Many-Splendoured Love/Azalea Flowers

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Azalea Flowers

The large modern auditorium in suburban New Jersey was crowded with the audience that had gathered there to see a Gujarati drama. As usual there was a delay in starting. The doors to the auditorium had not been opened yet. Many people were moving around, in the lobby itself, making it more crowded, more noisy. Lopa had started complaining. Making a face she said, “Now you understand, right?, why I do not go to such programmes?”

Her friend Kokila had dragged her along. She had said, “ A group has come from Mumbai, and they have brought a totally new drama. It is very funny.” But the crowd, noise and delay had already tired Lopa. She went towards the back area, looking for a little empty space. Away from the auditorium doors it reallly was less crowded. She turned around to call Kokila over, and saw Chandra facing her instead. It seemed that she was also looking for someone. Both Lopa and Chandra were startled to see one-another at first. None of them had expected to run into each-other.

Then, smiling formally, they exchanged formal greetings. Before they could say anything more, both their friends came by, and the doors also opened that very instant, for entry in the hall. Lopa could not pay attention to anything any more. Actually she was quite shaken. Saw Chandra after a long time. Seemed a little thin, she thought. And why was Divaker not with her? Both would always be together, would never go anywhere alone. Some old-time annoyance gripped her mind.

Or was it that Divaker was there somewhere and she had not seen him? Lopa turned her face this way and that.

“ Can’t see anyone we know, isn’t it?”, Kokila said. “But I had no idea that you knew Chandra. What a sad thing to happen, right? - in her life?” “What happened?”, Lopa asked, startled. “I do not know anything.”

The curtain was rising. The drama was starting. Kokila could not answer her. Lopa kept thinking, “ What could have happened? Some sickness? Broken engagements of the kids? Or could be that Divaker and Chandra were divorced?” But no, that guess was one that Lopa herself could not believe. There was no possibility of that.

A wave of laughter had crashed in the audience. Nothing was reaching Lopa’s ears. Was she absorbed in thoughts, or in past memories? It has taken months for the constant wounds to heal a little, and then to run into Chandra like this. Suddenly all wounds had opened up again. Lopa felt that blood had started oozing again, inside her.

Lopa’s heart got filled with bitterness. Eyes filled up with tears. Obviously, the scars on her heart had not healed yet. In reality, it had been a short affair. Mostly there had been conversations - smart talk, smart repartee, so many different topics. Lopa had met the two of them, for the first time, at a dinner party at common friends Sumita and Shishir’s home. The three of them - Lopa, Divaker and Chandra - had made small talk with one-another : How are you? Where are you from? What do you do? , and such. After a while Chandra had gone and sat in the women’s group. Lopa was left alone.

She went to the back patio with a glass of wine, where Divaker was also standing with a glass. There were a couple of shrubs on the patio-edge, which were totally filled with Azalea flowers. Looking at them Lopa said, “What lovely colours - white and pink.”

“At our place also the Azaleas are blooming beautifully. One plant has white flowers, but there are many with purple and unusual fuschia colours”, Divaker had said in reply.

“Oh really? You know a word like ‘fuschia’?”

“Oh yes, Chandra has taught me that. Although gardening is my passion, I have to do what Madame says!” Both had laughed at this mild satire. Conversation turned to names of good nurseries near by, and that led to the exchange of phone numbers. “ Do give me a call, any time. I will give you the name and address of the best nursery I know”, Lopa had said.

Phone calls has started this way. Once or twice Divaker had told Chandra, but the phone calls contnued, and he stopped telling Chandra about them. Lopa enjoyed talking with Divaker so very much. On every subject he would surely have something new or different to say. Even when he had no information about a topic, he would not let it go, but would make up something. At times Lopa would believe it as true; at other times she would catch it as a bluff, and then she would burst out laughing. “You are too much, ok? You even bluff in such a way that it seems true!”, she would say. At such a time Divaker had told her not to use the formal prefix or suffix with his name, as is customery with the community.

“Then you have to stop using them with my name also”, Lopa said in return. Little by little they were getting closer with one-another.

Most times Divaker will have right information about anything. May it be American share-market, politics of either country, any sports, or a new film - whether he had read about it, heard about it, or seen it, he would always have an opinion. Some times he would argue without a valid reason - especially about movies. From this kind of unnecessary argument once Lopa had become angry. “How can you say that serious films are boring? There is no point wasting time with someone who likes only stupid slapstick comedies,” etc etc. Who knows what issue of life had irked her that day, but at the end, she had banged the receiver down.

This was their first fight, and as Lopa thought the next day, it was totallly without a cause also. She kept waiting for Divaker’s phone call. Five days. Six days. ‘What if he does not call me now?’, and for the first time she felt lost by Divaker’s absence. From then a seed of pining for Divaker was planted in her heart.

After waiting like this for nearly ten days, she steeled herdself and called, hoping that Divaker will pick up. But it was Chandra who had answered the phone. Lpoa had thought of a reason as to why she had called. She said, “On Saturday I am doing a small dinner. Would you both come? I have invited Sumita and Shishir also.”

Divaker was not at home. “He will call you later”, Chandra said.

Oh good, Divaker would call at least”, Lopa was relieved.

Divaker did call back, but he had become formal again; and said that it would not be convenient for dinner. Trying to cox him Lopa said, “Wouldn’t you meet me for lunch? An apology-lunch from me, OK?”

After they met at the common friends’ place, for about three months their contact was only by phone calls. By then Lopa had become close to Divaker in her own mind, so when they met for lunch she was a little self-conscious. When she saw Divaker she wanted to hug him, but she had stopped herself. When Divaker told her that she looked beautiful in her Western outfit, she had felt instinctively that Divaker was also attracted to her. As both their eyes met, some meanings had passed through them.

Divaker’s anger had totally subsided, and he had brought a gift for Lopa. In his hands was a planter. “Oh, Azalea flowers?”, Lopa excleimed.

“Well, I do remember, OK, that you like Azaleas. Sorry I couldn’t get the fuschia colour”, giving the planter wrapped in a bright green paper to Lopa, he said. “And in Greek language there is a word - Azaleos, meaning dry land. From that these flowers got their name. But the correct pronunciation is ‘Ezalia’. Now you know it, Madame?”

“ Oh sure. Can any one else be more clever than you?”, was Lopa’s repartee.

Both felt lighter and relaxed now, but the meeting was hurried. There was time for just a quick sandwich. “Lets meet again soon”, Divaker had said. “You want to go to see a movie?”

“You decide”, Lopa had said. She did not feel like moving away from there at all. But saying “OK, bye” Divaker walked away towards his car. Lopa kept looking at him going.

In this short time, so many mixed emotions got entangled in her mind. Is this bad? What I am doing, feeling - is that bad? - although what has happened any way? We met just this once. What I am feeling in my heart - is that love? But can one fall in love just talking on phone? Is that immoral? But what if we do not let anyone be hurt? This is friendship after all. Can’t two friends start liking each-other?

When the though about friendship occured to her, Lopa felt comforted again. Even afer the relationship thickened, Lopa kept explaining this very logic to herself.

Whenever possible, Divaker had started going to Lopa’s place. In the evenings or at nights he could hardly go, but he would leave from the office in late afternoons. Still, they could never spend more than three hours a week together. Lopa would get angry, she would cry, she would hold on to Divaker, but he would always go away. Lopa would start waiting to meet again.

Suddenly one day Divaker told her that he would not be able to continue the affiar any more. Everyone has the Seventh Sense, he had said. He had started feeling that Chandra was getting a little suspicious. It was possible that Divaker’s behaviour with Chandra in the bedroom could have changed, even subtley. He had connected with Lopa both mentally and physically, and no matter how careful one was, the wife was bound to feel the difference slowly. He could never bear the thought of seeing his family breaking up. What he had to let go of was certainly the illicit relationship, wasn’t it?

Holding Lopa’s hand he had explained all this. Lopa did understand the disastrous result that could come about, and still, the talk about breaking up with her had slashed at her heart severely. During the months to come, she lost weight, her rib-cage shrunk, deep sadness suffocated her. Finally she went away to India for nearly three months. A whole year had passed this way.

In the auditorium now, Lopa sat feeling that sadness again, and during the drama her thoughts contnued. Still, she had no energy left to remember all those moments of meeting and parting, loving and fighting, laughing together and crying by herself. She felt drained of energy even sitting in the hall.

In the car, on the way home, Kokila and her husband kept laughing recalling the many jokes from the drama. At the last minute, dropping Lopa off, Kokila said, “Oh, I completely forget to tell you. What had happened was that there was a car-accident, his lungs got filled with so much smoke that Divaker could not survive. But then, lets say bye now. Call me tomorrow. We will talk more then.”

Lopa stood there like made of stone. She froze with shock. During all those months, when she tried desperately to get her mind off over her love for Divaker, Divaker himself had already left the world. The family that he wanted to keep intact was broken up unimaginably.

That whole night Lopa was crushed with grief. Her heart was in intense mourning, and her eyes were desert-dry. She did not call Kokila in the morning. She directly called Chandra. She did not want to talk about herself. Whatever was kept hidden all this time, she did not want to reveal now. If possible, she wanted to console Chandra.

By then though, Chandra had been able to steady herself, outwardly at least. Her duty now was towards her two sons. It was her satisfaction that, as decided ahead, the organs from Divaker’s body had been given over for those in need. How many people he had helped, thought Lopa - two kidneys, Liver, and his heart also had been donated for transplant.

Perhaps his eyes had been the most useful. Generally such donations are kept anonymous, but in this case an old American lady, who was a patient in the same hospital, had needed the sight very much, and an operation was urgently performed. Getting her courage together, Lopa asked Chandra for that lady’s name. During all this conversation, perhaps Chandra had felt so emotional that without hesitation, she told Lopa her name; and added, “Oh, Aunti is so thankful that she often calls me. She treats the boys by making cakes for them off and on.”

Talking to Chandra brought some peace to Lopa’s heart. When he was alive all Divaker wanted was to make his wife happy, and in death he left giving her honour. Within herself Lopa felt a little shameful also. For last one year she had gone on blaming and finding faults with someone who never was hers, nor could ever become hers. And Chandra? Her familiy-life of last fifteen years was destroyed to pieces, and still she was living with what dignity.

A few days later, one morning hearing the door-bell, Mrs. Chancellor opened the door. A pretty Indian young woman, wearing simple clothes, was standing on the door-steps. Mrs. Chancellor understood that it must be someone from the family of the person that had donated her the eyes. She said, “Do come inside.”

Lopa was looking into those smiling eyes. These were the same eyes that had liked her. These were the same eyes into which, sitting motionless, she had woven her own eyes so many times. This was the last evidence of that loved one who had gone away leaving her alone. That’s it - Lopa wanted to see those eyes one more time.

In Lopa’s hands, wrapped in silver paper, was a planter of Azalea flowers in beautiful, dark fuschia colour, Stretching both her hands she said, “I have brought these for you”, and offered the flowers to the old lady.

“Oh, I really love Azaleas a lot. Thanks”, said Mrs. Chancellor, and repeated, “Do come inside. Have a cup ot tea.”

Without even blinking Lopa was staring into those eyes. “Thanks, but not today”, she said, and waving goodbye she quickly climbed down the steps. After sitting in the car, she closed her eyes tightly. She wanted to lock Divaker down in them for always.