August 30, 2013: This is a special announcement for Mr. Arun Banerji, travelling on Air India flight number AI 688 to Mumbai, may please report for boarding immediately at Gate Number 23. This is the last and final call for Mr. Arun Banerji…
Arun was dead tired after the long night and catching the early morning flight wasn’t a great idea but he had to report to office early in the morning as there was an important presentation to be made. As the announcer kept calling his name, Arun kept sleeping near Gate No. 18 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi.
March 10, 2011: “How did you find me? Did your parents say anything?” Arun read the text message on his mobile phone. He had met Smita for the first time in the morning in the presence of both his and her parents since they were the ones who had arranged for the meeting at a hotel in Saket, New Delhi.
Though he had chatted with Smita on G-chat and had talked to her twice before the meeting, he had not expected her to be so upfront. He thought for a while before sending an SMS reply, “I think my parents found you to be nice. They will talk to your parents once we are back in Mumbai.”
Arun was in Delhi to attend his cousin Raja’s wedding when he had first met Smita.
His parents had pointedly raised the issue of his matrimony when three months back he was desperately trying to befriend IRCTC’s server. “Ninety days remain before our travel date and only 15 tickets are available in the New Delhi Rajdhani; looks like Mumbaikars have nothing else to do except for travelling to-and-fro Delhi to eat Karol Bagh ke Chhole-Bhature,” cribbed Arun. As soon as he had finished booking the tickets that he heard his father say, “Even Raja is getting married; now at least you should think about your own marriage. You are already 30; how long do you want to wait?”
Arun wanted to ignore his father when his mother joined in chorus, “Your Baba (father) has already created your profile on bengalimatrimony.com. Why don’t you check the profiles of girls who have shown interest in you?” Arun hardly had a choice. He logged on to his profile and glanced at the seven “expressions of interest” he had received. He had stopped at Smita’s profile to read through it. Smita worked in Delhi in a software company. Born and brought up in Varanasi, she had done her MBA from Lucknow and had 3 years of work experience. Her parents were based in Varanasi and her profile said that she was open to relocating after marriage.
The first thing that struck Arun in her picture was the smile. She indeed had a beautiful smile. He asked his parents to get in touch with her parents to ensure that the two families were compatible. In any arranged marriage, the families of the boy and the girl matter the most and for an alliance to materialise it is paramount that the two sides like each other.
After the initial talks between the parents, Arun sought Smita’s number from her father and called her up after a week of first seeing her profile on the matrimonial site. “Hello Arun, how are you?” There was a nice ring to her voice. Arun already liked the manner in which she had confidently responded to his phone call. The call lasted for 10 minutes and Arun asked her if they could chat over G-chat, to which she agreed. Over the next 3 months they did not have any telephonic conversation except for once when Smita had called to let him know that she was looking forward to their first meeting.
Smita’s father was going to be in Delhi on a business trip and during one of his conversations with Arun’s father (though the girl and the boy were told not to get too friendly with each other before the alliance was finalised, the parents on both sides were in regular touch) had proposed that the families could meet in Delhi as they were also travelling to Delhi to attend Arun’s cousin’s wedding.
Smita was summoned and the meeting took place at a hotel in Saket, New Delhi. Smita’s mother had taken the trouble to travel to Delhi from Varanasi just for the meeting. After the initial chit-chat between the parents, Smita and Arun were asked by Arun’s mother if they would like to talk to each other in private. It was a funny situation as they were asked to find privacy in a public place. Arun asked Smita if she would like to go to the hotel’s lobby to talk and she willingly agreed.
Both of them were like free birds without the company of their parents and they opened up about their lives for almost an hour, oblivious of the ticking clock. Smita’s mother had come to look for them at the lobby when they realised that they had surpassed the permissible time limits of their conservative parents.
They bade farewell to each other as they touched the feet of their parents and sought their blessings. Sitting in the car little did Arun know then that it would turn out to be his last meeting with Smita.
“I think your parents are nice. Thanks for letting me know that they found me to be nice too. What are your thoughts about me Mr. Banerji?” Smita had teased Arun through her SMS.
“I will let you know my thoughts after I land in Mumbai. Have some patience Ms. Chatterjee :-)” replied Arun.
Two days after they had reached Mumbai, the alliance was finalised. Parents on both the sides were very happy and were busy making plans of visiting Mumbai and Varanasi to check out each-others’ lifestyles. In an arranged marriage, it is essential for parents to ascertain that they get their kids married into a family with an equal or higher social status. Plans were being made to solemnise the wedding at the earliest.
It was April 2011 and the entire nation was under the spell of Dhoni and his boys. The final match was at the Wankhede Stadium and Arun had bought two tickets for the match which he went to watch with Deepak, his childhood buddy. The finals had turned out be an interesting one and the entire country was thumping its chest at the triumph which India had finally got after a wait of 28 years.
It was well past midnight when Arun managed to step out of the Stadium. In the din of the jubilations he had not been able to hear his phone ring. He had 13 missed calls and his phone reminder showed “Smita’s birthday”. There was also an SMS from her, “On my 28th birthday, India brings home the World Cup after 28 years. Hope you celebrated the win with Deepak. Now it is my turn to celebrate with you. Call me as soon as you read this message.”
Arun immediately pressed the call button. She took the call even before the phone had rung twice. “I love you,” said Arun. Perhaps India’s win had caused a surge of the happy hormones in him. There wasn’t an exchange of words for almost a minute after his admission when Smita said, “Is that supposed to be my birthday gift? Don’t expect me to be so naïve, and I won’t let you get away so easily. I want my birthday gift and it better be a good one.”
“I love you and would like to spend my life with you,” said Arun attempting to recreate the magic of the one-minute silence.
“Don’t repeat yourself in the hope of getting rid of the responsibility of getting me a nice gift and don’t be filmy to say that you are my gift. I will not accept that as an answer,” she retorted.
“Okay, then tell me what do you want?”
“Hmmm… when I will first come to Mumbai you should take me to Marine Drive and we will spend the whole night walking by the sea and talk.”
“Arre main Johnny Walker nahin hoon. How can I walk for the whole night? Anyways when do you think you will be first coming to Mumbai?”
“What’s the hurry Mr. Banerji? (Giggles) But on a serious note I just heard Papa speaking to your father about there being an auspicious date in the month of July for the wedding. Hope you don’t feel that they are rushing into it, because I think that July will be beautiful. I love the monsoons you know. Though Varanasi gets a little messy during the season, but I simply love to experience the rains on the ghats of Varanasi.”
Smita’s statement brought back fond memories of college days to Arun when he would visit Assi Ghat almost every day with Deepak and other friends. The ghats of Varanasi with its amazing history and mesmerising appeal had stayed with him even after a decade of passing out from the famous Banaras Hindu University.
“I think July is good. Even I like the monsoons. Though the rains in Mumbai sometimes really become difficult to handle, the city surely looks washed up after the rains. So granted, I will try and make up to your humongous demand. Hope you don’t want to walk with me under a single umbrella like the great Raj Kapoor and Nargis did in Shri 420,” said Arun cheekily.
“I may be a terrible romantic but definitely not a fool. Getting soaked in the rains for an entire night isn’t my idea of intelligently spending time. We will wear rain coats,” giggled Smita.
“OK madam, if you say so,” replied Arun and after answering Smita’s further questions regarding the famous win by the Indian cricket team and if he had finished his dinner, he wished her Good Night.
Another month passed by and both Arun and Smita had strengthened their bond over emails and telephonic chats. Every day before he went to bed, Arun would wait for a special SMS. Arun had told her that he would not respond to her SMS every night, however, there was hardly a night in the last 30 days when Arun had not longed for his phone to beep at around 11 PM. It was a simple message, “GOOD NIGHT :-)” after seeing the message, Arun would sleep with a smile on his face.
For the next one month, almost a quarter of Arun’s time every day was devoted in letting Smita know, over calls, SMSes and chats, about how his day went, everything from his meal menus to office gossips would have to be shared. It had been just over three months after their first meeting but now they knew a lot about each other. From their best friends, to his favourite cricketer, to the best actor on the planet, they had shared quite a lot about their lives.
Smita was looking for a job change and was trying to get an opportunity in Mumbai. “There aren’t many vacancies that suit my profile in Mumbai; the number of opportunities in Gurgaon, Noida and Delhi are far higher,” she would say continuing to add in the same sentence, “But I am sure that my present employers will agree to transfer me to Mumbai if I ask for it. Do you know that I have always been a Star Performer in my present organization,” she would say with fake arrogance.
The boring and conservative Arun was slowly catching up with Smita’s joie de vivre. He had never been in a serious relationship before; though his good looks used to get him female attention they would not turn to be serious affairs. During their conversations both Smita and Arun would often talk about Varanasi and its mystic ghats. They would reminisce the charm of the city and recall incidents from their respective school and college days and laugh over the funny things they had done as students.
It was the first fortnight of July and Monsoons had just arrived in Mumbai when Smita got very scared. Arun had not returned her calls throughout the day and not replied to her SMSes. At around 5 PM she received an SMS from Arun, “Mother is in ICU at Jaslok Hospital. Please pray for her.” Smita immediately called him but he did not answer, then she sent him an SMS, “Have faith on God. She will be fine.”
Arun’s mother had been having concomitant spells of severe headaches for the last few months. However, in the humdrum of daily affairs, she had ignored the symptoms and had done self-medication through over-the-counter analgesics to treat the pain. She had informed neither Arun nor his father regarding the bothersome headache.
On the morning when she had to be hospitalized, the pain had become unbearable causing her blurred vision. The neurologist had detected a big cyst in the front lobe of her brain. A biopsy was recommended to ascertain the nature of the cyst. The doctor’s worst fears were of the cyst being malignant (cancerous), a possibility which he had not ruled out.
Being the only child of his parents, Arun had got extremely scared on hearing the diagnosis. He sulked and went into a state of depression not wanting to share his pain with anyone, not even Smita. The biopsy’s results were expected after three days and it was during this time that he had not paid any heed to Smita’s SMSes and calls. Only after the results of the tests were revealed that he sent an SMS to Smita. “Thank God. The cyst is benign and can be removed by surgery. The doctor has said that possibilities of a re-growth are very low.”
Within a minute of his phone showing that the SMS had been delivered, it rang. An almost cheerful Smita spoke in a happy tone. “God is with us, nothing will happen to Mummyji,” she had started referring to Arun’s mother as Mummyji. “Don’t worry she will be fine. A benign cyst is quite common now-a-days. Three years back even I was detected with a benign tumour in my stomach which was removed and I have not faced any problems after the operation,” she said.
It took almost a minute for Arun to register the fact that Smita had suffered from a tumour. “Are there no side effects? Doesn’t the patient suffer from any pain after the operation?” he asked. “In my case there have been no problems. None at all. However, in Mummyji’s case since the cyst is in the brain, there could be a possibility that she might start loving her daughter-in-law more than her son,” Smita made a half-hearted attempt to lift the pall of gloom that had enveloped Arun for the last three days. Arun chuckled and then both of them laughed.
Arun’s mother was operated upon and she was discharged from the hospital after three days of nursing.
Pandemonium broke out at Arun’s house on the morning of her mother’s return from the hospital. His father spoke in a demeaning tone, “Why did they hide this important fact? I had not expected them to cheat us. They looked like such nice people.”
“I had asked Smita’s mother on the very first day. Now I am sure that they intentionally hid this information,” said Arun’s mother.
At the breakfast table, Arun had shared his new-found medical knowledge with his parents. To uplift his mother’s mood, he had told her that her ailment was not too worrisome as the probability of a recurrence of the tumour was very low. He had also informed his parents that in the past Smita had also undergone an operation for removal of a tumour and had not faced any problems thereafter.
Instead of calming, Arun’s statement had flared her mother’s nerves. “I had categorically asked Smita’s mother if she had been through any severe illness or had undergone any medical procedure in the past. She had answered in the negative. God only knows what other facts they have hidden from us,” she said.
“I will talk to Mr. Chatterjee right away and ask him why they did not inform us about her ailment earlier. I am feeling deceived. I don’t think we should go ahead with this alliance any more,” said Arun’s father.
Arun was stumped. Even before he could react to the sudden turn of events, his father was on the phone talking in a harsh tone to Smita’s father. Of the conversation that lasted for about five minutes, only three words stayed with him, “Shombondho taa aar hobe naa,” (the alliance will not happen). Being the only child, Arun had never confronted his parents on any matter. From the choice of the subjects he had studied in college, to his profession, to the choice of a life partner, he had always been guided by the choice of his parents in every decision of his life.
Within 10 minutes of the phone call, his phone rang. He could hardly muster the courage to answer the call but somehow he had to speak. Smita was crying vehemently. “My father suffers from high blood pressure and after the phone call, he is unable to speak,” she said between sobs. “What is my fault? I want to talk to Mummyji, hand over the phone to her. I want to explain to her my condition. I am medically fit Arun, I told you my condition in all honesty, I did not want to hide anything. Why would I tell you if I had the intentions of hiding the matter,” Smita was trying to reason with Arun, despite being unable to hold her tears. Arun could not say anything. He had gone completely blank and did not know how to handle the situation. Luck played truant and his phone’s battery died out. He could not get up from the chair to plug it for charging.
Within a few minutes, the landline started ringing. All three of them knew the identity of the caller but did not have the courage to answer the call. In their hearts they knew that after all it was not Smita’s fault. They knew that she had no intentions of hiding the fact about her operation otherwise she would have never revealed it to Arun.
As the phone went on ringing incessantly, Arun’s mother answered it. She did not speak for almost five minutes as she kept listening to what Smita had to say. Those five minutes seemed like eternity to Arun. Then the mother in her broke down and she spoke between her sobs, “I know that you are a very nice girl and all of us like you very much but please try to understand my position. I am a mother and Arun is my only son. Had the news of your ailment and the subsequent operation not been revealed to us and if we had come to know about it after the wedding, we would have accepted it as our fate. I am a God fearing person and since now I know about the operation, I see it as a divine message which I am unable to ignore. I think a divine power is behind the unfolding of this entire episode. Please don’t get me wrong but if we went ahead with this alliance and God forbid if there was a relapse of your ailment then I will never be able to forgive myself,” said Arun’s mother and after waiting for almost a minute for Smita’s response, she disconnected the call.
Smita could not think of any reply to the convoluted logic of the divine signal. It had been her first relationship with a guy. Though being an extrovert by nature, she never had an affair or a fling in the past. The relationship with Arun, which had just started developing, was the first romantic relationship of her life. She could not believe that it had ended so suddenly and in such a bizarre manner. Myriad thoughts clouded her mind. “Perhaps he is under pressure from his parents and will soon think about the situation rationally,” she thought.
For the next 24 hours, Smita hoped against hope that the situation would change for the better. Though she knew in her heart that Arun would not go against his parents’ wishes but she hoped that he would be rational to judge the sudden turn of events and not brand it as some “divine message.”
When Arun did not call her for the entire day, she reached out to him to find out his thoughts. Arun took the call after Smita had desperately called him five times in succession. As Arun started speaking Smita felt as if she was speaking to a different person. There was certain rudeness in his voice, “Listen Smita, this was in any case not a love affair. It was a match arranged by the parents and since my parents are not in favour of the alliance anymore, I think there is no point in being in touch. I feel it will be better if you did not call me anymore,” said Arun.
Smita kept holding the phone to her ear for almost five minutes after Arun had disconnected the call, hoping that he would say that he had just cracked a nasty joke. But it was not to be. She had never imagined that her first serious relationship would fail so miserably. She was absolutely stumped and angry.
While it would have been logical if she would have been angry with Arun and his parents but instead she started blaming herself; why did she have to mention about her operation? Why did she? Smita started questioning and cursing herself. It was completely illogical for her to be blaming herself. But perhaps matters of the heart are not always logical.
In the night she did not send a “Good Night” message to Arun, instead she sent him a blank SMS to which he did not respond. The practice of sending a blank SMS every night continued for almost a month but there was never any response from Arun.
Monsoons were over and it was now the onset of the spring season. On the Independence Day in 2011, Smita sent him a message, “This is my last SMS to you. I will try to forget you but I will never forgive you.”
Over the next two years, Arun’s parents arranged many meetings hoping to find a suitable match but none of them materialized. Arun would often compare the girls he met to Smita. As his failure in finding a suitable match continued unabated, he started missing Smita all the more. He kept thinking about her whenever his parents fixed up a meeting with a girl. However, nothing seemed to work.
Finally after two years of committing the act of cowardice, he felt like shirking the thoughts of the shameful manner in which he had ditched Smita and decided to get back to her.
August 30, 2013: This is the last and final call for Mr. Arun Banerji, travelling on Air India flight number AI 688 to Mumbai, may please report for boarding immediately at Gate Number 23…
Smita was following him around the holy fire as they exchanged vows in front of the Pandit. Their parents were showering their blessing and friends were double with joy as Arun was finally tying the knot. Smita was smiling just like in the picture on the matrimonial site.
The airline staff had stopped making the announcement and it was barely 10 minutes for the flight to take off when Arun woke up leaving the dream incomplete.
He was in Delhi for an official trip and on the previous day thinking that Smita would also be in Delhi, he had thought of meeting her. However, he could not muster the courage to call her or send her an SMS. After thinking for a while, he finally decided of sending her a message through Facebook. He had not visited her profile in the last two years. Though they had become friends they had not added each other on their friend lists.
He logged on to his account and searched for her profile. There were 219 profiles of people named Smita Chatterjee. He sifted through the profiles and finally managed to find the Smita he was looking for.
What he saw pushed him to visit the local beer bar, the resultant of which was the deep sleep from which he found it difficult to wake up. As he raced towards the boarding gate, running with all his might, he recalled the dream from which he had woken up and remembered Smita’s Facebook profile picture he had seen last evening. Smita’s profile picture showed her in a bridal couture, looking amazingly beautiful, exchanging garlands in the manner typical of Bengali wedding rituals.
Arun ran with all his passion towards Gate Number 23 as only five minutes remained for the flight to take off. There wasn’t any queue to board the aircraft. The airline staff looked at him with curiosity as he ran towards them and presented them his boarding pass. One of the on-ground staff members looked at the boarding pass and in a stern manner, concealing his irritation said, “Mr. Banerji we had called out your name several times, the aircraft’s boarding gates have closed now. Sir, you have missed your flight.”