By the time Astha was sixteen, she was well trained on a diet of mushy novels and thoughts of marriage. She was prey to inchoate longings, desired almost every boy she saw, then stood long hours before the mirror marvelling at her ugliness. Would she ever be happy? Would true love ever find her?
Then the day dawned, the day Astha saw Bunty. Bunty the beautiful, Bunty whose face never left her, Bunty whose slightest word, look and gesture she spent hours nursing to death. Bunty’s family lived in one of the bigger houses of the Pandara Road colony, a duplex with a large garden, and a roomy verandah. They were on visiting terms with Astha’s parents, the younger sister was in her school. The boy was away in Kharakvasala in the Defence Academy and now home for the holidays. He came over with his father. Oh, how he stood out. He had glossy black hair which he wore in a small puff over a high wide forehead. His eyes were like soft black velvet, set in pale sockets over the faint blush of his cheek. And just beneath that the bluish black shadow of an incipient beard, framing a red mouth. As she stared, steady, unwavering, he felt her gaze, looked up and smiled. His teeth were small, white and uneven, and as she lost herself in them, he raised his left eyebrow slightly. She shuddered, and weakly smiled back.
Thus began her torture. If only she didn’t see him so often, but Bunty was restless during his holidays. Boarding school, boarding college, as a result he knew few people in Delhi. He took to dropping in with his sister. There was the attraction of her devotion. Day and night the thought of him kept her insides churning; she was unable to eat, sleep, or study. Away from him her eyes felt dry and empty. Her ears only registered the sound of his voice. Her mind refused to take seriously anything that was not his face, his body, his feet, his hands, his clothes. She found temporary relief in sketching him, sketches that were invariably too bad to be mulled over. Hours were spent in planning accidental meetings, how to bump into him in the colony, how to cross his father on his evening walk, how to fall into enough conversation to be invited over, how to borrow a book to prolong the stay, how to fall into a faint, how to die at his doorstep.
Once in Bunty’s house she saw him pet his dog, who promptly put her paws in his lap, wagged her tail and salivated. At that moment she felt a keen shamed kinship with the animal. She was too overwhelmed by her feelings to actually want to talk to him. To approach the site of all this wonder would be apostasy. To think that he would ever have anything to say to her was past crediting. Finally it was so unbearable, she had to tell someone.
Gayatri, school friend, eventual confidante, decided that this affair needed managing.
‘What have you actually done?’ she demanded.
‘Done?’ quavered Astha, immediately feeling worse instead of better. ‘Nothing‚’
‘You are such a ninny‚’ scolded Gayatri, ‘invite him to a movie.’
‘How can I?’
‘How can you?’ Gayatri stared at her. ‘There is a Charlie Chaplin film at the National Stadium next Sunday morning. Ask him if he has seen it. Go on. Give him a chance.’
Each day was now an exam, in which she failed daily. Gayatri was insistent. There had to be movement to the whole thing, otherwise she might as well not be in love. Astha was forced to admit the logic of this. The day came when she stood tongue-tied before him, stammering out her request that the god come to a film with her and her friend.
‘Of course hell go, won’t you, Bunty beta?’ boomed his father.
‘Th-Thank-you, Uncle‚’ stammered Astha, not looking at Bunty.
Bunty seemed stiff and bored through the film. Gayatri chattered gaily in the interval, while Astha gritted her teeth and waited for the nightmare to end. Words rushed around in her head, words that would show how clever and interesting she was, but when she actually looked at him she could not speak. She wanted to never see Bunty again. She hated him. She wished his holidays would quickly end.
They did, and Astha grew desperate. The point of getting up every morning had been the hope that she would be able to look at him, feed on a glance, a word, a smile. Now her rich inner world would become stale with nothing new to add to the store.
‘Suggest writing. You know, like pen pals‚’ said Gayatri.
‘No.’ Suppose he laughed? Looked contemptuous?
‘What do you have to lose?’
‘Why should he write to me?’
‘Why not? He does drop by, and you also visit him.’
Astha hesitated. ‘That means very little‚’ she pronounced finally, thinking of those visits, the long pauses, she pulverised with emotion and Bunty shifting about in his seat, saying from time to time, ‘So what’s new?’
Gayatri pressed home her point.
‘He does talk to you, and objectively speaking, you’re not bad looking. You have no figure, but your features are sharp, you have clear skin, and high cheekbones. If your hair was styled instead of pulled back, it would help, but still, it is thick and curly. You are on the short side, but tall men like short girls, that is one thing I have noticed, time and again.’ (Gayatri herself was tall.)
‘I can’t just walk up to him and say give me your address, I want to write to you.’
‘It’s not anything so great you are asking. Once you write, he will write back.’
‘He may not.’
‘Then he is no gentleman‚’ said Gayatri severely.
Eventually Astha blurted out the request, shoving her diary and pen at him.
She wrote, and he did reply, weeks later.
‘Who is this from?’ asked her mother, holding the letter away from her.
‘How do I know?’ demanded Astha.
She snatched the letter and tucked it into her school bag. It was from him, she knew it was. He had written.
I received your letter a few weeks back. We do not really get time to write, we are very hard worked here. Tomorrow, I am leaving for camp. There is much work to be done; we do a lot of studies on tactics and strategy of defence and attack. We leave early in the morning, first marching 20 miles, from where we will be transported another 80 miles. At the end of it all we will land in some remote village. After lunch, which we carry, we will ‘dig-in’ for the night to carry out a defence exercise. Digging trenches in the Deccan plateau isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Each one takes 3 to 4 hours. We shall also have to climb Simhagarh, Shivaji’s famous fortress, and incidentally the highest one. At night we shall ambush and patrol, the sole difference between this and a real war being that we shall fire blank rounds at each other instead of live ones.
And so on. It was a soldier’s letter, what else had she expected? If the reality of Bunty was a little flat after her image of him, her love could take it. She re-read it all day and the days to come, till she got his next. It turned out Bunty liked corresponding. Through the year Astha heard about his friends, the war with Pakistan, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, his academic subjects, his service subjects, his feelings about the Indian Army in general, and cadets in particular.
And Astha, Astha was witty, clever, chatty, all the things she could not be when he was in front of her. Her writing was laced with little drawings which he found ingenious and talented. She started flirting. Letters were safe.
As the correspondence established itself, so did the mother’s suspicions.
‘Why is he writing so much to you?’ she asked every time a letter came. By this time there were two people waiting for the post, Astha and her mother.
Is it a crime?’ Astha replied.
‘You are too young to be indulging in such goings-on.’
She made it sound so sordid. What words could Astha use to a woman who saw the world in terms of goings-on?
‘There is nothing going on‚’ she said, lying with great dignity. There was no need to explain the pulpiness of her heart, the wretched and permanent knot in her stomach. No doubt her mother would consider that a going-on too. How she wished she could really be gone, gone in the arms of Bunty, who would hold her close, whisper his love, confide that her letters had made him realise she was his soulmate, they would marry after he graduated, could she wait for him.
‘You have got your exams coming‚’ went on Astha’s mother, staring hard and penetratingly at her daughter.
‘I know‚’ said the daughter, staring back just as hard.
Astha’s mother sniffed, a tight cold sniff.
Astha paid no attention. She was living in a world of her own, waiting for the holidays to come, so that she could see Bunty. It would be different now, no awkwardness or shyness. They were closer, they had shared their thoughts and feelings. Hopefully they would kiss. Where and how? She imagined the places, grew lost in her fantasies.
The holidays came. The minute the mother knew that Bunty had come, she went to his house and from then on Bunty refused to have anything to do with Astha. For a long time she didn’t know what had happened, nor could she bear to find out. She lived in pain and anything that touched it was too much for her.
The night before, on the phone, she had fixed to see him, this time she would not need Gayatri. She had spent many hours thinking about her hair, her clothes, should she wear casual or formal, new or old? How should she do her hair? Up or down? Loose or tied? Dressed in her newest churidar kameez, tight around the hips, loose around the waist, Astha went to Bunty’s house, at eleven o’clock as planned. His father met her at the door.
‘Bunty is not at home, beta‚’ he said politely, without asking her in, a slap in the face for Astha, standing awkwardly in her new churidar kameez, so tight around her hips, so loose around her waist.
‘When will he be back, Uncle?’ she managed, dread making her voice heavy. Did Bunty’s father hate her?
Had Bunty said something to him? On the train home from the Defence Academy had he decided to loathe her instead of like her? Was this his way of letting her know?
‘I don’t know, beta. It is his holidays, he has so many friends and relatives to see. You can phone him some time. Bye now.’
The door was closed before she was even down the steps. No seeing her off, no nothing. She walked home, feeling sick. The year of writing to each other, he had said he wanted to see her, had he been lying, seeing how far she would reveal her feelings in those stupid letters before he showed them to his father? How could she have forgotten the little interest he had shown in her when he was actually in Delhi? He was amusing himself, that was why he had written, now when it was time to meet he intended to drop her. How Gayatri would laugh. Was there any way she could stop being friends with Gayatri right that minute? Dump her for ever, and never see her again?
Astha had not been in the house ten minutes when Gayatri called. ‘What happened?’ she asked breathlessly, as though she had been the one waiting all these months to be kissed.
‘Oh nothing‚’ said Astha airily, through gritted teeth.
‘Nothing? What do you mean nothing?’
‘It’s very sad. One of his uncles died, and he has to go to Bombay immediately with the whole family.’
‘But why didn’t he tell you?’
‘There wasn’t time to write.’
‘Odd‚’ said Gayatri after a pause. ‘He might have met you for a few seconds alone. After all those letters.’
‘I’m telling you there wasn’t time‚’ said Astha her voice rising.
‘Oh Asu, poor you.’
‘Not at all. I found I didn’t like him so much when I actually saw him. He looked very silly. All he could say was “So what’s new”. One tends to build people up through letters.’
‘I suppose‚’ said Gayatri, sounding dissatisfied.
The holidays passed. Astha suffered daily. Neither drawing nor reading could engage her. Her heart felt like lead, her mind like stone. She couldn’t get Bunty on the phone, he was always out. Shyness, reticence, some shreds of self-esteem forbade her from persisting beyond politeness. No matter what had happened, he should also want to see her, if only to clear any misunderstanding. And so pride carried her through each miserable day.
A year later, when the pain was less, and college had made her feel more a woman of the world, she wrote, a light casual letter, ‘What happened?’ He wrote back, ‘I thought you knew. Your mother visited us the very night I arrived and told my father that I was distracting you from your studies. At the same time she asked him what my intentions were. My father thought it better if we had nothing to do with each other. Why create complications? I wish you well in life. Yours sincerely, Bunty‚’
Can one die of shame twice? Astha did. How dare her mother interfere in her friendships? But then Bunty too had given in so easily, not bothered to find out how she felt, no word, no sign. Where was the man whose arms were waiting to hold her? Till his arrival, she would walk alone, alone in college, through corridors of happy, independent, bustling girls, through classrooms devoted to the study of English Literature, alone in the colony through the dreary lanes between the houses.
She tried to put Bunty from her mind, though once or twice when girls huddled together, heads bent in the canteen, she brought out his name experimentally, to show she too had lived and knew what love was.
‘Yes, these boys—’
‘Yes, there was someone, only last year—’
‘Yes, he was handsome—’
‘Oh, he doesn’t study here. The Defence Academy at Kharakvasala.’
‘Yes, we still meet during the holidays, nothing special from my side. I thought it better not to have a
long-distance relationship, you know how it is … ’
The girls listened sceptically, how could they believe in the reality of one who was never seen hanging out at the back gate? Still, they teased her sometimes saying,
‘Astha, tell us more about Bunty‚’ and Astha cursed her need to feel part of a group by making light of something that still tightened her chest with grief.