Kaushik’s interest in Ritika, as much a product of incessant suggestion as of actual attraction, was firmly established, in his mind and of others’, by the time the second month in Lucknow had begun. She, with her aquiline nose, high cheeks and terrible voice, was one of the most sought after, although not overwhelmingly so, for that year the campus had witnessed a markedly increased influx of attractive women. The presence of competition – stiff is not the appropriate word to use in this context – meant Kaushik did not even try seriously, although it was unlikely he would have succeeded even if he did. For a long time, he wasn’t even sure if she knew his name.
It was still that phase when Kaushik was only feeling his way into the company of the Illustrious and therefore, his poise, never assured amongst womenfolk in the best of times, wasn’t what could be considered self-confident. Indeed, he fell back, more strongly than ever, on his time-honed defense of sarcasm and feigned indifference.
He never really had been a ladies’ man. In school, as a kid only dimly aware of man woman relationships beyond that of playing Snakes & Ladders together, he, along with his friends, had enjoyed the company of women often. By the time his dim notions had developed into more coherent physical urges – he woke up to these much later than most of his peers since at the time his naïve faith in his parents was unshakeable and they had begun to drop frequent, subtle hints, that he shouldn’t be getting carried away with himself at this precarious age -, he was almost through school.
He went to college in Ahmedabad for a couple of months to pass time, while he waited for the letter, from Dhule as it turned out, to arrive. There, he noticed how the women wore dresses very different from the full sleeved shirts and ankle length skirts that had been their school uniform. He registered the clearly defined curves, accentuated by the tighter tees and jeans, and the occasional, bewitching, sight of an exposed knee. At this stage, he himself was barely above five feet and in the nascent stages of obesity, and this meant, his advances, friendly and unsure, were met with only mild, somewhat sisterly, reactions. The subject of his height, a matter of great concern to his Mom & Dad for the past few years, suddenly became important to himself. He hunted around for girls his own height but found himself hopelessly distracted by those that weren’t. He went into a shell, eating sandwiches at the canteen alone, and taking the bus back home as soon as lectures ended. Sometimes, when he bunked class, he went to the neighbourhood bookshop and read.
The problem of his height alleviated significantly by the end of his first semester in Dhule. He never became an imposing presence, other than horizontally, but he grew enough to have a physical vantage point with respect to most women. But the Lord that gaveth also, snidely, taketh. Dhule proved barren in more ways than one. The one female worthy of, at best, passing attention garnered so much, she abandoned college, two weeks into the first session, and returned to her hometown. There were a handful others who were alright, not unworthy of mankind saving liaison after a nuclear attack by machines wrecks the planet leaving only two survivors, and these were quickly picked up by the locals boys, who, armed with a bunch of hockey stick wielding sidekicks, wrestled their way through the cluster of less connected aspirants and into the women’s hearts. Kaushik, of course, stood no chance.
And thus, by the time Ritika turned up, his wooing and conversational skills were still only marginally better than at infancy.
She was interested in literature and in western music. She maintained a blog which sounded profound and vague. She had a sense of humour, it appeared. Kaushik mentioned his interest casually to his friends and they latched onto it at once. They cajoled and goaded on his desire for her.
He constructed conversations with her in his head, fretting over each detail, going back and changing his own words, wherever he felt he had gone wrong, but never hers since what she said was of her own volition. They all turned out to be conversations worthy of the best noir and that he couldn’t actually have them with her depressed Kaushik further. He passed her by several times each day, at the coffee shop, at the student mess, in classrooms, but never said hello, choosing instead, to steal sidelong glances at her. Once in a while, when his glance would be caught by hers, he offered a frail smile and quickly looked away, not waiting to check if she’d smiled back. At this point, everyone was adding everyone else to their Social Network friend lists and Chat lists, but Kaushik desisted from sending her an invite, afraid he’d be turned down. It wasn’t until they were grouped together, along with a couple of other fellows, for a project, that he eventually sent her an invite, making up his mind to clarify it was to discuss about the project lest she harbor suspicions.
It was around this time that he met Raakesh, who was then struggling with romantic demons of his own. Since his gift for the written word was universally acknowledged by this time, Raakesh had figured he could use it to his advantage to make headway with the object of his desire. And so, he composed sonnets in her name and slipped them under her door in the early hours of the morning. After weeks of expectant waiting, when nothing happened, he and Kaushik figured the girl was probably too airheaded to appreciate the magic of his words. And they returned to their novels and their alcohol.
Ritika, it emerged one day, had succumbed to the charms of another man, a senior. Kaushik took the news with great equanimity and immediately set about finding all he could about this man. He was a hopeless alcoholic, Kaushik found, and evidently had a knack for growling absurd Death Metal songs. Nobody on campus, even those of his own batch, liked him. When the news of his conquest spread, they liked him even less. It won’t last, was the general opinion. In three years’ time, the two would marry each other.
With time, Kaushik grew out of her and a strange thing happened. He found he could now speak to her. They spoke a few times during the final months in Lucknow, sometimes face to face and sometimes in a chat window, and Kaushik found he enjoyed these occasions with a faint hint of wistfulness, even as they were underway. He recognized the transient nature of these conversations and that they would probably die away slowly once they left Lucknow. He still liked the sight of her.
They did chat once or twice after Kaushik, and she too, had settled in Mumbai. They did not have occasion to meet. She remained on his Gtalk list and he looked for her name each time he logged in, for no purpose other than to simply register her presence, until he grew out of that too and she became just another name.