Seeking and offering neutral advice is a philanthropic act more than one of authority or rationality. Who’s to say you won’t be swayed by the quester’s feelings and pass judgement in their favour? Or how can one know if you’re a true altruist and you would offer your thoughts as pennies to give away? Seeking unbiased advice is a tricky thing. Most often you don’t get the advice you’re looking for. But when it came to Kavya you were better off not seeking her opinion on matters that needed resolution. She could never see your situation for what it was; always comparing it with her own. A fierce, articulate and sharp girl, Kavya could atomize any situation cleverly. However, she measured everything against her personal scale. When Kavya saw the world or the world of her friends, it was compared to the mental map of what her own life looked like. If you asked her for advice on your relationship, she’d listen to you all while internally comparing it with her own. If things were great with hers, she would pep you up, dab some of her sparkle on your soul and send you off to mend things in your own. But if things were shaky with her, if her relationship was like a ship cutting its way through dense fog, she would tell you to jump and swim to the shore – you deserve respect, she would say. Kavya had the proclivity to compare everything against herself and that’s why one never went to Kavya for advice. But if you wanted pampering there was no one else better to go to. 

So, on that early evening when Aaina rang Kavya’s doorbell, she wasn’t looking for advice. She loved Kavya for everything that she was, even the biased counselor and the slipshod gardener. Kavya was a great host and of course her closest friend. They spent so much time together that their familiarity allowed them to accept their failings and provided no need to pretend otherwise. Kavya could shush Aaina when her anger surfaced with a rap on the knuckles and Aaina could cheer Kavya in a jiffy. Not untouched by the negatives, Aaina could very well be pugnacious when provoked, but on this fresh evening of February she was a bouquet of felicity. The smile on her face radiated and she has walked to her friends’ she dropped dollops of it all along the way. At the supermarket. At the tea sellers’. At the salon. In the mirror of the florist. She carried Basil and Licorice Tea and Oatmeal biscuits for Kavya’s husband and chocolate donuts for her best friend. That a man as sorted as Yug could handle Kavya was the proof that God existed. Aaina had merely come over to her friend’s house to dispense her joy before she left for the station in some time.

“He’s not going to be here for an hour,” said Aaina dropping the donuts on the kitchen counter and dashed off to meet Yug. He was watering the plants in the terrace.

“I’ve got you tea and biscuits,” she said, hugging Yug.
“And for Kavya? The junk as usual?” he smiled his calming smile.
“Yes, the usual. It won’t show on her. Besides, I don’t want to lose a friend,” she winked.
Yug laughed in acceptance. “What time is the train?”
“5:30. It’s only 4 now. So I thought of coming over. Who knows where I will be after today!” Aaina smiled radiantly.
“Yes, who knows. Specially when you look that beautiful.”

Kavya joined the company with tea and they spoke of the different plants in the pots. Yug was a master storyteller and most often the life of any gathering. When he spoke, everyone listened mesmerised. Right now a koel cooed from behind the tapestry of leaves nearby and the beatific song laced its magic on the listeners. Aaina thought nothing could be more right with the world.

“I potted this aloe vera for Kavya. I always thought she would use it for her skin. Not that she needs it. But ever since I have been forced to use it myself,” said Yug.

“Why do you still keep it then?” interrupted Kavya, not wanting to listen to the botany of the plants in their house.

“Oh well, it’s still for you my love,” he said.
“And how is that?” said Aaina. “She doesn’t use it.”
“According to an African legend, aloe vera keeps away gossip and backbiting. So, we need it in our house.”

Kavya shrieked and pinched her husband. Everyone laughed, sipped on the cardamom tea, and listened to the koel punctuate Yug’s newer stories.

Time was ticking and Aaina had to go. Life was calling. She was happy beyond bounds.

“I’ve never seen you happier,” said Kavya to her friend as they wiped the washed crockery.
“I’m going to meet him after ages. He’s coming home! I can’t wait to begin my new life.”
“Well, they say all’s well that ends well. Yug says I shouldn’t be cynical, so I’ve decided not to be.”
“Oh come on! I always knew we’d gotten it right. He’s going to be here for good.”
“Yug is very happy for you. We were talking last night.”
“You’re so lucky to have him Kavi! I have always envied you. You have the perfect house, the perfect marriage…”
Kavya smiled. “It has been good. The tantrums notwithstanding.”
“You’re unbearable sometimes. You know that,” chided Aaina.
“Don’t issue a litany of my vices. I have many, but I am not blinded by them.”
“And that’s why I love you,” said Aaina hugging Kavya.

When she left the house, she looked back to it one more time and saw the haven it had been for her. All those times she spent there nursing her fears and calming her nerves. Every time they let her in and made her feel special. She was forever grateful for Kavya and Yug; more family than friends.

***

When she arrived at the Tea House next to the station where they’d agreed to meet, she was 5 minutes early. The clamour of the travellers was thick. She could hear the yelling, honking and feel the scuffle of ties that hung in the air. Some people were leaving behind a part of themselves, some were taking away a part of their loved ones. And some denizens were playing their routine parts in allowing this exchange. Aaina’s intrepidness knew that this time she wouldn’t have to be party to the tearing apart of themselves just to hang on until next time. This was it. The final destination. Ironically.

She could see him waddling his way through the crowd. She smiled at him and waved out from where she sat. He carried his tawny bag, bulky with things that he used. She would finally share a cupboard with him, she thought. The image of it gave her goosebumps and her eyes shone. He looked dapper. The outside world appeared to have suited him well.

“The train was late,” he said panting and dusting himself off.
“It’s alright,” beamed Aaina. “How are you?”
“I am great. You?” he looked at her meaningfully.
“All great. Specially now since you’re back. I was just at Kavya’s and when I looked at them I could see ourselves too. Yug is greying and Kavya still as thin, after 6 years of marriage. In my heart I wished we would be the same…”
“Aaina…” he interrupted realising she was nervous and excited at the same time.
“Oh, you want to order? You must be hungry. Or we could go home? Why wait here?”
“Aaina, listen to me.”
“Tell me,” she said her heart racing. He was surely going to ask her, she thought.
“Aaina I want to tell you about my stay.”
“Of course, I want to hear it all. But we could do it at home too.”
Haltingly, he said, “Aaina I stayed away from you and it didn’t matter. Not once did I think of you.”

The noise around her started to recede. She knew what was to follow, but she issued no resistance. She should have seen it coming, but she did not. There’s no time to understand this, she thought. She had been warned so many times; in the answers that did not come, in the gestures that did not happen, and in the doubts of her friends.

“I am not coming home,” he said.

It seemed to her that she had heard it before somewhere. She said nothing. She looked at him and into his eyes piercing the gaze with her knowingness that came from nowhere. She picked her bag, moved her chair and left the place. He may have called her or not, she did not allow herself to acknowledge. In one instant, all her inchoate fears galvanized and became reality. They say that you need to have faith, but she had not known how reality can collide with you in spite of faith. Does that make your faith ineffective? She wouldn’t know. She made no attempt to seek answers. The time was up, it had stepped over her threshold.

In the distance a horn blasted.

***

When she was in the train, she didn’t know where she was going. All she knew is that it was, after all, the first day of her new life.