This is a story about two Indians meeting in Geneva in the 1960’s. He came to realise his dreams while she, when her dreams were shattered…..
Akira was tired of having fleeting relationships. She had no choice and was frustrated about the pool of boys available to have a conversation.
Shy, intimidated, boastful, chivalrous……. and relentless, not her type.
The wait ended when she met a ‘likeable’ guy and they found a good company in each other. Two years, that’s when the expiry date came about to their relationship. The talks of mutual separation were cool; however, it was hard on those 22-year old college pass outs.
Akira turned to her mother Jaya, who was all ears about her daughter’s life.
“You both had no feelings whatsoever,” Jaya replied after remaining patient for half an hour. “or else you would have made it work, isn’t it?”
Jaya had to update herself with the latest meaning of the term ‘break-up’.
The concerned mother continued, “I don’t understand today’s definition of break-up, make-up. In my days, we used to make up and never thought about breaking up. How times have changed.”
The conversation between mother and daughter had shifted from kitchen to their garden. Mamma, that’s how Akira called her mother had just brewed a pot of ‘masala chai’.
Akira was home sick and it was evident from the tins of ‘home made cookies’ and few salted savouries, she brought along to the patio.
“I miss your Pappa, and that is one of the reasons why I am taking this break in India,” Jaya shifted the conversation to her thoughts. “There are just too many memories of his and ours back in Lausanne. And, I thank you Akira for accompanying me here post your break up.”
Tears rolled on Jaya’s eyes as she recalled the times when she and Akira’s Pappa spent their evenings walking along the shores of Lake Geneva.
Jaya flew outside India for the first time to Lausanne, Switzerland. She was one of the few students from India selected to be a part of the master’s programme in hotel management at the prestigious Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne.
During her internship, she was part of the group that catered to a large gathering of diplomats at the UN convention in Geneva. It was here Jaya met Akira’s Pappa for the first time.
Jaya was nostalgic about their first meeting – “He looked so out of place when I saw him for the first time. He was nervous, and he was walking about the corridor while the programme was on.”
“Excuse me, can I help you in some way? can I get you something?”
The young gentleman was visibly nervous, “No, thanks. I am anxious, as I have never spoken in front of such a large audience. Some of them who are seated will be the ones I will end up reporting on my next assignment.”
Jaya, in her youth was vivacious. She was doing a favour by taking his mind off the impending speech. Not, just that, she was equally curious about this young Indian who appeared smart, though a touch nervous.
“Hi, my name is Jaya and I am an intern with the catering company. Let me know if you need any help from my side.”
Jaya continued, “Now, I can offer you just these refreshments – though after the event, we can meet up over a cup of coffee. I will be here in this area wrapping up my work.”
She hoped, it would be a yes!
“My name is Girish and I hate to admit, I am not thinking too much other than my speech now. I am not being rude, it is just that, I do not want to goof it up.”
He continued and his nervousness showed, “I am shy and introvert by nature. Sometimes I fear I may lose my words when I am in the middle of my speech.”
Jaya eagerly listened, “However, I have made a mental note, Jaya. And it would be a pleasure to catch up with you,” and nervously went back to the speech papers he was holding.
It was a yes as far as Jaya was concerned. Their conversation was interrupted when a colleague of Girish’s asked him to come inside the auditorium.
Girish was at the convention to deliver a lecture on his research findings about the need of empowering house wives and women. It focussed on giving financial assistance and other aids to the small-scale industry schemes in developing and under-developed countries.
The United Nations had conceptualised the event ‘Great Minds, Great Ideas’ to attract ideas in a forum where countries could exchange best practices. Girish was representing India and those papers contained his vision and a proposal for his idea.
“Good luck, Girish,” Jaya smiled and hoped they could meet up for a coffee at the end of the programme.
The forum of Great Minds, Great Ideas was a great initiative. Girish felt when ideas from different societies and economies merge, it will have a positive influence in establishing collaborations and the necessary infrastructure to realise development projects.
His towering appearance in a navy-blue suit with white shirt and a dark blue tie masked his nervousness to an extent.
Girish stumbled a couple of times, but overall managed to cover his idea to the audience, which had gathered from all over the world.
At the Q&A session following his talk, he was asked by an English delegate, ‘What is the most important element to realise this dream? And should it be through government or private?’
“Thank you, sir,” he paused for a few seconds, collected his thoughts and was ready to answer.
“For a programme of this stature requires a government initiative. Speaking for India, our only modes of mass communication are radio and newspaper. We must tie up with state governments as each of these governments are alike.”
Girish paused, although there were no signs of nervousness. He continued, “To give an example, India is like Europe. And each country in Europe resembles a state in India. Different languages, food habits, clothes, appearances and mind sets. So, there must be a two-step process,” he went on…
“Firstly, the Union Government directs the state governments and secondly, the state governments enforcing them and monitoring the policies regularly. In a democratic set-up, it is difficult to change overnight, however, unless we plan, execute, monitor, adapt, one cannot expect to move forward with these ideas.”
The audience applauded Girish’s response. Though, his visionary idea was good – but most of them could not connect with him.
It was confusing times in the 60’s.
A winner had to be chosen and in the times of war and arms, the idea of ‘disarmament and the ecology movement’ won the award. This idea went on to become ‘Greenpeace’.
Girish was visibly disappointed – however, he knew the world must get rid of its desires to fight battles, wage wars and kill lives and destroy our environment.
It was early June. The light was bright and he didn’t have any mood to network among the people gathered at the apéro.
Although the audience from other parts of the world wanted to catch a glimpse of Girish, after all he did have a worthwhile idea.
After two hours of friendly exchanges, Girish decided he would return home.
Just as he made his way to the exit door, he thought about Jaya. He made his way to the corridor where they had first met. Jaya had just completed her work for the day though she was still in her business attire. She was visibly happy that Girish remembered her.
“Give me ten minutes, will you? I will go change and then inform my manager about having completed my tasks,” Jaya said with a smile.
“Sure, I will wait for you here,” he was yet to come out of the disappointment.
Walking helps to come out of disappointment. He decided to walk along the long corridor to move on from the talk.
Girish saw an interesting poster that read – ‘Premiere Festival de Jazz Montreux, 16-18 June, 1967 at Casino Montreux’.
He had a good taste for music and wondered if he could make it for this grand event.
Girish’s fascination for Jazz came from the Hollywood movies that showcased a lot of Jazz artists. Girish was paying attention to every detail on the poster and little did he realise how those ten minutes went by.
Jaya stood behind him, patted him and asked, “Do you like Jazz?”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t notice your presence. I was lost looking at this poster.”
She was anything but formal in attitude and that went well with her attire, without the double-breasted jacket and that funny looking toque blanche.
“You didn’t answer my question, do you like Jazz?”
“Pardon me, yes, I prefer Jazz. It is smooth, at times relaxing and adds a great deal of meaning to some of the Hollywood movies.”
“Would you like to join us in two weeks’ time for this Jazz festival?” – Jaya asked.
The reticent Girish just did not know how to answer.
In fact, part of his behaviour stemmed from the fact that, he had never met a girl like Jaya before.
She was direct, devoid of shy whatsoever, very contrary to that of Girish.
“You are to the point, aren’t you?” – Girish replied.
“Yes, that I am” – remarked Jaya.
She continued, “Shall we talk more about this with a cup of coffee?”
“I told my manager that I have some assignments to finish for my course. And it wouldn’t be appropriate if he saw me here. Although, he is a nice guy and won’t poke his nose much as I have finished my tasks, it would be great if we stepped out.”
“And, you talk a lot!”, Girish was warming up to a conversation he never had before.
Jaya was a talker, “Well, someone has to, right? Or else, what’s the point of meeting a person?”
Girish just nodded and didn’t add any words.
There was an air of silence as they walked towards the main door which led them to the old streets of Geneva.
“Old town Geneva has some good cafés; do you know any in particular?” – Jaya, again, unable to bear the silence.
“Nothing in particular. I do not have a set preference when it comes to cafés or restaurants. I do not venture out and I prefer to cook at home. I am a vegetarian and in one year of my living here, I realised, there is no point searching for vegetarian food. So, I have settled for anything that isn’t meat.”
“Oh, you poor child. Missing home, is it,” Jaya was at him again.
Girish had warmed up quite well by now, “Yes, in a way. The only solace is when I receive letters from my parents. My mother like any other mother is constantly worried about my well-being. Her concerns revolve around my food and I do not intend to add fuel to fire by stating there isn’t any good Indian food available.”
He asked, “Don’t you miss home?”
“No, I don’t. Because there is no one back home.”
Jaya’s response was too direct for Girish and he wondered what was the meaning behind her statement.
Another round of silence…… and again, Jaya resumed their conversation.
“Aren’t you curious about what I said,” she was one of her kind.
A few seconds of silence and Girish replied – “Yes, I am. However, I did not know how to proceed further. We just met and here I am asking personal questions.”
“You have got to ask questions when you are curious to know something,” Jaya zapped back at him, “That’s my motto and I do not think further.”
She continued – “Before you start thinking how to ask, I will answer it myself.”
Jaya smiled and Girish too had a pleasant grin on his face.
“I lost my parents in January last year. My father was a bright scientist and worked at the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. There was a conference that was scheduled in London in 1966 and my father took my mother along with him leaving me with my grandparents,” she continued
“The conference was for a week and my father thought, it would be a welcome change for my mother to visit a new place. I loved my grandparents since childhood and hence I did not create a fuss in them leaving me out. My exams were to begin in three weeks’ time. So, it was best if I stayed back and focussed on my studies.”
Jaya showed Girish a nice coffee shop and they both decide on that.
Lake Geneva was on to their right.
Just then a blonde waitress stepped out to take orders – “Bonsoir, Que voulez-vous boire?”
Jaya had learnt few beginner’ phrases in French and that was good enough to engage in a basic conversation –
“Je voudrais une tasse de café noir” and the waitress then looked at Girish.
He was clueless and had not invested enough time in learning French. Jaya stepped in and asked Girish, what would he like to drink? A black coffee or a milk coffee?
“Milk coffee for me” – Girish replied softly.
“Une tasse de café au lait pour le monsieur” – Jaya ordered on behalf of Girish.
A few seconds of silence and this time Girish reignited their conversation – “so, you were telling me……”
“Oh yes, where was I? Oh, yes, my parents left for London from Bombay on 23rd January. Although we hail from Bangalore, we were living in Bombay owing to my father’s work. My grandparents lived with us. I remember waving them goodbye at the airport,”
“They were on the Air India flight and the next morning, there was a flight crash as the flight accidentally flew into Mont Blanc. There were no survivors and along with my parents, other hundred passengers too lost their lives. Have you heard of the tragic death of the famed scientist Dr. Homi Jehangir Bhabha?”
“Yes, I did. It was very sad”
“Well, my parents were on the same flight. And we got this news a day later. My grandparents were distraught and I didn’t quite know how to react. I didn’t cry and my relatives were worried that I didn’t react at all.”
Jaya paused for the first time, she looked right to the sight of Lake Geneva and a few seconds later she resumed.
“It took me days, in fact weeks for the news to settle in. And I wept in my room just as I was preparing for my final exams. My grandparents heard me weep, came in my room and hugged me.”
She turned towards the lake and paused again. This time her silence was longer than few seconds ago.
Jaya turned towards Girish and continued –
“They just hugged me and didn’t utter any word. They had lost their son and daughter-in-law and I had lost my parents. All three of us wept for the common loss of ours – a loss that would be irreplaceable,” and she again turned towards the lake.
The waitress came with their orders – placed the black coffee in front of Girish.
Jaya corrected the waitress – “Le café noir est pour moi. Le monsieur avait ordonné le café avec du lait.”
“Excusez-moi, je suis très désolé.” – the waitress realised her error and quickly placed the milk coffee in front of Girish.
Another round of silence……both had not touched their cups. Jaya was back to staring at the lake.
Girish looked at Jaya and didn’t know what to say. He was short of words; he was confused and didn’t know how to proceed.
And, quite instinctively, he placed his hands over her. Jaya turned towards him – “I am sorry for your loss,” he said it with empathy.
A few seconds later, he slowly removed his hands and waited for her to react.
Probably, his instincts were right, Jaya brushed aside the thoughts she was caught up a few moments ago and took the cup of coffee from her right hand.
They sipped their respective coffees, and in between no words came out of their mouths. It seemed like they didn’t prefer talking while having coffee, or was it a uncalled break in their conversation?
All one could hear was the ‘chat’ coming from inside the restaurant. It was about 8 pm and most of the guests had finished their dinner and were bidding ‘au revoir’ to their friends.
Girish and Jaya sat silently just as the music started playing.
A pianist seated inside began the evening with the instrumental version of Herman Hupfeld’s masterpiece, ‘As Time Goes By’. This song caught everyone’s attention when it was used as a leitmotif in the 1942 romantic drama Casablanca.
Just like Sam in the movie, the pianist too played the piano in D major and mixed it up with B-flat major.
The B-flat major reminded Girish of Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘As Times Goes By’. The song suited the mood perfectly and they both sat in silence and not looking at each other.
And then moments later… the pianist started to sing with the tune…
“You must remember this. A kiss is just a kiss; a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by….”
Girish was looking at Jaya and she looked back at him. None gave away anything and in the background, they could hear….
“And when two lovers woo, they still say I love you. On that you can rely. No matter what the future brings, as time goes by……”
Jaya held Girish’s hands which were on the table without looking away ….
The pianist continued,
“Moonlight and love songs, never out of date. Hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate. Woman needs man and man must have his mate, that no one can deny.”
He too held her hands firmly…
“It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory. A case of do or die. The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by.”
And Girish uttered these lines in sync with the pianist looking firmly into Jaya’s eyes –
“Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers. As time goes by.”
There was a moment that swept them while ‘As time goes by’ was playing in the background.
And to add to this, Girish uttered those lines – “The world will always welcome lovers,” Jaya pondered and didn’t know what to say or how to react.
The ever-chatty Jaya had gone into her shell and remained there.
“So, where do you live?” – Girish asked Jaya.
He deliberately changed the topic to make her feel at ease. He was now with a girl who remained silent, someone very different to whom he had met earlier in the day.
“I live in Lausanne, a few thousand meters away from the lake,” she pointed in a direction.
“Do you like it there,” the change in topic seemed to reignite their conversation.
“Yes, I love it. The lake is my friend when I feel lonely in my apartment. I just take a walk along the lake and walk up to Ouchy. And sometimes, I swim on the lake or other times, I take a boat and go to Evian le bains.”
Jaya was out of her shell, “Of course, I do have a schedule to manage as I am still a student. But I feel, I am now part of this city and the lake.”
She looked at the lake and pointed far away – “There, I am not sure if I am accurate, but I stay that far away” and she laughed.
Girish felt a touch better when he saw her laugh. It had been a heavy forty minutes or so and he knew he had walked on tricky waters when he heard her tragic story.
But he got an impression, it was half the story. Girish sensed there is more to it.
He pondered on her words which she said earlier – “Because there is no one back home.”
Girish felt it was best not to dwell in her past further. At least, at that moment.
He continued, “Can I suggest something, aren’t you hungry?”
Jaya pulled out a grin on her face. “Didn’t you fill enough with all those savouries at the apéro?”
Apéro was not his thing. Bowls of olives, assorted Swiss cheese, nuts, pickled cucumbers, chips and few meat sandwiches weren’t going to fill his stomach, the way he was used to.
In fact, it made him a touch irritated as it wasn’t the perfect appetizers either.
“How much can one chew nuts or cheese before dinner,” Girish visibly upset.
“All I did was munch few salted chips and drink a glass of orange juice. The conversations with few went deep and so I had a glass of apple juice.”
He continued, “I am used to having a proper meal. And I don’t get the point. Why not a buffet when we have such gatherings in the evening. Why stop at apéro?”
“Hee-hee, you know it requires a lot of planning and coordination to host a buffet for such a big delegation. And besides, the culture over here is to have an apéro and many of the locals I know fill their stomachs before calling it a day.”
Girish was not amused with her answer. She continued,
“They enjoy when they are invited for an apéro. In one year and being a student, I am used to stuffing my stomach with all the savouries. And mister, no restaurant would serve the food of your liking at this hour. It is 8.30 in the evening.”
She had resumed her bubbly-ness, “Wait, maybe we can have a look at the Genève-Gare. There might be something to eat,” Jaya led the way and asked for the waitress to bring the bill.
And Jaya was unstoppable, “This is the best part about dining out. Even though we had just two cups of coffee, the staff over here didn’t pressure us to leave when finished. But if you are seated at a reserved table, they may come and politely request us to hurry or leave as they must prepare and set the table for the reserved guests. I like that etiquette very much. That way we can have better conversations.”
What can a vegetarian find at 9 pm in a train station in Genève? It was a rarity for a person to not eat meat in this part of the world. But there he was sticking to his beliefs and policy of remaining that way. Jaya understood where he was coming from and didn’t advocate him.
Jaya shifted to eating meat when she found it tough living in Lausanne.
Girish by now had demonstrated he was not flexible when it came to altering his food habits.
“I have a confession to make. I too come from a vegetarian family, but things changed once I landed in Lausanne. How much can one take lettuces and other raw vegetables?”
She continued, “Yes, there is Pizza Margharita, Cheese sandwiches and occasional potato gratins – good food was rare, few and expensive. I tried a few days with just croissants and other bakery products, it just didn’t work out.”
And to add to her woes, “My roommates are from Iran and Vietnam – and all I had each night was boiled rice with boiled vegetables while they gorged themselves with meat. I got tired of eating pasta with tomato and pesto sauce.”
Girish laughed at her and Jaya continued – “And besides, I am a touch lazy to cook for myself. Earlier I enjoyed it while cooking with my family”……
and suddenly both their faces expressed different emotions. Her face went a bit pale as it was not so long ago she remembered her deceased family and now those happy memories came back again.
What is the point in having such memories, when you know you cannot relive them? Why can’t one just forget about it and move on? Why moving on isn’t easy and needs effort? Why should we struggle to feel better?
Those thoughts must have crossed Jaya’s mind innumerable times in those last fifteen months.
No matter what one says about moving on – it is like climbing a peak. One must take it one step at a time to conquer the peak. And to those hard-felt feelings, one should keep living the day as it presents and fill with fresh memories, that way old memories no longer hold you back.
“Look what I found” – Girish brought Jaya her back to the world.
She was lost in her thoughts while he was busy looking for some food.
Girish held a baguette which had cheese spread, three slices of tomato, few lettuce leaves and topped with mustard sauce. He would have preferred ketchup – but some sauce is better than eating bland.
Jaya smiled and this time looking at Girish’s childish exuberance in having discovered a baguette made from vegetables and cheese. He offered her half of it, “let’s have it together, what say?”
She pointed her right index finger to her stomach and indicated she was full.
Girish was puzzled, “How can you eat all those things and say you had your dinner?”
Jaya laughed a bit more and she had completely gotten off her thoughts.
While Girish’s eyes were on the baguette, she looked at him in a strange way.
She appeared lost, again – but this time it was different.
Jaya was lost in the present, looking at him, his entirety, which was a bit more casual with his coat neatly folded on his left hand. His tie was off and an unbuttoned shirt.
Jaya gazed at him and occasionally he looked at her while chewing, making gestures as to ask what was she thinking? She nodded as though it was nothing.
When a woman says nothing, it means she doesn’t wish to share. One needs to prod more and gently make her feel at ease. Then she might share what was on her mind.
Try you luck, it is not a guarantee.
Perhaps, she wanted those thoughts to remain just with her, closed in her secret garden where many such thoughts are stored.
What is the use of such thoughts that remain only with you? Will it come in aid when times are different from what you are experiencing right now.
Is life all about collecting such memories and keep storing so that someday they come back and give us solace?
What if the meaning of those thoughts change with time?
Girish had finished his meal and found Jaya lost in her thoughts, once again, “Where are you lost?”
Jaya was quick to respond – “Nothing, I am bit tired. I think I want to go home.”
“Oh, sure. I understand. I shall accompany you till Lausanne and then I take a train back to Genève.”
“That won’t be necessary, I can manage. This country is safe. Plus, you had a long day and don’t you have to work tomorrow?”
“At least, I will drop you till your platform,” he insisted.
Another moment of silence… and he continued, “I had a great time with you this evening. Thanks for asking me out for a cup of coffee.”
Jaya didn’t say anything and they walked slowly towards the platform. The day had been tiresome to her – physically and emotionally.
On one side, she met Girish and they spoke a lot and on the flip side, she spoke about a few things that made her touch sad. Mixed emotions!
They saw a drunkard seated on a bench and he was cleaning his mouth organ. He was in no state to play music or so, they thought. Within seconds came a rendition of French performer Edith Piaf’s ‘la vie en rose’.
The organist wasn’t just playing, he was conveying a message, a deep one. Not sure what was his exact state of mind, but the sound had a profound effect on people in the vicinity.
Girish got reminded of Audrey Hepburn and her rendition of ‘la vie en rose’ from the movie ‘Sabrina’.
He stood puzzled just as Humphrey Bogart in the movie.
The day was meant to be about his talk, but there he was, a few hours later, his thoughts far away from his vision to empower women in the developing and under developed countries.
Life is funny, if you give it a chance.
Girish didn’t know how to put those feelings away he has for Jaya.
Both, stood silently and just when the train rolled up on the platform, Jaya reminded him about the inaugural Jazz festival and before she boarded the train, she gave him a kiss on his right cheek and said in a very soft voice –
“I had a great time too. See you soon.”