Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Green Fountain Pen

As Valentine’s day came and passed, I began thinking about all the different loves of my life. I am not talking about the various things I am passionate about, and these are numerous. No, I am talking about the men I have been infatuated with. These have been numerous too. By now, you all know that it takes me absolutely no time to build up a fantasy land, replete with fantasy situations and fantasy romances. Throughout my life, I have built fantasies around many things – places, objects, music, animals… the list is endless. Individuals of the opposite sex occupy no small part on this list. Talking about all of them is going to take too long. Maybe I’ll start a series on them. But today is devoted to the charming W. who gave me a beautiful green fountain pen.

On the street that we lived on when I was growing up, there were no other children my age. Everyone who was not an adult was either an infant, or belonged to that delightful section of teenage where one firmly believes that one is an adult, and is always shocked to see that one’s parents don’t think so. In any case, once I returned home from school, other than my sister I had no one else to play with. The infants were boring and played ridiculously childish games that I thought were shockingly stupid and completely beneath my level of maturity. And those in their late adolescence treated me with a sort of benign pity, as if to sympathize with how young I was while also thanking the heavens that they were not that young and they never again had to be. Interestingly enough, all of these arrogant youngsters happened to be boys. The girls of such an age seemed to be secreted in the inner chambers of their houses. Hyderabad in those days used to be a much more conservative city than it is today. We lived close to the Old City, and it was not at all unusual to see burqa-clad women walk the streets, and for less-than opulent houses to have inner chambers that functioned as the women’s quarters. In any case, this was where the young women were – shielded from the eyes of the young men. But this is beside the point – it is the boys, or rather a boy that is of interest to this story.

Two doors down from my house, was the home of a large family. There was a grandfather, and a grandmother, and numerous uncles and aunts, and an absolute army of children – whose ages ranged from the early twenties to a few months, though still none in my age group. I always wondered as a child how they all fit into that one small house. As I grew older, I noticed that the presence or absence of the members of this clan seemed to rotate with the seasons. January and February belonged to Uncle X and his family, May and June to Auntie Y, and so on. It turns out that only the grandparents actually lived in the house, their numerous offspring - most of whom lived abroad - turned up about once a year to visit them.

One summer holiday, when I was about 12 years old, a new kid whom I had never noticed before surfaced within this clan. I call him a kid, but in reality he was about 7 years older than I was. He was cheerful and charming, but ever so intrusive. I was used to regarding this family (and indeed the inhabitants of my entire street), as interesting subjects from an anthropological viewpoint, and observed everybody closely. For the most part, they never noticed, and if they did, they all ignored me. That is, all except one. The new kid started back – as though I provided him with as much amusement as he did me. He would even go a bit further – he’d follow me around and stare at me. It’s not quite creepy as it sounds because I think he did it as a way of putting me in my place. And like all the other young men his age, he regarded me with a sort of benevolent pity. And he always had a smile playing at the corners of his mouth – an open and ready smile. He seemed to find my embarrassment, and my discomfort enormously entertaining. I hated him. At times I had an advantage over him – the vantage point from which I did most of my ‘anthropological observing’ was a section of my house which had a sort of screen one could look through without being seen. From this vantage point, set higher up than the single-story house he lived in, I observed him go about his day. It was sheer delight to be able to watch him – he had the other children devotedly following him about, and he seemed to be a favorite amongst those older than him. He was charming and delightful. I never could hear what he was saying, but he had everyone in bits and pieces. And watching him made me smile. Two months later, he disappeared.

Two years later, he miraculously appeared again. This time, I was older and wiser, and did not spend too much time perched behind the screen wall on my roof. I had my tenth class board examinations to study for – they were a year away, but my mother made sure I was at my books each day in preparation. Every once in a while, I’d see him in the street and he’d smile at me with the same kind of benevolent sympathy that he had done two years before. But this time, it infuriated me. What was his problem, I’d mutter to myself, fuming! I was fourteen, and practically and adult! What did he mean by smiling at me in such a pathetic fashion? How dare he? Did he not see that I no longer had time for this? He might be here to enjoy his summer holidays, but I had no time to waste. I would seethe with anger at him. But anyone who has been fourteen, and has professed hatred for someone who once fascinated them, knows that beneath the burning passion of fourteen year-old hatred, beats the heart of a much more tender feeling – fully blown infatuation. I was smitten by him. The more he treated me like a child, the more I wanted him to feel I was his equal. The more benevolently he smiled at me, the harder I fought back the tears. The more good-natured he was, the more violently I sobbed at night. He haunted my thoughts day and night. I experienced a rare and beautiful heartache, all summer long.

Two weeks before he left Hyderabad, one balmy summer evening found us both on our terraces. I was reading an old and battered book. He was playing with one of the numerous infants who inhabited his house. I would look coyly at him, and he would smile. It took me all my courage to stay put and not disappear indoors. Surprisingly, it seemed that he was finding it difficult to say something to me. This was not lost on me, and it made my heart ache even harder for him. Finally he spoke, and I heard his voice for the first time. There was nothing spectacular in his voice or what he asked me, but it was sweet relief to hear it. He asked me what I was reading. I told him, he asked me if he could see the book, and he scaled the terrace that separated our homes. As I passed the book to him, he smiled, and I saw that he was shy too. It was the closest I had ever been to him, and I was weak at the knees. He flipped through the pages of the book and then asked to borrow it. I nodded assent – I would give anything to talk with him again. He asked me my name. At the time, I had been reading another book in which the child-heroine was called “Susanna”. I told him that was my name. I knew instantly that he did not believe it – he knew my name already. But he said nothing, and told me it was a beautiful name. In that moment, knowing that he went along with my little falsehood to humor me, I loved him more than ever. His name, he said, was W.

All week long, I repeated his name to myself countless times. I built beautiful fantasies of a shared life together. It was the most delightful week of my fourteenth year. A week later, he returned my book to me. On one of the pages, he had written his name and his address in a faraway land. He also seemed to have scented the page – because it smelt wonderfully like him. He wanted me to write to him, he said. And he gave me a slim box wrapped in festive foil. He bade me open it, and I did. In the box was a green Parker fountain pen. It was beautiful. I promised to write. A week later when he left, I sobbed myself to sleep for a fortnight. We exchanged two letters. In the letters, he called me Susanna. But the intensity of my feelings for him was lost in them, and I looked forward to his return two years later.

When he did, we were both older. He tried to talk to me once, but out of fear of something unknown, I was unkind to him. He left again, only to return a year later. This time around, we got an invitation to his wedding. I felt empty when I saw the invitation, and although I knew that I did not love him, I was jealous of his new bride. At the end of that summer, I left to go to college in Kerala. The next time I saw him was four years later. I was twenty-one, and he was twenty-eight. He had always been handsome, but now he was radiantly so. He had lost none of the charming and impish smile, but it was tempered with an easy and mature air that became him well. One evening, as I was walking along a different street of the colony, a motorbike pulled up beside me. I looked around sharply, and there he was. He had a small child on the bike with him, whom he introduced to me as his son. The child had his father’s good looks, and good nature. ‘Can we not be friends?’ W. asked, and I said that we could. This exchange was neither bursting with supressed passion like our first had been, nor bitter like our later meeting had been. It was easy, and light. It was also our last. I have not seen him since. As long as my sister lived in India, each summer I’d ask her if he had come home for the holidays. I don’t love him anymore, maybe I never actually did love him. But I dearly cherish my childish infatuation.

The green Parker fountain-pen was stolen from me at my college-hostel. It was well-loved and well-used, and I never wrote in my diary with any other pen until it disappeared one day from my desk. I still have the diary in which I wrote of my childish fantasies about W. And on my bookshelf in Ames, sits a book whose inner pages hold a long-faded scent, and a slightly smudgy name and address that remind me each time I read them of balmy summer evenings, and beautiful heartache.


Aarti said...

Wow! Quite a read (and very beautifully written!)

Rhett said...

Ohh... that was so beautiful that I don't have any words at all. I WILL preserve this to read this again at later times.
I did also love at fourteen years of age, and unlike you, had the advantage of being loved back -- in fact, it was the tender love I received that bid me love her back, which I did. I loved that girl deeply, and yearn for her today, unendurably. Unlike yours, I would talk to her everyday, and every night she'd come in my dreams. When we stopped talking -- and for no reason that -- she didn't stop coming to my dreams. She does even now, and will continue to, for a very long time, if not ever, and unbidden which kind of gives me the strange belief that she loves me still.

Azalea said...

Thanks both of you. I had a lot of fun writing it - it felt like I was 14 years old all over again.

Rhett - I envy you your innocent love. You should get back in touch with her, especially since there really was no reason why you stopped talking. Vive la amor!