Friday, May 15, 2009

bitter coffee

She sat sipping coffee and flipping through the pages of an old newspaper, heavy with the weight of depressing news and the wetness of the moisture laden Bombay air. It was one of those privileged tables set near the window, in a private corner. The world was open to you but yet you could crouch back and put off the momentous decision of facing it. She had chosen to face the window looking towards the sea from the upper floor of the quaint little cafe. It also gave her a chance to turn her back towards the world. The sea wasn't calm. It was swelling, grey and dark, like sorrow in a turgid heart. Like thoughts in an agitated mind. Or forbidden desires in a soul going to waste. Her heart, her mind and once, her soul too. The sky was overcast with black clouds ready to burst. The faint flicker of distant lightning lit up the sky every once in a while. The dust seemed to have settled down on the road below and the world seemed to be moving at an uneasy, sluggish pace. It seemed as if the anticipation of rain had drugged the entire world into a lazy, hazy stupor. Unconsciously heartbeats had slowed down, feet were being dragged, eyelids had become heavy and ears awaited the sudden rumble of thunder. Rain. Like an awaited lover, like a comforting blanket at the end of a hard day, like Christmas, like happiness.

As she set her coffee cup down, the delicate clink of china was greeted by the boisterous uproar of the thundering skies. Like a single note played on stage can cause the crowd to erupt in tumultuous waves. She smiled as fat, hot drops of rain rushed down to meet the yearning, arching earth. Sins were being washed away, life was being nurtured and childhood seemed to burst forth from every heart. Even she started feeling lighter, like the weight of a lonely evening was being lifted from her shoulders. As if the raindrops were tears shed freely.

The rain grew fiercer and soon her table was drenched. She stood up and turned to move to another table. And in that one moment her mind seemed to go in to a state of complete turmoil. Had time gone back a few paces? Or had it stopped completely? Why on this particular afternoon was this man sitting in this off-beat cafe in Bombay and looking at her across the room? Shouldn't he be in another city, another country, another world, another time? Hadn't that been another life?

He smiled. It was a polite, gentle smile tinged with a sadness that would never go away in entirety. A sadness that probably she could be held responsible for. She forced herself to smile back. She forced herself to keep standing on her own two feet. She forced herself to be in the same room and in the same world as him. He pulled out a chair. She took reluctant steps towards the table and sat down.

"So how have you been?", he asked. "You used to always complain that I never asked." Lonely, overworked, not the way i thought I'd be. "Fine" She replied. He smiled his sad smile and it hurt more than any amount of anger he could have poured forth. Maybe he knew it had that power. He called the waiter and ordered a chocolate-something-coffee. She noticed his hand as he ran his finger down the menu. "Would you like something?" he asked. She unseeingly pointed at something in the menu, her eyes still fixed on his hand, and the waiter nodded. "You are married." She  said. Not a question. Just something she needed to say out loud to understand the significance of the words. "Yes. I got married a few years back. I had sent a card to your address in Bombay. I didn't really expect you to come but it was surprising that you didn't even reply. Didn't you get the card?" "Actually, no" I replied. Words straining past her slowly closing throat. "I changed my house. And most of my friends." She laughed awkwardly. "I never thought you'd write to me. Wow. So this news for me. I'm happy for you."

They sat like that. Sad and stunned. Looking back at the past through separate windows. Their long years together. Her foolish mistake, his incredible tolerance. Her wrong decision, his unbearable sorrow. Her arrogant defiance, his gentle compliance. Their parting. Her end and his too.

The waiter reappeared and set their cups on the table. He gulped down his coffee. She could never really gulp down hot drinks but she decided to give it a try. She wanted to make a quick escape. One small sip of it made it clear that it was the most bitter thing she had ever tasted. She set her cup down and made a face. He laughed "I knew you hadn't even seen what your were ordering. Now look, its too bitter." "Yeah",  she agreed "It was a mistake to order it. " 

He called the waiter and asked for the cheque. She reached for her bag but he said "Let me." He paid, gave me one last smile, shook her hand and left. She sat there with her coffee and smiled a bitter smile. It had always been like this. He had always paid for her mistakes.