Tuesday, September 9, 2008

THE INVITATIONS

Auditor’s Note:I did my schooling and college in Shimla; a stint in Spiti valley during my army career, which was followed by training at the Indian Audit & Accounts Staff College, Yarrows. I have thus very special, nostalgic feelings about the place.


I was invited to deliver a couple of lectures to young probationers of my Service at the Staff College, Shimla. It was the month of January, not a good time for people of my age to go to Shimla. It had snowed heavily after Christmas. The snow from the road surface had been furrowed to the hill side but the seepage from the snow mounds made the road surface wet and slippery.

May be, if it were fifteen or twenty years ago, a visit to Shimla at any time of the year would have been a pleasant welcome. Being on the wrong side of fifties and afflicted with stiff joints, it was more of a duty and at best a change from the office routine at Delhi.

It was thirty years ago that I was in Shimla as a probationer in the same good old place, the Yarrows, the probationers' mess, more appropriately their heaven. The most beautiful place in Shimla, we always thought.
As the car taking me from Kalka to Shimla was speeding past the wet road surface, memories of the place and events were coming back to me making me feel nostalgic.
I reached the Staff College at ten. The Director of the Staff College had kept me free that day. Luckily, it turned out to be a bright sunny day. I took a quick shower, a cup of tea and left Yarrows for the Mall. I wanted to make the most of my short visit.

I walked on the Mall up to the farthest end and went around the ridge. Shimla looked over crowded and ugly with cement concrete buildings piercing the skyline. The forest towards the High Court and the Jakhoo peak has been denuded. What a pity I thought as I entered Baljee, the famous restaurant on the Mall for a coffee. My enthusiasm for the place had ebbed by this time and I decided to return to Yarrows for lunch.

I was walking on my return journey near the Western Command building when I thought a lady coming from the opposite direction was waving at me. I have always been coy and timid when it came to facing members of the fair sex. Here, they were two of them. I gave a blank look to the probable gesture but to my discomfiture, one of them walked straight to wards me.
"Do you remember me?" She asked.
I am poor at remembering names and faces, which has been a cause of embarrassment to me on several occasions.
"Hello there. Yes, yes…" I tried to smile, desperately scratching my memory cells. It was obvious that I was unsuccessful.
"Aniket Sharma right, and you were a probationer in the year …….. 1973."
"My God! You have an elephantine memory," I said trying to look less clumsy.
"I am Emily, Emily Dean. Remember?"

I am as I said, very bad in remembering names but that was one name I could have never forgotten. A shiver passed down my spine. I looked at her once again for I wanted to greet her properly.
"Emily! Oh God. It is nearly three decades since we met. What a pleasant surprise? I am so happy to see you."
A shadow crossed her face and then she pointed to wards the young girl accompanying her.
"She is Shefali, my daughter."
I said hello to Shefali, shaking her hand.
"When did you come to Shimla?"
"Less than two hours. I have come to Yarrows to give couple of lectures to the probationers. Went around the Mall and was returning to Yarrows."
"Going back for lunch?"
"I was…but not necessarily…. I mean, I am free."
"Why don’t you join us? That is if you have time. Come along. Shefali wants to do some shopping."
"Of course, I have all the time and I would love to be with you," I was suddenly enthused. Emily smiled briefly.

As we walked on the Mall, I asked Emily about her husband, her family. She told me that her husband had died ten years ago in a car accident. Shefali was her only child and that she was teaching in St. Edward School. Her parents were no more and that she lived in the same old house in Balugunj.
Meeting Emily had elated me momentarily but her story saddened me. Suddenly I thought I was walking with a different person. I remembered Emily of yester years, always smiling and cheerful and often pulling my leg. Time and events had made her sombre and gloomy.
Even though walking on the Mall on a sunny winter day is the utmost one could ask for, I was restive. I wanted to sit down.
"Let's eat something," I told Shefali.
Emily wasn’t keen to accept my offer.
"It is cold and we would like to be back early."
But I insisted. Shefali joined me and Emily gave in reluctantly.

I ordered lunch with Shefali's help. My mind was oscillating back and forth. I remembered my first meeting with Emily.

Yes it was the year 1973. It was past ten in the night. My batch mate, Rajeshwar and I were returning from the Western Command Officers' Mess. Both of us were thoroughly sozzled. Walking down the slope, perhaps our legs were not synchronising with our body movements. As bad luck would have it, there was something on the road surface that made me go for a six. Perhaps it was the impact of the slide or the booze or the combined effect of both that I passed out.
I vaguely remember, I reached Yarrows, supported on one side by Rajeshwar and by some unknown person on the other. Rajeshwar and my orderly took me to my room. The orderly took out my shoes and put me in to the bed. It used to be a community living in Yarrows of undefiled raw youth, transparent and sharing. Soon, every inmate of Yarrows was in the know of my indiscreet and despicable behaviour before I started snoring.

"You bloody fool, you made an ass of yourself and mine as well." It was from Rajeshwar, next morning on the breakfast table.
"I know, I know. It was rather too much or was it because of the cold wind?" I tried to reason it out.
"Shut up you bastard. Those girls knew that we were the probationers from Yarrows. One of them told her cousin to lug you or else you would have landed in the mortuary."
"Surely not, I knew you were around," I said laughingly.
"Not again buddy. I would rather kick your arse hard enough to make you go off the road completely, no more nuisance."

I was aware that a bunch of college girls used to croon whenever we crossed but we never took a serious note of that. But I was worried now.
"They would identify me and spread the story. My cousin is in the same college. The damn thing could be very embarrassing," I told Rajeshwar.
"That will be your funeral and I would enjoy every bit of it,” he responded and then added cynically, “Hereafter, please keep a distance from me."
"You are a cussed bastard," I thought it was my turn.
“Late realization sir, too late,” Rajeshwar snapped back.

Next few days, I was cautious. I didn't know which of the girls had seen me that evening in the slovenly, drunken state. It did not take long. On the following Sunday afternoon while coming back from my cousin's place, two girls of that group came to me.
"Hi! How are you?"
I instantly guessed that the two were my benefactors. I thanked them profusely and gave them a story that, that was a special occasion and that I was otherwise a man of sober habits.
"Forget it. It happens," One of them said smilingly and then added, "I am Emily and she is my friend, Sujata."
"I am Aniket Sharma. You can call me Aniket."

Emily was fair and tall. She had long hair and she was really beautiful. We often met after that. I once took Emily and her friend to lunch. I felt I owed it to them.
It was the month of December, we were preparing for our departmental examinations, seldom going out of Yarrows. Emily rang me couple of time during this period from the market for she didn’t have a phone at her place.
After the last paper on the 23rd December, I went to the Mall. I had told Emily to meet me there. The Staff College was closing for Christmas break and I was to go to Delhi next morning. After the break, I was to undergo two months' practical training at the Treasury Office in Delhi. We knew we would be meeting after a long interval.
"Aniket! We are having a Christmas party at my place tomorrow evening. I will be very happy if you join us."
I didn't know what to tell her.

"I have told my parents and they will be very happy to meet you." She looked at me and then added, "You will be away for a long period there after."
I still struggled for words. I would have loved to join them but I had bought my ticket and I had phoned my parents, my brother was to pick me at the Delhi bus stand.
"Emily! I am sorry. I have to rush to Delhi…I…I have told my parents…You know I would have loved to join you...but…" I managed to say as I saw the disappointment on her face.
"It is OK," she said looking away from me.
I was very sorry that I could not accept her invitation.
I gave money to my orderly to buy a rose bouquet and deliver it at Emily's place. I had written a small note of apology.

At Delhi, things moved fast. My parents had seen a girl for me and wanted my consent. I accepted their selection and two weeks later we were engaged to be married.
After treasury training, I returned to Shimla in the first week of March for a short period and went back to Delhi to get married in the third week of the same month. I tried to contact Emily but failed. She didn't have a telephone at her place. I gave invitation cards to all my friends and left for Delhi without meeting Emily.

It was a day after my marriage. I was sitting with my friends when the postman brought a packet for me. It was a beautiful painting from Emily, a gift from Emily on my marriage. The brief note read:

Dear Aniket,
Congratulations. I was looking forward to see you but you were obviously busy. Collected your address from Rajeshwar. Wishing you a very happy married life.
God Bless.
Emily

I was moved as I looked at the painting. I read the note several times. Deep inside me, I felt guilty for I had not even sent her the invitation card. Frankly, for inexplicable reasons, I didn’t have the courage to do so.
I returned to Shimla in April. I lacked the courage to contact Emily. Moreover, I had to prepare for the final examinations due in the month of May. Frankly, I confess, my mind was with my wife whom I had left in Delhi with my parents. After the examinations were over, I went to Emily's house. Her mother told me that she had gone to Chandigarh to her uncle. I was sad to miss her.

I lost contact with Emily. Things changed during these thirty years but I concede, whenever I thought of Shimla, I thought of Emily.

We came out of Baljee. Shefali wanted to buy a cassette player. "Mama has promised it on my birth day."
We went to a shop. I told Shefali to select a piece and I wanted to pay for it. Emily wouldn't let me do so.
"Emily! Please let me pay. I can't explain but I will feel good."
Emily was still reluctant but I insisted and paid at the counter. Shefali was happy with her gift and in her beaming face I could see the cheerful, smiling Emily of my probationary days.
We started walking back. It was more of walking through the memory lane. Shefali was perhaps talking about her friends; both of us were oblivious of it. And we didn’t realize that we had reached Cecil Hotel the point from where our paths separated.

"Aniket! Tomorrow is Shefali’s birthday. It is a quite affair, only a couple of her friends. Can you join us? Shefali will be very happy and …I too will feel good."
"Oh! Yes, uncle. Please come. Mama makes delicious cakes."
I remembered, Emily made delicious cakes and I remembered, she always brought a piece for me whenever she made one.
I had to return the next evening immediately after delivering the last lecture. I was scheduled to catch the late night train to Delhi to attend an important meeting in Delhi on the following day.

I couldn’t hold back my tears. It was the second time that I had failed her. I was unable to accept her invitation. Words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. Emily looked at me and perhaps she understood my predicament.
“It is OK. I should have known. You are a busy person. Thanks for the lunch and the gift. God bless,” she said and walked away slowly.
I stood there, frozen body and mind watching Emily go away holding Shefali’s hand.
“God bless you both,” I whispered and turned in to the lane to Yarrows.

2 comments:

Rachnaa said...

wonderful. i really enjoyed this one.

Nupur said...

I liked this story....n wondered if it is true or fiction...watever it may be it was nice!!!! keep it up Neelam S Kumar