[Short Story] Autumn Flowers

I waited impatiently for the lift, my hands weighed down by grocery bags. It seemed to make an inordinately long halt in the fifth floor. I looked enquiringly at the watch man sitting a little away at his desk...
"New madam coming fifth floor," he said.
"Oh, the vacant flat!, but they should shift late at night or in the middle of the day!" I murmured in annoyance.

It was already 5 pm and I was having guests over for the evening. When the lift finally descended I looked menacingly at the occupant and the movers who were with her. The slight woman in a blue saree looked apologetically at me and said, "I am extremely sorry, we are almost ..." she stopped in mid sentence and I shouted,
"Malini!  Malini Vishwanath! is that really you?"
 My anger and my anxiety vanished in an instant. Malini rushed to me and gave me a warm hug. We both started talking excitedly and before I knew it, she was in my flat after hurriedly disposing off the movers.

As we hurriedly cooked together for the evening, we talked endlessly, piecing together the major events of the intervening years. I had met Malini in college and we had hit it off immediately. We spent all the breaks together and the weekends as well. She lived amongst sylvan surroundings in the outskirts and a  huge contrast to my dull apartment in the city. The weekends felt like paradise as we explored the countryside armed with a story book, singing songs, losing our way ever so often and being chided by her mother for our wild ways! We were an inseparable pair in college even though she was in a different stream. We even sat through abstruse lectures in each other's classes just to be together.  Malini exerted a great influence on me, kindling my interest in gardening and photography and helping me look at life as a dream and a celebration.

As we sat, sipping the rejuvenating cup of tea after the exertions in the kitchen, I looked at the five foot slim figure in front of me. She had not changed one bit- she wore no makeup as always and she had done nothing  to mask her greying hair. She was dressed in her characteristic simple cotton saree.
Malini gave a gentle smile and asked softly, " So how are your relatives?"
 I recoiled from the memory raked up by the question...

Marriage was something that  often came up in our talks and Malini always said-
"I will not marry, I want to become a social worker! I don't believe in living for myself! We need to give something back to society too!"
I did not have her conviction, brought up as I was to believe that marriage was the very purpose of a woman's existence. I was married soon after college, but much to our disappointment, Malini couldn't attend as she was away at Delhi, at a convention.

Malini on her return tried her best to make up for it. She would often come over, in the evenings to my new home with my in laws. Life for me,suddenly felt very different and strange! Marriage, is a journey of discovery where every woman learns, about becoming progressively responsible and selfless and romance is but a girlish fantasy. I would eagerly await Malini's visits as a breath of fresh air, but soon it became clear to me that the friendship was unsustainable. Malini too sensed it and while I felt  her trauma, I was in no position to comfort her.

Once when Malini, came home, there were a lot of guests. People were talking loudly and Malini said " I can't talk in this din, let's go outside for a walk."
 This remark invited a few glares in our direction and I instinctively knew that trouble was brewing. In panic I said, "Malini, How insesitive of you?
I have guests at home...
You are single, what do you know about marriage and responsibity?
You can't walk in here and demand my time.
I wish you wouldn't visit me so often, frankly its quite trying!"

 At this, Malini, left  my house, without saying a word, and disappeared completely from my life. I made no effort to follow her or look for her, for many years. But I often thought how she was and pondered in our friendship, who needed the other more. After my children were born, I gained enormous capacity to handle stress. I began to appreciate her selfless love for the first time and sense her need to be loved in turn.  Sadly, we appreciate most what we have the least!
 Oh, how often had I wished that I would run in to her some day and fate had finally granted that wish!

 I came out of my reverie and smiled broadly at Malini. I vowed, I would give her all the attention she needed this time around and never to lose her again.
In the autumn of our lives, we were once again little girls wandering in the wilderness, wild flowers all around.


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