The Love of his Life
The worn out lines of the wooden table looked back at him as he sat warming his numb hands on a half empty glass of tea. He had driven as far out as he could from the city, and then turned off into the dark, losing track of time and direction, till he found this particular tea shop in the middle of nowhere. The owner and his wife were in the middle of an argument in a language he didn’t understand and a small girl sat at the back, her skin and her dress merging into the shadows, rocking and reading gently aloud from a book. He thought he heard a voice echo like someone announcing the departure of a train from a station. Surprised, he looked around. Then he realized it was the doctor’s voice still ringing in his head. He wiped at his oily forehead and sipped at the hot, sweet, milky tea.
His life was one that was easy to envy, and many envied him too. He was looked up to for wisdom and prudence, and he was talked about for his gentleness and his compassion. He spoke kindly to everyone and people around him believed his life was as harmonious as one could wish for. Yet he knew how easy it was to both understand and misunderstand a language one did not know. The agitated voices in the shop distracted him for a moment. The shopkeeper’s wife was obviously calling the shopkeeper lazy, while he was denying it violently, pointing to various parts of the shop to show all the work that he did while she -- now he was pointing out at the darkness -- was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was talking about her affair with another man. He smiled at the acrobatics that his mind was doing and told himself that, for all he knew, they were discussing who to vote for. Or more likely, where the next day’s expenses would come from.
There are truths that go to the grave with a person. And there are truths that can only be revealed after a person goes to the grave. It worried him that the doctor might actually not have told him all that was there to be told. Strangely, this thought led him to think of the many women he had desired in his youth but who had not felt that he was the one they wanted to spend their life with. In his mind, they had died, and each of their husbands, or fathers, or sisters, or sons, came to see him, to tell him, hesitantly, one by one, that it was he, and only he, that she had truly longed to be with. The shopkeeper and his wife stopped their discussion abruptly as they looked in his direction to see what he was chuckling about. When they resumed their argument, he was as certain as one can be that it no longer was one.
He was a model husband. His friends said that he knew why she longed to be held and he knew the meaning of her silences. He not only carried the bags but actually helped his wife choose. There were witnesses. There were witnesses that, in spite of the years, they still loved each other like newlyweds. He believed that one creates the life one wants, and he taught men who were richer, older, wiser than he was how to do that. In both his professional and social life, he was the symbol of urban cool, of empowerment, and some would say, even enlightenment. Yet he frequently slept in anger and, when he rose, he renewed his vow to be the kindest and most loving man he could be. He believed he would take this knowledge of his failure to his grave.
The little girl at the back of the shop had quietly curled into herself and fallen asleep, and noticing this, the mother began serving some rice into a plate with raised sides and calling to her. He could not recollect when the weeds had begun to overtake their garden or when he had resigned himself to the conflict-ridden life that he led. What he did know was that one day seven years back, the love of his life found him. He knew it from the way his heart leapt when he sensed her presence, and from the way he found himself smiling when he was all alone. She was looking forward to what life had to offer her and he was looking back at what life could have been. Given his circumstances, he had kept it to himself, one more thing to be taken to the grave.
The shopkeeper’s wife asked him if he wanted another tea. He nodded. The doctor had nodded and told him that there still was time and he had nodded back. They had continued to silently and slowly nod at each other for what seemed like an eternity. The doctor told him that they have been able to identify the protein that was responsible for the speed with which it spread. But then, there was nothing in place yet that could assure a definite outcome. The silence that had followed did not convey anything to him. But it was different from the silence that he returned home to every evening. And it was different from the silence that he shared with his new love.
He saw her every day at work, and they often sat together silently. At other times, they spoke about their hopes and their fears. He could not tell her that his worst fear and his greatest hope was the same, that some day she would know what she meant to him. He could not tell her that the reason he did not drink was that he was scared that he would call her when he was drunk and tell her everything he felt about her. So he told her things that would help her believe that dreams did come true.
The rumble of a tractor grew in the dark and then faded away. He had never had the time to reflect on what he had done with his life. His dreams had been taken away without his knowledge and he had submitted himself to the demands of keeping appearances up with a lamb-like meekness. In the race to meet deadlines and budgets he had failed to notice how time was passing him by, how he was drawing nearer to the inevitable end. When he heard her speak about what she wanted to do with her life, it pained him a little. It almost sounded like she was speaking his thoughts. He too had had similar dreams, but they had all fallen by the wayside. He had spent all his life building a life that he now wished he could run away from. All he could do was wish her the best and pray that she would be able to pursue the life she dreamed of, that she never regretted her choices. The empty glass was replaced by a steaming half-full one.
The little girl had finished eating and the shopkeeper’s wife had pulled out a bamboo mat and laid it out on the floor. Now both husband and wife stood silently at the back of the shop with their arms crossed, trying not to look at him, but their body language told him that they were waiting for him to leave. He took a large sip of the tea. He felt like he was standing alone on a large stage with nothing that he could say to the audience that was waiting. Waiting for him to say something and then leave. In the audience, he thought he saw the loves of his life, his aging parents, his friends who had chosen to keep the fire burning, his music, and his dreams of a just and compassionate world. He thought he saw his love, the love of his life, and it seemed like he saw tears of lost hope in her eyes. In the darkness, it was hard to make out, but he thought he did. He was just beginning to see how easily beliefs could change. He thought about the fiery poetry he would write as a young man about living a life free of regrets. Simultaneously, he thought about whether he was up-to-date with his insurance premium.
Had he known a decade earlier that this was what lay ahead, would he have made different choices? He could not say for certain. One can be certain of so little in life. He finished the tea, pulled out his wallet and paid for the tea and a little more. In the dark, the shopkeeper’s wife smiled at him. He smiled back. It would have meant nothing to him on any other day, neither the little more, nor the smile. He smiled again within himself at the things that mortality makes one think of. He got up. Running his fingers through his hair, he stepped out into the dark. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he was certain.