‘Meh!’ He sighed.
Airports no longer fascinated him as they used to. He strolled around the departure lounge seeking a comfortable seat. Since it was still very early in the morning, it was quiet with just a few travellers around. Coming across several rows of vacant seats neatly arranged into two columns with a walk-way in between, he settled down in a corner and pulled out a book from his backpack.
He glanced at the handwritten note on the first page: “So that you don’t fly alone - Love, M”. It brought a smile to his face. Malini was a sweet girl. She had gifted him this book when he met her on his last trip to Delhi. It hasn’t even been a month and here he was, flying to Delhi again. He knew she would be delighted to meet him this time too. Yet he neglected to inform her that he was coming. Perhaps he wasn’t sure he could be bothered to meet up with her this time round.
Already bored of the book, he looked at the time. There was still an hour for his flight. There ought to be a way that all the preprocessing time ranging from check-in to boarding was reduced to reflect that of other transport modes, say a train. Was he the only one to find it weird that one has to arrive 2 hours early at the airport for a flight of one-hour duration, while one needs to arrive at the station just a couple of minutes before the departure of an overnight train?
Adjusting himself on the seat, he looked up briefly to see how many more travellers were now around him. That’s when his eyes instantly singled her out from the incoming crowd. Unmistakable. It was her. He could feel his heart quicken up as he squinted to get a better look at her. How long has it been? 2 years? Perhaps more. Has she changed in anyway? Just as suddenly, a thought occurred to him and he averted his eyes. What if she saw him looking at her? There would be a forced smile of recognition on her face and she would feel obliged to approach him and exchange greetings. He didn’t want to put her in that position. He slid further down in his chair and buried his face in his book.
After many minutes, or maybe seconds, from the corner of his eye, he followed her footsteps going past him. After what felt like another eternity, he hazarded turning around to see where she was. He had to turn all the way around to look behind him, yet he couldn’t spot her. He returned to his novel and resumed reading. Although he tried to concentrate, running through several lines in the story, the words failed to penetrate beyond his eyes.
Narrowing her eyes, she stared at him. She could just see his side profile, but there was no way she could mistake someone else for him. She knew him too well for that. There he was, sitting at the other end of her row, turning around seemingly in search of something. He held a big book in his hands. Since when did he become such a serious reader? She could barely get him to read a magazine article in those days.
Her eyes searched him further. Has he changed in other ways too? Was there a white strand or two in his hair? She tried to look at his fingers but they were hidden beneath the big book. She turned away, wondering. Should she move away so that he doesn’t spot her? Should she go and say ‘hi’? Was she ready for this? Ready for him? Now, after all these days, all of a sudden?
She couldn’t contain herself any longer and looked in his direction again. The seat was empty now. He had left! She got up with a jolt, surprising herself and even startling the old man seated next to her. Had she lost him? Again?
Anxiously, she paced around looking for him. After a lot of scanning, she managed to locate him strolling aimlessly on the other side of the terminal. A plethora of shops separated them. She jogged to catch up with him and started walking beside him, looking at him. He noticed her and stopped.
‘How you been?’ she asked, hoping to sound gentle and pleasant.
‘Not bad,’ he drawled in his usual way. Somethings at least hadn’t changed.
‘And you?’ he asked.
‘Fine, I guess.’
They resumed walking. She had so many things to ask him. And so many more to tell. Yet, none made their way out. She wished she knew what the rules were. Does she limit the conversation to only small-talk? Does she wait for him to ask something? Does she just say ‘bye’ and move on?
‘Where are you headed?’ she asked finally.
‘Delhi. You? Bangalore?’ He responded.
‘Still working for BP?’
They continued walking down the terminal.
Silence made its presence felt. He didn’t want to ask her anything that would be uncomfortable for her. But he had nothing else to converse either. His face turned to look at her more closely. She looked older now, but that only made her more beautiful. During those times, did he ever mention to her that he found her pretty? Perhaps she knew anyway. More and more questions were flooding into his head. To ignore the raging ones, he tried to focus on making trivial conversation. He started talking about their mutual acquaintances and she joined in enthusiastically. Pretty soon, all of them were covered and the dreaded silence returned.
Then she opened her mouth to say something but no words formed. He couldn’t resist any longer and asked her, ‘Just tell me, was it tough to, you know…’ He grappled for words but only ended up waving his hands about in a weird manner.
Her eyes looked down as she muttered something inaudible. He paused for a bit before he asked again.
‘What was hardest?’ Was he being mean with the questions? Not really. He just wanted to know. A kind of morbid curiosity.
‘What all do you know?’ she shot back, still not looking at him.
‘Phone? Whatsapp, gmail…’ He began listing but stopped as soon as he realised she wasn’t listening. There are so many ways to keep in touch these days. And hence, so many ways to ignore someone. So many ways to exclude someone from one’s life.
She stood unmoving for a while and then stepped over and sat down on a bench, shielding her face with her hands. He didn’t know what to do. Was he to leave or not? Not being able to decide, he looked around, as if someone would spring to his help and advise on the right action. A couple of the other passengers were staring at them, but silently.
‘Actually, Facebook was hard. I knew your phone number by memory, and I could unblock you on gmail anytime. But by removing on Facebook, I was no longer going to get your updates. I wouldn’t know what was going on in your life,’ she said very softly, looking up at him
He went closer and stood next to her.
‘Why? Didn’t you ever think of letting me know about all this, about your reasons, a courtesy mail perhaps?’ He was careful not to sound aggrieved. This wasn’t the time to let out any pain. Did he even feel any, anymore?
‘I knew I .. couldn’t,’ she spoke slowly, pausing inappropriately. ‘It was really ... hard to maintain my resolve. I knew that a small comment ... a message from you would have broken me. Couldn’t let that happen. This was the only way I ... could do it.’
He searched her face for guilt. But all he unearthed was sorrow. Despite her ill-disguised attempts to ward the tears away, they were starting to envelope her eyes. She stood up, perhaps for the sake of doing something. She was still looking at the floor. Should he console her? That would be quite ironic given that he had kindled the pain with his questions. Should he place his arm around her like old times? Wasn’t he the everlasting, ever-present emotional support of hers? The confidant to all her troubles and joys? He ceased to be so two and half years ago, he told himself.
So instead, he just managed to mumble, ‘Whatever it takes for a happy married life. As long as you are happy with him…’ His voice trailed off.
She looked at him for a second, perhaps trying to detect sarcasm, and then said, grasping for a steady voice, ‘We .. we separated six months ago. Guess it was never going to work out with him.’
He just stared. He didn't even attempt to find any words in response.
‘And .. and to think, I gave up on you for him,’ she choked.
That was all he needed to hear. He averted his eyes from her and focused on the departure-screen beyond her. His flight number had ‘last-call’ flashing next to it.
‘I have to go now,’ he said and began walking away from her, though still facing her. Her imploring eyes were strangulating him. He turned around and strode to his gate.
Just before turning off his mobile for the takeoff, he searched through his contact list for a name and dialled.‘Malini? Hi! Guess what? I’m flying to Delhi right now. What are you doing today evening? Let’s meet up at Hauz Khas!’