Arjun looked around at the lush greenery, soaking in the early morning sun rays. It was good to be back home, he thought, as he jogged down the cemented path, which was flanked by shrubs and flower bushes.
He had had to modify the exercise regime here. The neighborhood gym wasn’t anything like the one at his place in Melbourne and he hadn’t wanted to use the run down, badly maintained machines.
On the way home from the International Airport last night, he’d absorbed how Delhi had transitioned– flashing hoardings, skyrise buildings, winding fly-overs, fluorescent lights etc all gave it an international look and feel. Delhi had changed; become bigger and better. There was also a beautiful park close to his parents’ home, which he had first noticed while unloading his suitcases from the van. It wasn’t there when he had lived here, 12 years ago. It was quite big and spacious, he noted. Even at that late hour, there were a few couples strolling around leisurely, probably on a post-dinner walk.
At this time, the park was buzzing with activity. Done with his jogging, he sat down on a bench and took in the various sights – early morning walkers hurrying down the designated path, yoga aficionados practicing their asanas in the green grass, adolescents playing football, friendly dogs prancing up and about at the kids who squealed in a mix of delight, fear, and amusement. The laughter and positivity hit him hard and he realized how much he had missed this friendly neighborhood that had been his home in the growing up years. It was certainly good to be back, he thought again.
It had been a long but fruitful time away; initially studying in Australia’s best college for design and later doing an internship followed by a permanent job with a renowned architectural and design firm. He was valued and well respected by his peers, not only because of his dedication and innovative design ideas but also because of his positive attitude and pleasant demeanor.
He was well established and had recently received his Australian citizenship as well.
Now, he was back home for a short holiday for his parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. It had helped that it coincided with the Christmas vacations and he was able to take more than a week’s leave from work. But this was not the only reason for this trip. Sonika Mehra – his one true love and inspiration. It had been 12 years since he had last seen her also. She had been 14 years old then, about 3 years younger to him. They had grown up together but even after many years of knowing each other, they hadn’t really become close. Sanjit; her brother and his best friend and classmate, was the one Arjun would hang out with. It was only in the last two years, when Sanjit and Arjun were in the same section at school that the boys started spending more time together.
The memories came flooding back to him now – playing basketball in the school field, walking back from school, playing video games in Sanjit’s room and even studying together. Sometimes, Sonika would join them. Sanjit and he would compete on who would solve the equation first while Sonika labored over her homework. She often sought help from them whenever she got stuck in Math. Their parents also knew each other well and they would all occasionally go out for movies or lunches together. Festivals were extra special when all the residents would come together and celebrate with much fanfare. There were other kids too and they would all play cricket or football together. Sonika wouldn’t join them those times. She didn’t like football or cricket. She wasn’t a tomboy, to be jumping off rooftops and playing football with the boys. She wasn’t the dainty damsel in distress either, who would fret over walking a short distance. She was a regular girl, who like some sports, disliked others, liked some girly stuff and hated others. She liked badminton and played it well too, he remembered. She had always been special to him. “Soni Kudi”, he used to tease her affectionately. And that she was, a beautiful girl. Even then, her innocent smile and sparkling eyes were bewitching. To him, she was more than the regular girl next door. She was the one you would lose your heart in an instant to.
At 14 years, he was the perfect example of the lost, confused teenager. By the time he was 17 and in high school, an interest in designing led him to become more focussed. One could be correct to assume that the transition in those two years had much to do with Sonika. She was the one, who albeit unknowingly, inspired him to take control of his life. But he hadn’t ever let her know that he thought of her as anything more than Sanjit’s sister. They had been too young and immature then and it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate either. She looked upon him as an elder brother and they had been just kids, after all. But the truth was that it was for her that he had decided to go abroad and come back a successful man. Not that he could not have done it here in India. But he had wanted to travel and study abroad. His outstanding grades in high school further made it a cakewalk to get admission in an International college of his choice.
But now, now was different. A lot had changed now. Including the badminton court, which was now replaced by a small garden and fountain.
He had kept in touch with Sanjit over the years and they had exchanged quite a few emails and kept up with the events in each other’s lives despite the distance. On a few occasions, even Sonika had written to him. Once, after his graduation to congratulate him at his topper rank at the university and another time, to ask for some information about some courses at his university.
As he sat on the bench and realized how time had flown, he wondered what she was like now. He certainly knew what she looked like.
A couple of years ago, Sanjit had sent him a few pictures of their last family holiday. The first picture was of Meeta Aunty and Jaideep Uncle, Sanjit’s parents. They still looked just as graceful as ever. And although the image was blurry and shaky, he could still figure that the tall, slender girl in the background was obviously Sonika. He could only see her side face. Her hair was tied up in a bun and she was wearing a sleeveless top and well-fitted jeans. The picture was taken from a distance and in cloudy weather, Sanjit had explained in his mail. In another pic, taken in bright sunshine, she was facing the camera. Her hair, left down loose, was blowing over her face. She was laughing and her hand was up in an unsuccessful attempt to hold it in place. She had shoulder length hair, he’d noted, a far cry from her blunt cut back in those days. It was a candid shot. Right beside her were Sanjit and Meeta Aunty. Arjun had pondered over it for quite some time, noting every detail and feature in Sonika’s face. Her smile was just as bewitching, and Arjun had lost his heart to it again.
He wondered whether she still liked the things she did back then. Whether she would recognize him, if they were to meet as strangers. Probably not, he figured. How would she? After all the lanky kid with floppy hair had transformed into a well-built man with neatly styled hair, he reasoned. Not many would recognize him now, he realized. He was worried, though. What if she didn’t feel the same as he did? Or worse, what if she had found someone. His brow furrowed in anxiety. Even if she did, it probably wouldn’t be serious. Sanjit would surely have shared with him had it been so. He relaxed a bit though well aware that he could not be sure. He decided to leave it up to fate and take things as they came.
Just as he was about to get up, someone whizzed past him. The tall, slender frame and side profile was familiar. Her hair was tied up in a bun. Sonika! He fell in love all over again and felt something stir up in his chest. “Look’s like Cupid’s arrow just shot through my heart,” he muttered, grinning ruefully. She hadn’t recognised him, he realized with a start. “Oh, well…” he sighed and stood up.
“Arjun?” Someone excitedly called out. He looked up to see Sonika had walked back to him and was now standing in front of him. Her shoulder-length hair, left loose was falling over her face and she tried unsuccessfully to brush it away. “Yeah, hi,” he smiled, secretly pleased that she had infact recognized him. He vaguely heard some warning shouts of “Watch Out” from someone but nothing would distract him now.
He refused to look away and continued to gaze smilingly at the beautiful girl in front of him. And, she smiled right back at him. This was paradise. She was in love with him too, he thought. He could die and go to heaven, right then.
“Thwack!” a loud whack on the head broke him out of his reverie. He looked up to see that Sonika was nowhere around, but the footballers staring at him. He picked up the football that had ended his dream so cruelly and tossed it back to them.
“Cupid’s Ball just hit me on the head,” he corrected himself. Hoping the fantasy would come true soon, Arjun walked back home, looking forward to visiting the Mehras’ in the evening.