Ashen Lives

“What happened?”, Shikha asked, as I pushed her away, and switched on the light.

“Nothing”, I said, lighting up a cigarette. “I remembered I had to call up someone”.

“Asshole”, 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 gotta be kidding me”, she said, sitting up. Then snatching the cigarette from my hand, she crumpled it into the ash-tray.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to smoke inside the bedroom. Leave one fucking room clean, will you?”

I got up, and picked up the cigarette packet. It was empty. I cursed her under my breath, 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 the next day for a presentation to the board. For a couple of days I had sat on it, and basically done nothing. But then I thought of Riddhi, and the idea of taking her along came to me. That would solve the problem of boredom, and the presentation. There was one problem, though. I had not told her yet that she was to travel with me in less than twenty-four hours. And also, there was the question of getting the presentation tweaked for the client. Tomorrow, neither of us would get much time to work on it. I was sure she would take care of it in the night.

*

The call went as expected. Riddhi was overjoyed at the opportunity, although she did make efforts to not sound very excited. She promised to take care of the presentation.

That done, I slumped into the couch and switched on the TV. Some stupid Dance competition was on. Shikha loves to watch such shows. Maybe that’s not true, but she watches them anyways. 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 watched plays, live concerts, even art-exhibitions together. The tickets seemed exorbitant, especially in those early days of struggle, and time was 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 supposed to be waiting for me in bed. The look on her face 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’s the point anyways?

*

Next morning when I reached the office, Riddhi was waiting for me with the 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 had 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 have always hated the common armrest. Plus, I was in the unenviable middle seat, thanks to the pressure of confirming to chivalry. On my left, a balding middle-aged guy was leafing through the Economics Times. I chuckled thinking how on planes I always end up seated next to balding middle-aged businessmen (or so I always think they are) 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, without making an eye contact.

Ten years of a prematurely aging marriage, and I had never felt so strong an urge to stray. For one night, mind you, but the urge was strong. Yes, the eye had roved before, the mind had drifted, the blood had boiled, but this — 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, lightly kissing her on the neck.

“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 am not exactly in the position to decide that, when I almost slept with another man”.

She was on the verge of tears. I didn’t want to hear the details. But however fragile it was, our relationship had survived on truth. On details. In details lies the redemption, when the big-picture is bleak.

“Today, I had been to 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”

“Shikha …”

“No. Listen to me. It will be easier in the long run. You don’t want to live with a ghost”

“Listen Shikha, we’ll talk about that later. You need time to deal with something like this”

“Oh yes. We must not jump the pages”, she said. Again derisively, only the derision was directed at herself.

“I know what you’re thinking, Pranav. 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 live with myself like that. It’s so much 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 this 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 sail 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. Neither of us was particularly hungry, so we decided to have something light in the restaurant on the terrace. Riddhi had been economical with words for most part of the flight. She was due for a promotion, and I knew what it meant to her. As she joined me in the restaurant, I noticed that she had changed into a simple thin-strapped top and an elegant skirt. She looked stunning. I looked at her appreciatively. She noticed that, and looked away.

The terrace restaurant was almost empty.  We sat down at a corner table. I looked at her, staring a few moments longer than I usually would. When she noticed it, she looked away again. In all my professional career, I had never abused my position. The thought itself filled me with revulsion. But as I sat there, sipping the cold beer, I contemplated it seriously. 

“You know why I got you along, don’t you?”, I asked, point blank. Although that wasn’t really why I had got her along.

“Pranav…” she started saying but stopped. She looked me in the eyes for a moment, a look of disbelief and hurt in her eyes.

“Don’t you?”, I pressed, my voice harsh.

“Yes, for the presentation”, she said. Lameness didn’t suit her, really. But she knew I was serious, yet hoped I was just kidding. After all, nothing could have prepared her for this side of me.

“You mean I couldn’t have done the presentation without you?”, I asked, coldly.

Her lips opened involuntarily. The lower lip trembled. She looked up again, and lowered her eyes, in an instant.

“I didn’t mean it that way, Pranav”

“So how did you mean it?”

“I… Why are you doing this to me, Paranv?” she whispered. “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 what mattered most in life, anyways. Of course I’ve changed.

“You know you’re due for a promotion, don’t you? Listen, I don’t know how these things are done, and I don’t care. But I can’t pretend. Let’s be honest about it”

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. It’s me or someone else. That’s all the choice you have got”

A tear formed in her eyes. What kind of assholes do this, I thought, and then I realized I was doing it. A part of me was dead serious, even as I was playing this dangerous 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 said, getting up.

*

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.

Half an hour later, there was a soft knock on the door. It was Riddhi. I let her in. She sat down on the bed.

“Pranav … ” she said, trying hard to keep looking at me. “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?”

Her voice seemed to have regained control, but her eyes betrayed her anxiety. There was still a hope there.

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, right now. Just stop it. How would Shikha have felt, you son-of-a bitch. Stop!

She opened her eyes, which were now pleading silently, hopelessly.

“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 Shikha to not make excuses, even to herself. Not once did she abandon the responsibility of her ‘choices’, however forced. And she was paying the price silently — not of the choice, but of assuming an agency. It’s so much easier to cope by letting go the illusion of agency.

“I’m sorry Riddhi. I am really sorry”, I said, as I patted her on the head, with genuine care. 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.

*

We 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 silently.

“Why, Pranav?”, she said as I pulled into the lane where she stayed. 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 wanted to do neither. 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 sail through it.

“Riddhi. I wish I knew. I would be lying if I said it was all just a game. I am terribly sorry for what I did — I know how horrible it was. But I have no answers… or explanations, neither for you, nor for me … yet”

She looked at me, then looked away.

When I reached home, half burnt cigarette in my hand, Shikha was already asleep; I rushed outside, to discard it. When I entered the bedroom again, for the first time in years, I noticed the innocent look on her face, when asleep. I kissed her forehead and slumped onto the floor, right next to her.

Even the frogs have brains

Even The Frogs Have Brains

It’s Prometheus’s fourth book, and suffices to say that it could as well have been his first! While most writers improve over time, with Prometheus it’s the opposite. He is forgetting what little he knew about the art of writing. It would have been so much better if he were writing non-fiction, because at least then he couldn’t be accused of lack of creativity. But this — The Other Half of Frog’s Brain — is worse than its title. I can understand Prometheus’s envy with the frog for its tiny but existent brain, however to write a book like this is insulting the intelligence of the readers. It’s a testimony to the sorry state of today’s literature that something like this sees the light of the day. I regret to say that there is an endless tunnel at the end of light….

Prometheus started reading the review of his latest book with a sense of hope, however going by the past record he knew that a bad review from Shiva would mean an instant best-seller. Not again, he thought. For Prometheus was going through a rough phase in his life. He always considered himself to be an intellectual: someone above the level of masses. But three straight books on the best-seller list had really sullied his reputation, and shaken his confidence. Before he could understand what was happening, he was a popular writer, and the masses were loving him!

He was sitting in his study, thinking about it all, and sulking. His reverie was broken by a loud knock on the door. He considered for a moment if he should feel angry about this disturbance, but decided otherwise. After all, he wasn’t in the middle of writing. He opened the door to find a clean shaven tall guy with a revolver in his hand.

“What do you want?”, Prometheus managed to babble.

“Shut up! And don’t move, or I’ll kill you”

That was ‘Kala Kauwa’ alias ‘Tatya Tapkayega’. His illustrious crime career consisted of two unsuccessful attempts to raid co-operative banks in remote parts of state — because both of the times as the cash was handed over to him, he kept the gun down and started counting the cash.

“Well, it was written there — Count before you leave the counter“, was his defense. But  then bank robberies were just a diversion. Tatya had bigger dreams.

“No, don’t shoot! Take anything you want, money, those books that I’ve signed… anything… Just don’t kill me. I don’t want to be mourned as a popular writer!”, Prometheus pleaded.

“Huh? Shut up”, roared Tatya, “Listen to me carefully. I’m Tatya Tapkayega. I’ve murdered twenty-one people so far. Twenty-two is no big deal for me.”

“…”

“Listen, I want you to write the story of my life. Aren’t you that famous writer?”

“Yes”, Prometheus said dropping his shoulders further.

“And if you don’t write exactly as I say, I will kill you. Don’t even think of going to the police, because my gang would kill you and your family. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes”

“So when do we start?”

“Well, first we need to decide on some sittings when you will have to narrate me your experiences, and then we can think about how we want to present it … ”

“What are you talking about? I don’t have that much time. I don’t care about the details; just write about the twenty-one murders. And I want it done by the end of this week”

Fantastic, Prometheus thought, twenty-one murders!

“Any rapes, sir?” he tried sarcasm, against his alleged better sense.

“Put in couple of them. But don’t be too graphic. I want the book to be for the general audience”

“We will be publishing it under your name, right?”

“Are you crazy? Who’ll publish it? We will publish it under your name, and when it’s a best-seller, you’ll give an interview and tell that it’s a true story: Tatya’s story.”

“But what if it doesn’t become a best-seller?”

“Oh! All your books have been best-sellers. That’s why I’ve come to you. So it better be a best-seller, or else… “

 

Twenty two is not a big deal for you…”.

 

Exactly!”

“God! Why do you do this to me! Now, if the book becomes a best-seller, I’m further slotted, and if it doesn’t I’ll be killed!”, Prometheus thought.

“Okay Mr. Tatya, you’ll have the first draft it by the end of the week. Is it okay if I cut out a few murders, twenty-one might be a bit too monotonous?”

“No way!” Tatya shouted, “Not a murder less, not a murder more. I want 21 murders. I’m Lord Ganesha’s devotee”

“Hi Darliiiiiiiiiing….” announced an excited female voice, only it chocked at the sight of Tatya and his gun.

That is Sakshi, the beautiful model who never takes part in beauty contests because she doesn’t like to wear a crown on her head. Make no mistake about it; if she does, she will have that crown on her head; she’s that beautiful. Sakshi’s main problem in life is that she wants a really ugly guy as her boyfriend. Well, what’s the problem, you ask? The problem is that they develop a deep inferiority complex, ruining the relationship. Manoj Dhingra (that’s Prometheus) is her latest boyfriend, and he’s really ugly.

“Don’t move, or I’ll kill you!” Tatya threatened her, which was unnecessary as she was already pretty threatened.

“Okay, now I’m leaving. You take care of this darling of yours, and make sure she understands! Otherwise, twenty three is not too much for me”

With that, he was gone.

“Who… who the hell was that?”, Sakshi finally found her voice.

“It’s a long story. Right now, I don’t have time. Just remember not a word about it to anyone, or he’ll kill us both”

“No! Okay. But what happens to our date?”

That was our date!”

“Let’s go somewhere, and you can tell me what happened, darling!”

“No. Not right now. In fact I can’t meet you for a week at least”

“No! You can’t dump me like that!”

“I’m not dumping you”

“You are too! Everyone dumps me”

“I don’t have time for this now!”

“There, you’ve already made up your mind!”

“OK! Now will you let me work?”

“But why are you dumping me. Is it because I’m beautiful?”

“Are you crazy?”

“Then what is it! Tell me, I need to know”

The phone rang, providing Prometheus the much needed respite.

“Who was that girl in your house just now?” it was Tatya.

“Oh, she’s my girlfriend, Sakshi.”

“Oh! She’s gorgeous. Could you introduce me to her, properly I mean?”

“She’s my girlfriend!” Prometheus said, trying to sound calm.

“I was!” Sakshi cried.

“What you guys already broke up? Fix me up with her! Or I’ll kill you”

“Who is it?” Sakshi asked.

“Oh, the same guy who was just here”

“What does he want now?”

“He wants me to fix you up with him”

“No, he’s too handsome”

“So what’s your bloody problem with that?”

“Oh, I don’t like handsome guys”

“Hello, are you listening to me?” Tatya cried

“Listen Kala Kauwa, I’m trying to talk to her here, about you I mean”

“See, you have already abandoned me!”

“Will you shut up?”

“I will kill you, if you talk to me like that ever again!” Tatya again!

“I’m not talking to you”

“Okay, I’ll meet him. At least he won’t have a damn inferiority complex like you losers.”

There, thought Prometheus, my girl-friend’s broken up with me, and now I’ve to write a book that will decide whether I’ll live with a stigma of being a popular writer, or I will die!

******

Shiva was sitting in his office with a copy of Fractured Skulls, by Prometheus.

 

“What are my options?” he contemplated. “Either I condemn this piece of trash and see that stupid loser laugh his way to the top of the best-sellers list? Or try the unthinkable?”

After along deliberation that lasted a minute, he chose the latter.

 

Genius Comes Out Of Hiding:

It’s a pleasure when a critic has to eat his own words. Prometheus’s latest book Fractured Skulls is nothing short of a work of genius. In a surrealistic recreation of the most grotesque of the violence that goes around in the dark alleys of our cities, Prometheus has redefined the very norms of fiction — blurring the boundaries of reality and the abstract. It’s a stuff that Burgees and Kubrick would be proud of. The book has twenty-one chapters, arranged into three sections, symbolizing the trinity. The sections themselves contain eight, seven, and six chapters respectively: symbolizing vices, luck, and the devil. Prometheus has captured the dilemma of a cold blooded murderer by profession, who is a romantic at heart. It’s the saga of human mind: its hopes, its aspirations, and the play of light and the darkness within….

Fractured Skulls was published by Walrus India Publications, with lots of publicity. However it never made it to any of the bestseller lists.

It was the first time that a Prometheus book was rejected by the public.

Prometheus was hiding in string of shady hotels in remote towns, when Sakshi called him, announcing to him the news of her engagement with Tatya. She said they were madly in love and that she had convinced Tatya to leave the world of crime for good.

Tatya was more than happy to leave his illustrious crime career. Besides, Sakshi had assured him that her modeling career would take care of their financial needs, and that with his looks, she could get him in the line too.

Shiva is ecstatic that he finally managed to break Prometheus’s successful streak! Prometheus, three years junior to him had beaten him in a short-story competition in school, and this was his sweet revenge, after years of patient wait.

Prometheus is happy for two reasons: one, no one’s out to kill him; and two, he has finally managed to break the evil spell of success.

The word is a one heck of a happy place!

[Another old piece of writing, never posted]

 

Maya’s Story

Sometimes it’s futile to tell and retell stories. I learnt this when I started writing Maya’s story.

I remember distinctly that evening when I was sitting in a relatively secluded corner at Ritwik’s house-warming party. I hate parties, and I wouldn’t have gone there if it weren’t for Ritwik. The guy can get quite sentimental and that’s more painful than spending an hour or two in a secluded corner and guzzling down the free booze — Ritwik never disappoints in that department.

“Many of your old friends would be there”, he had told me

“Like?” I asked naively.

“Ashok, Rajan … you know the whole lot..”

I rather liked to avoid that group, and of course Ritwik knew that. But then that’s Ritwik for you.

As it happened none of them turned up. I almost wished they had, for at least I could have had good time hating them. But as the evening unfolded, I was glad they did not turn up – especially Ashok. Ashok is Maya’s husband, or rather Maya is Ashok’s wife – if I must to do the introductions right, for Ashok was my batchmate, and it’s because of him that I ever got to know Maya, in the usual sense that is. In reality it’s hard to get to know even your closets friends, but that’s kind of irrelevant.

I met Maya for the first time in one of the socials in the hostel, back in my graduation days. Even then, I hated parties of any kind; but then who would miss any chance at decent food? I was munching on some starters when I noticed her laughing loudly on some pathetic joke Ashok had just narrated. Just as I was wondering whether Ashok had got her there, Ashok noticed me, and gestured me to join the group.

“Hey buddy”

Well he very well knew we were no buddies, but Ashok was at his charming best. Besides, he had to show off his girlfriend to everyone, especially me – because he hated me. I’m not really sure why, for Ashok was the star and I was the loser. Probably the stars are little envious of losers like me who don’t have any performance pressures. Anyways, so Maya smiled cordially at me when Ashok introduced me formally as:

“Meet the writer/poet of our class”

That was his way of politely saying I was lousy at studies. Maya, who seemed to be listening to every single word of his as if it were some gospel, gave me a reverent look, not picking up the intended sarcasm.

“Oh! What do you write?” she asked

“Nothing really. He’s kidding. I don’t even write my exam papers well”, I decided to use my often repeated oh I’m so modest line.

She laughed that strange laugh of hers again.

+++

As I looked across the room, after I had settled down with my drink I saw her. For a moment I was unsure if it was Maya, but she laughed at some comment that Ritwik made while introducing her, and I knew it had to be her. Her laugh had lost the naive enthusiasm, but it sounded almost like it used to more than a decade back.

“Hello!” I heard Ritwik’s mock accent, and realized that they were standing right in front of me.

“I presume there is no need for introductions?”

“None”, said Maya promptly, “My husband made them for us years back”

“And where is your husband?”, I asked for the sake of courtesy.

“It’s OK if you don’t ask me that, you know”

It was my turn to laugh.

“No, I really wanted to know. Haven’t met him for a while.”

“And are you missing him?”, she asked mischievously.

“I was, just a while back”, I wasn’t exactly lying.

“He had an urgent official work to take care of”, she was.

“I entrust you to entertain the lady”, said Ritwik, leaving us alone after all these years.

Of course, lot had happened in those years.

“So do you still write?”

“I do”, in the absence of Ashok, there was no need for modesty.

“And what do you write?”

“Anything that catches my fancy really… I just retell stories that I’ve seen or heard”

“Would you tell my story, then?”

That startled me.

“Why would you want your story to be told?”

“Everyone wants their story to be told. It’s just that they don’t want other people to know it’s their story”

It was then I realized that I didn’t really know Maya – the Maya that was standing in front of me. I had never known that this Maya was living in the same body.

“But then many people would know it’s your story, if I were the one to tell it”, I obviously wanted to stay out of it. As it is, Ashok and I shared enough hostility.

“Well they’ll pretend they don’t”

There wasn’t much left to say. I had to listen to her story. Part of it may well be the voyeur value – for her story would partly be Ashok’s story. But that was just a small part. I could hardly turn my back on stories that wanted themselves to be told.

++++

“Why do you guys hate each other?”, Maya asked

We were sitting in the canteen waiting for Ashok to turn up. Well, actually, she was waiting for Ashok to turn up, and I was waiting for my my omelet.

“Hi!”, she said enthusiastically. It was some time since the Socials evening, and I was surprised she recognized me. She even addressed me by my name.

“Hey”, I said, forcing a fake smile.

“We never got to talk that day”

I wondered what we could have possibly talked about?

“Yeah”, I said hoping she would get the hint.

“Are you expecting someone?”

“Yeah. The omelet.”

Another laughter.

“Would you mind if I join you? Ashok asked me to come here, but looks like he’s got stuck somewhere”

“He probably is”, I said sardonically.

—-

There was one question I kept asking myself, all through our conversation that day. “Why me?” After all, she hardly knew me. And for last decade or so we had been out of touch.

“Ashok and I got married two years after he graduated.”

Ah. I remember those days, more clearly than I remember any other time of my life. It’s probably because I had a lot of time and lived at a leisurely pace. When you have time, you observe. When you observe you remember, vividly at times.

For instance I remember, vividly, Maya’s face as she sat across me at the canteen, as Ganu got my omelet sandwich. I remember that because that was the first time I looked at her without she looking at me. I noticed her dreamy eyes, her naive and curious stare, her warm smile as Ganu asked her what she would like to have. It was then that I had wondered for the first time how did she end up with a jerk like Ashok.

—-

“You seem lost”, she said, “you don’t have to listen, you know”

I looked at her again, and noticed that there wasn’t a trace of the naivety, neither the curiosity in her stare. There was just a lifeless blank.

“No, no. Whatever gave you that impression. I’m generally lost”

She laughed at that, a very courtesy laugh.

“The reason I want to talk to you is because I just have a feeling that you’d understand. Of all people, you would”

I understand already, I wanted to say. There was a predictability about the whole affair. I could have told her that years ago. Details only matter to those who have lived them. For others it’s just the plots that matter. And there wasn’t much of variation to be expected in the plot.

“So tell me!”, she pestered enthusiastically, as I munched silently at my omelet. I was glad that I had it to munch on, and had stuffed my mouth, so that it would serve as a good excuse for not talking. Obviously, she wasn’t going to take hints, and there was no way out. It was a minute before I could speak. She was waiting intently, with a sparkle in her eyes. I almost fell in love with her right there, for a minute or two.

“Tell you what?”

“Why do you guys hate each other?”

“You mean Ashok hates me?” I wanted to add ‘too’, but refrained with a lot of effort.

She winked at that, “Answer me!”

“No seriously. Did you ask Ashok why he hates me?”

“I did”

“And what did he say?”

She looked away when I asked her that, and looked back at me again.

“I’ll tell you when you’ll tell me why you hate him”

“But I don’t!”, I said. I was partly speaking the truth. Hatred is a tribute I pay to very few people, and for all he was worth Ashok wasn’t even close.

“Do you believe I’m that dumb?”

That really threw me off balance.

“No. But I did”, I said. After all, she wasn’t my girlfriend or anything!

“Why?”

“Are you interviewing me?”, I asked. Not that I minded answering any of her questions. I had enough time to kill. Still I had to make it interesting enough for myself. It’s painful when a conversation with a beautiful girl turns boring. You want to give yourself some excuse to hang around, but then it’s hard to convince yourself it’s worth all the boredom.

“Yeah. If tomorrow you become a famous writer, I could claim that I got your first exclusive interview”

“So let me guess, Ashok told you that he finds me too frivolous for his taste, and too shallow”

She looked away again, betraying a yes.

“Like I told you, I’ll tell you when you tell me your reasons. Besides, you are trying to avoid answering my question”

“That was just my gut feeling when I first met you”

++++

“Both of us were absorbed in him”, Maya said

“What do you mean?”, I asked jolting back from the memory lane

“Exactly that. I was absorbed in Ashok, charmed by him. And he was absrobed in himself. I was his trophy wife. The first few months went smooth, without any major issues, that is. Ashok was doing well at his job. He used to come home charged up, with some story or other of his small triumphs. On weekends, we would entertain some of his office friends. It would always be small groups, talking about books, classical music, and the like.”

How predictable, I thought. And then one day the lady decided to chip in and contradicts her husband, in front of the crowd. Hubby gets outraged. The trophy wife isn’t supposed to contradict the hubby. Hubby realizes his wife ain’t as dumb as he thought. Wifey realizes her hubby is not as great as she thought. Blah blah blah.

—-

“There you are!”, Ashok said as he walked to the table where we were sitting.

“Hi Honey!”

“Hey man, how are you?”

“Tell me one man who wouldn’t be happy talking to this sweet lady here”

“You tell me man”, Ashok cuddled up along side Maya

“Listen, you’ll have to excuse us. We are already late. Will see you later”

“We’ll continue our conversation some other time”, Maya said, as they got up to leave

“Sure we will”, I said

“What conversation?”, Ashok asked

“I’ll tell you on our way”

“There. You’re lost again!”, she said. I guess I had missed a lot of what she said. But not exactly. As I told you, I didn’t care for the details.

“So one night after the guests had left, and I was picking up the dishes, Ashok told me that I shouldn’t exhibit my ignorance in public like that. I was shocked, for it wasn’t I who was ignorant. I asked him what he was talking about, and he said that there are a lot of things I did not know, and it would be better if I didn’t embarrass him with ignorant statements like that in public…”

Over the years, she kind of gave up. If he wanted to be the hero, someone had to play the second fiddle, and she didn’t really mind that. Habit is a powerful thing, if you could embrace it. Maya did embrace it. It was easy playing the trophy wife. His group of friends was as self absorbed as he was, so it didn’t really matter.

Then one day Neeraj, her husband’s subordinate, stirred the tranquility. It was the first time he had been invited to their home. He never seemed comfortable in the group. That day Ashok had a few drinks too many. As the guests left one by one, Neeraj offered to help her cleaning up.

“It’s okay, I can manage. You should go home, it’s late”, she told him.

He insisted.

“You didn’t speak a single word the whole evening”, he said after a while.

“I’m surprised you noticed that. Anyways, there wasn’t much to say”

“There is always something to say”

“At times there is no one to listen”

“What do you think Maya?”, he asked me in the next party, in the middle of a heated debate

“Maya hates politics”, Ashok interjected

“So much the better. We’ll get an apolitical view”

Ashok was left with nothing to say. Everyone was looking expectantly at me…

Well, nothing new again. The knight walks in, to help the damsel in distress. Only the walls are mental, and he breaks them one by one. She falls for the brave (read sensitive here) knight. Why is she telling me this? I could write hundred such stories, and get butchered by the critics for writing lame, cliched stories.

I sipped on the wine, pretending to hear her story.

I met Maya twice between that meeting in the canteen, and today. On the first occasion, it was with Ashok again, and predictably formal. The second time was when I met her accidentally on the road. It was just a week before their engagement. We had a general talk then. I don’t remember much of it, for I was waiting for my bus, and kept looking at my watch. She was lost in her pre-engagement euphoria. So she never asked me why I hated Ashok again, neither why I thought she was dumb the first time I saw her. I wasn’t complaining.

“You fell in love with Neeraj?”, I asked her, cutting short her narration.

“I don’t know what the word means anymore. All I know is, that we made love every time the opportunity presented us. You can call it a liaison, an affair. Only I know that I wasn’t scared of getting caught. I wasn’t feeling guilty of cheating my husband. Not even for a second. I would have walked out with Neeraj if he had asked me even once. But he never asked.”

“He used you?”

“It wasn’t a deal. I needed him, and I didn’t think about the future. I had shut myself to a world, a world in which I wanted to live, but which I had incomprehensibly turned my back on, I had isolated myself one brick at a time, unconsciously. I wasn’t even aware of another way in which I could live, when Neeraj had shown it to me, equally unconsciously. It wasn’t a business transaction.”

“And you? You never asked him?”

“I did. One day, as we lay in his bed, I told him that I was in love with him”

She stopped abruptly, as if gathering strength.

“What did he say?”

“He said that although he liked me a lot, he was not sure he could spend his life with me. That he was too young to think about long term relationships”

“And you bought it?”

“That is not all. I told him that I didn’t care about settlement. I wanted to know if he loved me. That’s when told me that I wouldn’t be able to take the truth. I told him that that’s one luxury I have always afforded myself.”

You see, that’s when Neeraj told her that he thought of her as his boss’s trophy wife, and he wanted to break his boss. Eventually he got involved into her, but frankly he didn’t know her that much. He could never figure out which part of her was a mask, and which one real.

And then it hit me why she wanted to tell me her story. She wanted to find the answer that she hadn’t got in the conversation she had started with me a decade back. It was a key to her riddle. Only I had no answer to give her.


[PS: This was posted long back on dudseascrawls.com, but I realized that it's not on my own blog, so crossposting]

Gossamer Tales

“Please… Go away”, Sridhar said suddenly.

Nandini looked at him blankly. When she shared the news, this was the last response that she expected from Sridhar.

“Sri…”, she managed to say finally, “what’s wrong?”

Sridhar looked at her, his face was calm as ever. “I say this kindly, Nandini. Walk out of my life right now. This is the right time. Tomorrow, when I’m a tiny part of your world, it will be harder, for both of us”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Sri. And what is this tiny part? You know what you mean to me”

Sridhar sighed. He remembered the first time Nandini had approached him, after his literary criticism class, to ask some questions. He had patiently explained to her, till each of her doubts was cleared, and not to mention, she had driven home a few points of her won. In his twenty years of teaching career, very few students had managed to impress Sridhar in the very first encounter. And still fewer had actually dared to bridge that socially accepted gap between professor and students, and become a friend.

***

“He’s in love with you”, Subbu said to Nandini. They were celebrating their anniversary with a dinner date, and were waiting for the desserts to arrive. Nandini, who was back from a visit to Jayesh’s place. Jayesh, Sridhar’s nephew, had forced him out of his cozy one bedroom flat in Bandra, and taken him to his new, swanky flat in Borivili, when on one of his sparse, but regular, visits he had found Sridhar running a temperature of one hundred and three. He had informed Nandini, too, and for couple of days, she was juggling her job, and house, and attending Sridhar, who insisted that he can take care of himself, and that Jayesh was there anyways.

Today, she had been there again, after leaving the office early, so that she could make it to their dinner date in time. Subbu, of course, had been sweet as ever, and had himself suggested that they meet somewhere close to Borivili so that she would not have to travel much again. She picked up some supplies on her way to Jayesh’s house, because she knew Jayesh, with his busy schedule will be stretched as it is. When she rang the bell she was surprised to find Jayesh opening the door, instead of Naru, Jayesh’s cook and helper.

He was as courteous as ever. In a hushed tone he told her that today Sridhar was acting a little strange and had called him home early, if possible. Luckily, he had just a client call scheduled in the evening which he was able to shift to later in the night. Shridhar, he said, insisted that he shouldn’t be disturbed by anyone, as he needed some rest.

“That’s not strange, he needs rest”

“I know, but why did he have to call me home at all then? After all, Naru could have easily made sure that he had rest”

“Unless, of course, he didn’t want to see me”, Nandini wondered aloud.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Nandini. I don’t know what has happened between the two of you, but he would never want to avoid you”

She had smiled at that, and handed him the supplies. “Anyway, I guess it’s better to let him rest. Tell him I was here”

“Are you leaving just like that? I didn’t even offer you anything”, he called for Naru.

“Don’t bother. I’m not a guest here. Anyways, I was in a hurry today. Subbu is waiting for me”

“Oh, okay. Say hi to him. Oh shit, it’s your anniversary today, isn’t it?”

“Yes”, she nodded.

She noticed that he was in a deep thought when she turned to leave.

***

The waiter arrived with their desserts just as she was about to respond to Subbu. She looked at the Tiramisu, and then at him. He had not ordered anything for himself, as usual. He’d just take a couple of bites from her. She looked at his calm, casual face, which showed no signs of jealousy, anger or even mild displeasure. He should at least show a few possessive instincts once in a while, she thought, and then brushed it aside. It was his most endearing quality for her, after all.

“Come on, Subbu. Not you, of all people”

He smiled at that. “Don’t you think so?”

“You’re serious?”

“Of course I’m serious. I know what he means to you, and I wouldn’t even think of mentioning it if I weren’t serious”

She remembered Supriya, her closest friend back in college. They had grown apart, when she had asked her if there was something going on between her and Sridhar Sir. Coming from Supriya, it hurt her. Can’t there be just a deep relationship without it being romantic, she had asked Supriya.

“Have you ever looked at the way he looks at you?”, Supriya had asked.

“I don’t want to discuss this”, was all she had said. However hard she had tried to put that one stray incident apart, she could never forgive Supriya for asking that question. Subbu knew the story.

That was long back, she wanted to say. And frankly, I don’t have the option of not discussing it today. Not with you.

“Why do you think so?”, she asked, trying to sound casual.

“It’s a gut feeling. I thought it was obvious, even. He’s so possessive about you”

She smiled, despite herself. If possessiveness is the measure of love, then what about you, Subbu?

She didn’t ask that, though.

“You don’t agree?”

“No”

That’s what I like about you. You would not even ask me why, unlike me.

“I think it’s not possessiveness. I think, at some level, he’s genuinely worried that he’ll be the third person in a relationship, and he hates that. You know he hates occupying the fourth seat in a local train — not just because it’s a discomfort for him, more so because all he can buy at the expense of that partial benefit is discomfort of three more people. He hates all of it. And that is why he prefers standing. There is a dignity to a total discomfort, he said to me once, you can at least buy peace of mind with it, even if momentary”

***

“Would you drop it?” she said to Sridhar one day, in the middle of a telephonic conversation that was punctured from the other end by just a few syllables.

“Drop what?”

“The posing. It doesn’t suit you”

He laughed. She could catch a sad tinge in that laughter. Am I reading a sadness in his every other thing, she wondered. But since she told him about Subbu, he had closed himself to her. She had always found it odd that she was the only friend that he had. He rarely talked about any of his old friends either. But then they had so many things to talk about that it never really seemed important to talk about his life.

“You won’t get it, till it’s too late, and I’d rather not wait till then”

That was the longest sentence he had said to her that day, and cryptic enough to make any number of sense. When she asked what he meant, he just chuckled and changed the subject.

There was no one to talk to, either. So she let it go, and kept in touch with Sridhar despite his obvious attempts at avoiding her.

***

She had almost finished the Tiramasu silently, when she looked up at him. He was observing her, as if with just half of his mind. She noticed that he had helped himself with his customary two bites, without slightest of deliberation — neither in doing it, nor about not thinking about doing it.

“You don’t want to know why I think so?”, she asked finally.

“No. I think you know him better than anyone else in the world, and if you think so, then you’re entitled to it”

“So you’ll take my word for it, then?”

He smiled his disarming smile.

“You know I take no one’s word for anything. Granted that I know him very little, but I trust what I see. And there is nothing wrong with it. You’re an amazing woman. It’s so easy to fall in love with you”

She chuckled. She remembered the lines, almost identical.

That day she was walking towards Bandra station, early in the morning, after spending the previous night at Sridhar’s place, when a mid-aged lady called her name. She looked at her, but couldn’t recollect ever having met her.

“No you don’t know me. But let me just tell you that you’re not the first one”

“Pardon me?”

“Sridhar”, she said, “It’s not his first affair, you know. At least, this time he’s not married”

“What are you talking about? Who are you?”, she said trying to keep her temper in control. After all, she didn’t want to hear from strangers accusations about their relationship.

“I’m Shalini, Sridhar’s wife. Ex-wife, I mean. I left him ten years back”

“Yes, I know”, she said, in a matter-of-fact voice.

“And did he tell you why?”

“I never asked him”

“You should have. I left him because he was having an affair with one of his students. The whole college was talking about it, just as it would be about you”, she said softly.

“It’s for them to talk. But he’s not having an affair with me”

“And what about you?”, she asked.

“That’s none of your business”, she said, and wanted to add now, as an afterthought.

“I see”, she said with a bitter smile. “I guess it’s futile talking to you. It’s so easy to fall in love with him”

****

“Why are you smiling?”, Subbu asked.

She narrated the story. Subbu was silent for a while, thinking. “Do you know this other girl?”, he asked finally.

“Yes. Sridhar had told me about the story, or his side of it, long back”

“When Shalini confronted him with his alleged affair, he denied nothing. For him denial was beneath his dignity. And it’s futile, he said to me. Denial is never successful, because when someone accuses you, she’s prepared for denial. There is an ‘I thought you’d say that’ thing about denial that makes it so impotent. Anyways, I was telling you about this other girl. I met her one day, at Sridhar’s place. She was married, with a son; well settled in her life. She was staying in Germany, Her husband worked there, and she was on a tour of India, after five years or so. Sridhar was not around. She waited, and we talked for quite some time”

“She wanted to know how Sridhar was. It was a few months after Shalini left him that she met her future husband. She had introduced him to Sridhar, but he found Sridhar too full of himself. She was madly in love, and Sridhar, who was a mentor and a close friend, didn’t have much place in her new world. Meetings were replaced by phone call, and phone calls by quick information calls. It was almost obvious to her that he’d understand”

“He didn’t. He had never cared for what the world thought. For him friendship was immutable. He had risked his married life on that premise, his whole social life. And her timing couldn’t have been worse”

Subbu listened intently. For a moment she thought he wanted to ask something, but then his face changed again, into an attentive one.

“You won’t believe, but that day I asked her, a complete stranger, if she though Sridhar was in love with her”

It was Subbu’s turn to smile. It was a wise smile, of understanding, not knowing.

***

She looked at Nandini with an expression that was too familiar to Nandini. “No, of course not. I thought you knew him well. He speaks so much about you”

Nandini looked into her eyes, as she replied. “No, I never had any doubt. He’d have told me if it were the case. I wanted to know what you thought. I always thought it’s very easy to misunderstand Sridhar. And I find it ironical, because he’s very simple if you look at it one way. People are unpredictable. Sridhar is predictable; predictable because he’s life is ruled by a consistent set of rules, however strange they may seem. You know the rules, you know the man. But over the years I’ve started to fear that maybe it was just me who could figure him out”

She shook her head. “No, but I know what you mean. My husband never figured him out. And I wasn’t strong enough then to go with my heart. I avoided Sridhar to avoid questions, and misunderstandings. In the process I lost the closest friend I had.

“You know, he loved Shalini so much that he was completely broken when she left him. He went through a severe depression. And he was aware how hard it was going to be, but he was too proud to explain. I offered to talk to her, but he wouldn’t allow me. And part of the whole problem was that, despite his love, he wouldn’t think of compromising on his other relationships. I guess I would have reacted in the same way that Shalini did, if I were in her place. Ironically the one friendship he put his bets on didn’t survive the test of time. I was to blame. Or maybe it were his idealistic notions that were the root of it all. He was born a little too soon, I guess”

Nandini could make out the thin lines of guilt in her face, after all these years.

“It’s okay”, Nandini said, finally, putting her palm on her shoulder. He paid for his ideas. We must not pity him for that. Everyone deserves to bask in their hard earned martyrhood. Let’s not take away that from him, by feeling sorry for him”

She laughed. “Finally he’s got a perfect friend, I guess”, she said.

***

Subbu sat still.

“Another irony”, he observed, as the waiter arrived again with a bill.

She smiled. “And another martyr”

They smiled, together.

55 Word Fiction: Chotu

Chotu watched the photograph of SSC topper on the front page with a dreamy smile. He forgot all about the three glasses of hot tea. Reality returned with the sound of crashing glass. Then he felt a slap on his cheek.

Madarchaud, daactur banega?” the owner said contemptuously. Chotu braced himself for more beating.

—–

PS: My first foray into 55 word fiction taught me a lot more than I expected. I guess I’ll do this a little more. And my congratulations to all the SSC achievers.

Closure

“Gosh it’s you”, Salil said as he recognized Tanvi intently reading names of books in the large shelf titled “Literary Fiction”. She was dressed in plain, somewhat faded, jeans and a black T-Shirt with some company logo. She looked surprised as she turned to look at him. Obviously, she had recognized his voice, just as he had expected. Her face had a look of surprise, and a little annoyance – the last was so characteristic of hers that he would have been surprised if he hadn’t spotted it.

“Salil!”, she said finally, awkwardly.

“For a moment I was worried you’ll not recognize me”

“Shut up”. A hint of her casual self resurfaced, reassuring him.

“Or just refuse to recognized me…”

“Crap. You know me better than that”

“You haven’t changed, have you?”

“I never intended to change, Salil”, a hint of bitterness in her voice was hard to miss. Then her face turned blank. She didn’t want him to see her bitterness. Typical Tanvi, he thought.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way”

“My goodness. Looks like you have changed!”

“I hope you mean that positively”, he said, trying to lighten the tension in the air.

“And how does that make a difference to you, Salil”, she said, her voice calm and without a hint of anger or excitement. Even strangers extend more familiarity, he thought. She said it without making it look like she wanted to fight with him, just a matter of fact question.

“Ten years have changed me to the extent that, believe it or not, I do care”, he said. Somehow, with her, it was always easy to say whatever came to his mind. Even after ten years. Even after that day, when he walked out of her life, telling her that it was not going to work.

“It could have…”, she had said. That’s all she had said, then, trying to hold back tears, and succeeding. A moment of weakness, which she allowed herself, as a debt to be paid, to the relationship that was not to be after that moment.

“Tanvi, please don’t make it harder for me”, he had said, trying to avoid guilt — yes guilt — he recalled. Guilt that his rational mind never could have anticipated. After all he knew what he was doing was the right thing to do, for both of them, even. You cannot live a lie, he had told himself, again and again, not forever.

“What do you want me to say, Salil?”, she had asked, looking straight into his eyes. “That I don’t believe it could have worked? If I believed that, Salil would I be here, today? So let me at least say what I believe. If you noticed, I used the past tense…”

He chuckled, remembering that. He was amazed at her composure, back then. All she asked him was not to meet her for a few month. Months passed, he moved out of the city and today, it was after ten years that they crossed paths again.

“Let’s celebrate that, then”, she said, breaking his reverie. Her voice had no trace of mockery or sarcasm. “I’m almost done. Ah, now I don’t even need to choose — please suggest something, na”

He looked at her blankly. Ten years is a long time, he wanted to tell her. Even when people live together, they grow in different ways.

“Oh come on! Don’t let me ruffle you. I’ll be a nice girl, I promise. Just help me with this”

Something is seriously wrong, he thought. Yes she was already like that, but this doesn’t make sense.

“What do you read these days, if I may ask?”

“Anything that feeds on my melancholy, and feeds it back”, she said smiling. That was his line. When he had used it, she had beaten, him with a Camus book that he had bought the very same day… for her. Thank god I didn’t gift her a hardbound edition, he had thought. He smiled remembering that.

“No kidding”, he said, suddenly groping for words.

“Try me”

“OK, how about Marquez, here?”

“You recommend?”

“Oh, it can feed your melancholy for a long long time. Don’t tell me you never heard about him?”

“No, not much besides name. You were my last book club kinda boyfriend”, she said casually. She was on home turf now.

“So done? Let’s get a coffee somewhere”. When you cannot trust your own words, it’s safer to borrow known sentences.

“OK. I’m mostly lukkha for the day.”

****

“So tell me, what brings you to this god forsaken city?”, he asked her, as they sat with their coffee in a secluded corner of the recently opened coffee-shop that he had made his new home — mainly because it was relatively unknown and was so old styled that he was sure it won’t attract the teenage crowd that had destroyed virtually every possible hangout for him.

“I’m here to research on a project… you know… the kind of stuff I keep on doing”, she spotted the look in his eyes, “Yeah, the same useless stuff”

“But… I didn’t even say a thing”

“You eyes said it all”

“You know, we’re sounding like a couple”, he regretted it just as he blurted it out.

She looked stunned. A look of hurt flashed on her face just for a split second.

“It’s a pretty damn good coffee”, she said, “You still know your stuff!”

“Thanks”, he said, sounding casual. “And I’m sorry I said that. I shouldn’t have”

“Forget it. Saying the wrong things at the wrong time was always your special talent”

She sipped her coffee silently. A trace of smile lingered on her face. Even after all these years she still smiles like that, unconscious of herself, he observed. For a moment he wondered why he parted ways with her. Surprisingly, he couldn’t think of a single convincing reason, now. The guilt, that he had lived with for years, came back to him. The guilt that had managed to spoil every relationship, before it could even take off.

How do you convince someone that she can trust you, when you don’t trust yourself?

“What are you thinking about?”, she asked. Her voice was filled with kindness.

He shrugged.

“So tell me, what’s happening in your life?”

“I think at this age the only thing that happens in life is that you age. And it’s painfully slow — the aging. And the wisdom … it comes unsolicited … and basically tells you that you haven’t even acquired any real wisdom for all the years that you’ve wasted”

“Whoa! What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing! That’s the point. If you can put your finger on one thing in your life and say: this is wrong… you know, you can change that, or at least try, and that’s a purpose enough. But what if you can’t? You never feel that way?”

She avoided looking at him.

“Salil, I resigned to living with whatever life throws at me long back”

Ten years back? He wanted to ask. But he knew the answer.

“And now I’ve filled my life with so many things that there aren’t any empty spaces left. I have denied myself the luxury of questioning my life”

“I am sorry”, he said, without even realizing it.

“What the hell are you being sorry about?”, she snapped.

“I don’t know. I guess I owed you a sincere apology. I was so busy keeping out the guilt that I never managed to apologize”

“I don’t know if I want to talk about it. It was long back. Perhaps it wasn’t even love, just an infatuation. I was hurt, yes, but that doesn’t make it anything more than it was… whatever it was. We were kids, practically, weren’t we?”

She looked away, again. He looked at her face: sad and distant.

Tanvi, at least today, drop that armor, he wanted to shout, I swear I don’t want to hurt you… more.

“You live alone?”, he asked, and again cursed himself.

“Yeah. No, I didn’t get married. You wish I had, na?”

Her face had a mischievous smile when she asked that. He sighed.

“Actually yes. That would have taken care of some of the guilt”

“Oh come on, don’t blame yourself for my single-hood now. I’ve had my share of relationships after you. I broke a few hearts… Some relationships just never took off… but please don’t make it sound like you defined my life, by presence or absence”

He observed that she didn’t say anything about her heart.

“What about you?”

“Look at me! What do you think?”, he said.

She laughed. Then she fell silent for a long time.

“What would it take for you to stop punishing yourself?” she asked suddenly, “Will you believe it if I said that I’ve forgiven you?”

“I’m not punishing myself”

“You know I am being very selfish here, when I say I forgive you. I’ve lost a part of me — a part that lets you gamble, against all your rational judgement. And something tells me I cannot find it again, unless I forgive you… unless I grant… that you had a right to walk away… for whatever reasons”

He wanted to point to her that there was a contradiction there: her life was defined in a way by him. But you cannot take away people’s life-support-systems in the name of reason.

“Thanks, Tanvi. But I’m not looking for forgiveness. I guess what I’m looking for, is closure”

Aren’t we all, Salil? She wanted to ask. What else do you think I am looking for? And how will the closure come, after all these years?

“After you left, Salil, I stopped looking for reasons. That was the toughest thing to do. Then one day it struck me that reasons don’t matter. Since then I stopped crying. You know, I haven’t cried in years”

Guilt does terrible things, he thought. For you it took strength not to cry. For me it took strength to cry — strength that I did not have. I couldn’t allow myself to cry. It sounded like an easy way out.

He looked into her eyes. She was trying to hold back tears. Tears that she had held back that day. And then, to his complete surprise a tear rolled down his cheeks. It was too late to hide it from her.

For a moment she didn’t say anything.

“If this isn’t closure, what is?”, she asked him, trying to smile. For the first time in years, the smile eluded her, and the tears won.

For a while both sat there without saying a word. There was no need for words.

Tanvi was the first one to break the silence. “To new beginnings!”, she said, finishing her coffee in a single gulp, as if it were a taquila shot. He looked at her, and smiled an all knowing weak smile.

 

Don’t Kid Me

“Dad, you know what happened in the school today?”, Riddhi said excitedly.

“What dear?”, Saurabh said, concentrating on the traffic.

“Our Miss made Mayank stand in the corner”

“Did she? Why?”

“Because Mayank fought with me”

“But he’s your best friend, na?”

“Thaaat he is, but today he hit me so hard. I got a bruise. You want to see?”

“Okay…”, Saurabh said as he was stuck at the signal anyways.

“See?”

There was nothing to see. Saurabh wasn’t surprised.

“Don’t worry, dear, it will be OK tomorrow morning”

***

“Hey man. Sorry about Riddhi”, Saurabh said to Nishant.

“Why, what happened”

“Didn’t Mayank tell you?”

“No, what?”

“Riddhi complained about him and he got a punishment”

“Is it? No he didn’t say anything, that’s surprising. Mayank, come here… you got a punishment?”

“No Dad”

“Didn’t Riddhi complain about you?”, Saurabh asked.

“No. I complained about her. Miss gave her a punishment. Made her stand in the corner for the whole period. Ask Sanket”

Saurabh started laughing.

“This kid is impossible. She always creates stories”

***

“… and then he pinched me. So I gave him a beating”

“You should not beat anyone Riddhi. You could have complained to the teacher”

“Miss”

“What?”

“She is not called teacher, she’s called Miss. Miss Ankita”

“I’m sorry. I’ll remember that. You should have complained to Miss Ankita”

“She doesn’t like me. She says I make false complaints”

“But didn’t she punish Mayank that day?”

“That was different. I showed her my bruise as evidence”

“Hmmm”

“But today Miss punished me only… For fighting with Mayank”

“I’ll talk to your Miss, OK?”

***

“Mayank, beta, did you pinch Riddhi?” Saurabh asked, expecting a no.

“No uncle. She pinched me. I said I’ll complain to Miss and she started beating me”

“You know Saurabh, you should talk to a child psychologist or something. I know she’s too small, but she always lies so much!”, Nishant said.

“I know, yaar. I was thinking that myself”

***

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to Mayank’s place”

“Why Riddhi? Nishant uncle is home today, he’s going to take you guys to the zoo”

“I don’t like Nishant uncle”

“Now come on, Riddhi. You used to like him so much”

“But he pinches me…”

“Enough Riddhi!”

“I swear dad. He pinched me here”, she said, pointing to her chest. “It hurt real bad. I got a bruise. You want to see?”

Myriad Hues

Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and are confronted by the one person you’ve tried not to meet — or not to be. Well, I guess it’s the latte, for there is an element of consent involved there, even a knowledge of just exactly where you’re going. Yes, we’re all aware of the transition, even will it, subconsciously; and yet we also try hard to ignore it — the slow, unmistakable morphing.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose, under heaven


We keep telling ourselves that we can turn anytime we want, and that it’s just a temporary phase, till that next milestone is reached, that next one, the one after that … Turn back we will, start off from where we left the real selves, we console ourselves. But we don’t, and one day we experience the nightmare, as we look inside us to find that we no longer identify the person who lives there.

Lekha showed me the mirror just as I was this close to proving to her that her life is basically a farce, a self-inflicted martyrdom, which, like any martyrdom, is useless, inglorious. I looked straight into her eyes, confident of my own superiority — of having chosen the right way to live — that comes from success. A confidence bordering on arrogance. “This whole philosophy that you’ve created to justify the loser in you, that’s the root cause, Lekha”, I had said, in a clinical tone, “throw it out of the window, and get in the ring”

Lekha, the one person…. but then I’m speaking too much too early. The time will come for that too. Not now. Now I have to complete what I started:

“This will take you nowhere, because all you’re doing is running away from yourself”

She looked at me with eyes that almost looked as if she was about to cry. Yet, I realized later, she was far from breaking down. A strange calmness adorned her face, and I know she wasn’t trying to get back at me, as she asked me:

“What about you, Neel? Don’t you ever run from yourself?”

***

I’ve lived my life in the fast lane, as they say. We, in fact — that’s me and Ruchi — the new age couple. Ruchi works as a senior executive in — I know, I know; do you really care? And frankly, I’ve forgotten myself, after her eighth job change and eleventh odd promotion. What I know is, I see her as much as I see our maid, even less maybe. And me? I manage my own company — a tech startup that got a great initial funding, and is now doing quite well, with VCs committed to another round recently, and some beta customers already lined up.

But then, this is not about that. Even you know that. You wouldn’t care if it were about that. So, anyways, Aarush, my son is where the story starts, in a way. Although he’s just a catalyst in the story. He’s a precocious child. No I don’t say this as a proud parent (I’m a proud father, no doubt). His precociousness is probably the reason why things happened the way they happened. I mean, I got a note from his school. Okay, we got a note, and Ruchi being out of town I happened to read it. They wanted to meet me, whoever they were — presumably the headmaster, I thought. To cut a long story short, I went, and the school head-master was this forty year old lady, who conveyed me the news that Aarush is a precocious child, and that this was causing problems in the class. Oh, yes I forgot, over-competitive, was the word she used, too.

“I thought kids are supposed to be over-competitive”, I said.

“Yes, Lekha, do come in”, said the headmistress, looking over my shoulders. Naturally I turned to look. There, standing at the door, was this ordinary looking young woman, in her late twenties I guessed, whom I would never have spotted in a crowd. You know, very plain looking, like most people you pass on the street without noticing — neither beautiful nor ugly enough to deserve a second look.

“This is Aarush’s father”, the headmistress continued, “And this is Ms. Lekha, Arush’s class-teacher”

“Hello”, she said. Her voice had everything that her looks lacked — well it’s futile to elaborate.

“Hi”, I said. I hate these formal introductions.

“We were discussing Aarush, of course. And Mr. Neel has expressed an opinion that kids are supposed to be over-competitive. Anyways, I have a meeting, why don’t you talk to Ms. Lekha, Mr. Neel”

“You can call me just Neel, thanks. And that goes for you too, Ms. Lekha”

The HM nodded as she left the room.

“Okay Neel. I won’t particularly mind if you call me Lekha either, but preferably not in front of the kids. You don’t want Aarush to call me Lekha, right?”

“Frankly I don’t care”, I wanted to say, but nodded anyways.

“So what exactly is the problem?” I asked.

“That exactly is the problem. He’s too competitive”

“So I’ll repeat, what’s wrong with that? Why is that a problem?”

“Because, Neel, there are other kids in the school. And they need a space to grow too. For instance, when I ask a question, Aarush will answer it without even waiting for me to signal him. Other kids, who’re shy, who never raise their hands, they also need to get a chance. But no, he just shouts the answer at times”

“Okay, that’s not exactly an ideal social behavior, but give me a break. He’s a child! And what about these other kids? Don’t you think the problem is with them? I mean they need to get on their toes pretty fast if they want to keep their nose above the water”

She looked at me with exasperation. I guess she would have preferred Ruchi here instead of me. Ruchi might be darn competitive herself, but she wouldn’t want her child signalled out for being over-competitive. I mean that’s a sign of your failure as a parent. These crackpot schools and their crackpot notions. Besides, that day I had a pretty important meeting and I couldn’t believe I was being summoned there for such an idiotic crib.

“There is a time for that. Right now, we need to give everyone space to grow. Making them compete at such a young age biases them towards a competitive behavior”

“I thought kids were competitive by nature, no?”

Another exasperated look.

“Some are. Some are shy by nature. And you’d be surprised how they flourish once they are given the right conditions”, her voice had an ernest quality. She really believed that crap!

“And Aarush is screwing up the right conditions, if you’ll forgive the phrase?”

“Crude, but you are bang on target”

“So what is the solution? To dumb him down to the class average? Or even better, the worst in the class?”

“I don’t want to sound hostile, Neel, but here in our school, we’ve a few ideas on how to bring up children. If you’re not comfortable with those ideas, there are a hundred schools out there which might be more in tune with your ideas. I can handle Aarush, you know, but there are more teachers in the school, and the complaints have already reached higher up. I think it’s better to discuss how we deal with them a little more dispassionately, shall we?”

So we decided to discuss it dispassionately. Anyways, that’s how I met Lekha. And fought. And fought more. The parent-teacher meetings shifted to coffee shops, where she would have the cheapest item on the menu, and over time they ceased to be parent-teacher meetings. The action plan for Aarush that we devised with mutual compromises seemed to be working well at least for the school, so we sort of shelved the whole disagreement for future references. Lekha became my only friend, to the extent that Ruchi started kidding me about her.

“I thought if ever you had a fling, it would be with someone who’s in your intelletual realm”, she said to me one day, on one of those dinners we actually ate together (and without Aarush — who was at her mother’s place).

I gave her a quizzical look.

“Come on! What happened to your sense-of-humor?”

Ruchi can do this tightrope walk all the time. You cannot really accuse her of crossing the line, ever, because she really won’t. She’ll poke and prod. So in a way I’ll never know if she was suspicious of my relationship with Lekha.

“I didn’t know my friends were a laughing matter”, I snapped.

She laughed. It’s that disarming laughter that takes her a long way. Like I said, I’ll never know if she was actually trying to taste the waters.

“But seriously, tell me Neel, what is it about her that strikes you so much? I haven’t seen you spend so much time with anyone. No I’m not complaining. I trust you completely. I’m just amazed. To me she seems like a very ordinary person”

Seriously, what was it that made Lekha so special to me? I wondered that day myself.

“I guess she reminds me of someone I knew a long back”, I said earnestly.

“One of your ex-flames, eh?”

The conversation was interrupted by my mother-in-law’s call. Aarush wanted to talk to his mom.

******

“Do you really love Ruchi?”, Lekha asked me one day.

What kind of question is that, I thought to myself. After so many years spent together… Our’s was a love marriage, after years of courtship. We trusted each other completely, told each other almost everything. We tried to spend time with each other through busy schedules. That’s love, right?

“You’re supposed to say, of course I do, a long back”, Lekha said, her voice filled with kindness. I mean what is this? Even before I can say a thing, she’s decided the answer and is now consoling me, already?

“When you’re my age, you’ll realize that such questions are meaningless”, I said.

“Neel, you’re just five years older than me”

“Oh, I was talking about mental age”

“Shut up!”

I laughed. Then I wondered why I never laugh these days. I’m always angry, irritated, frustrated, cynical. I don’t laugh that relaxed, amused laugh anymore. Not seldom, for sure. I guess I was right about the mental age.

“Anyways, you don’t have to answer that if you don’t want to. I won’t assume any answers”

“Thanks a lot. That’s very kind of you. The thing is, I don’t know. I stopped asking myself these questions long back. I stopped caring about those answers too. We’ve built a life together. We’re used to each other — used to being around each other, and used to not being around each other. Used to the silences, used to the banter. But tell me, why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. When I see you guys together, I think something is missing. I hope I’m wrong”

“Stop psycholo-gazing everything madam. After a while life settles down to basically going through the motions. That’s true with everything, love cannot escape that fate either”

I looked at her. Her face could not hide a strong disagreement.

“You don’t agree?”

“No”

“That’s okay, like I said, you’re young”

She looked hurt. I mean what’s wrong with being young, I wanted to ask her, but she didn’t give me time.

“Stop giving me that line will you? At one level I’m living my life exactly the way you’re describing — going through motions. But I can take that — that part of my life I can live like that. But not my relationships. No, that would be the end”

That hurts, being reminded again and again of that distant you.

“You know”, she added almost compassionately, “what your problem is? You’ve created this whole rationalized framework that protects your life that you’ve stopped living. You’ve stunted your life, like a bonsai”

I wasn’t ready for this role-reversal. No one passes judgements on my life. No one…

“What do you know about living, Lekha? You know what, you’re afraid to live, that’s why you’re where you are — in some idealistic school, teaching some six year olds, when deep within you don’t even enjoy it. You’ve never run a rat-race, because you’re afraid of losing. So you picked up a safe, nice path. And you are saying my life is stunted? Have you even given yourself a chance to grow?”

I was seething by the time I finished. She was looking at me, not trying to hide her disappointment or hurt. But she smiled.

“You know what I like about you most? For all your claims to be old you’re just a child”

I frowned.

“We’ll talk about me some other time. Let’s talk about you today”

“No, let’s talk about you, now that we’ve started”

“Okay then, let’s talk about me”, she said patronizingly.

“This whole philosophy that you’ve created to justify the loser in you, that’s the root cause, Lekha”, I had said, in a clinical tone, “throw it out of the window, and get in the ring. This will take you nowhere, because all you’re doing is running away from yourself”

“What about you, Neel? Don’t you ever run from yourself?”

I looked at her, and smiled. For the first time in years I smiled like I used to. To go back, one must know where one is. That night, after years, I confronted myself. Rest is not worth narrating. There are things bigger than stories can tell. There are moments that are too fleeting to measure, but their impressions hang around. Impressions that do not make good stories, but that do make good lives, if we listen that is.

Thinner Than Blood

“Mitu… I guess I’ve lost the right of addressing you like this. But I just hope, you won’t let this one incidence to wipe out everything we ever had. I know… i know it’s futile, because I know you better than most people… I know that you don’t forget, and you never forgive.

But still there is an apology due. Your forgiving, however unlikely, I still have to apologize. I’m very sorry. I cannot believe myself that I could stoop so low. I don’t know what possessed me. Mitu, you know me. You know I am no monster. I’m just had a weak moment. I know this is no defense, but seriously that is all that I can say. Because there isn’t anything else to say.

So judge me… as I know you will… with absolute fairness. But do judge me in totality, not just based on one isolated instance. And for god’s sake talk to me. I’ve never felt so alone in my whole life

Sincerely,
Mandar”

I dropped the letter on the floor. What do you say to your own brother when he apologizes for molesting you? I mean, what do you say to anyone, forget your own brother? At least you’ve not grown up with the others, sharing childhood memories, dreams, a ten-by-twelve room with two tiny beds, two loving parents ….

****

“Are you sure there is no misunderstanding here?”

That was my mom’s first reaction. Disbelief. Actually not disbelief, but an instinctive denial of something which she knew was true, right away. Yes I’m sure of that because mom knows I won’t even bring it up, if I weren’t sure.

“Why don’t you ask your dear son?”, I retorted, equally instinctively. I mean I knew this wasn’t going to be easy for her, even before I started the conversation, but still it pissed me. I mean you expect at least your mother to understand what you’re going through, at such times, no? Any mother, even… And here my own mother wants to take her time, and avoid judging. When battle lines are being drawn around you, and you can’t help it, you delay crossing over to any side, till its absolutely necessary, I guess.

I hated myself for that unnecessary tantrum. We always expect understanding from others, never for a moment pausing to see if we’re offering it too. I looked at her helplessly. My mom, who had always given me the strength to fight… I could see the hurt in her eyes… and guilt. I felt like I was looking at a mirror. When we’re tied by bonds that entangled, every push is also a pull.

She stood there, without speaking a word.

“I’m sorry mom. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just that at this moment I want to feel you’re with me”

She held back a tear.

“I know. I’m sorry too. But Mandar…”, she chocked.

“Don’t tell Dad”, she said finally, “Let’s think this over”

“What are you talking about, mom? What is there to think?”

Is this really happening, I thought. Sure you hear stories where families want to keep it under the carpet of respectability and family honor and all, but you never, for a minute, believe that could happen in your family! Not in a progressive family like yours…

“It will destroy him. You know how much he loves both of you”

“This is crazy. He ought to know! The sooner the better”

Deep down she knew it couldn’t be avoided. She looked at me helplessly, like one looks at inevitable consequences of one’s own thinking. I was just her extension.

“Okay I will tell him”

“No mom. It’s high time I did my own laundry”

***

Boliye Madam, the constable said, looking at me strangely.

“Wear something simple”, my mom had said to me, when she knew I was going to the police-station. I had frowned at that. Now I knew the wisdom of her words.

“I want to register an FIR”, I said to him.

“Lost your mobile?”, he asked cynically.

“No. Can I talk to the inspector?”

“Madam, inspectors don’t write FIRs!” he said patronisingly. I had a feeling he was staring at me an instant more than required — that dreaded male gaze. But when you’ve been molested by your own brother, such gaze seems benign by comparison.

“Is there no woman constable here?”

He gave me a weird look. “No. What is it about?”

“Sexual molestation”, I said, finally. Why is it so hard? I mean it’s not like I’ve done something wrong!

His expression changed suddenly. I guess he didn’t want to mess around with someone who could come and register such a crime!

“Maybe you should talk to our sahib“, he said finally.

“Madam, why do you want to waste your time as well as mine?”, the Sub-Inspector asked me earnestly, when I told him.

“I don’t understand you”, I said.

“Madam such family cases are dropped eventually. Your parents will try to convince you to drop the charges”

“No that’s not going to happen”

“How come your parents haven’t accompanied you to police-station?”

I remembered that when I sat facing my father, who wouldn’t dare look into my eyes.

“No I’m not asking you to do anything against your wishes”, he said. “I have no moral authority left to tell you to do anything…”. His voice trailed off.

“Dad, you’ve not failed me! Please don’t say such things”. You’ve been a heck of a dad, I wanted to say, but somehow I couldn’t at that moment. He had taken it stoically, when I had told it to him. Unlike my mom, who had had her moments of denial, he had just dropped his eyes. Then looking at me he had asked, “How are you? I’m so sorry you had to face this in your own house…”

“Whatever has happened was beyond your control. It was despite your bringing up…”

He looked at me. Maybe the expression in my eyes convinced him. “Thank you, dear. But I’ve stilled failed you. I didn’t have enough courage to come with you to the police station. And I…”, his voice was down to whisper again and his eyes dropped, “even now I wish this all would just go away, that you’ll just… maybe… forgive him, and move on”

He looked at the anger and hurt in my eyes.

“No… it’s up to you. Do what you think is right”

“Dad… just think if someone else had done this to me. What would you have wished for him?”

“I’d have wanted to kill him, just as I want to kill Mandar right now. Only I’m not strong enough”, he said and left the room.

***

“Don’t be ridiculous Mitali”, is what Roopa said when I told her I was planning to press charges against my own brother. Roopa is my best friend. “Have you thought about what it will do to your parents?”

I remembered that night when mom and dad were away on a tour, just two of them, after a long long while. I was happy for them, so was Mandar. The weekdays just went past us, both of us coming home just to sleep. Friday night Mandar picked up food on his way home, and also got some wine. I was pleasantly surprised, but then Mandar had always pampered me one way or the other, the sweet elder brother.

After dinner we sat and drank the wine, I asked him about his love life. He asked me about mine. Both of us agreed we had pathetic lives. It was one of the nicest time I had with him in a while, or any time really for both of us were so busy with our respective lives. After a while, I felt a little giddy. I thought it was the wine, although I never had problems with that much wine in the past. But then it was a hectic day too, so I just told him that I just wanted to call it a day. As I got up I fell down.

My head was heavy, and I probably lost my consciousness or something, but the next I knew I was in my own room — yeah we had moved into a larger house and both of us had a nice spacious room now — and Mandar was looking at me. I couldn’t really open my eyes, but I just thanked him, and muttered good night. Another blank, and I felt a hand groping my breasts. I couldn’t make out if I was in a dream or what, but I could make out that that was Mandar’s touch. May be it was that shock which brought me back to my senses. I pushed him away with all my strength.

“You bastard”, I cried, “Get out”

He panicked. I looked at myself. My top was pushed all the way up. I adjusted it, and charged on him. He retreated a few steps, out of the door, still looking at me. I banged the door on him, locked it. I must have fallen again, because the next morning when I got up, I was on the floor, my head hurting terribly. I came out of the room. He was reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. Just another normal day. He looked at me as if nothing had happened.

Roopa was looking at me, expecting me to say something.

“Sometimes Roopa, you must think beyond your family”, is all I said.

***

“You got knocked out by wine, yesterday!”, he said, trying to judge my reaction. I didn’t say a word. The next day my parents returned. I guess it was awkward for Mandar that I hadn’t said a single word to him, even in front of my parents. My mom probably thought that it was one of our regular fights, when we wouldn’t speak to each other. Mostly it was me who wouldn’t speak anyways, days at times. Two days later, I told my parents everything.

My dad talked to Mandar first, he denied everything. He said he was trying to put me in my bed when I suddenly got wild for no reason and pushed him out of the room. He said he couldn’t believe I could accuse him of such horrible things. That’s when I decided to press the charges.

I guess he never believed I would do that. That’s what the typical family guys count on, when they do such things. But when he realized that I was not kidding, he broke down and confessed it all to me in the letter. I sat in my room the whole night trying to remember the good times — and there were so many… so many. But every time I closed my eyes, that one image came back to haunt me. And one thought: someone who drugs his own sister could do so much more if left unpunished. As for my parents, they’ll have to live with the trauma, just as I have to. At some level, I still love Mandar. But it’s the monster within him that has to pay. It’s then I knew that I could never drop the charges.

A Fair(y) Tale

“And they lived happily ever after”, I read out from the book. I closed the book and checked if Rhea was asleep. She hadn’t said a word for a while, and that’s unusal for her if she is awake. Today, however, she was wide awake and silent. She looked back at me with infinite sadness in her eyes.

“Pa, why do fairy tales always have happy endings?”

That’s because, I wanted to say, what would we look forward to if even fairy tales started being realistic? But then trouble is, even at her tender age, Rhea would have known exactly what I meant.

“That’s because”, I said, “the story uncle has to move on to tell other tales”

“You mean, the story uncle lies about the end?”

“No dear. The story uncle just doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the end. He sees the happy princess and he thinks she’s going to be happy always”

“Pa, why you and mommy not living happily every after?”

Ah, the dreaded question. Not because it’s the first time she’s asked this, but because everytime I have to be consistent. Any sign of inconsistency with previous versions, and she’ll give me that look!

“We are! It’s just that we’re not living together”

“Is mommy happy?”

“She is trying to find happiness, dear”, you cannot lie to kids. They’ll catch you sooner or later. And then they stop believing even in your truths.

“And what about you, Pa?”

“I’m happy, too!”, didn’t I say you cannot lie to kids? “I have you with me. That’s all I need”

“But you would be happier if Mommy was here”

“Of course dear! But we must manage, just two of us. We agreed about that, didn’t we?”

“But Pa why doesn’t mommy love me?”

“How could you even say that? Of course she loves you”

“Then why did she leave me”

“No Rhea, She didn’t leave you, she left me. When the story uncle leaves, things start to change a little. Mommy and I realized way after story uncle left, that it was by his mistake that we had met each other. You know dear, when story uncle makes mistakes, we have to correct them”

For a while she stared at the ceiling.

“But Pa, didn’t she want to live with me?”

“She did, but both of us agreed that I needed you more than she did. And she roams all around the world, na?”

“But she never writes to me, never calls me!”

“We can’t make it more difficult for her, na? She is trying to rewrite all the story pages where the story uncle made mistakes”

“I hate story uncle!”, she said finally.

“So do I, dear”

“When you write stories, Pa, promise me you wouldn’t make mistakes”

“I can’t promise beta. But I promise I’ll try very hard”

That made her happy. A faint smile crossed her lips as she said, “I love you, Pa”

“I love you, my princess…”, I said very softly, because the princess was already ruling the kingdom of dreams.