As the old and familiar college building loomed near, an undeniable sense of nostalgia cam over Praveena. She turned to look at Anil on the driver’s seat. He looked tense, concentrating on parking the car safely. He looked impassive, but Praveena knew that he too had run through their three years of college life in his head.
Once Anil had parked the car under a huge tree that bore his favourite yellow flowers, they got down, Praveena staring at the hauntingly unwelcome girls’ hostel building. They went over to the clerk who stood at the entrance, making note of all the students who would stay in the hostels. The current batch had left for the semester holidays, and the college appeared deprived of rushing sounds of hurried feet. Here and there stood old students in groups with parents and friends alike, chatting and catching up. With a lot of new faces, the whole crowd seemed a blur of unrecognizable colours.
Anil gave both of their names to the clerk. Once the process was done, Anil left for the boys’ hostel while Praveena headed over to the girls’. They had agreed to meet at the entrance in fifteen minutes. Walking towards the hostel Praveena had to cross the open valley facing the building. She thought back to the countless occasions she had sat on the lush grass enjoying the breeze with Anil and Niveda. She shuddered for a moment as the cold breeze ruffled her loosely tied hair.
The room she had shared with Niveda seemed so different to Praveena now. The beds were there, and so was the full-sized mirror facing the beds. But that was all that remained same of Praveena’s room. The walls she and Niveda had left plain were now taken over by posters, posters – Praveena realized painfully – of gods and – she slapped her forehead hard – child celebrities.
She looked around the room in despair. Her room – their room — had been contaminated. She didn’t want to stay here. It would pollute the unforgettable memories she had shared in that same room with Niveda.
She turned to leave. She would ask the warden for a change of room. But just as she turned towards the door, a powerful whiff of scent caught her unawares. She froze in mid-step. She knew that smell only too well. She turned, and on the dressing table was a can of talcum powder – the same brand Niveda had used.
Praveena didn’t know how she had caught the scent. It hadn’t been in the air when she came into the room, that she was sure of. ‘Then how did it suddenly spread?’ Praveena felt a chill in her spine. She had an inescapable feeling that Niveda was there, in the room, with her. Praveena wasn’t scared, but she didn’t believe in ghosts either.
She could however, sense Niveda. She had stayed in the same room for a year and a half after Niveda had committed suicide next to her bed, but it was the first time Praveena had felt like this; the feeling that her’s was not the only breathing. She stood there, unmoving, and not knowing why, but she waited. Praveena half expected Niveda’s form to materialize in front of her. Nothing happened for a while, until, Praveena’s phone rang, shattering the silence in the room.
She answered with fumbling fingers, “Hello?” she meant to be tentative and was surprised to hear it irritable.
“Hey!” Anil shouted from the other end. “Where are you? I’m waiting,” he said annoyed.
Praveena shook herself mentally, “Huh? Yeah, I’m coming.” she made to leave the room. As she shut the door behind her, she still felt the silence reverberating within the room. She signed, and turned towards the college building, wiping tears off her eyes.
“Where were you?” Anil exclaimed as she walked up to him. “What happened?” he added concerned as she reached his side. Praveena shook her head in response and Anil spoke of it no more. Together, they walked towards the parked Mercedes.
“Any plans?” Praveena asked Anil, her hand caressing the handle of the car.
“Yeah,” Anil said looking disconcerted. “Breakfast,” he smiled as she looked at him questioningly. Now that he had mentioned it, Praveena felt so hungry it surprised her how she hadn’t noticed it earlier.
She wondered if she should tell Anil about what had happened in the room, but decided against it. ‘It’s not a good time,’ her inner voice agreed with her. ‘He’d think you had gone mad with hunger.’
Anil had already gotten into the car and gestured her to follow suit. She got in silently, her stomach rumbling. She watched in silence as Anil manoeuvred the car from the parking spot and drove away from the college into the busy thronging town of Bangalore.
“You know,” she spoke after awhile, “for a moment there, I thought you’d suggest eating in the college canteen.” she smiled relieved.
Anil laughed, taking her by surprise. “Actually, they did plan it,” he said laughing harder at Praveena’s look of wide-eyed horror. “But we told them to spare the trouble,” he finished, still smiling.
Praveena shook her head. “So, where are we headed?” she asked impatiently. Neatly laid streets and rich cars did nothing to divert Praveena’s attention away from her growling stomach.
After what seemed like thirty minutes, Anil pulled by by a huge restaurant. Getting down he said, “You haven’t been here, have you? Great food.” nodding his appreciation. Praveena looked at the big board that hung over the restaurant. The Green Leaf. She rubbed her forehead exasperatedly, but said nothing.
The restaurant was packed, and looked just like the one in Chennai, Praveena realized. They took the table in the farthest corner.
Once they had ordered, Anil leaned over to her and asked, “Shall I order a juice? It’ll be good,” he tempted her with a wink. Praveena shook her head, smiling. “In fact Anil, it’s the Chennai Green Leaf that specializes in juices. Here, it’s the local Kannada cuisine.” she said smiling mockingly.
“Oh well,” Anil shrugged his admiration.