It was early evening on a warm and humid August day with a now patchy, now clear confused sky – typical of the Delhi monsoon. The sun was tugging at the remaining day much like an old man tamely pulling along his load. Everything about this day reiterated a sense of drabness, as if the day had camaraderie with all things boring - even the rain clouds seemed to be reluctant to give away the water drops they held in their bosom. It would rain though, at the least opportune time. The weather had that strange reassuring air about it.
It was Ramzaan and like every year, I was fasting. This day seemed merely a mirror of my state of abstinence. I was going to the Dargah of Nizamuddin Aulia, later, or so I hoped. We had carelessly and rather spontaneously planned it last week.
"Thursday Qawaali and you can open your fast there. It will be fun, na?" she had said trying to unnecessarily convince an already eager me.
"Yes it will be", I had nodded in agreement.
"I went so often during college, almost every Thursday. This friend and me." she said keeping things vague, still.
"Is it as dreamy as they say it is? I’ve probably been there as a kid but have only a very fleeting memory left. So haan, we could go and hopefully it will be worth the trouble," I replied.
"Brilliant! We are going then, YAY!!" Her face lit up like the nargis flower she loved so much and she looked at me with a child like exuberance. "It will totally be worth it, I promise!" she added. I believed her. I don’t think I had an option.
I did have a few reservations about our plan. I have as much a penchant for cultural hobnobbing as the next guy, and you can barely believe Delhi’s vision of Sufi Qawwali being sung in a quaint courtyard against the moonlit Tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddiln. Celluloid has always been the hyperbole for the breeze drunk on soulful Sufi couplets; all of it could turn out to be a little less enchanting. The template can never live up to such subjective glorification.
I was sure it would be an experience, maybe even fun, but Dargahs, mandirs, churches and crowded places always make me edgy. I questioned my initial eagerness about the plan. I didn’t know why I was obsessing about this so much. Then I remembered.
Nothing mattered, the crowd, the unpredictability of the weather, my latent agoraphobia …. What mattered was meeting her, spending a few solitary moments with her. I seemed to have found a little bit of myself in her. Pieces I had left far behind on the way to “growing up”, unable to understand them and shoulder the responsibility of everything they wanted me to be. I had rebelled against them as some sort of poetic self destruction. They all came sweeping back to me like wild blossoms bursting forth in the spring. I didn't know if what I felt was love or platonic affection, but seeing that smile on her face made me gush like a little child inside. It was gratifying.
At that point of time she could have asked me to sit with her in a park and listen to crows croaking and I would have, very happily and willingly.
I floated back to my office workstation, I returned to the document I had been working on. I needed to get this done. As things stood, the plan was still on and I did not want to be late.
I answered some mail and then again let my mind wander a bit. The world in my head made so much more sense, it was my refuge, my place to withdraw from this one. Its complexities, its severities and my own existential angst.
Half an hour later, I was almost done. Almost Five!! Why hadn't she called?
Would it happen? Had she changed her mind? Had something come up? Had she forgotten her cellphone? Was it out of battery? Had the entire communications infrastructure in Delhi been annihilated by some aberration of nature and chosen this very moment to manifest itself!?? Why was the world so against me?? Why was this happening?
As I silently obsessed about the grave injustice being meted out to me, my phone rang...
I saw her name flicker on the screen; broke out of my self-indulgence and picked up my phone.
“Hey”, I said in an almost whimper. I left half my voice in my epiglottis. I cleared my throat and repeated, “Hey…wassup?” Louder this time.
“We’re still on, na? Or should we chuck it?”, she inquired.
“Yes…Yes…we are on”, I blurted out in a hurry lest I give her time to change her mind.
“So you come to my office and park there. We’ll take an auto rickshaw. Parking at Nizamuddin will be hell,” she said.
“We could just drive there. I’m sure we’ll find a parking spot,” I tried to negotiate. I wasn't trying to be a snob, but the chance of rain was still on my mind, and I thought the car would be a more viable option if it did start pouring. Auto rickshaws are a menace to deal with when it rains.
But she would have none of it.
“Have you been to Nizamuddin recently??” she asked.
“No,” I replied. I knew where this argument was going.
“Trust me…stick with my idea. Don’t be such a bore. Get out of your car for once and see the world, bhayee” she retorted.
“OK! Don’t give me unnecessary grief over this. We will stick to your plan,” I responded.
“Great! Get here and call me when you’re close. I will get out of office accordingly”
“Cool,” I replied as I ended the conversation.
I got into my car, and backed out of the office parking. I was calmer, only slightly; maybe it was the surety of seeing her or just the tranquility that came from hearing her voice. Maybe it was both. She never complained that I was late, but she made it her duty to subtly hint to me that I was. Maybe I would reach on time, and make a statement for a change.
I made my way through the evening office traffic, snaking and maneuvering, praying for as many green lights as possible. Not many came. Damn! I was late again.
I called her as soon I was close enough to her office and picked her up.
‘Heyyyy!’ she said stretching the last vowel as she sat herself next to me.
“Park your car at Mehar Chand or behind Habitat Centre. Both places are safe. Will be easier to get an auto from there too. You know where they are na?” she suggested.
“I love Habitat. In the evenings these days it’s so green and the contrast with the brick walls…sooooooo pretty, haina? she added, more as notes to herself ,than anything else.
I readily followed her instructions and parked the car. Soon enough we found an auto and made our way towards Nizamuddin. I don’t usually find myself in an auto, and this did seem very novel in a reminiscent of college kind of way. It was if nothing else - liberating. I was so used to driving, that being driven was somewhat of a relief.
Sitting in the auto, we finally got time to exchange pleasantries. She talked about her day and asked me about mine and if I was feeling hungry. I told her I was used to fasting, so I wasn’t hungry. In half an hour, I probably would be but for now, it was okay.
I looked at her and I realized how uplifting it was to see her face. She was speaking to me and the auto driver intermittently, giving him directions. She was rarely quiet. Even when she was, she was half in conversation and half in thought. I listened to her intently, savoring the moment and wishing it would last a little bit longer.
“Sorry I got late”, I said in a bid to seem relevant.
“That’s ok. I just hope we can get there before sundown, I want to be there at Gowdhuli – it’s magical” she replied.
“I think we should be able to, not much further now,” I said.
“Hmmm…” her voice trailed off with the passing breeze.
We reached Nizamuddin with the sun stealing away behind the façade of the Delhi skyline. The time was perfect – gowdhuli – when beasts of burden came home. The sky was an echoing tangerine halo softly caressing the fluffs of floating clouds. The riot of colors only slightly disturbed by streaks of grey.
We stopped near the Nizamuddin Police Station and began walking into the abyss of narrow alleys that led into the Dargah.
The alley was bustling - children, burqa clad beggars, hawkers, devotees, huge ‘degs’ full of biryani, tandoori chicken hanging in droves and then us, adding to this carnival. The Ghalib Academy was another 50-80 meters ahead, ironically thronged by Ghalib ignoramuses. I rubbed my fingers into my palms, nervous energy flowing through them and wiped their moistness against my trousers. Nothing more repelling than damp hands!
We continued down our path, and the lane gradually started narrowing even further. We walked past a slew of shops selling everything from garments, ittr, dry fruits and sweets to sundry grocery items, beaded jewelry, and books. The entrance to the Dargah was lined with mongers and shops selling flowers, miniature Qurans and chaadars. We negotiated with one of the shopkeepers to leave our shoes for a nominal fee and proceeded to enter the Dargah.
The Dargah courtyard was a sea of human bodies, characteristic of a headless beast. Moving in no particular direction, sometimes forward, sometimes back, but always moving. We stood there helpless, swaying as currents of people passed around us. It was then that my worst fear materialized. It began to rain, a slight drizzle at first that burst into a full-fledged shower. This lasted for a few minutes, that was all that was needed.
She stood slightly behind me, more to avoid being swept away by the incoming mob. I decided we needed to get out of this herd and find a quiet corner to sit. We could wait there till the Qawwali began. I stretched out my hand and led her towards Amir Khusrau’s tomb; I could see it was less crowded there. Our feet by now were trampling over what I could only believe was a squishy mash of banana skin, rice, maybe even some gravy and general muck. Our squelching feet and wriggling toes finally got out. We found a vacant spot right behind the tomb and sat down. We both looked at each other and sighed. I smiled and she giggled, half embarrassed at the filth she had just subjected both of us to. It was the first time that evening my eyes found hers.
And there it was…that look! Her almond shaped, kohl lined eyes, benign yet haunting, discreet yet so unapologetically intrusive. Like nothing about me was hidden from her. I was laid bare. As disconcerting as that was, it was also captivating. No pretences, no masks, I could just be. She used her dupatta to wipe the rain drops from her face and I sat there watching her like a dumb struck idiot. The way her hands moved, her ear rings gleaming against her dusky cheeks, the black chikan kurta, the gold nose ring all came together as effortlessly as the diamonds that adore the dark night. I forgot entirely that I had to break my fast. In my head I think I also grimaced at the thought of how filmy all of this seemed.
We sat there for a while as I tried to come to terms with the consortium of emotions that I was experiencing.
“Here eat these and open your fast,” she said breaking the silence.
She had carried dates with her and a bottle of drinking water. It was extremely thoughtful and I might have even deemed it unnecessary, but I didn’t argue. I recited the dua for breaking my fast, ate the dates and drank some water.
“Some food in my system should do me good and maybe stop this throbbing in my chest,” I thought as I chuckled to myself.
“What? What’s so funny?” She interrogated.
“Nothing…it was really sweet of you to do this. Thank you!” I replied trying to deflect her question.
“Hmmm…ismay thank you waali kya baat hai? Nahi karte kya? Bhooke rehne dete?” she answered back.
“Tum bhi gadhe ho” And that was that.
“This is not so bad,” she said.
“True, it could have been a lot worse!” I replied matter of factly, smiling a little because of the evident humor.
We sat that for a while, waiting for the Qawwali to begin, making small talk about the weather and other sundry interests. It was as if our eyes were speaking another language and our words another. Both of us wanting to say the same thing, but neither really being able to.
To top this state of confusion, there was an elderly man sitting next to me who after fighting with one of the senile occupants of some living quarters within the Dargah, began talking to me. He began narrating his journey that had begun from Bhopal and would end in Ajmer. He apparently thought my pockets were overflowing with money. He said he had run out of money and requested if I could give him some so that he could continue his journey to Ajmer. I promptly said ‘No’. Like I would be that gullible! I decided it was better to move from this spot before any more peddlers found their way to me.
“Will we remember all of this…as in today…will we remember it or will it be just another random incident that gets archived to some isolated corner of our mind??” She asked, catching my totally off-guard.
I didn’t know what to say. There was silence for a while as I just stared at her searching for my tongue.
Then slowly the words came out and as they did, they also gave me the clarity I had been searching for all this while.
“I can only speak for myself but I will always remember today.” I said.
“Not because of the obvious nostalgic quality of where we are and the hassles of the evening, but because somehow and without provocation, you have come to mean more to me than I can possibly begin to describe. I know this may sound clichéd, but we are not here by accident, I would like to believe that we have a connection that is higher than our physical self. What that is has been left for us to define and validate.” I caught my breath as I finished.
I was surprised by what I said, not only because it was so deceptively sublime but also because it was so true. The words had been thrashing against the gates for so long that once they broke through they flowed out like a fierce, gushing stream.
“What if we are not? What if we are just random people in each other’s lives? What if all this importance is misplaced? Maybe we are just passengers meeting on a train going to a destination that neither of us is meant to reach. Will I just be another story you tell your friends?” she replied a little agitated.
“I don’t think we are random and I don’t believe in accidents. There are no accidents. We are here because we are meant to be here. And NO! You will not be another story I tell my friends,” I replied.
“I’m not you’re type.” She interjected.
“And what is my type,” I inquired a little amused.
“Not me!” she replied instantly.
“Well that’s why it makes so much more sense to me. It’s not planned or arranged or contrived. It just, is,” I said.
“You don’t even know me. You like me for the person you think I am. I might not be that person. I could be someone completely different. I am way too complicated for you to handle,” she added.
I smiled at her. “Well no one can really figure someone out in such a short time. I don’t have any misconceptions. I accept and respect you for the person you are. If we turn out to be a mistake, then I can take that. But I am not going to waste today thinking about what will happen tomorrow. I can’t plan for every contingency. It’s like walking into a movie and knowing every twist in the plot. Mostly pointless don’t you think? That’s why it’s called a leap of faith.”
“Well that would be a mighty huge leap Mister. One I don’t know if I’m willing to take. I am just not built that way,” she countered.
“Then why are you here?” I questioned. “You seem to have it all figured out in your head. Why invest in something that you know isn’t going to reap any dividend?”
She looked at me with now gullible - ready to believe me, now ready to believe the world - eyes and then softly said, “I don’t know. Does that mean you will leave?”
Before I could answer, the Maghrib (evening) Azaan began to be delivered. It bound us together in its invisible threads. And then there was silence. I knew what she meant and I think she knew I understood. Nothing more needed to be said.
The Qawwali normally begins after the Magrib prayer has been offered. We would have to return to the main courtyard of the Dargah if we wanted to give audience. From where we sat it seemed like the frenetic activity from a while ago had subsided, just like the rain. I suggested we move now and get a nice sitting spot before the best ones were taken.
By the time we arrived a modest crowd had gathered. One of the custodians directed her to sit next to a group of girls on the left side and asked me to sit in a group to the right of the performers. We faced each other but we hadn’t been that distant all evening.
As the Qawwali started all we did was look at each other, trying to say what could not be said. I never felt closer to her than I did then.
We got out half n hour later. A brief stop for dinner, an auto ride and we were back in my car heading home.
As I pulled up near the gate that led into her housing society, I felt my heart sink.
“I had a wonderful time,” she said.
“I did as well.” I replied.
“I hope you understand how much you mean to me. How right this feels. I know what ever I said today sounded like I am rushing it but if I hadn’t said what I felt, I don’t think I would have ever been able to.”
She held my hand, earnestly, for the first time that night. Gave it a soft squeeze and smiled at me. Then she opened the door to leave.
“I won’t forget today, you know that!” I said trying to assure her.
“I know. I won’t let you!” She said as she got out.
I watched her walk away till she was nothing but a blur. It began to drizzle and the rain drops splattered against the car’s wind shield in euphonic harmony. I closed my eyes, sat back, breathed it all in and savoured it. I remembered John Steinbeck’s famous lines – “Don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens. The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
(Image courtesy - Natalia Jeshoa)
This short story is an entry to the Platinum Day of Love contest