shell standing amidst all the chaos. They had started playing Antakshari and the majority of the bus population was concentrated around the middle yet again. There were two teams, divided on the basis of their gender. And when the battle started, it was fierce, with none of the teams giving the other any quarter. Each team had 10 seconds to sing a song which started with the letter that the song of the previous team ended in, and the opposing team always seemed to be in a trigger happy mode to begin the countdown.
I registered it all in the back of my head, but felt indifferent to anything that was happening in my immediate surroundings. It was the month of November and chilly wind had started blowing. But still my window was opened, and the cold wind numbed my face, something that I was oblivious to. I closed my eyes stayed and went to the kind if sleep that sorrow is infamous for bringing about; the only sounds that I let in were that of my thoughts and that of the wind.
About an hour later I was disturbed from my slumber by a loud chorus of feminine voices “Tick tick 1”. The boys’ team had to sing a song that started with ‘N’, and their memory seemed to be failing them. And the countdown had begun.
“Tick tick 2!!”
It wasn’t my entire life that had been shoved into the fire.
“Tick tick 3!!”
It was just a small insignificant part.
“Tick tick 4!!”
One that I never really had a need of.
“Tick tick 5!!”
No, it wasn’t all over.
“Tick tick 6!!”
I was still standing, wasn’t I?
“Tick tick 7.”
No, I won’t let it hold me back any more.
“Tick tick 8.”
What was the word?
And then the girls were silenced by a lone, unnecessarily loud male voice that originated from the window seat of the left row of the last but one bench.
‘Nile nile amber par…’