Early June is not a pleasant time to be in the city of temples. When the thermometer reads 97° F and humidity touches 73%, everything beautiful about a city melts away. In such sultry weather, love should be the last thing on someone’s mind. Not for Manas, though. Today was Ananya’s birthday and he was at her favourite eatery. It was early afternoon, and the seemingly budget restaurant was filled with motley crowd of college going students. Manas, with his blue suit and burgundy tie, looked totally out of place. He had not placed the order for his food yet. As he waited for his friend and colleague Sharad, his eyes went to a footwear store on the other side of the road, and his thoughts went five years back in time. In 2003, he was just like one of these students hanging out in the restaurant today. This part of city is known for its educational institutions.
He was in his 4th year of Engineering when he met Ananya at the same shoe store his eyes were currently fixated at. It was not the first time he had met her. Manas wanted to buy a new pair of formal shoes for the upcoming on-campus interviews. He was a bright ambitious student on his way to corporate success. It seemed everything was sorted, except for good formal black shoes. It was during this shoe buying expedition that he had met her. Exactly, seven years after leaving the school. She was his classmate at the same village school. Ananya, the love of his life. Ananya, the girl he could not forget. Ananya, the girl he almost wanted to marry, but did not for one reason. After five years of parting ways with her, living a busy professional life, meeting new people, including zillion female colleagues, the reason seemed stupid. The decision to let go of her became the biggest blunder of his life. Sadly, he could not go back and correct it.
No, it was not due to the fact that Ananya, was a salesgirl. Manas knew she could have made a better engineer than him. After all, she was a topper of her class. But family’s economic condition had forced her to sacrifice her career to support the family. Her father’s meagre income could have only supported one child’s education, it was no surprise that her brother got the priority over her. Such a waste of talent. She was an affable and charming girl. Liked by one and all. Manas liked her too. He wasn’t sure if he loved her too. For all the good things about her, Manas thought Ananya was average looking. But it was the slight limp she had while walking that bothered him more. A sad reminder of the accident she had as a five-year old kid.
It seems those shoes that he bought from the shop, brought him good luck. He was successfully placed in a good company in the first attempt. They also brought him closer to Ananya again. His remaining time at the campus was mostly centred around her. The evenings were mostly spent in company of each other. The fact that Ananya was staying away from the family, gave her freedom in love. One could spot them idling away time, perched on the park benches. They both sought cheap thrills. He avoided any walks with her, for obvious reasons. It was very likely that she was aware of his unspoken and unwarranted shame. But she ignored it or rather was blinded by her love for him. Neither confessed their love for each other. It was assumed. That is what Ananya thought. Manas had his doubts and wondered why was even attracted to her. This could not be love. As his final day in the college was approaching, his liking for Ananya wandered off. He would find reasons of not meeting her. He had decided in his mind. She was just a phase in his life. She cannot be his future. He did not want a limping married life. What is the point of a life partner with whom you cannot have a stroll on a beach holding hands? He was just 22. Surely, he had a long journey ahead.
His mind went back to the day when she came to see him off at the railway station. He was not the only traveller. Five others from his college were his co-passengers. As she approached him with a smile, his face changed from one of excitement to that of sombre look. His friends saw a loving partner approaching to bid her lover goodbye, but he could only see her limp. Ananya handed him a gift box.
“I hope this is just a small addition to the baggage you are carrying”.
“You did not have to do this Ananya”, said Manas in a somewhat guilty tone.
His friends rightly decided to give the lovebirds their few minutes of privacy. Surely, this was the time for Manas to confess his love for her. They kept looking at each other hardly talking. If Ananya was expecting those magical words to come out his mouth, she was about to get dejected. Finally, it was time for the train to depart. Manas took out his hand for handshake. Interestingly, it was the closest they had got as far as physical intimacy is concerned. Once inside his compartment he opened the gift box to find a nice pair of sports shoes. He quickly remembered he had once shown his liking for a shoe of similar design. It was evident she had sacrificed a big portion of her salary for this gift. Little did she know that it was a parting gift. A quick remorse troubled him. He told to himself, “I will send her an expensive gift from my first salary and settle it”. Which he never did. And neither did he exchange any communication with her. Their love story got worn out like that sports shoes.
Manas let out a big sigh as his colleague Sharad approached the table he was seated at.
“Have you ordered the food or not?”
“No, not yet. But don’t worry the wait will be worth it. Food is very nice here”, replied Manas.
Sharad could sense the anguish in his voice.
“Tell me what is it? I have never seen you this distracted and depressed”.
“Who said I am depressed?”, Manas tried to defend him but his colleague was in no mood to retract. Maybe, it was time for him to not bottle it up and let it out. He trusted Sharad. They decided to order the food first before he shared his woes. As they waited for the food, Manas narrated everything that had troubled him. Sharad listened to him patiently and attentively. When Manas was finally done, a look of surprise took over Sharad’s face. After a pregnant pause, he remarked, “You are an asshole”.
“You are such an insensitive and selfish person”, he added.
“Don’t tell me something that I already know”, replied Manas.
Sharad was also angry that despite being his flatmate and colleague for three long years, he chose to hide this from him.
“You are like an onion. I have to peel a layer to know more about you. How many more such secrets are you hiding from people you call as your ‘friends’?”
“I am sorry to hide this from you all but it’s a part of my life I am not very proud of”, said an embarrassed Manas.
“Lovers decide to separate because their love for each other wears out. Lovers separate because they don’t want to build a home after parting ways from protesting parents and loved ones. But you left her, but for what?”
“What were you doing all this while? Don’t you know her whereabouts?”
“No. She is also not present on social media and the couple of common friends he was still in touch with also don’t know where she vanished”, said Manas.
“At least some one would know her whereabouts. By the way, where did you vanish after the meeting yesterday? Wait… did you go to her village?
Manas gave a gentle nod.
“Did you get the other pair?”
“No, I did not.”, he said with a sunken heart.
“But it seems Ananya did find her shoe love”, he added after a brief pause.
Sharad went silent for some time and decided to give Manas his moment of self-loathing, self-reflection and self-realization. He was glad that at least his friend has finally made a pact with his real self. Manas could have hided his story from him. There was no way he would have ever come to know of it. The fact that he shared it, despite the unsolicited ending to it, shows he has made peace with himself. Few more minutes passed by. After a while, Sharad gently kicked his shoe. It was more a nudge than a kick.
“I think it is time you get yourself a new pair of shoes”.
Manas turned his head towards the footwear store. This time, Sharad kicked him even harder.
“Not that one, a different store”.
Manas nodded in approval.
The food finally arrived. As Sharad started munching, Manas took a bite of naan roti and almost choked himself. He had not revealed everything to Sharad. Ananya was now a state government servant. A decent well-paying and well-respected job. He could not or rather did not have the courage to meet her. She had undergone tremendous hardships and put in lot of efforts in the past few years, to reach where she was today. He could not say, he was proud of her achievements. After all, it was also his shame.
His limping love had found her wings.