Dedicated to Stephen and Manjula
The day we met Stephen, Jean-Yves and I had just made a very long journey, with a somewhat delayed stopover in Delhi. We had finally landed in Bangalore, a small megalopolis of eight million five hundred thousand inhabitants, located in the South of India, in the middle of the afternoon.
As we got off the plane, we had an appointment with a friendly taxi driver, with red hair, following the Indian men’s fashion. He recognized us at once, and he had masterfully pulled us out of the traffic jams of the megalopolis.
Unlike thousands of young Indians who, fascinated by the attractions of the city at the cutting edge of new technologies, dream of settling there, we had absolutely no desire to stay there. Instead, we were drawn to small towns of 800,000 people, such as Mysore, or to the villages of Wayanad. After a 15-hour trip, the first human being who offers you a bed and a cup of tea is immediately friendly. This was the case with Stephen, with whom we immediately perceived the little something that made him even more sympathetic to us.
Once settled in thanks to the good care of our host, he showed us a small restaurant where we could taste a good thali. As for our host, he preferred to take advantage of this early evening to walk with his faithful companion Lucy. The thali was quickly served, accompanied by chapatis straight out of the oven, and from the very first bites, we were once again immersed in the flavours of Indian cuisine.
As soon as the meal was over, we left for a digestive walk to discover this charming district and its many parks. We immediately fell under the charm of the verdant Mysore, savouring the smallest moments and the smallest details of this new and long awaited encounter with India. This immense, elusive country, between chaos and extreme delicacy, fascinated us at every corner of its streets.
Around 7 p.m., as night was already beginning to fall, it was time to return to Stephen’s house. Sitting in his living room, with a distracted eye on the television, he immediately invited us to sit down and exchange a few words. We settled down comfortably on the bed that served as a couch. Stephen was in front of us, in the corner closest to the kitchen. Lucy was walking back and forth between the kitchen and the bedroom. And that’s how you would have found us a few hours later, if you had been there on November 25, 2019. As the evening progressed, we talked about the state of the world, about our reading and especially about the excellent works of Naomi Klein, which we had devoured with passion. We shared on the meaning of life, on our desires to write about each other and on our singular love stories. Little by little, we got to know Stephen and discovered that he moved to Mysore in 2014, to create a guest house with the project of associating a small tourism business with bike tours of Mysore. He had been eager to involve Indians from the outset.
So he hired Satish, to whom he entrusted the management of the touk-touk and bicycle tours. He chose Manjela, a young woman from a nearby neighbourhood, to manage the reception at the guesthouse.
A great complicity quickly developed between Stephen and Satish. This complicity still continues and they give each other advice. Their points of view often diverge but they always manage to agree. From the first glance, it is clear that they have been friends for several years.
With Manjela, things have been quite different. Of course, there was complicity between the two of them, but it gradually took on a completely different form, with a little something more that neither of them could identify. They didn’t dare to talk about it, was it out of modesty, out of reserve, out of taboo or out of prohibition?
This moment in Stephen’s story was emotionally very strong for us. Our thoughts then took us far back in time, about 10 or 15 years back in time, referring us to our own story, when we were struggling ourselves in a curiously similar situation. We had been working together for a long time, being also very complicit, with that same little something more that we had been slow to identify. We had taken a long time to talk about it, was it out of modesty, out of reserve, out of taboo or out of prohibition?
As time went by, whether for Stephen and Manjela or for Jean-Yves and me, complicity, esteem and trust had grown with their share of emotions, of buried feelings, kept deep inside ourselves so as not to shock… How amusing to discover that almost 8000 kms apart, we had been carried away in quite similar stories, stories that were both forbidden and compelling at the same time. At one point, it was no longer possible for either of us to pretend, and we had to face our fears, to go beyond the presuppositions of life to make a serious decision. This type of decision that is imposed, as is imposed on a diver who has been in apnea for too long, the need to breathe.
Stephen had feelings for Manjela, there was no denying it, but he didn’t feel authorized to feel them, let alone express them. He was afraid of falling into the clichés of « the Englishman who falls in love with his servant ». For her part, Manjela did not even imagine that the handsome Englishman who had hired her could feel the slightest emotion when he saw her. If only… She felt closer and closer to him. Stephen wasn’t always easy and it took a long time to argue before he changed his mind. However, she had noticed that with her, he was giving in quite quickly, more and more quickly in fact… She also felt more and more moved when he approached her or when he asked her advice to make decisions about the running of the guesthouse.
At that time, the guests were more and more numerous and most of the time they considered them as a married couple. None of them knew what was really going on between Stephen and Manjela. But, as the guests looked at them in this way, the two of them, increasingly madly in love, without daring to admit it, had ended up falling into each other’s arms. They got engaged in 2015 and took the opportunity to make a trip to Great Britain. Manjela marvelled at everything and took Stephen in her wake. He was rediscovering his home country through Manjela’s eyes and that made him deeply happy. They had travelled here and there and each time Stephen was seized, transported by Manjela’s eyes and emotions.
If our trip to India had ended just after that first evening spent listening to Stephen tell us his story with Manjela, we would have been overjoyed. Moved by this love story, we fell under the spell of Stephen and Manjela. Although we had not yet met Manjela, we had felt her presence in each of the rooms, like a touch of typical Indian femininity delicately placed here and there.
Stephen also showed us some of their photo albums. I particularly admired them, on the official photo of their wedding, whose celebration took place according to Hindu rites, in 2018. I also liked the photo on which Manjela used for the first time the vacuum cleaner brought back from their engagement trip. Jean-Yves and I were touched by the photo immortalizing the offering they had made to an ashram for the elderly. Not having wanted a gift for their wedding, they had proposed to their friends to participate in this offering. I also fell in love – not like Stephen with Manjela of course – with the two photos of Manjela on a beach. Lying on the sand, dressed in her turquoise-blue saree, her whole body shows her well-being. She savours this magical moment 200%. We have also flashed on the photo in which Stephen and Manjela, their eyes sparkling with love for each other, are sitting peacefully on old rough stone steps. I immediately liked the complicit glances you see in the photos taken at the wedding ceremony. Manjela is so beautiful, so exquisite in her bright blue saree. There is also the photo in which Manjela is putting a flower necklace around Stephen’s neck, according to the wedding ritual. Her eyes are so wide open that they could have swallowed her beloved and tender in one look. It was March 1, 2018, if I’m not mistaken. Complicity, harmony, love, respect are the words that come to mind as I recall the discovery of the photos in these albums. If there was a Nobel Prize for love stories, there is no doubt that Stephen and Manjela would have received it that year!
This first Indian evening was long and full of emotions. The discovery of Mysore by bike was waiting for us the next morning, so it was more than time to slip into the arms of Morpheus, or rather into the arms of one of the 300 million Hindu Gods.
By Nathalie (under the loving and demanding gaze of Jean-Yves).
Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)