On that stormy night, Heer decided to venture out. She had been longing for the weather to dramatically transform from sunny, sultry and humid to the cool, pleasant rain, and she knew this change wouldn’t last long. Her favourite joggers were completely drenched within minutes of stepping out of her house, but she didn’t care; she felt a peace she hadn’t felt in weeks.
The stress of the last few weeks had affected her far more than she had realised it would. All the planning and anticipation had worn her down, and the only thing that brought her solace now was the deluge of water that completely engulfed her. She had somehow forgotten what calm felt like, and she was finally being reminded, and how.
She stood under the pale glow of a street lamp, her street lamp. The residents of her locality had been sending incessant complaints to the Municipal Corporation to fix the issue. Heer had signed those papers rather reluctantly. She had always loved the malfunctioning street lamp; something about it comforted her.
She knew that she had stepped out to meet someone, but now she couldn’t remember who it was. All that mattered now was embracing this solitude completely. She finally had the time and space to think, reflect about how quickly it had all happened. The meeting, the closeness, the tension and butterflies that had given way to freedom and comfort as time passed. Heer was left wondering if knowing someone for only a year was enough time to make such a life-changing decision, and yet, she felt like this was the right thing to do, that it was meant to be.
A buzz from her back pocket rudely interrupted her thoughts. A series of abrupt messages on the bright screen. “I’m sorry. The traffic is just insane. I’ll be there in 30 minutes tops. Love you.” Smiling at the phone, she then closed her eyes and braced herself against the flickering lamp, the light illuminating and hiding her face in irregular intervals. The never-ending lectures about getting wet and catching a cold were ringing in her ears, but, then again, she had always loved the rain.
Suddenly, Heer felt a sudden wave of panic and unease wash over her. Though she had had this particular feeling before, she could never pinpoint exactly what it meant. For some strange reason, she was intrigued by this interruption. She turned around. And immediately wished she hadn’t.
It was her. She with her bright eyes full of hope and the deep hair darker than her soul. The one who’s inside jokes still made her crack a smile until she remembered their origin. The shared hugs, kisses and laughs she still spent every minute of every day trying to forget. Shock, surprise, distress, alarm, horror and worry overtook her body in quick succession. She didn’t know what to make of the intrusion or the strangely-vacant expression on the face of the one she never wanted to see again. But she had to say something.
“Ranjika.” The name escaped her lips in little more than a sigh.
“Hey Heer”, was the reply. It was somewhat slurred, which should have surprised her but didn’t.
“Heer decided to venture out on a stormy night. Such a cliché.” The comment was biting, but Heer was not going to play into Ranjika’s hands that easily.
“So what? I like the rain.” She hated her response as soon as she said it; defensive and whiny that it was. “How drunk are you Ranjika?”
“Downed a few bottles of the clear stuff we loved. Look at me, staying faithful to our traditions. But I heard that I’m the only one upholding them. Can’t help but wonder, what happened to you?”
“Just got smarter, I guess. It’s nice to know that you are just the way you were when I left.”
Heer didn’t show it, but the direction the conversation was heading in scared her. She had hoped that if she ended things with Ranjika, the drinking and smoking would at least become less frequent, if not completely stop. In her naivety, she hadn’t realised that it might escalate. Her street lamp started to flicker, the way it always did, but tonight, Heer couldn’t help but think it was trying to tell her something.
She tried to change the conversation, hoping to distract herself. “How long are you in town?”
“Two days. I’m here to wrap up a deal. I’ll be out of your hair before you know it.”
Before she could respond, Ranjika had a death grip on her arm and was dragging her to the nearby tapri-wala, who had been eyeing them with large-writ curiosity. Though she was annoyed at the sudden absence of the water, she finally realised how parched her throat had become.
“Do chai dena bhaiyya,” came Ranjika’s strong voice, “aur kadak banana.”
“What makes you think that I need the chai, huh? I’m totally fine, thank you.”
“Sure you are. First of all, it’s cold, and you’re shivering. Secondly, this is not the first storm we’ve spent outdoors. As I recall, we had nowhere to go and what got us through that night were the endless kullads of chai.”
Heer was surprised by the detail and fond smile with which Ranjika recalled what was probably one of the worst nights of her life. Nevertheless, Heer didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She smiled and sipped the chai, which she had to admit, tasted much better in Ranjika’s company.
As they sat together under the tapri-wala’s large umbrella, she had the sudden urge to hold Ranjika’s hand and never let go. She wasn’t sure what was stopping her. Was it the bhaiyya, who would no doubt question their intentions? Was it her, afraid of reclaiming a time long gone? Or could she simply resort to blame the timing again, just as she had done before?
Heer suddenly realised that her unwelcome companion was uncharacteristically silent. Snapping out of her reverie, she was startled by the expression on Ranjika’s face. At first, Heer thought that she was waiting for her to say something, but then she realised that Ranjika was looking, no, staring at her as if she had never seen her before.
“What are you staring at?”
“Not staring, just studying.”
“Okay, what are you studying?”, Heer asked, praying that the cheeky response would mask her hope for the answer that always made her weak in the knees. Even as she wished for it, she realised how futile it was. As if Ranjika would remember that old game, especially intoxicated.
“Only you.” Heer felt the blush travel treacherously up her cheeks. She sensed her lamp glowing brighter and more steadily with each passing second.
“I didn’t think you would remember that.”
“How could I not? You were my first and only love. No one ever forgets. I certainly didn’t.”
“We were children. It wasn’t love, just an infatuation, or a phase, maybe not even that. Many would call it childish, immature.”
“But they don’t know the truth, do they? What we truly were. And we never bothered to clear it up for them.”
“Of course, we did, we tried so hard. They just didn’t get it.”
“I don’t blame them; they can barely comprehend a straight relationship. Unless the couple is married, of course!”
Heer couldn’t help it; the seemingly banal statement triggered countless memories of late-night conversations, charged-up debates and emotional outbursts. It all started to get too tense for her. The unease under that faded red umbrella, the unspoken questions and answers hung between them, charging the air till she felt totally breathless. She hurriedly got up and ran under the protective glow of her flickering street lamp, dropping the kullad of chai in her haste. She closed her eyes, turning her back to the tapri-wala’s shop, willing herself to take deep breaths, just like her therapist had taught her.
Before she could steady herself, however, she felt herself held rudely by the shoulder and abruptly turned around. She opened her eyes and took in Ranjika’s furious yet cautious look. The accusatory glare was enough to make her question what her stance about them had been all this time.
Fearing what her answer to the numerous unspoken questions would be, Heer flung her arms around Ranjika. She took in the familiar smell of tobacco-laced clothing, which the rain had made damp and musty. Only then did she realize how much she had missed the safety and comfort of that embrace.
She then noticed how tensed Ranjika’s body was, to which she just had to comment, “Still can’t hug, can you?” Heer felt the athletic yet tender arms tighten around her midsection. A throaty chuckle, accompanied by a quippy, “Shut up!” echoed through the hole where Heer’s heart used to be.
But just as she began to fully surrender herself into their much-needed hug under the heavy rain and now steady glow of the lamp, the unpleasant incidents of their shared past began to overwhelm Heer. The endless fights, the fist-shaped holes in the walls, the broken furniture, the suffocating stench of shattered bottles and overflowing ashtrays came back to Heer in flashes, reminding her of the toxic home she had chosen to leave behind her. She abruptly, and tearfully, let go.
“What is it, Hira?”, Ranjika asked, evidently concerned. Heer didn’t know how to respond. How could she begin to articulate how much she had wanted to avoid this conversation? The very thought of hurting Ranjika with the bitter truth completely obliterated whatever little remained of Heer’s heart.
Just as Ranjika was about to voice a follow-up question, Heer felt a pair of strong, familiar arms snake themselves around her waist from behind. Before she could turn to greet the man she now got to call home, she heard the sharp intake of breath and took in Ranjika’s wide-eyed look.
“Hiru…”, whispered Siddharth, in his slow, deep voice, as he came around to stand beside her, silently claiming one of her hands in his own. “And you must be Ranjika. I’ve wanted to meet you for ages,” he smiled warmly at the speechless girl, who, Heer finally realised, she had unfinished business with.
Heer knew Ranjika well enough to describe exactly what happened next. Ranjika’s face was overtaken by anger, then sadness followed by reluctant acceptance so quickly that no one but her first love would have noticed. Looking back at Siddharth, Heer tried to remember what she had seen in him in the first place. Was it his charm, his wit, his intelligence, or his kindness? Or were the aunties, right? Was she simply chasing the glowing reputation that be-coming forever tied to him would bring?
Heer realised, with alarming certainty, that she still remembered what she felt the first time she met Ranjika. The same butterflies had filled her today as they had all those years ago. The friendship that had quickly become the centre of her universe, much to the disapproval of both families. This train of thought came at a price, as Heer would later reflect upon. She now knew what the problem was; she still loved Ranjika.
Heer snapped out of her reverie. Taking in the betrayal on Ranjika’s face, she noticed that Ranjika had finally spotted the ornate engagement ring on Heer’s left hand. Heer could tell that there were some nasty words bubbling right below that nearly-perfect facade and was eternally grateful that Ranjika was trying to hold her tongue.
Heer turned to Siddharth, who was watching Ranjika with ill-disguised curiosity. “Siddy, can you give me a minute? I need to say goodbye to her.”
“Don’t ask him to leave Hiru. Sid, please stay,” Ranjika seethed out, with large-writ anger and frustration, much to Heer’s dismay.
Before Siddharth could respond, Ranjika turned to Heer with such malice in her face that Heer had to take a few steps back just to steady herself. Heer prepared herself for an angry tirade, but all Ranjika muttered was, “So, when is the wedding?”
“In six months. October”, Heer found herself whispering, now barely audible over the racket of the storm. The flickering lamp made Ranjika look far more terrifying than she actually was.
“Were you planning to invite me?”
“I wasn’t sure that you would’ve wanted to come.”
At this, Ranjika plastered on the fakest of smiles she could muster and uttered between clenched teeth, “I would love to be invited to this wedding. Him and you? Count me in. Make sure the invite comes through, okay?”
Saying this, Ranjika started to walk by Heer, who deftly grabbed her by the wrist. “I know you think we were not supposed to end this way, but I hope you can be happy for me.” When Ranjika didn’t say anything, Heer sighed. “I found my Ranjha,” she said, with a deliriously happy smile on her face.
“Oh please, you had found your Ranjha years ago. It’s me. It’s always been me. I’m your Ranjha.”
Lightning flashed rather dramatically as Ranjika stalked off. Heer looked up at Siddharth, her eyes reflecting his sadness with her own. She then looked up at her lamp. Almost in answer to her unspoken question, it went out for good.