Blue chocolate buttons

He always picked the blue Gems- Gems are the M&M equivalent in India. They are tiny chocolate filled coloured pebbles or coloured buttons. A big favourite with my cousins !

I bought a pack and he would pick only the assorted blue buttons.

Ashu was weird like that.

We were 6 years apart in age but we quickly became best friends. I was the 8 year old girl with excessive passion for Lego and he was the 14 year old boy who hated his friends, the neighbourhood and the world.

He was the rudest boy you could ever meet- he made sure he put off everyone within seconds. When my uncle came visiting after a long stint in Bangkok, he was in the living room playing chess with me. He said to him- “I don’t know why people go there- its not like its USA or UK so you can make some foreign exchange induced wealth. Of course! One forgets the entertainment” and winked. This, in an upper middle class Bengali family in India in the 90s.

Naturally no one at home- his or mine- liked him.

His Dad passed away of a mysterious cologne disease when he was 11 and his Mother was a housewife who lived off pension and some rare beautician-like assignments on weekends. They were poor but not starving.

We would go find a cosy corner in our backyard where my Mum usually airs her sarees and there, partially hidden behind brocade strings and zardozi shades and purple silk and yellow muslin-we would sit for hours cross legged on the cool marble floor talking about the Universe, its mysteries, movies, people, zits, science, arts and eventually puberty, crushes and body image issues.

Often a shreaky voice would call out — “Ashish- when will you be home?”-he would roll his eyes, sigh and say to me — “There goes ! I am going to pretend I did not hear her”. As the hot afternoon air blew heat rashes into our faces and bodies, he would reluctantly put the mango drink down and slowly suck the ice and roll it round in his mouth before disappearing.

I hated that, I mean I hated his disappearing.

The rest was all beautiful- his torn vests, his rolling accent, his dirty feet, his stinky breath after he ate my Mums ‘special-recipe fish curry’.

Ashu and I considered each other family. I had no siblings. My parents thought its a small charity project and his had given up on him.

He had one gorgeous older sister who was the belle of the ball everywhere — secretly I wished I grew up and looked like her. I turned out to be rather plain though. No bells and whistles there.

Ashu walked 45 mins to his school in the scorching Indian summer sun everyday. I started and finished later than him so he would wait for me under a broken thatch midway and then we would meet on the way back from school and walk back the rest of the way. He finished school few years earlier than me as he was older but we continued this meeting schedule even when he was in junior college and college and I was still in school.

I wondered why a boy at that age was not getting high, going to discos and driving late into the night.

One rainy day the streets were flooded- Kolkata was in trouble- within hours all traffic was suspended. Few people were reported dead- those were not the days of the internet so news did not spread so fast.

Ashu swam through filth and splinters to rescue me –he knew I was waiting at the thatch. I still remember his face above the dark stinking street water — “ I am here. I am here “ he shouted like a mad man. His eyes were blood red and I could see he was crying and shivering, out of emotions for me! He was terrified for me.

I clung to him for dear life- I did not know how to swim. Ashu brought me home. He wrapped up his jacket around me and held me like I was a new-born baby.

That night I noticed both his kneecaps had burst open and there were deep gashes in his emaciated chest. I kept asking him to go down and see a doctor but he didn’t even notice- he was in a trance and kept on stroking my hair and silently shedding tears and saying “I thought I lost you- I thought I will never see you again Pari”.

That evening when my parents went away to help the neighbours and bring them to our ground floor and first floor ( we had the biggest house in that middle class neighbourhood and also the biggest heart ) — we went upstairs to my room.

Naturally I was 16 and hopelessly in love with him.

We were physically intimate that evening. It was the most schizophrenic love I have ever experienced.

While his kisses were violent and almost wanted to rip apart my lower lip- his fingers caressed my neck and shoulders gently like silk. He kissed the space below my shoulder blades so softly it felt like a feather had dropped itself on my mole and then in a second he bit onto my upper arm. It was like he was torn between the desire to ravage me like an animal and treat me like a rose petal at the same time and his body could not decide which one it should choose.

As he gently placed me on my bed- he kissed my forehead and disappeared into the night.

We did not go all the way and that was the only time we made any attempt to get physically close.

Ashu was gay. We always knew this. He told me when was 16 and I was 10 — just 2 years after we became friends. And there was never any doubt that it was not true- he was one of those people who never doubt their own feelings. Ours was a doomed love story from the start. One sided, too may I add.

90s middle class India was not a place for gay men or even liberal women. My parents chose to ignore all the taunts thrown at them because of our friendship- they trusted me. They were educated in England- it was different for them.

Ashu went through hell- he openly made a huge tall, naked man-mural at the entrance of his house in the living room made up of female lingerie he had collected from different parts of India. He said “its time we confuse people about their own boundaries”. I am not an artist- I was preparing for med school. But if Ashu made it, it was beautiful for me.

Soon the drama started-there were ugly graffiti outside his house, the neighbourhood boys beat him up often, his clothes were stolen and his own Mother and sister disowned him.

My heart bled at his sorrows. I would cry my eyes out everyday when people shouted abuses at him. He was thick skinned, he did not care- he would just clutch his satchel close to him and walk with a glazed look over his eyes while people around created a scene, until he made it to my house- like it was his only refuge. Like a refugee in a war walking straight with dignity to a shelter house while shells were fired on either side- except in his case the shells were fired at him ‘from’ either side.

I would run downstairs and open the door.

I would wait for him all afternoon at the balcony lest he spends any seconds waiting for me to run down and open the latch. I tried to pre-empt and run as soon as I saw the tip of his feet turn into the alley. Sometimes I was torn between watching him walk towards me or run down and be ready for him already.

I loved him so much and so distantly I didn’t even know what I would do if one day he took me in his arms once again-to be honest, I knew that will never happen though, that one singular evening was a pure exception and none of us harboured any doubts or illusions about our separate futures. We were both intelligent humans.

He did get attention but it was all very secretive and underground gay culture back then. I was so jealous, even if a woman looked at him let alone a man but I kept quiet and behaved respectfully.

Ashu had long and carefully manicured fingers and a very sweet face- his dark brown eyes were big and soulful and he had a womanly mouth- thin and beautiful. He was tall and very thin, almost anorexic. His silky dark hair was side parted and he took great pride in his stubble that was always “75% perfect”.

One day he was playing the guitar with his long fingers and those beautiful trimmed nails. I was right next to him revising my notes for my 1st year college exams when a thick,dirty ball of rag hit him in the face through the open balcony. The neighbourhood teens had now taken it upon themselves to complete what their older brothers and Dads could not do.

As the muffled giggles vanished into thin air- my pain peaked. Once the liquid boils, it spills over.

I saw Ashu nursing his red cheek visibly hurt and his head was hung in shame, probably because I witnessed it so close.

I said choking on my feelings “Ashu- enough. You have to leave, this is no place for you.”

He was surprised “You want me to leave? What would I do without you ?”

“ This is crazy, my parents hate you. Your parents hate you. You have this terrible job at a bookstore that doesn’t do any justice to your talents. Nobody understands our friendship here- these boys hit you because you are gay. Why are you here?”

We were both silent but the point was driven home.

Ashu was devastated I of all people could bear to ask him to leave. We both knew I wanted the best for him but he was still sad.

That night I cried until my pillows were soaked through like my Mom’s muslin saree was dropped into a bucket of ice water.

We decided to try.

I helped him write the applications and apply for scholarships- between us we worked 18 hours a day to get this project done. 1 year later he was on his way to a decent Tier 2 university in Canada for a Masters in liberal arts with a full scholarship. Victory was ours ! No more taunt- no more insults- Ashu had a chance at life.

The night before he left, I packed all his clothes meticulously, made him write long boring emails to his crushes and ex-boyfriends and then we sat in my backyard. Ashu insisted on going to the river. It was dangerous to do so at night but we still went anyway- the area and the air was full of stories of burglaries and even murder. But he had that effect on me- Ashu made me feel safe. As long as he was around- the world could not make me fear anything at all. Ever since the floods- I knew I had to close my eyes and wait- and he would come through the water looking for me.

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There was so much sadness densely packed in the air between us we both breathed slowly. Like we were afraid any moment the pressure will crush the lungs- have you ever been deep sea diving on limited oxygen? Walking through the pitch darkness afraid of being picked up by patrolling cop cars and gazing in marvel at the magical fireflies we reached the river. There was pin-drop silence, the heat had not lessened — it was the month of July and a 40 degree Celsius at 8 pm was not unnatural.

We were sweating buckets and our tee shirts were clinging onto our bodies like our thoughts were clinging onto each other- sticky and wet. “Pari- why don’t you have a boyfriend yet? You are 20 years old already“.

He had to get it out of his system.

Huge teardrops rolled down my cheek and I finally said what I always wanted to say “I loved you since I knew what is love- why would I have a boyfriend? I know you cannot love me that way and I tried not to love you that way-But I cannot help it. I am in love with you. So much Ashu that it hurts to look at you”.

We hugged and cried for a long time- we both knew all along that this was true and we both knew that this day will have to come. It was the ritual of finally saying it out aloud- part of the goodbye.

Years have passed since.

We were not sentimental fools.

Ashu met someone and so did I- he lives in Montreal and I am engaged to a man in Bangalore. We write to each other once in 6 months discussing arts, careers, ski resorts and what not. We never spoke about that night ever again.

Just before my engagement went official- we spoke on phone. We discussed for a few seconds what a sexless marriage looks like but I casually skipped the conversation. I ‘loved’ him still but I was not ‘in love’ with him. They are different things. One learns to nurse the wound and heal it and eventually one can look at the scar tissue and say- hey! That hurt once!

Somedays when I drive back home in the pouring rain and stop ta traffic lights- a find myself seeing a vision where wading through the water-22 year old Ashu appears outside my car and knocks at the windscreen and says “I am here- I am here to take you home”.

How does one love so much and so long when there is no hope? You may want to ask.

Well- how does one not do so? I may want to ask.

Sometimes when I visit home on festival holidays or take time out in winter I go to the old side of the house, I find the dilapidated balcony and empty a packet of Gems but I eat only the blue ones.

The old backyard had long since been renovated into a guest room. Other than those blue buttons-there is nothing Ashu and I shared that I could give to myself in lieu of memories.

I sit there and wonder what happened on the day of the floods? If he never liked me that way then why did he kiss me? Was it just a confused evening or perhaps a part of him liked me more than he himself knew or cared to admit?

Whatever the answer- I choose to not know. For a whole moment I wanted him and he wanted me.

That is all that matters.