If only....

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  Nonchalantly, with a gentle flick of her right hand, she tucked a few unruly strands of her hair behind her ear. It was carelessly done, and I knew she’d have to do it again in a few minutes. But at that moment, I would have given anything to be part of those brunette strands.  As the breeze from the pedestal fan roughed up her hair again, I smiled as those strands broke free of their temporary haven and fluttered around her right eye. Like a monochrome kaleidoscope of butterflies around a flower. I had to work hard to stifle the smile that had suddenly formed on my lips. I couldn’t let anyone see it. Least of all, her. But I guess there was no danger of that happening. She hardly noticed me. Not in the manner I wanted her to, anyway. I knew that I needed to get her off my mind. It was a story that would never have a happy ending. Not even the fairy tales could save this one.

 

I briefly shut my eyes, trying to divert my attention. It’s magical, isn’t it? How the other senses stealthily take over when you shut your eyes.  The rustling of the sheets of paper in the exam hall; the rapid, yet smooth scratching of pens on paper; the anxious tapping of fingers on the desk; the gentle shuffling of the feet as the brain tries to analyse the questions and figure out answers; the scent of fresh coffee from the college canteen and the aroma of banana fritters sizzling in hot oil; the lazy cawing of the crow as it hopes for a peck of the food; the saltiness of the sweat beads that has suddenly formed on your upper lip because of the humidity of the summer morning.

 

But there is such a thing as the mind’s eye. And her picture was firmly stuck on those walls, refusing to budge. Love at first sight - is that what the adage is? I think that’s what it was. I first saw her 8 months ago, on my very first day here. I’d just transferred to this college from my previous one at Coimbatore, and I was anxious and jittery. After all, my previous college had not really given me a glowing recommendation. The transfer had been on my insistence. Certain circumstances had made my life a living hell and I was on the brink of suicide. With no friends or family to talk about, and desperate for a way out, I came across a news piece about this college; one that briefly mended my broken spirits and heart. The transfer process, while in no way smooth, was my last straw and I jumped through every hoop possible -  physically, emotionally and financially - to make it happen.

 

*****

 

 

I’d just gotten out of the Principal’s office, after handing in all the necessary paperwork. As I climbed up the stairs with a bundle of new text books in my hand, there she was -  in a yellow salwar with peacock-blue borders, sitting on the stairs, clutching a Maths text-book close to her chest. Now, I am normally not one to stop and stare. But, this was different. It felt different. A part of me was terrified that she would open her eyes and catch me staring; the other part was completely mesmerised, and partly bewildered by this thing of beauty in front of me. I noticed everything about her - from the lipstick-coated lips whispering formulae that made no sense to me to the dangling amber-coloured earrings that rocked gently back and forth as she tried to study; from the lemon-shade nail polish on her toes to the yellow-coloured glass bangles that rattled noisily as she gestured to an imaginary room with her eyes still closed. And then, she opened them. As her large dark brown eyes met my plain-Jane-black ones, I could sense her surprise, and some shock. Like many others had, all those years before her. Muttering a quick apology, I quickly climbed the stairs and disappeared around the corner, hoping never to run into her again.

 

Call it fate or call it coincidence; whatever the name, these unknown powers kept me away from her for a whole week, before I ran into her on the very stairs where we’d first met. This time, she hardly gave me another look. But I stood there, as she passed me by - the whiff of her perfume playfully enticing me and invoking feelings that I never knew existed before. In fact, had it not been for Malini Miss, the Computer Science teacher, who was accompanying me, I might have just followed her. Fortunately, I didn’t.

 

Over the course of the next few months, these inexplicable feelings continued to plague my life, and eventually I found myself surrendering to them. And as the saying goes, no one does better detective work than a wife or a stalker. Yes, I’d officially become Diya's silent stalker. Oh yes, that's her name. Diya. And she had unwittingly lit up my days and nights.

 

*****

Somewhere in the background, the college bell tolled, snapping me out of my reverie. I could hear Malini Miss calling out for everyone to put down their pens and hand in their exam papers. Letting out an almost inaudible sigh, I opened my eyes and took in the scene in front of me. The room was almost empty, bar a few students who were now packing their stuff to leave. I threw a quick glance towards her desk. All I could find, were a few sheets of paper, rustling noisily as the fan’s breeze whizzed through them.

 

I stood up from my desk at the back of the room and straightened my clothes. I stared emptily at the blank sheets of paper on my desk and the pen that slowly rolled from side to side. Picking my bag up, I walked towards her desk and picked up her answer sheets, while looking out for Malini Miss, who was busy with the rest of the students. As I held her exam paper in my hands, I couldn’t resist running my fingers over the top right corner, where she’d written her name. I know it sounds crazy, but for a moment I could feel that connection; that somehow, in some inexplicable way, those neat, curvy lines of black ink connected me to her.

 

This was it. The last exam before all of them went their separate ways. I wouldn’t be seeing Diya again. A forlorn smile formed on my face as I pictured Diya as framed in my mind's eye, and this time, Malini spotted it. And she returned my smile with a mellow one of her own. I quickly handed over Diya’s paper to her and left the hall, clutching my bag tightly. Out in the hallway, I could hear the students animatedly discussing the questions and in between them, screams of joy and sighs of dejection. I smiled, for I was once one of them. But then, things changed.

 

Walking down the stairs, I rushed into the washroom and shut the door behind me. No one would disturb me in here. This was my haven; my fortress of solitude. It was the only place that I could laugh or cry and no one would be the wiser; the only place I could be me. I glanced at my reflection on the mirror and gently ran my hand over my one-day stubble, which had specks of grey in them.

 

I should have shaved, I mused, as I straightened the pleats of my saree.