Shruthi Rao lives in Bangalore, India. Her stories have won the Sunday Herald Short Story Award, the Unisun-Reliance TimeOut short story contest, and the Tagore-O’Henry contest. One of her award-winning children’s stories, The Story lady, has been published as an illustrated book. Her stories have also been included in print and online anthologies (Two is Company; Helter Skelter New Writing) and in magazines (Open Road Review; eFiction India.) Her articles have appeared in Deccan Herald, The Hindu, Complete Wellbeing, and Women’s Web.
I had been warned, but I still can’t believe how much Bangalore has changed. I could once walk blindfolded in Malleshwaram Circle, but I can’t even recognize it now. Anand drove me down Sankey Road, and I felt my stomach twist at seeing that all the majestic old trees lining Golf Course were gone. And the Metro Station at MG Road? It is as if someone has plonked a megalith in the middle of my living room—without my permission.
Coming back to Bangalore feels like eagerly rushing to meet a loved one only to find that she is not at all like you remember her. Her looks have changed, and she even behaves differently.
And then you find a streak of that old charm, and it gives you hope that perhaps all the changes you see are just external…
That is why Lalbagh lifts my spirits, and I hum as I walk in. The air is crisp and fresh. I stroll around, recognizing a tree here, a bench there. I watch the people. Elderly couples on their daily walk. Families on Sunday morning outings. A lady points out trees to a bunch of people of various nationalities. A couple of birdwatchers. A group of people sit around on the grass and on benches, sketching in their books.
I see somebody who resembles my lecturer in college, and it reminds me that there always seem to be acquaintances of mine lurking in Lalbagh. I am not feeling particularly eager to socialize, and just as I am thinking I should be on the lookout, a lady who looks slightly familiar bears down upon me, smiling.
“Ah, Sameer!” she says, with what seems like genuine pleasure. “Your mother told me you’re coming down. How lovely to bump into you like this!”
She notices that her husband seems confused. “Tch! Our Prema’s son!” she tells him, with a touch of impatience. He looks like he has no idea who “Our Prema” is, but he says, “Aaah, of course,” and shakes my hand. Our eyes meet, and both of us grin in silent complicity—neither of us has a clue who the other is.
“When did you come from America?” asks the lady. “How long will you be here? It has been more than five, six years since you came, right? Why didn’t you come in between? Are you here to find a bride? Ey, ey, don’t blush, I know that’s what you’re here for. I know a nice girl, our neighbour, MBA, modern, but good values. I will call Prema and speak to her…”
I mumble something and make a quick escape.
But the lady is right. I’m here because I want to get married. But not to any random girl.
I walk on the bund of the lake, and I see a man under a tree, surrounded by dogs, crows and monkeys. It reminds me of a painting of the mythological beauty Shakuntala that hung in my aunt’s house. An impossibly lovely young girl in a forest, surrounded by rabbits and deers and birds. It always fascinated me, that painting, especially because Shakuntala wore her hair in a bun on the side of her head, and didn’t wear a blouse with her saree.
The man opens packs of Parle-G and holds the biscuits out to the dogs, who eat them off his hand. He opens a plastic bag, and brings out at least two dozen large bananas. He hands them one by one to the monkeys who wait patiently on the branches above him. They accept the fruits like well-behaved children, and move away to eat them. They don’t clamour for more. The whole thing looks like a perfectly choreographed skit.
“You do this regularly?” I ask him in Kannada.
“I don’t know Kannada.” He answers in Hindi.
My Hindi is rusty, his is accented, but I understand that he comes here every morning to feed animals. A service to God’s creatures, he calls it. His name is Viren, he is a cook from Bihar, and he works in Bangalore. People take pictures of him. An artist is sketching him, but Viren doesn’t seem to notice. He crumbles some bread and goes to feed the ducks, and I walk away.
I sit on a bench and try to classify the walkers. The regulars, who walk here everyday and probably finish their walk with a glass of the vile-looking health juices that are sold outside the gate. The Sunday walkers who will sign off with a calorie-filled breakfast at MTR. one of the oldest, and best-loved restaurants of the city. But hey, I’m not judging. That’s exactly what I plan to do later. Have breakfast at MTR. With Shubhra. If she comes to meet me.
Anand says it is presumptuous of me to hop down here after seven years with only the occasional e-mail to Shubhra and expect her to come running to me with outstretched arms. But I can’t expect him to understand my relationship with Shubhra—if it can be called that. I don’t understand it myself.
It is more of a quiet comfort–we are a perfect fit, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together with an audible click. No searing passions, no promises of eternal love–just two people who somehow know that we are well-suited for each other. Not that we have ever expressed it–it has seemed implicit in everything we said or did. At least I feel that way. And I assume she does too–this kind of comfort cannot exist if it is one-sided, can it?
I had never paid much attention to what I felt about her. But lately, my parents have started talking about my “settling down,” and somehow, I always think of Shubhra at the mention of marriage. Part of the reason I’ve come down to India is to see whether I can make anything of my relationship with Shubhra.
“Let’s catch up,” I told her over the phone last night, when I asked her to meet me here at Lalbagh. I’m sure she knew what I meant by that. She was non-committal, said she would sleep on it.
Will she come? I’m not sure. I’m not expecting too much.
Actually, she should have been here by now. She remembers this bench, surely?
My phone beeps. I don’t have to look at the message to know who sent it and what it says. But I read it anyway.
“I don’t think it’s such a good idea.”
“Ok.” I text back.
Ok. It really is okay. Or is it? My breath is shallow, and my fingernails are digging into my palms. I am angry. With Shubhra. With myself, for hoping more than I had allowed myself to.
The world suddenly looks dark. Even Lalbagh doesn’t look that good anymore. The glow on the faces of the morning walkers irritates me. I can see plastic cups and empty chips packets and tetrapaks strewn about. I notice that the bench I am sitting on is tilted, its iron skeleton visible in many places.
I wanted to go to MTR with Shubhra and see her horror at the little bowl of ghee that is served with the dosa. I wanted to watch her smear the ghee nevertheless all over the dosa and eat it with relish. I wanted to see her smile. I wanted to fill up the emptiness within me.
Viren, the male Shakuntala passes by. His hands are empty. I feel sure he has thrown the plastic bags somewhere on the walking path, and I suddenly feel hostile towards him, at coming from some other place and dirtying my city. And just as immediately, I feel guilty. If I have gone elsewhere in search of greener pastures, why shouldn’t he come to my city and adopt it as his own? And I am not even sure if this is my city any more. I am not sure of anything any more.
“Viren?” I call. He stops.
“Will you have breakfast with me at MTR?” I ask. He looks surprised, but nods.
But when we reach MTR, the waiting room is overflowing, and we are told that we’ll have to wait at least forty-five minutes for a table. Spending that time catching up with Shubhra is one thing. Waiting with a strange man is quite another.
“I know another place,” I tell him.
That’s one of the nice things about Bangalore, I think, as I take Viren pillion on the bike. If one restaurant fails you, you can be sure of another excellent eating joint just around the corner.
The vadas at Brahmin’s Coffee Bar are still the best. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside–and they taste heavenly. The idlis are pillowy, the unlimited chutney is just so, and the coffee restores my faith in life. The world is always a better place when the stomach is full.
Viren talks to me while he eats, as if he feels compelled to tell me his life story in return for breakfast. He says he has been in Bangalore for five years, and I resist the impulse to ask him why he hasn’t bothered to learn Kannada despite having lived here for so long. He tells me how he and his brothers had to leave home to find work to pay off the family loans after the rains failed and the crops withered. He has a wife and three children who still live in the ancestral home back in Bihar. He sends money home every month, but he visits them only once a year, during Deepavali.
“Don’t you miss them?” I ask.
He shrugs. “When you make a choice, when you want something, you have to be reconciled to giving up something,” he says.
I drop him off at the nearest bus stand, and he thanks me by clasping my hand between his palms.
I think about his words. You win some, you lose some.
I had vaguely harboured thoughts of landing up at Shubhra’s house and trying to make her change her mind. I decide I won’t. I made my choice seven years ago, and now, Shubhra has made hers.
I start the bike, and realize I have no idea how to get home without getting caught in the labyrinths of one-way streets, and the diversions and blockades caused by the Metro constructions.
I shrug, and set off in what I hope is the right direction.