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  • Akhila Sriram

Gautham Series 5 -Scars

The lady in front of me wore a pale-yellow shirt and blue jeans, and I couldn’t help but notice her raven-black doe eyes, that shone of warmth even through her semi-rimless, retro spectacles. Her soft, lustrous black hair cascaded down her shoulders and she brushed aside a strand falling on her face, all the while talking in a honeyed voice. More words gushed out of her red and glossy, heart-shaped lips; they failed to draw my attention, as much as her physical attributes did. She paused her monologue and met my gaze squarely.

Her anticipation rendered me speechless as I failed to recall her question. An uncomfortable silence followed; my phone blinked next to me and I unlocked it to spare myself any further embarrassment.

It was a text from Tej that read, “Gautham, how is it going?” Another message from my mother asked the same question; neither were of much help. I scrolled through my phone with a feigned interest and refused to respond to them both.

The barista called our order, and we picked up our drinks from the counter. Glad with this diversion, I tried to find solace in my favourite café chocolate Frappuccino, but today, it tasted like mud. Wincing inside, I forced myself to engage Amrita in a conversation, but failed. We had been sitting at a Starbucks in Bangalore, trying to please our parents and be as courteous as possible—at least that was the case from my side. My mother wanted me to meet the potential bride since her alliance had come through her childhood friend. I had planned to visit Bangalore for I had some formalities pending in my previous organisation, but was not interested in this rendezvous.

Nonetheless, my mother's taunts, threats, remonstrations, and laments had now put me in a very awkward position. Thus, here I was, with not the least bit of an idea to conduct a meaningful conversation with this vision of beauty before me. The usual topics of career, food and hobbies were exhausted. We were both at a loss, albeit she was more at ease than I was. I cleared my throat to kill the silence, considering that if given the chance, I would have killed my mother or, better yet, myself for succumbing to her.

“Amrita, I need some time. No one can decide their life partner in a few minutes or hours…”

Her lips stretched into an enchanting smile. “I understand.”

“I will ping you later.” I mentally kicked myself. Why give her hope when all I see is darkness?

She inclined her head, acknowledging my words, and started to talk about trivial matters. I longed for it to end, but compelled myself to be decent. The ordeal ended after nearly an hour, and we exited the coffee shop; she left in her car with a promise to contact me.

As I stood there contemplating whether to walk the few yards to Tej's restaurant or wait for him to pick me up, a group of college boys entered the premises. The constant honking of cars, the siren of an ambulance, and the continuous chatter of the college gang added further to my vexation.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped away from them; their merriness had brought back my wretched past. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness were closing in on me. One wrong step from the pavement onto the road was all that was required to end this torture, getting hurt physically would numb the pain that was twisting my insides into knots. But then, the image of my caring mother and attentive father flashed through my mind and I resisted my impulse and bounded towards Tej’s eatery.

Every distracting thought and action to dull the throbbing ache was futile—just like meeting every girl to sway my heart and mind from Ranjini was. We were madly in love, and it had started back in college days when she was in her first year and I was in my second. Her life was one hell of a struggle with heartless parents and a monstrous cousin who subjected her to endless harassment. I entered her life as a guardian angel, pledging to protect her. Over the course of those three years, I healed her. Thus, unknowingly, burdening myself with unhealed scars. She vanished without a trace when I graduated from engineering. From then to now, my every effort to search for her was futile.

Wherever she was and however she was, I was still waiting for her to bring me back to life. She had left a void which made me feel desolate and bereft. Tej, Bhavana, and an amazing family were always there to console me. But ever since the day she left, it had been lonely even in company.

Tej had advised me to move on, but Ranjini’s face always popped into my mind when I considered marrying someone else. I failed miserably to push her away and my scars still smirk at me.

The unpleasant bygones had me brooding, and I missed the signboard that said – The Secret Hub - a place for family, friends, and continental food. I realised my error after strolling past the restaurant and retraced my steps to my destination. I walked in through the doors and my legs carried me to a far corner, away from the scattered crowd. Tej spotted me nevertheless, and words were not necessary for him to understand my frustration.

With a worried expression, he asked, “Coffee?”

I screwed up my face and said, “I am just back from a coffee shop, and to my knowledge, they don't serve coffee in a continental restaurant!”

“Tej and coffee are inseparable, be it continental, Chinese or Japanese.”

“Lousy joke. Leave me alone.” A string of curses was ready to tumble out of my mouth but my mobile’s ringtone interrupted me. As expected, it was my mother; as usual, I hung up. Tej grabbed my phone, called her and updated her about my foundering.

Slumping back in my chair, I despised Tej's appeasement of her and the fact that I had only added to her stress. A deep sense of self-loathing engulfed me from within. The telephone conversation ended with Tej promising to my mother he would take care of me.

He flopped beside me, and I wished he wouldn’t offer any advice, consolations, or reassuring embraces which I would abhor right now. Pulling out his phone from his trouser pocket, he left me to my own devices. Oddly, his silence and nonchalant attitude were soothing. Tej was the one person who took me as I was and never reproached me. He suggested a video and an article, and I was glued to my phone in no time. Minutes flew by as we were engrossed in our own world. The aching scar of the past didn’t hurt as much now.

A nauseating flowery perfume wafted to my nostrils, and I lifted my eyes away from the screen with a scowl. With my mouth agape, I stared at the vision before me in horror. Bhavana was clad in a candy-pink flounced dress that fell a few inches below her knees; it had a double-ruffled V-shaped neckline, which made it look messy.

“How do I look?” she asked, raising her eyebrows above the heavily eye-shadowed eyelids.

Tej cut in, “Beautiful as always.”

I turned my head and pierced him with a glare. He had always flirted, lied, and given her empty promises, but this was outside of enough. Shaking my head, I returned to the Shorts I was watching on my phone and so did he.

She twirled her way to my side and said, “Tej said we could have dinner here!”

“Go ahead! I would rather stay at home…”

“And wallow in self-pity?” she persisted.

I ignored her and Tej asked, not taking his eyes from the screen, “What would you guys have?”

Instead of answering, Bhavana rebuked. “Why are you guys so glued to the phone when I am trying to make conversation? Nowadays, Tej doesn’t even spend time with me. He is always watching Shorts and existing more on social media than in reality. So do you. I dragged myself from an important project work and took great pains to dress up as we were to meet after a long time and you guys didn’t even tell me how I look!”

“Fine! Horrible! You look horrible!!!”

“I said you look lovely,” added Tej. He placed the mobile on the table, rose to his feet, and ambled towards her. Stunned at my words, she leaned into his arms that were wrapped around her and said, “No one wants your consoling words, Teju. Tell him if he goes home, he has to feed himself. I am not going to cook.”

“Nobody asked you to. Why are you provoking me, Bhavana?” I asked, with annoyance lacing in my voice.

We broke into an argument; her voice was rising, mine was tightening, and Tej’s coaxing to reach a truce. Bhavana was spoiling for a fight, and this time I was pleased to oblige her.

She broke off her squabble, huffed, and slid into the chair. “You know what? I don’t care what becomes of you… and you too, Tej, if you keep supporting his insolence. I think you should live your life on Instagram. Perhaps, I could get meaningful conversations and emotional support there from you guys.”

Having said that, she drew out her phone from her sling bag and started checking her Instagram. Tej’s and my phone pinged with a notification at the same time. I had a good guess as to what it was but I couldn’t help looking. It was an Instagram text notification from Bhavana. I felt like a jerk for taking out all my bitterness on her. Tej blinked, unsure whether to pick up his phone, ignore her, or cajole her. Each of those actions, he knew, was going to put him in a poor light.

He swept his sight over the restaurant, which was now filling in and then, his eyes finally bore holes into mine.

Chuckling, I said, “I don’t know what I would do without you guys…”

“We would do better without you,” clipped Tej.

Bhavana looked up. “That’s a terrible thing to say, considering the awful day he had.”

“Says the lady whom he just insulted and fought like cats and dogs with.”

Grinning from ear to ear, I enveloped them in my arms and said, “Let’s have dinner. Can you rustle up something that is as irresistible as this flashy candy that smells like a rotten flower?”

She punched me hard in my abdomen and thus caused me to double over with pain and laughter.

Shaking his head, Tej started to leave for the kitchen, muttering, “Lunatics! Mes enfants, I trust you'd stay on your best behaviour now, as customers are arriving, and Gramps has work to do...”

I broke into a loud guffaw; his eyes twinkled with exuberance, although his countenance was stern. Tej and Bhavana always managed to fill me with happiness and love, whenever melancholy threatened to choke me.

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