It’s been 15 years since I had met my childhood friend. We share the same birthday, went to the same kindergarten and attended the same high school. She always reminded me of a parallel existence by sheer coincidence. I would marvel at the fact that there are probably ‘N’ number of people born on the same day, same place, same time and lived similar lives and yet, so unique! Each one connected to the other by the same cosmic influence that offers similar experience at some point of time to their cluster!

In my cluster there were just the two of us; my friend and me. At school our birthdays were celebrated together and we shared the same circle of friends. I was naughty and rebellious and quite a handful while my friend was quiet and conforming by nature. Adolescence days were laced with amazing visions and while I day dreamed myself out of my school books, my friend slogged with utter seriousness.

I fell in and out of love and she weighed every option carefully. On one occasion she consoled me after I broke up with by boyfriend, ‘you will be fine, don’t feel bad. We are all there for you….’

‘I don’t need you to be there for me. I want a real man. I want to explore love.’ I spoke from my heart dismissing the sisterhood of classmates.

‘Oh’. She was stunned to silence at such unabashed revelation of my inner desire. That was not quite ladylike in our times. I still remember the expression on her face.

I dropped out of college experimenting with art and feeling my adrenaline rush with each masterpiece that I had created, though they didn’t quite see the light of the day is another story! My friend on the other hand finished her post-graduation and coupled with a course on business management landed in a regular job.

I was blowing in the wind and didn’t much care to remain grounded. Eventually I settled for an advertising agency job. I was good at creative brainstorming, proposing unique insights for product positioning and managed to survive in the industry. I loved the edge. There is a common saying about the ad-world that either you belong there or you don’t. I never really got to analyzing why, but the fact that women could be who they wanted to be and there was no stereotype image to portray- I loved my stay!

Those days I would meet her once in a while flitting out of banks or at the market place. Each time we met we exchanged our phone numbers, but never called.

I was visiting my parents one summer when I learnt that she was getting married to an IT wiz in California. My mother lamented, granny cried, dad sighed and I was only too relieved to return to Mumbai, to the production house, my sanctum. Couple of years went by, actually decades. And before I realized it, my hair had strands of grey, midriff showed and weight accumulated overnight on my hips. I was on the right side of forty or was it the wrong side?

I was desperate to settle down. Most men I had known in my younger days were now pot bellied balding dads who responded obediently to ‘his master’s voice.’ I do not wish to talk about the odd scrap I had with a much married man but after cynically weighing out my options I decided that matrimonial site was the best way out. I registered and was instantly rewarded with a basket of choices that I could customize as per my needs! Every week I received a series of bio-data from the agency and after shortlisting the applicants I trashed them in the bin. Internet romance was more like an online game to me and I indulged for a while as it cut down on my going out expenses and I spent more time at home. Eventually I was bored and lonely once again. The dramatic entry of an old boyfriend, a bolt from the blue was the answer to my prayers and I promptly deleted my matrimonial site account.

Before, we knew it, we were engaged and my parents heaved a sigh of relief. Suddenly my life was more structured. We went over and over our growing up days, the fun and frolic till we drifted apart. Neither had a clue of what went wrong nor did we indulge in any reality check, secretly fearing that the outcome may not be palatable. The fact that we had found each other when time was kind of running out was the best thing that could have happened to us.

One evening when I came home after a crazy shoot marathon, my fiancé told me;

‘My IIT batch mate and his wife would be joining us for dinner tomorrow. They might just accompany us to Goa. Is it ok with you?’

The shoots had kept me on my toes for a while and I was looking forward to spending the weekend with him at Goa, drinking and sleeping by the seaside. I wasn’t too keen on playing host to his US-based buddy and his wife, a couple I didn’t know from Adam and couldn’t care less, but I was too tired to get into any altercation and simply nodded my head as he packed the entire span of four years of his IIT days in ten minutes!

The couple landed at 8 P.M. sharp and to my pleasant surprise it was my long lost friend from my cluster.

We hugged each other tight and spoke incessantly, not giving any opportunity to the two men as they watched us with amused eyes. We were back to our teens. We spoke of a dozen people that we had known and the list of common friends was exhaustive.

‘You have made a name in the ad world I am told. You always had that spunk.’ She complimented me on my success.

‘You were always good in what you did.’ I wasn’t too sure what she did, so I raved about her academics.

‘Well, I was the hardworking sorts and you never studied but still managed to scrape through. Whenever I am in our country (did I hear a stress on our?) I meet up with the school gang and they always speak of you. Is it true that you attend fashion shows and you know a couple of Bollywood stars? Have you met Amitabh Bachchan?’

‘Well, it is part of my job as we shoot with them, that’s nothing.’ I laughed.

‘No, but you did get lucky didn’t you? I always attend the Pravasi Diwas programs to see our celebs. Last time we had Shah Rukh Khan, Katherina and Ranveer. I had high fever but I pushed myself. Such opportunities do not come often.’

‘Yeah’. All we were discussing for over an hour was Bollywood gossip. The men got busy drinking scotch and I played the perfect host, setting up platters of snacks before serving an elaborate dinner. I wanted to show her how successful I was at maintaining a work-life balance.

‘I can never imagine you so domesticated. Wait till I tell the girls about it. They will not believe me. They always felt you are too much of a hippie.’ She laughed in delight. Questions that were in her mind for over the last two decades tumbled out one after the other and definitely without any tact.

‘Do you remember that lanky boy you went around with? I would see you riding his bike. Where is he? Are you in touch with him? Who was that other tall guy you dated? What’s his name? How many guys did you date? Didn’t you take to smoking since college days? You smokers never care for your lungs. Do you know how injurious it is? Does your fiancé know about your colorful past?’ she made statements actually.

I was being watched. So I turned my full attention on her.

‘How is US treating you?’
‘Nothing like ones own country. I miss India, I miss home and mom and dad. Life outside is pretty hard you know, not quite what we see in the movies.’

‘I know life is not Hollywood,’ how dumb did she think I was. ‘Where do you work?’ I directed the conversation to more specifics.

‘I work with an IT company. It is the best in Texas.’

‘Which one?’

‘TNV You won’t know the name.’

‘And what do you do there?’

‘I am handling a couple of products. In US we work fixed hours and there is thankfully no unpaid overtime like in India. On weekends nobody picks any call and still we are so professional.’

‘Couldn’t agree with you more! The recession hit its worst in the US.’ I was getting impatient.

‘It is not like that. Look at us. We just bought a13 roomed house with 4 living rooms, 2 formal and 2 informal. Moreover, my husband is in IT and they garnered growth in spite of the recession. You should study the economic indicators. It was a global impact and we got out of it. China and India just got lucky because of huge population influx. You must ask my husband. He will explain to you the balance of global power and economies. The phenomenon is so cool. Hey, do you have a good sex life?’

‘Why? Is that an indicator to the global phenomenon?’ I teased her.

‘Don’t be silly. I thought may be you would like to discuss some girlie stuff. It’s been so long…’ She giggled.

‘I did that when I was sixteen. You seem to be growing up now.’

‘Oh please. You were a wild kid. You know that. I never would dare to live the way you did. Thank god, you found a good guy who is willing to accept you the way you are. I am so happy for you.’

‘Accept me? What’s wrong with me? He is not doing me any favor. He is not a saint I can assure you that, before you start labeling me as an extraordinary species. Many of our school friends did a couple of bold things and some are even sleeping around big time after their marriage but they do it on the sly and don’t have the guts to face the consequences. It suits them fine. I did it because I wanted it then and I am willing to live with it.’

‘That happens only in novels, not in real life. You were never tactful. Good Indian men want regular women who have done the right things all through and have the track record to provide stability to their lives. That’s the bottom line.’

‘No, the bottom line is while the guy has invested every bit of his brain and energy to ensure a good career and now that he is overspent he needs someone to take care of his belongings. Bottom line is he wants to call the shots and he needs a subservient partner who will worship him, her lord and master. Not to forget, bring up his children in the right way, his way. But are these so called righteous women really that submissive?’ I blurted out.

‘What is wrong with wanting the right woman? You sound bitter. Look at all our friends abroad. They live in swell houses with swimming pool, Jacuzzi and the works. They go on international holidays. They buy the best of saris and jewelry every time they are in India. They all have a mind of their own. Would you still call them servants?’ A triumphant smile pasted on her lips as she eyed my tiny Bombay-flat. I was sure my living cum dining room was half the size of one of her many bathrooms.

I chose silence. I couldn’t believe that I was actually reasoning out with her, justifying my life to the most insignificant person around. A sharp ring tone of ‘It happens only in India’ brought me back to senses. She picked up her phone.

‘Ma, I have found the blue packet. Yes I have my medicines…’

I picked up my drink and walked up to the balcony. Her husband smiled at me and complimented me on the view from the twentieth floor.

In a minute my dear friend was next to me.

‘That was ma,’ she explained. ‘I will call her later. We have so much to catch up.’

Then she tugged at her husband’s arm. ‘So what were you telling my friend?’

‘I really like this balcony. Great view buddy.’ He clapped my fiancé on his shoulders.

‘He is just being polite, hardly a match for million dollar houses,’ I didn’t lose the opportunity.

‘Oh come on. He likes your flat. It is so cozy. But you can do better. May be just adding a little color would brighten it up. These days solids are in. Why don’t you get rid of the patterned upholstery and create an illusion of space with long mirrors?’

‘We like it simple.’ I smiled icily.

She ignored me completely and approached my fiancé.

‘So when are you guys tying the knot?’ her curiosity knew no bound.

‘Sometime next year’ I said.

‘I thought after you finished this project,’ my fiancé’s face was incredulous.

‘We’ve been over this baby. We’ll talk about it,’ I held his hand.

‘No, that’s not fair.You make announcements that are surprises to me. Hello! I am in the picture too. Do I have anything to contribute? He studied me carefully.

‘Ok. Tomorrow we will fix a date.’ I laughed and hugged him tight. He stood motionless and his chest felt as solid as a rock.

‘Snap out of it guys. Let my wife not con you into giving up your freedom. I can see you guys are having a ball. Enjoy it as long as it lasts. That’s important. You never know when love equals to bonded slavery.’

‘I simply asked them when they are getting married. They are engaged right? Why is it such a problematic question that you need to get to the root of everything? I was just asking casually. I didn’t know that it would be so awkward. I am sorry. Looks like you guys are not sure yet.’ She laughed nervously.

‘Do you know what you want?’ he snapped.

‘Of course I do. My home with you, my lifestyle and the holiday junkets and like any other woman I love to shop. Our marriage is the most important thing for me.’

‘Is that enough to live a happy life? Marriage is just a set routine, isn’t it? Do you know what I want?’

‘After 15 years I don’t have to find out what you want. I know you too well.’ She giggled.

‘Tell me’.

‘Tell you what?’ her laugh was phony.

‘What do I want? What all did I get out of all my wants?’

‘Oh God! You want me to prepare a list for you and start ticking. This is surely not the place. We are a happy and successful couple and I won’t have it any other way.’ She walked away from her husband.

She sat on the couch, wiping her flustered face.

‘I’d like a coke, please.’ She waved her hand.

‘Do you want some ice?’ I asked.

‘No. I won’t risk it. I am careful of water. We always carry mineral water bottles wherever we go.’

‘Have some kebabs.’ I picked up the platter.

‘No, don’t bother. You can serve dinner. It’s getting late and we need to get back in time.’

‘They’ve just poured themselves another drink.’ I said.

‘Please hurry darling.’ She called out loud.

‘I am in no hurry. I am meeting my buddy after ages and I want to enjoy a few drinks with him. I thought you girls had a lot to catch up.’ He was sarcastic.

‘We can catch up again. It’s getting late. They have work tomorrow. There is no point inconveniencing them. She will have to clean up late. Come on finish your drink.’

‘Let him have his drink. We are used to late nights so don’t bother about cleaning up and all that. Please relax. We are happy to have you over.’ My fiancé sat next to her.

‘I want to have a good time with my friend. Do you understand that?’ her husband stumped in. ‘I don’t think so. You are too selfish to notice anyone other than your own bloody self. You were saying a few minutes back that you knew every damn thing about me. This is what I want.’ He pointed at his glass and walked back to the balcony. He stood still looking down at the city below.

‘Men…they are so funny.’ she looked at me and laughed nervously.

‘What is the matter with you?’ I asked her. ‘Just let him have his drink in peace. Why are you getting so agitated?

‘How will you ever understand? You are not married and have not been that long with any man to know the dynamics between real couples. I have given this man 15 years of my life and still he wants so much more from me.’

‘I don’t need to spend 15 years to find out whether it is working or not. It’s not the years but the moments that count. Sorry to tell you, your big talks bore me and your marriage is a hollow sham.’

‘Miss 21st century single lady, your life is an empty nest.’ She laughed hysterically.

‘I have a home and this man spends every night in my bed. Look at yourself, an old maid and still not settled. You never know when your bed will be empty and you lie cold and miserable.’

‘Shut up. Don’t give me that crap. I can see it written all over you how many nights you have felt his warmth. Months may be?’

‘You bitch. How dare you?’

‘I dare. The moment you saw us together, you could not handle it. My freedom and chilled out life was too much for you to digest. You tried hard to screw it up for us. But guess what? You can’t do a thing. I am who I choose to be. My life doesn’t depend on any man. The irony is that you need his approval to breathe and not give him enough room to air his lungs. To seek his attention you will do everything that falls in a plan but nothing is spontaneous. Living in America is your biggest cover up. That is your plan. Everything about US is a plan. If you forget the plan your day is done.’ I laughed my guts out. ‘Dinner’ I called out loud.

I watched them nibble at the food while I sat on the reclining chair enjoying my drink.

They left thanking us for the evening with plans of connecting up soon.

‘We need to talk sweetheart.’ I could see him changing in the bedroom.

‘My brains are too fucked up today. Can we do it in the morning?’

‘Too late. I will be leaving for the shoot and be back on Friday evening.’

‘Let’s talk on Friday then. I am not saying sometime next year. We have a lot of time when it comes to us. The world can wait for you, highness.’ he chuckled.

‘Can you hold me once?’ I looked up at him.

‘Too tired honey! I am in no mood for all that mush.’

‘Go to bed.’ I threw a cushion at him.

‘Night ma’am.’ He crashed on the bed. I sat drinking in the dimly lit room and stared at the ceiling. I counted all that I had, all that I was in control of. Well, I have a decent job, a fantastic team, difficult clients, great sex, close friends and good food. The combination was worth it. It was way past midnight and suddenly I felt tired. The day’s strain started to tell on me and my back ached. Slowly I dragged myself to bed. I put an arm around him and listened to his soft snores. Lying next to him, I thought of my parents. As a kid I always felt secure when I would lie in between them. That was home. This flat, this room, this bed was not even remotely close to home. I was lying next to a stranger, not the boy I once knew and not the man I am trying to know. In the darkness of night it could have been anyone. I felt cold.

Then I turned away and cuddled into a ball and said to myself, homeless. Yes I am lonely. She was right. Tears trickled down my face.

I stared into the darkness. I saw my friend cold and lonely, lying cuddled up crying herself to sleep; a single woman trapped in a marriage desperately reaching out and another outside the cage watching her in despair. We were destined to be similar; the cluster by God’s design!

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