“Near the Simul tree at the Park Street?”
Years in between lost their opacity. Tanmay could clearly see the tree; leafless, free, in all its crimson glory, meaty, juicy flowers trying their best to soften an arrogant real estate hoarding below them.
“Is the tree still standing? It has been twenty years!”
That odd tree in a busy commercial district was their meeting point. Then, they would sit in the park next to it. The tree was flowerless during most of the year, but they had met there first in February. It was in full blossom then. Like the operating system of Windows prompt the user in trouble to go back to the last reference point saved, the Simul tree of February 16th, 1996, red in a revolution, was the fixity for Sunanda and Tanmay.
“Fortunately, yes. It seems a developer or a minister hasn’t seen it yet!”
When they were intimate, Sunanda was fresh out of Presidency College with fire in her pen and a surprisingly conventional demeanour in her persona. She had just joined a media house as a copywriter when they had met first at the Oxford Book Store. He was two years old in a Consumer Goods giant, the shine of his IIT degree fading to the colours of soaps and shampoos. They spoke about the books at the ‘History’ section. The conversations continued at the boutique tea stall inside the bookstore, and further…
Tanmay couldn’t quite comprehend how a firebrand idealist like her landed up as a statutory advisor for the real estate developers. After 2001, they had met again on the social media about a year back. Tentatively, he had sent a friend request to her. The lightning speed of its acceptance assured Tanmay of their bond still being intact.
She had given some loose explanations on her choice of the profession over their messages. It was evasive. Tanmay didn’t probe much. He had his own shares of optimizing the compromises.
“Nothing much has changed in this part of Kolkata. Connectivity has improved, though.”
When they finally met that evening of March 3rd, the Simul tree was at the peak of its bloom. A flower dropped on Tanmay’s white corporate shirt and left its kiss marks before landing on the pavement.
“It seems the Simul is happy to see us again! That flower is not dry enough to fall on its own.”
She had been doing corporate liaison for a dozen years now, she had informed. Tanmay was relieved to find the artist in her alive.
“You don’t seem to be dancing these days.”
Sunanda looked at her waist. “This? Oh, you should have met me two years back! At least regular Yoga has got me here.”
“And swimming? Do you go to Ballygunj Lake these days?”
“From Salt Lake? Are you mad?”
Nothing seemed lost. The years, the tang in her words, the warmth of a spring evening...this could have been 1997.
“Flury’s has been remodelled. Shall we walk down?”
“Arre,” Sunanda rolled her eyes displaying abundant Bhava of astonishment and mock anger, “if I had to sit inside four walls and share our moments with strangers, would I not have met you there? Mathamota naki? We will sit in the park.”
His fellow directors and distractors would have loved to spy-cam that moment. The lion of negotiations followed the queen without any argument.
The park at 6 pm was dotted with youth lacking space for privacy. Shyness had perhaps departed with the last millennium. They were lucky to find a bench. It was avoided by the couples for being quite at the centre in public view. An Aayah left the bench running after the kid she was looking after. Sunanda practically did a sprint and beat an elderly couple eyeing for that.
“That was mean!” Tanmay chuckled while settling on the bench.
“What mean! You saw his wife? Saw how timidly she was following him? He may be a bloody Hitler at home. Just because someone is old, doesn’t mean they deserve respect.”
Her fire was intact; her dress sense, as well. Her quintessential Shantiniketan jhola had given way to a HideSign tote. She was wearing a white salwar and a floral, collared kurta in dull pastel yellow.
“Why don’t you wear bright colours?” He would ask. “Because they fade away”, she would smile and add to the missing colours.
Kolkata dusked earlier than Bengaluru, Tanmay’s home for a decade now. When he had quit the high paying sales and marketing of a Multinational, it was a leap of faith that only Bengaluru could have inspired him to do. Kolkata used to inspire him, but not in a material way.
A bee seemed interested in the jasmine mini-garland tucked to the bun on her neck. She jumped at its sight, “Shoo it away, Kris, where is your chivalry?”
Tanmay was many shades darker compared to her peach. "Oh, don’t fret over it, my Krishna!” That abbreviation was her private.
This long lost moniker sweetened his senses. He displayed his bravery and thanked the bee for helping him avoid Sunanda’s question.
“So, what’s new in life?”
New? Market share, net traffic, investors’ meet, equity balancing and a dysfunctional family – he was hiding from the monsters of grind!
He had an avoidable office work at Kolkata, which any of his juniors in the e-Commerce firm could have done. The promise of meeting Sunanda after all these years pulled him to Kolkata.
“I read the poem you posted last Sunday. Since when did you shift from Hindi to English?”
“It was in anticipation to meet you. There is no room for poetry otherwise. Did you like it?”
“Why do you meet me?” She would chide when they used to meet almost every evening, “To hear praise for your poems? Do you even like me otherwise?” “Can you never say two direct words of praise?” he would sulk, till a hot cup of coffee would arrive.
Tanmay’s phone was ringing. It was his wife, Radha. She hardly ever called when he was out on business. He sent an auto-text to disconnect, “Can I call you back?” “Need not. Enjoy.”
That was unusual. He chose to ignore the barb. Before putting the mobile on the Flight Mode, he saw that a message from Raman, his co-founder, “Maybe good news, call ASAP.”
“What brings to this poor city? Google says you have done handsomely at Bangalore?”
“Bengaluru” Tanmay got very rare opportunities to correct this Masters of Language. He cashed in every such opportunity.
“Aachha, hoechhe!” Her gesture to nip an argument in its cradle, of pushing forth the right palm with fingers curled in a Mudra, had not changed. “You don’t have to answer me.”
A hawker with a container in a tricycle was vending just across the railings of the park. Tanmay wondered how this city managed to fast forward riding its fly-overs and high-rises yet stay at the same point. It was her favourite brand then. Usually a cup, they used to have the costliest cone on the days of Tanmay’s salary. He bought only one, for her.
“ENT”, he replied to her arching eyebrows. “Jotto Sob”, she concentrated on the cone, “Share a bite. Nothing will happen.”
Tanmay took a very small bite from that Cornetto. "I won’t refuse you anything today.” She looked at his eyes, checking out his soul.
“Paper Prayaschitto?” She chuckled.
A cute 2-year-old girl came running to Tanmay and clung to his knees. The child was playing hide and seek with her maid. Tanmay picked her up to his lap and asked her name. She got scared and began to wail. The maid ran up to them and rescued Tanmay from public embarrassment.
“She could have bitten you. The way these kids scream! Uff! I would never have them, I swear.” Sunanda rolled her eyes and threw her fingers open in mock disgust.
“How can anyone not like kids and flowers?” Tanmay would ask when she refused to take a kid on her lap in a crowded bus. “One grows up and the other grows old – too soon, too fast – I don’t trust temporarily.” She would not care about the disapproving silence of the co-passengers aimed at her.
“You have only one, no? Daughter? You seem to depend too much on her for your happiness. Your page is full of her pictures. Why there are none of your wives in these pictures?”
Her brutal honesty had claimed her job, twice, and a few affairs. She won’t hide from the world and the world couldn’t look at her wounds without flinching.
“Someone has to click.” He could see the hollowness of his explanation reflect in Sunanda’s iris.
It got dark in the meanwhile. A few girls of the trade, negotiating with their brokers or clients, could be seen around. Sunanda was a person of the world, she didn’t seem uncomfortable.
Over the years, Tanmay had gotten quite away from it. “Shall we have dinner tonight?” He was feeling uncomfortable in that ambience.
“Of course, you are a much written about entrepreneur now. Ghaar bhangbo na? Where will you take me?”
“When did I ever recommend any dining place, Nanda? You are the connoisseur, surprise me.”
“Hmm, Marriott on the Bye-pass then. It’s brand new, Asian cuisine is superb. You can surely afford it for one, right?” She nudged him with her elbow.
She put her definitive index finger on Tanmay’s lips when he proposed that it should be his treat. “Dutch, no arguments.”
Her home was close to Marriott. She insisted that she would like to dress up for the evening. Tanmay was staying in a Serviced Apartment near Park Street. They agreed to meet at the Marriott’s lobby at 8:30. Marriott held unspoken promises of carrying forward their rendezvous beyond the dinner.
Walking down, Tanmay set off the Flight Mode. Count of incoming messages ended at 23. 22 were from Raman. “Are you dead, bugger?” was the last one. One of the overseas partners of a potential investor had suddenly planned to spend the next day with them, leaving by midnight. Company’s balance was negative. Raman needed his negotiation skills desperately - by 10:30 at their office.
Radha had sent the 23rd message. “Admitted Pupul to Columbia with high fever. Doctors say it’s happening everywhere.”
Instinctively, Tanmay called up the travel agency. Bengaluru runway was under renovation. The very few early morning flights were all booked. He got a seat on the last flight of that night. He had to leave for the airport in another half an hour.
He didn’t dare to call Sunanda. On his way to the airport, he sent a message. His apologies were profuse and sincere.
There was no reply. He tried a few more. Single tick against them showed that she was off the network. He called finally. Her phone was switched off.
‘You have a message from Nanda’, the mobile screen announced. He was about to switch it off after settling down in his seat.
It was a picture of a handwritten note, in Roman script.
“Beta, tumse na ho payega.” Sunanda used this dialogue from a 90’s movie whenever she had to puncture his ego.
The voice on the PA system was requesting everyone to switch off the electronic devices.
“The Simul tree is not running away in a hurry. There is always another time.” Tanmay typed, edited, read again.
“Sir. Switch off, please!” The hostess bent so close to whisper the alert that he could smell her perfume.
One text at a time, he deleted the message and switched off the connection.
“What did I ask you? Just that you stay in Kolkata.” There were no tears, no emotions when they had parted ways in 1997.
“Baba and Ma are busy with their chambers and clinics. Dadu needs me, Kris.”
She didn’t stop, ever. If only she did, cried, insisted… Tanmay couldn’t wish more. The aircraft was gaining speed. He braced the armrests well in order to face his fear of flight during take-off.
NOTE: This short story is nominated for the SALISMANIA.com Best Short Story Of The Year Award 2017.