We were sitting in the veranda and the maid walked in with coffee, some cakes and cookies. Nothing had changed in that house. The expensive porcelain tea set, the Kayani Baker's walnut - almond cake, the cane chairs in the veranda, the money plants that crawled the grills and a house wall, the same cantilevered green tin shade and the same Jaltarang that filled the veranda once it started to pour. The rain was incessant, just the way she liked it. Soon the rivulets ran over the sheets and made a river of the road in front of the veranda. The gushing air made the tiny droplets cover the teapot, soaked the cookies and some settled on her beautiful but wan face. The last time I had seen her she had pranced to catch the rain but today she was very weak to even get up on her own.

The last time I am talking about was fifteen years ago. We were sitting in the same veranda discussing Figures of Speech. She was alluding to William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. She was very happy that day and when I had asked her the reason of her happiness she said in surprised way.

“Oh! I am grumpy always?”
“No! You are always happy, but today you look happier” I said beaming.
“Smarty pants!” she looked at the sky and said “I am happy because he is coming today.”
“Who?” i probed.
She thought for a while and said “The rains.”
“That’s Personification” I said remembering the topic at hand and we both laughed.
And it started to rain a little while later. She ran quickly out of the veranda door and drank the pouring rain. Inside it was filled with the cacophonous sound of the rain on the tin sheet, but she loved that deafening noise - she called it the Jaltarang. I was worried for her safety. Only yesterday a lightning had struck a pedestrian in the town but she was as she always was - uninhibited and full of life. She looked beautiful in that pouring rain in her yellow sundress and my mind went blank. I don't know for how long I was gazing at her for I was surprised by a man's voice that said.
"Is this what you come here for?"
I was so ashamed by that question that I did not dare to look at his face. He walked past me to the veranda door shouted in an acerbic undertone.
"That is enough of show for all. Get back in you bitch."
His voice was visibly angry and it scared me a lot.
"No you come out. Let's give all a better show." she said half mockingly.
I quietly stuffed my Wren and Martin in the satchel and hurried out of the house.  I had never seen his face before and after today I didn't intend to. I peddled hurriedly in the heavy rain and only after I reached home I realized how fast my heart was beating.  The fear lay remain in my heart till I finally drifted off to sleep.

Teenage is an age of crushes and I had a huge one on her. I liked her a lot for her frankness, her easy smile, her unpretentious care and her beautiful face. I went to her house every evening after school to listen to her talk about Tolstoy, Tagore, Ayn Rand and many more. The world of poetry, literature and writers is where she took me each day and my time flew. But with the chime of 6 made by the Paddington clock she dispatched me for good.
She was once my school teacher but now she taught at a different school. She denied any sort of tuition to anyone outside her job but my persistence made her let me into her evenings to study English. She stayed in her parents' house and they both had passed away in an accident while she was in her college. They had left her a beautiful bungalow which had the Victorian architecture. The house was fairly huge and once tastefully decorated. But the high maintenance cost had made her lock herself in the northern end of the house that comprised of a living room, a dining area with a fire place, a kitchen and a veranda on the ground floor.  The magnificent staircase at the far end of the living room took you to a big landing that opened into 3 rooms on the first floor. The staircase wall was filled with frames and frames of photographs but they all were from the past. Polaroid and Black and White. All looked at least a couple of decade old.

The house had a modest garden in the back which overlooked a stream that originated from the Hrada Lake. This was the western part and once this was the most exquisite view of the house. But now the entire western stonewall was covered in moss, and the creepers crawled as high as the red kavelu roof. Now in the twilight it was difficult to tell if there was a house or mere vegetation. Nature and neglect had obliterated the western part completely. 
There in the garage stood a Red Mustang which was now pledged to the Vintage Society of Amravati and earned her a meager yearly royalty. But they took care of the entire maintenance and let her remain parked at the house. The garage was on the eastern end and that part was very beautiful. This was where the original entrance of the house was. It received ample sunlight and thus I guess remained fairly fresh but she did not like the sun, at least the rising sun. She though loved to watch it go down into the distant lake from her bedroom terrace. Which was where she spent her time after I left, sipping a cognac, smoking some cigarettes and listening to Jazz or Rabindra Sangeet on the Transistor. I had heard she had a partner but I had never seen him in last 6 months of my visit. Nor was there any sign of his presence in the house.

She must have been in her mid-thirties by my estimation. But there was no way to validate that. She never divulged in her private life. She was an enigma for the entire town - a royalty whose life was a topic of gossip for everyone. But none was any wiser. They were all stories sewn into pieces from the bit how everyone saw her. So in these stories she was a curt lady who with her rudeness had distanced herself from other relatives. Her seclusion gave rise to stories of her multiple secret relationships and some even claimed that she practice dark magic and kept lots of ghosts, djinns and gargoyles locked in that big house of hers'. Reason I guess nobody came to meet her. And she never went out except to the Old Methodist School and now to Saint Mary's.
But all boys and girls from the school liked her. She had a magical power to make them time travel and make them wander in the Neverland of stories. Some from the school text books and many from her mind. I was her biggest self-proclaimed fan and the only one who was privileged to meet her at her home. But after that day I was scared of go to her place. That night I dreamt of her standing in the rain. She looked happy and calm. I then saw a huge man walk up to her. She smiled at him and hugged him, but he stabbed her and I woke up in cold sweat.

The next day and for the next 5 days there was no sun as it was start of a rather heavy monsoon season. Heavy rains in Melghat meant that the river would swell and cut the road to the school town. I was happy during the days to miss school but by evenings a certain anxiety gripped me. I had not dared to go to her house after that day. I wanted to but was very terrified. What if I go there and he opens the door. The mere thought of it made my heart jump to my throat. I could still see his bulky, tall Marine like frame occupying the veranda door. But I had to see her again. So on the day the rains abated and the school reopened I thought that I should simply wait for her at the school gate. Everyone left but she was not to be. That got me worried and I rushed to her house to see her. That was the first time I ever bought flowers for someone.   
The door was opened by a maid.
"Is Miss. Akshita at home?" I asked nervously.
"Baby was running fever for past some days. She is ok now will probably come to school tomorrow." she said in a matter of fact manner.
She tried closing the door on my face as if to shoo me away. But I stayed there at the door. My eyes searching the living room.
"Baby hasn't come down in last few days. I assume she will not meet you."
I tried to peek inside the veranda to check if she or he was there. I assume my anxiety and fear must have shown for the maid gave a smile and asked me to sit in the veranda.
"There is no one else at home. Sit, I will tell her you have come." and she let me in.
I sat gingerly at the edge of the chair for what must have been a good 15 mins or at least it felt so.
The maid returned and said "She will see you now. Go to her room. It is one on the farthest right side."
This was the first time I took the stairs of that house. That is when I saw the family pictures up and close and saw the Saxena Family. However what stayed with me till date was the photograph of a proud teenage girl on a white pony, all dressed like a jockey. She had changed a good deal from the way she looked as a child but her talkative eyes and easy smile had remained.
I reached her room and knocked softly on the mahogany door. The door opened slightly and to my surprise I heard a Hindi song coming from the room.
"Come, come-in." I heard her call me.
The room was hexagonal and she was sitting on a chair writing something over the desk in front of her with her back to the door. The desk was right near a window sill. And the tall window had multi-hued glasses over the panes. The window was open and in came the fresh earthy smell of wood and Monsoon. One wall had a door that opened into the terrace and you could see the Hrada Lake in the distant. The next wall was covered with books from floor to ceiling. Never had I ever seen so many books at one place. Later when I mentioned this to her she asked me jokingly if I knew that the school had a library. Just like the house the books had an old charm to them. The fresh new ones were next to her bed which was on the next wall. Right next to the bed was a trolley with many exotic liquors and equally exotic chalices. Then came the wall where I was standing with flower in my hand. I felt stupid watching all this so intently but I think I was trying to get into her personal life, just like the others, from what I guess was my only time up this room. I think she smelled the lilies in my hand for she sharply turned to see me. Seeing the flowers her face lit up and she almost ran towards me to take them.
"Providence" saying so she caressed the flowers and put them into an empty vase on her table.
"Sitaram hasn't come to tend to the garden in the last week. Oh how I loved that you came with these beautiful flowers. Thank you so much. I already feel better." She said
She was dressed in a white shirt and a blue skirt and looked very fresh. But her face was hiding something. Her eyes were slightly puffed. Either from too much sleep or lack of it.
"I am glad you like them." I said
"Oh! I loved them." she lowered the volume of the tape recorder. And made me sit on the bed.
For a moment neither of us spoke. She was busy scribbling something hurriedly into her Red Diary. The one which she always carried with her. It was leather bond and had a beautiful golden Mughal era design engraved on the cover. There was an awkward silence for a while, after she stopped writing, and I was wondering what to say next but thankfully she spoke first.
"Have you heard this new song?  खली हात शाम आई है, खली हात जाएगी ...... (This evening has come and has carried nothing with it, and would go the same way)
"No I haven't. And thought you didn't watch Hindi cinema." I stated a bit perplexed
"Have I given you that impression?" she smiled knowingly.
"What does it talk about?"
She thought for a while and then walked towards the terrace. I followed her. She walked to the parapet and then turned towards me.
"Have you ever been in love?"
This took me by surprise. Did she doubt that I was in love with her? My mind fumbled for an appropriate answer and she waived my hesitation with her hand.
She turned to look at the setting sun that was dipping into the water and spoke almost to herself.
“You know which part of the day is most beautiful? Evenings are beautiful. Probably the second most beautiful part of the day for someone in love; other than dead at night, when the silence underscores every act of intimacy and magnifies it tenfold. But the same evening can also be a time of suffering. If you have ever been in love and spent an evening waiting futilely for that someone, you'll know the pain it brings. Not a stabbing pain either, just a dull ache accompanied by a feeling of being deserted. Now imagine this happening to you day after day. This is what the song is about.”**
“Would you please get the transistor?” she requested.
I went inside, picked up the transistor and placed it over the tea table in the middle and reversed the cassette to play that song.
 A heavy soothing male voice came  

"रात और दिन कितने खूबसूरत दो वक़्त हैंऔर कितने खूबसूरत दो लफ्ज़। इन दो लफ़्ज़ों के बीच मेंएक वक़फ़ा आता हैजिसे शाम का वक़्त कहते हैं। ये वो वक़्त हैजिसे  रात अपनाती है दिन अपने साथ लेकर जाता है। इस छोड़े हुएया छूटे हुए लावारिस वक़्त सेशायर अक्सर कोई  कोई लम्हा चुन लेता हैऔर सी लेता है अपने शेरों में। लेकिन कोई-कोई शाम भी ऐसी बाँझ होती हैके कोई लम्हा देकर नहीं जाती।"

(Day and Night are two beautiful epochs, and beautiful two words. Between these two words comes a twinkling which we call evening. This is that time which is neither owned by the night nor taken away by the day. This orphan stretch of time which has been left, or which is left behind is the time from where the poet picks a moment and weaves it in his poetry. But some evenings are so hollow that they leave no moment behind.)    
And then the song began and a certain melancholy filled the air. We played the song again and again and again till it was completely dark outside and the battery dead. What remained was a palpable sadness and her silhouette.
Then all of a sudden it began to rain and I rushed inside the room with the transistor but she didn’t move and I watched her soak her soul once again in the rains.
I was worried for her but I simply kept staring at her. She looked calm and happy in the rains. As if the rains were washing away her pain. When she walked in the room I said that I must leave. But she insisted that I stay. She said that I should stay at least till time the evening was not left behind to be gone alone - Once again.  
After 15 years I was there again. It was evening again and it was raining again. That time she was living alone and this day she was dying alone. She was diagnosed with a metastasized Lymphoma. She had made up her mind to not take the chemo and wait it out at her home. She was very weak and fragile now. It was just a matter of time.
I had come to know about her from a school mate while he was in New Jersey. I could not stop myself. And here I was trying to fill her evenings with my talks. It was very windy and she was getting wet. I called the maid to take her inside but she held my hand and asked me to take her out.

“No I can’t take you out. It will be stupidity to do so.” I protested
“It would be stupidity to not listen to your heart. Living like that is more dangerous than dying” She reasoned back “And I am anyway not going to live longer”
Here was the time for me to tell her to keep quiet and to take her to her bedroom. I don’t know why, but I picked her up in my arms and stood in the rains. I guess my mind summoned the happiness that fills her when she is standing in the rain. And yes that carefree smile was indeed back on her face.
But it was a mistake. After dinner she was running fever and was shivering. I argued to take her to the doctor but she denied. She popped in a paracetamol and slept. I sat by her side gauging the fever from her forehead. I don’t know when I fell asleep but when I got up she was cold. She however had a peaceful smile on her face.
It was my first time to see death so close. And normally I would have got all worked up and frantic but to my own surprise I was very calm. I called up the hospital, the maid and the school. I was waiting for the crowd to come when I noticed a page tucked in her Red Diary. I contemplated weather to open it or not, for a while, but then my curiosity got the better of me. I opened the diary to that page and there on a piece of paper was a poem by written her.

The black clouds would not leave my side
Waiting, I recon, for an apposite sign.
I wonder whence the faith in me has died
Breathing in despair till the clock strike nine
I get up before the gods each day
For the dark has dreamt of a miracle
Read I’ve of the answered and I too pray
Hoping there is an end to this debacle
I know that someday my smiles
will outlast my torrid pains.
And only after walking those miles,
will my sorrows be washed by rains.
I was placing that page again when i saw my name in the diary. There was something that was addressed to me directly.

to be continued... 

My gratitude to Mrs. Kanupriya Singh and Gulzar Sahab for inspiring this work.

** The commentary is from Mrs. Kanupriya Singh's blog page http://www.gulzar101.com/2013/12/khaali-haath-shaam-aayi-hai-ijaazat.html 


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