My experience of Harvard University, twenty years ago, where I went as an undergraduate is defined by my time with Alec.
Life lately had been a blur. An endless suburban Mumbai routine of waking up early, making breakfast, bundling the kids off to school, going to work, dinner… No time to smell the roses, heck, no time even to look at them!
It was another one of those days; so what was new? I had been bemoaning the fact to my colleagues that I needed to buy some new bed linen when one lady recommended I check out the sale at the Oberoi Shopping Complex.
Wheedled some time off from my boss and off I went. Let me say right now that five-star hotels are not places I feel most at ease. And that day I certainly didn’t, what with my mussed up hair and crushed office clothes.
I wandered into the lobby and asked the oh-so-perky front office lady where the shopping complex was. At the same time, I heard a man behind me, shouting over my voice, asking her where the coffee shop was, that he was late for an appointment there. That slightly nasal American twang, surely it couldn’t be…
But it was. I turned around and looked into Alec’s sometimes blue, sometimes green eyes. And time stood still. Memories came rushing through my head, memories that were all but forgotten, as was this man that I had gone to college, and fallen in love with, in another lifetime.
My experience of Harvard University, twenty years ago, where I went as an undergraduate is defined by my time with Alec. The first time we met at one of those terribly bohemian undergraduate parties, the room thick with smoke, and high talk. Us spying each other across the room, making excuses to get closer, talk a little. And becoming inseparable ever since.
For the next two years, no less. The boat rides on the Cam. The walks on Boston Common. The foraging expeditions in the flea markets of Faneuil Park. And of course the dreams we wove for ourselves on the steps of Harvard’s Widener Library.
We would join the United Nations Volunteer Program, we had decided, travel the world, do a lot of good to a lot of people. And settle down eventually, somewhere near the Mediterranean, of course, and write books and paint.
And then came the break up, to describe it as painful would be an understatement. Try open-heart surgery without anaesthesia for an analogy! Just that as we grew wiser we realised we needed different things from life. Alec needed to sate his wanderlust; I needed stability and home. So I returned to India…
“Arati, is that really you?”, there was that twang again, breaking into my thoughts with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. “My God, you’ve changed.” For the first time that day, I found myself panicking about my appearance, my hair a mess, no makeup and oh, these hopelessly shabby clothes.
Alec went on, seemingly oblivious to the effect he was having on me. “Fancy meeting you here, after all these years, this is only my second trip to Bombay, and God, to bump into you like this…”
I collected myself somewhat and smiled.
“Are you married, and kids?” he asked.
“Yes, two,” I replied.
Suddenly I felt the need to know everything that had happened to this man over the past two decades, everything. But surely that wasn’t possible. So I contented myself with asking, “Are you married?”
“Yes”, he said (and I must confess my heart skipped a beat), “to my work”, he added with that lopsided grin that was all his own. “I’m an analyst with the World Bank and I’m here for work. That reminds me I’m running terribly late for a meeting. Here’s my number, call me later, let’s get together sometime, catch up.”
And a peck on the cheek later, he was gone. Just like that. I put the slip of paper in my purse, knowing I wouldn’t call.
Going home on the local train in the evening I felt curiously alive, noticing things and people around me in a way that I never normally do. That evening, I told my husband that I wanted to go out for a nice romantic dinner.
He was more than a tad surprised when he saw me get ready for the evening; hair freshly washed and set, a little make up and an undefinable sparkle in my eyes. “It’s nothing,” I told him, “I just feel more woman, more me, than I have in a long time.”
This musing was first published in Meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2002).
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