It was still dawn when I stepped out of the cab and walked towards the entry gate of the Delhi airport. The early morning February air was pleasantly cold.
I was travelling to Bengaluru to attend a college friend’s wedding. It had been four years since we graduated from the same college. This wedding was also going to be a reunion of our batch mates. But what I didn’t know was that the reunion would begin much ahead of time; right in the queue in front of the airline counter.
I was almost sure it was her. Same height! Same long hair! Same complexion! Curiosity had my eyes glued to her. And then about 60-odd seconds later, when she turned, she proved me right. Urmila stood two places ahead of me in that queue. We had never met after the college farewell. And, now I could see my favourite Morse code arrow tattooed across her sternum, the one I had so admired for its direction and intensity back in the days. There it lay, staring and piercing my soul.
Those were my days of timidity, out of the protective confines of a school near the hills, into a big city college. Having spent most of my younger life in a boarding school in the hills among girls and nuns, the presence of boys intimidated me.
Add to that the fact that I was left to fend for myself in this big, bad world of the outside. Independent, I always was in school, but outside I had not been in the boarding. One weekly day in the malls of Dehradun was not enough to make me worldly. So, when I met bold Urmila in college I was pleased to have her befriend me. Dark and grungy in her attire, she was my opposite. A naval piercing, a stud in her tongue, jet black hair with green streaks that she tied in a French braid and a couple of tattoos down her back and across her chest, she was what I could not imagine myself as even in my dreams.
I was in pastels, beige trousers or blue jeans and simple floral or printed tops, long poker straight chestnut hair, pastel floral converse shoes and a Nike backpack. On days that I was really bold, I would dab on nude lip gloss.
I had met her on the first day in college. I walked into class that first day and sat on the last row. “Hi!” said the voice next to me. It was Urmila. I opened my mouth to respond as I turned, but gaped at the stud in her tongue. Gulp!
“Its not painful!” Smirked Urmila and continued scribbling a crucifix on her notepad as the lecturer gave instructions on the first day of college.
“You can talk to me; mommy won’t scold you!” She smirked further when she got no response from me.
I sat humiliated in my ignorance of the world out there. It wasn’t that I looked down upon her, rather I looked down upon myself in her presence. I was just not cool enough for her and nothing I said would befit her cool quotient. I was simply in awe of this first cool person who had spoken with me my entire life.
I observed her doodle in silence through the entire lecture. Just as she was about to leave, at the stroke of the bell, I called out, “I am Gautami.”
“So, you decided to pucker up Gautami! Do you want to walk together to the next class?”
As we walked down the corridor, people were definitely staring. I was not accustomed to attention in my life. I looked straight and, well, slightly floor-bound. In the distance, I could see the end of the corridor where the floor met the wall. My eyes fixated at that horizontal line on the wall, I covered the distance till the last room on the corridor with my head hung in unease.
Urmila, on the other hand, held her head high, proud of the various ornamented holes and coloured prints of pain on her body. Chewing gum, she walked in to class and headed straight to the last row. This was a first in my life. I had always wanted to be the last bencher, but could never break the mould I had set for myself all through school.
Thus, day one in college passed by in external humiliation, yet internal joy mixed with anxiety of whether I would continue to be accepted by this person I aspired to be; the rebellion I craved for. Urmila, did not leave me!
Over the months, we became best buddies. I streaked my hair blonde, added a lot of black in my wardrobe, donned silver rings and black bands in my fingers and wrists and all in all started rebelling (my definition of rebellion).
As our camaraderie blossomed, she started visiting home. At one such visit, as we sat finishing a tutorial Urmila confessed, “You know Gautami, I’ve always wanted to wear pink.”
“Really? And, I’ve always wanted to wear black.”
Urmila shifted uncomfortably on my bed as she tugged at a dog-ear on her notepad. “My mother used to wear a lot of pink. She was the prettiest woman I knew, from what I remember. She had thick, black hair like mine. Pink was her favourite colour. She had a beautiful pink Mysore silk sari with tiny flowers printed on it. She often wore it to office.”
I knew this was sensitive information, but I wanted to be there for Urmila, for my best friend. I could sense the immensity of what was to come, and I wanted to help in any which way she wanted. “How did it all happen Urmila?” I whispered.
“It was all very simple Gautami, and its the banality of what happened that irks me. Is death that simple an event? There was no warning what-so-ever, no build up, no premonition; just a moment that passed.”
I kept quiet, I could feel her go back in time and sorrow, and I wanted to reach out to her, and the only means I had in hand was my silence, presence and hopefully understanding.
“Mom had taken a day off from work for Dad’s 40th birthday. I was seven years old and was off from school as well. We were organizing a surprise party for Dad. Mom had called some of his friends from college for dinner. He knew we were planning some celebration, but his college friends were the surprise.”
“She was cleaning the fridge. She felt the maid did not do a thorough job of it, and took it upon herself. As she squatted and cleaned the lowest shelf, Dad called. She rose to run and pick up his call but slipped and fell on her back. A door stopper jutted out of the floor, and she banged her head on it. That’s it, she passed away on the spot.
I was playing with a Barbie on the dining table right next to the kitchen. When I opened the door to look at where the thud I had heard had originated, I saw her face cringe in pain and her eyes roll back up.”
“That’s it Gautami, that’s it!”
“My mother died while I was playing with the Barbie, a pink Barbie! And, that is when my life became black.”
In that moment that engulfed us, there was nothing I could say to console Urmila. I hugged her tight as she cried; silent drops of tears rolled down her cheeks. I wanted to take her tears, I wanted to take her pain, I kissed her...on the lips... she kissed me back.
Over the months, Urmila took solace in my normalcy. We became best friends and a couple. I gained confidence and individuality in her rebellion. We made other friends and both of us started trending towards the median path of life, of colour for her and conviction for me. In the second year, Urmila also changed subjects and, eventually, we drifted apart.
Now, four years on, life had turned around full circle. Urmila and I had completely lost touch post graduation. She moved forward into Fine Arts and I started MBA in a private university. I was married off during my final year of MBA, at the tender age of 22 as was customary in most Marwari business families.
As I stood in the queue at the airport staring at Urmila, I could see she had changed. Something seemed to have moved, and though there was no pink in her clothes, the black had taken a shade of grey.
As soon as she turned, her eyes met mine and there was instant recognition in them. But, though, I was taken over by a sense of warm familiarity I also had a strong urge to duck. My mind seemed to feel ashamed and embarrassed at what now was by the second being perceived by my mind as an adolescent fancy, a trial and error.
My heart defended. College life was for rebellion and new experiences. Everybody did something in college they regretted. And we had moved on amicably, in fact we had just drifted apart from being best buddies, to girlfriends, back to best buddies, just buddies, and finally losing touch. My humiliation could not be betrayal could it? Was I not standing up for her? Was I ashamed of Urmila, my friend, or my rebellion?
I was still wondering whether or not to twist my lips onto a smile when I saw Urmila begin to twist hers; a sense of joy seemed to flow into her eyes. That’s when my husband joined in the queue behind me with my little baby girl perched up on the suitcases on the luggage trolley. I did not know what to do; I fumbled in my handbag for nothing.
Her eyes saw my confusion. And, when my husband and daughter formed a family with me, her eyes seemed to understand the anxiety in mine. A sense of warmth now seemed to flood her eyes and Urmila walked away ...past me. Her Monalisa smile telling me she was still my best friend.
While we completed check in, from the corner of my eye, I saw her speak on her phone and wait for someone. As we headed for a security check, I saw her walk past the exit gate where she hugged a pretty girl. I could see the girl had Urmila’s mother’s thick black hair and was dressed in soft pink. They spoke and through the glass I saw them leave.
© 2016 by Donna Abraham
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No part of this story and its cover, including but not limited to PDFs, audio, video, or other mediums, including mediums that may be added in the future, may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, photocopying, or recording, without express dated and signed permission in writing from the copyright holders.