Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Shloka Shankar

A Change For Better

The streets glimmered after the heavy downpour that almost seemed to drown the city. I huddled out of the office with my bag and umbrella in hand, just in case I was caught unawares on my way back home. I hailed a taxi and decided to indulge a little as I had received my salary earlier that morning.
It was a lovely evening with cool breeze that lapped my face. I felt my nose turn cold and sneezed a couple of times. I looked at a couple bundled in raincoats dash across the road as the signal turned red. They seemed so carefree and in love. I smiled to myself and wished things would change for me too.

I was a little tired of my non-existent social life. I didn’t expect to go to a party every Friday night or immerse myself in meaningless ladies’ nights. But I wanted an escape from all the humdrum. The taxi moved at an achingly slow pace as there was heavy traffic up ahead. I rolled down the window a little more and studied my surroundings. Endless rows of two-wheelers and four-wheelers were lined up that honked impatiently. It was a quarter to eight and people were looking forward to a quiet family dinner. As for me, I lived alone in my dingy two room apartment on the second floor. My neighbours minded their own business, and the owners who lived downstairs, were an elderly married couple. Their son lived with his family abroad and came down once a year for a visit.

I reached home surprisingly clean and dry and slumped onto the sofa. I looked around my apartment and saw what a mess it was. There were books lying about, manuscripts to edit, letters of correspondence, and I mused that I lived in a sty. I almost lived in and out of boxes and suitcases. The cupboard was small enough only to house my good clothes. T-shirts and pyjamas peeped rather unashamedly from suitcases that lay gaping open.

I was a freelance writer and editor, and almost loved my job. It wasn’t perfect, but at least I was my own boss. I made my way to the study table that looked like it was over a hundred years old. With wizened teak wood, my table was sturdy and had served me well. It had withstood years of coffee spills, food spills and a lot more. I switched on my laptop and heard the familiar Windows tune welcome me. I quickly changed into something more comfortable and logged in to Facebook. At twenty-five, I still had time for some online gaming and random chats with old friends. That evening, I met the man of my dreams. I received a friend request and a ‘Poke’ from someone I’d forgotten had even existed. 

Vedant had once been an acquaintance, but we had lost touch after he moved to Mumbai. I was surprised to see that he hadn’t changed much in terms of his appearance. His profile picture showed him wearing a pista green kurta with rimless glasses and tousled hair. He used to look tall and scrawny, but now he looked well-fed. With a smile that flashed his pearly white teeth, he definitely did not look his age. He was three years older than me and we had met each other a few times officially a couple of years ago.

I accepted his request and thought I’d send him a personal message on Facebook.
“Hey Vedant!                      
How have you been? I can’t remember the last time we met or spoke to each other. Great to see you on FB. How’s work? Are you still in Mumbai? Hoping to hear from you soon.
I was about to log out, when I saw I had received a message. I smiled sheepishly and was glad he was online too. Perhaps we could chat and continue from where we left off. I had a secret crush on him but was too nervous to admit it or tell him. Two and a half years later, perhaps I could rekindle what I once felt. I quickly clicked on the message icon and read his message.
“Hey Sidhi,
I’ve been great, and yes, it’s been long since we’ve got in touch. Work is fine. Same old copywriting. Are you still freelancing? Good news, I’m back in Chennai. We should definitely meet up. And you look gorgeous in the pictures you’ve uploaded. You’ve changed a lot. Almost didn’t recognize you. Can I give you a call sometime? Let me know.

I could hardly believe he had the same effect on me after all these years. I blushed like a simpleton and was beside myself with joy. He was here! In the same city as me. We could meet each other as often as we wanted. But first, I sent him my number and waited for him to give me a buzz. Five minutes later, I heard my cell phone purr on the table. I hesitantly picked up and hoped I wouldn’t make a fool of myself.

“Hello?” I spoke in an inaudible whisper almost.
“Sidhi? Is that you?” came his distinct voice from the other end.
“Hey, Vedant. So glad you’re back in town. Are you visiting?” I was hoping the answer would be in the negative.

“Actually, no. I’m back for good. Missed good old Chennai and you!” he added laughingly.
This was a good sign. He had made his second move at genial and harmless flirting. I could feel my cheeks flush and I hopelessly giggled into the phone. If only this conversation could last forever, I thought.

“That’s great. Good to know you’re back. And you missed me? Yeah, I completely believe you, Vedant.” I added smilingly.
“Well, I actually did. I didn’t know if you were into social networking. But I searched your name anyway and I’m glad I hit the jackpot.”

“I rarely use it. Lucky for you I logged in tonight, young man. You haven’t changed much. Except for a few pounds perhaps. You look a lot healthier now. Is that a recent picture?” I asked.
“Pretty much. It was my niece’s first birthday. And I’ve turned into a kurta-freak lately. Love wearing Indian clothes. So, how’s work? When can we meet?”

He had technically asked me out. My heart was thumping vigorously and I thought I would faint if things went on in the pace they did. “Work is the same as always. Prefer writing to editing, honestly. We can meet whenever you’re free. What are you doing this weekend?” The weekend was just a day away.

“Nothing that I can’t get out of. Should we meet for lunch or dinner on Saturday?” he asked.
“I think lunch would be better. You can decide the place and stuff. Just let me know by tomorrow night,” I casually replied, suppressing my enthusiasm. He agreed and I hung up. It took me a little while to regain normalcy. I was amused, excited and nervous all at the same time. I began to wonder if this was something more than just flirting for the heck of it. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. If something creates a spark, I’d know how to deal with it. I shut down my laptop and went about making sandwiches for dinner. By the time I got to bed, it was already half past eleven.

I received a “Good morning, have a nice day ahead” message from Vedant the next morning. I smiled and replied, after which I hastily got dressed and was off to meet my client. TGIF made sense to me at last. Tomorrow, I would meet Vedant. My heart skipped a beat and I regained my senses once I busied myself with work. Cupid would not get the better of me this time around.

I got back home exhausted and bought some takeaway Chinese for dinner. I messaged Vedant to reconfirm if the plan was still on, and he replied saying he would pick me up at 12.00 the following afternoon. Pick me up? Wow, that sounded like a date alright. But I didn’t want to assume things and then get disheartened at the end of it all. I slept fitfully that night and kept wondering about what I should wear. I was never into any of this romantic balderdash. And yet, my face lit up every time I thought of Vedant and our supposed date.

I woke up to a beautiful Saturday morning and wished for a memorable day ahead. I didn’t know what was in store for me today. As of now, it was just two old acquaintances meeting up for lunch. I brushed and bathed, ate some cereal for breakfast and finally decided to wear my favourite maroon and orange kurti. I picked out my accessories and wore a chain with an Om pendant. I love ethnic clothing, and it was one of the things Vedant and I had in common. Before I knew it, I heard a car pull outside my apartment and recognized Vedant’s old Santro. I waved to him from my window and signalled that I’d be down in a minute. I picked up my sling bag and phone, locked the door and headed downstairs to meet Mr. Charming.

He had stepped out of his car and was leaning against the door when I emerged from the elevator. Surprisingly, his kurta had shades of orange too. He complimented my sense of dressing and I thanked him warmly. I could feel butterflies in my stomach and was heavily conscious of his presence. I tried not to fidget or stammer, but I betrayed my nervousness at every possible step. He inserted a Carnatic instrumental CD and I heard the melodic notes of a flute that lightly embraced us in its tantalising rhythm.

“So do you still play the flute?” I asked.
“When I get the chance. Now that I’m back, I can probably start learning again. Do you still sing?”
“Yes, I do. But mostly for myself.” I confessed.

In a few minutes, we drove into the restaurant. I got off and waited at the entrance as Vedant parked the car. It was a dimly lit restaurant that was partially full. Teeming with flavours and smells that wafted gently through the air, we were ready to tuck into a delicious North Indian meal. We spoke about a lot of things in general and he asked me more about my interests and the books I had read lately. We talked about literature, music, criticized Indian cinema to our heart’s content and enjoyed a scrumptious luncheon. It was exactly like I had pictured it in my head. He was kind, gentle, warm, full of mirth and laughter; while I forgot I was smitten by him and just had a great time conversing. It felt blissful to just sit and talk with someone as like-minded as you.

Over the next few weeks, we met each other a few more times and he even came home twice. He helped me with my manuscripts and we decided to team up and work on a new freelancing project. Vedant had a style of writing that was poignant, yet breezy. It was a treat to read his articles and reviews. I learned how to keep my things tidy with him around as he hated messy rooms, and teased me about my overhauled table. We grew closer and fonder of each other, and I loved spending time with him. He filled a void in me that was beginning to grow and made me feel safe and secure. He soon began to complete my sentences for me or held my hand when we would ceaselessly talk.
Neither of us admitted that we were on the brink of being in love, least of all me. I liked the steady pace of things and had no intention of ruining it by blurting out anything that I would later regret. Vedant understood me and knew I wanted to take things slowly. He didn’t want to disrupt our current union by doing something in haste.

Later one evening, for the first time since we met, he kissed me on my cheek and bid me good night. I didn’t react at first, which made him think he did the wrong thing and he quickly apologised. I told him it was perfectly fine and there was no need to apologise. It was a quick peck, and completely harmless. He smiled and left, leaving me to ponder if things were ripe for us to confess how we truly felt about each other.

I knew my life had changed for the better since Vedant had come back. I had found my best friend and soul mate rolled into one. I was happy and contented after a long time, and even had something to look forward to. I was hoping he felt the same way about me, and that ours would make the perfect match.

It did. A week later, Vedant told me he was in love with me and I told him that I felt strongly for him too. Our feelings were indeed mutual, and I was glad things had worked out for the best. My girlish dream had come true and I had found the man who was right for me in every sense of the term.

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