A flamboyant little sparrow after a flight from somewhere descends on the bough of a thickly leafed banyan tree that has been standing passively for centuries together; the riot of its colours and the dulcet notes of its song spread gaiety all around momentarily, before the bird flies away to no one knows where: that is how this story has come to my mind. Here it is.
Alighting from the car, he closed its window. Turning, he was about to walk away, when she came before him. A middle aged woman, streaks of milky white in her thick black hair. She smiled. While smiling, her lips tipped a little to one side, distorted slightly. But behind those tipping lips an even row of white teeth gleamed. He instantly recognized the smile which had dwelt in his memory. He too smiled.
“I won’t have recognized you but for your smile.”
“If you hadn’t given that vigorous shake to your head on alighting from the car, I too wouldn’t have recognized you. You jerk your head as if you are shaking off water in your hair!”
“How long it has been?”
“Some thirty years, isn’t it?”
Both of them broke into laughter.
A gentle wind spread the fragrance of memories of youthful love round them. “Are you going anywhere special?” asked Shekhar.
“No, just having my time out. I have come here after a long time. What about you, are you going on any errand?”
Hard as he tried, Shekhar couldn’t remember the task he had at hand. He was amazed at himself. “I’m free like a bird,” he said in a lighter vein. He spread his arms as if he were going to take a flight. Maya broke into a loud guffaw and said, “Then we can both fly together in the blue sky.”
Shekhar raised his head and looked at the sky. It looked as clear and blue as the mind of a Sufi saint: a blueness which gave his mind a unique awareness of the depth he had perceived after a long time.
Maya responded, “Anywhere you may like. The fun of flying lies in the flight, not in a direction.”
Shekhar guffawed. Opening the front door of his car, he said, “Then come, be my guest!”
The car glided on the smooth and plain surface of the road. Smiling, Shekhar looked at Maya as he drove the car. She was looking straight at the road in the front but was also smiling. “Do you remember the first time I told you of my love?” he asked. Maya gave him an intriguing look and parried, “Can such a thing be ever forgotten?”
Shekhar recalled the day. He had thrown a small party to some of his classmates and new friends from the college. When everyone was there he had revealed that it was his birthday. They all had congratulated him. Grabbing an opportunity of being alone with Maya, he had asked her teasingly, “Won’t you give me a birthday gift?” Maya had replied innocently, “I came here unprepared. How would I have known it’s your birthday today?” And he had countered, “But you do know now.”
Maya had said, “It’s all right. I owe you a gift.”
After that incident whenever he met Maya he would ask her, “Won’t you give me my gift?” And Maya would respond with a smile, “How do I know what you like.” It went on like this for many days. One day, standing on her doorstep, when Maya to his usual question said “How do I know what you like?” he didn’t end the charade at that. Instead, he recited a line from a popular Bollywood song, “Teri pasand kya hai yeh mujh ko nahin khabar, meri pasand yeh hai ke mujh ko hai tu pasand !”
Having taken the liberty, Shekhar didn’t stay even to notice how it had affected Maya. He had simply turned about and left the place without looking back.
Now driving his car, he was humming the same tune, teri pasand kya hai yeh mujh ko nahin khabar, meri pasand yeh hai ke mujh ko hai tu pasand!
Maya broke into laughter again.
“How did you feel when you heard me speaking like this for the first time?” asked Shekhar.
“But how did you feel having said this?” Maya asked him in turn.
Keeping quite for a few moments, he said, “Yes, it’s worth pondering. To tell someone that you love her, or to hear from the one you love discreetly that she too loves you – that should be quite heady!”
“You haven’t answered me how you felt when you first told me of your love,” Maya persisted.
“I didn’t feel much on that occasion except the harsh beating of my heart.” Reminiscing for a while, he added, “It’s like this. You don’t experience any pain or pleasure the instant something is happening to you. The present is so impatient that it passes into your memory the short while it takes you to utter ‘p’ of the word. You can hardly experience anything in such a brief and fleeting moment. The bitter or sweet taste of experience comes when the incident has been relegated to the bunch of memories. The moment I uttered those words before you, that moment passed away instantly. But long after that the euphoria induced by my utterance before you kept me spinning in thin air, flying higher and still higher in the sky, till I felt dizzy.”
Shekhar parked his car outside a hotel and ascending the stairs both of them sat in the chairs on the balcony. From here they could see the valley, traversed by a serpentine river, stretching far into distance; a thin bluish velvety mist weaving itself into the gentle breeze; and rows after rows of mountains in the background. On Shekhar’s orders, chicken patties and crisp saag-pakoras – which had remained Maya’s favourite snacks – were served with steaming hot coffee.
Shekhar found them delectable. Summoning a tall, fair and smart looking waiter, he said, “Yar, your snacks today are exceptionally delicious. Is there a change in the chef or you are trying out new recipes?
The waiter, whose face appeared to have been made for smiles, said, “Nothing of the sort, sir. The chef is the same and so are the standard recipes. Everything is as usual.”
Looking towards Maya the waiter’s smile became more radiant and he left their table beaming all the way.
With much delicacy, Shekhar put his hand over Maya’s hand on the table top and asked her, “Maya, now you also tell me. When I said I adore you, how did you feel?”
Maya contemplated the misty valley and said, “To tell you precisely how I felt then, words just won’t suffice. But you may recall that I was standing on the first step to the door of my house when you had said that. I knew you would say something like that the day you had asked me in private about my choice. Quietly, I was waiting for this to happen. You were not speaking out, but your face, your eyes; your whole body said everything to me. That day you said it at last and went away. I kept standing there, watching your receding figure. Then I went inside. I felt my house had a fresh coat of paint, I saw the leaves in the new flower pots had turned greener and the flowers grown brighter in colour, I found even the boring Vividh Bharati tune sounding so sweet, I saw how bright and beautiful were the eyes of the Baghadi maid who cleaned our utensils: I thought how worthy the life was to live.”
Then Maya turned her face towards Shekhar and placed her other hand on the top of Shekhar’s.
Looking into the fulgent eyes of Maya, who the golden light of the setting sun had rendered translucent, Shekhar said, “When love blooms in your bosom for someone, the whole creation endows you with the capacity to experience its ultimate beauty through that person. I too felt that in loving you I loved all the persons I had known till then.”
Shekhhar took a sip of the coffee. He chuckled at some old memory. Lightly pressing Maya’s hand, he said, “Maya, do you remember that incident of looking for a thief at the dead of night?”
Maya asked with a quizzical expression on her face, “Which one?”
“Dear, the same, when hearing a disturbance in the midnight, your neighbour’s servant raised a hullabaloo that some thief had entered your home. The entire neighbourhood, me included, had with blazing torches in our hands spent an hour and a half looking for the thief. But was there a thief! Who else had created that racket but me while jumping from your window?”
Shekhar laughed aloud, “The neighbourhood had gone to the extent of forming a vigilant committee to prevent thefts. Don’t you remember?”
Maya said with a smile, “You are mistaken. Neither can I recall any such event, nor did you live in my neighbourhood.”
“No, it’s you who have forgotten. Your people had changed their house and taken the one adjoining ours on rent.”
Maya kept her amused stance. Seeing that, Shekhar said, “Now don’t tell me you don’t remember even the day I called on your papa to ask for your hand.”
Maya’s smile now had a tinge of mischief in it. “All right! You tell me what had happened. May be, I’ll be able to recall.” She looked at Shekhar with curiosity. Shekhar spluttered into guffaws once again and casting mischievous eyes on Maya, he began, “I didn’t have the guts to speak to him. My friends, Joshi and Slathia found a way out. There used to be a bar in the bazaar on the spot where a lane starts for your home. They took me there, made me gulp down a peg of whiskey and sent me off to your place. But midway, I lost courage. They offered me another peg and pushed me back towards your home. But that too did not prove sufficient. In this manner I had downed as many as seven pegs before reaching the place. But by that time I couldn’t feel any difference between your home and your neighbour’s. I could feel nothing in fact. Abjectly woozy, I somehow managed to ring your doorbell. It was your papa who opened the door. Seeing him standing before me, I instantly bowed down to touch his feet as planned. I bowed so much as to fall on the ground. Your papa tried to get me up, but I was far too drunk….” Shekhar laughed again. Maya too laughed.
Shekhar added, “To this day I am not aware what all you had to suffer after that.”
Maya replied with a smile, “Why’d I have suffered? You are getting confused. You never came to my home like that. And there was no bar anywhere near my home.”
Shekhar’s mirth was checked a little. “How can it be that I never visited your home?”
Enjoying the situation, Maya laughed aloud and said, “You must have gone to someone else. Sozzled as you were, how could you know to whose father you had bowed.”
On Shekhar’s face astonishment had replaced laughter. He asked, “But you do remember the day when you pretended to have lost senses on drowning at the Goa beach and I had tried to revive you by mouth to mouth resuscitation?”
Maya replied, “No, I don’t remember.”
“And when I had passed you a love letter inside a sandwich and you had eaten it all?”
Maya said again, “No!”
Confounded, Shekhar asked, “Are you telling me the truth? Don’t you remember anything?”
Maya said, “It’s not a fault of my memory. Nothing of this sort has happened with me. It could have been some other girl, or girls. How should I remember?”
Shekhar’s predicament was fast turning into anxiety. Perceiving this, Maya chortled, “But Shekhar, you do actually remember all that?”
Shekhar nodded his head affirmatively and said, “Certainly.”
Maya said, “Fine. If you do remember it, then it matters little if anyone else remembers it or not. You live with your own memories, not someone else’s. If it is in your memory, then it is the truth for you. Don’t bother.”
Shekhar felt Maya was right. He watched for a while the valley that spread before him and drank deeply the intoxication of its breeze. Then he exclaimed, “What a splendid view!”
Maya asked, “Do you come here daily?”
Shekhar replied, “No.”
Maya enquired with surprise, “Why not?”
Shekhar replied, “I’m busy with other things.”
Maya asked with greater astonishment, “Can there be anything better to do than watching the spectacle of this valley?”
Shekhar wondered and said, “Perhaps not.”
Maya said after a while, “We must have a better view from the rooftop.”
Shekhar summoned the smiling waiter and asked him where the ladder to the rooftop was.
The waiter said, “Look there. It’s right in front of you.” They saw hanging before them was indeed a ladder made of thick ropes of colourful silk. Gauging Shekhar’s curiosity the waiter said, “The hotel has got it especially for the guests who want to watch the valley from above.”
Both of them left their chairs and walked towards the ladder. Maya was in the front. Holding the ladder, she began to climb. She had hardly climbed three or four steps when the silky rope slipped away from her hands. The ladder went free of her grip. But what was happening! Rather than falling on the ground, Maya began to soar towards the valley. And then flying away like some winged bird, she vanished altogether into in the misty valley. Shekhar could do nothing but watch.
Shekhar felt a jolt. The clamorous horn of a vehicle swiftly passing by had brought him back. He was standing beside his car, having closed its window only a moment ago. One of his hands was still on the lever of the car’s window. That middle-aged woman was coming towards him with the familiar smile.
Shekhar said, “Hello Maya!”
The woman asked in turn,”Hain?”
Shekhar hesitated a bit. He asked, “Are you Maya?”
She replied, “No.”
Shekhar jerked his head out of habit. But the woman didn’t say, “Hello Shekhar!”
In her eyes he didn’t see any light of recognition.
 “I know not who it’s you like; my liking is that it’s you I like.”