Maya was spoilt. She always had been. She was seventeen years old and in her first year of college. No one could honestly call her beautiful, but with her brown eyes, sweetheart chin, and glossy dark hair framing a heart-shaped face, she was not unattractive. The quality, however, which endeared her to one and all was her impish smile which seemed always to hover on her lips , ready to break out at the least provocation. She used it to get her way with everybody, and nobody, beginning with her babyhood ayah, and right through her life,her parents, friends and teachers, was able to resist it. The latest victim to its fatal fascination was the pleasant well-meaning young Ramesh, who was her classmate, and who would have done anything for Maya with one snap of her fingers.
College in Mumbai was a joke. You entered class from the front door, sneaked out as soon as the roll-call was over and you were marked present and then off to the restaurant right outside which tolerated her and her gang of friends arguing about T.S.Eliot, Albert Camus, and everyone's guru...Jean-Paul Sartre. Over mountains of bhelpuri, and rivers of lassi, the arguments continued endlessly. Between the true believers, secure in their elaborate rags and hippiedom and what you would call the nerds,in their neat and proper shirts and pants, trying to find a philosophy of life that would stick. But when all this got too boring, or if Maya said so, they would troop off to the neighboring theatre to watch Audrey Hepburn fall madly in love with Gary Cooper in "Love in the Afternoon".
Her long list of beaus was a constant source of amusement to Maya. She flirted and flitted from one to the other as easily as a butterfly.Though she played havoc with the hormones and feelings of these pseudo young male intellectuals, she herself was never susceptible to their charms.Carelessly breaking hearts, she never gave it a second thought, preferring to think about a magnificent love just like the movies.This basic romantic attitude wrapped her in an innocent cocoon of protection, so she was almost unaware of what was happening around her.Once one sturdy handsome young politician -to- be (he said his family was only allowed to wear khadi and that too registered khadi whatever that meant) whispered to her, I can't take it any more. She saw his face through the smoke-screen of his cigarette and laughed in his face. Seriously, she had no idea what he was talking about.
Though young, and quite inexperienced, Maya had a very sharp, analytical mind as well as a flair for histrionics.Whenever she met a new guy, she would shrewdly size him up. And label him, though sometimes the labels were mixed. The playboy, the intellectual, the god's-gift-to-women, the spiritual seeker, the mama's boy, and many more categories mixed and matched.She had her art down to a T. As soon as she had sized up her prey, she knew exactly which role she had to play.The next few weeks would have her guilelessly quoting from Ghalib, looking up and under the lashes at the chocolate-faced movie buff or sweetly serenading the he-man about how she was saving herself for the guy she married. That was actually true. Sex had no place in her life right now.Gloria Steneim and feminism did.This was the sixties, remember.Soon, the man would be a total gone-case, head-over-heels and completely at her mercy. Which was when she lost all interest.And moved on to the next one.Come on, she was only seventeen.
She was at this time, busy using her technique on Anil.He was a soft target. He belonged to the increasing numbers of daddy-enriched young men, who fancy that they have the answer to everything.How to pay off that traffic cop, where to get that green high, how to 'patao' girls. He and his like conformed to the pattern of non-conformists.For all their talk of Gandhi and poverty, they actually believed only in the pursuit of pleasure.They called themselves the Indian Hippies, in pursuit of the nirvana of life.And this is how they did it. This was the age of innocence, remember?
They dressed in torn clothes, dirty too. Frayed cuffs, garish colors, with the females also joining them in style-less sarees, smoking what they called joints.Beards on the weak chins and weird hairstyles were the rage. They believed in standing out from the regular, boring humans and they did. They spoke their own language, a mixture of English, Hindi, American and their own Mumbai slang.Every evening, they gathered at this nightclub called the Hippie Holiday, sat at their table and smoked, talking about Rajneesh and free sex. It was mostly talk though, because they actually came from really conservative families and the talk lasted only till they got home for dinner. A true rebellion it was not, maybe a practice for a future one.
Maya sat with her gang of friends, secure in the attentions of the good Anil. He hung on her every word, painfully trying to create an impression.It was a Wednesday evening, Maya sipped from a soulless nimbu-pani and realised that she was getting really bored.She watched her friends as they danced on the floor, and saw how they were deliberately using intricate and unconventional steps, being as non-conformist as they could.They conformed to their principle, never do as others do. She glanced around idly when she found herself looking into the amused eyes in the face of a young man.
The man was sitting at a table opposite theirs and what could be seen of him, namely chest and broad shoulders was attired in neat and conventional evening dress.For some reason, Maya was disconcerted.She breathlessly plunged into a hilarious account of some amusing incident that had taken place in college that day, and reduced everybody at her table to helpless laughter. Some of the laughter fueled by what they were smoking and drinking went on beyond what the humor warranted.She herself did not join in the general mirth but observed the young man opposite her surreptitiously.He continued to watch them with amused eyes and unsmiling lips.
Her friends continued with their lively talk and raucous laughter but Maya kept turning from time to time to look at the infuriating young man.Why was he staring at her so! She glanced down at her bright saree and the careless choli which clashed with it.A twinge of embarrassment came over her, but the next moment she looked at him defiantly.So what if her clothes were not quite the thing? It was none of his business anyway. And yet, on the way home, Maya felt somehow that her day was definitely spoilt for her.
The next day, she felt an irresistible impulse to show the young man that she could dress as well as him. She chose a powder blue ensemble that made her look pathetically young and appealing. The moment they reached the club, she found her gaze anxiously scanning the tables for her young man of yesterday. She felt a momentary pang of disappointment as she did not catch sight of him, but brightened immediately as she saw him sitting at the same table as before, with his chin cupped thoughtfully in one hand and elbow resting on the table. It appeared to Maya that an approving look crept into his eyes at the sight of her in her sober clothes and neatly done hair. She became disproportionately happy.
Throughout that evening she paid half-hearted attention to her companions while she kept glancing at the young man, hoping he would smile at her. Why did he not smile at her and make no attempt to make her ascquaintance, when he was so obviously attracted by her? As time passed Maya became more and more piqued.She got up to dance with her flavor of the month, Anil! As they passed the table where the young man was seated, she purposely looked up provocatively at Anil and gave one of her enchanting smiles, inclusive of everybody and his uncle. He was totally unmoved!
The next day, she made up her mind to swallow her pride and make the first move.She had tossed and turned through a sleepless night and waded through a dragging day of lectures of which she heard not a word.She was eagerly waiting for the evening.She dressed carefully and left off her usual bright makeup in favor of a pale pink lipstick and a dab of powder.Surely, the Man would not find anything objectionable about her today.
Her heart was hammering painfully when she saw him sitting at his usual place. Her friends were louder than usual and somehow their talk began to get on her nerves. Oh, why did he not smile at her? He had only to smile and she would take the cue from there onwards. She had already made discreet inquiries among her friends but it was all of no use as none of them knew him or about him.She decided it was now or never. Taking all her courage into her hands, she turned towards him and gave him a fascinating I-like-you-tremendously-speak-to-me smile. But there was no answering response from him. Was she mistaken or did she detect a frown on his calm face? He had turned now and was speaking to the waiter. She could feel a flood of pain and hurt washing over her. Did he hate her so much then?
Day after day, this state of affairs continued. She had become thinner and almost unrecognizable as the carefree, flirtatious Maya of old.There were shadows under her eyes. Day and night, she tortured herself with unanswered questions. Could it be that he found her not the least bit attractive? Why then did he stare at her so? She could hardly understand this new, quiet , sad-eyed girl in place of the mischief-maker of old.Just speak to me, she thought wildly, and I will become whatever you choose me to become. I will be happy anywhere, doing anything, if only you would look at me with approval in your eyes.
She thought that she had reached the deepest depths of suffering.But, one evening, it was almost more than she could stand.A young and very beautiful young woman had stopped at his table to speak to him and he was smiling up at her.After a few minutes, the poised, well-groomed young lady had walked away but Maya was shaking in an agony of jealousy.So far, she had not lost hope, thinking that the battle required to be won was to overcome her own shortcomings, but somehow it had never ocurred to her that it could include another woman's perfections. She was tortured. Her pillow was wet with tears that night.But she had come to a decision.
The next evening, she went alone to the club.She was much earlier than usual.But the Man was already seated at his table.She beckoned the waiter and handed him a note to be given to him.She had written" I must speak to you. Please do not refuse". She watched him anxiously as he read the note.He looked for a moment as if he wanted to run away. Instead, he signalled to her to come over to his table.Her heart soared happily as she went forward.In a moment, she was sitting at his table, while word upon nervous word of confession was released from her. She was beyond caring. She had never been very conventional anyway.
A tender smile curved upon his face. He held her hand on the table.He spoke then, gently and quietly. "Believe me, I love you too! I have loved you from the first day I saw you. With your wind-blown hair, your startling clothes, the giddy peals of your laughter...all of you!". She was in the seventh heaven of joy, when some indefinable something in his face checked her and brought her back to earth.She could not stop herself. She had to know. "Why did you never speak to me before? Was it because you were shy? Or did you think Anil was my fiance? Believe me, you could not be more mistaken. Or", and here her lips quivered." Are you m-m-married? Even if you are, I don't care.As long as you love me and me only....". But she could not continue.
With an expression that seemed to hold all the sorrow of the world, he looked away. His face showed calm resignation.He seemed to have passed beyond despair as he leaned across the table to plant a kiss on her forehead."Goodbye, my love,"he whispered. He then signalled the waiter that he wanted to leave. In a matter of seconds, two waiters had brought the chair to the table, lifted the man carefully into it, and covered his useless legs with a blanket.They then whirred him out on his wheelchair.