For Part 1 of this story, go here.
“Kem chhe, Persis,” he asked gently, his eyes never leaving hers. Persis stopped to breathe deeply. In that breath, she traversed half a lifetime, to a place when, in their early twenties and giddily in love, Lohrasp had expressed his desire and devotion, and she had reciprocated fervently. He was her college friend Hutoxi’s brother, and Persis had amazed her parents, first with her dedication to studying for her B.Com. examinations at Hutoxi’s home and then by the poor percentage she had earned in spite of it. Secure in a moderately-paying job at State Bank, Lohrasp had brought up the issue of marriage with his widowed mother, to be met with hysteria, refusal, and emotional blackmail. ‘That colony girl’, Mrs. Dubash had ranted, was not good enough for her son, and he had no business picking his own life partner without his mother’s approval. Which girl from a decent family went and got herself picked by a boy instead of his family was what she would like to know, and nai jee, didn’t she know these aaj kaal ni chhokriyo with their short-short hair and midi skirts, fasaaoing poor innocent boys from good homes.
Persis had, at first, believed him when he assured her that it was a matter of time before his mother relented and saw her for the loving and beautiful girl she was. “Give her time, darling,” he’d whisper, stroking her hair and the nape of her neck as she buried her face into his chest on the rocks at Scandal Point. She wanted a life with this man who looked at her like the universe melted from around them when they were together. She wanted to wake up to the bob of his Adam’s apple each morning, hear him imitate Elvis and call her Priscilla; she wanted to cook akoori for their children on Sunday mornings and mock-scold him for leaving his shirts hanging on the backs of chairs instead of in the bathroom bucket. What was a little time when there was love to be won? They were young, they would wait.
Mrs. Dubash turned out to be made of sterner stuff than both her only son and his breathlessly waiting lady love anticipated. As Persis rejected many an admirer-with-a-willing-mother, waiting for her man to step up and make an honest woman out of her, Lohrasp battled cold wars, suicide threats and ultimatums from ‘the poor lonely woman who had brought him up as both father and mother’. Over the years, it dawned on Lohrasp that no woman would ever be good enough for him in his mother’s eyes, and she appeared happiest when he was within lilting distance, readily available to consume her elaborate meals and ministrations without a murmur. With his sister now living in America, Lohrasp was left with the sole responsibility of caring for their mother, which made it harder for him to take a heart-over-head decision. Still, Persis waited, but the wait lengthened into shadows and unspoken words and disappointment lingered at corners of her mouth, the weight of unendingness sagging her skin, small joys unnoticed, a slow shut-down of the heart. Then, there was silence.
Two decades later, when she heard from common friends that the old lady’s heart had given way, and, after her death, Lohrasp had shut the house and taken up a position as manager of a dharamshala in a small town near the Gujarat border, the details merely skimmed the surface of her thoughts. She had shut that chapter a long time ago and made peace with the circumstances of her life. Persis was not a woman of vociferous opinion, but she held a firm belief that Lohrasp was the only love of her life.
But now he was standing in front of her, still awaiting a response. “Hello,” she said quickly, in a voice that sounded like somebody else’s, his question left unanswered. They assessed each other, cautiously, then affectionately, letting little smiles slip through the tightness of their mouths. Him: Of medium height and muscular build, with darker skin than she remembered, his clean-shaven face framing a crooked-toothed smile. Her: Short, compact, with still-unlined creamy skin and tired grey eyes, gentle curls resting neatly around her earlobes, her clothes less fashionable than in their youth. Wordlessly, he unlatched the gate and gallantly stepped aside for her to walk through. Closing it behind him, he fell into step with her and they made their way to the beach.
The short stroll of less than a mile felt like a long walk home, with brief forays into unpleasant emotional alleys. Searing their silences were memories, reproaches, disappointments, and a litany of barely awakened what-ifs. With no immediate family left in Bombay once Mrs. Dubash had passed on, Lohrasp sought a change of scene in a bid to put his past behind him. The bitterness that was his mother’s legacy lurked in the corners of their lace-curtained home, and made him want to flee. Putting in his papers for voluntary retirement at the bank, he accepted a position at the Gholvad dharamshala and had been its manager since. He liked the solitude, the passengers who floated through, and grew accustomed to stars and waves for company. He would think of Persis now and then, a dull ache compressing his heart, as he wondered how things could have turned out differently. And now here she was, in the flesh, and his tongue had decided to play hide-and-seek.
They sat among the rocks, pretending neither recalled other similar evenings from a long-ago youth, and reconnected hesitantly. As Lohrasp stumbled over half-regrets, Persis spoke up quietly and without recrimination. Life had moved on, she pointed out, but it hadn’t completed passed them by. It was to be lived, no matter how late the chance was presented, and really, did affection and companionship have an expiry date? As Lohrasp raised his eyes to meet hers, he felt a spark of hope for the first time in decades, and allowed it to ignite a little Bunsen burner in his spirit. There was much to be said, pasts and futures to be discussed and debated, but for now, it would keep. For now, the present was plenty. Finally, he had a passenger who wasn’t just a passerby. And with that knowledge, Lohrasp and Persis made their way back to the dharamshala, where a just-roused group of tea-demanding neighbors were making plans to brighten up the evening.