In salt-and-pepper hair, his face weather-beaten, with eyes that once must have brimmed over with dreams, the man narrated his story. Outside the window, across the wide expanse of sky, the monsoon clouds promised more rain.
Here is the story, as he narrated it to me:
"Remembrance of old love, you know, can be a truly interesting, a painful affair. And it is because of all the old, broken promises that come rushing back into the mind when sometimes you run into people you loved once at the unlikeliest of places and that too in sudden manner. You are in an elevator and suddenly you see before you --- to your horror or fiendish delight --- the back of a woman over whom you once spent long hours in poetic contemplation, long ago. It is the same back, fair and soft and seductive, on which you once made music. And how she passed into unending ecstasy when you did that!
In that elevator, she doesn't see you, for she doesn't know you are there right behind her. Something of quiet wickedness then wells up in you, enough to have you say softly, almost in jeering murmur, 'Hello!' She turns around, looks surprised. She has grown in beauty; those eyes yet sparkle like a mountain stream undefiled by human predatory instincts. She quickly says hello. You go on looking into those eyes where once your dreams shaped themselves into tangibility and wonder why she, who once was so voluble in love, is suddenly at a loss for words."
The man pauses, stays silent for quite a while. He runs his fingers through his dishevelled hair. In that faraway look in his eyes floats perhaps the saddest tale of the times. I wait. And I leaf through the copy of the Hannah Arendt book a young friend has just brought me from Delhi. In a near whisper, the ageing lover resumes the telling of the tale:
"You get off the elevator at some point. She follows you out, whispers a brisk goodbye and is lost in the crowd. You lost her years ago. It was a condition you knew would come to pass. But she wouldn't hear of it. When you played, on a rain-drenched summer morning, the Perry Como number --- Don't look so sad / I know it's over / And this old world / will keep on turning / Don't say a word about tomorrow or forever / There's no need to watch the bridges that we're burning --- even as you held her in the warm passion of love, she broke into tears and asked you to turn that music off. Nothing would be over, she said. Our love will endure. A time came when everything was over. It was not supposed to be over."
My phone rings. At the other end, it is an excited, almost panic-driven man wanting to know if he could expect to have the manuscript of critical essays back from me the next morning. I reassure him. For no particular reason, my thoughts travel to Amartya Sen, or to the decent man in him. The salt-and-pepper man fidgets in the chair. I step up to him and ask him for a match or a lighter. I need a good smoke. He fishes one out. "Go home", I tell him. "Enjoy the party." He stares at me. And then resumes his narrative, in slow, pensive manner:
"Love is generally a matter of organised madness, especially when it happens in middle age. Or even in youth. There are loves that one could, in conventional terms, describe as extramarital affairs. At an even worse level, such attractions between men and women bound in matrimony to others are often denigrated as adultery. It all depends on how you look at it.
People get attracted to each other because it is pure lust that works in them. There are others, of certainly higher moral quality, who find themselves drawn to each other out of their love of intellectual things. They find ways of meeting each other in the furtive charm of silent dawns, they discuss books, they disagree much and then agree much. And then, in the fading light of day, they wait for the moon to rise for that high tide to make their heartbeats go faster. It is love that endures, year after year, even as the seasons make deep furrows in her honey-dipped skin and in your sun-burnt face. You touch her lips lightly. A new blossoming comes to her, just as her lipstick has come to you."
He doesn't look at me. It is a monologue that I happen to be going through. Tennyson rushes into the room. I mean his poetry. 'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all'. It is a defeated soldier who sits before me. I wish he would get it over with, for my ex wife will be calling soon, to ask if she could see me over lunch. No, not at home, but at a restaurant where she could have me go over the draft of a keynote speech she will be delivering in Kolkata on Monday. It's Saturday today. When Seema and I went for a divorce a decade ago, she told me, as we stepped out of the courtroom, that I had been a horrible husband but that she would like for us to be friends.
The dispirited lover goes on, oblivious to my thoughts:
"But old love is quite something else. It is love that has been humiliated by her who once told you love would not be over. In that elevator, on that Facebook page, it is the same lips that once would not let go of yours, the same hands that pulled you into an embrace, to have you spend an evening with her. And yet those lips and those hands did let you down. That secret letter arriving on your desk, mailed to you by an unknown, unhappy woman quickly turned your world upside down. And it did because it spoke of the infidelity of the one you loved, because she you had thought was there for you for all time was in truth exploring other woods for fresh fruit to savour. The writer of that letter informed you that she who had professed undying love for you had been bad mouthing you before the new man in her life. That new man was the letter writer's husband. You stare, unblinking, at all the proof of murdered confidence out there before you."
The man pauses in the telling of the tale. And then goes on, again, in the third person:
"Old love, as you see it in him, stirs a little in the anger that comes from a remembrance of ancient betrayal. You ask him if he misses the woman he ran into in the elevator. Yes, he murmurs. No, he says, rather inaudibly. In the dusk-hued depths of his sad eyes, you read the history of great love rising out of nothing, before crumbling into nothing. The old flame is now embers from which issues forth the stench of burnt-out love."
The salt-and-pepper man rises from the chair, moves to the door, pauses. Rain Clouds play games of provocative chaos across the monsoon sky. He says, to no one in particular and yet to everyone around the world:
"She had the loveliest nose in the world, with the world's loveliest nose pin heightening its glamour. She once lost an earring in our rising, rumbling earthquake of eventually climactic romance. In her loving came an infinity of ardour. With every burst of ecstasy in her, the musk rose fragrance of the landscape of her being drowned all my dark sorrows in the regenerative profundity of her garden of cherries. She was my Urvashi. And I was her Tamosh."
In the distance, a cloudburst pierced through the skies, searing a heart yet one more time.