Mehul and I were best friends since nursery. I knew her from the first day of my school life when the tap of my nose and eyes were flowing with equal fervor, punctuated with loud cries of mourning. My teacher held on to my arm and led me to sit beside a small, quiet-looking girl. While the rest of the class resembled a battle-field-in-mourning with a symphony of cries in different scales and tempo – she was the odd one out. She was quiet but there was a welcoming grin taped to her lips. But what immensely attracted me to her was her earrings – that had a tiny golden ball dangling from each. I was amused. I took possession of her ear-lobes and began playing with the tiny ball of her ear-rings. She grimaced a little, having her earlobes being in control of a total stranger, but did not let go of her smile nevertheless. And from that moment onwards we became inseparable.
It was in our second standard that we realized that we were not just best friends in school but we also lived two lanes apart. That only helped us bond with each other better. We made total use of our vacations in the small attic room of our house, pouring over film-magazines that were ‘strictly forbidden for young people’ and drooling over the likes of Govinda and Rishi Kapoor. The fact that they were aging heroes and were gradually resembling oil-barrels over time didn’t disturb us one bit till one Akshay Kumar caught our attention.
We were also crazy fans of Pete Sampras and though “Love All” was the only sane tennis related word to us, his cute boyish grin just made our hearts skip a beat.
The attic-room was also our store-house of stolen items – grandma’s green mango-pickle, Mehul’s Aunt’s home-made Chawanprash and variety of biscuits and chocolates….When we were in eleventh class a stolen cigarette too made its way to our treasure-trove. We spent seventeen minutes trying to light it up with a matchstick and when it did light up it let out such a horrible fume that we spent the rest of our time trying to ‘ shoo away ’ the smell.
I adored and loved Mehul, more than any of my cousins or sisters but there was one thing that always bothered me – her beauty ! Mehul was not fair – more on the wheatish side but she had a strange kind of beauty that made people turn around and take a second look. She was perhaps one of the most beautiful girls in our peer group though she hardly ever bothered to take special care of herself. And though I was proud to have her as my friend I was secretly jealous of her. I hate to admit it but it is the truth that her looks were an annoying twitch that my heart faced every now and then. And that was one reason why I took special care of myself –taking time to match myself to the level of her beauty. But irrespective of the buried feeling in my heart I loved her too much to let go of her.
But it was not to be. We had just completed our twelfth class board exams when she brought in the news that her father was getting a transfer to Raniganj. It was the saddest day of my seventeen year old life.
There were still two weeks remaining for the transfer and we spent almost all of those fourteen days crying in each other’s arms. We promised eternal friendship to each other, vowed to write a letter every alternate day and call each other every alternate week. Though secretly we were not quite sure about the telephone call part because in those days when Pagers were the only modern gadgets and mobile phones were a luxury item even for the industrialists, phone calls were definitely expensive and way beyond the reach of teenagers like us.
The final moment came and we sobbed like children, not willing to let go of each other. Just before the Taxi zoomed away I pushed in a few jasmine flowers from our garden into her palm. “Keep these safely Mehul. Our friendship is like the fragrance of these flowers – eternal! Whenever you see these you would remember me.”, I told her. Two crystals of warm tears streamed down her cheeks…..
It always happens this way – the promises that we make as young people seldom stand the test of time – they melt away into the maze of our responsibilities and responses to life’s needs…And obviously the promise that Mehul and I made to each other couldn’t withstand the pressures of ‘growing up’. Letters became irregular and phone calls became rarer till it boiled down to sending only greeting cards on special occasions. That too stopped altogether when I went abroad to complete my education. Mehul became a part of my childhood-parcel of dolls, clips and memorabilia…..And she would have perhaps remained tucked away in an unknown corner of my heart had I not met one of my ex-classmates during my first shopping-spree after having landed back to my homeland after fifteen long years.
“ Nandita, aren’t you ?”. A pat and a strange squeaky voice had startled me from my bargaining marathon.
I took some time to place a name to the powdered face and kohl-rimmed eyes.
“ Vandana ? You are Vanadana, right ?”, I asked her, secretly hoping that my memory wasn’t failing me.
“Ofcourse yaar ! Where were you all these days ? And what are you doing now ? Married or not ?”…..her barrage of questions just wouldn’t stop.
“ Too many of them aren’t they ? So it is better we sit at a place and do this question-answer session”, I winked at her.
“ Yeah why not…”, She laughed out loud.
We headed to the nearest coffee shop and spoke for over an hour – starting from our school days to our career, family life – we covered almost every topic.
And just as I was paying the bill she mentioned about Mehul.
“ Hey, do you remember Mehul ? That best friend of yours?”
My heart skipped a beat. Did I hear Mehul ? But before I could ask she spoke again.
“ I met her about a month ago…At first I couldn’t even recognize her….Infact I wouldn’t have know it was Mehul had she not come forward to introduce herself….She can’t be recognized at all…To be honest, she actually looks horrific…..”.
Vandana must have read the puzzled look on my face; she toned down her voice and said, “ Vitiligo…she is suffering from Vitiligo. Shouldn’t be rude yaar but frankly with all those patchy look she did look kind of scary…”.
Something went amiss within me…I couldn’t believe my ears…Mehul ? The most beautiful looking girl of our group ? Could this really happen to her? Dazed, I somehow managed to note down Mehul’s phone number from Vandana before I bid her good bye.
I knew I had to call up Mehul….That broken cord of friendship had to be retied…..
The bus stopped at Chandanpara. “ Not very far away from Kolkata, yaar….just an hour’s journey”, Mehul had told me over the telephone, after her excitement had finally managed to ebb down a little. “ And when you get down at Chandanpara just take the road opposite to the bus-stand….walk straight, straight, straight…right through the gate ….into my arms”, she had giggled aloud like a child.
Chandanpara looked exactly the way she had described me – lush green trees, lazy cyclists and women washing utensils near every pond.
I re-adjusted my saree and patted my face with my handkerchief to lightly dust away the tiredness. Don’t know why but I had taken an extra hour to prepare myself today – compact, a light coat of blush-on, eye-liner….I didn’t forget to even add a dash of mascara to add volume to my eye-lashes. I felt guilty, angry and annoyed at myself for this cruelty but couldn’t resist myself nevertheless. Was I taking a sweet revenge ? For what ? Why ? Just because she was once more beautiful than I? I had no answers. But the selfish giant in me harped on the fact constantly that somehow I had to look good.
For a few seconds I blinked my eyes….I just couldn’t believe that the strangely uneven complexioned being, standing on the other side of the gate was actually Mehul. And as Vandana had said, she did look kind of scary. She screamed her lungs out for near about twenty seconds before embracing me tight.
“Oh Nandu, Nandu, Nandu I can’t believe it’s you ! Can God be so kind ? Oh Lord….I am the happiest today”, she shrieked in delight. Warm in her embrace, somehow I couldn’t reciprocate her delight with equal mirth. I somehow didn’t dare look into her eyes.
“Come in yaar…please, please come in”. She held my hand and led me into the hall of her pink colored house. There, inside the hall, more surprises seemed to wait for me. Six children ranging from about five to fourteen years sat on a sofa watching a cartoon programme on the television. Taking a break from their recreation they giggled as they watched Mehul behave like a kid herself.
“Yours ?”, I asked, staring at them in disbelief. “Yeah, mine”, she answered. I could sense the pride in her voice. I would have asked some more questions but I was startled by the appearance of a middle-aged man. He seemed to emerged out of nowhere – just like a genie – a perforated ladle in his hand and a towel thrown causally about his left shoulder. He looked handsome and had a childish twinkle in his eyes.
“ Ma’am just shove your bag anywhere around and sit down with my army. The potato curry is ready and hot puris are on their way….Hot puris and aloo subzi – that is a dream combo anyday and my speciality too !” His tornado-like appearance knocked me off my wits and before I could gather myself and re-organise my thoughts he spoke again.
“I am sure Mehul didn’t bother to mention about me so I am taking the responsibility of introducing myself – I am the caretaker, cook, driver cum manager of this small family. Incidentally I am also the husband of your best friend. “. Saying this he instantly broke into a thunderous laughter. ‘Belly Laughter’ – my French husband would have remarked, had he been around.
A hearty meal and loads of laughter later we sat at the banks of the large pond – Mehul and I. She had spread a mat under the shade of the mango tree just near the edge of the pond. Finally we were both left alone. An uneasy silence enveloped us – we really didn’t know where to start from. A heady smell of raw mangoes tinted with the smell of water wafted all around. A mild breeze played with the surface of the water – creating mild ripples and shattered shadows.
To my relief she spoke first. “ I discovered the first patch of white on my nineteenth birthday”, she said, not bothering to add an introduction. She continued. “ That birthday Ma gave me a saree – for the first time – a red one. I didn’t get to wear it that day. I showed the patch to my father. He took me to the doctor…..Ayurveda, Homeopathy…nothing seemed to work for me. I was upset but that didn’t bother me much. But what killed me was the reaction of my close-ones – my friends, my relatives, my neighbours. From sympathy to horror to unfounded fear of the disease being contagious – I had seen almost every kind of expression and response in those two years.
By that time I had completed my degree in nursing. I couldn’t bear it anymore. I applied and purposely took a job at a small hospital specializing in Leprosy treatment far away from my family and friends. There among the branded ‘untouchables’ and ‘outcastes’ of the society I finally felt at home….not having to bother about my disease or my appearance’. She paused a little.
“ And where did you meet your husband ?”, I asked her, trying to tie up all the lose ends at one go. She smiled. “You haven’t changed Nandu….the same impatient one! Yeah, that is where I met him. Amit was a doctor there. One day after duty hours as I was getting ready to go to my quarters he came rushing in – just like he did today….He seemed to be in a hurry. He scratched his nose a little and then said , “Will you marry me Miss Mehul ? I am already late for my duty hours and if you can just give a fast answer I would be grateful’ “.
I couldn’t believe my ears. “ Don’t tell me he actually did THAT ? Was that a proposal or an instruction ? “ .
Mehul laughed out loud. “ That was supposed to be a proposal”.
“And you said yes ?”
“ No, I actually said no !”
I was puzzled. “ No ? But why ?”
She took some time to answer and then said, “ Because I had a feeling that he was just being sympathetic towards me….just like the rest of the world”.
“ And what was his response ?”
“Would you believe it ? He scratched his nose again and then added, ‘Hmm…but I thought you would make a perfect partner for me ! But anyway, would you mind being a volunteer with me atleast ? I am planning to start a short stay home for the children of some of the leprosy patients – the ones who have been shunned by their own families. If you can join as a volunteer there….’ I understood that he was hardly bothered about my looks.”
“And you did what ? Refuse him yet again ?”
“ I too scratched my nose and said , ‘In that case Dr.Amit I would rather be your wife and a volunteer too!’ ”, Mehul enacted the piece and laughed out loud. I too joined her.
“So these children are the children of leprosy patients?”, I asked .
“Yes, except the youngest of them – that is my own contribution. The kids stay with us till their parents get a complete cure and are rehabilitated. The hospital has a facility for the spouses of the patients on a temporary basis. Amit goes to the hospital thrice a week and the rest of the days he is the caretaker here.”
I took hold of her hands . “What a wonderful work you both are doing Mehul! What a beautiful effort!”
“ It is ! My work has helped me wipe off all the ill feelings and hatred that I had harboured towards the world. I feel tamed. I feel complete. I feel beautiful once again”, she spoke in a soft hush.
For many moments we didn’t speak anything. A cuckoo somewhere sang her song. A fish raised its tiny head from the water and dipped back again. We remained silent.
Then as if remembering something she got up and rushed inside her home. She came back with a tiny brown envelop. She handed it to me. “ Open it”. I opened it. Four jasmine flowers – brittle, brown and almost-non-existent, tumbled out from within.
“ The jasmines ? The ones I gave you ?”, I asked her , bewildered. I could not believe my eyes.
“ Yes baba, those very flowers – a remembrance of our friendship…you know Nandu, I make it a ritual to take them out and inhale the fragrance whenever I find an opportunity”.
“ They are brown and old , how can they have a fragrance Mehul ?”, I objected.
“ To the world they are brown, old, brittle but I can smell their fragrance everyday Nandu….because to me they are still fresh, beautiful – they are a part of my childhood. Their beauty is embedded in my heart. I look at them through the eyes of my soul“
While she spoke I simply stared at her. She looked so content, it reflected on her face. I felt ashamed of the compact, lip-stick, eye-liner that I was carrying with myself.
The sun was about to set. A hue of the salmon pink sky was touching her face – it was as if the sun was adding colors to blend the unevenness of her complexion. She looked stunning. It was that kind beauty which I had never seen before. I guess, for the first time I was looking at the world with the ‘eyes of my soul’.