The clouds were anchored at their places, refusing to move. I looked into the vast stretch of Marina listlessly. The sun was yet to rise. It was a weekday. Marina was unusually calm. I could hear the voices of my two daughters, Charu and Anju playing around.
Marina Beach. I always loved being here ever since I had moved to Madras. Madras was renamed as Chennai in 1996. But by then, I had left for Australia after my wedding. In the years to come, our family would shift to the Middle East, Singapore and Malaysia. My husband’s new job got us back to India. Marina. How much I missed her? But she looked different now. People grow with time. Never Marina. Maybe I have changed. I guess I am not the person I was when I left Marina.
I remember a day in August many summers ago in the arms of my true love, Anjana. I liked her name. Anjana. Even the mere utterance of her name was mellifluous to the ears. While her friends always called her Anju, to me, she will always remain Anjana. I remember lying naked on her bed laughing. I don’t remember the reason. She kissed me gently again. I played with her beautiful silky hair. Kissed her neck, forehead, eyes and held her close as our bodies touched, giving a long passionate kiss. We were staring into the mirror, my arms embracing her from behind as I rested my head on her right shoulder. As we parted, we cried. Tears flowed down like a river. She asked, her voice choked, ‘Aparna, why can’t we live together?’. That question would haunt me for years to come. A man may love a woman. But not in the way a woman can. Anjana. The song of my heart. The life of my soul.
Madras. The city I loved. It may have changed names on records but Madras is what I connect with. The name brings to you memories of Filter Coffee, Idli and Sambar, Jasmine Flowers, Kanjivaram sarees, Carnatic music and Cinema. That was where I would meet her. My father worked for an insurance company and he got transferred to Madras in 1989. We were in Bangalore at the time with my schooling needing another year to end. In 1990, after my school days were over, we had relocated to Madras. Anna Nagar would be my area of residence until my marriage. Anjana was my neighbor in the apartment.
Anjana was from an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family. Could I say she was beautiful? Well, she had a feline form that attracted the eyes of men, young and old. A face that had a natural glow that one just couldn’t stop looking. She was an avid reader of books, mostly English. She was graceful in Bharatanatyam and had a mellifluous voice. She had a couple of elder siblings. Being the little one, she enjoyed a certain freedom.
We were always together. Inseparable. Our families were close friends. It was hard to tell, whether she was my friend or my blood sister. She would spend most of her days in my house. She was everything I was not. Back then, until Anjana came into my life, I had neither appreciated myself nor accepted my natural body. What united us was a common taste in literature. Young men in our area would often seek my help in handing over the love letters written to her. She was not interested in any. She couldn’t accept any. We would chat over a cup of filter coffee my mom would make and laugh boisterously at the love letters written. I vividly remember one such instance where Anjana was visibly angry at the poor language in a love letter. She took a red ink pen to correct the errors and hand it over to the guy admonishing him for his language skills.
I started doing things just for her. I joined her in Bharatanatyam classes although I admit I was a poor student. The place where she learned Carnatic singing was the place I learned to play the violin. In my days of solitude, the violin would become my companion. Even Anjana thought, I had a natural flair for it.
Every Saturday, we would play badminton in the mornings. Then, after breakfast, she would come to my room and read a book. After lunch, we would invariably make a trip to British Council in Anna Salai, where she was a member, to return the books and pick new ones. We didn’t frequent Cinema theaters. Instead, we would go to Marina in the evenings. We liked dipping our legs into the waves. We would just sit on the sands of Marina and enjoy our shared silence for a while. We loved our shared silence as much as we enjoyed our conversations.
We were not passionate about each other romantically till we entered the second semester of our sophomore year. We had known each other for two years now. I remember sulking in my room as she had just received a love letter from a guy called Arun. She noticed the change in my mood and came to my room. Our parents were away. I remember her telling me a few times that she is not interested in anyone. Being the silly girl that I was back then, who had still not got rid of her innocence, I asked her to promise. She held my right hand and promised. She leaned and then kissed me gently. My initial reaction was to push her away. The next moment I knew, we were locked in a tight embrace. She blurted ‘Aparna, I love you. I have been meaning to tell you that for some time. I didn’t know how you would respond. I know it is awkward. Our society has brought us up with the thinking that a relationship can be happy only when it involves a man and a woman. I would not like to believe that. You are my true love. You know how my heart aches to be by your side every moment. I doubt whether I can feel the same way with a man.’ I wanted to interrupt her. She put her left index finger on my mouth and said, ‘Listen! You are all that I want. I don’t want to think about the future where I need to forcefully accept the rules the society would impose on me. We have still got some time for that. Therefore, we shall cherish the moments we have now.’
An hour later, we were lying naked in our bed as she looked intently at me and began singing my favorite song ‘Aasai mugam marandhu poche, idhai yaaridam solvenadi thozhi’.* I remember that moment. I cherish the voice that filled my ears and heart.
Once she had finished, I naively asked her, ‘Anjana, but why me? I am unlike you.’
‘Aparna, you have misconceptions of beauty. There are many girls who are attractive. I don’t seek a beautiful face. I am attracted to you. You make me happy in ways I cannot conceive. Isn’t love supposed to do that? I don’t think love is blind. I think it gives one the vision which the others fail to see.’ I smiled.
‘See how beautiful you look when you smile? You are mine, Aparna. I love saying that’ and we burst out laughing. The world seemed to be happy too. A gentle drizzle had descended from the skies. I remember turning on the radio and the All India Radio was playing the song ‘Kadhal Rojavae’ from Mani Ratnam’s new movie, Roja. Anjana and I were slowly dancing to the A R Rahman melody. That moment seemed eternal.
In the year that followed, we grew closer. She rejected a few marriage proposals that came her way citing educational reasons. Her mother even called me a few times secretly to ask me whether she was in love with someone and on my answers, had come to believe that she had not broken any “rules”.
We had done things the right way, in a manner that none grew suspicious of. Indians back then had not thought of the existence of homosexual relationships. So, the very idea of Anjana and I being in one escaped many. The only point that bothered us was the arrival of our time of separation. Anjana wanted to stay with me. She said that we could think of a post graduation course. We thought of convincing our parents about our idea. My father was against it. He said that it would be better if we could find a job in a public sector bank. My mother was under the impression that it was because he had my marriage in mind but my father denied it. He felt that if we could find a job in a public sector bank, our careers would be better.
My father’s idea did make sense. So, we prepared for the probationary officers exam to be held that year. That was the time I remember Anjana complaining to me of pain in the region between her left eye and nose. She hadn’t told anyone else. She would rub her left eye more often. That disturbed me. A swelling had developed. We didn’t tell our parents. One of our college mates, Sreenidhi’s father was an ophthalmologist. He referred us to his friend, Doctor Vijayan, an oncologist at the Cancer Institute at Adyar. We did not disclose our visit to the Doctor to our parents. Anjana had saved enough pocket money. I chipped in with a little lying to my parents that it was for charity. Doctor Vijayan advised certain tests to be taken which we did.
The Doctor called me privately and asked me to visit him on Wednesday. I lied to Anjana that the reports would take a week or more. On Wednesday, the Doctor showed me the reports. The initial tests revealed that there was a tumor developing and it could be cured if operated. Tumors. Cancer had found its way to rest in the body of my love.
There were a million things running through my head that day. What should I tell Anjana? Should I lie that the prognosis was indeed good and that, there was nothing to worry about. How long will she live? Will she be cured? Why should girls at the age of twenty learn dreadful medical terminologies? If her parents come to know, how devastated they would be? How much would the treatment cost? As a middle-class family, where will they get the money? These questions filled my head during my return home that afternoon. My Anjana. She was mine. Death, that pervert who sneaks into your life to rob away your happiness was walking behind her, ready to take her life any moment.
What should I say? I mustered up all my courage to lie to the woman I loved with all my heart. As I was blankly staring out of my bedroom window, ‘What will the Doctor say Aparna?’. Her voice shut the voices in my head. Anjana’s question made my mind turn blank. I needed to answer. I recalled the question and managed to tell, ‘He cannot say anything at the moment right now. He asked us to pay a visit on Saturday.’ ‘What are you saying? I asked where were you all this while? So, you went to the Doctor. The reports are ready. Is that why you had gone?’ Shit. Mistake. If only I had paid careful attention to the question Anjana had posed. Now, I had been caught lying. I ended up sharing what exactly transpired. I couldn’t lie to her. Not now. We shared our thoughts with our parents. It took a while to make them understand. Anjana’s mother was worried.
I would accompany Anjana and her parents from then on during their visits to the Doctor. The Doctor suggested chemotherapy. That involved money. We wanted a second opinion just to confirm. The second opinion arrived almost a fortnight later. This too confirmed the existence of a tumor. But by then, it had already grown. Anjana had become weak. When her parents arranged for funds and returned to the hospital, the Doctor said that the problem was serious. The Doctor said that Anjana had Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma (ERMS), which generally affects children around 5 years of age. Even after chemotherapy, her chances of survival were minimal. He asked us to not delay the chemotherapy treatment any further as the Cancer was already in its third stage.
After a third chemotherapy treatment, Anjana had lost some hair and her physical appearance had lost its glow. One look at her and I began to cry inconsolably. She held my hands and gently comforted them. ‘God! Why? Why should you take my Anjana’s life away?’ I questioned staring at the floor, watching my tears falling on the ground. She, intuitively, turned to me and said, ‘Aparna. I didn’t ask God for you and yet, without my asking, He gave me the greatest Gift I would ever want. You. Now I cannot ask Him why He is taking my life away?’ I responded in the only way I could. I kissed her right cheek. The days from then on are too painful to remember.
However, one of those days in between her chemo sessions, she confided in me that if there arose a chance for us to live together, she would love to go to Ooty. She loved the hill station for the silence it offered for reading. Since the chances of that were grim now, she wanted to go to Marina Beach one last time with me. My mother was initially reluctant but finally agreed to accompany us in a taxi.
We informed her that we needed a private moment together. We sat there on the sands of Marina one last time. The world around us seemed distant. That moment, in our world, we were lost in our company. In that moment of shared silence, we felt the burden of our pains disappear. Then, she suddenly turned to me and said, ‘You were the best thing to happen to me in my life Aparna. My only true love.’ My tears had gone dry. I managed a smile. We kissed for one last time, least bothered about the surroundings.
Anjana would die in a couple of months from that date. It took me a long time to accept her absence or rather, her loss. It is so strange when we come to acknowledge how a kiss and a death would change the courses of our life forever. I would get married in 1995 and leave the shores. The person I was at the time of my leaving is so different from the person that I am now. Anjana. She changed my life. In her memory, I named my second daughter.
I looked at my mobile wallpaper. I haven’t changed it for some time now. It remains the only surviving picture of me and Anjana together, taken on the terrace of our flat during my first year in Madras.
I saw my daughters approaching me.
Anju, visibly happy, exclaimed ‘Aparna, you know, once in a while you shouldn’t act like mommy and play with us instead.’
I couldn’t resist smiling. My daughter calls me by my name when she is really happy. Nostalgia. Marina. Madras. Love. Anjana. The flame of my heart. The spark of my soul.
* an old Tamil devotional song was written by Poet ‘Mahakavi’ Bharatiyar which means
‘I have forgotten that lovely face, whom shall I share this grief with?’