I’ve always heard that Palak residency created headache for the people who lived there. But this time, I got to experience it for myself. Satish said that he couldn’t make it there that evening as he had to take his parents out on a medical appointment which was that very evening. So, I was stuck with my mornings slightly damp clothes. The afternoon’s rain had settled into a nice bright evening. I moved from an easy chair in the lawn to the interiors after I heard my tummy rumbling. Food! I needed to eat something to survive the evening. I got out and walked to the cosy little restaurant at the end of the road and had some hot Aloo Paranthas. I got some more packed for the night and came back to Palak residency.
I settled myself in the drawing hall. Since no one ever remained in the house for a very long time, Anita aunty tried to make the place a better bargain by not moving any of the furniture that they installed in their house. I sat cross legged in one of the dark leather sofas that had an inch thick cushion. I connected my music player to the music system and was almost dozing off into a tired nap when the trouble began. The lights started flickering and soon, there were short power failures each lasting a minute or so. I decided to go out and check if there was any problem with the fuse. After a painful search in the hall, I located a torch and made stumbled across to the main switch board to find out that the fuse was absolutely fine. The weather was turbulent again. The wind was blowing hard and I found out that the branches of one of the big Jackfruit trees were brushing against the wires making the supply discontinuous. The branches were too high up and there was nothing I could do till the morning to get the problem solved. So, I came back inside and started searching for some candles only to find out that there were none in the house. I decided to call on the neighbours to ask them if they had any.
I was in for an utter shock when I saw her as she opened the door. She didn’t change much from the last time I saw her. Last time brought back sad memories which didn’t seem too sad now.
“Hey! Oh. . . Wow, now this is a very big surprise” I said trying to sound pleasant, not quite sure what my facial expression conveyed.
“Neeraj? Is that really you? What are you . . .? Wow! Yeah, I’m surprised as well” She said, she looked utterly flustered and her face was that of a stunned cartoon character.
“You haven’t changed much. You gained a little bit of weight and your hair grew out a little bit, but you look pretty much the girl I remember” I said.
I could have tried to make more formal conversation especially after our last face off but then my natural instinct over powered me and I could not help but notice how she looked, given that I was seeing her after six long years.
She responded with a big embarrassed smile flashing her dimples. College memories started flooding my head as she started speaking.
“Yeah, I guess I put on a little bit of weight. But, god! You’ve changed a lot Neeraj. You lost more weight. Your tan is worse. Where have you been?” She said leaning against the door locking her deep black eyes with mine.
I lost focus for a while. But long experience in college made me good at not getting lost in that deep glance of hers.
“Well me? I am working here in Cochin in the IAF as a Flight maintenance engineer. And what are you doing here? I thought you would never leave home. Can I come in?”
She reacted in her usual manner when she forgets something routine like calling people inside when they came to her place.
“Oh yeah! I just forgot. Come in come in. She said and opened the door fully. I heard the latest Telugu songs issue in full blast from somewhere inside the house. I glanced around the flat as she went inside to call someone. It was a single bedroom flat neatly arranged. Girls I thought. She must have been working somewhere here.
“Neeraj, this is my roommate and my best friend Manisha. You can call her Maggie.”
Maggie was also Sanjana’s age with a round face and medium built. She looked quite warm and friendly. I could instantaneously make out the reason for her nickname. Maggie had long black hair that looked like her nickname. She greeted me in a nice deep melodious voice.
“Oh! So, you are Neeraj. So good to see you man! I’ve heard lots about you.” She extended her hand and shook it vigorously without giving me a chance to introduce myself.
“Oh! So you already know me huh? Well I’m not sure what Sanju told you about me, but good to see you.” I said and smiled.
Sanjana then went on to explain how she got tired of sitting at home after her engineering and how she managed to convince her parents to allow her take up a job. She worked as a systems engineer in one of the MNC’s there in Cochin.
“But, they sent you here all on your own?” I said giving her a quizzical look. I knew her parents quite well.
“That is where I come in, Sanju and I are like second cousins and we got selected into the same company and at the same time, so we like got a joint permission and we landed up here.” Said Maggie making a gesture of a plane landing.
“So, how is everything else? Your parents haven’t started husband hunting yet?” I asked looking at Sanju and then turning to Maggie to avoid the awkwardness.
“Well, I’ve found a guy here in Cochin. We like each other and he happens to belong to the same caste so no problems there. We’ve already notified our parents and the wedding is like a few months away” Said Maggie in an as-a-matter-of-fact voice.
“What about you Sanju?” I asked, in a flat voice.
“I’d rather not talk about it” She said and turned away towards the window. A mask appeared over her face as she tried to hide her emotions as she always did.
“I guess you haven’t found your I-cannot-live with-out guy, is it?”
There was this awkward silence for a minute or two. Memories started flooding my mind as I remembered college. It’s strange how an entire chain of unconnected events that have been long locked away in my heart came back to my mind after I saw the subject of those memories.
“I came for candles. I’m staying in Palak residency for the weekend. I have some problems with the power connection there. I’ll be glad if you can give me a few candles.” I said and stood up. I had this strange feeling in my gut and it didn’t feel good.
Maggie who was quite unperturbed with my awkwardness went inside and fetched three candles and gave them to me along with a match box.
“Do come over for lunch tomorrow afternoon. There are hardly any recent restaurants around this place.” Said Maggie with a nice little smile.
“I would love to, if that would be okay with Sanju.” I said, turning to Sanju.
“Why am I being the jerk here? I don’t have any problems.” She said, and walked off inside.
Palak Residency looked darker and scarier with the wind howling though the place. I lit the three candles in the hall and settled myself to sleep in one of the bean bags lying in the hall. My appetite had long died after seeing Sanju there in Cochin.
The day I proposed to her, the day she rejected, the day she finally broke my heart. A record that I thought had long ceased to exist in my brain started playing itself all over again.
“Not your mistake, not your mistake, not your mistake. . . “
Was it a voice in my head? It seemed to come from the outside.
I listened more intently. It seemed to come from one of the Eastern bedrooms in the first floor.
“Not your mistake, not your mistake. . . “Sang a steady voice, breathless and hushed.
I brushed it off as my imagination for the first twenty minutes. But as I tried to sleep, it started getting to my head. I was now pissed and irritated.
“Not my mistake?” Hold on for a second I shouted and grabbed the torch lying on the table. I climbed the steps two at a time and looked around. The voice became clearer as I reached the landing on the first floor. It seemed to come from my left, Anita auntie’s bedroom. I stormed off towards the room, my head spinning due to a splitting headache that I had by then. The steady hum of the voice that seemed to come from nowhere was irritating the shit out of me.
I slammed the door open and the voice stopped all of a sudden. My eyes were blurred with tears that started running. Damn, headache and sleeplessness.
I scanned the room with keen eyes. The big double oak double cot looked impressive even in the darkness. Pictures of Anita aunty and her kids, the shining wooden cupboards, the 30 inches flatiron television, were the things that adorned the lovely room.
It was all of a sudden that I saw it coming towards me. It came out so suddenly that I had no time to react. Even before I could make out what it was, everything blackened out and my mind went blank.