He noticed her from the corner of his eye. She moved past the chairs and desks and sat in front of him. For those few minutes, there was only the two of them in the classroom. Every fibre of his being was aware of her. He didn’t know her yet but he knew she had settled within him. The teacher asked him a question and he didn’t even hear him. He was asked to stand up and he mumbled an apology. She turned around and looked up at him. There it was, in a glance she had captured his soul and it was burning in her eyes.
He asked her out a few days later. It was in the college canteen. She saw him walk towards her and suddenly became self-conscious. She pushed back her hair from her face and swallowed the piece of sandwich in her mouth quickly.
‘Hi, my name is Maaz.’
‘That’s a funny name.’
‘Why should I tell you?’
‘Because I need to know who I’ll be getting married to.’
She stared at him and blushed. When she walked away her friend whom he hadn’t even noticed told him, ‘Her name is Maheen.’ He nodded still looking at her walking away from him.
They would sit in the garden bordering the basketball field after classes, sunlight warming the flame of their new love. Their silence was just as comfortable as their conversation. Books were uselessly spread out in front of them in pretence of study. She didn’t remember what they talked about. He held on to her hand, only her hand.
Valentine’s day was coming up and she was excited wondering what he would do, hoping it would be special. She waited the whole day and he didn’t give her any flowers or chocolates. She didn’t even see him. She was disappointed. She wanted to hear him say those three words to her. When she started her last class, feeling furious, she saw him waving to her from the window asking her to come out.
He took her to the roof of the building. He had prepared an elaborate romantic set up with rose petals, a blanket, a picnic basket and candles. She was delighted. He bolted the door leading down to the stairwell. He led her by the hand to the spot hidden away from the entrance to the stairs by a cemented water tank. She looked around and no one was there. It was their private heaven.
She sat down on the blanket and he presented a single red rose to her. ‘Thank you,’ she smiled.
He pulled out a velvet box which held an expensive rubies and diamond bracelet. She began shaking her head, but he kissed her to silence her. Before they both knew what was happening, before they could pull themselves back from the land of passion a lot had happened. Maaz withdrew from her breathless and drugged. ‘Give me a minute.’ He ran to the other side of the cemented water tank and closed his eyes, clutching at his mouth. What had he done? He saw her approach him adjusting her clothes and smoothing her hair. ‘I’m getting late,’ she whispered, avoiding his eyes. He wanted to say something, anything to her but he couldn’t. The words froze in his mouth.
She unlocked the door to the stairwell and ran down the steps. After he summoned up the courage he messaged her that night, ‘Are you alright?’ she didn’t reply. After half an hour of waiting he called her. He kept calling her the whole night but she didn’t answer. She didn’t come to college for a few days and then he finally saw her. She was sitting with her friend. He ran up to her, ‘Can we talk?’
She looked up at him, ‘Yes?’
‘No.’ His world shattered. She didn’t trust him anymore.
She didn’t talk to him and when he tried to she would avoid looking at him. She wouldn’t even sit with him in the garden in the open. Maaz knew he had lost her. He finally approached her after many days of seeing her become more and more distant. He had come to a painful conclusion; she hated him now, he had lost his respect in her eyes and by imposing on her again and again he was bothering her. It was better to leave her alone.
‘I know you can’t stand me anymore, I can’t take us back to where we were so it’s better that we break up. It’ll be easier to move on.’
She looked into his eyes and nodded. ‘Ok.’
Her parents fixed her marriage. She was engaged and the marriage was after one month. She was distributing her wedding cards in the canteen to her friends when he came towards her.
‘So, I don’t get a card?’
She smiled, ‘No.’
‘Because I wouldn’t want to be invited to your wedding either.’ He nodded and left.
There was a party in the college and he lost his temper. Someone had made a comment about how hot she looked and then added something he couldn’t tolerate. He got into a fight and was dragged out by his friend. ‘What are you doing? If you still love her why don’t you just say sorry even if it’s not your fault and get back together.’
‘I can’t. We can’t go back to where we were.’
‘Then don’t go back, you fool, move forward.’
‘She’s getting married.’
‘That’s because you never asked her to marry you.’
Maaz stared at him. How could he be so stupid? That was it. That was what she had wanted. A simple proposal.
She was about to get in her car after the party when he ran up to her and held on to her arm. ‘I know I messed up, I should have asked long ago. That same day. But I’m asking you now. Will you marry me? I’ll send my parents over if you allow me.’
‘It’s too late.’
‘It isn’t, until you are actually married.’
‘It’s less than a month away.’
‘Just give me one more chance?’
‘Ok.’ The weight that had been sitting on her heart lifted away in a fleeting second.
She cried, begged and pleaded with her parents. She told them about how important he was to her. She convinced them if they married her to the man of their choice she would be miserable and she’ll make him miserable. ‘Why didn’t you tell us before?’ They asked her.
‘We developed some misunderstandings and now they are over.’
Maaz’s parents came over to her house as if they were doing them a favour. His mother was anything but polite. She criticised everything, the food, their house, their residential area and then openly insulted their caste. Her father finally got up and said, if she had so many problems with them she should leave.
When Maheen told him what had happened he begged his mother to apologise and she shook her head. ‘What do you see in that ordinary girl, and their ordinary family? I will not apologise at all. Do you want to compromise your mother’s respect for the sake of a mere girl?’
Maaz called Maheen, ‘I can’t convince her to apologise but if you want I can come to your house to apologise on her behalf, I don’t know what else I can do.’
‘If she knew this was important for you she wouldn’t have behaved this way. My parents will not allow me to marry you now.’
‘So let’s marry without their permission.’
Maaz sighed heavily, ‘Just convince them then, tell them how important this is for you. Tell them what our relationship is and how you will be better off if you marry me.’
‘How important it is for me?
‘For both of us, but yes, more for you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Come on, Maheen. If that guy you were getting married to knew about us, what we’ve done, he would never accept you.’
‘You think everyone is like you? Maybe, I should tell him about it then and see if he still thinks I’m acceptable.’
Maaz scoffed, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea if you want him to reject you. Maybe that’ll help our cause.’
There was silence on her end.
‘I’m not trying to put you down. We are on the same side in this fight remember? We are fighting for our love.’
‘I’m fighting for something else as well, like my respect and my family’s respect that you keep snatching away from me and then behave as if it doesn’t matter.’
He was silent and belatedly realised he should have said sorry.
She cut off the call.
Maheen met her fiancé in an outdoor coffee shop. She had asked for the meeting.
He was all charm and good manners. She was a ball of nerves.
‘I need to tell you something. After this you can decide whether you still want to go ahead with the marriage.’
‘I want to be honest. I am not a virgin. I had a boyfriend and we …it was just once and I didn’t know we were going to, I mean I didn’t really plan it.’
‘Ok.’ He looked away and then back at her. ‘Thank you for being honest with me. But that’s in your past isn’t it, everyone has a past. I’ve been in few serious relationships myself while studying and working abroad and I’m not a virgin either. It doesn’t matter to me and from what you’re telling me it seems like you didn’t even want to do it in the first place.’
‘Then I don’t see what the problem is? It doesn’t change anything for me.’
She was stunned into silence. She had expected him to throw the plate in front of him and walk away in righteous indignation. They continued their tea date and the more time she spent with him, the more completely accepted she felt, with all her flaws.
Maaz called her that night. ‘Did you tell him?’ she could hear the smirk in his tone.
‘What did he say?’
‘He said it was ok with him.’
There was silence on his end. She could feel his nervousness radiate from across the phone line.
She met him in college the next day and he asked her, ‘What will you do now?’
‘Depends on whether your parents will come to my home, apologise for their earlier behaviour and ask for my proposal respectfully.’
Maaz shook his head, ‘I’ve tried, they won’t.’
‘Then you know what I will do.’ She walked away from him.
It was the day before her wedding and her last day in college. She saw him sitting on the steps in the sun. She walked towards him and stopped at the bottom step.
‘I just wanted to say good bye.’
‘Right. Good bye.’ She couldn’t see his eyes, they were covered with sun glasses.
‘Ok, take care.’
She turned around and then heard his voice. He had stepped down a few stairs and his eyes were bare now.
She saw a lot of things she didn’t want to see in them.
‘I really wish you a very happy married life. He is a very lucky man to have you.’
Three years later, he was shopping with his mother for some jewellery for his fiancé. It was Valentine’s day and the cheap red hearts and the fake flowers all over the mall disgusted him. He was getting married in three months. She was a nice girl but nothing like Maheen. No one was like Maheen. He had never felt that connection with any girl, although he had searched for it everywhere. His phone started ringing, it was his fiancé. The signals were bad in the shop so he stepped out and then he spotted her.
A few shops down, Maheen was absentmindedly tracing the fabric of a dress with her fingers. He heard his fiancé repeatedly call his name, fearing she had lost him again. He shut off his phone. He walked towards her and saw her notice him. She frowned and looked away and he stopped in his tracks. She didn’t want to meet him. He made a u-turn and disappeared behind a corner, leaning against a wall. How dumb of him to assume she would even want to talk to him.
He was about to turn back towards the jewellery shop when he heard her voice.
She was there, looking more beautiful than she had ever looked. Marriage suited her. Her husband was taking care of her.
‘How are you?’ she asked, coming nearer when he remained frozen. There it was shining brightly once again, the purest part of his soul in her eyes.
He finally shook himself, ‘I’m doing great! It’s so strange, running into each other after three years and two months and a half months, right?’ He rolled his eyes inwardly, might as well say and three days, forty-five minutes and thirty seconds as well, you idiot.
She laughed, ‘I was in London these past few years. I’ve just come back.’
‘That makes sense then.’
‘I went to all the places you talked about from when you were there. The stand-up theatres, secret cinema, Camden town market, the black sheep coffee shops, you know all the offbeat places.’
Excitement danced in her eyes. He hid a frown, she was saying I instead of we. Did her husband leave her to explore the city alone?
‘Do you have some time for coffee?’ he took a leap of faith. He told himself it would be ok if she shut him down.
‘I’m addicted to coffee now, sure!’
They were seated in one of the fancy franchise coffee outlets. She frowned when she sipped from her cup. ‘Not as good?’ he asked.
She shook her head, wrinkling her nose and put her cup down.
‘So, are you married now?’ she asked with a grin. ‘Have you forgotten your wife somewhere in this mall?’
No, but he just remembered his mother in the jewellery shop. It didn’t matter. She could wait for a bit.
‘Not yet, but I’m about to get married.’
He saw her smile waver and then it was over bright, ‘Congratulations!’
‘I better get going, I need to get back to my …’
‘Husband? Have you forgotten him somewhere in this mall?’
She had got up, picking up her bag, she looked down at him with an amused smile. ‘I would have if I had one, unfortunately I don’t. I’ve never had one. Take care.’
His heart slammed in his chest. She turned around casually and walked away. She was out of his sight soon. He wanted to run after her but an inner voice stopped him. If you go after her today, you will bloody well make sure you deserve her or let her go now. He battled with himself for what seemed like an eternity. Yes, I’m ready, he finally convinced his conscience.
She was about to exit the mall when he sprinted after her, breathless and pulled her arm to face him. ‘Hi.’ He doubled over with exhaustion and held up his finger.
She looked at him in surprise and then around her at the people who were turning around now to stare.
‘I forgot to say something up there.’
‘Ok, I’m going to try this a third time and I assure you I will not make a complete ass of myself this time.’
He bent down on one knee in front of her. A crowd was beginning to gather around them now and a few teenage girls had got their phone cameras out.
‘Maheen, will you marry me, please?’
She looked around at the crowd, turning red with embarrassment.
‘Please get up, what are you doing….’
‘By the way, are you single?’
‘What?’ she looked around distractedly, ‘Yes, I am .’
He sighed with relief. ‘Ok, so will you?’
‘No, I can’t,’ she refused him firmly and loudly.
His heart sank to the depths of misery and a gloom settled on the excited crowd gathered around them who had been waiting for her answer as well.
Then a girl yelled from the crowd, ‘Say yes, Maheen.’
Another man shouted the same slogan, ‘Say yes, Maheen.’
Very soon the crowd reverberated with the uneven request. Maaz got up from the floor and gave her a sheepish smile and she glared at him.
A little girl came up to her and pulled her veil, ‘Say yes, Maheen.’
Maaz spotted his mother make her way through the crowd towards them and he frowned. Yes, he hadn’t thought of that. His mother stepped forward and looked from the girl to her son, then her eyes rested on her son.
In the last three years she had never seen him this happy and alive. She had seen him crash and burn many times. She had seen him lose interest in food, having fun and going out with his friends. She had seen him having sleepless nights. She had seen him adopt a polite disinterested manner with his fiancé. She had seen him get lost in his own world in the middle of a conversation. She had seen him becoming someone else. As if his soul was missing.
‘Say yes, Maheen.’ His mother stood at a distance and their eyes met. Her eyes had a silent apology and Maheen smiled warmly at her.
She turned to Maaz, ‘Yes.’
The crowd started clapping and cheering, the big heart piñata hanging over the mall burst into heart shaped confetti and a Bollywood love song began blaring at full volume.
Maheen turned to Maaz, shaking her head in embarrassment, ‘This is the most cringiest, cheesiest and childish proposal ever.’
He took a bow, his eyes dancing with laughter, ‘You’re welcome!’