“Pranay, did you meet Sabrina? She is there with Aamir next to the stage.” Ronak asked breaking the chain of thought of Pranay.
Pranay was standing silently in a corner, sipping soft drink at the marriage reception of a common friend. He came back to the present. With a mystical smile he said “Yes, I saw her but could not master the courage to meet her. She looks happy with Aamir and her daughters. Both Aiza and Aqsa have grown up to be as tall and beautiful as her. I should not forget that a soldier and God are friends of difficult times. A soldier is generally seen as a vestige during good times. Now, she is going through good times. After so many years of struggle and hardship, let her enjoy.”
Ronak was surprised with the response and decided to leave him alone. He left Pranay on the spot and headed towards the crowded stage to mingle with others.
Pranay tried his best not to return to his broken chain of thoughts, but they came back promptly along with all missing links. He wished if memories could be filtered to keep only the good ones and return the bad ones to the other partner in making. Unfortunately, memories – good or bad, both remain with people till their last breath.
Pranay went back to the days, when as a young officer he was posted at Jamnagar, a small sleepy and dusty town, to be trained as a specialist. The town was growing with big corporates like Reliance and Essar trying to establish a firm foothold there. Even then, there were hardly any entertainment options worthy of holding attention of young Naval officers coming from the bustling Mumbai. For them it was a village. Being posted there was nothing less than a punishment. Life as a Trainee inside the Base was tough; outside it was equally bad. Studies, parade, loud music, cricket and badminton were not enough. There were no malls, supermarkets and most importantly ‘the crowd’ was missing.
“Let’s go to the Times of India Office today on our way to the movie. I have to submit a classified ad seeking bride for my elder brother”, said Raman on a Friday. Friday was the day to claim ‘first day first show’ as all movies were released on that day. Raman was a long time friend and batch mate.
It wasn’t difficult to locate the office of the Times of India, located on the same square adjacent to the District Court. They were greeted by the receptionist and directed to the coordinator for classified.
“Please sit. I am Sabrina. I will help you with your advertisement,” said a young lady sitting in the small front office.
She was about twenty three or twenty five years old, stunningly beautiful with sharp features and an alluring smile. Her every action was elegant and deliberate enough to catch the attention of the youngsters. It took some time before they could gather themselves to progressing with the purpose for which they were there. Her impeccable diction and fluent English surprised them. They had rarely seen a Gujarati girl so fluent in English. Raman started filling the form necessary for placing the classified. Pranay could not resist himself from observing Sabrina, to the extent that he feared she would catch him staring at her.
Both Raman and Pranay were no more interested in the movie. Sabrina was in their mind. Those few minutes of interaction replayed again and again. Both wished if they could get another chance to spend a few minutes more with her. Both wanted to know her better and fantasized a long lasting relationship. Or at least they wanted to be ‘just good friends’.
Raman left for Kochi the following week to pursue further training. Pranay was delighted at the opportunity to meet Sabrina again, on request from Raman, to correct certain errors in the published advertisement. He decided, this time he will ask her out. At the worst, she may refuse. So what? At least, he will be doing something following his heart. Rejection was not something new to him. He knew how to handle it. He rehearsed his dialogues in front of a mirror planning to be in control during the meeting.
On the day of the scheduled meeting, as an afterthought he called Ronak to accompany him. He had high regards for Ronak and considered him to be worldly wise as compared to other friends. After hearing his plans with apt attention, Ronak agreed willingly. In the office, Pranay was excited on seeing Sabrina again but forced himself to stay focused on the job at hand – correction in the published advertisement. He could not find an opportune moment to execute the rehearsed plan.
Ronak laughed at him after coming out. “Forget her,” he said, “Till you master courage.” Both of them headed to the barber’s shop for a haircut. On reaching the salon, while Ronak occupied a chair, Pranay headed back to the office again to meet Sabrina.
On seeing Pranay, Sabrina smiled. She asked him to sit. Without wasting a moment, he said “I forgot to say something very important”. Sabrina took out the form and the submitted correction list from her drawer. He clarified it was not the advertisement for which he had come back; rather, he had taken a liking for her and would like to be a friend. He said “I would be happy if we can sit together over a cup of coffee to know each other better, only after you finish your work, maybe today if convenient or some other day?”
Sabrina looked at him.
“I suggest, it would be better for you to know me and my past before asking me out for coffee.” She said seriously. “Many offered friendship on a platter but walked out once the first cup of coffee got over.”
Pranay wondered what she was hinting at!
Sabrina explained. “I am a divorcee from a conservative Muslim family with two daughters, one six years old and the other four years old. I got married at the age of eighteen. I have scar marks all over my belly from the two deliveries. I am staying with my parents in Patel Nagar after my separation with my husband two years ago. Now, do you want to have coffee with me to know me better?”
Pranay forgot his rehearsed dialogues and the practiced one liners packed with humour. He did not know what to say or how to answer Sabrina. He got up, took his helmet and headed towards the door. The moment he reached near his bike, his jumbled thoughts got clear. He kept his helmet on the bike and walked back to Sabrina. This time neither did she smile, nor did she ask him to sit.
“Have you told all about yourself or is there something more? I would like to know the rest but only over a cup of coffee. I know a place which has come up recently; they serve Pizzas too. I will wait at the reception till you finish your work.” He shrugged.
Sabrina smiled. She went to her boss to seek permission and was back in a minute to be with Pranay. The entire crowd watched as both walked out of the office.
Both met many times after this, over numerous cups of coffees. Sabrina’s calls to Pranay became frequent, durations of conversation extending to a couple of hours. She shared each and every detail going on at her home and office. Pranay listened to her patiently but never disclosed much about himself. They were seen together at movie theatres and restaurants. He would proudly introduce her to his friends. Sabrina invented occasions to invite him and his friends over to her place. Pranay found himself at Sabrina’s home on most holidays, to play with or recite stories to her children. Sabrina was happy. Her parents liked him. They would always pack food and sweets for his friends every time he visited them.
Sabrina once asked him how she should introduce him to her colleagues. Pranay replied casually, “As your boyfriend”. She would ask why he is doing all this. “Is it sympathy?” Pranay smiled. “Not sympathy. I like to see you happy. Moreover, I don’t have a girlfriend. If you permit me then I can claim we are going steady”. Sabrina would ask, “Have you fallen for my charm?” Pranay would wink. “I really don’t know. After being spurned by a schoolmate of mine few years back, I am left with no enthusiasm to fall again.”
“What are you up to? What are your plans?” Ronak asked one day.
Pranay nodded. “To see her married and happy.”
“It’s not easy. How do you think you will do it?” Ronak probed.
“If I fail, I will marry her myself.” Pranay replied bluntly.
“Don’t be an emotional fool.” Ronak warned. “You are a Pundit! Don’t try these stunts. It will burn lives”.
“Wait and watch the fun. It’s difficult I know, but only a soldier can handle this deftly”, Pranay replied smiling.
Sabrina and Pranay went on with their lives as days became months and months became years. They were going steady as friends. It was at Pranay’s birthday celebration in a dimly lit upmarket restaurant where Aamir met Sabrina and took fancy for her. Aamir came from a well-established family of businessmen. He was well educated too. Pranay noticed it. He nudged Sabrina to go and introduce herself to him. He advised her not to mention her past in the first meeting. Aamir managed to spend time with Sabrina till the party got over. He offered to drop her home. Sabrina looked at Pranay for approval. Pranay pretended to be busy with his boisterous friends and paid no attention. Sabrina went with Aamir that night, after a courtesy thank you to Pranay.
Pranay left Jamnagar to join a ship based at Mumbai for his sea training, only to come back after four months. It was impossible for him to keep in touch with Sabrina from the ship. Once back at Jamnagar, he went to meet Sabrina at her home on a Sunday. Aamir was sitting there with her parents, playing with her daughters. Sabrina and her parents were happy to see him back, but Pranay felt out of place. He excused himself saying that he had loads of studies as exams were near. For a change, perhaps for the first time, he left without having lunch with them. Surprisingly, her parents did not offer any packed food or sweets for his friends this time.
Once back in his room, Pranay wondered, “Am I happy or sad?” He had no definite answer. He headed to the bar to join his friends for a Sunday afternoon chilled beer – a privilege only defense personnel enjoyed in Gujarat. Ronak met him there.
Pranay proudly narrated the events of the day.
”Mission accomplished,” he said.
Ronak kept quiet for some time and finally said, “You should go back to your badminton. Everyone is missing you in the court”.