Rosaline: Without fail, I used to catch the 6:51 pm train back home. It always had just enough people in it and I would be able to stand near the door, plug in my earphones, and eat the vada pav I had bought. In other evening trains, this would not be possible. I had tried them all. It was a small luxury, but on my way back home, I wanted to stand without being ambushed by the torrent of ladies and peddlers who took the Mumbai locals. However, there was no escape. The peddlers would constantly jostle for space with their imitation jewelry, snack packets, hair accessories, and sometimes, even clothes. I particularly hated the woman who sold vegetables and coriander in the 6:51. She’d carry the basket on her shoulder and the coriander would fall on my head. Every day, my hair smelled of coriander and mud and it made me want to abandon this train as well, which I eventually did.
It was always the same routine – I would walk to the station, buy myself a vada pav, put my wallet back in my handbag, get my headphones out, and wait for the station clock to strike 6:51. Like all days, it started the same way. I boarded the train, struggled to stand near the door, and submitted to the coriander and mud falling on my head. Just as the train had pulled out of the station, I noticed that the zip of my handbag was open. My wallet was missing. I must have left it at the vada pav stall, I thought, but there was no telling. The next day I asked the vendor at the vada pav stall if he’d found a stray wallet. He hadn’t.
Days passed in this manner, and I always blamed my carelessness for the things I lost on that train. I lost my watch one evening. I realized it only the next morning when I was getting ready. I must have left it in the lab, I thought. That day I asked the lab assistant if he’d found a stray watch. He hadn’t.
And then, one day I lost my gold necklace. It was this loss that made me realise what was happening. It didn’t go well at home. My mother was enraged that I couldn’t take care of something so precious, but my father pacified her saying that such expensive jewelry shouldn’t be worn while commuting. You know how the trains are, he said, crowded. She slapped me, and I swore never to wear gold jewelry. I had liked the necklace though, it was dainty and sat well on my neck. I was deeply sorry that I had lost it. I resolved to buy another one when I had enough money. But how was I ever going to have enough money anytime soon? Years of education stretched out in front of me. There was still a long way to go. I was going to travel in the train for quite some time as far as I could see.
One day I was late. I skipped the vada pav and hurried through the crowd to catch the 6:51. I felt something tug at my dupatta and then someone grabbed my right breast. I did not stop but ran and climbed on to the train that had started to pull out. In the mad rush, I left my dupatta behind. The woman with the coriander brushed past me and now there was mud not only on my head but also on my neck. I didn’t listen to any music that evening. I never took the 6:51 train again.
Nishant: The first time I saw her at the newspaper stall, she was waiting for someone. What’s the time, she asked me as I looked to my right to cross the road. 6:55, I said. She smiled and thanked me. And then, it kept happening. I used to see her at the newspaper stall waiting when I would cross the road to catch the metro back home. We used to smile at each other a familiar smile and that’s all there was to it. Until the days when she stopped coming to the newspaper stall and I forgot about her too.
Then one day, I saw her at the newspaper stall again and I initiated a conversation. We got into the metro. I missed my stop, she missed hers. We got down at a stop midway for both of us and spoke until it was late enough for her to go home. I offered to drop her, but she refused. From that day onwards, she waited for me at the newspaper stall and we caught the metro together. She told me everything about herself. The person she used to wait for and how he left, her rivalry with a colleague, her conflicted dreams, and how she had never imagined herself to be the kind of girl who would wait for someone at newspaper stalls. Is that who I am? She asked me. You’re a lovely person, I said to the crushed look in her eyes. She spent all the metro rides pouring herself into my outstretched arms. Make no mistake, outstretched they were indeed.
If you watched us, you would say I was falling in love with her. I wasn’t. There was no way I could have loved her because she yearned for it so much. Her eyes longed to look into someone’s and her fingers wanted to be intertwined with someone’s fingers. I let her look into my eyes. I let her hold my hand. But she was so easy to decipher, that I was able to touch her in places she’d never been touched. I found it painfully easy.
One day, as she held my hand in the metro and we were spat out of the compartment, she edged closer to me and told me that she loved me. Why, I asked her. Because I feel safe in your hands, she said and squeezed my hand.
I never took that route again. I never saw her.
A couple of weeks later, I left my home city, too.
Rosaline: My stepmother lived a few buildings away from us. I tried very hard to dislike her, but I couldn’t. She was self-effacing to the point that I had to remind myself that she was “the other woman”. My much-married father had married her, broken the law and my mother’s heart, and given me two younger siblings towards whom I had no affection. I watched as my mother accepted it grudgingly and even made arrangements for all of us to spend time together on alternate weekends. She never came, though. I came to accept this way of life haltingly. I shared alternate weekends with my stepfamily as if this was a norm for everyone around me.
My mother’s silence was very different from my stepmother’s silence. One was unyielding and the other was kind. I grew up learning to confuse the two. On the weekends that I spent with my stepfamily, for which lunch was prepared by my mother, I found myself constantly wondering which love was “correct”. The one that I spent time with or the one that made itself scarce. My father didn’t help much. I never understood his duality. I hated him for it, but I couldn’t hate my stepmother. Her kind face on Saturdays and her small hands placing food in my plate watered down my distant dislike for her. She bought me a necklace. I kept it inside my bag. She didn’t ask me why I never wore it. I didn’t explain myself.
One Saturday afternoon, everyone had gone to sleep. We had eaten too much of my mother’s delicious rice and chicken. I sat near the window and looked outside. My stepmother sat next to me and we pretended to look at the pink hibiscus growing in the pots she kept in her window sill. I asked her if she had some ice cream. She asked me if I’d like to go get some. We walked down the napping streets. She told me that she loved the trees in the neighborhood. I told her I loved the fragrance of jasmines in the night air. She said that she was glad I had taken this walk with her. I said nothing. She ate strawberry ice cream. I ate vanilla. Then she ate chocolate ice cream. I still had vanilla. She asked me about my post-graduate course in Organic Chemistry. I told her that the course was great but commute was back breaking now that I was taking the public bus. She said that I could try taking the local train. I asked her about her students, she said that teaching Biology to teenagers was as fun as it could get. We walked home.
Two weeks later I noticed the windowsill had jasmines planted in a new pot. That afternoon, we sat in the windowsill and spoke about protein sequence and amino acids.
Nishant: My room was big enough and by Mumbai standards, I could host a concert inside it! I was lucky to find such a big room in Mumbai and flat mates who were hardly intrusive. Unlike back home, I could live exactly the way I wanted, and I did. I played music loud enough and I watched movies on the speaker. I never had to plug in my earphones in this house.
This room was where I could become who I was deep down inside. The person I had been hiding back in my parent’s’ home. Here I wasn’t rich beyond my means. I wasn’t privileged. I wasn’t handed food made keeping in mind preferences of a party of friends who seemed to be perennially in my house. I wasn’t an underachiever. And in Mumbai, I was anonymous – a part of the crowd and I had to work for my place in this city. It suited me admirably. Outside my room, I put on my perfect social self that I had crafted after many years of interacting with my parent’s friends, but inside it, there was no pretense. I wasn’t a messy person to live with, I was just elongated and stretched out inside. I bought myself a life-sized poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey and pasted on the wall right opposite my bed. I ate a lot of bad Chinese food that I didn’t have to pretend to share with anyone. At work it was polite to offer your food to others sharing the lunch table. It irked me no end, but I put on my cute smile and did it once a while. There has to be some advantage of inheriting good looks from your parents, I thought. I used what the girls called my “mysterious charm”. That’s what they all said. Each and every one of them. They didn’t know that I honestly didn’t give a damn. That was the mystery. I didn’t care about them. I called my mother once a week to assure her I wasn’t dead. I threw used clothes in the laundry bag placed in one corner of the room and heaped up takeaway containers in the black garbage bag in the opposite corner. I didn’t bring back any friends or girlfriends – I had neither. It was freedom.
Rosaline: I wasn’t going to let him in and show him how there was never going to be any space for order in it. He was very welcome to stay, oh yes, he was. And for some reason, he did. I didn’t peg him as someone who would. There was a sinister solitary quality to his room that greeted me with a big movie poster the first time I entered, and it was the last time too. I didn’t want to be in there. Sometimes I wondered if that signified that I didn’t want to be in his life. My actions, his actions, our actions said otherwise. This wasn’t forever, I knew it only too well. Maybe that’s why it worked so well for me.
I didn’t have to tell him how broken my life was or how I believed I could survive anything. I think we both knew but neither said it. I think he was afraid that I was totally in control of how I felt. I wasn’t drunk on his love. Too many times, I wanted to tell him I knew he was afraid that I saw us ever so clearly. Telling him wouldn’t have served the purpose. Like he tiptoed around his belongings in that room, he tiptoed around the people we had become to each other.
I think I loved him. There were no two ways about it, but I never said so. I had learnt very young that uttering the three words meant little if you didn’t intend to keep them. And what was love, anyway? I didn’t sigh into his neck to tell him in three words that he meant something to me. If he didn’t, why was I breathing in his skin? If he didn’t, why did I know that sometimes he put on a pretense to care too little when it mattered a lot?
It was apparent that he was struggling with showing too much of himself and yet failing to arrest it. I know that because I had never seen him be completely himself except for the first time when we met. I had accompanied a friend who had some online business with his flat mate. While I waited, I walked into a slightly ajar room. The stereo was playing electronic music. I lied that I loved it and spoke to him about what he was playing. It was the only day that he was himself.
Ever since, he puts on and off masks that he thinks will impress me, resist me, push me, or pull me. I wish I could tell him darling, you don’t have to try. But as soon as I will, he might cover up as if ashamed, and run. Run like he says he does. I knew fully well what I had walked into the day the door of his room closed behind me. I haven’t left since.
Nishant: She didn’t like electronic music at all, because who does? It was clear as the ringing of bells, and for a deep moment I was sure she was going to be as painfully easy as the other girls had been. Bollywood music, Kishore Kumar, they would have said. And guess what? She did, too. But everything on from there was different about her. She didn’t stay in the room long enough and has never been since. If I were honest with myself that should’ve made me happy, but it doesn’t. I wanted her to linger, judge me by my possessions, pick up something and examine it. I wanted to show her my movie collection. I wanted to eat bad Chinese food with her. This place is the manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics, she said just before she walked out. Just after I had asked for her number. Just before I knew I was going to lose all my bearings to this girl. Just after I just had lost them.
She took me to her house and introduced me to her mother who didn’t say much to us. There was little furniture in that house. It was off-white and brown and it took me a while to adjust my eyes in her room. I was used to living within my blue walls at home and grey ones in the office. I wished she had said it was beyond her why coders like us had to code within grey walls. But she didn’t. I didn’t think that colors of walls matter much to you coders, she said when I pointed out I liked the color scheme of her room. Goddamn right they didn’t. Who cared what the world looked like outside? We cared about the world we created inside.
I could have kissed her then, and she would have seen inside my mouth the universe of molecules knotted together like pieces of code. Take one out, and the rest would become unstable. But I didn’t kiss her. I didn’t want to become unstable. I regretted it later. I wanted her to see everything I was made up of; even the unfinished parts of the program. The ones that didn’t run. The way I didn’t compile. The way I could never be executed until I was fixed. No one wants to read copious lines of code. That’s why there are testers. All the previous girls were terrible testers. They could never see I had errors. They called me mysterious. I wasn’t. None of them wanted to dirty their hands with the troubleshooting. I was a huge intertwined line of code written to do something specific. Someday someone would debug me. Someday I would “run”.
I returned home with food she had packed for me. No bad Chinese food that night. I didn’t even put on electronic music. I found my mouth saying the words she did, using her phrases, frightened and delirious by the way she saw me, and still smelling of the jasmine lotion she wore. For once, I felt alone in this room. For once, I was unhappy that the door closed me on the inside.
Rosaline: Everyone wanted to meet him. I asked him if he’d like to come for one of the Saturday lunches and was sure he would refused, but he didn’t. My father and siblings didn’t leave his side and my stepmother kept doting on him like we’d just bought her a new puppy. When we went for ice cream, he had preserved mango juice while stepmother ate mango ice cream. Who drinks preserved mango juice? He could’ve at least had some kind of soda. I stuck to my vanilla ice cream. My family began integrating him out of their own accord. He mingled as if he had known them for the longest time. My stepmother smiled at me more often and gave me curious glances at lunch. We were all going to the movies together because my stepmother insisted that we should. I was determined to start disliking her as soon as this “fawning-over-him” business was over. Have you seen the way he looks at you? My stepmother asked me constantly whenever he came for the Saturday lunches. I have wondered why she kept doing it especially because I deeply wished my mother to make these observations. Her absence was painful and I surmised that my stepmother was covering up for her. I let it be.
I drew the chemical structure of dopamine on the soft board in my room to establish a stamp of transience. What’s that, he asked me one day looking at the –OH structure. It’s you, I said without bothering to explain. Because I knew he would look it up. He always looked up things. He knew why flowers grew faster if exposed to music. He knew how a horse was once made a senator. He knew the carbon used to make tyres. He knew exactly how Bombay was claimed and gifted, where to find the Portuguese churches in the city, and what the carvings on the CST station meant. It was like dating an encyclopedia that had excellent storytelling skills.
This encyclopedia had found permanent lodging on the shelves of my house, my stepmother’s house and in my goddamned heart. It had, however, not found any shelter in the churches we went to. I cherished the Sunday masses all over again. I went to Jesus with such glee that even the Lord might have wondered what happened to the skeptic who visited him grudgingly. I was secretly scared everything was going so well. I had never liked happy endings. So, I was glad that there was still one place I could be where he wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t insecure of myself when I was with him. I was afraid that he would stay. I was afraid that I was happy.
Nishant: There’s a new girl in office who insists on sharing her lunch with me. Everyone thinks she’s cute and in no time, I’m going to turn into her “office-spouse” whatever that means. I wish they’d leave me alone. I wish the cute girl would stop treating me like her best friend. I wish I didn’t keep my arms outstretched because, again, cute girl is painfully easy. I can spot these girls from a mile away. Or they can spot me because they come darting towards me and I can’t say no. It isn’t going to matter to her, or maybe it will. Maybe she’ll be okay with it because her father also has two wives. Maybe I should stop being pathetic.
Cute girl asked me if I wanted to grab a beer but I declined and went back to my room where I felt like something was missing. Someone was missing. I began to look up the chemical structure she had made on her wall and it turned out to be an arduous task. All I had done was memorize it. How was I going to search for something that was a mass of C and -OH and had no name? I could have just asked her but then that’s what I loved about her. She wasn’t going to spell everything out for me.
“Two -OH and one hexagon” I typed. I found hexagonal tiling, hexagon geometry, school syllabus, and arithmetic lessons. I was a school subject? I was a floor tile?
“Two –OH, one hexagon, and one NH2” I typed again. I found crystal chemistry and fragments of DNA. I was an amino acid?
“Structure of amino acids” I typed. And from then on began a night long maze of reading about acids, carboxyl groups, benzene rings, and aromatic compounds.
In the morning, my head was heavy and it was almost as if I ended up drinking too much alcohol. Except that the closest got to it was in the form of the chemical structure of ethanol. I had come so far off that I started again in the morning and looked up amines and carboxyl groups. It was a nightmare in broad daylight. Finally I texted her and asked her what it meant. She replied in one word – Dopamine. And I swear on everything that is holy, when I looked it up again, I knew I could have cracked this faster had I not wanted it to be as complex as the girl I was in love with. This was not the denouement I was hoping for, but it was hopeless and exactly the kind I knew I wanted.
I sat on my bed with a ridiculous smile plastered on my face. I was in space. I was on a high. But I was afraid that I had been found. I was afraid that I was happy.