Preeti looked at her friend seriously.
“You’re sure you want to do this?”
Namrata nodded, eyes wide. Then she burst into laughter. Preeti shook her head. “You know what you’re getting into, huh, Nammu? You’ve never seen him before. You don’t even know his name.”
“That’s the fun part. Want a mockie?”
Preeti nodded. “Yeah..but you’re too much.”
“That I am.” Namrata got up and went to the kitchen to fix them both their regular mock-tail.
“Preetu, you want more lime in yours?” Namrata shouted from inside.
“No, the usual,” Preeti said absently as she took the tv remote in her hand. Namrata returned a few minutes later and handed a glass to her childhood friend.
They sipped in silence for a while, while Preeti browsed the channels.
Namrata snatched the remote from her hand after two minutes, switched off the TV and threw the remote on the couch.
“Don’t you want to know more about him?” Namrata said, her eyes sparkling. “Nerd.” Namrata added, chuckling.
“Oh, whatever,” her friend said. “I’m not so much for this internet romance, you know it.”
“Yeah, but it’s so exciting na? Imagine, we just know each other through our blog names. And even our chat IDs are pseudo. But he’s such a dude, yaar, I tell you. Charming, sensitive…humorous,” Namrata babbled in the air.
Preeti motioned with her hand. “Come down, madam, come down. All these so called ‘internet heroes’ are like that. But once you meet them, all the charm and sensitivity goes out the window. You be ready for that.”
“Ha, that we’ll see. First let me crack his identity.”
Preeti sipped her drink and looked at her friend. “What, is this some sort of a game you both are upto?”
Namrata’s smile turned wicked. “Wanna know?”
“Go on,” Preeti said, with a sigh. “Might as well listen to your crap than watch the crap on TV. Nothing worthwhile anyway.”
“Ok, great. Look,” Namrata said, all excited as she sat facing her bum-chum. “Valentine’s day is a couple of months away. And I and stringer…oh by the way, that’s his blog name…”
“Stringer? Ugh, what a name.” Preeti said, pushing out her tongue. Namrata slapped her shoulder in mock.
“Yeah, listen. His name is stringer. And he has put up some of his guitar strains up on his blog. You should listen babe…aah,” Namrata said dreamily. “He is a dream. He plays like a dream, talks like a dream..and to top it he’s so so mature, I tell you.”
“Nammu, please. As it is I’m getting a headache hearing about this holier than thou, too-good-to-be-true guy. Just tell me your deal.”
“Yeah,” Namrata said, laughing and blushing. Preeti’s jaw dropped. She shook her head and sipped from her glass.
“So, yeah – we plan to meet on Valentine’s day, provided – we crack each other’s identity first. Else the deal’s off.”
“That’s so lame,” Preeti said.
“Oh, come on Preetu. Don’t say that. Isn’t it exciting? Like a suspense movie. So..if I crack his identity first, he treats me. And vice versa.”
“And then what? We go on our first date…and…” Namrata said, head up in the air, “Who knows, maybe we’ll stick together, you know..”
“Nammu. Puhleeeese. Please tell me you’re just pulling a fast one on me and aren’t actually going to do all this.”
Namrata looked at her friend seriously. “I’m serious Preetu.”
Preeti turned sober. “Awww..baby –sorry. I didn’t mean to..you know..”
Namrata sulked for a moment.
“Hey,” Preeti turned her friend’s chin towards herself. “Ok, chalo, I was only kidding. But then, don’t you think this is, you know, kinda difficult? How’re you going to do this? Do you know where he lives? What he does? Where he works etc?”
Namrata shook her head.
“So?” Preeti asked, raising her eyebrows. “How’re you going to ‘crack’ his identity madam?”
“I need your help,” Namrata said, still sulking.
Preeti turned serious. “So, this is what it’s all about.”
“No, but I need to start somewhere na, hon?”
Preeti was a hacker. She shook her head. “No way. That’s cheating.”
“Arre, how’re you sure he’s not going to do the same? Chalta hai na”
“But I thought you said he was sensitive, mature. If he’s all that, would he do it?”
Namrata pursed her lips. “I don’t know.”
“Now you don’t know.”
“Yeah, but I thought it’d be so much fun.”
They just looked at each other silently for a brief moment.
“You know absolutely nothing about him?”
Namrata shook her head. “He’s very careful with his posts. Even his blog information. All hush-hush.”
“Sounds very suspicious.”
“Hmm..and I know you haven’t given away anything either.”
“See?” Namrata smiled.
“What about FB? Twitter?”
“So what do you want me to do?” Preeti asked finally.
“Get into his inbox for me?”
“But you said even his email ID was with a made-up name?”
“Yeah, but he’ll be mailing someone, and they’ll address him by his real name, right? That’ll be a start…”
Preeti couldn’t believe her ears. “You’re nuts.”
“All’s fair in love and war,” Namrata said giggling.
“I hope he turns out to be a pot-bellied 65 year old man, with nothing else to do in life.”
“Shut up. If he was that, he wouldn’t have agreed to meet me”
“You don’t know men,” Preeti said finishing her drink. “Anyway, I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Trust me, baba,” Namrata said.
Namrata waited outside Crossword, her heart sprinting. She kept looking at her watch. She rubbed her hands and adjusted her stole. Her mind raced back to the past couple of months.
Preeti had found nothing Stringer's inbox. That meant, he had created that ID just to chat with her. Then a month later, Namrata received a call.
“Hello?” It was an unknown number.
“Is that Namrata Kashyap?”
“Oh I don’t blame you that you don’t recognize my voice. This is the first time, you see.”
“Can we safely assume, Ms. Namrata – a.k.a Silver Clouds, that I’ve won the bet?”
Namrata’s heart leapt to her mouth. “Stringer?”
He laughed. And that laugh just took her breath away. Even his voice was magical.
Tongue-tied, all Namrata could manage in reply was, “Uh…hey. That’s cool. Yeah, you won, I guess.”
“That’s it? Nothing else?”
“Uh…what do I say?” Namrata said, giggling nervously.
“Say something – say ‘hi Stringer..it was nice to hear from you. I’m a loser since I still don’t know your real name. So can you please enlighten me?’”
Namrata winced. Ouch.
“Hey, not fair…I mean..”
“Not fair? What’s not fair sweetheart? I cracked it. Simple as that,” he said, laughing out loud.
“But…how – how did you get this number? That’s near impossible. I don’t..I haven’t….” And then – “Hey, you cheated. Did you hack into my account or something?”
Namrata used this ID to even email some of her friends.
“Oho – so did you try hacking into my account?” Again, laughter.
“No, no..no way. Why’d I do that?”
“Umm..I don’t know. Maybe you are a techie. It’s possible, right? Oh sorry…I forgot. You’re not a techie. You’re an animator.”
Namrata’s jaw dropped all the way to the ground. No way.
“How’d you…?” The words just stopped in their tracks.
He laughed some more. Her mind worked furiously. How could he’ve possibly known all about her? She was dead sure she hadn’t given out any clue about her real life on her blog. She didn’t have a Facebook ID with that name. She didn’t have a twitter account. She hadn’t told anything about her animation in the blog. She always wrote things like poetry, her thoughts about the world in general, her memories, things like that. But never about animation. So how come?
Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn.
“So…are we going to meet on February 14?” He said slowly.
“Uh..” Now she wasn’t so sure. After all the endless chattering with him, she suddenly felt like she didn’t know him enough to meet him. But he had done nothing wrong. It was as per the deal – he found out about her, and had called her. As simple as that. But strangely, she felt defeated. Cheated. Strange, there was no reason to be. He’d just gone ahead and won his part of the bet. Then why?
“Developing cold feet, are we?” He said.
“Hey, no..no, it’s not that.”
“Or maybe you think I’m a 65-year old pot-bellied old man, with nothing else to do in life?”
“Oh come on, why’d I think that? I just…”
Wait a minute.
“What did you say just now? Say that again?” Namrata said.
In reply he just laughed his thunderous laugh again.
“Who..who’re you?” she asked meekly now.
“I’ll tell you when we meet. Is that a deal?”
“Yeah, ok,” she said quietly and hung up.
Now, as the winter wind grew colder, Namrata hugged herself tighter and shuddered. Where the heck was this guy?
She felt a tap on her shoulder and swung sharply.
There he was.
He smiled. She noticed that his smile was as infectious as his talk. She smiled back. They laughed for a moment, maybe more at the absurdity of it all. He was not a Greek God, but not so bad either. His eyes shone and he seemed totally at ease with himself.
“So?” He said finally, rubbing his hands. “Cold, huh?”
She nodded. She had made a long list of questions to shoot at him, but strangely, she remembered none now.
“Coffee?” He pointed at the café beside the bookstore. She nodded again.
“Hmm, you’re a girl of few words, oddly,” He said and laughed again.
Once inside, they settled down. He ordered for them and let out a sigh, once they were alone again.
“So tell me Namrata. How’ve you been?”
“Umm…ok,” Namrata said, smiling.
“I know you’ve been dying to ask questions. Shoot.”
She laughed. “Oh.”
She hemmed and hawed for a while and then slowly and surely, the questions poured. Who was he? How did he figure out her identity? How did he know this, how did he know that? And most importantly, how on earth did he get her number?
“The last question is fairly simple. I’m not from any mobile service provider, as you might be guessing, neither do I have any friend working there.” He laughed. She smiled.
“I got your number from your best friend – Preeti.”
“Wha….” Namrata’s head reeled. How on earth did he know Preeti? Her? Of all the people?
“But I never blogged about her, not even once,” Namrata said, more like thinking out loud.
“You never blogged about her, but you know from the time you started blogging, regardless of who else visited your blog and commented, she was sure to comment. You know that, right?”
Namrata nodded. He was right, Preeti had a technical blog of her own where she mostly jabbered about tech-stuff, stuff she’d never bothered understanding. But Preeti never failed to visit her blog and encourage her.
“But still…how did you know it was me?”
He laughed. “I didn’t. I asked her.”
He leaned forward. “I studied your blog the last two months. Every thing you wrote. Every word you wrote.” Then a pause later, “even your comments. Each and every comment of yours.”
Namrata was stunned. She’d never thought of that. She had never cared to go through his comments section. Instead, she’d gone all over the place, trying to Google music groups of the city of which he might’ve been a part of. But that was too huge an exercise. He could be anybody in there. She’d given up after a while, only she hadn’t told him. And she was almost sure he’d given up on her as well.
“Yeah, sometimes we let out more about ourselves in the comments section – because we feel that’s a secondary area. Do you know how many times you both’ve addressed yourselves as buddy, chaddi-buddy, sis, babe, honey etc? Not to forget your pet names like Preets, Preetu, Nams, Nammu etc.”
“Yeah, but I could be Namitha, and she could be Preetika for all I care,” Namrata countered.
“Agreed. But once I confirmed that you were thick as thieves, I started following her blog closely as well. Never commented there, though. But I’d hang on to every word of hers.”
“Shit,” Namrata said. He smiled.
“Yeah. She belongs to the hacker’s club united, an online forum. Wasn’t such a big deal to figure out her name after that.”
“And then…I just got in touch with her.”
Namrata shook her head. “You’re too much. Wait till I get my hands on her, that bitch, she knew all along?” she said affectionately, in mock and laughed.
He laughed. “Yep. And you can get your hands on her right away. She’s coming to Crossword around now.”
“What?” Namrata said, unable to believe her ears.
“Yeah. Here she comes.”
Preeti walked in and came to them.
“Hi” She said to him.
“Hi,” he said.
“So have you told your name yet?” Preeti asked him. He shook his head.
Namrata slapped her forehead. She’d totally forgotten about his name.
“Ajay. Ajay Vasudev,” he said, laughing and extending his hand. Namrata shook it and then sat back, unsure what to say next.
“So…have fun you guys. I’ll see you later, ok?”
They waved as she walked out.
“Preetu, Preetu, Preetu,” Namrata said to herself.
“Hey, you asked for her help, right, after all?”
Namrata went red in the face. Obviously he knew about the hacking. She smiled sheepishly, putting out her tongue and holding her ears.
“It’s ok,” he said laughing.
"But this is not fair...Preeti ended up helping you instead," Namrata said.
"Really? I thought all was fair in love and war. So..what's this, according to you?"
Namrata pinched herself hard, but she couldn't stop blushing.
Then their coffee arrived - and they raised their cups to each other, smiling.