Earphones, sleeping mask, mobile phone, journal, powerbank, Aadhar card, wallet, housekeys. And that’s it. Ruhi rechecked her bag, but even on the fourth try her Kindle did not magically appear into her hand baggage. There were still two hours for her flight to leave, and she decided she could not take another moment of listening to stranger’s conversations because they had been making her feel very angry.
First there was a mother behind her in line for the boarding pass who was coaxing her daughter to meet someone for an arranged marriage, then a man who was hitting on the someone during the security check with the cheesiest of lines, and finally it was the middle aged woman sitting next to her near gate no.10 who was basically scolding her daughter-in-law on the phone for forgetting to pack her favourite tea bags in her purse. Had all terrible people ended up at Bombay airport on the same day?
Deciding she had had enough, Ruhi put her earphones in and decided to walk to the bookstore she had crossed while getting a coffee for herself. She hit shuffle on her playlist as she walked but the moment she reached the bookstore and leaned in to grab a title, the wire from her headphones got entangled with her bag’s handle and they came off from one ear. The first thing she heard was, “No no, you don’t understand. This is not about my personal preference. You absolutely cannot have Chugtai in the poetry section.”
Ruhi smiled and left the book, walking over to the source of the sound who was standing in front of the poetry section with a pissed off look on her face and a clueless salesperson next to her. She could tell Jhilmil was about to bring the passion of a television journalist who was in the middle of a debate to this conversation.
“Ma’am, I am sure you are right but it came in the poetry box with other Urdu books so I cannot take this decision on my-”
“Just because she writes in Urdu doesn’t mean it’s poetry! She has written some of the best short stories India has ever seen. Have you even read any of her stories?!”
“No ma’am but-”
“You haven’t even read her work but have already decided that a marking on a box is a better judge of which section her work belongs in?”
Ruhi decided it was time for her to jump in. She walked towards the salesperson and nodded, “I think this woman is correct. I studied Chugtai in college. You should probably keep her books in the short stories section.”
He dramatically threw up his hands and started picking up the books. Ruhi decided to help him, while Jhilmil made space in the short stories rack. When they were done, Jhilmil finally turned towards her and said, “Hi, thank you for this.”
“Coffee?”, Ruhi asked, vaguely aware that this would be her third cup.
Jhilmil nodded, and ten minutes later they were both sitting in front of the overpriced Coffee Shop, their hands cupped around their drinks which they were having in silence until Ruhi decided to speak up.
“So…you are in the departure section of the Bombay airport.”
Jhilmil simply nodded.
“No”, Ruhi shook her head, “What are you doing here? Besides arguing about where Chugtai books need to be kept, of course. Were you in Bombay?”, she could feel her heartbeat in her throat. She was meeting Jhilmil after two years, and while she had immediately felt like sitting down next to her and stroking her hair, she didn’t even know if Jhilmil wanted to see her. If she did, she would have texted her, right?
“Ruhi, no. My flight from London landed like two hours ago. I have a domestic connection to Delhi from here, that’s why I’m in the departure section. I would never do that. I would never be in Bombay and not meet you.”
“Technically you are in Bombay right now, Jhilmil.”
“Technically I’m meeting you right now, Ruhi.”
“Yes, but that just happened. I didn’t even know you were going to be in India. I know we never had a relationship, but I thought our bond meant something to you.”
“That’s not fair!”Jhilmil looked straight at Ruhi, “You were the one that decided to unfollow me on social media a year ago and started taking weeks to reply to simple texts! If you are not even interested in my life, how am I supposed to know if you are still interested in being a part of it?”
Ruhi bit her lip and looked down at her cup, “Because it didn’t matter what I was interested in.”
Jhilmil’s face softened and she silently urged Ruhi to go on.
“Jhilmil we were in different cities for quite a few months after we first met, but I still felt like a part of your life. You were the first person I texted when something happened, and I felt like you did the same- even if it was our conversations that tied us, there were possibilities of this. Of sitting next to you while having them. Then you left India and it was suddenly like you had this whole life that I would never be a part of. It just didn’t feel right to keep looking at your new life when instead of sending good vibes your way, all I could manage were sighs when I double tapped.”
“Okay”, Jhilmil nodded, “then why didn’t you say something?”
“Because that’s not who I am! I would have been equally agitated on seeing Chugtai in the poetry section, but I wouldn’t have brought it up with the salesperson there.”
“No Ruhi, but you know what you would’ve done? You would’ve sneakily moved the books one by one from one section to the other, hoping he doesn’t notice.”
Ruhi shook her head, “You don’t know that Jhilmil, people grow and change…for all you know, I am not even the same Ruhi that you knew.”
“Then why do you feel like her? Why didn’t you just keep walking when you heard my voice? Why do you have the same coffee order as her? Why have you been looking at me with her big brown eyes with the same longing in them?”
Ruhi got up, “I don’t need to be here. To talk about this.”
“See? You’re doing it again. The moment the situation got a little tense and required you to put in effort, you found leaving to be the easier option. I left India, Ruhi. But you left us. Because suddenly, it required more effort from you emotionally. It’s like you wanted to be next to me as long as we ended up in the same space by circumstances. Like right now. But you would never go out of the way for it.”
Ruhi sat back down with tears in her eyes, “And what about you? Why didn’t you take up the space I was leaving empty?”
“Because I wanted you in it. That’s the whole point of a conversation, right? Otherwise I would just be monologuing.”
“You do monologue a lot…”, Ruhi giggled through her tears, warranting a smile from Jhilmil.
“That’s true”, Jhilmil ran her fingers across her hair, “but I like listening to you too! My monologues are usually about feelings, but yours are about everything other than that. We are talking right now Ruhi, but I can’t continue this conversation if I don’t feel like there will be others. Others, that you will initiate and put in effort for.”
“I understand. I don’t think I ever thought of it that way. I mean, aren’t connections supposed to be automatic?”
“Maybe. But bonds aren’t. They require effort, and purpose. I cannot even tell you how many times I have come across something that made me immediately want to text you because I just knew you would have trailed off…”
“Like…oh, I visited the countryside featured in the books written by the Bronte sisters and-”
“You visited what? Are you serious?! And you are just telling me? Do you know that is supposed not just be where they lived, but actually what inspired the landscape in so many of their books? Like Jane Eyre! You know I was re-reading Jane Eyre the other day and there was this one particular conversation she had as a child that stayed with me which I had skimmed over the last few times…”
Jhilmil smiled and nodded, asking Ruhi to go on. Her flight was in less than forty minutes, but she knew Ruhi was just getting started.