- The Encounter
I sat there shell-shocked. I could not make head or tail of what Sonia had just told me. I was subconsciously aware of Raj’s outline as he impatiently paced a few meters from where we sat. I looked up at the fan above as it spanned wildly, it held my gaze for a while before I lowered my focus to the dandelions spilling over from the brown suspended flowerpots. My eyes travelled down farther and rested at a nice mosaic of two doves on a dry twig. One was affectionately pecking something from the other’s neck. I imagined them being us—Sonia and I. I do not know how long I stared at them but it must have been quite long because Sonia’s hoarse voice startled me from the trance-like state.
“Please say something,” she implored, her teary eyes gnawing at the core of my very being.
I stared at her for a while. I had mixed feelings over what she had just told me. I was quite confused and did not know what to say.
“I wish I had something to say,” I replied as calmly as possible, trying hard not to sound accusatory—though that is exactly how I felt. I felt she had led me on all this time, knowing this moment would come.
That she was being carted away to a far off land where I would not have the opportunity to ever see her again.
My relationship with Sonia was like some script straight out of a Hollywood movie. I was madly in love with her and she loved me back equally, or so I thought. Not to mention the enormous disapproval and pressure from her family. We were even planning to elope and get married in some exotic place if her parents refused to give their consent. Now here she was telling me our relationship is now no more. That there is nothing we can do about it. I asked if she was tired of me, if she had found another man. Her reply came in the form of more sobs.
It all started when I met her brother Raj in my short study period at Pioneer International College, now Pioneer International University. I first met Raj in the school’s reception as we were waiting for the technician to fix a finger print scanner so we could continue with registration. Raj had an air of opulence around him but seemed calm and approachable.
“This is a big institution” He started, speaking to no one in particular. There were only two of us in the reception area so I assumed he was addressing me. The technician and staff were in the other side of the room, a glass and wooden partition separated them from us.
“They should have some alternative in anticipation of situations like this,” He added. He seemed quite affable and so I found it easy to talk back.
“Sure, they should. Really. Must have broken down from yesterday’s strain”
“Yes, I hear quite a good number of guys reported.”
“By the way, I’m Edwin”
“Sorry man, I’m Raj. It’s rude of me to start jabbering away before a formal introduction”
“It’s Okay, no worries man.”
The small talk went on for some minutes until the lady at the other side called for Raj. He rose promptly and went over to the reception desk. The technician had fixed the scanner and Raj was completing his registration. The previous day was the communicated day of registration so we were a day late. I was called over as Raj was exiting.
“This should not take long, I’ll be joining you shortly,” I quipped as I went past him.
I had my prints scanned and filled a few personal details on some form. The process did not take long as I had provided much of the required information online. Once through, the lady gave me directions to the main entrance of the lecture halls. I thanked her and anxiously made for the halls. I was eager to familiarize myself with the institution’s facilities before the inaugural class later in the afternoon.
“Hey buddy, that was quick” Raj startled me. He was casually leaning on the corridor’s wall. Tapping away on his phone in a frenzy.
“Hey Raj, sorry I was in a hurry. I didn’t see it’s you.”
“It’s okay, I figured out I might as well wait for you here given you’re the only person I know…well, I’m familiar with…no, am acquainted to…”
“Whatever, let’s go,” I prodded him on as I tried hard not to laugh. He was somewhat funny.
The turnstile granted each of us passage after some fumbling with the fingerprint scanner.
We explored the place for sometime and at some point got help from older students who showed us around. We must have been excited as time appeared to fly past. It was almost time for our first lecture. So we rushed to the cafeteria to grab a snack. I offered to pay for both of us and Raj seemed really pleased with the offer, well, at least that’s what his beaming childish face communicated. We hurriedly munched the sandwich, washed it down with some coke, and rushed back to the designated hall. We were among the last to arrive and the stares from the sea of unfamiliar faces were not helpful at all.
“A Mhindi” Raj murmured.
“They’re all thinking what’s this mhindi doing here”
I could not help it but laugh at Raj’s quip.
“They’re aren’t surprised. You guys are all over; you’re so kawaida than the Sudanese.”
“Ouch! That hurts”
“Sorry” I retorted.
We threaded our way to the middle of the room, the group wasn’t so big to fill the hall.
We sat there close to an hour, by which time it was clear the lecturer was not coming.
The class rep, they had already elected one earlier in the day, rang up the lecturer who confirmed she would not make it for the day’s class but would make up for it later in the week.
My rapport with Raj blossomed to some potent bromance that we were literally inseparable. We also shared a lot that I literally knew all his family members, not just by their names but by their characters as well. I knew his father was the authoritarian Mr. Shah who owned a chain of auto spare shops along Kirinyaga road. He always talked fondly of his mom and she passed as one soft spoken warm human. Rohit, his elder brother, is the carefree one—always at loggerheads with his father for his carefree ways. Sonia, his immediate younger sister is the family’s jewel. Loved by everyone because of her wit and humor. Rajeev, their last-born is three years old but has already carved a niche as the attention seeker. Raj tells me that the young rascal is barely still. He is also quite curious and exploratory.
During those weekends he was not with his folks, we would hang out. The longest we were apart was during the December holidays when I travelled to the countryside. Nevertheless, we kept in touch via social media. Occasionally he passed regards from some of his family members, especially Sonia and his mom. One Wednesday, two weeks into our second year, Raj invited me over to his place for his birthday party. We had some classes in the afternoon but I readily skived them. He occasionally drove to school in his mom’s jalopy—it always threatened to come apart whenever it hit a bump or obscure pothole. Anyway, he had it on this day and so we drove to the supermarket for some supplies, after which the rickety thing conveyed us to their place. I knew Raj came from a wealthy family, going by the kind of gadgets he owned the exotic holidays that he excitedly talked of. Still, I could not help but marvel at the grandeur of his family’s residence. The property upon which their imposing house was built was immaculate. Well-kept lawns, beautiful flower gardens, a swimming pool etc, etc. It just looked like those Hollywood movie houses.
“Hey, stop the gawking and give me a hand here.” Raj jolted me from my stupor.
I was somewhat embarrassed but he got me back in my element with his humor. Some workers—do they always have to be black?—helped us with the grocery bags as we approached the main entrance. There were about a dozen people in the living room—mostly from his extended family. Raj introduced me to each of them but I could only recognize Sonia, his mother and Rajeev (he had photos of them in his phone). Now, Sonia looked like a goddess straight out of the Ganges. She had this jet black silky hair that flowed down behind her shoulders to oblivion. High light complexion seemed to radiate around her. Her beauty was simply breath taking. I was able to identify his dad from the imposing photo above the fireplace. In it, he sat with Raj’s mom in traditional Indian garments—probably taken during their wedding.
“Edwin, you must be the boy my son talks fondly of,” Raj’s father brought me back to the present.
“I believe so, sir,” they all smiled back as I tried to act at ease.
“Great, we’re glad he invited you over. I prefer to know who Raj associates with personally.”
“Thank you sir, that’s very kind of you.”
“Ok, but you don’t have to ‘sir’ me all the time, just call me Shah”
I smiled sheepishly and added, “if that’s ok with you sir…umm, Mr. Shah.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing, including Sonia, and it helped break the ice. I was discreetly eyeing her from the periphery of my eyes, not wanting to make obvious my lustful admiration.
We sat down to some refreshments while Raj’s extended family offered some funny milestones on Raj’s development to this young promising man. Some jokes were so lame, like when his uncle narrated how Raj almost flew from a swing mid-air when he realized there was a chameleon on the chain, but I had to laugh along to appear interested. Nonetheless, my focus was on Sonia and it seemed she had gone forever when she went to check on her mom in the kitchen. After an eternity, they appeared with a cake and some Indian eatable I had not seen before. After what sounded part prayer, part recitation, we sang happy birthday to Raj, he blew the candles, and each individual took a piece of the cake. Each person then served themselves a chunk of that strange-looking dish, they referred to it as Baingan ba-something. Though I politely declined to partake in it, Raj’s mom cajoled me to try it.
“Very good food my son, build bones for strong man.”
I felt challenged and did not want to appear rude. I ladled a small serving to my plate and carefully hoisted some to my mouth. Turned out to be quite tasty…save for the smoky smell. Raj’s mom beamed and everyone diverted his or her attention to the birthday boy. Their house help brought some delicious looking soup and everyone had some in a small dish. I followed suit, carefully studying how they went about eating. I did not want to make a fool of myself. I had already heard tales of how Indians loved their chili hot. So I was prepared to surrender if the going got hotter than I could handle. I suspected the latter addition to be the chili culprit but did not want to appear less manly—especially to Sonia. I took a timid sip of the soup and carefully tried to swallow it, without delaying it in my mouth. Man! It would be an understatement if I said it was hot. I would have spat it out were we in darkness. Instead I, I clenched my teeth and swallowed it as gracefully as I could. I met Sonia’s gaze immediately I looked up to see if anyone had noticed my discomfort. This was no moment to embarrass myself, so like a boss; I took a spoonful and swallowed it gleefully. Now, my mouth was on fire and I was almost giving myself away. A glass of water calmed things a bit but it wasn’t very helpful as the fire in my mouth became even hotter once I swallowed the water. My eyes were on the verge of tearing so I sharply focused on my plate of Baingan to hide them. It seemed like an eternity but at last the table was cleared and it was time to present gifts. Everyone seemed to have something expensive for Raj that I felt the silver watch in my pocket was worthless. I had sacrificed my paltry pocket money to buy Raj this watch as a token of appreciation for all the good things he had done for me. I seized the moment when they were jokingly asking Rajeev what he had for his brother and handed him the watch.
“Here Rajeev, this is your gift to Raj”
Everyone, including Raj, seemed to be taken aback by this gesture. But Rajeev made light of the situation when he tried to wear the watch instead of giving it to Raj. Playfully, Raj tried to yank it from him but the young rascal managed to hold on to it.
There was some singing—Sonia can sing like a superstar—and traditional dancing after which I expressed my intention to leave as it was getting late. I courteously bid the family bye and Raj excused himself to see me off. He offered to drive me to the hostels but I politely turned down the offer, I wanted to walk the short distance and enjoy the scenery.
“Am really grateful for what you did in there, it means a lot.” He started, with a serious look on his face.
“What are you talking about?” I honestly inquired.
“The watch, I appreciate it,” he added.
“Oh, you are welcome…but it’s nothing, really.”
“Whatever, but am still grateful”
After a few meters, Sonia came running after us, shouting Raj’s name. Apparently, I had dropped my handkerchief, probably while I was pulling the watch from my pocket. She was quite breathless from running the short distance in her sari.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have bothered. Am really sorry for putting you through all that trouble.” I told her, trying to be a gentleman.
“It’s no trouble; besides I rarely get the opportunity to run…mom won’t let me.”
“And why is that?” I asked her, showing 100 percent interest.
“Well, she says it’s boyish, girls are supposed to be graceful”
“But you were running gracefully…like you were floating through air,” I flattered her.
She blushed but recovered quickly. Our arms brushed accidentally as I took the handkerchief from her hand, it felt like someone had just passed a static rod over my arm. I bet she did too because of how quick she withdrew her arm.
“Most boys don’t have white ones”
“What?…Oh, the hanky…right…umm I prefer white.
“Then you’re not as carefree and dirty as Raj…he prefers brown ones”
I laughed to ease the tension as Raj protested in vain.
A call came through Raj’s phone and he had to pause to answer it. We continued to walk ahead in awkward silence.
“Er, what are you studying?” I asked uneasily
“Am pretty sure Raj has already told you…he talks a lot.”
I was cornered here but lied that he had not, smiling sheepishly. She gave me a cunning sideways glance.
“Do you know you’re bad at lying? Do not try it again. Anyway, am on actuarial science.” She was right, Raj had told me pretty much about her.
We rounded a corner and lost Raj but went on slowly each of us hoping he would catch up quick enough to help us from the awkward conversation we were having. I noticed some speck on her hair and extended my arm to remove it. She suddenly froze, like some kind of statue. Initially I though I was the reason for her reaction and withdrew my arm quickly…with the speck. But I noticed she was looking straight ahead, I followed her gaze and saw this mean looking man who had just got out of his car about 6 meters from where we were and was fast approaching us.
“Uncle, this is Raj’s friend, he’s just from our house,” she panted shaking like a leaf in a storm. Things happened rather quickly and in a moment, he had slapped Sonia to the ground as he uttered some expletives in Hindi. I almost intervened but Raj arrived at the scene just as he was turning on me.
“Uncle please, I can explain,” Raj implored as he got between us. Sonia was now weeping uncontrollably.
“Explain what? Is this what you’ve been up to?” He thundered. He then uttered a few more words in Hindi and then pointed to his car. Raj tried to talk to him but he would not listen. In a fit of rage he yanked Sonia from the ground towed her to the car. Raj gave me that I’ll-explain-everything look as he sheepishly followed the man who was now wildly gesturing at him. I nodded back. The car made a U-turn and sped back, leaving an ominous cloud of dust.
I stood at the spot for a while trying to absorb what had just happened. I do not remember how I left the spot but I became aware of my surroundings when this car screeched to halt just inches from me, amid screams from some women… To be continued in part 2