LOVE IN THE TIMES OF FACEBOOK
His homepage appeared humdrum, but was there any hope for someone with just 23 friends, half of whom were extended family and the rest old and new colleagues. He was a new convert of this cult, knowing little about the workings of this recently popular way of communicating and being in touch.
Sudhir Kumar stared at the screen and wondered how come Rohit, his son and millions of others worldwide spent hours on this and managed hundreds and thousands of friends. His concept of a friendship was quite obsolete in comparison to this outlook where someone you haven't ever met or seen, or known was also counted as your friend. Initially he had been very sceptical of this whole exercise but Rohit pushed him on and now he was a regular here, though he still felt out of place. He did proudly admit of his presence here to appear as net savvy and modern but deep inside he knew he was a misfit in this new genre of human interaction.
Social networking was as baffling as rocket science to him, though now with some repetitive coaxing by his son and practice he was slowly 'getting a hang of it!”as his son said.
Sudhir's reverie was broken when a red flag appeared on the top left side of the screen. Why were all these notifications red, to scare away chicken-hearts like him or just to highlight the importance of every new development. He clicked instinctively and it said- Preetika Mehra wants to be friends with you. Accompanying the announcement, or rather friend request as they call it was a photo of a 20 something beaming from ear to ear. Preetika, he tried to shuffle his memory, no he didn't know anyone by that name. Mehra, lots of Mehras in this part of the country, but this name didn't ring a bell.
Preetika, nice name, he said to himself. He now was given two options - confirm /not now. They read to him- say yes/now or never again. He decided that the name was worthy of only a confirmation, besides he was also eager to push his friend list to a respectable 25 at least. As soon as he clicked the confirm logo it asked, 'Add Preetika only if you know her personally".
Now what was this? What harm can a beautiful young girl cause a 45 years old married man father of a son almost her age? He had heard of online stalking and other similar misadventures but nah! This didn't look like that, also in most of such cases it was men prowling to catch young things, flooding their inboxes, morphing their pictures, forcing them to video chat etc. He reasoned out with himself, ' I was not looking for female friends here, I'm not the chaser, and remember she sent the request. I was here only since Rohit had gone abroad', he argued.
He clicked "add friend" and immediately it said- Sudhir Kumar and Preetika Mehra are now friends. The sentence sounded nice. He looked at the clock, it was already 9.30, Reema’s favourite serial would be over and soon she would call for dinner. Any delay on his part usually led to a huge argument as she had early morning gym to attend, so he logged out. Reema his wife, was adverse to this online universe, she still preferred old fashioned phone calls with Rohit more than a chat or e-mail. In fact he agreed with her but not publically, it was so outdated to shun the online world, so he played on. Sometimes he did nothing important just went through profiles of random people, watched people's pictures and videos, and weighed the percentage of truth in them.
The next day was a usual Saturday at the bank, the eagerness of a half-day was evident in every possible way. The ladies were clearly dressed for the weekend and the men looking forward to the afternoon chai, cricket and gossip. Nothing had changed much since he had joined this bank almost 25 years ago as a junior trainee. Only then the job seemed interesting and returning home early to his newlywed wife Reema even more exciting. Rohit's growing up years was fun too, though he often felt that something in his life was missing.
The mundane rhythms of married life and the burdens of parenting in a nuclear setup had taken a huge toll on their personal equation, at best they were now like two flat mates who loved each other but neither took the initiative for a conversation or anything else. Most of their communication was about every day things, relatives, friends, work, neighbourhood or Rohit. The security of this safe routine life often appeared tedious to Sudhir, he felt he was almost gasping for some kind of a fresh lease of life.
Now he was the Zonal manager with only boring paper work to do meetings to chair and a comfortable home to return to as a latch-key husband. He would supervise the gardener, scold the cook, make sure the cars were cleaned properly and then resign to his study with a book or his blog. Most afternoons Reema would be away at her friend's NGO, a yoga class or a religious discourse and now with Rohit gone, he missed human intimacy. Sometimes he asked himself, ‘Is this the fabled mid-life crisis?'He had lost touch with almost all his college and university friends, for people in office he was always the boss, so no room of any kind of intimacy there too, Sudhir knew he was extremely lonely.
His online sojourns were also mostly meaningless and just voyeuristic except the times when he could chat with Rohit or occasionally with some friend or colleague. He was aware that for a majority how they presented themselves online was how they had begun to see themselves in real life as well; most often this was an exaggeration of every emotion and experience- happiness, sadness, wealth, misery all blown out of proportion. Sudhir was sensing the gradual transition in him too; he wanted to be as happy as his family photos there and as successful as others perceived him to be.
By 1'o'clock the office looked completely devoid of any noise or activity, only the intermittent sound of some repair work going on in the floor above provided a fading rhythm. The peon knew that he often worked late on weekends and so had brought some fresh coffee and snacks. He closed the last official file and opened his blog aptly titled - ' bas yun hi' meaning 'just like that'.
Here he wrote Hindi poetry. In college Sudhir was a love poet of sorts, he had written many a poetic love-letters for his friends then and also was quite popular with the ladies. But unlike the romantic love poems that he wrote in college most of his poems now centred on social issues and current affairs. Today he just wrote a couplet about Anna Hazare's ongoing fast and then hoping to find Rohit on chat logged in. Rohit wasn't there, only one of his friend's were- Preetika.
Without any caution or time to react the window popped up.
Preetika : "hi !"
He hesitatingly replied with a dignified:" hello!”
Preetika : "Hey Sudhir ! Tks for adding me!:-)
'Sudhir ! did she just call me that?', he almost said aloud. Only Reema called him that, Rohit called him baba and for everyone else he was Mr.Kumar.
A long row of question marks appeared.
He wrote," You are welcome".
Ting! Off went the chat sound instantly.
Preetika : Ws readng ur blog Sudhir.cool !wt u jst postd ws awsm !
So he was right, she was calling him Sudhir, by default. If one of Rohit's friends had done the same he would be enraged and would fume and fret about the idiosyncrasies of these youngsters, but his heart allowed her this sign of familiarity.
Thank god for Rohit that he could read and understand this chingo-chat lingo as he had taught him. Initially he used a translating website on the side to understand and respond, but now he was getting better at it. He sent a smiley back; Rohit had taught him that it was the safest response. The conversation continued about Anna Hazare, corruption and poetry for a while and then she asked.
Preetika: Hey whr do u lv in del?
Sudhir: Defence Colony.
Preetika: Def col ! wow! cool !but that is far from my hostel here in Noida :-((
Gradually she disclosed that she was studying fashion designing at a private university there and had a few friends. Her family lived in Chandigarh.
All this while Sudhir's fingers tingled to type- do you know me from somewhere? But he didn't. Why to spoil a new friendship and a good chat, he convinced himself. More than an hour had passed. He had an appointment with his dentist today so he bade goodbye and she said, " cul8r XOXOXO"
See you later was nice but as soon as he found out the meaning of xo-hugs and kisses, he flattered himself, 'Is she flirting with me?'
But why would she, all my real details are there and the official passport-type photo does nothing to encourage any nice feelings. He just dismissed the thought and moved on. He saw nothing inappropriate in having a frank conversation with a like minded person.
The same night, after a long chat with Rohit as he was about to logout, she appeared.
Preetika: Hey Sudhir ! Chatting up so late @ night .wassup?
Sudhir : Hello ! Actually this is my regular time to chat with my son who is studying abroad.
Preetika : O u don't look so old. Frankly I'm sure u can easily pass off as his older bro.LOL!
Sudhir was flattered even with this cliché compliment. He responded with shy thanks and anticipated a young girl considering him desirable; the thought gave his heartbeat and his ego a huge leap.
So was she really flirting with him now? He shifted his attention from this strange thought to a file of photos that Rohit had clicked on their 20th anniversary a few months ago. Sporting a fresh haircut, dyed hair and new suit Sudhir looked dapper and at least 10 years younger. In a flash he changed his profile picture. Preetika immediately quipped, "hey handsome! So what was the previous picture for...scaring away stalkers hahaha!
He used the safe response whenever he was at a loss of words. But almost instinctively he typed next:
“A pretty girl like you should fear stalkers not me.”
Preetika : nah! hv been lucky so far.bt u kno wt M out of luck here too.
Sudhir : how?
Preetika: no handsome or desirable men...not my type.
Sudhir: what is your type?
Preetika: mature, stable, poetic, romantic, handsome, well-educated, sensitive....
Sudhir: long list.
Preetika: o thts not all! LOL!
Over the next few days they met online regularly and talked about a variety of things .Sudhir loved Sufi poetry and she loved Sufi music, often he would quote from Rumi,Khusro or Waaris Shah and she would immediately post a link to the same from YouTube.
He had once posted – ‘This is the season when the dead branch and the green branch are the same branch.’ -Rumi
Within a couple of seconds she had searched a beautiful rendition of the same by a prominent Pakistani band. They seemed to be in perfect tandem with each other. Both of them were avid readers too, while he could go on and on about Premchand, Harivansh Rai Bachchan,Thomas Hardy and Dickens,she would talk enthusiastically about Ayn Rand,Jeffery Archer and Paulo Coelho. It was on her insistence that he had bought "The Alchemist" and found it very enriching. It seemed he was the protagonist searching for the treasure which lay right there in front of him. They were an odd combination, but then don't opposites always attract.
Then suddenly during a chat about likes and dislikes she had said, "I like older men."
"I like older men", the words had echoed in his heart and mind innumerable times and soon they metamorphosed into ' I like you Sudhir.'
He was sure now that she liked him and it was just her modesty that was preventing her from admitting it. Lately she had started showing an increasing interest in knowing him better, or so he felt. She would urge him to talk about personal issues like memories, youth, love, friendship. She would ask him to reminiscence about his college days, his parents, his first love. As she would update his knowledge about the latest films and happening places in Delhi, she would encourage him to share the anecdotes he could tell about old classics and monuments. The chemistry seemed to thicken day by day.
His life had changed completely. There was a spring in his step, he started taking better care of his looks, he was becoming more tech-savvy and after decades he started writing love poems again on his blog.
Sudhir was in a dream world, and then the dream date was hinted at. The coming weekend was a long one, holidays extending from Thursday to Monday. Everyone had some plans; even Reema was going to a yoga camp at Kasauli with her friends.
Preetika : Sudhir can v meet ths Friday?, she had asked.
It had just been three weeks and now.....
Preetika: tell na... ur place or mine?
Sudhir: "Yes we can meet but not my place", he had typed almost in a trance. Every pore of his body feeling the rush of blood as if it had been infused with a huge dose of some intoxicating stimulant.
She had continued : o gr8!GTG now. BBL.will let u know.
The whole night as he lay awake in his bed strange thoughts passed his mind love, trust, infidelity, pleasure, adultery .He loved Reema and so did she. The silence between them had crept slowly as years had passed, partly due to the monotony of regular married life and partly due to his over-dedication to work. So he wondered, was it alright to feel emotionally attached to another woman while you still loved your wife?
But the rogue heart only harped at the pleasant and pushed back the ugly.
On Thursday, he took half the day off and went shopping. He bought some new shirts, shoes, a good imported perfume and an expensive bracelet for her. All the while he kept looking up his phone for her to fulfil her BBL promise.
At around 3 in the afternoon as he was sipping coffee lost in his daydreams, she was there and said quite matter of factly -
Preetika : hey Sudhir ! So 2moro it is thn,2 p.m at my friend's place in Mayur Vihar. The address is.........Cul8r.BFN,BTW u can look up ur GPRS for directions handsome ! GTG now, lots of planning to do for the D-day !
He barely managed to just say OK.
She logged out.
How stupid of him to have agreed,what now he thought.' Why didn't I ask for her phone number so that I could at least cancel in time? What does she mean by D-Day! and why not a public place? The questions were endless. He was in a fix. He had seen some horror stories about young girls luring married/committed men for a TV show that did a loyalty test, he had read about stories of blackmail and even some innocent flirting gone horribly wrong. There was the lurking fear and still a part of him did want to meet her, to reach out to this girl who had reawakened some parts of his soul that lay dead somewhere now.
Sudhir argued with himself long enough to let the coffee turn cold. He went home in the same pensive state- "to go or not to go!”Reema was to leave the next night. Should I tell Reema? Should I speak to Rohit? Too many should I's clouded his reasoning.
When he woke up it was already 9 a.m. Friday morning. He got ready and left the house around 11, telling Reema that he had a lunch meeting with some friends. But it was too early to leave for the destination; it would only take him less than an hour to be there.
He went to his favourite book cafe, but today neither books nor coffee could take the peculiar sensation away. The sensation of attempting the forbidden, exploring the unknown. He didn't know what was in store for him, this thing could go horribly wrong or just perfect, there was no in between. Having lived a sheltered middle-class life he was not a risk-taker or adventure-seeker by nature but this time despite knowing that a lot could be at stake, some unseen force goaded him on.
At around 1 he decided to move, he played some soothing classical music on the car stereo, took some deep breaths and felt relieved and confident. 'Ms. Mehra ! here I come for the D- day!’
As his car entered the gates of the apartment complex and the security guard noted down his details, the jitters rushed back, but it was too late now for second thoughts. He carefully adjusted the flowers, the chocolates and the surprise gift in the carry bag and boarded the lift.
1:55 p.m., five minutes to the encounter, Sudhir's heart was racing like a criminal on the run.
He pushed the doorbell and at once she was there," hey Sudhir ! Welcome!.She gave him a light hug. Her freshness filled his breath and he lost consciousness of everything else.
It was a decent middle-class living home. She told him it belonged to one of her friends who was out of town. She was doing most of the talking; Sudhir was only watching and sweating. In between he had only moved to give her the flowers and the chocolates; he saved the special gift for later. After an uncomfortable round of routine chit-chat, cold drink and snacks, Preetika announced, ‘so now you have to close your eyes for the surprise!'.
Abruptly she moved close to him and put her palm on his eyes, and then nothing else mattered. She started the countdown," 10,9,8,7............now open your eyes!”
And there on the adjacent sofa was another man, almost his age, smiling calmly.
He looked carefully and muttered, 'Prakash'.
Indeed it was him, Prakash his college friend and hostel roommate who had moved back to Punjab after the course. Preetika jumped, "Papa, meet Sudhir uncle, my new online friend!”
"Uncle ! But why would she...", Sudhir's confusion was muffled by Prakash's huge hug.
He apologised profusely for Preetika's prank. So she was just trying to find her father's friend to surprise him.
Preetika exclaimed,"You know papa talked so fondly about your college days, and when I told him that I wanted him to meet one of my online friends I was sure he was expecting a geeky teenager. Little did he know that I had found his college friend and I planned it to be a surprise for you both!”
The next few minutes Sudhir was stunned. Prakash talked about his own life after college, enquired about his and even invited him to their ancestral farm near Chandigarh. Sudhir tried to keep a straight face, while his heart and mind were on a whirl. He felt anger, disappointment, shame, guilt, love, pity, forgiveness and disgust all in one breath. This was indeed new for him, the beginning of all this was strange but it was nothing compared to the end it was reaching. Sudhir had just experienced a truth stranger than fiction.
He rushed home, went straight to his study, opened his account and without any deliberation clicked 'deactivate'. Meanwhile Reema had brought his coffee and was about to return to the kitchen, when he held her hand and said, "Reema I love you! Can’t you cancel this trip? Let's spend some time together this weekend."
As her shock changed into a smile and a nod they both knew that they had just rediscovered what they had lost along the way.
Hours later as Reema was getting ready for the special dinner, she glanced at the beautiful bracelet, the clasp had elegantly engraved -"only love !”