(From Window Seat: Rush Hour Stories from the City)
It wasn’t my fault. It was she who came in search of love. A vision that reminded me of my ex-wife and one that made me hopeful about my future.
It’s strange that I should now seek in other women, the very woman I once rejected. There’s a certain comfort in familiarity and I look for a snub nose like hers. A fiery temper shown only at the highest provocation. The ability to drive with eyes focused on the road even in the heat of a bitter argument.
That’s how I was infatuated with the girl at my internet cafe.
It had been a long, miserable wait. I lost my job, borrowed money from friends and family, and began an internet cafe. A tryst with alcoholism was followed by an attempt at rehabilitation through sports. Eventually, I returned to the sport I know best. The game of love.
Try the internet, said my friends. Plenty of dating sites, porn sites, matrimonial sites, choose your pick. And all this while you’re on the job, they winked.
I didn’t need to.
She sat in a corner, with the self-assured look of one who cannot be spied upon. Occasionally, she looked furtively over her shoulder, like one engaged in an immoral act. I must confess, it was easy from my own seat, to pretend that I was busy with work when I was in reality tracking her cyber movements.
Her emails were mostly to girlfriends who were married or to boys she had never met. She seemed to me one of those girls whose marriage ‘bio-data’, that despicable little sheet of paper that initiated and sealed matrimony as a cold contract, had failed to attract the right ‘boys’. She posted it online.
Height: 5 ft 3 in.
Body type: Average
Complexion: Very Fair
Religion: Hindu (Brahmin)
Education: Diploma in Fashion Design
Occupation: Fashion designer
Description: I am a modern girl with traditional values. I wish to have a smart n caring partner who is settled in the US. I believe that family comes first. I like to eat Pizza and watch movies. My favourite films are ‘The Wedding Planner’ and ‘Mujhse Shaadi Karoge’ (lol).
This little declaration was accompanied by a posed-for photograph that said Sneha, 25. I marvelled at the coincidence. I had had a total of 24 serious and non-serious relationships in my own life of 33 years. This could well be Woman 25.
As if in affirmation of this divine sign, she returned the next day. Eagerly logging in, expecting to discover a virtual knight in shining inbox. Faced with an empty mail folder, she seemed disappointed. Then, momentarily cheered by the high-pitched quack of a stray message, she caught up with a friend. Even as she juggled three chat windows, she filled in details of her ideal mate in addition to her profile on the matrimonial site.
Height: 5 ft 10 in.
Body type: Average
Complexion: No preference
Education: IT, Management, Medicine
Occupation: IT professional, Doctor, Engineer, Businessman
Residence: USA, Canada
Seeking reassurance, she verified the text with a virtual friend. Why not add hobbies and interests, suggested the friend. I prefer to discover those in person, she replied. She had a schoolgirlish taste in men. Tall, goodlooking, charming, someone who held doors for her and liked to party, she said. And who could take her to the beaches of Hawaii on holiday.
There was barely any eye contact between us as she made her payment. In her little virtual world, there was no place for real men.
That night, with some trepidation, I responded to her post.
My name is Varun. I’m an IT professional settled in California. I’m 5 ft 11 in. tall and 28 yrs old. I’ve been told I’m goodlooking but I’d like you to judge for yourself. I’m looking for a smart Indian girl who will share my dreams. You’re beautiful. Can we talk? I’m available on email/ chat on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was early to work the next morning. Cybercity opened a whole hour earlier than usual but apart from the bedraggled John Lennon lookalike, a regular, nobody seemed to have noticed. I spent the morning in restlessness, my hopeful eyes darting eagerly from the inbox of my newly created email id to the entrance of my internet cafe.
She arrived at the usual time that afternoon. We looked at each other in nonchalance as she clocked in her time and occupied her special corner. I couldn’t see the expression on her face but from the furious tap-tapping of the keyboard, it was easy to sense her excitement.
She crafted carefully the reply to my email, deleting chunks and rewriting them until she was satisfied with the result. She read and re-read it, and paused a long and pregnant pause before she finally hit the ‘send’ button.
At the speed of thought, and like the trick of a conjuror, the message found its way into my open inbox.
Thanks for your reply. I hope we can be friends for now and get to know each other better. I work at an import-export house of garments where I design western clothes for men and women. I dream of opening my own boutique someday. I’m an extrovert and like to party and watch movies on weekends. My father has a business of ball-bearings, my mother is a housewife and I have an elder brother who helps my father in the family business.
I believe that marriage is a lifetime commitment and I am looking for a partner who will truly care for me. He should balance work and play and visit India with me once a year. He must be open-minded and family-oriented.
What are your interests and hobbies? Which community do you belong to? I am a Marwari Brahmin living in Bombay.
Hope to hear from you soon!
Perhaps it was her unrefined childishness that made her seem even more attractive to me. Or perhaps it was her long tresses, tight jeans and sprightly confidence. I was not alone. She duplicated the reply, sending it to two other male correspondents who had expressed similar interest in getting to know her better. She deleted a message from a suitor she considered unsuitable and saved another in her archives, for a rainy day.
I took the liberty of adding her to my chat list and was pleasantly surprised to see her accept, at once.
What began as a hesitant, introductory conversation, turned into an animated discussion. She was thrilled to know that I holidayed in Hawaii and owned a beach house near LA. She interrupted the conversation with a ‘brb’ and called a friend to say that she couldn’t believe her luck. She hoped that I was interested in her. After listening attentively to some friendly advice, she returned. And asked for my picture.
I sent her the photograph of a goodlooking Indian boy that I had found on the website of some American university. Smiling proudly for the camera on Graduation Day, he looked like a fresh-faced, pink-lipped schoolboy with software or management dreams in his eyes. The sort that appealed to women like her, I presumed.
She warmed up to me. The next day, she ignored the emails of my cyber-rivals although one Ramkumar from Texas came a close second. He had a green card (and green eyes to match). But he had been married before. My parents will kill me, she told her friend.
She discovered that we had much in common.
I hung out at the sandwich stall near Gokul mansion in Kalina when I was in Bombay.
Oh my God! I live in Kalina she said. I’m at an internet cafe in Kalina at this very moment! What a coincidence.
Where do you live? I asked her.
Near the University.
Which building? I’m familiar with the area, I said.
Soon I had her address and mobile number. I was ecstatic.
She left for work at eight in the morning every day. She drove to her workplace at an industrial complex in Andheri. Sometimes, she went out to a nearby mall for lunch with her colleagues. On Saturdays, when she got off early, she watched a movie with friends at the neighbourhood multiplex. Occasionally, she went shopping with her mother, or to a nightclub with some insipid looking men and giggly girls in lycra tops. She dropped in at the internet cafe on her way back from work. After a few days of tailing her, I knew her daily routine like the back of my typing hand.
Her visits to Cybercity became more frequent. She couldn’t chat from work any more as her new boss disapproved. She now deigned to smile at me as I handed her the change from behind the counter. I mustered the courage to speak to her.
You’re a regular here. Why don’t you start an account with us? I asked. Explaining, as she looked at me quizzically, that it would mean having to pay only at the end of every month for all the time spent surfing. We offer a ten percent discount to those who pay on time, I added.
She nodded. I’ll go for it.
In the meanwhile, my American persona had won her confidence with his easy familiarity. We had begun to flirt online and I asked her about the way her hair looked or the clothes that she was wearing even as she typed her replies. Sometimes, if dressed in a particularly drab outfit (which was not often), she lied. And I loved her a little more for it.
She had begun to strike conversation with me as she signed in the internet users’ register. She was friendly in a distant sort of way.
Was there a power cut today? My office server was down all day.
Or – Which is the best broadband connection this side of town?
I need a good pen drive. Do you sell computer-related items and accessories?
You have a new webcam for this computer! Do you charge extra for usage?
My usual seat is occupied. Is it possible to reserve this corner for 4 pm everyday?
How long has this internet cafe been around?
What did you do before you started Cybercity?
I answered her unimaginative questions with rehearsed indifference. Occasionally, I remarked about the weather or informed her about new and innovative schemes for my regular customers. In time, I enquired about her favourite websites and suggested a few myself.
What do you do? Oh, you’re a fashion designer! Why don’t you visit www.so-and-so.com? I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring.
Or – How about a personal website?
Why don’t you start a blog?
Try this new website if you want to download movies…
What kind of music do you like? Here, why don’t you listen to my MP3s while you surf…
I hoped to impress her with my knowledge. Even as my virtual persona impressed her with his wit and charm.
I pretended to fix the computer beside hers as I chatted that day. I didn’t want to miss the expression on her face. I love you, I typed. Just like that.
She was stunned. She blushed as she keyed in slowly ‘i luv u 2 Varun’.
A whirlwind romance followed. She wanted my number, to hear my voice. I’m moving house I said. I don’t have a residence number. And I can’t take calls at work, I lied.
Wht abt ur ? She asked.
I’m getting a new number this weekend, I said. I’ll call you from my net-to-phone software instead.
Whn? She asked.
She was unusually cheerful as she signed out that day.
You seem very happy today, I remarked.
I am. My boyfriend’s going to call me tonight, she said.
She was the last to leave.
I closed the shutters and surfed until late that night. I ordered a pizza and accessed her files. I sat there in the dark, surrounded by my own sounds. The light from the screen lending a chameleon glow to the leaky walls. Later, when it was 9 am Los Angeles time, I called from one of the many square-headed friends that kept me company. Taking care to disguise my voice lest she find it familiar.
Hello, she answered nervously.
Sweetheart…finally, I drawled with the caution of an Indian newly arrived in America and anxious to be understood or accepted.
She was tongue-tied for a few seconds.
Well, am I going to hear the sound of your breathing more than the sound of your voice? Asked my thickly accented new voice. I laughed and she giggled nervously.
What were you doing when I called? I enquired, to break the ice.
Reading a Cosmopolitan, she said shyly. You must be getting ready to go to work, she added.
Just about finishing breakfast, I replied.
Do you make it yourself? What do you have for breakfast? She asked.
Rustled up some pancakes myself, I said proudly as I sunk my teeth into a cheesy portion of Lizza’s Pizza from down the road. I’ll make you some when you come here.
And I’ll make some parathas for you when I’m there, she said.
Varun, when are we going to meet? She asked suddenly, catching me off-guard.
As soon as I get time off from work, I said. Once I’m confirmed at my job, I promised.
Alright, she said, satisfied with the answer.
Have to head to work now, I sighed. I love you baby.
I love you too, she said softly, before I hung up.
The next day, she had the flushed look of a vestal virgin deflowered. She was quiet in a happy sort of way and gave me a distracted smile.
Did your boyfriend call last night? I asked her casually.
She nodded happily.
Long distance romance? I winked.
Yes, she sighed. He’s in the US.
Oh! I pretended to be surprised. So a green card guy, huh? What does he do? I asked.
IT, she replied.
Good catch! I winked again. Where did you guys meet?
At your internet cafe, she smiled.
Nice to know I’ve done somebody a good turn, although unintentionally, I said. Isn’t it late for him to be up at this time? I asked.
He wakes up early to chat with me, she said with heartbreaking innocence.
The new turn in our romance was proving difficult for me. In addition to my weekly calls, she had begun to insist that I show myself to her on webcam. She pestered me for my mobile number so she could send me love messages. For my birthday, she wanted to send me a parcel. I gave her a friend’s mailing address in Boston and requested him to keep it for me. I told her I was travelling and could not take her calls or gifts. That I would call instead.
She was dejected when I didn’t call. A couple of friends arrived unexpectedly at the café that evening and we opened a few bottles of beer. They left in the wee hours. The next day, she arrived with the temper of a girlfriend piqued. We had our first lovers’ tiff on email.
There was no space for endearments and no ‘kissie-poos’ at the end. Just a simple, angry note that said,
You don’t even care…I waited up all night for your call. I told my brother about you - he wanted to wish you and talk to you as well. Is something wrong? Where were you? What did you do? Is there someone else?
And she ranted on.
I replied with honeysugar calm. I assured her that she was the apple of my eye, the twinkle of my stars, the one and only love of my life. And that I had had a miserable birthday stuck in a snowstorm with no access to telephone or email. My car had slid and slipped on icy roads before it was towed and I was rescued.
Feeling adequately guilty about her unreasonable outburst, she apologized profusely and was concerned about my safety. We made up when I called later that night.
As I couldn’t visit India for the next six months, she asked if she could visit me. I’ve accumulated plenty of leave, she said. I could tell my parents that I’m travelling on work, and ask my colleagues to lie for me.
It’s too cold right now, I said.
I’ll keep you warm, she giggled.
I indulged her at first and then explained that it would be cold, dark and windy. Beaches would be empty. Nightclubs would close early for the night. Let’s plan for the summer instead, I suggested. We could go wine tasting, drive along the beautiful coast to my beach house and lie on the fine golden sand, overwhelmed by our ocean of love. I’ll book our holiday to Hawaii as well, I promised.
She was excited about the summer holiday. She told me that she had begun to shop for beachwear and had bought herself a new pair of sunglasses. Don’t shop now, I told her. I’ll buy you all that you need once you arrive here.
Her face had the glow of the summer sun as I typed love messages to her that evening. Caressing the keyboard as I would her smooth hair,. Holding the inanimate mouse as if I had wrapped within my palm, her slender fingers. She smiled as she read my passionate declarations from across the room, envisaging a handsome man in his pyjamas, holding a cup of steaming hot coffee to keep himself awake for his nightly dose of love, even as snowflakes whirled outside his bedroom window like tiny white feathers in the American night sky.
And so it went on, this strange new-age game of love where the only senses in play were the visual and the auditory. The only love notes exchanged were just as easily deleted from the inbox as they were created. Where we made love to machines rather than each other.
We had known each other four months. These months had been fulfilling both emotionally and financially, as far as I was concerned. Blissfully unaware, she had run up a bill of nearly twenty thousand rupees. At Cybercity, we had become good friends, she and I. She confided in me if she had an argument with Varun and discussed her hopes and fears about the relationship. She mentioned that her parents wanted her to ‘settle down’ in matrimony and were hoping to find her a good Marwari boy. But I share a special spiritual connection with Varun, she said to me. It’s almost as if he can read my mind. Even though we’ve never met, and he lives thousands of miles away.
When summer arrived in sunny California, so did her email to me.
After I logged out last nite, I surfed a couple of California sites. Have u seen the news? They’ve officially announced the arrival of summer! So shud I book my tkt, wot do u say?
In an impulsive and pressured moment, I informed her that I had meant to surprise her but was now forced to divulge my secret plan. I’m coming down for your birthday, I said.
She let out a squeal and called a friend. He’s coming here, he’s coming here! She said happily. When? Next month! For my birthday! It’s my best birthday gift ever! Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous!
At that moment, I was almost jealous of myself. Of this persona, this figment of my imagination.
Oh, so it’s your birthday next month, I noted as she clocked out that day.
Yes, she replied happily.
That makes you a Gemini, I observed.
What’s your zodiac sign? She asked me.
Libra, I replied. And your boyfriend? I asked.
He’s a Sagittarian, she said proudly.
Obviously a devoted one, if he’s coming especially to be with you for your birthday, I remarked as she blushed.
And hopefully, it will be more than a regular birthday. I’m planning to tell my parents about him. God willing, we’ll be engaged soon, she said as she crossed her fingers.
I was alarmed. I had to think up something fast in order to extricate myself from this unpleasant situation. Varun would have to fracture his leg when playing volleyball on the beach. This way, he could stall for time.
A month of sweet nothings later, I broke the news to her. Multiple fractures, I said, for effect. She slumped over the desk, forehead supported by her jewelled hands. She sat quietly for a few moments, as if in deep meditation. And then called her friend. On being unable to get through, she came up to me. I minimized my chat window in haste and turned to her in apprehension.
Tell me, she asked me tersely. If a guy were to keep giving excuses and postponing meeting the girlfriend he has yet to see in person, does it mean that he is just fooling around? Or is he a shameless liar? Or do you think I have an overly active imagination?
I lent her a sympathetic ear before I offered her the possibilities.
As a man, I would want to see the girl I love in the flesh, I declared. I’d want to stroke her hair, protect her with my arms. I’d want to savour the first kiss, I said softly as she lowered her eyes, sensing my attraction to her.
Men can carry on long distance relationships for only this long, I said wisely. How do you know he’s not some psycho who’s married with grown kids and looking for some fun while his wife and children sleep peacefully in the next room? Or an elderly pervert who fancies beautiful young women like yourself? Or a teenager looking for some romantic experience before he sets out into the wild and wondrous world of women?
I’m sorry if I was a bit harsh, I added, when her eyes welled up.
I’ll speak with him tonight and clear my doubts, she said firmly.
When she returned to her chat window, she asked for my/ Varun’s mobile number. I gave her the number of a person in LA, a client at my previous job. When she asked for the name of my company, I made it up. And when she asked for my parents’ phone number, I gave her a non-existent one.
The next day, she arrived bleary eyed from lack of sleep. Her eyes were shadowed by deep circles and her eyelids puffy from tears wasted on an imaginary young man.
What happened, I asked. You look disturbed.
I called, she said, distraught. None of the numbers exist. I’m a fool, she said quietly.
As she shuffled to her corner, I keyed in my breakup speech. My heart went out to her as she popped up on my screen as a feeble hi. When she confronted me with the expected questions, I sent her my little piece.
i’m sorry, sneha….i lied…I was never lukg for a long term relship..i hav a gf here who i plan to marry… saw ur profile on the net and found u pretty (shez not as beautiful as u r).
fuck u bastard..i hope u rot in hell, was the last that I, as Varun, heard from her.
Her shoulders shook as she slumped on the desk. I asked my assistant to offer her a glass of water but she refused and asked for the rest room instead. She emerged twenty minutes later, eyes red from crying.
Are you alright? I asked.
You were right about him, she said as I shook my head in disgust. The asshole has a girlfriend.
A beautiful girl like you deserves better I said. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
I think I’ll settle my dues, she said. I won’t need to come here as often, I suppose.
She was stunned to discover how much she had spent on the man. Plus a Mont Blanc pen and money for the courier, she added. I could have holidayed on my own in Hawaii you know, she joked through her misery.
I’ll give you a special twenty percent discount, I offered magnanimously.
Thanks, she said gratefully. You needn’t, really.
My pleasure, I said gallantly. I’m doing it for a friend, not a customer.
She looked at me warmly and squeezed my hand.
So, what plans for your birthday? I asked her.
You remembered! She exclaimed before her eyes filled up once more. What plans can I possibly have now? I’ll be in bed wasting tissue I’m sure.
Tell you what, why don’t I take you out for dinner, I suggested. We could bring in your birthday tonight.
Alright, what the hell, she said sportingly. Who the hell wants to mope over a loser in America!
Great! I exclaimed. Where do you want to go?
Chinese Legacy? But dinner’s on me, she said. I owe you enough as it is.
We’ll see about that, I said playfully. Before I closed the shutters and led her out by the small of her back.