The Gaze


It was pointless to carry an umbrella that evening. It poured so heavily, no amount of monsoon gear could prevent the water to somehow seep inside. Yet, he stood outside the local tea-shop holding the black umbrella in one hand and a tea-cup in the other. It was almost about to get over—the tea. He had had three cups already. He had rarely felt so anxious. The tea wasn’t helping reduce that. The raindrops were making a rhythmic noise. He mused at the oxymoronic symphony of nature as he gulped down his fourth cup and asked for another. It seemed someone had poked the clouds real bad; water was leaking from the skies. He wouldn’t have been surprised had the blackness of his umbrella leaked out too and merged with the heavy downpour.

She had just crossed the lane. If he was wet despite the umbrella, she didn’t need one to join the camp. Perhaps she was more sensible than him and understood the stubborn and moody nature of rains.  Her red kurti was soaked in water and the blue of her jeans turned a shade darker owing to their wetness. Her hair was tied in a bun and water dripped on her face like a leaking tap. She kept sipping the raindrops that fell on her forehead, passed around her eye, slipped across her nose and innocently entered her mouth. From that distance, he could see all that. The unabashed look on her face. The nonchalance in her walk. And despite that, the weariness in her eyes. Her eyelids were fighting the sharpness of the raindrops. She seemed to have surrendered to their power. Almost voluntarily.

As she inched closer, he grew more anxious. He knew he wanted to talk. He didn’t know what. More importantly, he no longer knew how. They had been friends for over two years now. And in that one year, they had grown so close that he could gauge every expression on her face. They could talk without the need to converse. He couldn’t claim to be at such ease with many people. Maybe his girlfriend, but that had taken a while to develop. But with her, he didn’t have to make any effort. They just clicked. Like finally digging out the right key for that lost and introvert lock. The ease, of course, had been mutual. She could be herself with him. She could talk non-stop about everything under the sun and hear him talk of his passions in the most dramatic way. They’d talk for hours discussing the most mundane objects of life in the most graphic and detailed manner. As if the debate on which ice-cream flavour is better was going to change the world.

She walked past him, aware that he could sense her presence and had been deeply affected by it. His eyes reeked of contempt. She never understood why. She was too ashamed to even ask the reason. Shame and guilt came easy to her. It was easier for her to feel ashamed than feel loved. And he knew that well. She studied him. He was deliberately looking away. That it was deliberate was clear from the discomfort that had suddenly erupted on his face. He blew a couple of invisible puffs on his tea-cup, as if that would make everything normal.

Their eyes barely met. He stole a glance of her just when she lowered her rain-kissed eyelids. He looked for a fraction of a second, lest he be caught looking at her with compassion. Just when she lifted her gaze, he shifted his own. She could hardly gauge the expression in his eyes. But it silently screamed of disdain. She could have been wrong. But who could prove otherwise? She sighed at her own sad assumption. She let the rain soak her entire body and wash away any sin that she could have possibly committed. Perhaps the answer lay in the mighty clouds that were growling so shamelessly this evening. It was already getting dark. For the first time, she felt thankful for the absence of sun. She didn’t want the rays to penetrate her. Being in the dark comforted her. It offered her the promise of anonymity and that is the only identity she desired.

She crossed the tea-shop and stood under a leaky roof couple of meters away. A street dog was sleeping peacefully. The noise of the raindrops were ironically working as a lullaby for him. Her footsteps so near him startled the dog and he woke up with a start. She bent over and petted him lovingly. The dog didn’t seem to mind that she was completely drenched. The dog wagged his tail enthusiastically as drops of water from her hair fell on his ears. He began sniffing her kurti. Convinced that she meant no harm, the dog moved closer and looked at her face. Her eyes were wet. Not from the rain, the dog could tell. He licked her teardrop away.

Not very far away, the man standing with a black umbrella in one hand and an empty tea-cup in the other saw it all. He turned his back towards them and started walking away. As far away as his weak legs could take him.

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