By Upendra Mishra
BOSTON—During my latest trip to India, I had planned to visit the Ground Zero where I saw her for the first time. At that moment, I had felt that someone had gently opened my heart and sculpted her name inside my heart chambers in golden letters so that I could carry it with me forever, and she would journey with me wherever I would go for the rest of my life.
I still remember her radiating and smiling face with hardly any make-up, trimmed eyebrows, long waving hair that had slightly covered both sides of her face, her blue jeans and the Rajasthani pink top with tiny strings attached to it and hanging on her. Her giggling still echoes in my ears. I had often wondered during the last four decades that how that Ground Zero would look like today, and how would it feel to revisit and touch that spot again. I did that this time.
Whenever I had visited New Delhi in the past, I had passed by that holy place many times but had never stopped there—paused, yes. This time, however, I had to stop up there, pay a grateful tribute and stand on that very place to soak myself in the past once again. As I stood there, me and my heart were blown away by the intimacy and nostalgia of that place. I felt that this rare experience had been gifted to me by the God of Time.
My past came roaring back. It was both real and surreal, dream and reality, and a magical experience in deed. I had just joined the modern Jawaharlal Nehru University, popularly known as JNU. In early 1980s, it was a place to be for any young mind. The campus was continually alive—even during the cool winter and hot summer days and nights. The intellectual, political, and cultural ambience was often charged but civilized. The discussions about politics, philosophy, history, culture, literature and art were everywhere. Plays. Poetry. Music, and you name it. It was a dream land. I had a great place to live in this beautiful campus. I did not have to worry about money because everything was covered by my scholarship.
This was also the time when the would-be Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman was our batchmate (once she carried me to my hostel room when she found me drunk.) India’s current Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar was a student there a few years before me. Indian politician Sitaram Yechury, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, was a few years senior and would often visit the campus. India’s current Ambassador to US Taranjit Singh Sandhu was a year junior to me. A significant number of India’s top bureaucrats today were then students there as well. Life was good. Everything looked within our reach. Nothing was impossible. Intellectual stimulation among various political groups of students was incredible.
A few months after I had joined JNU, a small band of Free Thinkers were meeting in a room to discuss organizational strategies. I was also invited to this meeting. As I entered the room, I saw that jeans and the Rajasthani pink top clad girl also sitting in the room. I could not believe this at first. As the meeting progressed and went in full swing by the midnight, the focus of my mind had shifted to that gorgeous beauty. I could not control myself, and in the heat of my madness that night I glanced at her with my half-closed eyes. She looked at me with her piercing eyes, too, and our four eyes became one in an instant. I have never experienced anything like ever. Never. It was once-in-a-lifetime experience. The whole world came to a standstill and froze. I was transported to a place which I had never imagined. The power and connection of eyes!
After the Free Thinkers meeting was adjourned, I walked out of the room like someone had drunk a dozen of 200-year-old bottles of wine. Oh, that intoxication from her beautiful eyes. I did not say anything to anyone. All I wanted was to be left alone.
It must have been past mid-night. I walked around the JNU campus for the rest of the night. I had no idea what to do except keep thinking about her piercing gaze. I kept walking and sinking myself in that experience and in her eyes and enjoying that feel. I could not see anything but her piercing eyes. After walking for nearly four-five hours during the night, I saw the sun rising in the east, with Delhi’s Kutub Minar in the background. I came to my room, tried to sleep, but could not. I did not attend my classes next day either.
Sometimes I have hoped that through her insightful eyes she would have seen her name carved out in my heart. I never, however, told her how I felt that night and what had happened to me. My life, however, changed forever that night—to this day, and for the rest of my life. No one can take it away from me. No one.
With God’s grace we became good friends. I don’t know when it turned into love or when we became soul mates or built a relationship that had no name. Or, maybe it all happened after I had left JNU. I did not know love, but it definitely felt like it. Now, I am gettering a better sense of true love. Still learning about it. Putting all these pieces together to make a sense about what happened to me. Sometimes it feels real, sometime a pure illusion and sometimes a surreal dream. I am still trying to figure it out.
My other friends would often tease me about her—especially if they saw us together on the campus. Sometimes when I will be sitting in our university bus to go somewhere, they will always leave the seat next to me empty for her to sit. They would not sit there despite the bus would be crowded often times. She would come and gently sit right next to me on that empty seat. We did a lot of things together. Bus rides, meetings, teas and samosas in canteens, meeting in the library, and sometimes campaigning during student elections as we both belonged to the same student group-Free Thinkers.
It turns out a year or so later, I was elected President of the Free Thinkers group. In those days, we used to call Convenor, and not president as other organizations did. A year later, Free Thinkers also selected me to run for the Vice President of JNU Student Union. The election experience was interesting and enriching. A unique experience. Public speaking challenges. Always preparing for unexpected questions during the campaign debates and rallies.
On the election day, I was very excited. Based on the vives on the campus, I was confident that I would win. I did not win, however. Just a couple of days before the election, the opposition groups had started to spread a rumor that I was an agent of the Israeli government. The rumor had emanated because one of my papers was accepted for presentation at a conference in Israel on the Palestinian issue. JNU had a sizable number of foreign students form Palestine, Middle East and Arab countries. Despite being my supporters and friends, they believed the rumor and voted against me. They could not associate with anything related with Israel. That paper was eventually published in the Journal of International Studies. I was the first student to publish a paper in this prestigious journal. It cost me my election. If I remember correctly, I lost the election only by 36 votes. At that time, Palestine-Israeli conflict was a big issue on the JNU campus as well as a big foreign policy issue for India.
After losing the election, I went into a deep sadness. I locked myself in my hostel room. A week later, one of my hostel mates knocked on my door. As I opened the door, he said: “Upendra, congratulations!” I asked what happened? What for? He smiled and said: “For winning the election!” I said: Are you crazy? What do you mean? I lost the election.”
He countered: “In reality, you won the election because all the girls on the campus voted for you. They all rooted for you. You’re the real winner, my friend.” I chuckled. We came out of my room and went to Godavari dhaba where we had tea for the first time after my election loss.
Life slowly started to get back to normal for me and I returned to my original form. One day when I went to the library, I saw this pink-top girl I had fallen for having tea with another boy, sitting on one of those legendary rocks of JNU. I still have no idea what happened to me at that time. I snapped. I lost my control. I felt broken hearted and told myself I will never ever talk to her again. It is said that when you’re at your best the Devil strikes. My inner devil knocked me out completely at that moment. My ego came screaming back at me. My jealousy exploded and I became an irrational man in an instant.
Throughout my stay in JNU, there were a few girls who were genuinely interested me, but the only girl I wanted to be with was my pink-top friend. Noone was like her—not even distantly close to her. Even the goddesses of beauty and charm could not be compared to her. I never looked at any other girl despite flirtation invitation by a few girls. Her best allure was her childlike innocence, simplicity, an ease about her and her own unawareness of her own beauty. Although, my student friends were totally mesmerized by her splendor and affectionate nature, she never acknowledged her own splendor and X-factor.
After the devil had struck me, I briefly went out with one girl from the School of Languages. She was one of the beauty queens of the time. But it was not the same thing—nothing like the pink-top girl. There was no chemistry with the School of Languages girl. There was no intense desire within me to be with her. It was just to boost my ego that I was going out with one of the most desired girls in JNU. It was my temporary insanity, and I soon lost interest in her.
Many decades later, however, when I was settled in Boston my phone rang. When I picked the phone, the Indian-accented voice on the other side said: “Are you Upendra Mishra?” I said: yes. “Did you go to JNU?” I said: yes. “Did you go to SIS (School of International Studies)?” I said: Yes. I had no idea who this girl was. Then she said: “I am XXX. Do you remember me?” “Of course,” I said. “Do you remember when we met for the first time at the bus stop and it was raining? You shared your umbrella with me,” she said. I did remember the sharing of the umbrella because it was raining cats and dogs. Despite my umbrella, we both were completely drenched in India’s monsoon rain.
She told me that she had often searched my name on the Internet, but she had forgotten my last name. “Whenever I searched your name, Delhi University Vice Chancellor Upendra Baxi’s name would come, and I knew you were not him.” How did you find me, then?” I asked. “I kept searching with almost every last name combination with Upendra, and I found The Mishra Group. As soon as I found, I called you.”
I felt good that someone really cared and wanted to find out about me after nearly three decades. Before we get cut off, I asked her: “First give me your phone number and I will call you later and we will catch up in detail.” She said: “I married a JNU boy and got divorced a few years later. I remarried again. I have talked to my new husband about you in JNU. He is very jealous, and I dot want you to call me. I just wanted to know where you are and how are you doing.” We chatted for a few more minutes about JNU days and then we hang up. I was sure that she will call me because she did not give me her number. She never did. I did not hear anything from her after that.
Coming back to JNU a few months after I had lost the election, I had received a scholarship to go to Mexico for one year under a Indo-Mexico Exchange Scholarship program of Government of India. Meanwhile, my ego had satisfied as I realized my mistake in misjudging my dear friend and not trusting my own heart. I began talking with her. I was going to Mexico, and she was happy for me. It was exciting for me, hoping that I will return to India after one year, not knowing that I would be spending almost a decade in Latin America.
When I was leaving India for Mexico, where only Spanish language is spoken, my friend gave me a book on learning Spanish and a picture of both of us together. These two gifts have traveled with me around the world. They are my most precious gifts and treasures I have. When her name carved in my heart when I first met her, it was for real deal. I still carry that name’s sculpture in my heart’s chambers where no one else can reach and see except me. Only I can read it. And whenever I read it, she become the biggest source of my joy, peace and happiness. It has enriched my life like nothing can. Whenever I am in a trouble or get stressed out, I think of her face and suddenly all the worries go away.
Stay tuned for Part-6: Adventures in Norway and Latin America.
(Mr. Mishra is managing partner of the Waltham, MA-based integrated inbound marketing and PR firm The Mishra Group. He writes about his three passions: marketing, scriptures and gardening.)