Crispy chicken, a bowl of noodles and a lager. That was their last meal together. It was the cafe leopold. This unassuming but spacious bar at the foothills of the imposing Taj Mahal Palace hotel. The cafe, proudly claimed an origin dating back all of a hundred and fifty years. A painting on the wall tried real hard to advertise the cafe's international patronage, rather unsuccessfully. It did have a smattering of tourists, most of them white and some of them surprisingly carryin kids. Surprising, for it was a fullblown indian summer. He was distracted. Something really insistent was playing on his mind. One look at the clock on the wall, said it was nine. They were short on time. And he couldn't bear to think about what lay in store a coupla hours hence. They had shopped for inexpensive clothes all evening, and managed to fall for a clunky bracelet, a frilly brown skirt (which later turned out to be nothing more than a square piece of cloth with a hole cut out in the centre). From the street that housed hundreds of vendors, tryin to make a living out of cheap imitations and mispelled foreign brands, a taxi ride had transported them to the gateway of India, that colonial monument built to symbolize colossal India's submission to its relatively puny imperial ruler.It was tastelessly set alight by vapor lamps, planted inside the building. Though it did not effectively ruin its basalt charm, it did reinforce the notoriety, keepers of history in this country are known for. It was their first visit to a major monument of considerable national acclaim. And they,like a million others before them, tried real hard to register a major landmark in their lives. Visiting the gateway of India. Thats one thing you can strike off your list of things to do, in this lifetime. They knew it was mammoth, when they couldn't fit the whole structure in the viewfinder of their humble cannon. he lit up a smoke, and tried to think straight. Tried to stay in the moment and not wander to distant lands of eventual loneliness. They still had three hours together. three hours of stumbling for happy things to say. Three hours of keeping extremely crippling sadness at bay. They walked a while, along the wall that separated a permanently agitated sea and the more ordinary bustle of the city. She said something about how Mumbai could be the only city walled in from the sea. The Arabian sea. He strangely gave it a thought. Made a note to himself, that he would confirm it afterwards. She lit a cigarette. He noticed, that it was the last cigarette he'd see her smoke. Everything that day, was the last occurrence of something.
The last time they'd ride a train.
The last time he'd see her smile.
The last time they'd hold hands.
They walked along the wall, trying to photograph the entire gateway. They stood there, looking out into the sea. Her words now. Describing how the view of the sea was different from her own home town. He cud sense the strain in her voice. He knew the strain in his own voice. A strain that asked difficult questions but demanded no answers. They crossed over, onto the other side of the street.
The last time they'd cross a street.
He held her hand, while they gazed at the windows lining the entrance to the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. It housed stores of all major insanely-expensive brands. There was Dior, Versace, Zegna and Bvlgari. They wondered how Bvlgari was pronounced. They settled, amicably on vulgari, more for the prices than any consideration for Italian linguistics.They looked around for a place to eat. A few blocks away was the cafe leopold.
the last time they'd dine together.
The time was nine, and they had two hours to go. The food arrived, carried by a waiter, who couldn't have been out of place in any bar,anywhere in the country. He was inoffensively unspecial. Before he finally ordered crispy chicken to go with the lager, he had stared at the menu, unnaturally long .Trying to avoid her eyes. and trying to choose from the extremely wide array of cooked meat on offer. Beef and pork, aren't exactly a regular presence on menu cards in this holy fuckin country, he thought. But this place had quite a few additions for both supposed blasphemies. Somehow, he felt a new surge of respect for the Cafe Leopold. He had never eaten beef. And she doesn't eat meat. They settled for chicken. He fiddled with his food, forcibly calm. And finally gave up half way into it. He cleaned the lager up, while she twirled a single strand of noodles with her fork. they were both contemplating. two hours from now.He was biting his lip, now. while she was fighting to stay collected. She begged him to take care of himself. Repeated invocations of the word love, rent the air.He said he'd be fine, knowing he wouldn't.They decided to have the leftover chicken packed. For the imaginary great dane, loungin around in their imaginary beach house.
The last time, they'd get their food packed.
They got into the taxi, and left for the hotel they were staying in. She was tired. they'd walked a million miles that day. Rode trains and Shopped long. She rested her head in his lap, and slipped into sleep, real quick. They were drivin past Haji Ali, a place of worship for almost everybody, when he first broke down. He looked outta the window, strugglin to fight back resurgent memories of the month gone by. Then it happened. A trickle down the left cheek, and his first thoughts were to stop it from landing on her, resting on his lap. He pressed his eyes close. And wished they'd keep riding through the night. An hour to go. He stroked her hair back from her head. A million vehicles sped all around them. Some expressed their anguish, and threatened with unspeakable violence ,behind them. A million people, with things to do, people to see, families to get back to, nightmares to run away from. Crowded on that one stretch of road. All at the same time. He cried his heart out. While his baby, slept in his lap. He kept stroking back her hair. He kept lookin out. At particularly nothing. But he could see pain. It was a smudged neon sign advertising bath fittings. But he could see pain.
The last time they'd be in the middle of so much traffic.
They reached their hotel. She took a bath,changed into clothes they bought that day.He tried real hard, not to give in. He was determined to keep it as less sad as it was humanly possible. But its human to not want to be alone. Its also human, to look around the room one last time, and break down into your love's open arms. And he did just that. They kissed like they were breathing life into each other. They kissed like they were never gonna kiss again. They kissed and cried. And hugged, in sheer hope of fusing together inseparable but dead. Inseparable. and never mind, dead.
The last time, they'd kiss and cry.
They trudged down, got into the hotel car. It drove them insufferably fast to their destination. They got the bags out. He made a couple of inquiries, and it really was time. They walked leaden footed and heavy hearted, to the door. The bags, her luggage, stacked on a trolley, They got to the entrance for international departures. It was time. There they were. At the end of a glorious Indian summer. The cruel glass door. The point of no return. This is where they stop. This is where they last hug. This is where they last cry. This is where they kiss.For the really last time. She goes into the door. Turns back, looks at him. A rush of vignettes from a parallel universe, where everything around implodes. Crashes into itself. Disappears. and she can run back to him. And they can both go home, to their imaginary beach house, with the imaginary great dane. A parallel universe, so wished for, it could be real. She turns back one last time. He raises his hand, limp and detached. She smiles, from behind the eternal sadness of an unfulfilled wish. And then, she disappears.
The last time, they'd see each other.