The first time I laid eyes on Vasu’s blue eyes was when he came to the office to pick me up for a meeting across the city. They were striking, those blue eyes, set against the light brown of his skin, topped by his black hair which was neatly trimmed but curled a little around his ears and across his forehead.
He was dressed in a checked blue and green shirt and blue jeans, not the usual shapeless white uniform of the company drivers. He had been hired specially for this meeting because my boss wanted me to make an impression showing up with a fancy car and driver. I didn’t have my own car – I didn’t even dare drive in Bangalore’s traffic and even after five years living in the city, I often rode in the cabs with one eye covered and the other squinting in fear as the driver aggressively rammed through traffic.
He smiled pleasantly, introducing himself as he opened the door to the back seat of the clean, shiny car. The AC was running and a car freshener smell wafted out to me as I bent to seat myself. He said his name was Vasu, and he had a friendly voice to go with his handsome smile.
As we pulled into traffic, I realized right away that Vasu was not a typical aggressive and loud driver: he was careful, using his indicators, judiciously beeping his horn and travelling a safe distance in the lunch hour traffic. He kept his eyes on the road which meant I couldn’t see them again. And I wanted to see them again.
I tried small talk. “How has your day been?” I asked, clearing my throat to get his attention.
“Fine, fine,” he answered. “Yours, sir?”
“Oh, ok,” I answered. “I have this meeting – have to make a good impression.”
“Yes,” he repeated. “A good impression.” He glanced at me in the rear-view mirror and yes, there were those blue eyes, flecked with brown. My heart nearly skipped a beat.
I sat back, adjusting my tie and wishing I could just remove it. But then, that wouldn’t make a good impression would it? Lately, I’d had a lot of job stress. A pensive mood fell over me, and without realizing it, I sighed heavily.
“Sir?” Vasu inquired, glancing again at me in the mirror. “Shall I turn up the AC?”
“Oh no, I’m fine!” I held those eyes and smiled my best smile. He returned the smile.
“Sir, can I ask you – where are you from?” Now he wanted small talk, and I was all too happy to oblige.
“I am from the US,” I shared. “But for the past five years, I have lived here, in Bangalore. You?”
“From Bangalore only.” He said it with pride. “Five years you have been here, sir. How are you liking it?”
“I like it a lot,” I answered, truthfully. “The weather is great. The people too.” I couldn’t help but smile at him again. Especially blue-eyed you, I silently intoned.
“Ah yes, the weather is perfect, I think?” he asked, smiling. “But very hot soon.”
And so the conversation went as we drove to my meeting. He spoke English far better than my Kannada, but sometimes we had funny confusions, laughing comfortably before figuring out what the other meant. By the time he dropped me off for the meeting and told me he would wait for me, I wanted him to wait for me his whole life.
When I was very young, I dreamed about who I wanted to marry when I grew up. I confess I loved to play house, but not the traditional game the neighbourhood kids played. I wanted to be the husband, and I wanted a husband in my game of house. The boys all thought this was funny, the girls got their feelings hurt and in the end, I carried on conversations about my future bad day at the office with thin air.
In college, I dated a few men. I had a serious relationship my last year of college, but it couldn’t last outside the graduation hall when he decided to go to one end of the country and I wanted to stay. My parents were older and had health problems. My father had struggled to stay employed for some time due to health issues. I elected to stay and work near them, helping them with their bills and doctor appointments.
When my parents died, I went through a deep depression. But slowly my heart began to yearn for another place. When I had been young, I used to pour over the atlas, struggling to pronounce the names of cities and countries, mesmerized by photos of faraway lands, and dreaming of visiting at least one, if not more. Suddenly the idea of waking up every day to what I had known all my life was more terrifying than that inevitable day when I wouldn’t wake up at all.
What was I waiting for? I began to search for jobs outside the US and settled on India. How much more different from the US could I get? I did my research, I got my résumé and degrees in order and I applied for jobs. When I received a place in a multi-national company which had an office in Bangalore, I was thrilled.
I looked at myself in the mirror and my plain brown eyes looked back, set in a pleasant looking face. Short dark brown hair and a fine sprinkle of freckles across rounded cheek bones sometimes made me look younger than my 30 years. But there was tiredness around my mouth, pulling my lips down. I needed this new lease on life.
Vasu was my driver on several more trips from the office to some other office across the sprawling city. By this time, I knew he was not married, but had a brother who was and a nephew whom he adored. He lived with his parents, and his brother and his wife also lived with them. It was a crowded house. He spoke briefly about having to marry soon – he was 29 years old, and that was pushing it for an Indian man – but a suitable girl had not been found. He didn’t elaborate on that part of his life, and I chose not to think about it either.
He had a dream to quit driving one day, once the loan was paid off on his parents’ home. He wanted to set up a little general store, the sort one can find all over India: selling daily needs, like bread and snacks, lentils and rice, a few cool drinks and bananas on a hook. He described it with a small smile, as if he had seen that store in his mind a million times. No more clients, no more deadlines and worries about traffic, his back sore from sitting long hours.
I tried to help him with his dream by having the office always request him. And I tipped him generously, uncomfortably aware of all the special things he did just for me: a copy of the magazine I liked to read tucked into the seat pocket, fresh cool water, a stop at the bajji stall I liked on the way back from a meeting, helping me with my bag when he dropped me at my house.
One day I convinced him to eat lunch outside with me. An early meeting had turned into a past lunch marathon and as we returned to the office, I realized the office canteen would have stopped serving food by then. I asked him if he knew anywhere we could stop for some lunch, and he suggested a local hotel. Until that moment, we had always maintained a friendly relationship, which never overstepped boundaries culture had built for us: he was the driver, and I was the client. Eating together was stretching those boundaries.
We were the only customers at the hotel. The juice boy idly watched us as we looked over the plastic coated menu under a slow turning ceiling fan. We ordered the lunch thali, one each, and sweet lime water. Vasu fidgeted nervously as we waited for the food, as if worried his boss would leap out from behind the filtered water machine, waving and screaming at him about indecorous behaviour.
Without thinking, I reached across the metal covered table and grasped his hands in both of mine, attempting to calm him. In that instant, everything else faded except for the feeling of his warm hands. The traffic outside, the bang of the cooks, even the whir of the fan blurred to silence, just like in a movie.
He stopped fidgeting instantly. I stared at our hands, light and dark, clasped on the table top. Slowly I looked up, and then our eyes locked. I was certain that his registered the same electricity I felt. At that moment, all I could wonder was what it would feel like to kiss his full lips. I half feared that my wonder was written like a question across my face, and part of me hoped it was: it was obviously not a question I could just ask.
The server at the counter behind us interrupted our moment, slamming our thalis down and calling out our order. We both rose, our hands pulling apart, each muttering that we would get the meals. My voice was louder, and for once, Vasu listened to me and allowed me to fetch the thalis, allowed me to serve him. His eyes avoided mine as we started our meal. But as we scooped up the last of the curry and rice, our eyes met again, and he smiled.
Maybe it was just me, but I read a lifetime of possibilities in that smile.