In February 2020, I had planned to meet AK in Mumbai, but due to work commitments, I couldn't make time for it. He was a potential marriage alliance my maushi (aunt) had introduced to me.
We ended up exchanging numbers and decided we would meet later if things fell into place. For the initial few days, we just went along with the pleasantries; I had just turned 28 then and was not ready for a marriage.
He was 32, and he told me that we could get to know each other and then decide. He was a kind man, and as I came to know him better our texting increased, we shifted to phone calls, and soon there was a video call every couple of days.
The more we spoke, our conversations blossomed, and I discovered his love for books and movies, which made our interactions even more exciting, filled with literary and pop culture references.
He showed me his library, a collection of over 350 books in a dainty corner of his Dadar house, and I showed him mine. Within 15 days of talking to him, my perception about marriage had changed.
The old-fashioned romantic in me transformed into a more mature woman, not solely because of him but because of the way he expressed his thoughts and ideas.
Intrigued, I decided to meet him in person despite my discomfort with the idea of meeting someone for marriage. He reassured me it would be just a meeting, a chance to understand each other better in physical proximity, and I agreed, even preparing for our meeting by watching makeup tutorials on YouTube.
Just when he was supposed to fly down to Bangalore to meet me, the lockdown was announced, and he could not make it. With nothing much we could do about the situation, we went along with our conversations. From books to politics to socioeconomic conditions to wars and universal peace, to medicine and science, to relationships and heartbreaks, each day was a new adventure for him.
Since both of us were well-read, we clicked somewhere. Our way of understanding each other was based on how we understood the world around us. We loved quizzing each other on facts and each day there was something new I learnt and admired. I like people who are aware, who are opinionated, who take a stand in life for things they believe in, and he was all of that.
I had dated men before, and I then realised they were just boys. There was way too much happening in the world around in those months. Deaths, chaos, people losing jobs… I was overwhelmed. He knew I was emotional, so he let me speak my heart out on such days. At that time, I was reading a book called Footprints on Zero Line by Gulzar, a collection of poems and stories on the Partition.
Sometimes, I read out lines from the poetry to him, he told me I had the sweetest voice he had heard.
When I was about to pick up my next book and was undecided, he said we should read a book together, to calm ourselves down with the chaos around, and we would choose a common unread book we already had with us. I had not read Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra, and I knew he had not as well from one of our conversations, so we began with this.
We read out to each other each night. Both our reading voices were different from our conversation voices. Mine was softer, and I stopped in between to absorb the words, which he again had noticed. I told him his voice reminded me of the coarse sand on the ocean bed. We liked the silences in between; they fathomed a lot more of our existence than words ever could.
We loved this ritual of ours. We would read out and then talk about the beautiful stories and what they could mean to the possessor of the things written about. We then used to walk down our own memory lanes and talk about people whom we met, people who had left and the memories they left us with. We did not hurry with the reading, we had all the time in the world.
This book brought me closer to him. There were times when he choked on some of the passages, and we would cry a little. That was when I knew that maybe we had a chance to write the bigger chapters of our life together.
We had finished the 13th story of the book Memory of a Nationalist when, all of a sudden, he fell ill.
He was down with COVID-19, and instantly, his health grew worse. Our conversations gradually stopped with just a text here and there. The energy was gone. He spent most of his nights resting.
He still called me and asked me to read out to him, which I did. After the 15th story, he was in the hospital, and our conversations stopped entirely. Everything happened so fast, and I was so helpless and restless.
We were in two different cities. There was absolutely no way I could reach him. I cursed the first time when I was in Mumbai and had a chance to meet him, and I did not.
Maybe it was good in a way, or I would never have gotten to know him with such intensity.
Each time the phone rang, I prayed it was him wanting to read another story together. Each time I got a text notification, I hoped it was him asking if we could read another book.
After a week, when I received no reply or response on his phone, I called my maushi. She knew his family and would have updates.
I have never left a book half-read. I did with this one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the book; it is hauntingly beautiful, and it makes you feel and think and appreciate and value the little things in life.
But he was gone.
For days, I did not know what to do.
I cried into the night. I couldn’t even understand why, he was a potential matrimonial match. It wasn’t like I was madly in love with him. And yet, the grief I held was too hard to explain. He wasn’t a friend, a lover, or family; what would I call him?
How do you explain the loss of someone you’ve never met? How do you explain the imploding pain within when just the thought that I can never see him again bursts inside of me?
I gave up reading first. Deleted my Medium page, where I had carefully written out my book reviews. I was lost. Staring only at our WhatsApp chat, reading, re-reading our conversations.
His last message to me read: I don’t think I can make it when we meet on the other side; please have the same sweet voice.
There was no one I could mourn him with. Even if I did, would anyone understand? They would think this was just another muse–content for the tragic stories I loved reading and writing.
An ordinary man, glorified with superlatives by a hopeless romantic.
I tried not to think about him.
Maybe someday I will rewrite his story with a different ending. His memory lived within the pages of the unfinished book on my shelf. I never found the courage to finish reading the book. Remnants of a Separation somehow had a new meaning… for our story.
COVID was tough for everyone, and my family was over-protective. I wasn’t allowed outside, and neither was the outside world allowed into our home. He kept me sane on those days. He opened up a new world of possibilities for me that I would never have known if it wasn’t for the lockdown… no if it weren’t for him.
I can’t say whether I would have ended up marrying him or not, but he certainly would be… is… one of the most precious and important people in my life.
Of course, as all things do, with time, things got normal.
I met other men. None were even half as wise or kind as him. And slowly, a year later, I began reading again. I picked fiction mostly to ease my way into the literary world. I learned that his family had given away most of his books to charity after he passed.
I hadn’t finished reading the book that we had started together. Surprisingly, though, I realised that I would never be able to meet someone with the true intention of marriage if I didn’t honestly bury his memory.
Every time I met someone worthy, I was scared to open my heart entirely.
And most of the men I met thought I was too boring or lifeless. And the date would end with us splitting the bill and walking in opposite directions.
I’ve done a lot of things in 2022, two years after the dreadful pandemic. I made a list of these at the beginning of the year, and some of them included me displaying some degree of bravery. One of them was to finish reading Remnants Of A Separation.
Two weeks ago, I chose to go on a trip to the mountains for a CSR event. The company I’m working at let me be a part of this since it was on my list for 2022. I carried the book with me to read along with two other copies of non-fiction reads that were on my reading list.
I knew I had to finish this book if I had to let him go.
Last night, I opened the book to the page we had left unfinished.
I read it out loud.
And even in the snow-clad mountains, I felt like I was at the ocean.