It had been a rainy day. The weather was cooler now with a light breeze blowing. Ajay walked out to his courtyard followed by Gaurav. It was one of those lazy weekends that had been further spoiled by Ajay’s mother with a sumptuous lunch for the boys. Ajay cleared an area of water and stretched out on the concrete. Gaurav plopped down on the garden chair with a burp. “It was awesome food buddy. Heavenly,” said Gaurav, with the early signs of a post lunch nap beginning to appear in his eyes. Ajay gave a half smile, knowing Gaurav was not looking for a response. He began to gaze around slowly, relishing the newness that the rain had brought. Everything had been freshly bathed and cleaned. The leaves on the trees looked like little kids whose parents had forcibly bathed them. After attempting to gently coax them into bathing, when they still went back to sleep with childlike adamance, Mother Nature abruptly began to rain a vigorous stream of water on them, jolting them to alertness and getting them bathed. The leaves were now clean, fresh and energetic. He smiled to himself and began to gaze away as if allowing the little leaves their space to play and enjoy. He looked at the buildings of the society, the strong walled structures that asked us to stay inside, almost always convincing us of the merits of a claustrophobic security as opposed to a threatening freedom. He recalled how dull they had looked the previous day, worn down by the sun through the summer, dusty, hardened, indifferent, detached. Even though the rains had discoloured the walls in patches, he found them more alive now. As if they too had a heart, as if they too enjoyed rains, as if they too sensed happiness.
Gaurav, slouched on the chair, opened his eyes a crack to see what Ajay was doing. There is a duration of silence that men maintain in order to not sound too eager to chat, in order to sound substantial and in control, in order to not sound like women. The period of silence had gone beyond that limit and ventured into thoughtfulness, invariably interpreted by men as worry. “You ok?” Gaurav asked. Seeing Ajay lost in his thoughts, Gaurav opened his eyes wide to scour the area. Concern had now become curiosity. His eyes scanned the surroundings till he spotted a young lady in a courtyard in the opposite complex. An instant smile lit up his face, the prospect of teasing his friend making the afternoon complete for him. He nudged Ajay. “You can stop smiling and go and talk to her,” he said. “Huh?” Ajay replied, disoriented from his thoughts. It took him a second to notice the teasing glint in his friend’s eyes. He swiftly turned in the direction he had been looking at earlier and spotted the woman. He turned back to Gaurav with an irritated look. “You know you look more intelligent asleep?” he said. “Yes, my friend. I know you would like me asleep now,” Gaurav replied with a grin, geared up for making most of this opportunity to pull Ajay’s leg. “She does look pretty,” Gaurav continued, scanning the target. “A simple cotton kurti with chudidhar. Neither too ethnic, nor too trendy. A pair of simple yet attractive earrings. Smart body language. Looks like a no nonsense kind. I think she is just your type. Hey, really, yes man. She fits perfectly,” he said, excited that the prelimnary assessment had turned in favour of her.
Ajay left Gaurav to do his own analysis. A beautiful evening of raw natural beauty was making its way and he had no intention of adding masala to it. He tried to go back to his earlier stream of thoughts. As his mind fumbled to pick up the thread, his eyes darted a quick glance in the direction of the lady. There was something weird in what she was doing. She wasn’t lounging around in her courtyard. In fact, she was standing at the gate of her house, her fingers tightly clasped around the bars of the gate. He had initially thought she had come out to see the rain drenched greenery. But, she was too alert for that. Her eyes were far too open and her back far too straight for her to be soaking in the beauty of nature. “Did she have a fight? Is she standing outside to cool off?” he thought to himself. He looked at her face intently. There was no sign of anger or aggression. In fact, her face was serene.
An uncomfortable restlessness began to build up in Ajay as he searched for an answer. Unable to curtail it, he asked Gaurav, “Why do you think she is standing at the gate?” “Hmm… She is standing at the gate? Must be waiting for someone then,” Gaurav replied with his back reclined and eyes shut. Ajay shook his head. “Can you at least look at the scene before commenting on it? Such arrogance man!” he said. Gaurav opened his eyes, yawned and sat up. “It is not arrogance. It is experience,” he said. “I know how these women function. They have a fight and the man walks out. She stands at the gate and waits for him. It is some special occasion, she will wait for him. As if waiting will make him remember to come. Such girls will barely take any practical measures to correct the situation. They will do crazy torturous stuff and pretend to be helpless to do anything else. Why doesn’t she just call him or check out the places where he could be instead of standing here like a statue.” Ajay mulled over what Gaurav had just said. He looked at her face again. There was no anxiety in her eyes. Neither was there helplessness. There was a deep set to her eyes. A sense of determination. A sign of strength. But, yes, there was wait. Her eyes had a fond longing in them. They were focussed on a pebble on the road. She wasn’t looking at a distant tree and dreaming. She was looking at a nearby pebble with focused thoughts.
His eyes wandered once again to her fingers. “She doesn’t look like one to pretend Gaurav. Neither is she weak. Look at her hands. They are holding onto the gate purposefully. She isn’t leaning on it, or even holding on to it for support. It’s more like she is holding the bars up,” he said. “Oh ok,” Gaurav responded. “Then it is curbed-at-home syndrome. She wants to be free but her family isn’t letting her be. She stands at the gate and wishes she could go out. But after having wished and dreamt and lamented, she will go back dutifully and stick to the restrictions imposed on her by the family and the society.” “So, she isn’t waiting for someone to come in. She is waiting for an opportunity to go out, is it?” Ajay asked. This seemed to make better sense. “Yup,” Gaurav replied, eager to shift to a more interesting topic than sad and gloomy girls who seemed to be doing nothing with their lives. He picked up a wet fallen leaf from his chair, wiped it off a few drops and dismissively threw it aside. Ajay felt better. “Yes, she wants to go out,” he thought to himself. “She wants to be free. Lack of freedom is probably the worst punishment one can give another human. Poor girl. How much she must wish she could do whatever she felt like. Be with people she liked, go to places she wanted to, live life her own way. Wish I could do something for her. Feel sad,” he thought, the last line coming out aloud from him. “Sad? Huh?” asked Gaurav. Ajay turned to him with a smile. “Nothing. We are lucky buddy,” he said. “This I agree with. Awesome life I have,” said Gaurav, raising his arms in the air and stretching out lazily on the chair. Ajay’s smile widened. “Trust Gaurav to live a life fully and enjoy every moment of it. Eating, sleeping, travelling, bungee, drinking… There isn’t a single thing which Gaurav has wished to do in life but hasn’t gone forth with. He is a source of motivation for the people around,” thought Ajay. “You never have a dull day, do you?” he asked. “I do,” replied Gaurav with a humble nod. “But, I don’t worry. Worry is for those who don’t have the courage to use their freedom.” Ajay nodded, more so looking at the girl than appreciating Gaurav’s quote. “Well, I don’t think am going to have a nap today. Tea?” asked Gaurav. “Yes, lets go in. Let me show you some pics I took in LA while the tea gets ready,” said Ajay.
As they got up to leave, a movement caught Ajay’s attention. A small kitten had got caught in the bush it was hiding in to save itself from the heavy rain. It had probably slept off but it was only now that it had realised the rain had stopped. The lady saw the kitten unable to entangle itself. Her hands confidently left the bars of the gate and pushed the latch open. She then opened the gate comfortably wide and walked out. She crossed the lane onto the other side and went over to the kitten. With delicate hands which knew where the kitten’s legs were in a knot, she methodically untwined the twigs. Within a few seconds, the kitten gave a squeal and trotted off. Ajay thought he caught a glimpse of her smiling then, but he wasn’t sure. She turned back, retraced the path she had taken and went back to her house. She closed the gate with the same decisiveness with which she had opened it. Her hand didn’t waver, didn’t linger. Ajay realised she was neither scared nor longing to be free. “Then…?”, he wondered. After she had firmly put the latch back in place, she gripped the bars once again and stared at the lane. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Slowly she opened them back and turned around to go back into her house. As she walked down the courtyard to the door of her house, she turned once to look at the lane. There wasn’t a dream in her eyes, but a promise. As if she was reminding herself of a pending goal. A task that had to be done. Maybe now wasn’t a good time to stroll in the lane. To roam around basking in the beauty of nature. But, these were things she would love to do later. And there in her eyes was the promise that the later would indeed come. “It isn’t that she cannot open the gate. Or she isn’t allowed to open it. She very well can. I just saw it. But she has chosen not to. She has wilfully latched the gate and gone back in. She has opted to do so. Isn’t this freedom?” thought Ajay. “Latches are not always a restraint. Wonder why I thought she was caught inside. Latches are, at times, a symbol of freedom – a freedom of choice, a freedom of not being dominated by our urges, a freedom to live life our way, a freedom to be free from the confines of ‘me’,” he realised. Ajay imagined the courage it would take to close an open gate and wait patiently for a suitable time to open it again. One had to be free from the fear of death to have faith for such a time to come in the future. He walked into his house with an imprint of a little girl excitedly waiting for the clock to strike midnight so she could open her birthday present. A blurred image of his mother, tired from an incomplete nap, doggedly serving Gaurav tea and snacks, crossed before his eyes. Ajay didn’t notice them as he silently willed the clock to strike 12. He imagined the smile on the girl’s face even as he heard Gaurav munching on the cookies saying “This is life!”