Aditi was sitting in her favorite spot. It was THEIR spot! It was the spot where they would sneak up to meet every evening. According to her, It was the most beautiful spot in the city. A very old park bench at the edge of the hugest man-made lake in the city. But the maintenance of the place had gone poorly for a long time now and people had stopped coming down there because it was dirty. Who would want to see some dirty stagnant water when they can spend the day in the air-conditioned malls that have popped up all over the city?!
The rest of the city couldn’t see what Aditi saw in that beautiful spot, what they both saw. Lillies and Lotuses did not care if the water was dirty. They still bloomed all over the lake. The fishes of the lake did not mind a little more algae and the beautiful birds that hunted the fishes did not care if there were no people to watch them as they sore down to the surface of the water to catch their prey. The rays of the setting sun bounced off the surface of the water giving it a golden hue. Soon the young moon would be reflected and rippled in the water. Only they could see the eternal beauty of the lake that once was the biggest tourist attraction in the city!
Aditi was gazing at the reflection of the moon when she heard him.
Arun: Hi Aditi. How are you?
He looked as handsome as ever. He wore a simple white shirt over faded jeans. It was her favorite outfit of all! He was glowing under the moonlight like an angel that has walked down from heaven. His honey-brown eyes twinkling with childishness while his perfect stubble made him look all grown-up!
Aditi: Ah, it’s you again! Do not talk to me, I am mad at you!
Arun: What? What did I do now?
Aditi: You………… You lied to me! You said that the Tomato rice that I cooked is the best there is in this entire world!
Arun: That was not a lie sweety.
Aditi: I am not your sweety and do not lie to me again.
Arun: Come on now Ad. Tell me what happened!
Aditi: Well. I prepared the world famous Tomato rice today. I served it to my husband with much excitement. Guess what he said!
Aditi: That he has not tasted anything more horrible than my Tomato rice! He said it was too bland and asked me to throw it in the trash! Hence proved…. You lied to me!
Her eyes glistened with a single tear which she held back very bravely. He smiled as he sat down next to her on the rusted bench. He knew how cold and unyielding Aditi could get when she was hurt and now she was hurt, more than ever! Not because her husband did not like the food she prepared but because she felt that Arun had lied to her.
Arun: Ad, I did not lie. I really did like your Tomato rice.
Aditi: Oh, Is it? Was it the first time I prepared it or the second time or the third? Or the million other times that followed? No one can eat the same Tomato rice a hundred times and still think it is the best.
Arun: I do not know about the rest of the world Aditi but I loved the Tomato rice. The first time and every other time that followed!
Aditi shrugged her head and looked away from him. They both sat quietly, gazing at the water.
Arun: Do you remember the first time you made the Tomato rice for me?
Aditi: Yeah, Of course, I do!
Arun: Tell me then.
Aditi: What? Why? You were right there!
Arun started to laugh, the same laughter that sounded like the chiming of the temple bells. His laughter always made Aditi smile.
Arun: Come on Ad. Humor me!
Aditi: Ok. It was the first time when I came over to your home. Your parents were out of the station and weren’t returning for three days. So you invited me over. I was very apprehensive at first but you convinced me, as usual!
Arun: Yeah, how could I not!
Aditi: It was about 1 in the afternoon and we were both hungry. You thought of ordering in some Chinese food from Dragon King Restaurant, but I asked you not to. I hadn’t cooked in a while ever since I got into the hostel and I was really in a mood to cook something.
Arun: Seeing a well-kept kitchen after a long time could do that to a person!
Aditi: HA! It wasn’t you who kept it clean! Anyway, I did not know what to cook. That’s when you suggested that we prepare Tomato Rice. You said it was the simplest recipe ever. So we chopped a few tomatoes and onions and I cooked it as you sat on the kitchen counter barking instructions at me.
Aditi’s eyes seemed to be gazing at something beyond the water of the lake or the reflection of the moon. Her mind had traveled across time and her eyes were replaying the memories like it was happening all over again!
Aditi: So it is your recipe, not mine! The Tomato rice is your idea. WOW!
Her mind and eyes focused back to present and she turned to look at Arun. He was smiling.
Arun: yeah, not exactly. It was my mom’s recipe.
Aditi: Yeah Arun. As time passed and I cooked the same recipe a hundred times from the dirty kitchen in my hostel, For you! Every single time you would say………………
Arun: YOUR Tomato rice is the best there is in this entire world!
Aditi: SO, you weren’t lying. You really did like it because it was you who taught me how to cook it! I am the fool here. Your compliments over the years made me think so highly of myself, made me think it was my recipe. MY TOMATO RICE! So much Vanity!
Aditi was shivering with sadness and regret. Arun threw his arm around her and held her close to him as she laid her head on his shoulder.
Arun: It was not just because it was my recipe, Aditi. It was your preparation as well. What made the Tomato rice so amazing was the fact that we were both a part of it. My words and your work!
Aditi: Well, so when did I lose it?
Arun: You did not lose it Aditi. You just forgot! Time is a cruel villain that way! Anyway, I love you so much, you could have given me poison and I would have still said that it was the best poison in the entire world!
He was laughing again but this time it did not make Aditi smile. She looked up into his eyes and tears started glistening in her eyes. She couldn’t control it any longer.
Aditi: You are still a liar Arun. You do not love me!
Arun: Ad, don’t say that.
Aditi: No Arun, do not stop me. Not today. You are such a liar and a selfish person Arun. If you loved me, you wouldn’t have left me. If you loved me, I wouldn’t be heart-broken. If you loved me, You wouldn’t have gotten on that bike in the middle of the night and sped across the city. If you loved me Arun, You wouldn’t be dead and I wouldn’t be all ALONE!
Aditi was crying uncontrollably now. The moon was high in the sky and even the frogs had stopped croaking as they returned to their homes. The whole lake looked standstill and unreal like it was a very artistic painting. The cold breeze was caressing her, trying to console her. Arun held her so tight as though she would break into a million pieces if he did not. In a way, she was already broken.
Arun: Ad, My hero, don’t cry sweety, please. Who said you are all alone? I am right here Aditi. I have always been. I was right beside you when you received your graduation certificate and you thought of me. I was right beside you when you got your first salary and you thought of me. I was right beside you when you met Arjun for the first time and you thought of me. I was right beside you as you got married to him. And I have always been right here whenever you closed your eyes and traveled here, to our spot, in your dreams. Night after night, I have been here, even on those nights when you did not come.
Arun had tears in his eyes as he held Aditi’s chin and lifted her face up so that their eyes would meet. Then as gently as the breeze, he wiped away her tears and she wiped away his!
Arun: Ad, I am not going to ask you to forget all about me and move on because I know that it is not humanly possible. Memories can never be forgotten. But they can be over-written Ad. Go on and start making new memories sweety. Leave the Tomato rice behind.
Aditi: No no no… No Arun, I cannot. I cannot leave you behind. Please do not ask me to.
Arun: Yes Ad, You can! You are the bravest person I had met. Show me that you are still that same Aditi whom I met in the rally held in our college against Foundation charges being added to the college fees. The same Aditi who walked up to a bunch of seniors in the college cafeteria and told them to snuff out the cigarette or eat it! The same Aditi who stood up against her hostel warden who bullied the girls in the hostel.
Aditi: That was a long time ago, Arun. That girl died on the same day when you did. When she saw your still, expressionless face for the last time. That girl is no more, Arun!
Arun: Ad, Sweety, Look how far you have come since then. Past is a wicked maze Aditi. The more you venture into it, the more you will feel lost. So leave the past be.
He raised his free arm and pointed up to the sky.
Arun: Look up at the moon. Isn’t she beautiful? But what we don’t see is the darkness all around her. It is this darkness that makes her light look so beautiful and special. Life is just the same, Aditi. A little bit of sadness is what will bring out the light inside YOU. Let that light shine through.
He was smiling again and there was an ethereal glow surrounding him. Both of them turned around to see the first rays of sun trying to seep through the darkness of the night.
Arun: Ad, I have to go.
Aditi: Arun, No! Don’t go. I am not done. I am not over you yet. Please, don’t go.
Arun: I am not going anywhere Ad. I will be right here, just like I said. But you have to promise me one thing. Just one little thing.
Aditi: Anything Arun!
Arun: Go and start living your life. Start making new memories. Start picking out new spots. Start cooking new dishes. And do it all with the same amount of love and hope as you have always done. Do not try to come back here intentionally. Somewhere down the lane, something else might remind you of me just like the Tomato rice did. Know that I am right beside you when that happens and give me a smile! Over and above all, Know that I am waiting for you at the end of this journey Aditi. Right here, On this rusted old bench, near this beautifully dirty lake, Our souls shall meet again. And when that happens, know that I will never let go of you ever again! Now go Aditi. Go and Live!
He held her face in his palms and brought his lips close to hers.
Arun: I LOVE YOU ADITI. I always have and I always will!
He touched her lips to hers, soft as the petal of a rose and she opened her eyes. There were tears at the corner of her eyes as her mind reeled back from the unconscious to the conscious world. Her eyes focused on the ceiling of her bedroom. She closed her eyes tightly and lay there for a little while longer trying to get back to the lake, get back to Arun, but she knew it wasn’t possible! She wiped the tears off as she sat up and trying to compose herself. She was thinking of him and she knew, so she smiled.
It was around 1 in the afternoon. Aditi was standing at the door of a quiet and compact little house in the middle of a hundred other houses built wall to wall. She held a small Tupperware box in her hand, contemplating whether to ring the doorbell or to knock. “She hated the doorbell”, Arun used to say. So, she knocked. A woman opened the door. She was in her late forties but looked a lot older. Life hadn’t been very kind or fair to her and it was shown on her face.
Aditi smiled at the woman and immediately the woman threw her arms around Aditi with a laugh similar to Arun’s.
Woman: You are Aditi right. Arun used to speak so much about you. Come in child, please.
Aditi: Hi Aunty, How are you?
Woman: The days pass by, child. I do not even notice. Arun’s father is the only reason I keep going. He is my strength just like I am his!
Aditi: Arun spoke a lot about you guys too aunty. But whenever I asked him when he was going to introduce me to you, he would simply smile and say…………………….
Woman and Aditi together: It doesn’t matter because we are going to elope and No parents are going to be involved.
They were both laughing so hard but they both had tears in their eyes!
Woman: Silly boy! Always in his own world. What brings you here child?
Aditi held her hand out to the woman and gave the Tupperware box to her. The woman opened the box slowly and carefully. The box was filled with Tomato rice! She looked up at Aditi, tears glistening her eyes.
Woman: This was his favorite.
Aditi: Of course it was, aunty. It is your recipe! Arun taught me to prepare it just like how you would cook it. Today, After a very long time, it felt like the first time I cooked this recipe while Arun was instructing me how to. This Tomato rice reflects “his words and my work”. Can I take it to him, aunty?
Woman: Sure Child. Go on.
Aditi walked inside the tiniest room in the house. It was the prayer room with a beautiful altar and a range of pictures and statues of the Hindu gods and goddesses. In the middle of the altar was a beautiful picture of Arun inside an ornate and rustic frame. A range of Flowers lay all over the altar but near his picture was a single yellow rose, his favorite!
Aditi knelt down before his picture and she placed the Tupperware box right below the frame. As she looked up at his picture, tears streamed down her face.
Aditi: *Whispering* I am leaving Tomato rice behind Arun, just like you asked me to! One last time, I have cooked this recipe and I could feel your presence beside me. For one last time, I felt the smell of your palms in the aroma of the spices. For one last time, I felt the softness of your lips against mine as I tasted the Tomato rice. Now I am ready to Live. And I promise you Arun, I shall live my life as bravely as the Aditi that you knew! Until, we meet again on that rusty old bench near that beautifully dirty lake, Good Bye Arun!
Aditi stood up and turned around to see the Arun’s mom standing right behind her. She threw her arms around the woman as the woman kissed her lovingly on her forehead! Aditi was already making new memories!