If you search for someone you love, you may or may not find them. But when you hate someone, you’re more likely to cross paths.
He didn’t know how else to explain it. She’d moved to this small town from far away. That’s all he had known.
There was something special about these towns. They had one town hall, one clock tower and one vegetable market. And that one market was bound to sell the best, the spiciest green chillies.
He often joked about this to himself. It wasn’t too stupid to expect seeing her someday, was it? After all, she might come to the biggest market to buy the spiciest chillies. Of course, that was possible only if she still stuck to her weird obsession.
So that morning when he did see her, he almost laughed at the irony.
Five shops apart, she stood at a moderate-sized stall. Feeling them with her fingers, she inspected each and every chilli before collecting them in the basket. Just like the way she used to. When the basket was almost full, the vendor weighed it before transferring the chillies to her bag. She paid him and turned around.
Damn! He immediately turned his face and froze. He should’ve been more careful. Why did he keep staring like an idiot? What if she saw him? What would she think? His throat dried up as he gulped. Just then, from the corner of his eyes, he noticed her long white skirt sway past. She seemed to be in a hurry. Thank God! She’d not noticed him. He heaved a sigh of relief. She stopped again at an earrings stall. This was another quality of these small town markets. From bindis to chillies, they had everything in one place.
The blue denim jacket and those Oxford shoes made her look too urban for this place. But that had always been her talent - to stand out without making any effort.
Although everyone was too busy to notice, he didn’t want to look like someone wandering uselessly.
An old man sat nearby selling lemons. He approached him and asked, ‘How much are these lemons?’
‘Rs 100 per kg,’ the man answered through his pan - stained teeth. ‘Too costly,’ he muttered and casually craned his neck. She was gone. Almost on a reflex, he rushed from the stall.
‘What about the lemons?’ shouted the man, ‘Take it for Rs 50 per kg!’
‘I’ll buy next time,’ he shouted back without looking as he merged into the sea of people.
He rushed past men carrying bags, women carrying children, kids holding pink floss- the narrow road almost overflowed with people pressed between shops running on both sides. He kept walking and turning his head every now and then. But she was nowhere to be seen.
At last, he found himself at the end of the market in front of a sugarcane juice stall.
On his right was the main road and on the left was the sidewalk along a park. He wiped his forehead. Okay, she was lost again. So what? What was he going to do anyway if he met her? Had he forgotten everything already? A sudden volcano of hate erupted somewhere deep within him.
‘I wish you’d talked to me instead of following around like that.’
The voice fell on him like a leaf, light but sudden. His throat dried up again. How could she always manage to outwit him?
He turned around slowly but couldn’t face her. Instead, he looked down as he shifted from one foot to the other while she tapped her brown shoes on the asphalt.
‘I don’t have the entire day,’ her voice scraped his skin. ‘Either get lost or come along for coffee.’
He looked up immediately but she had turned and set off already.
He followed her as they crossed the park. Her chestnut brown hair was shorter than he remembered. She often pushed them forward exposing her long neck. He looked down again.
Dried leaves covered almost every inch of the sidewalk. A gentle rush of wind kept flying all around them.. He couldn’t help recall their walks. A city is better in such cases. You can walk all you want in one corner of the city and the other corners wouldn’t ever hear your footsteps. Isn’t that what they had both hoped, as well?
And now he wanted to slap himself. What the hell was he doing? He stopped immediately. She was almost at the end of the sidewalk. Her skirt fluttered in the October wind like the flame of a candle. She’d not looked back even once. Maybe she was regretting already. And that was fair. He was about to walk away when she turned.
Arms crossed, head cocked, she stood as if waiting for the sidewalk to crack open so he’d fall inside. No, he’d lost his chance. There was no escape. He crunched past the leaves as he headed towards her. Her face got nearer and clearer as if materializing into life from a dream.
She was still the same. Just as attractive. No wonder some men in the market were checking her out. Her beauty almost smacked him hard. Why did she have to be this beautiful? Would things have been any different if she were not this breathtaking?
‘Why did you stop?’ she demanded, raising her eyebrows, ‘What the hell were you thinking? Were you planning to run away or what?’
His voice seemed to have tumbled down his throat.
‘I was thinking…’ he mumbled. ‘This is wrong.’ Looking into her eyes, he continued, ‘We’ve messed up a lot already…this makes no sense.’
She curled up her lips and appeared to consider his words. After a moment of silence, she said, ‘Don’t over think. The past is gone,’ she clicked her tongue, ‘A coffee won’t worsen it. And why let all your stalking go to waste?’
Did she just wink? He stared with parted lips, his ears feeling hot. She was unbelievable.
They rounded the corner of the park and entered a colony. The air was cooler here.He was glad he was wearing a full-sleeved shirt.
They’d walked a few steps when she turned around so suddenly that he almost bumped into her.
‘Don’t walk after me.’ She ran her eyes around the neighbourhood. ‘Walk alongside me,’ she said inching closer. He almost felt her breath on his lips.
He jerked back. ‘Okay, fine…Now please walk,’ he pointed to the road.
This was a strange neighbourhood. On one side, ran a row of houses, mostly two or three- storied. Some had cars parked within their iron gates. Petticoats and sarees hung from the balconies of a few houses while tiny billboards stuck to those of others. ‘Ting Tong Music classes’ read one of them.
On the other side of the road, however, was a broad open drain. It was almost as if a pitch black river ran through the area. Gulmohar trees lined up on the other side. Red petals circled the air for a while only to end up in the blackness.
‘It’s not what you think,’ he said breaking their silence. ‘I’m here in this town for work.’
‘What were you doing in the market?’ she asked.
‘The food in the motel is terrible…I thought I’d buy some vegetables and cook.’
‘And yet you bought nothing,’ she turned and looked at his empty hands.
His ears felt hot again.
‘I didn’t approach you because…,’ he said after a while, ‘That’s because I thought you wouldn’t like seeing me here. And honestly,’ he gulped, ‘I didn’t want to talk to you as well.’
She said nothing. Her hair fell over her face quite often. Sometimes, she stuck them behind her ears revealing a tiny, square- shaped earring that sparkled in the daylight.
They turned yet another corner and this time, it was a colony with no drains. Houses bordered both sides of a thin road. But this neighbourhood wasn’t as quiet as the last one. A man somewhere was singing to his heart’s content. Someone had forgotten the volume button of their TV remote.
They passed about two or three houses when she stopped in front of one of them.
It was a simple two storied house with a low iron gate. Nearby, two ladies were chatting from their balconies. They shouted their messages across. She slid open the iron gate and signalled him to follow. And while doing so, she looked in their direction. Immediately, the ladies averted their gaze and resumed their conversation.
The ground floor of this house looked desolate. The main door was shut. It had a veranda overlooking a bald garden and no one was around. Although he didn’t ask, he guessed it was the landlord’s portion. She led him upstairs through a dingy staircase. The landing opened to a tiny balcony at the corner of which lay a solitary blue door.
She didn’t say but he left his shoes outside. When he entered the door, he wondered if he was at the right place.
Was this the room of that same girl he knew? Someone who couldn’t imagine anything other than master bedrooms and French windows? A girl who changed her wall paint as frequently as her mood?
This was a single room with just one rectangular window. The window seemed to have holed up through the wall on its own. The walls stood naked, whitewashed. Had he met the right person or a doppelganger?
A tiny bed was squeezed between a study table and a tall column of books. Finally, something he could relate to. The books were a common thread between what he knew and what he saw now.
Curtains covered an extended portion of the room and she disappeared behind them. It must be the kitchen, he thought.
‘The bed is in a mess. I’ve yet to arrange the clothes,’ her voice wafted through the curtains. ‘Would you mind sitting on the mat, please? It’s quite thick and cosy,’ A mat lay under the window. He spread it evenly and settled on it cross legged. Yes, it was cosy. Not bad.
‘Don’t bother much,’ he said. ‘I’ll just have coffee,’
‘Fine, as you wish.’
The familiar aroma of garam masala filled in as a neighbour’s cooker went off. Far away, the person had still not remembered the volume button. Afternoon news blared through the neighbourhood. A man and a woman were having an argument somewhere nearby. Those two ladies continued more loudly than ever. How else could they compete with others?
He didn’t know if it was due to the Sun or whether that was the original colour. But the curtains looked like egg yolk. And the green pattern on them reminded him of the broccoli omelettes she used to cook.
Memories are stubborn. No matter how often you murder them, they always take rebirth in strange shapes and forms.
It made sense, the fact that she survived in this noisy place. Sound has a weird talent to bury the past and the future under its decibels. Music or noise, it doesn’t matter.
‘So, you’re here for business?’ she emerged from the curtains with a tray.
No, he was wrong. Certain things were still the same. Like the contents of the tray - two cups of coffee and a bowl of green chillies.
‘I’d never understand this habit of yours?’ he said, taking a cup, ‘You still have coffee with chillies?’
She grinned, ‘You just said you won’t understand. So why try?’
‘Right, Fair enough…’he muttered.
‘Chillies are the best to have with coffee,’ she closed her eyes and smiled, ‘No one would ever understand.’
He sipped the coffee in silence.
The ladies had probably gone inside their houses. But the TV went on. Sun rays painted her long neck in a golden glow as she swept her hair to one side.
‘So, you live all alone?’ he asked.
‘Yup, all alone.’ She downed the remaining coffee in one go. Only she could do something like that.
‘Who else do you think should live with me?’ She licked the froth around her lips. They glistened.
‘No, just asking.’ He didn’t know what to think of the male shirt and trousers that peeked among the clothes scattered on the bed.
‘How’s the coffee?’
‘Horrible, as always.’
She smiled crunching a chilli. ‘I know. I haven’t improved a bit.’ She munched with the same gleethat a child has when it is munching on a bar of chocolate.
‘Remo!’ a lady kept calling in a nearby house. ‘When are you going to have lunch?’
‘What’s the time?’ he said checking his watch. ‘Damn! It’s past 12:30 already!’
‘I must go now,’ he raised his cup to finish the rest of the coffee when she grabbed his hand. ‘What’s the hurry?’ She tilted her head, ‘You’ve come so far. Let’s have some fun, na?’
He flicked her hand away. ‘Have you gone mad?’ he said almost horrified. She was the same, absolutely same. A person can change towns, windows, colours. But does one ever change who they are at their core?
‘Relax,’ she said in a calm voice. ‘I was talking about lunch. Why not have it here with me? I can make omelettes…’
‘No, thanks.’ He started to get up.
‘Okay fine’ she said, her voice rather loud. He was surprised for a second. ‘At least finish the coffee. Please.’ She pointed the chilli at his cup.
He sighed. He drank the coffee in silence. Eyes shut, she kept munching.
‘Remo!’ the lady kept calling. ‘What on earth are you doing?!’ The garam masala aroma had dissolved into an indiscernible fusion.
‘It’s October already but still so hot,’ she said opening her eyes.
‘Hot? Umm I don’t think so…maybe because you’re…’
‘No, I think it’s really hot,’ she said, slowly unbuttoning her jacket.
‘Enough!’ he sprang up to his feet.
‘What!’ Her voice was cold like the tiled floor. She calmly took off the jacket.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He was already regretting the moment he’d spotted her that morning.
‘Why’re you on such high alert as if I might eat you?’ She tied up her hair in a bun. Her collar bones grinned over the deep necked white tank top.
He just looked at her in resignation. After all that had happened, did she have no shame, no regret whatsoever? And was he any better? All the names people had called him, they felt justified at that moment.
‘Don’t give me that look!’ She resumed munching her half eaten chilli. ‘I was really feeling hot. Now it’s better,’
‘I was wrong,’ he said running his hand through his hair, ‘I was so wrong to think you’ve changed.’
‘Yes, you were wrong,’ She rested her back on the wall, ‘Why would you expect anyone to change?’
‘Looking at this,’ he waved his hand around the room, ‘This pathetic new lifestyle of yours, the way you shifted to this small town far, far away, I thought you were truly sorry and all this was your repentance.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘You have a good imagination. Put that to use instead of making useless assumptions.’
Hands on hips, he said, ‘Did you ever realize our actions soured everyone’s lives almost forever? Or have you forgotten everything already?’
For a few seconds, the only sound in the world was that of her munching as she savoured the chilli, eyes shut.
‘What happened?’ The sudden leap in his own voice surprised him a little.
‘I was wondering,’ she said in a low but crisp tone, ‘If you ever realized the hypocrite you are?’
Why did she always make him feel so crippled? As if his body gave up functioning at the sound of her intentions.
‘Sit down,’ she said as calmly as ever.
He pulled out the chair tucked under the study table and almost collapsed on it. It was then he realized how heavily he was breathing.
‘So you blame me for everything, don’t you?’
He didn’t speak.
‘I don’t care what you think, or what anyone says,’ she said sitting up straight, ‘I have no fucking regrets, absolutely none.’
Was he expecting anything else? If he was, then she’d been right. He was a hypocrite.
‘And this lifestyle that you call pathetic,’ she ran her eyes around the room, ‘It’s my life. It’s my will to live it the way I want. And you, of all the people, deserve no explanation. Nor do you need to bother.’
He sighed. Some people lived life on impulses. She was one of them. What hurt was when such people said the most difficult things in a matter of kind of way. They forget that everyone isn’t blessed with a spine like theirs.
‘And by the way,’ she said grabbing a new chilli, ‘You think I’m the only culprit? What about you? A saint?’ She leaned back again and crossed her legs.
‘I’m just as guilty, I know that. I never said I’m a saint but…’
‘Exactly,’ she cut him off, slashing the air with the chilli, ‘You’re no saint. Why else would you come here all the way to this town despite everything that happened, hmm?’ She playfully danced her one eyebrow.
When she did that, she looked like a queen who made the world dance at the snap of her fingers.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ he said irritably. ‘I told you I’m here for business and I ran across you this morning by mistake, that’s it.’
She curled her lips downwards and munched slowly.
‘You know what?’ she said looking into his eyes. ‘I may be the horrible person everyone thinks me to be, but let me tell you… you’re no less…’ She cocked her head, ‘You could never really get over me, could you?’
The volcano within erupted again. This woman was the reason every meaningful relationship in his life was uprooted overnight. And yet, it was him who’d stalked her, talked to her, followed her all the way to her house and now sat there listening to her calling him what he was: an asshole.
‘By the way, I mean it when I say this,’ she shook her head munching, ‘I feel sorry for her. Like really sorry. She’s a sweet, little girl. Definitely doesn’t deserve this.’
Despite all the noise, the world had suddenly turned silent as if eavesdropping on their conversation.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said looking at his bare feet, ‘She’s no more.’
Why did the world suddenly start behaving itself? The TV, the lady, the cooker – Who the hell had ordered them to stop?
Even the relaxed sound of her crunching had stopped. He looked up.
She was staring at him as well, half-eaten chilli in hand, her face white without an expression, mouth slightly open.
‘When did it happen?’ she said at last. Her voice was so low as if it was dissolving into thin air like the spiciness that she never felt.
‘A few years back.’ He looked down again.
Some birds chirped outside. A distant bus honked away somewhere. ‘We found her unconscious in the bath.’ he continued, ‘A heart attack.’
He did not look up. The sun rays fell flat. Their glow had died and so had their warmth. He wished he had brought along his jacket. Had winter trespassed into autumn already?
And then it happened. At first, he didn’t know what was going on. Making an ‘o’ out of her mouth, she kept uttering ‘oooh’ amidst hisses. Her eyes and nose had turned bloodshot. She fanned her mouth with her hand as if it was a fire she had to kill. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
‘Are you okay?’ he got up to go near her.
‘Water!’ she managed to utter amidst ‘oohs’.
‘It’s there,’ she pointed at the jug on the table. He reached for it without wasting a second.
Holding the jug over her mouth, she gulped the water for several seconds, almost emptying the jug.
He stood perplexed trying to catch the sudden change.
Eyes shut; she sat with the jug pressed to her chest. The ‘oohs’ had stopped like the flapping of hands. But the tears kept flowing silently.
‘Are you okay?’ he bent down to lean closer.
She opened her eyes slowly and wiped her face. ‘Yes, I’m better now,’
‘Sometimes a rare spicy variety pops up, you know,’ she said, placing the jug on the floor. ‘And I lose balance. But it happens rarely.’
He sighed straightening up. ‘What sort of pleasure do you get by munching chilies like that? Why put oneself through such torture?’
She nodded giving a tight- lipped smile.
‘Okay, I’ll go now,’ He walked over to the door and unbolted it.
She followed him.
‘I hope we never meet again,’ he said putting on his shoes.
‘Yes, I hope so too,’ She watched him tying his shoelaces. ‘But that’s only possible if you don’t come looking for me again,’
He stood up in silence and turned to leave.
‘And by the way…’
He stopped but didn’t look back.
‘I’m going to change places very soon, change towns. I’ll make sure nobody close to you ever finds out where I go. Will be easy for both of us, for everyone,’
‘Right’ he said after a few seconds and disappeared in the dingy staircase.
That night, he took the bus to his hometown. The bus rounded the town market, the town square before heading out onto the highway. Who’d believe this was the same bustling spot of the morning? The market stood in a solitary darkness as if recalling the morning hustle like a fond memory.
This was a drawback of these small towns. Everyone switched off their lights and went to sleep almost at the same time.
Throughout the bus ride, however, he couldn’t sleep. A strange thought kept coming back over and over again.
She might be a little fucked up but she deserved a standing ovation for the way she munched on chillies as if they were chips.
Madhurima Das is a CA student who lives in Kolkata. Her poems have been published on online platforms like Train_River_Publishing, globalagepoetry, pentupthoughts, and many more under the pen name, Maddyy. She loves reading and writing 'weird' stories.