The iron railings formed a diamond pattern. It divided the forlorn face of a beautiful girl, standing behind it, into many pieces. The dreamy eyes were intently looking down at the soccer field right across the street.
A group of four boys had broken out of the bigger group and speeding towards the goal. One of them, tall and thin, stole the ball and turned around and ran in the opposite direction. A middle-aged lady came behind Roma and asked her, “What are you looking at?“ “Dada just missed the goal, Mom,“ she muttered. Her elder brother, Rajesh was playing soccer with his friends. Roma was sitting with a history book, open, on her lap. Her attention was far from her studies, she wished she could play with her friends that summer afternoon.
In the southern part of Kolkata, there was a beautiful lake. The road around the lake had tall trees on both sides. In the morning, many colorful birds visited the place. Many health-conscious men and women from near and far neighborhoods came for a morning stroll. Some jogged around the lake enjoying the fresh air.
The lake had visitors in the evening too. Many young ladies came with little kids in strollers, to relax after a long day. It was also a popular spot for young couples. They usually occupied the benches around the lake. In the quiet privacy, they sat close together and whispered their secrets. When most of the birds flew back at sundown, the lovers lingered to part. Some were tempted to stay after darkness descended on the lake.
Beyond the lake, the roads continued in different directions. There were not lined with as many trees. On the side of one of the roads was a field, followed by several multi-storied buildings. The balconies for the apartments had iron railings. From the road below, the people who stood at their balconies looked like prisoners. On the other side of the road was a walled complex for government employees. There were three ten-story buildings and big playing field in front of it.
One summer afternoon, thirteen-year-old, Roma was returning home on a school bus. The back windows were half open to let in a gentle breeze. But she was sweating profusely. Her face was stiff with anticipation. When the school bus stopped, she hung her backpack loosely from her shoulders so that it hid her skirt. She carefully got off the bus and headed towards her apartment building. A few kids were playing near the gate. They called to her.
Roma smiled but did not start a conversation. She quickly headed towards the elevator. A few other people were waiting to board the elevator. Roma headed to the corner and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. She was happy that her mother opened the door. When she removed her backpack, the big bloody mark on her skirt was clearly visible. “Mom, my periods started! “
Roma’s mother, Maya was not unprepared. “Don’t worry I have the necessary stuff. Go to the bathroom and change, “she assured her. In a few minutes, the doorbell rang again. It was the maidservant arrived. She was quite excited. “Didi, you won’t believe what I saw yesterday. The teenager boy from the fifth floor was getting intimate with their maidservant in the back of the parking lot. What has the world come to these days! You better keep an eye on your young girl. She is growing so attractive. “
Maya was shocked to hear this. She decided right then and there that Roma will not play with the precocious boys and girls of their apartment building. Henceforth Roma remained confined to her small two-bedroom apartment. She watched other teenagers play. She looked at the people walking towards the lake, from her balcony. The balcony overlooked a playing field where the boys and girls from the government quarters played every day, after school. Rajesh often joined the boys in a game of soccer or cricket. Roma loved to see them play.
One day, as Roma sat in her usual place, the soccer game was suddenly interrupted. Maya was also sitting beside her, enjoying a cup of tea. They both looked inquisitively. One of the boys had got hurt while playing. He could not put any pressure on his right foot. It appeared that his leg was broken. “Oh my God, that must be so painful. It is quite surprising that Vivek is not crying,” she exclaimed. Roma wondered how painful it must be. Her heart cried silently for him. Two other boys helped him move to the side of the field. When he failed to stand on his own, they carried him towards one of the multi-storied apartment buildings, where he lived.
In the next four weeks, Roma saw Vivek, sitting on his balcony, every evening, watching his friends play. Vivek was three years elder to her. Roma was comforted to find someone in her age-group, who was on their balcony. She, of course, felt sorry for his broken leg. She even admired how he bore his pain without any fuss. Pretty soon, even before she realized it, she was looking forward to seeing him, every day. They would sit there till it became almost dark. Sometimes, they looked at each other, when no one else was around. However, they would quickly look away too.
After a week or so, both of them became conscious of the other’s interest. One day, Vivek waved Roma goodbye, as he was going back to his room on his crutches. She felt her heart pounding with joy. “Was that true? Or was it my mind playing tricks? “Roma wondered to herself. She had no one to share this excitement. To put an end to her doubt, the following day, he repeated the same action. This time, she mustered the courage to wave back at him. Being a teenager, she did not think of the consequences of this action. She was doing what came to her naturally.
Soon, Vivek‘s broken leg healed up fine. He was back doing everything as usual. So it seemed, to the apparent eye but the worlds of these two young kids had already changed forever. He went to play every evening. After washing up and eating his snack, he would not go to study immediately. He would find some excuse to come to his balcony. If Roma was not standing on her balcony, he would wait for her. He would smile and wave to her before he settled down to study. And even when they studied, they thought about each other and would steal glances from their window to find out what the other was doing. In their youthful spontaneity, they started communicating to each other in sign language. Sometimes they would not wait for the evening and try and catch a glimpse of each other in the morning before they left for school.
One night, as they stood at the window, their dark forms silhouetted against the light of their rooms, Vivek made a heart sign with his hands to express what was on his mind. Roma felt shy. She thought it was little vulgar. Without knowing what to say, she simply ran inside. That night she could hardly sleep. She could not make up her mind whether to be happy or angry. Vivek knew Rajesh, quite well. If Vivek told his friends about her, Rajesh would know and eventually tell her parents. She felt scared to let her parents know. What if they do not allow her to have a boyfriend. Roma’s little world was in turmoil.
A part of her wanted to be an obedient daughter. She did not want to make her parents upset. After some internal struggle, she stopped waiting at the balcony for Vivek. A few days went by, Roma felt sad. Deep inside something felt missing. Her mind played through the little moments of romance with Vivek, over and over again. It was impossible for her to give up the attraction of her first love. It had become a part of her by now. She cried silently at night. She secretly searched for him again. As much as she dreaded taking this relation further, she was slowly surrendering to the temptation.
It was a Saturday morning. Roma dragged herself out of bed. Everything around her felt dull and drab. Her eyes were searching Vivek. Seeing him used to make her so happy. She could not focus not her studies that morning. She decided to take a break.
She went to the smaller balcony on the back side of her apartment that faced the lake. There stood a brown horse, grazing in the adjacent field. Roma could not believe her eyes. She loved horses. Excited, she ran to the kitchen. “Come and see Mom. There is a beautiful horse on the field, “ she coaxed her. “Roma, I need to cook this dish now, sorry dear, “ Maya explained practically. Sulking, Roma went to the front balcony. Just then she saw Vivek, waiting for her. Her face brightened up seeing him.
In the past few days, Vivek had waited several times without any luck. He was at the point of giving up. He could not understand her sudden withdrawal. He was trying hard to make some sense.
Roma waved to him and pointed towards the field. Then she ran to the back balcony and waved again. She tried to show the horse on the field. In her exuberance, Roma tried to spell the word “HORSE” with her fingers. Vivek was really confused. After a while, Roma gave up and just smiled at him. Vivek smiled back. Both of them felt good to see each other. After a few minutes, they went back inside to study.
After lunch, Roma decided to check for the horse again. Instead of the horse, she saw Vivek standing there with his friend. That was the last thing she had expected. Her head spun and heart pounded with fear and excitement. She waved shyly. She searched through her brain to figure out what to do next.
“Vivek did not understand that I wanted to show him a horse. He thought I wanted to meet him at the field below. How stupid of me?“ she regretted. At that time, it struck her that Vivek was taking this friendship seriously. This was her chance to show that she wanted him too. He seemed mature. She would depend on him to guide her.
She ran inside and came back with a paper note. She dropped it towards him. Vivek picked up the note and put it in his pocket. Then he waved at Roma and went in towards the lake with his friend.
The note was written in a hurry. Roma knew that on the coming Saturday, her mother was going to take Rajesh to the doctor. Her father had some urgent errands at the same time. She asked Vivek to come to her apartment that Saturday morning. She mentioned that she will be alone at home. Finally, taking a big leap, Roma had decided to meet with Vivek, alone.
When Friday night came, Roma could hardly contain her excitement. She tossed in bed unable to sleep. Her heart racing a hundred miles per hour, she could not contain the thrill of anticipation. She will open up her heart to him, in a few hours. Her fantasies ran wild as she imagined all the things she would say to him. The early morning rays of light came in through the windows. She sat up on her bed and hugged the pillow tightly against her bosom. She closed her eyes and smiled. The handsome boy of her dreams smiled back at her.
On Saturday morning, Roma had a hard time sitting quietly through breakfast and waiting for the rest of her family to leave. As soon as she was alone, she went to her balcony and waited for Vivek to show up at his balcony. When he came, she beckoned him to come to her house.
She was flowing in the clouds not knowing what to expect. She had seen him a few times before but that was before she had fallen in love. Time passed by at snail’s pace. Vivek took a while to come over to her place. It seemed like forever to Roma. The anticipation overwhelmed her.
She was quite startled when she finally heard the doorbell. The boy who showed up at the door was a tall and handsome boy. His eyes lingered on her face. Roma’s heart leaped up in joy. “Come in, Vivek,” she said, her voice hardly audible. She swallowed a lump that suddenly blocked her throat.
At first, Vivek hesitated to come in. He stood for a second and tried to say something. Then he smiled to himself and changed his mind. He came in and closed the door behind him. Roma wanted to hug him but Vivek sat down on the sofa. “May I get a glass of water,” he asked her with a hint of mockery. Roma discovered that she can be real clumsy when she is nervous. Getting a glass of water seemed harder than doing fifty jumping jacks. Vivek started to laugh, watching her from the kitchen door. It hurt her ego but made the situation light.
When she finally handed him the glass, Vivek put his hand on hers and looked into her eyes. Her heart was beating fast and she felt heady with passion. She instinctively lowered her gaze. She slowly removed her hand and stepped back. She stood there stiff and awkward. Vivek was a much taller than her. She barely came up to his chin.
Vivek drank the water and put it down on the coffee table. He cleared his throat. There was a long pause. Roma waited with bated breath for what was coming.
Finally, Vivek spoke. “Since we love each other, we should let our parents know about it before going any further in this relationship,” his voice sounded mature and steady. Roma’s face fell as she imagined breaking it to her parents. She was caught in two minds. Being young, she was not sure what was good for her. Maybe Vivek, being older than her, knew what was right. So, she nodded her head, but her mind was uneasy. On getting a positive answer, Vivek smiled. “Come here, Roma,” he called her in an endearing tone.
Before she could think, Vivek had his arms around her and their bodies pressed against each other in a loving embrace. Time stood still as they enjoyed the warmth and softness of the moment. Roma lifted up her head and their lips were an inch closer. They looked at each other’s eyes. But the reflection they saw was of fear. At the same instant, the doorbell had rung and the sound had scared them both. “Go into the bathroom and lock it”, Roma whispered to him. She looked through the peephole but it was too dark in the landing area to see who it was.
She was relieved to see that it was the familiar postman. “You have a registered mail. Please sign here,” he smiled at her. Roma collected the mail and sighed a relief. After the postman left, Vivek bid her goodbye, quickly and left before they had any other visitor.
Roma closed the door behind him and sat down on the sofa. She hugged a cushion close to her bosom. She felt her heart brimming with love. She imagined that she was walking with Vivek, around the lake, in the evening. They sat down on a bench, close to each other. The sun slowly changed from orange-red to a crimson ball. The smoldering disc slowly immersed itself inside the gray depths of the lake. Vivek put his arms around her and drew her closer. Their faces were silhouetted against a thin strip of light sky. Then the darkness came together. Everything became the same color. The color of bliss!
Roma closed her eyes. She saw a soft glowing light enveloping her. She tried to capture every moment, every word and detail. Then, Roma remembered her promise to him. Like an ink drop seeping through a blotting paper, her emotions changed within seconds. She woke up to reality. The idea of letting her parents know made her tremble all over. She did not have the guts to tell her parents about her love. They would never allow her to have a boyfriend at her tender age. Tears streamed down her flushed cheeks.
As she wallowed in fear and despair, from the depths of the grime, a tiny seed of courage slowly started to grow within. It tugged at her heartstrings.
Perhaps, it will never be the same. Roma wiped her tears and went to the balcony. She stared at the blue sky and the changing cloud patterns. Behind the iron railings, she patiently waited for her parents’ return.