A Pair of Shoes

Mukesh Kumar
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Read Time:14 Minute, 15 Second

Rishi lay on a rock on the banks of the river Beas, listening to the thunderous gush of water
speeding past him—a roar that contrasted sharply with the deafening silence inside him. His
eyes moved about the night sky in an unfocused way, bringing up tears now and then. His
lips would never stop smiling. As if he was happy. Really happy. In the most sad,
unmentionable way. Happy over something that never existed. Or perhaps did, a long time
back—somewhere so far away and so far back in time that it was barely a memory; and yet
it brought out a smile and secret burning tears every time his mind raced back to it. For him
it was a source of some consolation, of support, of strength … It was strange how the
gravest of reminiscences had the power to heal things, to rejuvenate life, shaping every lost
and broken bit in a way that makes everything appear perfect again …
But it was over. Nothing could be shaped now. He knew she was gone … After he met
her today …
Eight years ago:
‘Do you know how much those shoes exactly cost? And you thought you could buy them!’
Adaa nudged him in the arm. ‘And besides, who wears shoes like that? All hi-fi people buy
them! Not us!’ She promptly looked away, backing off the glass showcase.
He considered for a while. ‘You never dreamt of wearing them? Ever?’ he asked, not
taking his eyes off the pair.
She hesitated, ‘Err … what’s the point? When you know you can’t have something, why
go after it?’
‘But how do you know you can have it or not if you don’t go after it at all?’
‘You talk a lot, you know that? Enough of this, let’s go, we’re late for school …’
‘You can’t lie to your best friend! I saw you ogling them last evening on my way back
from the grocer’s …’
‘Liar!’
‘What were you doing then? Admiring the glass?’
‘Shut up! Just walk silently. Can’t you?’ She elbowed him, and together they ran down the
winding path.
He remembered a shadowy evening and a familiar face … The dark sketch of a girl …
Somewhere inside, he felt a sting, a nudge that hit hard and sharp.
Adaa sat on a rock, her cold feet dipped in the ice-cold river water. She had her shawl
on, the only one she had. An angithi burned beside her, the red-hot coal sizzling softly. Her
long hair was tied in a loose knot and fell all the way to her waist. She turned to look when
she heard his steps. She had smiled in a sad, beautiful way. The kind of smile that ignited a
million questions and yet you feared to ask a thing out loud. He took off his dirty shoes and
dipped his feet in the river too, cringing a little as the water touched his skin. Adaa watched
him, smiling shyly. She then looked away.
‘So, are you going to tell me what’s with you?’ he asked.
He looked at her. She didn’t. She was staring somewhere far off, a place his eyes
couldn’t fathom. The river reflected the yellow lantern lights from the houses above, the
mountains, forests, stone houses, rocks, stars and the sky—everything drowned in its depths.
A broken sun had drowned too, not much time back. She heaved a sigh, weighing her words.
‘I am getting married.’
‘What!’
She looked at him directly now. ‘They are marrying me off, Rishi.’
He sat there, bewildered. She looked away again. He just looked at her, listening to every
single sound that reached his ears except that one beat that came from the girl who sat
beside him, her heart screaming silently somewhere inside.
‘But you are just seventeen—and so am I … If I can’t marry now, so early, you too can’t!
You are still in school! Your parents can’t just marry you off!’
‘I wish it worked that way …’she had said. He thought he heard her voice quiver a little.
They sat there quietly, feeling lost, both suppressing the storm that rose up inside. He had
watched her eyes well up, her face glowing in the moonlight. She sat there, looking
everywhere else but at him. He had watched her wipe a tear from the corner of her eye.
It grew dark; slowly they walked their way home—she silent, he lost as ever.
It was the darkest, yet the sweetest, of his memories. And the saddest of them all—one he
had recalled repeatedly over the years. He couldn’t get rid of it. He couldn’t live with it
either. He smiled, wept and burned at the same time, every single time it crossed his mind

It was dusk, and fluffy gold-hued clouds filled a rather brilliant blue sky in the
background; perfectly picturesque. The sun set behind the mountains. Tiny dots of light
started to appear as the sky turned to navy blue and then to the regular pitch shade. He
thought of the darkness and emptiness this universe is filled of. A deeper, more infinite
universe was swelling inside him, a vacuum only he was capable of living with—perhaps.
He wore his best suit, a white cashmere kurta with brown patterns all over, topped with a
rather mismatched khaki overcoat. The kurta smelled of mothballs even after a few washes.
He had poured half a bottle of jasmine water over himself to ward off the stink. His eyes
were red and puffy, from staying up the night before. He had never actually thought of this
day, not enough for it to be real. His mind couldn’t register the fact that he was going to
witness his best friend marry and leave him. Just a best friend, was she?
Confused. Sad. Happy? Even more confused. He entered her house. It was bursting with
people—uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, neighbours. Everyone happy, everyone dressed in
their best. Laughing their hearts out. Children ran around, the house was festively lit up. It
appeared her parents had spent every last penny of theirs on her wedding. Smiling at anyone
who smiled at him, he slowly made his way to her room.
She sat before the mirror, looking every inch the bride. He was mesmerized by her
reflection itself. Her red and golden attire gave her a mystic touch he had never known her
to have, the jewels dazzled her even more. Her heavy hair was tied up in a knot at the back
of her head, a few strands of white flowers pinned underneath them. Her blood-red lipstick
contrasted with her fair skin, as she nervously bit her lip. She turned to look at him. Her
hands were all done up in mehendi, ending a little above her wrists. Her glass bangles
jingled as she moved one hand to tuck that one lock of hair which always fell on her face, no
matter how well her hair was done.
‘I am glad you came. I thought you won’t show up.’
She looked curiously at him. She seemed kind of happy. But somewhere, deep down, she
told him she wasn’t happy at all. She was sad. Unbearably sad.
‘I miss you, Adaa. It’s like I am never going to see you again …’
She lunged at him; he felt his lips against hers, fierce from something he couldn’t relate
to. It was something he had never felt before; a strange, new, unexplored horizon that joined
more than just the lips. That spread its tentacles far and wide and brought every tiny little
insignificant soul it felt worthy to fit in its small vastness. There was more than just a kiss.
There was a heart, confused and hurt from the effort of wondering how far it could go in
love just for love’s sake. There was a soul, intimidated till it had lost its individuality, and
yet on its way to finding another which would help retrieve its own true part. There was a
silent dream, a flickering hope, that burned with a rather steady intensity and looked for just
the pair of eyes which would hold him back … Just this one last time. And make him
believe he could love too. And never be out of it. It would be a ‘forever and ever’ thing.
Just the way it happened in fairy tales. Where fiction went real and truth became irrelevant.
That madly in love feeling. And he had found his princess. Perhaps. He told her. In a
thought, a silent one.
It was the way he pulled her in an embrace, the way he ran his fingers through her hair,
looked into her eyes or kissed her. Something about it told him it wasn’t going to be a
goodbye kiss. There would be more of them. That they would part and meet again
somewhere far and forgotten with just a momentary passionate thought to cling to till they
did …
And she loved him. For everything he was. For everything he was not. For being the guy
who had made her daydream and brood over the way he smiled on semi-dark evenings as
she sat on the river bank—the very thought would make her smile to herself. And it had been
so for many an evening—she had lost track. Sometimes at night, or during the day, thoughts
of him kept mushrooming in her head and she would shoo them away with a twinkle in her
eyes, yet wait for another to pop up—it was that kind of a mad love. But now, it wasn’t
madness that defined this love any more. It was pure sadness that clung to every single
memory of him. She could never think of him with a smile on her lips again … It would be
just tears. Silent ones she couldn’t even stop. Yes, it sure was some sad, mad love.
She was gone, leaving behind a part of her with him no one owned except him—and
taking a part of him with her that left him with barely anything.
We live in a society that has always laid down rules for almost everything—affection, love,
hatred. Every single reply to what, how, when, where and how much—it’s not for us to
answer. It’s predefined. There’s something untold about every known thing and it’s untold
because it’s very well understood. Something that fairly defines whom to love, when to love
and how much to love. And when to be out of love too. For your own good—if you want to
fit in this place, if you want to live a fulfilling life, die a respected man.
But somehow, it didn’t mould the seventeen-year-old boy in a way he could learn to fit in.
He particularly didn’t want to. He wanted to live, not survive. He wanted her safe in his
thoughts, so he left to be in the army with just a suitcase and her memories.
His heart—he had lost it a long time back.
Eight years went by. Adaa could no longer smile. Not even when the snow caps turned a
brilliant gold and rainbows danced after the rains. She couldn’t remember who she was.
Who she use to be. She didn’t know she was married. Nor that she had a six-year-old son
who had died along with her husband. It was in an accident—the same accident that has
made her forget everything. Amnesia, the doctors called it. Things that ought to be in the
present couldn’t even find their way into her memories. They were lost, breaking all those
fairytale promises they had ever blinded her with. She lived in a helping home in Kullu
now, lost in her own empty world. She didn’t remember anyone. Rishi—her best friend, her
first love—she knew not …
Eight years in the army had disciplined him well. It had managed to train his mind, but not
his heart. It had successfully driven the child out of him and pushed in a responsible man,
capable of serving the nation. It had beaten every single pain out of him, but the heartache
was something it hadn’t yet managed to touch. He had thought of her each night as he lay in
his tent. What would she be like? Did she love him still? Somehow his heart could never
register the fact that she had a husband and perhaps a child too … For him, she was always
the seventeen-year-old girl in her bridal attire—the girl who had his heart.
Rishi stood in the garden, waiting for Adaa, holding a bouquet of white daffodils and a
white box. Something about the helping home nauseated him, even though he knew it was a
home for people who had nowhere else to go. Adaa would be here any moment now. He
was here despite his family’s efforts to keep him away. He was determined to meet her. His
Adaa. He knew she would remember him no matter what. It didn’t matter that she was
suffering from amnesia. She would know.
He had begun to feel the moistness of the flowers when she finally came. Clad in a clean
white sari, was she really the girl he had known all his life? He knew not …
He stood there, looking at her. Just the way he always did when she wasn’t looking at
him. Her long hair was loosely tied into a knot at the back of her head, just the way it had
been on her wedding day. But that single lock of hair was gone—the strand which somehow
always fell on her face. Rishi was amazed. Here stood the girl right before him, his best
friend whom he had known forever—and yet she was now a stranger he felt he had never
known. Something about the way she looked at him told him she had no clue who he was.
He felt a cold chill go down his spine. Somehow, he mustered up the courage to frame the
word, ‘Adaa.’
She stood there, gazing at him with a serenity he had never known her to possess. She
was amazed. Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, she smiled. His heart heaved a sigh.
She remembered him after all!
‘Do I know you?’ he heard her say. The words rang in his ears. He went numb, robbed of
every single thought he had. He felt something break inside him and heard someone else
speaking through him.
‘I … I am afraid not. I am a friend of the family. We used to be friends when we were
kids. It’s a long time now—I am sure you do not remember.’
She smiled in the most compassionate way.
‘I am extremely sorry. I am unable to recall. But meeting you today, I am sure we must
have known each other. You seem to be a good man …’ She paused.
‘Roshan,’ he heard himself say.
‘Roshan,’she smiled. There was an awkward pause.
‘I return to my town soon. I thought I would visit you while I was here. I am sorry if I
troubled you.’
‘Not at all. It’s good to have visitors. This is the very first time that someone has come to
visit me. I feel I belong somewhere—but where exactly I don’t know … I am sure someone
will come soon to take me home—to where I must have belonged before I came here … I
am sorry, why are you crying, Roshan?’
He felt his cheeks wet. ‘I am sorry, something must have got into my eyes. I should leave
now. I have a train in an hour. Oh, here, I got these for you …’
He handed her the daffodils and the box. She smiled in a way that broke his heart once
again.
‘It was nice to see you again, Adaa.’
‘My pleasure, Roshan. Take care.’
Was I never yours to save?
I wonder as I lie in my grave,
Why did your eyes brim up with love,
Were they for me? The tears that you shed?
Or were they because I was gone now, so dead?
Why did your lips touch mine?
Was it because there was a love that you once felt?
Or was it because you thought we finally parted,
a final touch that made all boundaries melt?
Why did you turn to me with that longing gaze?
Or was it because you knew this was the last time we met?
I thought I knew love, or did I know something that you just framed?
Was it my fault to draw you among the stars,
and dream with them as they came and went?
Is that love finally gone, the one you framed?
I do not know, but it still remains, hiding somewhere underneath.
Were there no hidden promises after all?
Not a single fake tale to read to my soul?
Not a single touch that silences my screams,
No forged dreams to make me sleep?
I know it’s over now, you’re gone and so have I,
Now that I have a forever to think of you, in my grave as I lie …
Somewhere in the dark, Adaa was up in her bed. Turning on the light in the room, she took
the white box in her lap and opened it. Inside lay a gorgeous pair of white shoes …
‘Rishi,’ was all she could say …

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