‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion’
The line stared at me from the pages of a square journal with powder-blue pages. Thanks to Anton’s addiction to great poetry, I knew what the line is about. The line is a popular refrain from a Latin Masterpiece : ‘Non Sum Qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ translated to English. The poet Dowson claims that his passion for Cynara does not fade away even though he is with other women. Momentarily, my breath hitched in my throat but I controlled myself quickly. It was merely a line… a diary entry.
The penmanship was beautiful and there were little, neat doodles at the four corners of the page, lending it an ornate look. At first, I thought they were doodles, like a neat pattern an artist would draw absent-minded, perhaps. Upon a closer look, I realized there were letters in that pattern, very minuscule. The letters formed a name I know so well… and love! ‘ANTON’
I could not help but smile. This woman was so ardently passionate about the man she thought her own. Even after he had walked out on her, breaking all the bonds that she must have believed were unbreakable, her devotion to him remained constant. Foolish? Perhaps. Yet, amazing and adorable.
“I wish I had known her…”
I hadn’t realized I had spoken the words out loud. The other two had stopped whatever they were discussing, their eyes focusing on me now. I saw Anton’s blue ones, grave, somber. And Maya’s friend’s charcoal-black, beautiful eyes, eyes which spoke of a compassion so deep. They were still red and puffy, an ode to the friendship that had withered away before its time.
I felt my cheeks burn slightly. Trying to conceal my embarrassment, I blurted out, “I love this tea!”
Anton and Nafisa were seated around a small coffee table in Nafisa’s living room which was attached to a little balcony filled with potted plants. It looked a little cramped with the earthen pots lining the walls and hanging from the ceiling. But I was fascinated by the hues and the myriad of fragrances that wafted in the nippy breeze. Winter was still making its presence felt in these parts of the country. There was a cane swing-chair in the middle of the already overcrowded space where I had seated myself. Feeling my body swing forward and backward in a gentle rocking motion, I was almost lulled to sleep with Maya’s diary on my lap. There was an odd sense of calm and comfort in Nafisa’s one-bedroom apartment, it made you feel at-home.
“I’ll make you some more,” Nafisa stood up, trying to squeeze out of the narrow gap in between her chair and Anton’s. I followed her to the tiny kitchen that was barely enough to fit her rather large frame. I stood at the door and she smiled at me. I did notice that even though she stubbornly refused to look at Anton whenever he spoke, with me she was quite different. Her smile was sad but sincere and reached her eyes. Her tone warm and affectionate, as if I was an expected guest she was looking forward to meet. Despite Maya’s looming, invisible presence in the apartment which made me quite uncomfortable in the beginning. I admitted that I liked Nafisa.
After the initial shock of seeing her and Anton walk out of the narrow road that led to the old cottage, I had recovered quite a bit. Although I didn’t know who she was, I could easily guess she was someone well-known to Anton…and, judging by her tear-stricken face, to Maya as well. Like a rope bridge, tottering between two worlds… that of the ‘dearly departed’ and her long-absconding lover who had finally returned to seek a closure. Perhaps Nafisa felt obligated to take care of us, no matter how much she despised Anton and held him responsible for her friend’s cruel fate. Perhaps, she knew Maya would want her to.
It was an awkward introduction. Anton introduced me as his fiancé and there was a sudden fire in those black eyes which was gone the next second. She asked where we were staying. On learning that we hadn’t arranged for lodging, she insisted that we stay at her place for the day. Anton began to protest but I interrupted. Somehow, I felt curious about the world Anton inhabited with Maya and Maya’s best friend was definitely the doorway to get there.
“She’s Nafisa, my colleague at the University and…” Anton had gulped when he introduced her to me a few hours ago on that dusty road. Almost imperceptibly, I touched his arm, letting him know that I had his back. I had already somehow guessed Nafisa’s connection to Maya.
“….and Maya’s close friend.” Anton had finished. I nodded my head and held out my hand as Nafisa’s eyes bore into me. But that was this morning and Nafisa’s warmth towards me was so natural and effortless, it helped me get rid of my awkwardness. After a sumptuous brunch rustled up by Nafisa, she was preparing to go to her Department for a couple of hours.
“Catch up on some sleep,” she told me, pointing to her bedroom. “I’ll be back soon…” As she turned to leave, I asked her if I could keep Maya’s diary for a few days.
“She seemed to have a natural flair for writing,” I uttered. Nafisa nodded her head, trying to shove her feet into her sandals. Pausing to glance at the page I had open, she walked back to me. I watched her expression change from amused to poignant and back to amused in a matter of seconds as she studied the line. She plucked the journal out of my hand gently and turned to Anton.
“Do you know this line?” Nafisa queried, her eyebrows arched ever so slightly. The colour rose to her cheeks and her voice was a bit hesitant, “Maya often asked… actually it was like a burning question within her…. is … I mean, was she Cynara? Why else would you quote this line for her?”
Anton began to chuckle and all of a sudden, Nafisa was smiling too. I assumed it was a joke both of them intuitively shared without letting me in on it. I struggled to smile.
“Oh Maya! Yes, she fell in love with this poem after I read it out for her one day.” Anton said, his eyes smiling now as he recalled that time spent with Maya.
“After you quoted this line?”
Anton nodded. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“She was…. Cynara?” Nafisa persevered.
Did she feel the urgent need to find the answer to the question that was so important to her deceased friend? I waited with bated breath as Nafisa stared expectantly at him. The air in the room had suddenly become heavy, it was as though Maya was breathing the air in the room.
Anton continued to smile. Then, with that impish grin plastered across his face, he replied, “May be!” At that moment, he looked so endearing that I wanted to rush over and hug him. But I restrained myself and looked at Nafisa, She too was grinning.
“Does that mean yes?” She pestered him. Without wasting a second, Anton piped again, “May be!” He snorted with laughter as she shrieked in mock fury, “Anton!!!” and started hitting him on the head with the journal. After a few hits, he dodged her and started running around the furniture, Nafisa trying to chase him futilely. Soon, she collapsed in a plastic chair that sunk under her weight and broke into fits of giggles.
The ice was broken. I could imagine Maya standing in a corner of the room and laughing as she watched the two people she loved dearly behave like silly, over-grown children engaged in harmless banter. Nafisa’s face glowed and her eyes sparkled as her chest rose and fell from the exertion. Despite everything, she was happy that Anton had come back to all that she held dear… to this old University town, to their collective memories, to Maya!