Not long ago Bhubaneswar used to be a peaceful city, with its countless temples and moderate population. With one car to manage commute and other needs, families never felt the necessity of a second one. As a result, fewer vehicles chugged down the dusty roads of the city that could comfortably endure them without any sign of congestion.
But all this was a while back when mankind preferred simplicity.
The humongous and penetrating hands of modernisation swept away the essence of this city in no time. Many big companies set up their offices dishing out employment opportunities, engineering colleges mushroomed falling in tune with the rest of India and so the economic growth inched upward. But modernisation is a wicked bastard. It brought into the city its shit too. How could consumerism wait any longer? No sooner did malls open up than hoards of brainless monkeys swarmed into them. Fancy restaurants found more space than homes. It seemed all that people wanted to do was to munch on breakfasts and dinners. People bought cars one for each person in the family without any discrimination. What did not alter however was the space apportioned for the roads by the meticulous planners of the city in the late 1940s. It must have been impossible for them to imagine the steep change in trends. The potholes and dust of roads were replaced with shiny, wide tarmac. But the rate of rise in the number of vehicles far outweighed the increase in the breadth of roads and inevitably, there was chaos everywhere. The once pristine and tranquil city of her had whittled down to rubbles of unbearable chaos housing thousands of self-obsessed idiots.
These thoughts circled in Mariam’s mind every time she drove back from office to her flat while having to bear the heavy traffic of Jaydev Vihar road, after a hard day at work.
She was in the plush front seat of her new Chevy Cruze and the air conditioner was set at a temperature so low that it would have swiftly cooled her down had it been some other day. But not today. It was one of those days where everything seemed to be going against her. The many wheels in front of her Cruze caused a loud rhythmic screech as the traffic lights beamed a bright red at the Nalco Chakk. She took a deep breath and examined the happenings of the day. Was it really that bad? Or was she magnifying the small unhappy occurrences? She knew the answer. And realizing it she let out an inaudible laugh. Mariam had large hazel eyes, expressive and thoughtful. As they glanced out the window a current of familiar ache ran inside her. A reflection of two happy people could be seen on them. Soon, the lights switched to green and Mariam stepped on the gas captaining the Cruze whizz past one building after another. She reminded herself that she was going to have a good time. She was heading towards the outskirts of the city, to ‘The Tandoori House’, an Indian restaurant which specialised in barbecue items, located on the 11th floor of the NewCity Plaza, a recent establishment on the map of this rapidly growing city. “It’s all about the experience”, a colleague had said. She hoped for the same.
On reaching the NewCity Plaza Mariam was greeted with yet another inconvenience- no parking space! How this city is bustling with all these laid-back folks who wished to do nothing but eat the whole day and didn’t even refrain at night, she thought. Fortunately for her, a family came out into the parking area. Although they were three in number, they could have easily passed off as four, considering the father in sight- a broad-shouldered, beefy man with deep-set eyes and a sheepish grin. The wife and the boy cast cheerful faces at their man as he slumped into the front of a Toyota and in a flash, they were on the highway cruising to their lovely safe home. Mariam was lost in her thoughts when the security-guard fighting off his sleep walked across the entrance gate and whistled painfully, startling and reminding Mariam of the present. As if equipped with a measuring tape, she parked her car with the precision of a carpenter’s rough hands.
Mariam on gliding out of her seat could make out how people in her vicinity were staring at her with amazement. But it didn’t really flatter her. She was convinced a long time back that she was beautiful when the whole class serenaded her in the school assembly time. Indeed, Mariam was blessed with the quintessential aura of a charming lady who also had the advantage of youth on her side. Ornamented with a lighter shade of dusky complexion she had thin glowing skin and thinner lips. To her, she was wearing a navy blue business suit like any other working day, but to others, even in the ordinariness, she was stunning. The special attraction though was her pair of expressive eyes, an ocean of gold, which only occasionally gave out glimpses of the ravaged walls of her soul underneath.
Mariam stepped into the wide lobby of the mall and took the elevator on her left. 11th floor. Finally, she was going to have some light time. Huge glass doors with thick wavy golden handles were pulled open courteously by the doorman before she had actually reached there. Above the doors, ‘The Tandoori House’ radiated in a fiery red, styled by a handwritten font, adorned by graceful strokes. Between the name and the glass was the overflowing mahogany panel running the full perimeter of the glass. The place from the outside felt like the one which could be tagged royal- royal in a local way. Mariam chuckled as if referring the joke to herself, and then quickly scanned the area to find a suitable table. The manager scurried towards her and ushered her to, practically, the best table of the place. On her left through the impeccably clean windows, she could take in the spectacular view of the city- the highway swamped with speedy automobiles which after a while vanished under the white streetlights, nearby, and in the distance, there were hardly any skyscrapers towering above the skyline, but she could feel an unmistakable joy in seeing her city breathe in the night- the silhouette of blocks of buildings scattered among trees, the zigzag of roads and the thousand invisible people who dreamt incessantly of making it big someday. And to her right, she could behold all the people dining there. Four tables bore nine humans- three couples and one mini family consisting of the mother, the father and the son.
Meanwhile, the waiter walked attentively to her table carrying the menu. When he opened out the menu for Mariam, she saw how pretentiously he uttered his salutation as if to convey he had never missed a single class in his training of becoming who he was today. Mariam tried to imitate a gentle nod and began flicking through the menu. The waiter nodded and returned dutifully. When he arrived again after a few minutes, Mariam had hardly deliberated the starter choices on offer.
‘Madam what would you like to order then?’, the waiter asked politely.
‘Actually, I am waiting for someone.’
‘Oh, sure madam. Take your time.’
Mariam eased up a little as the waiter retired to his original position. So, she was waiting for someone. She noticed the gorgeous chandelier on the ceiling, the imaginative mural painted on the uninterrupted long wall on the back except for the catchy “We only serve the best”, which came across as a clickbait instead of a genuine guarantee from the chef de cuisine, the splendour of a mosaic depicting a girl swimming above water, or maybe flying, and the many deceptively expensive and expansive paintings mounted on adequately illuminated, elevated surfaces which clung to the chocolate-hued walls through metal joints. The entire decor on display was visually sumptuous, surely, but what about the food? At least what could be made out seeing the diners gobbling so ferociously was that the food must have been as sumptuous, if not more, as the decor.
Mariam was always like that- lost in thoughts and, happily so. She could discern which couple was truly in love and which one pretended. One of them believed in looking intensely at each other, one in holding hands, one in eating ravenously without a damn, and the mini family cared more about the princely toddler with starry eyes. All of them looked happy.
Mariam looked around and was childishly happy when she saw her man waving to her from across the glass doors. Finally, he arrived. Suddenly, a drummer was playing in her heart. The beats only got higher. He walked down briskly to her as if finding it hard to conceal the excitement of meeting his beloved after what seemed like a millennium ago. She couldn’t resist the powerful strokes of desire too. She got up from her cosy chair in one moment, and in the next, found herself besotted in the warmth of his arms in a way that resembled a child who holds his chocolate tight, scared of someone snatching it away from him. After the unfettered display of emotions, it was time to take the seats and let the moment sink in. After all, it was their moment. They talked about things that only two lovebirds meeting after a long time would know. She said how much she missed and longed for him. He said, almost whispered, the same.
The waiter came. Now that they were immersed in each other, neither of them hardly noticed him. He felt relieved too at having to let go of his usual alertness. He assessed these situations well- how couples would go to any extent to order anything for each other at the slightest remark of some exotic dish being on top of ‘Today’s special’. Our waiter mastered archaic as well as modern methods to exploit these situations shrouded in love, and later when waiters had their gossip time he would chime in with his latest achievement. However, this time he didn’t feel the need to open his bag of tricks, as the manager was already content witnessing his deftness at work. Our talented waiter had successfully reaped the maximum from two couples and the mini family. His bag of tricks had called it a day. So, he simply took the order and left.
Mariam was filled with all the glee. Just to sit there with her man in ‘The Tandoori House’ at the 11th floor of the NewCity Plaza in Bhubaneswar, in the south-east of India and on top of the world, felt like she was a living part of the universe, the backbone of the human race, the fountain of love and kindness.
They looked intensely at each other as if absorbing all of their existence till the moment lasted. The lighting was accurate, one that’s neither too dim to induce sleep, nor too bright to prick your pupil. Just about perfect to savour a good conversation. Mariam could feel what she was missing all her life- a person to share everything with. Not that she hadn’t been in a relationship before. She, in fact, had the fortune of experiencing the bumpy thrill of many short adventures, but she was never quite fortunate to inhale the calm of a happy relationship. Nobody would allow her to be herself. They wanted to see in her a reflection of ‘the perfect girl’ they had in their mind, and Mariam was only too afraid to not imitate that reflection. In time she always felt choked and inevitably freed herself from their scarring clutches. The guys would never get what her silences meant, and hence she was labelled ‘impulsive’. She never had the privilege of having someone who felt loving her a privilege.
He seemed to change, slightly. But it didn’t matter.
Mariam was a little taken aback when he placed his sturdy hands on her thighs, but soon enough she saw what he wished for. He held her hands with a gentleness that cried of unconditional care. Having realized that an iota of negative charge had germinated in her head, she was overcome by embarrassment. Her face reddened, and like her, she could see how happy her man was just to be with her. They held hands and hoped it stayed the same. Mariam had never quite felt joy in the stillness of a moment, and yet she wanted this stillness- just them immersed in each other- to stay. ‘My daughter is a force of nature’, her mom used to say, and her papa wrote poems for her. Indeed, Mariam had been an unstoppable force of nature, until a few years back when she lost them. The void they had left her with could hardly be filled by any short adventure. She needed a long, reassuring journey with a co-traveller who would believe in her as much as they did, and who would gladly accept her not for her gloss, but for her flaws.
Again he seemed to change, slightly. But it didn’t matter.
‘I am hungry!’, she announced. To which he smiled and said “Let’s eat. I am starved!”. There. She knew why she had fallen for this guy hook, line and sinker. Mariam could gauge how rare this was. Someone ready to take the plunge into the same madness as you without a worry, just for your happiness. They started eating ravenously without a damn. Their agreement to hunger was only a stronger indication of how they were prepared to stand beside each other when the chips would be down. Mariam wished someone had understood her, the way you understand your favourite book- every line that’s penned down, but also, the lines that never made the way out of the writer’s soul.
Again he seemed to change, slightly. But it didn’t matter.
“Mariam, will you marry me?” he asked. She couldn’t find words though they were only two- yes or no. She perhaps wanted him to understand her a little more. After all the experience she had had with men she didn’t need to be reminded of how men saw what they wanted to. She wanted him to take some time to bridge the gap between the Mariam of his mind and the real one. But she studied him. How this man was different from others. His eyes spoke of the kind of honesty you could only see in moral science textbooks these days. She knew he was a rare breed.
“I would start my own business. You would write. We would both share the responsibilities.”
Those words were an oasis of affection in the vast deserts of her life. She wished she could bottle them up, only to take tiny sips later in times of storm. She could picture to this day how empty she felt when fate wrested the two closest souls away from her, forever. At first, she was shattered and hopeless. But as is the mystery of life, she wove her shelter of hope and began thinking of how one soul, maybe could make up for the absence of two.
“I know I am hurrying this. But Mariam, love as this was foreign to me until you stepped in. And now that you have, I want us to be together.”
Mariam felt like it was a dream.
“We would have babies. So many of them.”
Mariam could suddenly see their princely toddler with starry eyes. Yes, that was it. Two could definitely make up for two. It would be her lovely home.
Again he seemed to change, not slightly this time.
He was fading away.
She wanted to hold him, tell him how much she missed him, how she thought of him even before he had stepped into her life, how there was perpetual darkness without him, how he was meant to resurrect her insides, to build her house of love from the wrecks that she was in, and rekindle her passion for living, breathing or as silly as waking up.
But before feelings could find words, he was gone like the wind.
Mariam could see the waiter standing in front of her.
“Madam, we will be closing soon. Is your friend coming? Could you tell your friend to arrive soon?”
Mariam could still see her city breathe in the night- the silhouette of blocks of buildings scattered among trees, the zigzag of roads and the thousand invisible people who dreamt incessantly of making it big someday.
One could hear a melodious slow-song come into life through the black pores of JBL speakers, the routine clatter of plates, a laughter from a table nearby, the metallic tap of boots on the marble floor, the muffled sounds of many cars chugging down the highway, but perhaps the most deafening was her long silence.