Her skin was sparkling smooth, her glossy hair cascading down her shoulder like in strands resplendent velvet and she had the most bewitching eyes. She was the embodiment of beauty as she struts around stealing the thunder from all the other girls in the room. In short she was the cynosure of all male folks leering her every move. Our eyes met the moment I entered the class room and in retrospect I can still feel the spark that emanated and the tingling sensation that engulfed my body. I christened her Dark Juliet.
She sat in the right corner of the fourth bench in the middle row as such I had to switch my seat precisely on the same line so that I can pry on her. Two benches separated us but just enough to sniff the fragrance of her perfumes- faintly but exotic.
She was introvert, mingles with few and spoke little. She was a negation to the rest of the class as we habitually embroiled ourselves into jibber-jabber or long distance conversation. The moment the professor left the class room it was pandemonium.
Classroom jibber-jabber is a phenomenon in the university. Even when professors were ranting out on the front podium many of us indulged in animated chit-chats about nonsensical. We care two straws for what was taught in the front and unsurprisingly the professors were even more nonchalant.
The last bench was my favourite and irrevocable spot since my nursery days and I had to fight hard to preserve it. There’s a belief that the back benches are reserved for the academic retards, future thugs or the crème la crème of the worst. Ironically, I was a different kettle of fish unlike my last bench mates.
Our semester intake was ninety students and the classroom was enormous. It was chock-a-block with desks and benches. The scenario of our class was the perfect epitome of Manipur- split into different communities, rarely one community mingling with the other. The Meiteis form one group which was again subdivided into cliques and gangs, the Nagas in the other so was of the Kukis. Divisions and sub-divisions into cliques of tribes, clans and other affiliation was a common feature. Of course, the bulk of the class consisted of the tribals. So what! This is the political science department. This trend was also visible among the women folks but less polarised.
If someone had the audacity to sit on my spot I would rebuke them like anything. Others change their seats according to their whims but mine was a universal constant. My mates were constantly jostling to occupy the seat near me and at times five of us have to sit on the same bench whereas the standard was two people for one bench. Mungnou from Pearsonmun sat next to me then was followed by Moiminlen, Lamlalmukh, Robert, seiminthang. And how can one forget this Jamkhotinsat who was always throwing tantrums just to sit next to me.
Our clique was twelve in numbers but sans girls. We occupy four benches in the last part of the row one adjacent to the other. I was the lynchpin as well as the raconteur of the group.
As I spun out yarns of jokes, concocted exploits of my past or anything that came out from my mouth they would listen in rapture. Sometimes we broke out into fits of laughter with the professors angrily frowning at us and admonishing us at times.
During breaks we would make a bee-line for any one of the ubiquitous canteens or eateries. Our favourite spot was the one perched on the side of a large pond located at an earshot distance from IGNOU’s office. We called it Hotel California. Red tea, singju, bora were our favourite delicacies.
It was during one of this hang-out that we stumbled on her and that changed the very complexion of my two year stint in the University. She was already there with two of her friends. The rest of the room was already occupied but her table, an elongated one, with benches on both sides was unoccupied. I sat next to her and the rest filled the blank.
The moment I sat next to her I could feel the same electrifying sensation running all over my body. Out of the reflex I muttered, “hiche nuhi nal kasai” a loose translation meaning I like this girl. Gotcha! Was the chorus of exclamations from my friends who instantly translated it to her. I was both furious and mortified but the cat was already out of the bag. Moiminlen came out with one of his eccentric dancing and singing out, “Juliet bro loves you”....much to the delight of all the revellers in the room who egg him on. Her reaction was sedate and non-committal. Despite her refusal we foot their bills.
We were a mix bag of teetotallers and boozers. Good or bad we were inseparable. While we feasted on the fermented juice the teetotallers ate the other delicacies that were served on the plates. Everyone chipped in to foot the bill. We were best buddies of the time.
Today’s party was different in intent and purpose as it was to be a brainstorming session on how to woo and win over Juliet. After class we made haste towards our favourite rendezvous to scheme out a sure-fire plot. Mr aggressive, Thangkhohao had taken her number. We were unanimous that it was going to be a group effort and Moia would make the first call. Then we would take turns to call her on alternate days. The purport was to maintain familiarity and intimacy. I was to call her after a week. Inside the University campus Seiminthang and Robert would stalk her as they were the closest.
The modus operandi was to invite her out on the pretext of tea and snacks, exchange of class-notes and study materials and that’s where Hegin fits the description. Nobody was to make any phone calls when tipsy. It was a convoluted plot to be executed meticulously. The quest was to begin the next day itself. And there was this professor Angam who kept shaking his head in disapproval.
For some unknown reason she did not turn up the next day and was found truanting for the whole week. It transpired that her mother was ill and she had to take care of her. I was urged to make a comforting call. But how Am I going to call her? I was at my wits end for I have never called a girl when sober.
Finding no way out, the four of us sneaked out of the hostel and returned plastered. What I needed was what we called in drinking parlance- Dutch courage. Cramped on one bed, I took out my phone and checked the directory but everything was hazy. Robert, help me out in finding her number, I said reaching out my phone. He refused but I insisted.
“Hello, Juliet it’s me….. Your lover, the others shouted in chorus. “Stop you morons”, I hollered but to no effect. They snatched my phone and passed on from one to the other and kept on teasing her. After managing to get it I rushed to my room and apologized for their behaviours. She was ok with it. I told her that the call was intended to comfort her as the jibber-jabber lengthened to almost an hour. Golly! We really hit it off.
The following days were calling her every now and then on frivolous excuses until it became an obsession. Sometimes we talked till my battery died or my balance evaporated. But every call was platonic and nothing more. My infatuation for her grew stronger.
Wooing girls was expensive those days. Long calls consume a lot of money and to call her I needed Dutch courage that was equally expensive. Eating out at the canteen was also burdensome and this was the reason why this Romeo was always short of money. In order to make up the shortfall I had to cook up stories of buying books, payment for non-existent fees and lies after lies to convince my father who started doubting my honesty. I also resorted to calling my sisters, my uncles, aunties and anybody dear to me so as to augment my pocket. I was fortunate.
But strangely I was getting nowhere in my endeavour. What a waste! My friends were equally gungho in the help they rendered but it was always the proverbial ‘back to square one’.
Whenever I tried to pour out my feelings it seemed to me that someone was gagging my mouth and words just failed to come out, strange! These monotonous calls protracted on for almost six months. What a Nelly! Deep inside I have this hunch that she had a soft spot for me but this Romeo was a coward. In class, life was business as usual as both of us maintained a cool distance.
One evening she asked me if I had a girl- friend. She must have by now realized that I was a sissy. “I wouldn’t be calling you every now and then if I had one” I asserted. What about you do you have one; I threw the ball to her court. Her reply was compatible so I grabbed the opportunity and asked whether she wanted to have one. “If someone had the heart to propose”, was the sardonic reply. And my heart leapt in joy.
Cuddling my pillows with a vice-like-grip and rolling hither-thither on the bed I asked her if she was willing to be my girlfriend and her response was an ambiguous ‘might be’. “Can I take it as a yes?” I cross-examined her. Ok, she muttered. Halleluijah! I shouted and jumped out of my bed as my voice reverberated till the University main gate.
The matter was clinched at 8:00 pm.
I called up all my friends and informed them of the good tidings. This call for celebration was the unanimous stance and as such a party was inevitable. The outsiders announced that they were on their way to the hostel. After all it was a long, strenuous and collective endeavour. The triumph was celebrated in the most fitting manner.
Then it was followed by secret trysts where we talked about everything and anything under the sun from international politics, to national issues and to the scourge of militancy in our home state. Mundane topics ranging from her likings, hobbies, dreams, etc. invariably figures in them. I was amazed at her erudition in politics and her grasp of current affairs within and outside the state.
She wanted to be a social activist working for the upliftment of her community womenfolks and was intent on fighting against parochialism and male-chauvinism that was grappling with her society. My admiration for her grew, in leaps and bounds.
But the sticky point in our relationship was the divergence in our religion. She was a devout Muslim whereas I was the least committed Christian who is even oblivious of the location of his church. I am a free man born and breathing in a free country that is firmly wedded to the tenets of secularism and as such at liberty to profess any calling but I chose the worldly side of life and wallowed in it without any compunction.
She once told me that in the event of our entering an unlikely matrimony it was binding on my part to embrace her religion. I turned it down as I refuse to be an apostate. Though I am no fan of religion, abjuring it for the sake of love was something I could not concur.
And to embrace a religion that has totally different eating and dressing practices was hard to digest for a gallivant like me. The thought of foregoing pork and dog meat was the hardest and changing my name in conformity with the new ritual gave me goosebumps. This brought our relationship to the brink.
Out of curiosity I asked her whether I would be given the liberty of choosing the name for myself. She was not sure about the practice but assured me that she would consult the elders. By the way what name would you prefer given the choice?” she enquired.
Osama Bin Laden, I proclaimed. What? No! Was the stun reaction at the other end of the line.