He's been at it for a while now. 20 years to be precise - ever since he was 15. He would walk up to her door and wait there a minute or two and walk back. It was a ritual. A ritual that was his alone. He was rather proud of it.
Even as time melted and things transformed into unrecognisable shapes, he would walk to her door.
She knew. But did nothing.
After all, he was of a different caste. But that little diamond stud on his ear always pulled her heart strings. But she was not allowed; it was against the rule.
And as she walked out that door one final time, looking back only to see her father pat his wife's shoulder ever so lightly as tears welled up in her eyes, she remembered that solitary bystander, at the tea shop, staring. Call it theatrical, but it was even raining that day. The border of her heavy red Benarasi was drenched as the umbrella kept her perfect hair in place.
The long car swallowed her and flew off.
But he was just so used to it. The ritual never stopped. Every day, at 6am, he would walk to her door and stop to pay his respects.
On this 30th birthday, his mother gave him an ultimatum. Bring a wife home. He took a taxi to the brothel nearby and spotted the prettiest girl and asked her if she would marry him. He was rich enough. She said yes not quite understanding why the dialogue had even taken place.
A few months later, after carefully constructing a past the prostitute never really had, the two were married. She was to never go back to that neighbourhood, that was the only condition. She readily agreed; a promise she has never broken.
Where will you go for your honeymoon? everyone asked. He picked a rather exotic place; I would have taken 'her' here, only if she were mine. They went for three weeks; quite unheard of in those days. After all, a holiday at the beach resort was terribly expensive. But he didn't mind.
His wife had a very good time. She was, as he found later, rather well behaved. She knew how to cook, clean, look pretty and even hold a conversation. She almost went to college, she had confessed to him later. They tried to become friends.
Two years after they were married, he was asked to take up a job in another city. That was impossible. It would change everything - the ritual was not to be taken lightly. He tried explaining to his employers and asked if an alternative could be worked out. No. He had to go. And go he did.
The new city was not new to him. As he found later that 'she' too lived there. Not too far away from where the company had given him a flat. There is God, he told himself.
His wife made the flat as pretty as it could be. And never spent an extra penny than required. She would cook for him, pack his lunch, wash his clothes and wait for him.
Am I in love? she asked herself. But how is that possible? Wasn't it love that pushed her to make some very damaging decisions? Wasn't it love that tore her apart from her family and even her two-year-old daughter. Wasn't it love that taught her how to measure everything against money.
Yes, he is rich and that is good enough for me. As long as the money keeps coming in, I will play the perfect wife. But then again, her eyes would constantly move to the fancy clock on the wall each time he was late.
We need to have a child, he told his wife. Otherwise, people will question us.
We will, only if you want, she politely replied. She couldn't bear the thought of having another baby. What if she lost this one too?
Well, I don't care, but I think we should get one. Maybe adopt a child. That would be the sensible thing to do, he told her. But if you are not ready, I will not ask you till you are, he assured her.
He had found her house. It was a small apartment, ten kilometres from their place. What do they call that place? A chawl, yes. Why does she live here?
He waited one day - just for a glimpse. And also to make sure that he was in the right place. And a glimpse he got. A cotton sari draped her slim body, her long hair, which was now much shorter, formed a tiny bun at her nape. Her skin was as fair as he'd remembered, but did not glow like the moon anymore. Her red parting was fading away and the tiny bindi on her forehead was almost like a life support system.
Why is she here?
And after 20 years of silence, he walked up to her and stood in front of her.
She was not ready to meet him; she was never ready. Looking up to see a familiar face that had aged very little with time, she asked him if he was well.
A rather odd question he thought.
Yes he was well. Now married to a rather lovely girl who cooks for him.
That is a good thing, she assures him. She too is doing fine -her husband lost his job a year ago but they are not pushed to the borders of poverty yet. She works in the morning as a teacher. They are saving up to buy a flat, that's why the cheap accommodation.
Yes, he understands.
Asking him to come by some day for a meal, she takes his leave. Her husband will be waiting for his evening tea.
He lets her pass, watching her walk by him and stopping for a second only to fix her hair.
He walks out of the compound, to the end of the lane and sat in his car. It was all too confusing. But he drove off anyway, the wife would be waiting.
It was just after 8pm, when he reached home. She was ready with tea and snacks. Sitting down with the cup, he looked up at his wife of the last five years. She is truly beautiful. Reaching out, he touched her hand as she passed by. Stopping suddenly, she looked at her husband. He looked tired but happy.
Do you want to go out for dinner tonight? he asked. I haven't really taken you anywhere since we got here.