Ishaan picked up the phone in its fourth ring.
“Umm… Hi” came the voice from the other end.
Ishaan’s heart almost skipped a beat, and he clutched the phone a little tighter in his fist. He gulped and took a deep breath.
“Hi” he replied.
A soft chuckle hit him from the other end, and to him it seemed to be teasing, taunting, torturing.
“You have no idea who this is, do you?” the voice said.
Ishaan didn’t know if to smile or to frown, and ended up with a grimace.
“Maya” he managed.
Yet another of those chuckles, and Ishaan was starting to hyperventilate. He loosened the knot of his tie and looked around for a glass of water.
“Oh God you remember” was all she said.
Of all the responses that Ishaan had been thinking of for all these months, the last that he wanted to come up with was,
“I could not, not remember Maya”
Ishaan swore silently. Whatever happened to “You ruined my life!” or “How dare you even call?” or “Why don’t you go back to hell?” He suddenly realized she was saying something. Something about wanting to meet him. Yeah right, like he would meet her. Like he could meet her and let her look him in the eye. After all that happened. And before that annoying voice inside his head started giving him the lecture on how part of the onus was on him, he was brought back from his thoughts by her tinkling laugh. Ah, the audacity!
“You aren’t listening to any word I am saying, are you? It’s okay baba. Just be there tonight. 8pm. Someplace Nice”
Before Ishaan could think of any reason to say no he found himself saying yes. And right after replacing the phone on its cradle he slammed his fist on his table. Fat help it turned out to be, other than leaving him with pink knuckles.
This couldn’t be happening. He had moved on. Or at least he had convinced himself to move on. She can’t be marching into his life like this again. And that chuckle, and that laugh? Where did that come from? And why did it make him so angry to hear her laugh like that? No, no, no, no, no… he kept muttering. Why was she doing this to him? Most importantly, was he ready to face her?
Ishaan did the only thing that seemed logical at that moment: call Ayush.
“Get out of here, man!” Ayush laughed out when Ishaan told him about Maya calling him.
“Dude! Not helping!”
“Oh, okay. But you are telling me your wife actually called you up. And asked you to meet her. Tonight”
Ishaan replied through gritted teeth, “Ex-wife. Ex. And yes. She called me up”
“Come on man, you guys are not divorced yet. And you have been separated what, a year? Still your wife, I say”
“Fine. But she left me. And now she wants to meet me. Why?”
“Correction. You put it inside her head. You told her to leave, okay? The stupid idiot that you are, I maintain. And I have been telling you this all this time”
“I don’t have time for the sermons dude! This is an emergency. And if you can’t help me through this crisis you shouldn’t call yourself my best friend” Ishaan yelled out, to realize belatedly that his office though tucked away in a corner, was not exactly soundproof. Which meant if he were to step out of his office right at that moment, he would be greeted by that gaggle of giggling secretaries who somehow always managed to time their coffee breaks with his outbursts. Damn the espresso machine right next to his office. And damn his outbursts. Damn Maya.
“You are not thinking of meeting her, are you?” Ishaan heard Ayush ask him.
“I… don’t know…” Ishaan stalled for time.
“You want to meet her!” Ayush exclaimed.
“No! I mean yes! I mean no!”
Ishaan heard Ayush take a deep breath.
“Meet me for lunch outside my office. Your treat” Ayush ordered.
“I can’t. I gotta finish my presentation by 4 and I haven’t started yet.”
“Oh, so now Mr. Professional here thinks he can get work done with the thought of Maya looming on his head?”
Ishaan had to agree it was a good point. “Fine” he surrendered, “See you in thirty”
Ishaan slumped back on his chair only to realize he couldn’t remember standing up. He looked around his office as if it could tell him what to do. The PowerPoint Presentation open on his laptop screen seemed to mock him, and he disdainfully minimized the window. Ayush was right. He could never hope to get any work done. There was only one thing he could do. Taking a deep breath he opened his inbox, and clicked on the “Search” tab. He froze there for a few minutes, his fingers hovering over the keyboard uncertainly. Realizing that waiting was going to hurt him more than what he was about to read, he typed in “Maya Laptop”. The search returned one mail. One that he had sent to himself.
Ishaan braced himself for what was to come. The guilt. The regret. The dull pain that he always kept tucked away in some dark recess of his heart. The crystal clear memory of that fateful instant in which he ruined his own life. He read on,
“I want to fly, like a free bird. I think I was never meant to be encaged. I want to be a gypsy, a nomad, a wanderer with no idea where she might end up the next day. And someday, I want to fall in love. Deep, passionate, crazy love. Where I will want to throw myself away for him. I will melt, I will perish, I will burn in his love. But if he asks me to stay, I will say no. I will tear myself apart in pain, but I will not be caged. I will move on. And each waking moment I will nurture the pain of loving him. I will write for him, pages and pages, but he will never get to read them. I will fly, I will soar. I will keep writing all about how much I love him, and how magical it was to be with him. And I will write about the places I visit, the things I see, the people I meet and the songs I hear. Maybe someday I will meet him again, and it will be the most beautiful moment when I do. I want to give him so much love that all I am left will be an empty heart. I will be ruined, useless and hollow, with no love to give to anyone else”
Ishaan rubbed his eyes. Till that day he could never understand why he had done that. Sneaked into Maya’s laptop while she was away and snooped for clues about her life. About their life. And on finding this on her desktop, he had mailed it to himself so he could read it later. He’d never forget the way he had felt after reading it. It was like knowing about a strange new Maya he knew nothing about. Maya, the perfect wife. Docile, demure, delicate Maya. Gentle Maya, whose life was based on temperance. The Maya he knew never understood passion, or did she? For a few comforting hours he had consoled himself by saying it must not have been written by her. That she must have come across these lines on the internet and saved them. And then, Ishaan had made the second mistake of that day. Confronted Maya about it during dinner. And ironically, Ishaan shrugged, that was the only time Maya had really talked to him. For the first time in their two and a half years of marriage. Ishaan painfully recalled how Maya had patiently revealed all the ugly truth about their marriage. Everything that he had always known deep inside but had never wanted to admit. Maya had matter-of-factly stated how indifferent she was to their loveless marriage, and while she didn’t mind being with him, she wished she could be in love with him so much she wouldn’t be able to conceive life without him. She had went on about how everything in their marriage was perfunctory, and how she disliked the fact that she actually found solace in the perfunctory. Maya had smiled sadly and asked Ishaan if he remembered when they had fought for the last time. Ishaan hadn’t been able to think of one. And as he had sat there, his head cradled in his hands, Maya had silently walked away from him.
The phone rang for what seemed like the umpteenth time that morning, and Ishaan jumped out of his reverie. Glancing at his watch, he picked up the phone, and slammed it right back into its cradle. He was early, but he couldn’t stand being alone for a second longer. Ishaan stormed out of his office, almost knocking one of the secretaries off his way.
“Let’s take it from the top, okay? Why don’t you tell me what’s going in your mind right now? At this very moment?” Ayush said through a mouthful of fries.
“I am angry, and yet not at her anymore. And I wish I could be angry with her. I think I am angry with myself. But I wish I knew why” Ishaan ventured, speaking his thoughts aloud.
“You are one confused man, my friend” Ayush patted Ishaan’s back sympathetically.
“Oh, and I thought you weren’t a rocket scientist!” Ishaan snubbed “Look, if I hadn’t been confused I wouldn’t be sitting here with you. So you better tell me what’s wrong with me”
“Alright. Tell me the last thing you remember about her”
Ishaan sighed and thought for a while. Strangely enough, all he remembered was how she had looked on the day she had left him. She had been wearing a white kurta and her favorite pair of pale blue jeans, and her hair was done up in a loose bun. Her kohl was smudged around her eyes, and she had some kind of dangling earrings on. But her nose ring was twinkling in that late afternoon light, and all Ishaan remembered was how peaceful she had looked.
“I love her. I still do. But I don’t know if we were meant to be married” Ishaan conceded.
“Look Ishaan, she was young when you got married. And she herself said she didn’t know what she wanted. And even though everybody around you thought you were a fool to let her go, you knew it was the right thing to do, right?”
Ishaan nodded his head. He would never forget that phone call with his mother, when he had to explain to her just why Maya was going back home. “Don’t try to be a hero. This is real life, not a movie” his mother had warned him. If only his mother had any idea just how real it all felt, the coldness, the uncomfortable silences, the strained conversations. And the jealousy he felt each time she laughed at something someone else had said. He had tried to explain to his mother why it was important for Maya to know herself before she could be with him, but his mother had naturally stood by the sacrament of marriage. It had taken Ishaan a long time to bring his mother to terms with the fact that he had let go of Maya.
“You still believe it was the right thing to do?” Ayush asked, tentatively.
“Yes, I do. But I missed her so bad, Ayush. I had grown used to her, dammit. And now when I am finally okay alone, she calls me up and tells me she wants to meet me and I wonder if I can ever go back to being okay after meeting her. After seeing her walk away from me again”
“But you want to meet her. You want to see her”
“Like hell, man. Its been too long. But for all I know she could be wanting to talk about the divorce. You know, all this while we haven’t talked once, and at least I knew we are still married. What if this meeting is the last one? What if she says this is it? I would hate that!” Ishaan shook his head.
“Then just one question remains to be answered. Is seeing her once worth the pain of letting her go away from you again?” Ayush finally put in words what had been in Ishaan’s mind all the time.
Without waiting for Ishaan to answer, Ayush asked for the bill. Ishaan didn’t say a single word until both of them had to part in front of Ayush’s office.
“Let me know how it goes”, Ayush said.
“I will. Thanks” Ishaan said and hailed a taxi.
Ishaan was sitting on a table by the window in Someplace Nice at 7.30. He had battled with himself for hours before admitting to himself the choice was never his to make. This was Maya, his wife. Not meeting her was not an option. And while they had been separated, the separation was smooth. There were no frayed edges, no hard feelings. Only a pervading sense of emptiness. Maya had asked for a complete break, and Ishaan had respected her wishes. And now he was sitting there, waiting to see her after a whole year. He kept fiddling with his wine glass and the top button of his shirt alternately, and before he could absorb it in, she was standing right in front of her.
“Ishaan” Maya smiled and stretched out her hand for him.
At that very moment, Ishaan knew there was no turning back. She looked the same, and yet everything was different. Even her smile had changed, and it ached somewhere in his heart to see her smile at him like that.
Maya took her seat on the couch next to him, and Ishaan kept staring at her. Definitely different. The Maya he knew would have chosen to sit across the table in front of him.
“You look the same” Maya broke the silence.
“Yeah. Yeah. You too. I mean, you look beautiful” Ishaan mumbled.
Maya laughed that same tinkling laugh Ishaan had heard on the phone, and with surprise he realized that instead of making him angry, it made him want to laugh with her.
“I had forgotten how cute you look when you are confused” Maya smiled.
“You never told me that before” Ishaan replied
Maya waved her hand dismissively. “Let’s not bring in the ‘before’ bit Ishaan, please? I am here because I want to talk to you. Because we never really talked, you know?”
Ishaan smiled, for the first time that whole day.
“Seriously, but I really thought you would look different. I mean, in my imagination, you had this weird emo look, with a punk hairstyle and black nail polish and everything” Ishaan said.
“Oh, but that was me six months ago. Let’s see. Right after pixie hair cut and right before boho chick” Maya replied, with a very straight face.
“Boho chick?” Ishaan raised his eyebrows.
“You would have loved those braids and beads, Ishaan, I tell you!” Maya rolled her eyes.
Both of them laughed for a while, and just as suddenly as it started, it died off.
“This is a little weird” Maya ventured.
“Yeah. We are talking. And we are laughing”
None of them said anything for a while, and just let the feeling wrap itself around them till they were comfortable with it.
“So that makes it easy for me to say what I am about to say” Maya broke the silence again.
Ishaan suddenly felt his heart beat fast again. This was it. The moment he had been dreading.
“No. No. No. Please don’t Maya. Let’s just go back to talking and laughing again”
“But you have to listen to what I have to say Ishaan. This is what this evening is all about. Please”
Ishaan turned his head away, hoping it would stop Maya from telling him what she was about to.
“I met someone” Maya said, very softly.
There it was. Out in the open. Ishaan blinked again and again to stop his eyes from stinging.
“I know you must have heard the rumors but I am here to tell you they are true. I lived with him. For eight months.”
Maya took Ishaan’s silence as a signal to go on, and kept talking about how right after she left Ishaan she took off to Thailand, just for the heck of it, and how she met an Indian guy there. He was a painter, Maya said, and she had loved the romance of the whole thing. A new country, a new partner; it was like she had started life from scratch. She could do anything that caught her fancy, and while her parents wanted nothing to do with her, her brother supported her all the while. Maya went on about how she worked as a waitress, learned Tai Chi, tried her hand at writing and even took the job of an assistant at a tattoo parlor.
Ishaan could no longer hear what Maya was saying. He felt like his head was swelling to twice its size, his heart seemed to have decided to run a race with itself, and Ishaan was afraid it would give up any moment. He could not be listening to Maya’s escapades. Not his Maya’s.
Ishaan got up to leave.
“I… I have to go Maya. I am sorry” he heard himself say.
Maya looked up at him and reached for his hand.
“So now that you know everything you don’t want to be talking and laughing with me Ishaan?” she asked.
Ishaan stayed silent even though part of him wanted to yell out “Why? Why did you have to tell me all this? Why did I have to know?”
“Not even if I tell you that I finally know what I want?”
Ishaan slowly sat down. He found himself searching for the right words.
“Maya” he said, his voice almost a croak, “I am happy for you. You finally got what you wanted. But I am sorry if I can’t put myself through this anymore. If you deserve to be happy, so do I. And I was happy not knowing about everything that you have done in the last year. I let you go, and that’s where it should have ended. You had no right putting me through today”
Maya released his hand and nodded.
“I am sorry. For the millionth time. I guess I just wanted to know if you think any less of me now than you did a year ago”
Ishaan shook his head.
“Does it even matter?” he asked.
Maya looked into his eyes for an answer, and despite himself, Ishaan couldn’t help staring back into those deep dark eyes.
“You have changed” Ishaan finally said.
“Yes I have Ishaan. I am no longer the clueless wife wondering why she was married in the first place. I am no longer groping in the dark trying to find what it is to be in love”
“No… no more about you being in love Maya. If you have to go, just go. Just don’t ever come back again. You and your emo looks and your boho braids and your tattoos” Ishaan slumped down helplessly.
Maya half smiled. “I didn’t get a tattoo. I was chicken”
And just like that, Ishaan found himself wanting to smile.
“Chicken you are, I know. That’s why you ran away from me.”
“And that’s why I am here with you” Maya said.
Ishaan looked at her quizzically.
“You’ve learned how to talk in riddles, Maya” he said.
“I was scared, Ishaan, and I don’t want to be scared again. I remember wondering all the while if I had made a mistake. If the place where I ought to be was the place I had left. And most of all I was scared of being right about everything”
Ishaan kept staring at her without knowing where it was all headed.
“I didn’t want to be right, Ishaan. I so badly wanted to be wrong. And now I know I was”
“Huh?” was all Ishaan managed.
“I was all ‘Huh?’ too when it hit me. I don’t want to be anywhere else, Ishaan. Destiny, in its own weird ways, had put me right where I belonged, and all it took for me was a stupid crazy ride that went on for too long, to realize that I belonged right here.”
“Wait. So you are telling me you want to come back?” Ishaan finally managed to make some sense out of it all.
“I am back already Ishaan. What matters is if you will let me stay” Maya replied.
Ishaan thought for a while, and when he replied he found his voice unusually steady.
“A few minutes ago, I was dying for you to say these words. But now, I don’t know Maya. That’s because I don’t know you anymore. ”
“It’s okay. I never expected you to, actually. It’s truly okay”
Ishaan watched as Maya stood up to leave, and suddenly all he could think of was again how she had looked on the day she had left him the last time. True, this time she was wearing a denim skirt and knee length boots, but for all he cared, it was that day all over again.
“Wait” he said.
Maya turned back.
“Wait for me” Ishaan said again, and walked up to her.
As Maya adjusted the shoulder straps of her handbag, her tank top got lifted over her waist, and she hurriedly pulled it down, but not before Ishaan had noticed the wings of what looked like a phoenix inked in black across her back. Ishaan smiled. Docile Maya just turned into daring Maya with a phoenix tattooed across her back. This should be fun, he thought, as they walked into the busy streets.