The concluding part of ‘Never Forget a Ruby‘
As I stood stiff under a jet stream of water, the set of four faces kept throbbing in my head, they all saying something to my eyes squeezed shut. Hemant, Robin, Sonia, Ruby and a stab in my heart. I lathered myself like a soiled bedspread and let the fusillade hit my face till I could take it no more. Time was like water gushing down the drain, never to return. I had let the years slip by while folks had made friends, fallen in and out of love, confessed and cavorted, even cheated and blackmailed. And where was I but in the taiga of my own delusions?
I pulled out the best of my lean wardrobe, a navy blue shirt and khakis. I would use ‘Lauder For Men’ for the first time, a bottle of cologne gifted by Ruby on my birthday, the one I had all but forgotten. A far cry from Mr Darcy, but I was ready for the first ball of my life, like a spark in the wind.
Soon, I ran into the castellated gate of the Girls’ Hostel. The gurkha guarding the entrance was unusually belligerent that day. ‘I am sorry, no boyfriends! Only fathers, brothers, local guardians, three to five PM. Warden’s orders.’ Then I saw a pair of girls walking hurriedly towards the gate. I recognised Anchal who had once taken me as a ‘subject’ to the Psychology lab.
‘Hi Anchal! I hailed her before the Gurkha had the chance to berate them for coming in late. ‘Mind if I request you to pass a message to Ruby?’
‘Oh, hi, Samir! Just shoot!’ She said, glancing around cautiously.
‘I must meet Ruby, you see…. Could you please ask her to come over to Kite Park tomorrow, say at four?’
‘Sure! I must rush now. You guys are in trouble over Hemant Singh, aren’t you? Good night!’ The girls vanished through the wicket gate but not before they were tongue lashed by the fierce guard.
Same navy blue shirt and khakis, more ‘Lauder For Men’. I hit Kite Park at half past three. The sun was hot and high and the air blistering. I could see no one save a pair of dogs wrestling with each other playfully on the grass hosed with water. I wondered at my wisdom of fixing up a meeting there in the scorching heat but there was no turning back now. I sat waiting for Ruby under a dense ashoka tree, facing the river. A thick smoke wafted from the brewery across the river, punching everything with its rotten egg smell.
I was jolted out of my brooding by a lilting ‘hello’ in about an hour and I found myself looking up at Sonia and her brother, whom I had met before. Her brother shook hands with me and wandered off towards the flowerbeds. Where was Ruby? I felt both alarmed and miffed. She sat next to me.
‘I met Ruby at the hostel today.’ She said, staring at the muddy river. ‘Her warden has gone hyper after the questioning session with the police. She is not permitted to go out unless it’s an emergency.’
‘You know what, Samir? I was interrogated for hours by the police in the morning today. Some Inspector Anant –he is a goddamned bully!’
‘I am sorry that happened, Sonia.’ I said.
‘Yes, the woe is me!’ She was fighting back tears.
We sat without speaking for some time.
‘I believe you already know about my fascination with Hemant. The idiot was not worth it but then he has paid with his life now.
‘Sometime in the winters last year we had planned a get together at Nawabganj bird sanctuary –just me and him. But that scoundrel Robin was already lurking there with a camera.
‘He managed to capture a couple of shots when we were a bit intimate –nothing much though.’
Sonia stopped. The wind had changed directions and was now blowing towards me from Sonia. Her tresses kept engulfing my face and it was as if I sat in Eden, inhaling from the spring of femininity.
‘And then they started blackmailing me. It began with Robin showing me a photocopy of our shot. I went mad like a cornered prey and confronted Hemant who said maybe Robin needs some money! I almost committed suicide.’ She sobbed for a while.
We saw her brother walking back towards us. ‘So I thought I’ll meet you too and tell my little secret. Besides, I had to pass Ruby’s message. Then there is this book, which is probably your property, given to me by Hemant.’ She took out my copy of Gone with the Wind from a folder.
‘Ha!’ Astonished at being able to hold that volume again, I turned open its cover, only to be mockeded by a floral message,
‘To the Love of my life: Sonia
‘I am sorry to be the motive of the desecration. I hope you understand.’ And she walked away.
Inspector Anant appeared at my room again the same evening. He seemed rather fond of Thums Up and samosas and I had few reasons to disagree. The cones he had brought were steaming hot. ‘Much better than what I have to tell, Samir.’ Robin was discovered stuck in the ventilator of the washroom, trying to slip away from the hospital; he claimed he was too scared. His mother, ‘Barbara Lillian’, was the first nail the Inspector had driven in his hide.
Where on earth is she? He didn’t know where she was, except that she would send him a picture postcard from time to time. The last one was sent from Norway the previous year.
Then, who is Bela? He didn’t know anyone by that name.
And, who is Stanley Martin? He didn’t know anyone by that name either, but he blanched visibly. Then he was shown the picture postcard from Norway, with the bear on its back. He went limp like an airless balloon.
Who is Gagan Rana? One of his friends, who had earlier offered him an alibi, had confided that Robin could be the stepson of Gagan, a cross-border thug.
When did you shoot the f16? And then Robin was the canary of the year!
They had fleeced Sonia of Rs 100,000 in cash in lieu of the photographs the evening before. Hemant and Robin had boozed till midnight after which they started bickering over the share. Hemant was not willing to fork out more than one fourth to Robin. Robin lost his mind and whisked out a country made pistol and fired through his chest at close range.
X X X
Eventually, I met Ruby on the 8th of May after the examination hours and there was a lot we had to talk, most of it about Hemant and Sonia, and, of course, Robin Rana. We reminisced about the years gone by and the people we had met all along but, strangely, not a word about ourselves. We booked a ticket for her to Nainital in the train leaving the same night. She was going to stay with her sister this summer. We went shopping for chikan dresses deep into the alleys of Chowk where the artisans work under dim lights. Then we ate kulfi at Moti Mahal in silence and she left for the hostel to wind up her affairs there. Her roommate was already gone as were most other girls. We decided to leave for the station together from her hostel.
Away from the chaos of the main station, the platform of North Eastern Railway was quieter and subdued. There was also a lot less grease and grime but it was lighted frugally, to the point of being eerie. Globs of brightness followed patches of gloom at odd, linear intervals. People moved past counting the coach numbers slovenly. Coolies were just the same though, walking in straight lines, balancing loads on their heads, expecting everyone to move over.
We found her berth to the lower right of the compartment and pushed her suitcase under it, securing it with a lock and chain to the hook under the bunk. We managed to squeeze in the carton of books too and walked back to the platform. A sour looking man in a black jacket ambled towards the coach with a fanfold chart and pasted it next to the door. It was quickly mobbed by wait-listed passengers hoping to find their names in print. We felt lucky to be standing under a pair of tube lights when we saw people stumbling and jostling in the semi-darkness elsewhere. A man frying puris was accosting the passersby with ‘cheap and best stuff’. Next to him, a wooden cart was loaded with inflatable toys and pillows. The vendor kept wounding up a little toy monkey beating drums and cymbals.
‘So? Is this the end of Cleo and Nietzsche?’ She spoke, exhaling a deep breath.
‘Perhaps it is.’ It struck me finally.
‘Hey, Nietzsche, we may not meet again!’ she said slowly. ‘But don’t you forget me!’
A small boy who wanted to be in the train with someone started sobbing.
As if that were a prompt, something rolled down my cheek. ‘I am going to miss you, Cleo.’ I kept staring at the frenzied monkey on the toy cart.
I think she flicked a droplet from her lashes. It fell on my wrist.
‘It is sad that things end this way.’ She said softly. ‘We meet someone we become fond of. We are content but not sure how the other one feels. Then we part just like that, sometimes forever.’
‘Yes Ruby!’ I realised how sweet that name felt in my mouth. ‘Then there are times when we keep fooling ourselves about our feelings for that someone.’ I paused before I said something I never thought I would. ‘Like I kept loving you, Ruby, day in and day out and yet I never knew it!’
‘May I have your attention please -’ an announcement crackled on. Her face was a blur because of the mist in mine. She was digging into her handbag intently. A wrinkled old woman was standing near her with an outstretched palm. She found a comb and put it back, then a candy in golden-blue wrapper, which she kept holding, and then a two rupee note that she gave to the beggar.
The arms of the clock were already pointing to 10:00 and we heard a dull wail from the engine. A noisy group had come to see off a newlywed couple and they all wanted to hug and bless them at the same time. The little boy was now giggling, ‘Goodbye! Goodbye!’ Someone whistled back sharply from the other end. The puri vendor’s chant had risen to frenzy. But it was all a vague buzz against the rising clamour of my own mind, she is going, she is going!
Tell me Ruby,’ I heard myself saying, ‘did you ever love me too?’
The train had begun crawling. Touching my fingers fleetingly, she slipped the candy within them and turned away without saying goodbye. I can swear her cheekbones were glistening. Someone helped her step inside the coach. The toy monkey had gone silent. The vendor wouldn’t key him anymore.
The hostel was a long way from the station but I kept walking ahead through the dying traffic. Remembering the myriad moments passed in her company, I wondered what had kept me in a denial about her for so long. And now she was gone like a dream in semi-sleep, never to be seen again. Ruby, my own Cleopatra, my own Scarlett, My own Ophelia! Ruby, who was gone with the wind!
A cool breeze hugged me as I moved up the bridge over Gomti. Remembering her parting gift I fished out the candy from my pocket. Bringing it to my nose, I could still smell her. Like a crestfallen child, I peeled open the last of my treasure. I was about to toss off the golden-blue foil when with a flutter in my heart, I realised there was a tiny white chit sticking to the cookie. It had three capital letters in Ruby’s unmistakable strokes – ‘Y E S’.
I never found out what happened to Ruby. Nor did I hear from her again. Years rolled by and today I have a loving wife and a couple of fairylike daughters. But there is this little wisp of paper somewhere with three letters on them, in the crevices of a faltering heart.