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.
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.”
“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?”
“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!
“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.
“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.
“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]