Sonam sat at Glenary’s in Darjeeling, waiting for Rohit to arrive with their ten- year-old son Manan. They had chosen to meet here on her suggestion, she getting there from Delhi and he from Mumbai, to revisit a time and a place where they had fallen in love. Post that, there had been eight years of marriage followed by four years of separation, and now divorce. Rohit was bringing their son, Manan, to meet her after four years, at Glenary’s! She was nervous as anything, but also lit up with anticipation.
All around her was December’s Christmas cheer. The air was cold, there was snow outside, and it was Christmas Eve. Twelve years ago, Sonam and Rohit had shared a chocolate cake here and locked eyes, vowing to be there for each other for eternity. But Time was a joker and the balls he juggled fell in unexpected places in villainous ways.
Sonam had been unable to keep pace with Rohit’s desire for advancement; in fact she hated it, for he had sacrificed their married life on the altar of ambition and success. She had begun to lead the life of a single mom, and soon the bile had begun to rise within her so much and so often that she had taken sick. Rohit had to stay home and nurse her and look after Manan.
As soon as Sonam was able to stand on her feet, she had walked out, leaving him and the child behind. On her own and fully recovered after a year away from them, she had wanted back into the family. She wanted to be with Manan; be a mother to him again. It was too late and she was not allowed in. Rohit did not want her back, and said that Manan was being taken good care of, and she had better go ahead with her life whichever way she wanted. He had finally filed for divorce, and had got away with everything, with custody of Manan, and without having to pay any maintenance to her.
Now that the divorce was done, Rohit had promised to grant her the one wish to see Manan, to meet him in person. And this was the venue. She had suggested it, and he had been aghast at first.
Then he said, “Just another example of how crazy you can be,” and laughed out loud. “Sure, let’s meet there.”
His laughter had hurt her, but she had laughed too, for she did not want him to know that she was still hurting from his abandonment of her, though he always accused her of it and held it over her head. “You abandoned Manan, you abandoned me, I had to do this…I had to do that…” all the accusations that had made her ears ring and finally he had got his divorce.
She could not explain to him that she had needed to walk out at that time for her own sanity. Well, she could cry that to the high heavens but no one was hearing. Her parents were dead, and she had no siblings. She had no friends with whom she could share the problems of her existence. Except for Ruhina, who taught at the Aligarh Muslim University and with whom she had sought refuge after walking out. Ruhina had nurtured Sonam back to health, even though she had to take flak from her husband for keeping an indefinite ‘guest’ at home.
Now Sonam was a working as librarian at a school at Aligarh, and had her own place to stay, but Ruhina being nearby was for her like having a mother, a friend, a family there for her if needed. She planned to take Manan with her, if Rohit agreed, to Aligarh for a few days. It was a long shot, but she had prepped herself up for it.
She sipped her hot chocolate and sat back, taking in the bright lights and warmth. She glanced out and noticed a young girl of about eight, shivering, looking in. She was standing at the side, without a coat, the snow on her black hair catching the light, her nose red with the cold. Looking at her, Sonam sniffed, and reached for her handkerchief in her coat pocket. Then she moved her hand over the sweater she had picked for Manan as a Christmas gift. She had bought a scarf for Rohit too, but was not sure whether she would give it to him. Her eyes wandered once again to the girl and her mind turned suddenly to the Hans Christian Andersen’s story of The Little Match Girl. She had loved the story as a child. The sight of the girl brought back the memory. She looked so cold, forlorn and sad, as though she needed to light a few matchsticks and catch their warmth and the dreams they promised.
Sonam looked down at her hot chocolate, and then at her watch. She had been waiting for more than an hour. She checked her mobile for some message from Rohit. Ah, there it was. She would be seeing her son soon, and her heart beat fast as she checked the SMS. Then it sunk, so hard that she almost choked.
Rohit texted: ‘Not coming to Glenary’s. Met an old school friend, Satish. I studied here, remember? I have brought Manan to Darjeeling, but can’t persuade him to meet his ’mother’. He will be going out with us. Sorry.’
She found herself clutching the mug hard with her hands, and noticed how her veins stood out. She stared at how the red lipstick had left its mark on the lip of the mug. She saw her hands leaving hold of the mug and fisting the cardigan she had bought into a ball. Then trying to smoothen the creases, and balling it up again. Her eyes, with tears threatening to spill, looked vacantly around, and she caught sight of the young girl, still standing there, staring in. Taking in the big Christmas tree with its red and blue baubles, the colourful streamers, the cakes and pastries, the warmly dressed people, the laughter and chatter, the smiling faces. All the warmth inside that refused to spread its arms to envelope the cold shivering outside.
Sonam stood up, wrapped her red coat around herself and stumbled out the door. Snow had begun to fall as the door closed behind her, but she did not miss a step despite her tears, nor recoil when the cold hit her in the face. She walked up to the girl and grabbed her by the shoulder. The child looked at her, scared, about to run.
Hot tears stung Sonam’s cheeks. “No, no, don’t run,” she cried.
As the girl stood, overcome with shock, Sonam opened up the cardigan and put it on her, kneeling down, pushing each button into its buttonhole carefully. She then wrapped the scarf around the girl’s neck.
“Do you have family?” asked Sonam.
The girl shook her head.
“Just like me,” said Sonam. She stood up, her chest heaving with sorrow.
She rubbed her eyes hard and began to walk up the path, a blind walk, of someone who does not know where to go or whom to go with. Then, a small hand slipped into hers.
A young girl in a green cardigan too loose for her now held the hand of a lady in a red coat. Inside the café, Christmas carols were being sung. The hymns spilled out, carrying their promise up to the two figures walking in the falling snow. It was Christmas Eve, and no one could be lonely on such a magical night.