As usual I picked up my tooth brush and moved out in the open verandah when I heard a familiar voice. She was back. Her sweet voice came like breeze of nostalgia and drenched me in some bitter, sweet memories of past.
Our families had been neighbours since long before we were born. She was two years younger to me. There weren’t any other children my age in the vicinity so I used to play with her. We had spent countless months together, sometimes frolicking in the rains, sometimes sheltering ourselves under the peepal tree in summers. She was an obedient child, I was the spoilt single child. I would often drag her with me to some mischief. My mother could never punish me while her haggard mother who was always nursing a young one would beat her for being naughty. She was the oldest of five siblings and hence was expected to mind herself.
She was my best friend and confidant. I never knew that I had begun to love her as we grew up. The realisation dawned on me when one day she came to me, quivering. She was fifteen then and I was seventeen. Our bodies had begun to change and so had our temperament. Back then we didn’t know much about adolescence and puberty. I could feel a surge of passion whenever she came close to me.
I looked at her. Her quivering body began to madden me. I didn’t know what was happening to me but I didn’t want to scare her off. I asked as normally as I could “What happened Pankhu? Why do you look afraid?”
She began to weep uncontrollably. I stared at her in bewilderment.
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked.
She nodded her head in negative. I sat there watching her cry. I dare not touch her because I knew if I went any closer to her I would grab her in an embrace. And even though I was young I knew that it was not permissible even between childhood friends.
I waited for her to explain. After a while she stopped crying.
“Sunder, my aunt says that now I should stop hanging out with you. I am no long a little girl. I don’t understand Sunder. But if I don’t listen to her, she says she will send me to live in village with grandma.”
I stared at her in disbelief. For a second I feared that my secret was out. Her aunt knew. But how could it be. Pankhudi had begun to cry again. After a while she said “Sunder I will never forget you.” With this she stood up and began to go. I regained my mind and grabbed her hand. It was unexpected for both of us. Even though we had held hands a million times before this but there was something completely different this time.
In a very low voice I pleaded “Pankhu please don’t go.”
She sat on the ground by my side. None of us said anything. She kept shedding silent tears.
We didn’t realise how much time had elapsed. We moved only when we heard Pankhudi’s aunt calling her. She gathered herself in a jiffy and ran back to her house. That was the last we talked. After that we met only when their was some celebrations in our houses. Our childhood friendship, the togetherness we shared for 12 long years, lost in the dogmas of our society.
After I finished my school my parents sent me to study in Delhi while she remained behind. The distance between us soothed my heart which kept itself satisfied with the fact that we couldn’t talk because we were away. Whenever my mother called me she would tell me something about her family and from her scratches of information I learned that she was doing graduation in Fine Arts.
After completing my degree I returned back home to take over the small family business. In those days I had toyed with the idea to approach her family and ask her hand in marriage. After all we had been neighbors and friends for a long time. But there was a glitch I was a Marwari and she was a Brahmin. I constantly argued with myself on the prospect of her parents agreeing to our marriage but I could never know the result.
Within a month of my return I heard that her parents had fixed her marriage to a brahmin groom in a town nearby. She got married and I being the neighbor labored to make sure everything went well. In all the jiffy of preparations I never got a chance to say goodbye. When she was going with her husband after her marriage she spared me a look, a small fleeting glance at her childhood friend.
Things changed. Now whenever she visits her family she comes over at our house too. She looks happy, perhaps she has let go off our childhood friendship. Her status has changed among the women in her and my family. They treat her as an equal. My mother often asks her to talk to me, to convince me to get married. That aunt, who had once forbid her from talking to me, I heard her say “Pankhudi you should talk to him, ask him to get married. His mother is very worried. He is your childhood friend. He will listen to you.” She has tried to talk to me but I always elude her.
While I stood lost in thoughts she came stealthily from behind and stood beside me.
“Where are you lost, Sunder?” she said with a familiar laughter.
She had grown carefree these days.
“Won’t your aunt scold you now, for talking to me?” I said scathingly.
She was startled. “You are still angry about that. I was a kid.”
“And you are not anymore.” I looked at her face which had begun to cloud. I didn’t want to hurt her.
“Things have changed Pankhu.” I said quietly.
“Yes, Sunder things have changed. Why don’t you get married? Kaki is sick worried about you.”
I felt angry at her for bringing this up, but it wasn’t her fault. She never knew my feelings for her.
“I can’t.” I replied shortly and turned to go back in the house. She stood before me adamantly.
“No Sunder. Tell me why you can’t.” I wished to push her away, why was she so stubborn.
“I don’t owe you an explanation.” I said.
“You do. I can’t see you like this.”
“Then don’t come here.” She looked aghast.
“I can’t.” I had reached my doorway when she said this.
I turned around. She had tears in her eyes. “I can’t stop coming here. I never wanted to. I have lived in pain these last five years. Now I have got a little happiness back when I know that I can meet you again. But I can’t live in peace if I know that you are not happy.”
I didn’t know what to say. Her aunt called her from the kitchen. She gave me a painful look and returned to her house. I stood there transfixed, wondering what life had brought us to.