It began thus four years ago when I answered an advertisement in a personals section of a classified website.

The author sought conversation and companionship.

It was his post, well-tempered in tone and tenor, which peeled away from my notion that this site was merely for the damaged and the delusional.

I wrote to him in anticipation, admitting this was my first sally on the site, uncharacteristic and wild.

I am a writer with a love for art and culture, conversations on books, the music of the years you mention, and on this-and-that. I am also intrigued by the idea of befriending someone I don’t know. Call it a writer’s fetish or by any other name.

While I seem to be falling for the allure of the net that offers a dimension where one can leave few fingerprints, I am aware that it eventually steals your secrets. So if you have the time and inclination for chat ‘til the secrets tumble out, drop a line or many.

“Hope you are not impatient with an identity cloaked by anonymity for the time being, and I don’t come up empty-handed.

He wrote back in an hour.

Hello whimsical writer,

I am glad you stumbled upon my profile and decided to write. Uncharacteristic and wild is perhaps what makes life interesting, else we would all be in a perpetual groove and that could get boring.

I had been meaning to put up a profile for at least a year, if not more. Inertia and laziness and the thought of spending time trying to compose something that may elicit a response was coming when I just decided to pen something on the spur of the moment, and here we are!!!

I work in the financial sector and before that functioned as an entrepreneur. Now I am selective about the projects I get involved in. I need to believe in both the business and the people before I undertake an assignment.

My father was in the services and my parents moved here and there. I was left behind with my grandmother in a small town, but hoisted back when they anchored in New Delhi. They said she was spoiling me rotten, but I saw no rot in it!!!

What you do sounds infinitely more interesting than the mundane playing with numbers that I do. And from the first read of your response, it does look like there can be seeds here of something that could grow into, shall I say “friendship” or perhaps “companionship.”

I am not impatient at all and yet will impatiently await your response.

I was enticed, to say the least. by this suave, smooth-tongued soul close to my age, who spoke a language I could follow.

I had begun straying into the website’s subsections more often than I intended or was willing to admit, looking for something. Something removed from erotic intimacy, as such incoherent urges began playing a less assertive strain in my life when I came to be of a certain age, and because of the fact that I have always been given to anxiety at the smallest of amorous overtures.

What then? Someone who matched me in my curiosity of life, someone knowing of my pilgrim soul and the sorrows of my changing face, as Yeats would have it. Things I, or we, had paddled away from in our marriage that otherwise floated calmly.

Appalled and intrigued in equal measure with the blatant lustprinzip that went on at the website and the staying power of malleable social mores that allowed for immediate accessibility of sexual escapades at the touch of the keypad, my plight was ludicrously like the drinker of milk under a toddy tree!

The young are all about maximum possibilities and uninhibited sexual inquiry. In my defense, there were artful sections titled “Platonic” and. “Missed Connections” that held out the allure of subtlety and refinement in the exchange.

This is where I drew luck. Many emails and many details began flowing rapidly both ways.

He talked of the end of his schooling, beginning college abroad, his first taste of freedom, his love for radio and the timeless music of Album Trinity Session (particularly the haunting melodies of the Cowboy Junkies), Richard Burton’s renderings, addiction to garlic bagels, introduction to drinking, the enhancement of manhood that a cigarette dangling from his lips brought, and of phases in his life where extracting joy from every moment and reckless disregard for tomorrow was all he could think of. And of his present obsession with Segoe UI Light font.

Of his marriage, he said that in the current moment, bridges were a challenge to the status quo that existed. “The status quo is good because it is known and familiar. I have learned to deal with it and keep my sanity. Turbulence and the aftermath of turbulence, when even in solitude your mind is racing and anger and bitterness are flowing through your veins, is much more toxic. Civil we are to each other, but…”

Locked into my incognito persona, I laid out my life as he did his. I spoke of the many apertures closing in. My earning capacity, drive to achieve, urge to take risks, and changes in my career. I admitted to something missing in my marriage, too. I was not courageous enough to say what. He let me keep my vulnerability.

Urged by feminine curiosity, I once asked him if I had competition on the chat site. There is competition, he said. “A lady said ‘hi’ yesterday. To my reply asking for more information, I got this: Myself Aarti Khanna, female, age 23 yrs. Delhi. Formidable competition, you can see!!!”

If that pleased me, his observation, “I loved your comment about not tiring of your own company. I have often said that unless you can appreciate your own company, you can never really appreciate the value of another,” took me to a place beyond reason.

I am aware that we seldom attribute common sense except to those who agree with us. But I was too caught up in our connectedness to think about any disagreement.

It happened earlier than I imagined.

Instinctively, I should have known the word “companionship” in the advertisement was a loaded one. I was foolish enough to believe we could keep the equipoise, the status quo, and the known and familiar for a long stretch.

The disturbance in the balance began when he said, “I have reread your emails a few times and I find it quite incredulous as to how easy I find this interaction. You had in your first email mentioned anonymity and patience. I just wanted to tell you that I respect what you said and I expect you to take the lead when and if this correspondence is to make a leap from the ether to the real world. ‘Til then, I am happy to be your “e-friend,” as much as I hate the prefix ‘e.’”

While I was content to circle and loop in our shared space, he wanted more.

“If your body goes in search of a relationship, we call this sexuality. If your mind goes in search of a relationship, we call this companionship. If your emotions go in search of a relationship, we call this love. If your energies go in search of a relationship, we call this yoga.” He said he wanted all of this.

I lacked the courage and honesty to take the first step. I chose to remain a fictitious name on the screen, a faceless and formless persona.

Cultural conformity or confusion about what I was seeking?

When I used the second as armour, he said, “I do not know if ‘seeking’ is what should drive you. Seeking implies an incompleteness and I do not know if I will be able to complete anyone, but when you recognize your own completeness (because you are complete) and wish to share what you are, then there will be joy at the end of the journey.”

The tapering off happened not in words as with long delays in text messages.

His last mail was this:

And once again, and wiser in no wise,
I chase your coloured phantom on the air,
And sob and curse and fall and weep and rise
And stumble pitifully on to where,
Miserable and lost, with stinging eyes,
Once more I clasp, and there is nothing there.

I could not relent or respond.

The classified website personal section has long been shut down, eliminated on the grounds that many of their personal sections were grounds for traffickers.

Perhaps it is also best for those who come seeking for “companionship” in a place where people are unwilling to provide it.