Another Time, Another Place

Mukesh Kumar
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Read Time:11 Minute, 12 Second

The much-wrinkled, too-often-read letter was in his pocket as he got off the train. They had
read about such letters in old war-time novels that were a dime a dozen at the school
library. Both of them would go there during every free period and pretend to be engrossed
in books while sneaking glances at each other. Still, some of what they read had also gone
into their heads and, conveniently, provided ‘discussion’ topics!
Such letters used to be called ‘Dear John’ letters during the Second World War, when the
soldiers—away on the war front for years—were informed by their sweethearts back home
that they were moving on in life and not waiting for them. He had made up funny situations
for triggering such letters, like ‘I am sure every letter he sent from the war front probably
just had the word “Duh” in it’ or ‘Maybe he sent her gunpowder instead of face powder as a
gift’; and she had giggled all through. She had also added her bits of absurdity, like ‘Maybe
the sweetheart thought the neighbourhood tomcat was better groomed than her John’. Neither
had ever dreamed that she would have to write such a letter to him.
He touched the letter in his pocket, as he did always. ‘I am sorry. But I can’t wait for you
any longer. I don’t have a choice in the matter. I have waited and waited, but have run out of
excuses. I am getting married tomorrow. I wish you all the best in life. It’s goodbye. Yours,
once …’
He did not blame her. He had not been there when she needed him, had not been in a
position to even write and let her know that. She had waited as long as she could. Their
being together was just not to be; it was not written in the fates.
And yet, after three years, there was a gap in his being, a loneliness that gnawed away at
him. She was never far from him; that letter was always in his pocket. He had blocked her
vision whenever it had floated into his consciousness—so what if he cried out for her in his
sleep? He went about the business of living and was perfectly fine, thank you.
But today, out of the blue, he had to go back to ‘their’ place, on work. He had managed to
avoid going there ever since he got her letter. And he had been very successful at that. Now,
he had to go, for just a day. But what a day!
Going back to the place where it all had been—where they had known and loved each
other—had not helped at all. He had been swamped with memories which just sharpened
the pain. Still, though he went and though he missed her with every breath, he had not sought
her out. That letter had been very definite.
It didn’t matter that he yearned to see her. It certainly wouldn’t have helped to seek her
out now. He had convinced himself and come straight back, as soon as his work got done.
And he was certain this gloom had come on only because he had gone back to their place.
Of course he was perfectly happy and content. He would be fine. He went out of the railway
station, looking for a taxi, carrying his bags in one hand.
He had strong hands, very capable. She remembered them so well. She had been standing
behind the window of her rickety apartment opposite the railway station, just emptily gazing
out, when she saw him in the distance. Unexpected, and yet daily expected, ever since she
and her husband had moved to the city. She had not informed him that they now lived in the
same city as he did. After all, she had said a very definite goodbye.
But now here he was. So near and so far. No, not a good idea to catch his attention. It
would interfere with her life and her husband would definitely not like it. She screwed up
her eyes, her nose flattened against the dingy pane of the window glass, gazing at him with
hunger. She could see him, standing just opposite her window, waiting for a taxi, carrying
those heavy bags in one hand.
In his strong, capable hand. She smiled. That had been such fun. She had fallen into this
hollow between the rocks, as they had made their way across the hillside to the beach. Left
to herself, she would have looked upon rocks just like she now saw their doorpost or her
typewriter. But he was with her then. He had given a special enchantment to those
commonplace, regular rocks.
With him, for the first time in her life, she had gone exploring there. She had discovered
mysterious caverns, interesting crevices and wondrous rock formations. Every time they
went to ‘their’ place, they had found a different route to the beach. On that day, on one of
these pioneer routes, she had been gazing at him, starry-eyed, and was not watching where
she was going. Of course, she had overbalanced and fallen into this hollow.
She had scrambled back up to her feet, laughing at her own clumsiness. He had smiled at
her and, stretched out his hand, reached into the hollow. Ignoring her attempts to scramble
up, he had—in one breath, without any trouble—pulled her out one-armed, up and out,
straight to his side.
He had teased her wickedly, of course. She smiled again now, as the glaze cleared from
her eyes. Oh no, of course she wasn’t crying. And he was still standing there on the kerb,
with no taxi in sight. Could she … do you think she could just go across and say … hello?
No. It would be a betrayal …
Nonsense! Just to say hello? What harm would it do? Yes, but she had written that letter
to him … and had got married … and … Well, that was because of circumstances! But what
would her husband say? He wouldn’t like it! I mean, past loves should stay past!
But … he looked so tired and grim. And his shoulders were still broad … Aha! A bit of
grey in that lovely hair? It suited him though … Just to say hello? He was still standing
there!… Please, God! Forgive me! Just this once …
She made her way rapidly to the door. As she reached it, it opened into the face of the
milkman. Oh heck! She had to pay him the monthly dues. She ran into the kitchen, rummaged
into the box where they kept their meagre cash, blindly dug out the last few notes and ran
back. The milkman placed that day’s milk bottle just inside the door, took the money,
touched his cap and went.
Distractedly, she ran to the window again. He was still there, standing on the kerb,
looking up and down impatiently. Oh God, don’t let him go away!
Praying under her breath, she went to the door. Ghastly stairs. Very treacherous. One had
to balance carefully to get down. It was a lousy two-room tenement, of course, in the worst
building in town, but it was all they could afford.
She crossed her fingers. She couldn’t see the kerb from the stairs and could only hope that
no taxi had turned up and he was still there. She was as careful as could be, but on that last
but third step, she slipped, as usual, and landed in a heap near the exit from the building.
The man just coming in exclaimed, ‘My dear! Are you alright?’ and solicitously helped her
up. It was her husband.
She quickly looked past him, at the man across the street. He was still there, but no, he
hadn’t seen her or her inglorious slide down the staircase. Smiling an empty thanks at her
husband, who was still fussing around her, she ran out through the door.
Just then, a taxi blocked her vision and slowed down in front of him. He was getting in.
She raised her hand, her lips forming his name. He didn’t see her. The taxi moved away.
Her hand dropped down and she stood looking at the taxi as it sped down the road.
Her perplexed husband bustled out behind her. ‘What’s the matter, dear? Don’t run into
the street like this. And have you locked our door? Look, go out later, please. I need some
She looked down and let her husband lead her back in.
Maybe the stairs could substitute for those rocks. Maybe her husband could substitute for
him. After all, the taxi had gone away without a backward glance. She looked up at her
husband with a hesitant smile, and slowly climbed the stairs again, holding his hand. Thank
God, the milk had come for his coffee.
As the taxi turned round the corner, the man in the back seat glimpsed a woman, being led
into a building by a man. Oh! Could it be …? Quickly, his hand moved to the driver, then
stopped. It couldn’t be her. She was not even in this city. Hell, he should never have gone
back to their place. Now he was hallucinating, seeing her everywhere. This was just the
His hand reached into his pocket. He pulled the old, almost-tattered piece of paper out
again and read her last letter to him, every word of which was engraved on his heart. After
all, he had read it at least once, every day, for the past three years. Should he crush it and
throw it away? Tear it up? His hand hesitated. Then, with a sigh, and a resigned smile, he
folded the letter and put it back into his pocket.
He looked out of the window, at the wide tree-lined streets in the upmarket area of the
city. They seemed to be nearly home. He leaned forward to give directions to the driver.
The taxi stopped, he carelessly dragged his bags out, paid the man. He stood on the kerb,
looking at his home. An apartment in a three-storey building, neat and well-built, with a
swanky kitchen, huge hall, swish bathrooms, three big and empty bedrooms. And no one to
fill them. Oh, why had he not gone to her when he knew she needed him? How could he
blame anyone but himself for what had happened?
The old lady who lived downstairs saw him arrive. She came out eagerly. ‘My son, I am
glad you are back. I have made sure that your apartment was cleaned today, and the
electrician had come to fix that switch for you. I went and stayed with him all through till it
worked and he left. Do you want a cup of coffee? Will you come in?’
He shook his head, smiled and carried his bags up the smooth, marble stairs. The old lady
stood at the bottom of the staircase and looked at his back, climbing up and up. Such a nice,
thoughtful boy, so well-mannered and gentle. She only wished that he didn’t always look so
Things finally began to look up, when the crisp, thick-papered letter came in the post late
evening. She had got the job. It was another typing job, true, but at least she would be called
a secretary. It was a new job at the same office where her husband worked, though for a
boss she was yet to meet. She would get more pay, more respect. And maybe, if she hoarded
everything and cut some of their groceries’ expenses, they could move out of this dump. Her
eyes shone.
She quickly cleaned up the house the next day, got ready and climbed carefully down the
stairs. She gripped the broken rail at the last but third step, her husband helped her and she
gingerly crossed it. Ah, at last, she had managed to get off those stairs without slipping!
They went out and began walking the seven-kilometre distance to her new office. After all,
they had to save bus fare and now it was for two.
The office was an imposing building, in the middle of the city’s main, extremely busy
thoroughfare. Her husband kept reassuring her all along the seven-kilometre walk that the
new boss, though young, was a very nice person and she would not have any problems at
all. Naturally, the more he fumbled and reassured and asserted, the more nervous she got.
The new boss’s former secretary had done all the formalities and hired her. He hadn’t even
bothered to meet her. What if the boss didn’t like her?
She clutched her husband’s hand, as they climbed the steps and made their way into the
office. He ushered her in like she was a total dimwit who didn’t understand anything. He
dumped his bag on one of the desks along the way and took her straight to a cabin door. ‘I
have to leave you here,’ he said, licking his lips. ‘He is inside. Please go in and please
don’t mess anything up for either of us.’
She started trembling. This job was so important to both of them. It was their ticket to
survival. She didn’t look at her husband. She dropped his hand and drew a deep breath. She
thought of the boy she had sneaked glances with in the library, who had held her hand
through the rocks. She thought of the boy who had smiled at her and lifted her, effortlessly,
out of a deep hollow, single-handed. The moment glittered in front of her again. She
straightened her shoulders, smiled, pushed open the door and went in, leaving her stillfluttering husband behind.
The new boss looked up. And touched his hand to his pocket.

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