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"Monkeys", Robin shrieked. "Wow!"
All were seated in groups along the branches making a line as being in circus, with shining black faces and silver bodies as someone just gave them a polish. Their long gray tails dangled like a series of ropes among the leaves. A few scratched themselves with leathery hands, or acted busy looking each other head as onlookers threw fruits at them.
"Mom, I want to go and play with them", Robin shouted.
Robin was first time in India, in-fact first time on his visit to Khajuraho Temple with his parents. It was a dry, bright, Sunday with mild ocean breeze cooling the Indian summer heat. And here he was, making a stop at a tea stall with his parents.
"Mom, I want to go and play with monkeys, please!!" Robin screamed this time.
"Leave me alone", Meenakshi said. "You are getting on my nerves". And she pushed Robin away.
Robin occupied himself by mimicking the monkeys trying to avoid his sadness about the treatment he gets from his mother, every time he tries to attract her attention. Robin looked at his father, who was busy tapping his lens cap, and his tour book, dragging his thumbnail occasionally across the pages so that they make a scrapping sound.
"Raghav, I told you I do not want to travel in this hot summer". Meenakshi complained, while continuing to polish her nails. She still had not removed her sunglasses, though the whole family was sitting in a shade of temporary makeover the tea stall owner had made for his guests.
"Here is your tea sir, and biscuits; Sahib!!" interrupted Kishore, the tea stall worker.
"I can't drink this", Meenakshi declared. "Don't know what kind of water he used, no idea if he even take shower"
Ignoring Meenakshi, Raghav took a sip of his hot tea. "Splendid!!, I tell you, you can't get this taste in America, not even if you make yourself".
"You never listen to me, Raghav", Meenakshi who was visibly upset not just with tea but anything in her vicinity. "And I still can't believe you didn't get an air-conditioner car".
"Stop complaining", Raghav said. "it isn't that hot or bad".
"Why do you do this, Raghav, just to save a few cents? ", Meenakshi continued. "Or this is because you we are married, and you take me for granted".
"I should have never married you in the first place", she sulked, settling back in her chair, her head tilted in a patch of sun, and eyes closed. "I simply ruined my life".
Raghav, who was still busy in tapping on his camera, which looked like any other American expensive gadget, ignored his wife and her babel. "Badiya Chai (Good tea), Kishore!, I think I will need more".
"Ji Sahib", Kishore replied busy playing with his tea cups. Kishore was fairly young man, who looked somewhat content with his tea stall but something in his eyes was saying his compelling dissatisfaction about his stall visitors. Or may be it was his lust for a woman, despite of being a married man.
His eyes were busy lusting at Meenakshi. She wore a red-and -white-checkered skirt that stopped above her knees, slip-on shoes with a square wooden heel, anklet on right foot, and a close fitting blouse styled like a man's undershirt. The blouse was decorated at chest-level something which looked like a strawberry. She was a short woman, with small hands like paws, her frosty pink finger nails painted to match her lips, and was slightly plump in her figure. She was wearing large dark brown bag, almost as big as her tattoo. She was sitting, sipping water slowly from her mineral water bottle and looked unhappy with something.
Kishore was used to serving tea at passing by tourists, this couple was special. He wondered what is upsetting him - Meenakshi rudeness or there was something else. He was used to rude customers. So what was it - may be this couple is interesting, because it is an unhappy tourist family. His curiosity made him focus on their conversation, more than tea.
"Are you going to ignore your wife, as you have been doing all life", Meenakshi shouted, showing more of anger than sarcasm.
"What do you want me to say? Or rather do?" Raghav replied, who was clearly not as calm as he looked before.
"Nothing, Go and sit in lap of your mother", Meenakshi replied. "Come here Robin, I will take you to monkeys".
Robin, who had lost any hope of fun, seems all excited suddenly. "Mom, why don't we have monkeys in America", asked an innocent Robin.
And both mother and son started feeding monkeys.
Raghav, who was left completely broken with her wife last comment, got up and walked towards Kishore, who was busy spicing up the tea for couple. "Sahib!!, you live in America", Kishore asked to break the silence.
"Yes in California", Raghav replied, showing an interest in conversation. "You must be used to serving tea to many tourists here".
"Yes sahib!, but these days we have less tourists. They find this season very warm to travel".
"So does my wife", Raghav commented, without being sure where he was headed and what he actually wanted to say.
"Your wife is very beautiful sahib!, you are a lucky man", Kishore commented, with his eyes admiring Meenakshi.
Far away, she was busy playing with Robin, finding solace in a moment, away from her husband. And two men talk about her - one who is her life partner, and one who shares a lust for the lady like many others.
"Your wife is very beautiful" Kishore said again. It occurred to him, that he had never seen his own wife fully naked. Even when they had made love, she kept the panels of her blouse hooked together, the string of her petticoat knotted around her waist. He had never admired the backs of his wife's legs the way he now admired those of Meenakshi walking as if for his benefit alone.
It felt pity but Kishore was clearly in love with the object of his desire - Meenakshi.
"Indeed she is", Raghav replied. His comment lacked any sense of proud which normally a man has if other men stare at his owned beauty.
There was a pause of silence. Finally Raghav spoke again "This place has changed a lot, lone this country!."
"I still remember going this road, in my father old ambassador. And he letting me playing with the monkeys; It was a wonderful time" Raghav said, getting nostalgic.
"When did you open this stall ?", Raghav asked, still lost down the memory lane.
"Sahib, 3 years ago", Kishore replied
"Its been the same since I am here; different tourists, same tea, same me", laughed Kishore, clearly showing his sense of humor was limited by his mind.
"So you have seen my couples spending good times on this road", asked Raghav.
Kishore sensed it was not a simple question as it sounded. It was more like if Raghav is seeking a magician here who can wave his wand and give him a solution to fix his problems.
"Yes Sahib!, many tourists come this way, some families, some couples, and some not so families; we get everyone". Kishore conceded.
"Sahib, Is tea ok?, Memsahib didn't drink it", Kishore probed.
"Ah!, Tea is wonderful, Memsahib is not used to tea", Raghav replied with a smirk on his face.
"Indian and not drinking tea - Sahib shall I make tea - American style", Kishore said, showing his little knowledge of American culture.
"No Kishore; She would not take anything". Raghav sighed.
Kishore remained silent. He knew there is something more than tea.
"We met in college", Raghav said. There was a shinning smile as if he is collecting something from his box of happy memories. Something like he showing his first earned Kite to his father and shouting "I won this! I won this!!"
Raghav continued, "On the last day of college we were sitting in her dining room after our walk-date".
I picked a red crayon from her collection and asked "What should I draw?"
She thought for a moment.
"I know", she said. She asked me to draw random things - trees, bus, grass, buildings and the people. "This way I will remember it".
"Our days together" She reached for her crayon
"Because we are never going to see each other again, ever again" she said.
The precision of the phrase had startled Raghav. He had looked at her feeling slightly depressed, but she didn't look depressed. She tapped on his hand "Keep drawing, don't stop".
And Raghav looked at his hand. He could feel the hot tea but not the warmth he had felt when Meenakshi had tapped on his hand for the first time.
Kishore who was listening to Raghav sighed "Sahib you tea is ready, would you like some magi?".
"Yes make some", Raghav who was still thinking about his special date. He turned around towards Meenakshi, who was playing with Robin, or looked so. Somewhere down in his heart Raghav knew Meenakshi also misses the warmth of the relation. She can never give up so easily on him.
"She handed me the other crayon and looked in my eyes", Raghav continued. "Sketch me, she demanded".
"I cant", Raghav replied. "I cant sketch you or anyone".
She looked brooded and the look was quickly spreading across her face, "Please?"
Raghav drew her face, outlining her face, and curly hair. She sat perfectly still, with a formal, melancholy expression, her gaze fixed to one side. He wished he could draw a good likeness.
His hands moved in conjunction with his eyes, in simply unknown ways.
It looked nothing like her. He was in the middle of drawing her nose when she wriggled away from the chair.
"You are not a good painter", she announced, heading towards the balcony.
When he joined her, she was removing clothes from the hanging wire. Raghav picked up a dress from the floor "It fell off the wire".
He looked at the dress and then at Meenakshi's body "Put it on, I will sketch you in this".
"Excuse me, you suck at painting"
'Put it on."
There was no reason for Meenakshi to put that on but she wanted to.
"Please put it on", Raghav said, suddenly standing behind her. He pressed his legs against hers, clasping her waist with both his arms "Please?"
"All right", she said "this is for you".
He smiled, satisfied, and stood against the corner of balcony door.
Within minutes Meenakshi was gone into her bedroom to change. Inside she changed into the dress, glancing into the full-length mirror nailed to the back of the door. He ankle socks looked silly, and so she opened her drawer and found the stockings. She searched through the back of the closet and slipped on the high heels with the tiny buckles. The chain straps of the dress were as light as paper clips against her collarbones. It was a bit loose on her; she could not zip it herself.
Raghav knocked on the door. "May I come in now?"
She opened the door. Raghav was holding his breath for the sight and his eyes were wide open at the sight of her.
"I need help with the zipper", she said. She sat on the edge of the bed.
Raghav fastened the zipper to the top. Looking at Meenakshi Raghav said, "You are sexy".
"What did you say?".
"You are sexy."
Meenakshi sat down again. Though she was used to be called that, still her heart skipped a beat, she looked at Raghav who was starring at her, as if he had seen something extraordinary.
He folded his arms across her chest and looked her in the eyes. "Marry me".
She was silent, but with tears in eyes.
She looked down, suddenly shy "I wont say no".
And they made love that day, marking the beginning of their life as a couple.
"Sahib!. This is brilliant. You and memsahib must have a beautiful life", Kishore said in excitement adulterated by sense of jealousy and incompleteness.
There was much beyond the sadness drooling from Raghav eyes.
"I wish so Kishore. Love doesn't last long", Raghav was still looking at Meenakshi. "We have now become experts at avoiding each other in our three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible. I no longer look forward to weekends - when she used to sat for hours with her crayons "Raghav sulked. "Its been long since she looked into my eyes and smiled, or whispered my name as she used to do. I miss the warmth, the love, her."
"Love doesn't go anywhere, it stays in our heart, and we just don't see it".
Raghav didn't see that coming from a tea-vendor. He was almost startled by the phrase "What do you mean?"
"Nothing Sahib, All I mean was love doesn't vanish, it only goes stronger", Kishore surprised himself. He was feeling a strong rush of lust but blocked by immense feeling of love, which he himself probably was not aware of.
Kishore started "My marriage was arranged by my older brother and his wife. I still remember I regarded the proposition with neither objection nor enthusiasm. It was a duty expected of me, as it was expected of every man. She is daughter of a shopkeeper in Belagoan. I was told that she could cook, knit, embroider, and sketch."
"But you know Sahib; all these talents could not make up for the fact that she did possess a fair complexion - like Meenakshi Madam has. Many men had rejected her, her parents feared she would never marry, and so they were willing to marry off their only daughter to a tea-stall owner." Kishore eyes set on Meenakshi but lost in thought.
"For five nights we shared a bed. Each of those nights, after braiding her hair, which she tied up at the end with a black cotton string, she turned from me and wept; I think she regretted getting married to me and my poverty. Although I was leaving Belagoan in a few days, our customs dictated that she was now a part of my household, and for next few weeks she was to live with my brother and his wife, cooking, cleaning, and serving tea and sweets to guests. I did nothing to console her. She cried every night."
Raghav was listening to Kishore. Two men shared their lives when they had no reason to - probably an urge to look their lost dreams of happiness in each other's fate.
Kishore continued "After eight weeks I was told Kamla will join me here. I went to the bus station, where she stood holding her suitcase. Her free end of sari no longer was dragging on the floor, but was draped in a sign of bridal modesty over her head. Her thin brown arms were stacked with gold bracelets, a small red circle was painted on her forehead, and the edges of her feet were tinted with a decorative red dye. I did not embrace her, or kiss her, or take her hand. Instead I asked her, if she was hungry"
"When we arrived home, she opened up one of her suitcase and presented with bright blue wool, which she had knitted in the course of our separation. I tried on - it felt prefect."
Raghav was listening patiently to Kishore, when she was interrupted by Meenakshi presence around. Had the whole aura of Kishore pulled her to listen to his view on love? Perhaps
Kishore continued "I waited to get used to her, to her presence at my side, at my table and in my bed, but few months later we were still strangers. I still was not used to come home that smelled of steamed rice, and finding that the basin in the bathroom was always wiped clean. I was not used to the fragrance of the coconut oil she rubbed every other night into her hair, or the delicate sound her bracelets made as she moved about the apartment. With time I got used to it. "
Raghav and Meenakshi were smiling at Kishore, as if he was reading them something already known.
And Kishore continued "Then came one evening I suggested going out. She set down her knitting and disappeared into the bathroom. When she emerged I regretted the suggestion; she had put a clean sari and extra bracelets, and coiled her hair with a flattering side part on top of her head. She was prepared as if for a party or at the very least for cinema, but I had no such destination in mind. We started walking, and then without thinking, I led her down the quiet street where for so many nights I had walked alone. It felt I am not alone anymore; she was a part of me. She stopped and looked back at me, her eyes said all - She wanted to be a part of Me.", Kishore smiled as he looked at the blue sweater he wore.
"Love was always there; our desires for unseen expectations of life had over-shadowed it."Kishore said with a sigh.
Raghav was still looking at Kishore, when he felt a hand on his shoulders, and Meenakshi cuddling up closer to him. Raghav put his hand around Meenakshi and said "Let us go home; its getting late".
Meenakshi pulled Raghav closer and kissed him. In silence they had touched seen a glimpse of the lost love. Ironically, silence can do wonders when we all spend life thinking about the right words.
Kishore picked empty glasses and cleaned the table. It was getting warm; perhaps it was warmth from the love around. The lust had disappeared somewhere, or washed away with the dirty tea cups.