Be yourself--not your idea of what you think somebody else's idea of yourself should be.
- Henry David Thoreau
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"Isn't it too cold?" He asked her.
"Yes, but once inside the coffee shop, it should be warm."
The colour of her cheeks had turned from pinkish red to yellowish white due to the cold. He was sure that his brown complexion had not undergone any visible changes. One advantage of being brown, he thought. Or black, for that matter. Human beings continue to be conscious of their colour and the impact the weather does to their skin.
'La cafe Bourdannnais' the yellow and red Board read..... No fancy name, unless French itself is
fancy for you.
"Do you want to go inside? Or should we sit outside? There are these lights, which emit heat anyway," she posed.
"Outside? No way. As I told you, I am from the southernmost part of India. We don't see such extreme cold temperatures. More so, my place," he said
"Ok, its inside, then," she said, smiling. He looked so lost in her that if she had asked him to sit in the middle of the road in that chill weather, he would not have minded.
"A cold coffee for me," she said.
"Cold? In this weather?"
"What do you want?" she said, taking out a pink purse from her brown designer bag. The bag went well with her beige coat. She did not wait to answer his question.
"Excuse me? I pay. It is only proper for a gentleman to pay. No lady pays..."
"Why should everything form a pattern? Should it?" She posed.
Before he could recover from her and mentally formulate an answer to her question, she was already browsing through the menu for a snack.
Like a computer with a slower-than-normal processor, he replied, "No, it need not, but...."
"No buts. If you qualify your sentence with a 'but' then you are not completely agreeing with the statement you made. It was a simple yes or no question."
He smiled. Then a little laugh escaped his mouth, a laugh that was both a sign of resignation, perhaps of throwing in the towel and acceptance out of admiration of...well, whatever. He
knew he will lose an argument with this woman, many times over. Every time, in fact.
"How can you articulate so well?"
'Why don't you order something and then we can chat?"
"Order for me. Anything vegetarian, please."
"Oh you Indians! How many of you are vegetarian? Or is it that I keep meeting only the veggies," she said, with a half smile and half smirk.
"We are as non-vegetarian as most of the world. But we do have a substantial 'only vegetarian' population. Egg is ok with me, by the way."
"Well...what can I choose?"
"Do the honours. Anything is fine." Of course. When you are more for the
company than the food, even the menu card would taste as nice. Of course, water, for the beverage.
"And coffee has to be hot, isn't it?"
"Plain cafe du lait?"
"Ok. Anything that even smells of coffee!"
Outside, the grey clouds had cleared and the azure of the sky had begun to show. There was a smattering of clouds but the sun was visible. It was early autumn and the leaves had started to
wither. The leaves were of various hues - of green, yellow, orange, brown...... The sun was letting out its last rays onto the river Seine, the waters of which were shimmering in its light. At places, the trees made the scene look like a painting. It had drizzled in the morning and the roads were rain-kissed.
Twilight is the most beautiful time of the day. The sunset with its red and orange colors make it something marvelling at every time. The greatest plus it is that it happens every day!
The cafe began to play, softly, Marc Lavoine's J'ai Vu La Lumiere.
She paid, brought the tray and lay it on the table. He was watching her from his seat as she was ordering and going about the rigmarole at the self service counter. Beige coat, a tan hued trouser with her hair tied into a bun. Minimal jewelry - in fact, just a single threaded necklace and ear drops. She looked aristocratic.
"Here's your coffee, Monseiur!"
"Oh, merci, Mademoiselle!"
She sat down opposite him.
"You ...you look ...cool. In this suit, you know...."
While she was ordering, he had mentally sifted through the words 'beautiful', 'gorgeous', 'awesome' and perhaps even 'ethereal' before settling for a more apparent 'less offensive' and 'acceptable' word.
"Cool? I thought you would say 'gorgeous'!"
"'Cool' is such an abused word! People use it so frequently and in way too many situations that I am at a loss to what it actually means!" She paused. "What do you mean when you say 'cool'?"
'I...well...'cool' means 'cool...suave, maybe?" He thanked the multiple words in English language which more or less meant the same thing, but which were available to people to throw about and parachute.
"From when did cool mean 'suave'? Why not plain 'gorgeous'?'
"Of course, gorgeous indeed! Who would say you aren't?"
"Ah, a compliment about looks, and that too, back handed!"
"No, it is not that....," he interrupted.
"I wanted to say 'beautiful' or, perhaps even 'gorgeous' but I wasn't, you know....sure of how.....you would react"
"It could offend people, you know. After all it is a remark on the physical appearance of a person."
"You lose it all the time, don't you?"
"What?" he asked incredulously.
"Beauty, according to me, is a personality. For a woman, it is a package. I don't get enamoured by a handsome looking hunk, just like that, because, for me , it is the completeness that matters."
"I am glad that you were not in the same group discussion team when I got selected for this job. There was only one selection from each group and if you were there in my group, the result would have been a foregone conclusion."
He let out a mild, forced laugh.
"Are you intimidated by me? You seem to admire me a lot! Sometimes, it appears artificial."
For a moment he kept a straight face. She could sense that it had ribbed him .
But before she could speak, he said, "No.. No... No....No...Not at all. Why should admiration be
artificial? I have my strengths. You have yours. Why should all these things follow a straight line always? I said what I felt like saying, you know...There is nothing to hide. It takes a large heart to dole out a complement...and..." he leaned forward , ".....A larger heart to accept it. I cannot, you
know, make you step in my shoes to let you peep inside my head." A couple of seconds later, he quipped, "or my heart for that matter!"
She conceded. "You do speak well, Indian!"
They took silent bites of their snacks and little sips of their coffee. The orange hue had given way to the first colours of the night sky. The sky was clear and it was the day of the full moon.
"What is happening in Pakistan?" he managed a line, trying to change the topic.
"The same. We have a dysfunctional government, bomb blasts, poverty, Kashmir of course and cricket ...life goes on...don't you Indians want to hear that?" She meandered uninterestedly, while looking into his eyes.
"You are talking like a typical Britisher on BBC.."
"Anyway, there is no difference between us and you. You should also be living the same life, don't you?
"No way. Moreover, India lets me voice an opinion for or against. We are a 'democracy'"
"Oh.....and we are not?"
"I never said that," he said, "blowing into the coffee cup and taking a sip. The blow was
strong enough to vaporize his spectacles for a few
fleeting seconds. "But I don't think you have as much freedom as we do."
"I bet you have not been to Pakistan; So you would not know. Plus la change, Plus la meme chose!"
Before he could react, she continued, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."
"I get it. I have studied some French too."
"That is the point I made...You studied French, not learnt. Did you try speaking French here?"
"I did. But I realised that my French was too slow for them and their French was too fast for me. So it was back to good old broken
They took some more bites and sips.
"What about Kashmir?"
"Should an Indian and Pakistani always talk about a mistake?" he asked, matter of factly.
"Whose mistake? Yours or mine?"
"Ours," he said, pointing a hand at her and another at himself. "It is a joint mistake; We can perhaps agree to make it a joint territory. Make the economy boom and share the spoils. I want to see an India-Pakistan match being played to empty stands. Everyone can go, get a life."
"How simplistic! Naive actually!"
"Of course it is. Why.... why can't you give another view other 'than
this part is mine and that part is yours'? If I bomb you and you bomb me, who is going to gain? What will be left, eh?"
She fell silent.
For once, he knew that she did not have an answer. He secretly felt selfishly happy having won an intellectual argument over a person he had begun to so admire.
She smirked. A bit. After around ten seconds, she let out an awkward laugh. It affirmed that he and indeed 'won' an argument. He could not suppress his smile. The situation made him confident. "You actually look gorgeous, now," he said.
That, came from nowhere.
The first time in the past ten days he saw Ayesha blush, a half one at that, given the strong self made personality that she was. They had finished their coffee.
"So?" she posed.
"So? Why don't we take a walk around the park around the Eiffel? Are you getting late? I have to go to my room at the hotel. I can go when I want. You work here and stay here. Any restrictions from the landlord on when you should be in or something? "
"In France? I am not in Pakistan. Or India, for that matter."
They walked. He placed his hand on her back and guided her through the zebra crossing that led to the park. The chill hit them. Him more. Ayesha appeared fine, but Hari was not. He could bear the cold but his hands went numb in a few minutes. He put his hands, alternately in his trouser and coat pockets, trying to infuse some heat into his hands. "
"It is very relevant that they wear coats here in Europe. It their weather. Why do we Asians wear it in tropical weather back home? It looks so amusing that we wear them in our weather."
"That is because we tend to adopt whatever the Europeans do. Without rhyme or reason!"
"You like it here? Europe? "
"Yes, have been working here for close to two years now. People mind their own business; you can live a life of anonymity. No one pesters you about any issue. They respect your private space. With time for yourself and no answers to give anyone, you stop existing and start living. On the lighter side, I can wear a coat or a skirt to office and people do not end up staring at me. Time stands still. The weather is a bonus. I can experience all the four seasons! And of all places in
Europe, Paris is always a good idea!" She motored on, quoting Humphrey Bogart in the end.
"When you talk about something you like, your eyes light up! Has anyone told you that?"
he placed a peck on her cheek . After a few seconds,
It was still very cold. Hari was blowing into his hands.
Ayesha stopped in her tracks.
"Here," she offered her hand. Taking his hand into hers, she rubbed it vigorously. Then repeated it for the other hand. "Feels better?"
"Of course! feel great, actually!" he said, giving an understanding smile.
"Is this heat service limited only to this?"
"No, I could make with something more effective. Like a hug, for example," he smiled confidently.
"Oh..Oh..someone's slipping here, I guess..."
"No No. I could do this,' he said, stopping and taking her right hand with his left. Before she could react, he had her in his arms. She found herself hugging him too. There are
moments that happen and end in a flash. You want them to linger but they don't.
She slowly freed herself from his hug.
"I....I should be going," she said, looking at her watch.
The sky had turned black. The lights were on at the Eiffel tower. They were a bit away from the tower. The structure looked imperious, with the yellow lights lending it a regal look, making it appear as if it was lording over the city. Like a huge king cobra?
He looked into her eyes. Walking with a person who you are in love with, or interested in, or a crush, at twilight is some experience. The difficulty is documenting it in words. The palette of colors that twilight creates is unique every day.
Why does one long for twilight? How does it accentuate romance? Why is it such a catalyst? Of all the periods during a day, twilight is the greatest gift of the Gods. It's just magic. The atmosphere is surreal. The sky changes,sometimes by the minute. It shows itself in all the hues. There is a stillness which you want to linger, but it doesn't. The last rays of the sun on your beloved casts such an imprint that words find difficult to describe. Everything seems to stand still, yet rapidly move. The only part of the day which shows the sky change so rapidly, perhaps only slightly matched by the early mornings. But no, early mornings can never match the magic of twilight. Twilight is nether morning, nor night. It's an experience, only to be experienced. As night blossoms bidding goodbye to the sun, so does magic unravel in the air.
Words spoken are poetry. Each touch is poetry. All smiles are beautiful, but a smile at twilight is gorgeous. Twilight makes everyone a poet.
"Happiness," he said, " looks beautiful on you".
He looked into her eyes as the last rays of the sun threw in their mightiest but increasingly feeble rays onto her face. He moved to see her face in the light. Her eyes moved down, seemingly in slow motion. Maybe there was half a blush somewhere.
When twilight gives way to darkness, it does so fast. Very fast. The interplay of emotions gets confusing.
"Hey, your eyes are jet black."
"You are able to see my eyes in this twilight?"
"I have seen them before."
"What's new? Most of us have black eyes."
"No no. You know, we have brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes, grey eyes....and we have black
eyes. The world's rarest eyes are jet black."
"I am sure that you are making that up..."
"No, no. Why don't you look that up yourself?"
They walked further.
"Here, let me take you to the bus stand. Or is it the metro?", he asked, taking her hands into his.
"No, I want to take a taxi. I don't want to wait for the bus." She said, putting on a flustered face.
They went onto the main road. After a few minutes, an empty taxi appeared. He flagged it down.
"Avenue Victor Hugo," said Ayesha to the driver. "Un instant s'il vous plaît, madame" said the driver as he opened the bonnet of the car and went to inspect.
Hari went near the car window. She looked at him . "Bye monsieur! Take care," She said, placing her hand into his. "You too," he readily responded.
"And..." he drawled.
"Yes?" She looked at him quizzically with a half smile. Those eyes had him in a freeze, that moment.
"N...Nothing...oh yes...Happiness looks beautiful on you.." he said, leaving her to react in a half smile, half laugh. Closing the bonnet, the driver returned. Hari saw the car speed away.
The sun had plunged completely into the Seine. The boats were beginning their late evening cruises. The Eiffel Tower was its usual majestic self. Hari returned to the hotel. An hour later, after a hot shower, he sat down to eat the hot meal he had purchased from the supermarket. His phone buzzed as he turned the hotel's WiFi on. he switched the TV on.
The movie 'Serendipity' was playing on TMC.
Among the sea of messages was one from Ayesha.
"Thanks for the evening. Do keep in touch." It ended with a smiley.
"Of course I will. We need to solve the Kashmir quagmire, don't we?" He replied, with a smiley. She replied with an 'eesh' and another smiley. "Good night!" A few seconds later, another message appeared.
"Yes, I looked up the net. Fully black eyes are the rarest. I looked into the mirror too. My eyes are indeed jet black!"
"Is there a smiley for 'I told you so?'" he messaged.
Outside, the chilly wind made more leaves from trees fall onto the rain kissed roads. The full moon was in full bloom. Quiet flowed the Seine.