The fork in the road
16 January 2012
‘The country is a cacophony. And instead of finding out how to stop the noise and change it into music, everybody’s basically looking for ear plugs.’
After the unremitting crush of the station, it was a relief to be out on the street. Here too, the crowd was about us, the wretched commuters in their dishevelled clothes, the hawkers hawking tirelessly, the beggars lying decrepit, the autos wending their way through the lot, but at least we had the use of our limbs. I turned to ask Tara if she felt like walking on.
She was staring hard at a point in the distance. I could see only the usual, sullied road, fringed with shacks, filled with poverty. Then I saw that she wasn’t really looking at anything. She was staring into space. A moment’s consternation seemed to seize her, it parted her lips, but she said nothing.
‘The park,’ I said, ‘is down the road. It’s maybe another kilometre from here.’
‘We can walk,’ said Tara. ‘Let’s just walk.’
It was good weather for walking. It had rained hard the previous night, but the slush and the puddles had dried through the morning. The monsoon mugginess still lay on the air, but with an intervening layer of fragile cold. We walked between the traffic and the hawkers, our shoes crunching the road’s loose rubble.
Tara walked briskly. I was surprised. As far ago as I could remember, she was the kind of girl that if she wasn’t running, she strolled. Now she walked straight with narrowed eyes that looked neither left nor right.
‘Slow down,’ I said. ‘You’ll tire yourself out.’
‘You’ll tire me out.’
She paused with a sigh.
‘Why do you want to dawdle? To take in the atmosphere? When we’re moving at least it doesn’t smell so much.’
I knew what she meant. Everywhere, the air was fetid, every square kilometre suffused with the odour of thirty thousand unlooked-after bodies and everything they got up to. This was Tara’s second visit to the city, and she was beginning to loathe it. I didn’t blame her.
‘You may as well get used to it,’ I said. ‘Especially if you’re going to be visiting often.’
She shot me a look. I ignored it, but perhaps she was right. Perhaps, though I didn’t intend it, a certain something had crept into my tone. I changed the subject then. I tried to interest her in the skyline beyond the slums. A range of ugly high-rises looked over that tattered sea.
‘Bombay has scale,’ I said. ‘It’s a phenomenon, even if it’s a tragedy.’
My heart raced suddenly, unexpectedly. Hastily I muffled the mood, but it was disorienting all the same. Her diamond eyes, her pithy speech. Sharper now than I ever could remember. Did one never grow indifferent?
Only when we were well inside the park did Tara relax her pace. The traffic noises had faded now. The snarl under the flyover which had taken us, even on foot, a full ten minutes to negotiate, was out of sight. Teak and peepul flourished on either side of the shaded road. Other trees too, that I couldn’t name, and in amongst them tall grasses, shrubs in flower, all the lushness of the forest floor.
‘A national park,’ I announced with approval. ‘A whole forest ten minutes from the station! I can’t understand why more people don’t visit here.’
‘Small mercies,’ said Tara. ‘You hungry?’
We were carrying water, juice and sandwiches bought from a coffee shop in Andheri. The plan was to eat after we were good and tired exploring the park. But now I realised she was right.
‘I guess we can buy more later,’ I said. Then I laughed. ‘We’re getting old.’
A signboard up ahead pointed the way to a lion and tiger safari trail, a Jain temple, a ‘Viewing Point’ from where, it was said, the whole city could be seen, and a set of ancient Buddhist caves. I felt no particular curiosity for any of them. Closer at hand was the sound of splashing water. We followed a grassy lane that broke from the main road and took us through a patch of wilderness. Soon the wind picked up, and then we saw it coming to us, all the way down the forested slopes and across the breadth of the lake.
I could see us then, Tara and me, close and familiar, stumbling to rest by the water-side, the wind in our hair. At intervals further down the bank, on rocky outcrops and ragged grass, other couples sat two by two. The small-town boys with their overly slicked hair, the girls in their gaudy jeans, but it was I who was wrong to notice. They shunned scrutiny in their quiet knots, creatures of nature at home in her lap, drinking deep of each other.
Meanwhile, we looked at the trees and the sky, and the shimmering colours on the flat of the lake. We sat side by side, munching our sandwiches in a silence that seemed important. After a while, she said:
‘So you feel it too?’
‘Old. Do you feel old too? Because I do.’
‘Oh that,’ I said. ‘I was only joking about that. Come on – we’re twenty six.’
She looked at me with a kind of disappointment.
‘Don’t you feel any, any nostalgia now, for the past? For how things used to be?’
‘Well, I mean –’
And then suddenly, looking away from those earnest eyes, I decided to be candid. ‘Well yeah, I guess, I do sometimes think back – to college, first-year college, second year. Yeah, it was different.’
It had come to me just the previous night, woken inside me as I struggled to sleep. Just a stray memory from a long time ago. A muggy night in a telephone booth, on a run-down street wet with rain. Tara a thousand miles away, talking excitedly of a friend I’d never seen, and a book I’d never heard of. But nourishing me, as I clutched the receiver, gladdening my essence with just the music of her voice, as the rain does the earth. And then, as I lay there remembering, a whole era had seemed to open out, like a chapter in a history book: days spent in gratitude, nights soaked in enchantment, when pleasure and pain were constant and indistinguishable, but each was a blessing I never doubted, because I knew, the way you know things – deep in your bones – that my star was shining, the world would be mine, the girl would be mine. And never once entertaining the possibility that –
I touched the grass. It was rough and bristling. The breeze passed with a pungent sigh. Something shuddered through me.
Tara’s face, gold in the sunlight, was soft with remembrance.
‘Remember Penang?’ she was saying.
‘Penang?’ I was surprised.
‘I don’t know how we managed to meet there! Remember? A foreign country and no cell-phones!’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Yeah, that was something.’
‘And nowadays people call and call and re-confirm until you’re right there looking at each other.’
‘Yeah, most rendezvous seem to begin like that now. Both parties in the same place talking to each other on the phone.’
I laughed, and she laughed too. But she laughed a lot harder than I thought the thought merited. That confused me. The onset of the cell-phone revolution was not the stuff of my nostalgia. I had thought she wanted to really talk. Now I waited impatiently to resume the proper tone. The soonest I could, I interjected.
‘See, I think we just felt a lot more invincible then. We felt things would turn out right for us no matter what. But now, we know we’re not special any longer. We know that anything can happen to anybody, there are no guaranteed rewards.’
Tara was listening, but I couldn’t read her expression. There was a frown and then there was nothing. She looked out over the lake.
‘For example–’ I hesitated. ‘With love, for example.’
But now her laugh was quite artificial. Smarting suddenly, I turned my tone safely dry and cynical.
‘I mean, you certainly screwed me over.’
‘Haha,’ she laughed. ‘Yeah, that was it.’
Her gaze stayed on the hilly forest that overlooked the banks beyond. I thought of the snuggling couples, so perfectly harmonious (or so I imagined) and the two of us, whom any passer-by would take for the same. But the difference wasn’t just that we weren’t in love. That I had known for five years. That was alright by me. The occasional pang was not unwelcome – it was proof of the past. There was something else.
‘Seriously, though,’ I tried again. ‘Dreams really take a beating, don’t they?’ But before I could finish the thought she interrupted with finality.
‘God!’ Tara exclaimed. Her eyes were alive with outrage. ‘God, just look at that!’
I stared a moment at the grass and the water, until suddenly I spied the offending plastic bag. It was held down by a rock, half-immersed in the lake, fluttering futilely. It looked as though it was drowning. And alongside the bag, offensively cheerful, lay the rest of the litter: multi-coloured wrappers, a soft drink can and a packet of chips.
‘Garbage even here.’ Her voice grew faint with disgust. ‘Inside a fucking national park!’
It is awful,’ I agreed.
‘It’s fucking ridiculous! Doesn’t anybody care?’
I jerked my head towards the pockets of lovers.
‘Not them anyway.’
‘God!’ Tara got up swiftly. ‘This sort of thing is so… let’s go!’
‘I don’t know. Anywhere.’
‘You want to see the tiger museum?’ I suggested.
The tiger museum was a little gallery near the starting line of the tiger safari. It was a good idea to go there. It meant a short walk through a strong breeze, and then the quiet gloom of a mostly empty interior – palliatives for her temper and antidotes for my nerves. We wandered past cheerfully illustrated, well-written displays. We both loved animals, and that love was prelapsarian. The half-hour we spent in the museum seemed snatched straight from each of our childhoods.
‘Did you know,’ I read aloud, ‘that tiger stripes are like fingerprints? Every one is unique.’
‘Did you know,’ she retorted with pleasure, ‘tigers can leap thirty feet at a time?’
‘Well check this out. From the mouth of the tiger: “If humans fought fair, they’d be the endangered ones.”’
‘Aww!’ She came over. ‘He looks so cute!’
‘He looks like a Lolcat.’
‘And when did those become such a craze? I don’t remember them in our heyday.’
Later, while the bus was taking on passengers for the safari, we bought cups of hot, sugary tea from a kerb-side stall, and took them to a parapet under a tree. Someone asked if we were getting on too, but Tara shook her head. I was glad. We sat and sipped the tea and watched the crowd leave, and when the noise of the aching engine had died away, I looked at her.
‘It’s great seeing you again,’ I said. ‘It really is.’
‘You should have been more in touch,’ she answered calmly.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘I know, I should have. I really don’t know why I wasn’t. But I’m really glad you found time for today. And you know, I was thinking, it’s so great we’ve been able to be friends for so long, through all the different phases. I mean, that’s a rare thing.’
I watched her smile that private smile, half-blushing, half-smug, as though she’d just had a compliment. I knew it well. And I was happy then. Happy the way I had expected to be, seeing Tara again after so many months. Happy the way people should be, when love has been buried, and its ghost exorcised, and their mutual caring, enriched by their history, can have its untrammelled say.
‘Tara,’ I told her, ‘I’ve been depressed. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think you’ll understand. I think it’s what you said, about feeling old.’
‘You said that.’
‘Yeah, I said that, but you noticed it, and I tried to play it down. But it’s true. I was feeling it just the other night, as though enthusiasm itself has become a thing of the past. And now only endurance remains. Endurance until the crack of doom! And the soundtrack of life has suddenly changed from “Beautiful Day” to – I don’t know – “Fade to Black”.’
She laughed. We both did.
‘You know me,’ I went on gratefully. ‘I always try to put a brave face on things. But this city, it does get you down. And India – India!’
‘India is an ordeal. I mean, it’s alright if you’re happy in your ivory tower, and you talk about India Shining or whatever, and maybe it’s okay if you just dive into the thick of things and don’t give a damn, but if not, if you look around you, if you pause to think, it makes you doubt if anything you’re doing has any point whatsoever. I mean, maybe a tiny section of the very elite is interested, or pretending to be. I think they’re mostly just pretending to be. But other than that, who cares? Everybody’s either stepping on somebody else, or trying to avoid being stepped on. Everything’s so degraded and hand-to-mouth. The newspapers –’
‘I don’t read them,’ Tara said firmly.
‘Yeah. I mean, the crime, the corruption –’
‘I don’t read them.’ She was shaking her head.
‘And the chaos,’ I went on. ‘The country is a cacophony. And instead of finding out how to stop the noise and change it into music, everybody’s basically looking for ear plugs. Anyway, you know what I mean. It all –’
‘It all adds up,’ she said, ‘to something quite depressing.’
Her voice was clear and unflinching.
‘Exactly,’ I said.
I laughed then, bitterly again, but I wasn’t feeling bitter. No, I was feeling calm, almost heroic, like a soldier sizing up a battlefield, the war-zone that might destroy him but can no longer overcome him, because he has already made his peace with it. I was feeling protected.
Around us, the light was changing. The leaves were going from green to gold, glimmering gently as they turned in the breeze. A premonition of dusk had entered the late afternoon and struck it through with beauty. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the beauty was in my way of seeing. Any environment is beautiful once it becomes a background, and with Tara beside me the wider world seemed to fall into place, turn dreamy and unintrusive. I tasted the warm tea. I felt like putting my arm around her.
‘How was New York?’ I asked her suddenly. ‘You never really told me.’
‘Oh New York,’ she said. ‘Yeah, New York was great. We partied a straight 72 hours.’
‘Wow! So it’s everything it’s cracked up to be?’
‘I guess. Maybe. I couldn’t live there though.’
‘I couldn’t live in America at all.’
I nodded. We had talked about this before. America, the land of work and achievement and climbing ladders to golden prizes, and freedom and sex and great portions of greasy food. America that knew only one way, which was forward, and one speed, as fast as possible. America whose attractions and exhortations had shaped our generation in so many fundamental ways. But it was yet a foreign country. Tara had felt that just months into her course, felt it so strongly she had called me up one night to tell me.
So here she was now, back home, to face the music.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m proud of you.’
She beamed at me, stretched her back, gazed around her with appraising eyes.
‘Do you want some more tea?’ I asked.
‘No.’ A sudden discontentment creased Tara’s brow. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Where to?’ I was surprised. ‘It’s quite nice sitting here.’
‘Well, we can’t stay forever. Anyway I need to find a loo.’
On the road again, she talked about her work. It was difficult, she told me, it was frustrating. I thought that was inevitable. I could imagine Tara, with her urbane tastes, her earnest ideals, her great expectations, floundering in the round-the-clock politics and feudal culture of a Delhi set-up.
‘They spend all day talking,’ she said, ‘and drinking tea, and when I want to leave at six, they look at me like I’m a shirker! Even though I’ve actually been getting things done. But just because I don’t stay till midnight with the boss– Oh, and they’re all so scared of the boss. It’s pathetic.’
‘But what’s he like?’ I asked her. ‘The boss.’
‘Oh he’s nice, he’s fine. But I have to work with the others, right?’
‘Yeah, but he doesn’t discourage these pointless late hours?
‘No. He’s very laissez-faire that way.’
‘I guess he enjoys the power then.’
‘Maybe. I don’t know. At least he cares about the work. Most of the others don’t, you know. Once we were talking over lunch and one of them was like, ‘Haan, so the hospitals are over-crowded and unclean and unequipped, but then it’s a big city with so many people, so what can you do?’ And everyone was nodding, and I was thinking, there are big cities all over the world! We are supposed to be thinking of ways to improve things! We’re supposed to be this important “think-tank”!’
Her voice, so warm and ebullient when she was happy, was peaking with indignation. I looked at her, striding past the still gulmohars, hot with anger, bathed in shade. And then, as I looked, it seemed to me that all of nature was rushing to her side, the breeze fanning her crumpled brow, the leaves in the trees rustling their sympathy. The evergreen forest was receiving her rage, but her young heart still filled with disappointment, and my own heart went out to her, as it always would.
‘Tara,’ I said, and my speech, as I heard it, was soft and wise, ‘I think what we have to do is just accept our reality. We have our skills, our beliefs, and they’re different from that of the majority. They just are. You, for example, you believe in cities, you believe in building things that have scale, you believe in the possibilities of the individual. Maybe most of your office doesn’t think that way, maybe their heart is somewhere in the country – the town or the village, I mean. Maybe they leave things to destiny. If we’re the first fully urban generation, with all our liberal education, then maybe we have to be the fall-guys. We have to pit our wits against the way things are, and not expect any great rewards for ourselves, but just look for solutions. And we can do that, right? We can even have fun doing that. I think you just have to keep going. Because what you’re doing is really great, it’s really fundamental.’
As I talked, she walked beside me, not saying a word, with her head lowered and her eyes narrowed. It was the way she had walked from the station to the park. But it was a new note in her persona that I hadn’t known in the days when I adored her. But perhaps this briskness, this hardness, was only on the surface – the strong exterior of a grown-up woman.
A little later, as I waited outside the park’s toilets, I thought again of Tara and me. In the morning while going to see her, stalled in traffic with time to think, I had been apprehensive. It had been so long, we had fallen out of touch. What invisible strands had snapped between us, I didn’t know. We couldn’t be friends in the ordinary fashion, that had been clear for years. Two elements, unstable in proximity, must either unite or separate. We had to separate. But although we walked on parallel lines, never meeting, I was reminded now that our road was the same. We saw the world the same way, we hurt at the same things. We shared a community – of disappointment and broken dreams and the weight of a nation’s failure – but a community no less.
I was gladdened by that idea, and the still beauty of the forest seemed to swell and deepen too. It was pregnant with hope. As Tara came out to join me, her mouth was pursed in grim disdain.
‘Not good, huh?’ I smiled.
‘Don’t ask,’ she said.
‘Well – maybe the animals use it too.’
‘That’s disgusting,’ she winced. ‘Anyway,’ she went on smoothly, ‘this job has been a real pain. But it’s okay, I’m quitting soon. I’m looking forward to that. I’d like to spend some time doing nothing at all.’
She was walking on ahead of me. I caught up to her.
‘Ya, after I get married. I’ll be moving here with Akash, so I’ll have to quit anyway.’
She was still walking, though in what direction I didn’t know. It seemed to me the wind had ceased and the scuffling in the forest gone silent. I stared at her, but she neither caught my eye nor avoided it.
‘Tara,’ I said, ‘Tara, hold on.’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I didn’t realise you were getting married.’
‘Oh I made up my mind a while back. It was just a question of when. I’ve been seeing him for two years now. You know that.’
Her speech seemed to fly by me, as brisk and removed as the rest of her. She turned to walk on, and in a stupor, I walked with her.
Soon I was aware of a great weight on my bones. I could hear my breathing, slow and strained. A bench by the road tugged at my vision, and I broke stride towards it. It was damp and gritty, covered in yellow leaves. I sat as best I could. I could feel Tara’s gaze following my movements with incredulity. A part of me was incredulous too.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked again. She was drawing closer. Her voice held an unfeigned astonishment.
‘What’s the matter?’
I shook my head.
‘You’re surprised? Why are you so surprised?’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘We talked about this two years ago!’ said Tara. ‘I told you even then I was going to marry him. Our parents are involved already.’
I tried to grin, but a sadness inside was choking me, and all the harder because I didn’t know where it had come from.
‘I thought,’ I said, ‘that you were going to –’
‘Take a call on it.’
Tara threw her head back with sudden animation. Her lips parted in mirth.
‘That was then! A long time ago! I made up my mind after that! But I don’t understand why you’re so surprised. I’ve been seeing him constantly. I’ve come to Bombay to see him now, haven’t I?’
‘I thought,’ I repeated, and I was talking to myself now, stunned into open introspection, trying to trace, through my speech, the roots of my reaction. ‘You said, this wasn’t it. I thought you were going to wait, till you fell in love again.’
For a moment, she was angry. I braced myself for the easy and unanswerable lie. But something prevented that. Perhaps it was the honesty of my emotion, my unabashed bewilderment, my vulnerability, that made her candid.
She started to talk. She said she used to think that way when she was younger, but she wasn’t twenty one any longer. She said she had learned to be sensible, to be wise, to take things as they came, and not always as she chose. She said, what was love but making your peace. She spoke freely, not from the heart, but from a nimbler, more persuasive, more dangerous place.
Years ago, when we had talked of life and love and what it all meant, we had talked like seekers after a common truth, who do not balk at argument. That wasn’t her tone any more.
‘I don’t know about you,’ Tara said, ‘but I know what my dreams are. And they’re not wild or bizarre or unconventional. Maybe they aren’t romantic. Maybe they aren’t going to save the world, or the country, or anybody. I don’t care. They’re mine. A house to live, a space of my own, a companion I care for who cares for me, friends who I know I can trust, just enough money that I don’t have to worry about money. And that’s it. That’s all I want from life.’
‘But that’s all I want too!’ I wanted to tell her, ‘That’s all I want too!’ I wanted to scream, but then how could I explain the distance between us? How could I justify why I sat, drowned in loneliness, while she stood not inches away, neither lover nor comrade, drawing further and further apart with every passionate sentence she spoke? I could be pompous and futile, or I could stay silent.
‘You understand?’ she was asking me, ‘Do you understand?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
We were quiet then. A great weariness seized me. I looked at the ancient trees, stirring gently in the late afternoon. Maybe the signs had been there, and I had failed to read them. Maybe our road had once been the same, but I had not noticed the fork in it.
‘Aren’t you going to get up?’ Tara laughed. ‘You’re not actually old yet.’
‘I feel old,’ I said.
‘Let’s go,’ she said. ‘It’s too late to see the sights here – let’s go back.’
‘You didn’t enjoy coming here.’ I looked at her.
‘Oh I did,’ she said quickly. ‘It’s really beautiful, but I’m tired. And we have that awful commute still to come.’
No, she hadn’t enjoyed it. Not the forest, not the lake, not the flowers in the trees. She had gotten brisk. She remembered the garbage and the dirt and the looming spectre of the broken city. A cold wind swooped down on us; it was bracing to me, but I saw Tara give a little fearful shiver as it passed. Then suddenly it was easy to get to my feet, to almost put my arm around her. I didn’t, but the thought of it played on my mind, healing me, tormenting me, as we walked back to the waiting streets.