“What happened?”, Shikha asked, as I moved away from her, and switched on the light.
“Nothing”, I said, lighting up a cigarette. “I remembered I had to call up someone”.
“A$$hole”, she snapped. “You’re not leaving me like this”
“It will take a few minutes. Logistical issues”
“And they can’t wait?”
“Not really. But I’m finding it hard to concentrate here”
“You must be kidding me”, she said, getting up. She snatched the cigarette from my hand, crumpled it into the ash-tray. “How many times do I have to tell you not to smoke inside the bedroom. Live one fucking room clean, will you?”
I got up, picked up the cigarette packet. It was empty. I cursed her as I walked into the hall. I dialed Riddhi’s number. It was late, but then Riddhi didn’t have a life outside work. A prospective customer wanted me to fly to Delhi and give a presentation to the board of directors, tomorrow. For a couple of days I had sat on it, and done nothing. Even a presentation was not ready. But then there was Riddhi. I realized that I could take her with me. That would solve two problems. I just needed to tell her that, and ask her to get the the presentation up. Tomorrow, neither of us would get much time to work on it.
After the call I slumped into the couch and switched on the TV. Some stupid Dance competition was on. Shikha loves to watch such shows. I have never figured out how she can waste her time on things like that. There was a time, not so long ago, when we used to be an active part of a film-club. We attended plays, live concerts, even art-exhibitions together. The tickets seemed exorbitant, in those days, and time even more precious. But we used to manage. It all changed when I got promoted at a pace we both hadn’t bargained for. Shikha was still struggling with part-time jobs. She hated spending time at home, but nothing was working out for her.
“You pig”, she said, throwing a pillow at me.
The dance competition was still on; I hadn’t changed the channel. Suddenly I remembered that she was waiting for me in bed. She was less angry, more amused. Familiarity breeds amusement, not contempt. Contempt is too weak to survive the test of longevity.
For all the talk of not taking people for granted, isn’t that what we do? I mean, I knew I should have apologized, but when you do something like that every other day, what the point anyways?
In the morning, as I reached the office, Riddhi was waiting for me with the draft presentation. She went over it, as I kept looking at her bare shoulders, thin and exquisitely feminine. Yes shoulders, of all things! I don’t know why. I think she caught me staring at her a couple of times, and looked away. I thought of what Shikha will think if I had an affair with Riddhi. Would she even care?
Midway, I lost whatever interest I had in the presentation. As it is, knowing the client, I knew there wasn’t much business prospect there. Still I had to take the chance. I was glad that I thought of taking Riddhi along. I’ll decided to let her do the presentation, and just take care of questions. She needed to learn to do that anyways.
Damn those sexual harassment guidelines, I thought as Riddhi put her arm on the common armrest on the plane. I was in the unenviable middle seat, thanks to the chivalry pressures. On my left, a balding middle-aged guy was leafing through the Economics Times. Riddhi was looking out at the setting sun. The sunlight was playing lights and shadows game on her face, underlining her sharp features. And I kept thinking she didn’t really need to use that arm-rest; she had her exclusive one on the window side. But there it was, her arm, freshly waxed, skin glowing in the reflected light, lightly resting on the armrest. I rested my arm alongside hers, barely touching. She moved her arm away.
Ten years of a prematurely aging marriage, and I had never felt so strong an urge to stray. For one night, mind you. Yes, the eye had roved before, the mind had drifted, the blood had boiled, but this was something different.
“There is something I need to tell you”, Shikha said, as I pulled her close to me.
“It can’t wait?”, I said, nibbling on her earlobes.
“No it can’t”, she said, violently pushing me away.
“You’re leaving me?”, I asked, half fearing she’ll say yes.
She smiled derisively. “I don’t exactly have the authority to tell you that, when I almost slept with a man”. She was on the verge of tears. I didn’t want to hear the details. But however fragile, our relationship had survived on truth. On details. In details lies the redemption, when the big-picture is bleak.
“Today, I had gone for an audition”, she started.
Will I be able to take the details, today, I thought. Like where all his hand moved. When exactly did she stop him, if she did?
“Shikha you don’t need to tell me”, I said. My voice was down to a whisper…
“Of course I do. I felt like a slut today. I realized today, the world is not as demeaning as we’ve all made it look like. When you want something desperately …. forget it. That sounds like a justification. And I don’t want to justify. Leave me Pranav, please … Because, you don’t want to live with a ghost”
“We’ll talk about that later”
“Oh yes. We must not jump the pages”, she said. Again derisively, only the derision was directed at herself.
“No I didn’t think of you when I decided I must stop it. That was before… before I consented… But then a fear gripped me. What if I can’t make it, even after this? Would I be able to live like a failed slut. I knew I couldn’t. It’s easier to live like a martyr. So, no, there is no ‘exit route’ for you, you see. You’ll have to judge me. It wasn’t our love which won. Just my fears”
We both couldn’t speak a word for a while. We, who had perfected the art of comfortable silence, struggled with the uncomfortable one.
“Leave me Pranav… please”
Martyrs are made from momentary glory, or madness. There isn’t much of a difference in the two. I don’t know what it was, but I said we could live through this. Against her premonition. She was right; it’s not easy living with a ghost.
We checked into a hotel, well past the dinner time. We weren’t very hungry either. We decided to have something light in the restaurant on the terrace. Riddhi was silent for most part of the flight. She was due for a promotion, and I knew what it meant to her. In all my professional career, I had never abused my position. The thought itself filled me with revulsion. But as I sat there with beer, I contemplated it seriously. Riddhi had changed into a simple thin-strapped top and an elegant skirt. She looked stunning.
“You know why I got you here, don’t you?”, I asked, point blank. Although that wasn’t really why I got her there.
“Pranav…” she started saying but stopped.
“Don’t you?”, I pressed, my voice ruthless.
“Yes, for the presentation”, she said. Lameness didn’t suit her, really. But she knew I was serious, yet hoped I was kidding. After all, nothing could have prepared her for this side of mine.
“You mean I couldn’t have done the presentation without you?”, I asked, sharply.
Her lips opened involuntarily. The lower lip trembled. She lowered her eyes.
“I didn’t mean it that way”
“I… Why are you doing this to me, Paranv? You’ve changed”
You bet I’ve changed, I wanted to say. Some asshole like me, has used his power to destroy my life, or the facade of it, anyway. Of course I’ve changed.
“Do you want the promotion? I don’t know how these things are done, and I don’t care. But I can’t pretend”
She didn’t say a word.
“You know, you don’t have too many options. The world you want to succeed in doesn’t leave you too many options. It’s now or later. That’s all”
A tear formed in her eyes. What kind of assholes do this, I thought, and then I realized I was doing it. Very seriously, although I was kidding myself this was just a game.
“If the answer is yes, meet me in my room afterwards. And for god’s sake, don’t cry. You’re not a kid anymore”
I knew she wouldn’t come. She would probably put up a case of harassment against me. Or just resign and move to some other job. I wanted her not to come, as I sat in my room, flipping through the idiot box.
I heard a knock. It was her. I let her in. She sat down on the bed.
“Pranav … ” she said. “When I went back to my room, I thought it’s some crazy nightmare. But I know it’s not. I mean, I knew things like this do happen in our field, but I always thought you were different. Anyways. I’m here now. What do you want to do?”
I moved next to her. I put my arm around her and pulled her face towards me. She had closed her eyes, but her face was contorted.
“You’ll have to take the initiative, you know”, I told her. “We reward only initiative”
Stop punching a dead bag, I kept on telling myself. Stop this torture. Stop this. How would Shikha have felt, you son-of-a bitch. Stop!
“No I’m not going to make it easy for you”, I said. “You will have to take the initiative”
She broke down. Started crying. “Please don’t do this to me… please… why are you doing this to me?”
It was then I realized what it would have taken for Shikha to not make excuses, even to herself. Not once did she abandon the responsibility of her choices, however forced.
“I’m sorry Riddhi. I am really sorry”, I said, as I patted her on her head. Go home. Take the next flight back. Your promotion is not going to be decided by these things, trust me. I’m so sorry… I cannot explain any of this. It’s up to you how you see this”
She looked at me with a look of incomprehension.
“Please go to your room”, I said as I lit a cigarette and walked out in the gallery.
I took the flight home the next evening. The presentation went well; Riddhi was absolutely professional, as always. On the plane back home, we checked in into distant seats. At the airport, I offered to drop her home, as it was late. She nodded.
“Why, Pranav?”, she said as we hit the road. That’s the first thing she had spoken to me after the previous night.
I shrugged. Explanations are a problem, because when you’re unclear yourself, you tend to give out the most sympathetic of the explanations, or the most judgmental, depending on whether you’re trying to absolve yourself, or punish yourself. I didn’t want to do either. Absolving was out of question. Punishing would have been an easy exit. I needed to live with the guilt, and learn what Shikha had learned. I guess I was being prophetic when I said to her, we could through it.
“Riddhi. I wish I knew. I would be lying if I said it was just a game. I am terribly sorry for what I did, but I have no answers… or explanations”
She looked at me, then looked away.
When I reached home, Shikha was already asleep. I rushed outside, to discard the cigarette I was smoking. When I entered the bedroom again, for the first time in years, I noticed that when she is asleep, her face still has an innocent look. I kissed her forehead and slumped onto the floor, right next to her.