The metro I take to work, the polluted air of Mumbai, the faces I smile at and the faces that don’t smile back— they are stained a coffee-brown. The same color as old pages and medieval fables. The lives lived in abandoned childhood homes. Memories turned cinder.
The air inside the all-women compartment threatens to asphyxiate me; smoke whisks into oxygen as cigarettes burn against already scorched fingers of these strangely familiar women surrounding me.
The word crowded has no meaning here. An open seat is rare and silence a chimera.
The two women across from me wear saris— which were once bright red but are now a notably washed-out maroon— and mismatched bangles. A set of emerald greens with a single silver bangle adorns the taller woman's bony hands. Similarly, the other woman also wears a set of silvers with a lone green bangle. I wonder if it was a gift to each other or just an impulsive today thing. Either way, they make a beautiful couple.
An older lady eyes them before letting out a nasty tch in their direction. They seem to take notice, shift in their seats, whisper nervously amongst themselves, then lean forward to spread their knees apart under the layered cloth of their sari. As if manspreading to exude dominance. I’d call this— this boldness of these middle-aged women, their air of defiance— progress, but we are sitting in an all-women’s compartment, and they did have to imitate men to remind others of their rights.
I stare out the moving metro from the big window, partly painted off-white by birds, as I core the mango my daughter handed me before I left for work. The inertia of the moving train bleeds into reality and suddenly I’m under the illusion that the window is a theatre screen, the memory of you a movie I must rewatch over and over, the idea of us trapped in the past forever.
Do you remember those days? Your grandpa had planted that lofty mango tree, our favorite hang-out spot as sixteen-year-olds, in your backyard. And we had nurtured it against May heatwaves and July rainstorms and arid Decembers. In return, its scent of sweet fruit and terpene whiff never fizzled from your home. Like a canopy of orange aroma sheltering us from sniffing the acrid disapproval of the then less forgiving society.
The last day we saw each other, we’d taken our time climbing the tree.
Then, once we’d heaved ourselves atop the sturdiest branch, we’d begun bargaining.
“Pfft,” you’d snickered at my request, apparently absurd to you.
“Oh, come on.” I’d flailed my arms a couple times in an attempt to seem more distraught than I actually was. “Fifteen’s reasonable.”
“You’re joking.” This time, I’d only gaped at you— half incredulous and half mesmerized by your amber eyes, the lightest I’d ever seen them, in the sun. Through the dense cover of leaves and fruit and twigs and an occasional bird’s nest, the sunlight had swayed across your adolescent face, sometimes landing on your cheeks a little too long to avoid a rosy tint to them.
“Dead serious,” you’d answered. “Ten mangoes for you, twenty-five— oh wait, twenty-six— for me.”
“That’s unfair.” At this point, I was genuinely upset. “I picked most mangoes. You couldn’t even manage to climb to where the bigger ones were.”
“Yeah, but this is my tree.”
“It’s my labor.”
“You’re being mean.”
“Mean?” Oh right. You hated being called mean or rude or selfish, all words your mom called you as a part of her victim complex. But at least that was the worst of your problems. “Mean. Fine. What do you need all these mangoes for? Don’t even have a family to share it with.”
I know you had regretted it as soon as you’d said it because you’d blurted out an I’m so so sorry and an I didn’t mean it all in the same breath. Your jaw had slacked, and nose released from a slimming grip as your attention drifted from your insecurities to concern for me, our friendship, and the one other thing either of us barely ever mentioned.
I couldn’t tell you then how your words hadn’t hurt me one bit. How I’d expected worse because you were the type to bite back, especially with that short temper of yours.
So, I’d averted my gaze, let my smile sink to a frown, slumped my shoulders. You’d immediately cupped my face with your dainty fingers, a warm palm pressing against my cheeks. That is my clearest memory of you. You’d forced me to look at you: amber eyes with flecks of green and black, a nose that had no curve but descended with a constant slope right from where it began, an inch wide scar South-West of your left eyebrow. You’d cut your hair up to your ears that summer. That is why, every time a woman with hair that short walks by me, I turn to look. Always searching for traces of you in strange faces.
Some days like today, I bring a photograph of you along, tucked deep in the front folder of my work bag. I fish it out, place it on my lap, and stare.
The truth is, and I felt bad about this till I learnt to forgive myself, the you I remember looks nothing like the girl in the photograph. Your image in my mind is much more mature, perhaps to make up for the fact that I’ve never met the adult you and probably never will.
Back then, you’d asked me about us only once: that very day I’d tricked you into consoling me, loving me unknowingly, your hands moving from caressing my face to squeezing my hands.
“Can we hold hands in school?”
“What do you mean? We do hold hands in school,” I’d said. Under the desk, in blazer pockets, on the terrace.
“No.” You’d turned my hands around, palms facing up. Your fingers had traced my palm lines as if you’d find an answer through them. “In front of everyone. On the table. Walking down the corridor. In front of everyone.”
“They’ll know.” I’d hesitated, but said it anyway, “They’ll know we like each other.”
You’d looked at me heartbroken— and I was too, believe me— and whispered, “What’s wrong with that?”
I’d chosen to pretend to not have heard it.
I was too cowardly back then and honestly, if I could go back and make the decision all over again, I’m not too sure I’d be any braver. I was terrified of being buried a scandal, of you being buried a scandal. So, I ran away from us.
I’m out of time now, at least for today. The metro comes to a stop, and the world outside the window grows dark inside the station.
I don’t stand till the couple in front of me do. The taller one pokes her hand out from behind her for the shorter girl to grab before they dive into the swarm of people pushing to get into or out of the compartment. Then there are those that are stuck in the middle, stumbling to wherever the current takes them.
I stalk the petite girl, her hair short enough to be blown in every direction by the hot city air, to the chai stand. Her tote, a quaint margin of blue flowers embroidered years ago, looks like the bag we used to collect the mangoes in. Our little bag of happiness.
While they order themselves a chai, I drop the photograph of you, sitting on a branch of our mango tree in your basketball shorts and oversized tee, into her tote bag and walk away.
I’m trying to forget you. Trying not to return every day to the memory of a girl I can’t even remember right. My regret sits quiet in me: it doesn’t bubble up to rage or impulsivity or even tears. But it does demand reparation.
And so, I hope she can give you much more than I could: a bangle for keeps, a hand to hold on to, a bold declaration than a weak reassurance of love.
I’m sorry that you couldn’t recognize me but do remember me.
Behind the photograph, you’ll find scribbled the conversation we had every day, our mundane arguments, and silly bargaining: Ten for you, twenty-six for me.