“No, no, no.” she said, “sixty rupees is too much. I am not traveling for the first time bhaiya. I know the rates.”
Countless human bodies were bustling all over the railway station. Some were trying to get into the train and others were trying to get out and still others were just loitering about the platform. It was a hot summer day. Like previous few years monsoons were late again. They had been working in accordance with the Indian Standard Time. The clouds would come and go without dropping a single drop of water. The air was humid, stale, filled with a peculiar smell.
Shikha had been arguing with the porter for last ten minutes. Finally, he agreed to carry her luggage for forty rupees She was proud of her accomplishment. She already knew that this saving would go towards her favorite Mc Donald’s aloo tikki burger that she had been missing for last three weeks of her stay in her hometown. As she stepped out of Shramjeevi Express she inhaled deeply. The smell of freedom and independence re-energized her. She happily meandered behind the agile porter.
Outside the railway station she hired a three-wheeler to take her to the Hostel. There again she tried to negotiate with the driver but this one didn’t budge. The three-wheeler started inching its way through other vehicles on the road. She opened her bag and took out her precious gift. The day before, on her twentieth birthday, her brother gifted her a new mobile phone. Shikha was the first female in her whole big joint family in Bareilly to get a new phone. Not only did she now own a mobile but also a smart phone. It was a prized possession for her. She was getting used to its working. She took some time before she could successfully connect and inform her father and her brother that she had reached Lucknow safely. She could not wait to show this gorgeous piece of equipment to her friends.
Alpu, Roli and Tanvi were her best buddies. All three of them lived in the city with their families. Recently, Roli got into Roorkee University’s Masters Program and was leaving that night for her orientation week. Tanvi and Alpu had decided to take Roli out for a surprise farewell party and celebrate Shikha’s birthday as well. She wanted to call them to announce her arrival and schedule the time of their reunion at Roli’s residence. But before she could take out the number and dial, the three-wheeler stopped at the College gate.
In her room she connected with Tanvi who was at Alpu’s place. They informed her that they were getting ready to go to Roli’s place. They agreed that they would meet at around three that afternoon and then they would go to Sahara mall. It had been recently inaugurated and it was supposed to be the hippest place in the whole city. Shikha had ninety minutes to get ready and reach the destination.
While freshening, she thought about her commute. It was bus vs. rickshaw; one hour fifteen minutes vs. forty minutes, five vs. twenty-five rupees; money vs. friends. She made her decision in favor of the company of her friends. The extra money spent was well worth the time she would be able to spend with her friends.
She was excited about her new red and black suit. It was a combination of black fashionable sleeve-less top with square laced neck and a black trouser with embroidery on the periphery. It was her birthday gift to self. She couldn’t wear it in her home-town as it was without sleeves. Nobody would have allowed her to wear it outside the house. She had been looking forward to the time when she would be in the hostel and have the freedom to do things and dress up according to her own liking.
Before exiting the room she quickly checked herself in the mirror and she realized something was missing. She forgot to put on the necklace that she bought to go with this outfit. She again looked in the mirror and felt a tickle in stomach. She looked beautiful in her new suit, jewelry, slight make-up and high heels. She could forget her accessories but she didn’t forget to pick her little wallet and her cell phone. She couldn’t forget her most cherished gift.
It was a big old two storied white-colored house with the big yard. The two metal gates at either end of the boundary wall were massive. The boundary wall was lined with palm trees, which made the house look like a hacienda. Three generations lived together in the same house. When Shikha reached Roli’s place, Alpu and Tanvi were already there. Four of them screeched in excitement. They hugged each other. Roli’s family members accepted their thrill and exhilaration with smiles. They were a joint family but not a conservative one. There was no one in the house that would comment, “look at these unruly, misbehaving girls, who is going to marry them?”
Roli’s mom was sweet as sugar. She had special affection for Shikha because of the fact that this young girl had lost her mom when she was just a kid. Shikha went and hugged her. Aunty immediately complimented her, “you look beautiful, sweetheart.” Shikha gloated and told her that she had designed it herself. Aunty appreciated it and showed interest in her talent. Shikha enjoyed her attention and her sweet gesture. She hugged her again and then moved back to her friends.
After a cup of tea and some light snacks they headed towards the mall. One of Roli’s older cousins was asked to drop the girls to the Sahara Gunj Mall. The girls were strictly instructed to come back in about two hours. Roli’s train was at 8:15 that evening. And they all nodded; laughed and rushed towards the white Maruti Esteem parked on the driveway. They couldn’t control their excitement of being together after a long time.
Roli sat in front with her brother Sheersh while other three girls sat at the back. Shikha was sitting by the window behind the driver’s seat. Alpu was between Shikha and Tanvi. As the car started, Shikha showed her new phone to her friends. They crazily welcomed the smart phone with lot of wows and ooooohs. Taking the phone in her hands Roli said, “It’s the same phone as Sheersh has.” Shikha told them about some amazing features the phone had that her brother told her about. They also clicked each others’ pictures to check its quality. In between the entire hullabaloo Shikha suddenly noticed the two pairs of eyes that were admiring her in the rear-view mirror. She could feel the tenderness and fondness in those look. She settled down on her place. The rest of the group continued checking the phone.
No one in the group noticed the color change on Shikha’s face. She felt her temperature rising. She wanted to hide somewhere and get away from those captivating looks. Sheersh understood her uneasiness and tried to look away. It was hard for him to resist the emotions he was feeling for the girl sitting behind him. He couldn’t concentrate on his driving. He almost missed the red traffic light and suddenly pressed the brakes at the last minute. The car stopped with the jerk. Girls propelled forward. Shikha’s hand involuntarily touched his shoulders to get some support. The two looked at each other and smiled. Roli complained, “What’s up dude? Where are you looking?” Sheersh just couldn’t say anything. For few seconds he fumbled and the only words that came out of his mouth were, “I love you.”
Roli gave him a curious look, shrugged her shoulders and said, “What’s wrong? Are you alright?” He heard the girls giggling at the back. He was embarrassed. He checked his mirror, Shikha was quiet. She was looking outside the window. He wanted to get off this situation quickly. To his rescue, the Mall was close by. He took a right and there they were at the gate. Before his sister could ask anything else he stopped the car and got out and opened the rear door where Shikha was sitting. All the girls got down and Roli turned back and gave her brother a confused look. He waved in return and yelled, “I am sorry.”
Four of them went inside the mall. Mesmerized by the size and the lights and the shops they looked all around. Shikha looked around as well but she was looking for something else. She couldn’t help thinking about Sheersh. At times she felt that he was somewhere there and was looking at her with same love and affection. The girls went into the Bowling Alley to try their hand at the new exciting game. Even before they could learn to target the pins, one hour was gone. It was time to eat and then head back home. They ambled towards their favorite joint; Mc Donald.
As somebody had said, “Ice cream is happiness condensed.” The girls finished their meal and headed to ice cream parlor. With ice cream cones in their hands they jumped to the topic of going back home. Tanvi and Alpu knew that they would head home together as they lived close by. While Shikha was weighing her options when Roli asked her, “Hey why don’t you come along and spend rest of the time with me?” Then she quickly added, “and we can ask Sheersh to drop you to College later.” She rolled up her lips to hide her smile on listening his name again. She succeeded in hiding the joy from her friends. She calmly nodded her head and murmured “okay.”
Sheersh was playing ball with his younger cousins when Roli and Shikha entered the gate. Roli just hurried to her room to complete her last minute packing and Shikha followed her footsteps. Before stepping into the house, she turned back to check Sheersh’s expression. And she was right; he was looking in her direction. He quickly turned her head towards the kids to avoid being caught. Mechanically she climbed the stairs. She was not in her present; she was caught in the dumbfounded expression he gave her a minute before. She chuckled. She didn’t realize when her smile changed into a laugh.
Roli stopped and looked back at her friend. She asked, “What’s so funny? Is there anything that I should be knowing about?” Shikha returned to her senses, she tried to change the topic, “Oh! nothing, I was thinking about the cake that you baked for the competition last month. It was yummylicious!!! Please teach me how to do it once you are back from Roorkee?” Roli graciously accepted the compliment and added, “I just baked but it was Sheersh’s recipe. He guided me through the whole thing.”
That was Sheersh. He looked at Shikha first and then at his sister, “How much time, before we can leave for the station?”
“I will be ready in no time,” Roli answered. Then she looked at Shikha and asked “Hey Bro! Can you please give her the recipe for the cake that we baked last month?” She left the room and without looking back she continued, “I will be back in a few.”
Sheersh was in high spirits. He couldn’t ask for more. His wish was granted. The two of them were alone in the room. They looked at each other and he started talking about the recipe. While he talked about the cream, sugar and flour, Shikha tried to calm down her nerves. And within few minutes she felt comfortable; she was the same, talkative, outgoing girl that everybody knew of.
After about ten minutes, when Roli entered her room, she found her friend and cousin engrossed in a serious discussion. They were arguing about the option of using Mascarpone cheese versus cream cheese for the cake’s icing. Roli was surprised to see Sheersh talk so much. He was generally quiet and shy type of a person. She had never seen him being so communicative and open with anyone. She coughed and cooed to get their attention.
Roli raised her eyebrows and gave them an inquisitive look. Both of them just kept quiet. Sheersh pulled out his phone from his back pocket and showed it to Shikha. Roli was right, it was the same phone that she had. Same color, same make and incidentally they had the same screen saver too. All the while, Roli attended to her last minute packing, two of them were busy discussing the phone. No body came forward to help her. She tried to get their attention but to no avail.
Finally, Roli locked her suitcase and yelled, “Sheersh, can we go now, please?” She looked at Shikha and said, “You came to spend time with me, haaaan???” The couple was pulled out of their ‘la-la-land’. Sheersh lifted the suitcase and went downstairs. Roli and shikha followed him.
Roli poked Shikha with her elbow and asked “What??? What is with you guys?”
With a grin Shikha answered, “He is smart and he was just telling me about the phone. By the way he likes cooking too.”
“So, what? I know that.” Roli said.
Shikha looked at her helplessly and didn’t know what to tell her. She thought to her, “How can I tell you that I am falling for your brother.”
Roli broke the silence and told her “Okay, I want to hear everything, soon.”
She stepped out and patted on Sheersh back “On our way, let’s drop Shikha at the hostel.” Shikha interrupted, “No, no, I will go by myself, please don’t bother. Hostel is out of the way and you have a train to catch.” Roli’s mom insisted, “it’s getting dark and you should not be going alone.” Sheersh wanted to spend some more time with her, he suggested, “we can drop her on our way back.” Roli quickly added, “No, no, it would be too late by then. Hostel gates close at 8:30.” Shikha said, “okay, just drop me at the Aliganj round about and from there I will take a rickshaw.” Everybody concurred to this plan.
Everybody came out to say bye to Roli and her dad, who was traveling with her. Shikha went to Roli’s mom and promised that she would come back, as soon as Roli is back from her orientation. Sheersh and his brother Sunny loaded the luggage in the car. Roli’s dad sat in front. Sunny took the driving seat. Sheersh quickly jumped in and sat beside Shikha. Roli touched her mom’s and her grand mother’s feet and then came and sat in the car. Nobody notice, but Sunny felt strange when he saw his brother sitting between the two girls. Sheersh had never liked it and they have had many arguments about it. He looked at his brother through the rear view mirror and was about to offer him his seat. Sheersh moved forward and signaled him to be quiet. Sunny did as he was asked. He knew something is going on. He knew Sheersh more than anyone else in the family did.
Distance between the station and the house was about forty minutes but because it was office time, the roads were crowded and car was not moving too fast. Sunny tried to twist and turn to get through. Most of the time the passengers in the car were quiet. Roli’s dad asked her about the documents and the tickets that she was supposed to carry. Sunny tried to pick up the speed whenever possible. Because of car’s abrupt motions Sheersh and Shikha’s hands touched each other often. They smiled. Sheersh took her fingers and interlaced it with his. She didn’t move her hands away. She enjoyed his touch. Sunny kept an eye on his brother and soon he was able to figure out that his brother has fallen for his sister’s friend; the girl sitting right next to him. “Not a bad choice! Bro,” Sunny thought to himself.
After about twenty minutes, they reached the round about. It was the time to say goodbye. Shikha picked up her little wallet and phone and walked out to the other side of the car. She hugged her friend and said, “all the best.” Roli asked Shikha to be careful and informed that she would call her as soon as she is on the train. Shikha waved. Car passed by but she stood there for few minutes waving. Sheersh glanced back from the rear window and saw her smiling. He swung out of the window and waved back at her passionately. He surely loved the last glimpse of his new friend. Roli’s dad was oblivious of his surroundings; he was busy with his files but the three siblings just looked at each other and smiled.
Shikha stood at the corner of the road until she couldn’t see the car anymore. It was hard for her to let Sheersh go away. She was already missing him. She decided to walk instead of taking a rickshaw. The money that she had spent that day was enough for one day. There was no point in going to the hostel before the lockout time. She remembered the shorter route that one of her hostel mate once mentioned. If she took this alternative route it would take about twenty minutes to reach the college back door. She checked the time. It was about ten minutes to eight and she had enough time to be there. She started walking towards the lane.
It was an isolated narrow alley. It had lofty walls on the two sides of the road looked like the boundary of some palatial manor. The streetlights were lighted now. Very few people passed by. The few that passed her looked at her questionably. She was beginning to get nervous but she reminded herself that there is nothing to worry about soon she will be in her college compound. She kept walking steadily. On the right side of the intersection she noticed few young men smoking outside a small convenient store. It was hot but mindlessly, she wrapped her stole around herself and covered her slender, bare arms. As she walked by the shop she heard a voice, “Hello, madam do you need help?”
She cussed them under her breath and turned left. She was walking as fast as she could. After going few yards into this alley she realized that this might not be the road that her friend told her. It was taking her away from the college. Soon her fear came true the alley was closed and she could not go any further. She checked the watch it was ten past eight. In twenty minutes the gates would close. It was then that she began to panic. She didn’t know where to go? Which alleyway would take her to the college? Whom to call?
She was reminded about her phone. She took a deep breath and tried to remember few people whom she could call and ask for help. She wanted to call Sheersh, she felt being close to him. She dearly remembered him. In spite of her longing for him, She couldn’t call him. She felt stupid because they didn’t exchange numbers. The only option was to call her college friend who suggested the alternate route. Holding the phone in her hands she tried to unlock the phone. “What the heck???” she murmured.
It was not her phone. It was Sheersh’s. “When did that happen?” That was not important. She felt like crying. Retracing her journey backwards means that she had to cross those bunch of goons again. She was scared. She didn’t have the time. And even if she gathered the courage of doing that she would be late to reach the college. She couldn’t think of anything. She didn’t have much of a choice. She started her backward journey.
She knew she was in a big mess. How is she going to get her phone back? Will the gatekeeper open the door? Will he call the warden? The warden would probably kill her. She didn’t look forward to any of that. Only thing she wanted was to see Sheersh. She was missing him badly. She wished to be with him at that time. Nothing would make her happier than his company. She was engrossed in her thoughts when she approached the convenient store cross-section. Those guys were still there. Sweat trickled down her forehead. Hiding her fear she crossed them with a straight face.
They recognized her, somebody said, “Madam, is in trouble. Let’s help her out.”
Shikha felt that somebody was following her. She didn’t dare to look back but increased her pace and tried hard to get of that secluded alley. She heard some footsteps behind her. They had increased their pace as well. Her legs were hurting. It was hard for her to run in high heels.
“I will drop you madam.” She heard the same voice that she heard fifteen minutes back at that corner. “Where do you want to go?” he continued. She was now running like she had never done in her whole life. She didn’t care about his dress, or her shoes, or her feet; she just ran. Soon, she was able to see the end of the alley. Some rickshaw-pullers were still standing there.
By the time she reached the main road, she was breathing hard. She leaned forward. Her stomach was hurting. She had twisted her ankle. She scrutinized her surroundings. Few people were walking by. There were some fruit sellers on the sidewalk. The two guys were standing in the dark corner of the alley.
She hopped towards the round about.
“I’ll be there for you.” She heard the Friends title track. It was coming from the phone. She looked at it; it was showing her number.
She quickly picked up the phone. Sheersh was on the other side of the line, “where are you? Why are you huffing and puffing? Is everything alright?” He asked all the questions in just one breath. “Say something,” Sheersh said.
“I am alright, my phone is with you.” Shikha said slowly.
“I know that. Roli just hung up, she was trying to call you and then I realized that our phones have exchanged. Where are you?”
“Same place where you dropped me,” She said
“We are close. Stay there and hold tight.” Sheersh answered anxiously.
“Please be with me,” she whispered.
The phone disconnected but she felt safe. Soon she would have the most cherished gift of her life.