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.

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17 thoughts on “Ashen Lives

  1. asuph says:

    atra: with your high recommendation, i’m sold 🙂

    vi: it was not intended at a short-story. couple of themes were sitting in my notebook for a while. picked it up on a whim, cos i wanted to break the jinx. yes it’s a short-sell. trouble is, once you use a theme, it kind of loses it’s drive. it stops kicking you into action. hopefully i’ll overcome that.

    captain: hmmm. man it’s almost like induced labor again. what inspiration. it was more like trying to fight with constipation. maybe you need constipation ;-), rest will follow.

    iw: that’s why i always wait for your comment. trouble is, like your aussie sister, i never go back to things i’ve written. even if i go back to them, i read what i intended to write. thanks for pointing that out, and for all the compliments.

    • asuph says:

      Honored, Mahendra. But first I need to (re)start writing :(. This was a first step, I polished it a bit from previous draft which was a little jarring read. But fiction seems to have deserted me.

        • asuph says:

          Thanks. Yes, I know you won’t joke/flatter in such matters, in particular. I will write. Have a few stories cooking up at extremely slow pace, not all is lost. Not neglecting, but sometimes one hits a state where it seems like best is behind you. Nothing you write looks satisfactory. But thanks a lot for your appreciation. It matters.

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