Money cannot buy you love! Who said that? Ah. My mother! You see, that was her favorite line. And I lost count as to how many times she had reminded me that. I literally grew up with that line ringing in my ears as though I didn’t understand what she had gone through. Even when she was on her deathbed, she would tell me the same thing over and over again.
My mother was one of those few inhabitants on earth who was ‘blessed’, as many would describe, to have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Like many others, she fell in love! She fell in love with a man who had nothing but principle and love for his family. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual. But money made her so powerful she could do whatever she wanted…like hiring a private investigator or paying for someone else’s debt in return for something. It so happened that the man she fell in love with owned a family land that was about to be confiscated by the bank. Damn those banks! They certainly know how to help big crooks become gigantic crooks or make an ordinary farm owner lose his entire livelihood. My mother was like banks!
To make her story short, she paid the bank in exchange for the man’s love! With her manipulative nature, confidence and power she thought she had it all planned. She was wrong! Very wrong. For the man was actually in love with someone else. But because he didn’t want his parents to lose the only thing they could call their own, he married my mother -a marriage that taught my mother a painful lesson and left her with…me!
Yes! That man was my father whom I had never seen for the last eighteen years, for he left when I was five, and my only reminder of him was a photograph that my mother took while he was chopping a log for winter. Gorgeous, tall, and muscular -a physique built by toiling their land since he was thirteen, I could totally understand why my mother was crazy about him.
That line would have stuck in my brain had it not for one event that changed it all. What happened? I just bought some love for myself! At Rs.35 -not quite cheap for a student like me, but I wasn’t thinking. Or rather, I was smitten!
So when did this ‘buying’ occur? In the middle of one scorching afternoon!
It was Tuesday and I needed more information for my presentation due the following Monday. Since BSNL had a tantrum for the last couple of days and there was no sign of it stopping, I had no choice but to use Mindnolia, one of the three internet cafés of Northern Hills University and the nearest to my college building.I went in and found no vacancy. So I waited. After all, it was getting 1 o’clock and surely these guys would like to have lunch. Or so I thought.
Suddenly, the silent atmosphere in the cafe was interrupted.
“Five things I can’t live without?” asked a male voice to whoever he was chatting to. He sounded like someone who was asked to answer a very complex question. His voice was quite loud, curious heads turned to his direction to get a glimpse (the cubicles didn’t have curtains) of who uttered such philosophical question at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. I didn’t have a clue myself.
Still sitting on a waiting bench next to the main counter, I imagined his furrowed forehead staring blankly at the computer screen or at the face of whoever asked that question, thinking (well, probably pretending to think). I smiled at the thought! It reminded me of Professor Bhat.
Suddenly, a very tall athletic figure of about 25 years, good-looking (not that handsome, really), shoulder-length-wavy-haired man appeared out of one cubicle and went directly to the main counter where Girish (read his name tag), the one who was attending the cafe’ at that hour, was counting notes and coins.“I need a one-hour extension, man, but uh…-”
“Water, food, uh, money, cellphone, and internet!” Girish, eyes on the ceiling, finger-counting, supplied.
So, he’s Mr. 5!
“Nice try! But man, even mother Earth dies with your answer. And my grandma will rise from the dead and bring you back with her! You haven’t learned anything in school, she’d say!” the man replied, laughing.
I couldn’t help but gave a soft chuckle.
“Listen,” he continued. “Here’s Rs.90 for the last four hours, it’s 10 rupees short but I need one more hour. It’s so important my life depends on it. Will you cover it for me?” He acted as if the two knew each other well.
“The man with hundreds of friends can’t find one to pay a thirty-five-rupee internet session!” Girish tsk-ed, shaking his head.
“Well, I can’t see one… around!” His gaze locked with mine for five seconds. “Come on, man. Just this once! I just wore the wrong jeans!”“Am I wearing one, Neel?”“Well, I can see that you’re wearing cargo shorts with seven pockets! You sure you haven’t stashed fifty in one of them?”Both men laughed.
“I’m really sorry man. You know I’m always broke! And I’m out of here in 10 minutes. I need to do the inventory before I leave.” Girish went back to counting the bills in the registry and writing something in the log book.
“Please!” Neel pleaded, giving Girish a corny look.
“Here!” I handed a fifty-rupee note to Girish, watching Neel’s features lit up like a toddler getting a colorful candy. Girish, as surprised as he looked, was more than happy he didn’t need to deal with Mr. 5’s money-shortage. He slid the note into the drawer and before giving me the change, asked, “Are you sure? You can have his cubicle if he doesn’t pay?”
“It’s fine! I can wait! Besides, he looks like his life really depends on it. I can’t carry that on my conscience!” I replied, trying hard not laugh at my own remark.
The smiles on their faces were so contagious I had to let go of that smile I’d been holding.
“You’re an angel! That too, a cute one!” Angels aren’t real, bud!
Before I realized, two strong hands gripped my arms and, you wouldn’t believe the nerve of the guy, he bent down, for he was way taller than me, and planted a quick kiss on my forehead. Yep, he just kissed me!
Dumbfounded by the unexpected reaction from a total stranger I forgot I had a functional tongue.
“I owe you. I’ll find you. Or you can collect the money back from Girish. Tomorrow,” he blabbed.
He threw all these lines in one connecting sentence it kind of gave me the impression that he was involved in a fast-speaking race. Striding away backward, his gaze never left me. Then, as if he just remembered one thing, he strode swiftly back towards me and introduced himself extending his right hand.
With a smile, I took it with my left. I thought his hand was the only cold at that time.
Embarrassed by my own speechlessness, I finally managed to say, “Don’t worry about it. You made my Philosophy 101 obsolete!”
He grinned and uttered thank you before he went to occupy his cubicle.
Moments later, one computer became vacant. I wasted an hour of internet session thinking about what had just transpired in my life. I couldn’t even find any logical explanation for my abrupt intervention to help and save a prince in distress. Well, he wasn’t that distressed but you know what I mean.
About an hour later as I was ready to leave the cafe, ready to leave everything behind and forget about Neel, my phone beeped. The message was from my aunt Parul informing me that a small package from my mother’s lawyer arrived at home and it only meant one thing –I had to go home this weekend. But the distraction wasn’t enough. My mind was back, right immediately, at realizing the foolishness of my action.
Closing the café’s door a familiar voice from behind broke my reverie.
“I don’t have hundreds of friends!” Neel claimed, keeping pace with me.
“Just a hundred?” He laughed –the kind that makes you laugh, too. I did.
We walked side by side for a few paces without saying a word to each other. It felt awkward yet I felt at ease at the same time. I couldn’t say if he felt the same.
“Can I walk you to your dorm?”
“Hey. You don’t need to do anything for me, okay? I did it because…because you sounded genuinely telling the truth.”
“And you wanted a good night sleep!”
“Yep! Something like that!”
“It was my dad, by the way. They’re visiting! They means my parents!”
“Is it a bad thing or a good thing?”
“Your dad seems like a deep person!”
“Ah. That ‘5 things I can’t live without’ stuff!”
“What are yours?” he queried.
“It was your dad and he asked you, not me!”
“Come on. I’m starting to like you, anyway. So one day or another we’d be friends and I’d ask you the same. Better tell me now!”
“Nah. You’ll just probably steal my ideas for your paper, which I am sure, you are writing tonight because it’s either due tomorrow or you know, one of these days!”
“I’m actually done with those four years ago!”
“Good for you! You’re lucky you have a dad to discuss such stuff with, though!”
“Yeah. I’m glad, too. Just five -four minimum, he said, and do the same to the girl I’m dating. If our answers match -most of it, at least, only then I should consider marrying her!”
“Hah! I like your dad!” I exclaimed.
“So you’re not writing any paper?”
“When are you planning to ask her?”
“The girl you’re dating!”
“Ah. I already did! I’d given her time to think!”
There was silence.
“So you’re majoring in Philosophy?”
I shook my head. “I’m doing masters in English!”
“Wow! What do you like about it?”
While everyone around me thought I was wasting my time doing the course, here was a man who already declared I liked it.
“You seem so sure that I like it!”
“Well, there are only two main reasons why people take the course they are in. They chose it themselves or someone else chose it for them. Or perhaps, due to indecision -they can’t decide for themselves ‘cause obviously, they don’t know what they want or they just don’t have anyone to choose the course for them. As for you…I take you as a smart young lady who knows the value of time not to waste it away by doing something you hate.”
“Wow! Like father like son! Very impressive!” It wasn’t usual to encounter a fellow human being talking with depth and sense.
“So, what do you like about it?” Neel asked again, not letting it go.
“Uhm. Stories. The art of telling them. Novels. Poems. Great authors! And…uh, I like writing. Maybe publish a novel or something! I don’t know.”
“Great! I’d like to read some of your writings!”
I scoffed. “I haven’t written one yet!”
“I don’t believe you!”
“You see. When a man…or a woman such as yourself, likes writing, he will not wait to earn a bachelor’s degree, masters or a Ph.D. before he writes something. One doesn’t even need a degree to write something! So I am quite certain that you have already written some.”
“Hmm. Interesting!” I commented, not confirming his theory. “What about you? You said you’re done with writing papers four years ago, what do you write now? Big, fat checks?”
He burst into a loud laugh.
Oh, boy! I’d like to hear that laugh again and again! I giggled, too.
As we enjoyed that moment in laughter and giggles, fondness towards the guy started to grow inside me. He was easy and fun to talk to. Deep but laughed at simple jokes. He was quick-witted, too. In other words, he was one those ‘great people talk ideas’ kind of guy.
But what if he was just being friendly and accommodating because of that 35 rupees? That once he gave it back to me (not that I wanted him to) we would be back to being strangers? The thought of it made me shiver.
Because everything subsides, our laughter had to end too.
“So, about the big, fat che…” He couldn’t continue what he was saying because I started to laugh again. Yeah, laughter can sometimes go on like that.
When the laughter was finally contained, he added, “I uh, I write one or two once in while –when the ATMs have decided that the tellers aren’t working much.” I laughed at that. “But what I do has nothing to do with ATMs or tellers. I’m a research scientist.”
“Now that’s a wow! What kind of research?”
“Ageing and longevity! I’m basically including myself as one of the subjects of my study. I eat various stuff to try to determine which diet slows aging and helps people live longer.”
“That’s really awesome!”
“Not when your values are compromised or the budget is down!” he sneered.
At that point, I really wanted him to elaborate further but I stopped myself. It would be inappropriate to discuss one’s values at first meeting.
We had reached the parking lot of NHU. I stopped in front of my bicycle and started unlocking the chain.
“Why do I have this feeling that there will be more of this in the future?” he commented.
“You still owe me 35 rupees, remember?”
“Right. I forgot!”
We both chuckled.
Eighty, ninety minutes ago, this man was a total stranger. By an act of impulse, on my side, a friendship was slowly getting forged. And I was thrilled at the thought of it. It wasn’t that difficult or awkward like I imagined.
We already exchanged phone numbers before I remembered I hadn’t told him my name. He also didn’t ask. Well, he didn’t need to because he already knew it. How? He had his ways, he told me. Well, maybe guys just had their ways in things. Especially when it comes to knowing girls’ names.
“So you’re not really telling me yours?” Neel again, urging me with my five.
I shook my head, smiling. I bade him goodbye and started pedaling. After a meter or two, I halted and turned my face. Neel was still there watching me leave.
“Hubpages! Five Things I Cannot Live Without! That’s the title!” I was literally shouting.
Whether Neel got it or not I wasn’t bothered. I’d let him figure it out. Once he did, he had the reason –other reason, to see me. That way we’d be together. Again.
Unfortunately, the heavens were not so good to me. I hadn’t seen him for the rest of the weekdays. Not that I was searching for him. Okay, I was! Just looking around. Every once in a while in between classes. But there was no Neel.
I never went back to the cafe’ either. Too afraid to learn that my 35 rupees was waiting for me there. Without Neel. An air of melancholy suddenly surrounded me. If Aunt Parul had seen me in that state, she’d mostly declare that love had finally found me. Quite a contrary to how blue I felt, really.
No calls from him either. But I’d try. A few times. But every time the other line was about to ring, my thumb was too quick to end it. You see, at that time, I was still this ‘boy should call the girl first’ and not the other way around. So I waited. In vain.
I was ready to give up when, on Friday night, about nine o’clock, the wait was over. Neel was calling me.
“Nature, knowledge, imagination, love, and freedom! Now, who is deep?!”
He chortled. “You write well!”
“Thanks! But they’re just articles!”
“Doesn’t matter!”“Well, thank you for reading them!”
“We’re friends, remember?”
“Does that mean I’m not getting back my 35 rupees?”
“Friends remind each other, you know!”
“Yeah. They do!” That was the loneliest reply I’d ever heard. Why? I had no idea.
“Hey, Sam? Did you remember what my father told me?”
“Well, my memory was still intact the last time I checked. Have you proposed already?”
Oh, dear! I’m not ready yet —to hear the confirmation that he did propose already, I mean.
“Well, uh…I want you to be there!”Sure, I’ll be there…if you’re going to propose to me!
Ugh! My heart was dying.
Later. Much later that night I received a message from the same person who drowned my heart. Well, almost.
“5 qck thngs u h8 or dslyk!”
As if he hadn’t affected my mood, I replied.
“Ladies’ 1st dsn’t aply 2me!”
Ironic of me!
“Rckless drivng, crowd, thngs pPol do n d nem of relgion, irond hair, paintd lips!”
“Paintd lips huh? Nterstng list!”
“Cncr8 jngle, loud nghbors, barrn hils & dnudd forsts,
That was all it took. I felt better.
We were like that till 2 o’clock in the morning. Just talking about anything, Music, movies, pollution, friends, family, among countless other things. I made him play the guitar but he was more astonished to learn that I listened to metal music. He had never met a girl who listens to metal music, he confessed. As a sample, I made him play the intro to Axel Rudi Pell’s Night and Rain which he happened to know very well. That moment was pure bliss.
Irrationality and thirty-five rupees were worth it.
I slept that night -or dawn- thinking how unearthly it felt to find someone who values similar things that I held dear. Like being kind to all living beings on Earth. I always considered the encounter to be finding a needle in a haystack. Not impossible, but success is rare.
The most amazing thing about Neel was that he was a thinker. Witnessing the absurdity of stealing the milk intended for their calves, he made his parents gave up milking their cows, for his father was a farmer, too and set their dogs free, for no one’s freedom should be curtailed. At the age of fifteen! Imagine that!
Such rare qualities. Sure, I liked Neel. But those qualities just gave me the right reasons to fall in love with him. Did I just admit I’m falling for him?
I was still in the comfort of my bed when my phone rang. It was Neel calling…at 8:10.
“I know you’re going home today, but will you have lunch with us first?”
I said okay. I didn’t ask who was ‘us’. The lesser I know the better, I thought. Besides, I knew that restaurant -one of the few vegetarian three-star hotels in Dehradun where my aunt and I used to dine every time she visited me at NHU.
The idea of a lunch with Neel and the people he referred as “us” was heart-pounding. My heart wouldn’t stop fluttering. The butterflies in my stomach increased in number the closer it got to lunchtime. But I was also ready to be his friend!
Arriving at the restaurant’s entrance I searched for that one face that had been residing in my head since Mindnolia. I found it –facing two people, probably his parents. I’d expected four people. Should I feel relieved?
I headed in that direction; a sweet smile on my face was ready to greet them. Neel hadn’t seen me yet, for he was looking at the menu.
I wanted him to look up before I reached their table. When he did, his mother, seeing her son’s wide, welcoming smile, followed his gaze. She smiled at me, too. But in a nanosecond, my own ready-made smile vanished into thin air. Sitting next to her was the man my mother bought love from. Still the same face. Only wrinkled. A fifty-three-year-old version of that photograph standing at my mother’s bedside table. Still there after all these years.
Neel, witnessing the sudden change in my face, frowned. Puzzled at the confusing canvass in front of him, his head swung from his dad to me and back. Nonplussed, his father sensed something was wrong. He certainly didn’t recognize me.
“Dad?” was the only word came out of my mouth. That too, it was spoken as a mumble, meant for me.
Tears instantly welled-up in my eyes, blurring my vision and my legs began to sway. I felt cold. That was the last thing I remembered.
When I regained my consciousness, I realized that I didn’t hate my father that much. I also discerned that we were still at the same hotel -one of their private rooms. Everyone was there. Except for Neel!
Neel’s mother was quick to assist and offered me water. Later on, when I felt better, I learned that Neel, or should I say, my brother, unable to accept what little information he heard from his -our -dad, left furiously.
“Mad at me, mostly!” dad, who finally saw the resemblance of my mother in me, remarked.
“No, dear! Our son is more angry at the situation he is in!”
I totally understood him because I knew exactly how he felt. He felt betrayed. Lied to. Cheated.
But there was one crucial thing Neel missed from his father’s story, as it collaborated later that day when I opened the package that my mother’s lawyer sent. What a coincidence, really!
You see, I had been living a lie all those years. My proud mother couldn’t accept defeat and did the most unreasonable, perhaps, unforgivable, act she thought best that would make my father stay. She thought a baby would save her failing ‘bought’ marriage. She was wrong again! This selfish act led her to her own misery. But it did make my father stay. For five years. Had I not fallen seriously ill, my mother’s secret would have been burnt with her and god knows what else would have happened afterward.
The one who fathered me for five years was not my biological father! Thanks to IVF and my mother’s wealth!
My father, unable to forgive my mother’s cunning nature, left! Left with his heart half-broken, for his love for me was real. But he couldn’t bear to live with the person who was so poor all she had was money.
Neel, however, had a tale of his own.
With knowledge of my family history and upon hearing the word ‘dad’ coming out of my mouth, his brain could only process one thing -he and I were siblings! What a cruel trick! But who could blame him? I thought the same! But unlike me who wasn’t aware that the man I called father was not my biological father, thanks to my mother who, at last, found redemption by telling the truth even just through a letter, Neel knew that he was an adopted child –something that he didn’t mention to me, believing it was a big deal. What an idiot, I’d say. But at that time, he couldn’t think straight. Or of anything else, for he, too, was in love with me!
And all that happened ten years ago.
Remembering it all, Neel and I would just laugh and I can happily report to you that, for nearly a decade, he and I have built a home at the same land, now an orchard, that my mother paid for in exchange for love. Its residents include two pigs, three rabbits, six dogs and nine cats, none of which can quite clearly decide who falls next to their human alpha male and female. All are living in health and freedom!