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She

The emotions had been building up for the past three months. Nothing was the same since she had come into his team. He stayed back in the conference rooms long after she left, just breathing in her perfume. He stole secret glances over his laptop to grab a glimpse of her. He caressed her chair with secret longing each evening after she tossed her handbag on her shoulder and walked out of the office. It was an emotion beyond his control. It was pure lust at times, and sometimes he wondered if it could even be love.

She knew. She caught him staring at her often. She could feel his deep breaths taking in her scent as she passed his seat.  She woke up each morning, excited at the thought of being in the same room as him in a few hours. That thing he was feeling, it was contagious.

Hormones went berserk in that little office every day. She teased him with her seductive clothes and heady perfume. He drew her closer to him with his power and position. It was a game they were playing without saying a word to each other, a secret game that everyone else in the office was oblivious to. Or were they?

******

She held out the box of chocolates in front of him and he picked one, hands shaking, he looked into her eyes and smiled. She looked extra beautiful that day. His throat fel dry, he couldn’t even utter the words ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. All that came out of him was a mumble.

An email popped up in his inbox. ‘Can you come to my house tonight for my birthday party’? He replied immediately. ’ Yes’. They didn’t say another word to each other for the rest of the day.

*****

There was no party.

The bedroom was where they wanted to go, and that was where they went.  Those lust filled moments  in parking lots, lifts, conference rooms and glass cabins sought nirvana in that bedroom. Three months of terror unleashed by raging pheromones and frenzied emotions were about to get closure. And continuity? They fell on the cool sheets, greedy and ready to be consumed by whatever monster it was that had taken over their senses all these days.

As he rolled over, his arm hit the nightstand and his cellphone that was carelessly placed on the edge fell down. His heart skipped a beat and he reached down to pick it up. The display had lit up, spreading a soft white glow all over the darkened room. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the screen, it was undamaged. And then his heart skipped a beat again. His wife was smiling up at him from his wallpaper.

He looked at the woman on the bed. He looked at the woman in his phone.

He picked up his clothes and walked out of the bedroom without looking back.

This too was a prompt based story. Why is it that almost every single story that I wrote back then had this kind of theme?  No, I’m not looking for that answer.

Platform

All those months of hard work were finally going to pay off.

He got off from the train into the crowded platform. It was nine o’clock in the morning. He moved the laptop bag from his right shoulder to the left.  I should have put it into a backpack, he thought to himself. He swung his right arm and rotated it to ease the pain off his shoulder, almost striking a woman hurrying past. ‘Sorry ma’am’, he muttered. The woman gave him a nasty look and rushed toward the oncoming train.

The trains came and went almost at the speed of light in that station. Where are all these people coming from and where are they going, he wondered. He had to walk a while before he found a place to rest.  He bought a cup of coffee and sat down and rested the bag against the paan stained legs of the stone bench. His phone rang.  Startled, he spilled a little coffee on his shirt. He placed the cup on the bench and fumbled into his shirt pocket to retrieve the phone.

‘Haan, tell me’, he barked , his voice tinged  with irritation, one hand rubbing the coffee stain on his shirt, trying to get it off with a handkerchief.

The voice on the other side asked him if all was ok.

‘If it is not ok, I’ll call you. Now please stop calling me’, he replied angrily and hung up.

One more train stopped, loaded and unloaded its passengers and left the station.

He looked at his watch. It was almost nine twenty now. He crushed his coffee cup and threw it on the platform aimlessly. The train was approaching. He got up and walked towards it. The crowds thronged towards the door. He quickened his pace and rushed in, grabbing the rod. The coffee stain was bugging him. He needed to get some some water at when he got off to see if he could wash it before the stain set. The train started moving and he glanced towards the bench where he had been sitting. Between the sea of legs he could see the laptop bag still leaning against the dirty stone legs of the bench.

**

He got down at the next stop. Everything had gone as planned. All he had to do was to make one phone call. A cellphone was placed inside the laptop bag. He would call that phone and it would ring. Once. Twice. Thrice.  The device would get activated.  The rest, his employers had told him, would be reported in the news.

The platform he stood on was no different from the previous one. The same thronging crowds. Husbands who had said goodbye to their wives and rushing off to work. Fathers who had dropped off their children in schools and now hurrying to offices on the other side of the city. Wives who had risen at dawn to finish off their household chores and now going to their offices to work . Laughing college students with their dreams ahead of them. Lovers who had exactly five minutes to stop and exchange glimpses between trains.

He stood there and looked at the sea of humanity before him. A sudden wave of remorse swept through his senses. Should he? Shouldn’t he? Should he?

He reached into his pocket and took out his phone. He dialed a number.

He threw the mobile phone on the tracks under the wheels of the train hurtling towards the platform and walked away.

*****

An anonymous tip off, the TV channels said when they hysterically reported how a bomb in a laptop bag was defused that morning. He would be traced soon, he knew it. But he didn’t care anymore.
Yes, done-to-death theme. Maybe there are a million stories with the exact same thing. But hey, recycling posts from years ago. Let me. 

All My Yesterdays

 

My dearest Shiva,

I saw the pictures on Facebook yesterday. The baby has your eyes.

Remember that cold December day when we sat on our rock and spoke about how our babies would be? You said that you wanted our babies to have my eyes and your hair, my nose and your forehead. Remember how mad I got when you said that you wanted them to have my heart and your brain? That day, that last day that you and I spoke for hours, living out the rest of our lives in our imagination. The day we then decided what needs to be done. That day is still so fresh in my memory.

When I close my eyes and think of that day, I can feel the cold mist enveloping us and the smell of the tea bushes around us as we sat there. I can still feel the warmth of your hand in mine, the smell of your leather jacket and your musky aftershave. I can still hear the sound of your beating heart, the one that said my name. And then I feel the warm tears flowing down my cheeks and a lone teardrop rolls down and falls into my chest. That is when I get back to reality. The memories are from yesterday, but the tears are from today. Everyday.

It is such a wonder, how I am able to cry even now. I thought that all my tears would have dried up that last day. We watched the sunset across the mountains and then we broke ourselves away from the fantasy world we were living in. You took me back home, openly this time. There was no need to be surreptitious because tomorrow we would announce to our families that we were no longer a couple. We would no longer the stubborn pair who chose love and refused to consider family honor. We would go back into the good books of our respective families and once the initial buzz died down, we would agree to marry someone our families chose, someone of the same religion, caste, sub caste. Someone whose horoscope matched perfectly. Someone who would not bring the curse of dishonor to the generations to come.

 

Maybe it was the right thing we did, but Shiva, you know, nowadays men marry men and women marry women! Society has changed so much. When I read such stories, I feel such a sad clutch in my heart.  Maybe, I think, maybe we could have held on a little longer. Maybe we could have been a little more stubborn. Maybe we could have fought a bit harder.  But then, maybe it would have just caused more pain.

 

My father threatened to kill himself and my sister because she would never get a proper husband if I brought such shame to the family, he said. Shame. That’s what they called our love. Shame. And your family was no different, worse, if I may say so now. They used such harsh words about me, Shiva. I heard what they called me. Anandi told me everything after you left India. She told me about what actually happened in your house that made you want us to break up. I understand. I don’t think I would have been able to spend a single moment with your family after they used such words. How could your father have used such horrible words about me when he hadn’t even met me? I did not seduce you, Shiva. I was not after your family money. Of course, I know you knew that, but why didn’t you fight harder for me? I wish, I wish you had.

 

But anyway, all water under the bridge now.

 

Yes, I would have been the millstone around your neck. How smoothly everything happened after we broke up. It was like I was the biggest obstacle in your life, holding you back from reaching the great heights you reached today. All you had to do was to marry the girl your parents chose. Maybe there is something in those horoscopes that they gave so much importance to. She was the perfect match for you. With me, you would have had to take up the teaching job in St. Antony’s school to make ends meet. We would have had to fight society, the stigma, our families and difficult finances every single day had we gone ahead and got married against their wishes. I’m sure your father, the influential person he was, would have sabotaged every chance we got, just to make a point.

 

But today, look where you are. Harvard. A professor at Harvard. Not in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that back then, would we? We would have been content with a small life in our small town. But look where she took you. The woman you married was your key to the First World. It is not that easy to go to the US these days, so many formalities, so many questions at the embassy. My nephew had to come back to India because they refused to extend his visa. But for you, it was smooth sailing. Because I wasn’t there blocking the path? Probably. My love, our love, didn’t stand like a mountain you had to scale before you reached your future.  I read somewhere that you are even likely to win a Nobel Prize someday. Imagine. How my heart swells up with pride when I read such things about you. Of course, I saw the star in you way back then.

I have to confess, for a long time even after you left, I held on to the hope that by some twist of fate we would get back together. When Anandi told me that your wife was pregnant, I had the most evil thought. I can finally say it now and get the burden off my mind. I had the most evil thought that she should die in childbirth and you would write to me, telling me that you were now free from the family pressure and you are ready to marry me. Of course, God never answers evil prayers. There is not a day that passes when I don’t beg him for forgiveness for that evil thought I had.

 

Why didn’t you keep in touch back then, Shiva? Why didn’t you write to me as you promised? If only we had this email and Facebook back then, would you have kept in touch? But what would we have written to each other? Just sent each other letters filled with regret to make our lives more miserable?  Maybe you did the right thing, to make the clean cut, to break away.

Was it difficult for you? Did you cry into your pillow every night? Did the world go dark for you? Did you have nightmares of running through a maze, a black, smoky maze and finding yourself up against cold mossy walls? Did you wake up screaming my name?

I broke, Shiva. I broke in to little pieces after you left. I know, Anandi didn’t tell you all this. I begged her not to. I feared that my collapse would have hurt you more than it hurt me. But today, I want to ask you, what was your life like after you left? After you left me? Was it easy for you to move on? Please tell me that it wasn’t easy. Please tell me how painful it was for you to live with another woman after all those hopes and dreams of yours were centered around me. I was your everything, Shiva. You were my everything. But do you love her now? I’m sure you do.  But do you love her as much as you loved me? No, don’t answer that.

It wasn’t just a breakdown I had after you left. I went insane. I sat staring at the wall, seeing your face everywhere, calling your name, talking to you. They pumped me with pills, trying to erase your memory from my mind. They took me to bearded men who fanned peacock feathers in my face and tied threads around my wrist.  It was horrible, Shiva. Horrible. But of course, there was nothing more horrible than the thought of a life without you. It took me a long time to learn that that was what my future was now. To accept reality. I was forced to accept it, accept the fact that you had gone. Gone from my life forever. And then when they thought that I was cured (cured? They cured me of you? Like it is even possible) they married me off to a man my father’s age to get me out of the way.

Well, you know how it is, life had to happen. But mercifully, that life lasted less than a year for me. He died. I cannot tell you about those days because I have absolutely no memory of them. He is just a blur somewhere in the back of my mind, just like how my life was during those few months. However hard I try, I am not able to remember that part of my life. Repressed memories. Is that what they call it these days?

*****

I lived with Zohara until last year. You remember my sister Zohara, don’t you? Your sister Anandi’s classmate, the one who used to act as postman for us, passing my letters to Anandi and yours back to me.  She died last September. She was my last link to you in this world. We used to sit up late nights and talk about those good old days. Now I have no one with whom I can talk to about you.

It was the logical step to be moved to this old age home. Zohara’s son Imtiaz refused to let me go at first. He loved me even more than his mother. But I made him. An old aunt is not something you burden your only nephew with. This home is a nice place. There are people I can talk to, books I can read, movies I can watch. Of course, there is no one here with whom I can talk about you. But maybe if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have learnt to use this Facebook thing. Imtiaz bought me this laptop and set up this account for me. The first thing I searched for was your name, and there you were, looking all handsome and distinguished. A thousand butterflies fluttered in my heart the day I saw you on Facebook. I was that shy 20 year old again, falling in love all over again.  Imagine, feeling that same emotion after all these decades. Forty five years is it? Seems like yesterday.

******

The baby has your eyes, Shiva. Your grandchild looks exactly like you. Send me more pictures of your life. I want to know what has happened to you all these forty five years. I know, a lot has happened in your life, unlike mine. Send them quickly, Shiva. I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s’ a couple of months ago. It isn’t bad right now, but you know how it is. It will get worse. Soon. I want to soak up every bit of you that there is left before I fade away.

I can live with the disease, I know I can. They have people to look after me here when things go the way they are bound to. They are paid to.  I will have people who would feed me, bathe me and keep me alive. I’ll be alive, Shiva. Just the way I’ve been alive all these years without you, with you.   But you know what I dread the most?  The day I die. No, not the day I die because my heart has stopped beating or my brain has shut down. The day I die when this disease erases your memory from my mind. The day you are erased from my life. That is the day I dread.

Let me say it Shiva, let me say it to you one last time before you leave me again.

I love you.

 

Always,

 

Zeenath

 

(I know. It does seem to have shades of movies. Not a conscious inspiration, but yes, maybe.  It was something that I wrote long ago for some writing prompt based thingy. I went through my old posts from somewhere and dug this out. Oh, my resolution is to start writing more and I’m warming up by recycling old posts. The new financial year does count as a new year, right?)

The Dove’s Lament- Kirthi Jayakumar :10/52 (Book by a female author)

Painful. Reality.

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When I was asked to review this book, I groaned. Yet another chicklit, I thought to myself and rolled my eyes. But a quick search told me that this wasn’t chicklit. It wasn’t even fiction.  It is a book about something so real, something so horrifying, something so sad. And something that we think is so far away, but it is something that is actually knocking at our doors.

Each story begins in a place that need to be magnified on the world map, places that most of us can’t identify offhand. Can you point out to Israel on the world map? Wait. Palestine. Wait. Umm…that area. Maybe. Rwanda? Somewhere in Africa. Bosnia? Is that still even a place? And that country in South America? No idea; I can only identify Brazil in that entire continent. So there you go. Lesson One: Geography. But that’s not what this book is about. It is about history. And current events that will someday be buried in the dusty archives of history.

And it is not just history. Or other people’s conflicts. Or war. Last year’s headlines, the Peshawar massacre is retold through the eyes of siblings who have just discovered each other. You take a diversion from the more known horrors of a Taliban-suppressed Afghanistan and are shown the ugly world of Bachha Baazi, a market where young boys are sold to be dancing ‘girls’ for the rich and perverted. And closer home, the horrifying reality of the Balika Badhus whose stories aren’t as lovable as Anandi’s. There is the never ending saga of the Israel-Palestine conflict; one story, For the Love of a Motherland, shows the irony of how one man’s oppressed is another man’s oppressor. And of course, a book about horrifying conflicts won’t be complete without Kashmir and Srilanka.

The format of this book is interesting, a short-story set in the backdrop of a shameful era of human history like the Srebrenica Massacre ( Go Google it) or the Rwandan Genocide which is then followed by a write up about the the actual conflict. And given the nature of these shameful eras in history, most of these short-stories may not even be fiction.

I remember the 90s when every single day the news reader used to talk about a bombing in Bosnia, a headline that I had no idea about. Fire in a Ring of Ice throws light on an issue that has been so vague to me for the past two decades. A friend’s grandmother used to watch Ulaga Seidhigal for news about Kashmir where her grandson was posted; she thought Kashmir wasn’t a part of India. Is it? I still don’t know. Even in this book, Kashmir has a sad story of its own. With a separate map.

The writing is very good, but I found that the parallel tracks of narration in every story were a bit repetitive and somehow predictable. That style works better for novels; in short stories, there isn’t enough time and space to bring out the depth of each character this way. Though they are all independent short stories, they are gripping enough to keep you going from one to the other without a pause. Makes you  want to know if the next horror is more horrifying than the horror you just read about, and so you keep reading till the very end.

What bugged me? The the urls as footnotes in the print version of the book. It made no sense. Like hashtags on paper or carbon copies in emails. Also, I didn’t understand the cover. Maybe I am not arty enough for it, but I would have preferred a more jarring cover, one that reflects the sadness and pain of the tales inside and stands out so that you take notice of the book in crowded stands.

It is a small book but it covers the entire world. Fly with that dove in search of a safe place to perch, find none, and lament. No, I won’t say that there is hope. I don’t believe in blue skies and rainbows.  I’m a pessimist, so I’lI say that this book has scope to become a trilogy.

You can buy the book here.

The Grill Door

I’m one who watches movies in installments. I finally got to watch the first story of 5 Sundarikal on my flight this time. It was the most disturbing story in that movie. 

Time to plug in a story I had written a few years ago.

Sanju plodded up the stairs and rang the doorbell. Rama aunty wouldn’t open it soon. She stood there waiting impatiently, digging on a flake of peeling paint on the yellow wall. The schoolbag was weighing her backwards. A good five minutes later Sanju heard shuffling footsteps.

“Hello Sanju, back from school?” Rama aunty gushed as she opened the door, and then went back inside for another two minutes before she came back with the keys.

“Why don’t you come in and have something” she asked in a baby voice.

Sanju shook her head. “Bye aunty”, she said and lugged her bag up the next flight of stairs, clutching the bunch of keys in one hand.

“Rama aunty is doing us a big favour by keeping our house keys. Never impose on her. Politely refuse if she offers you a snack, and never go inside their house” These were her mother’s strict instructions, and Sanju followed them scrupulously.

Rama aunty was not actually an aunty, Sanju thought. She looked more like her grandmother in Kanpur. But since her mother and father both called her Rama aunty, Sanju too did the same. The old woman too probably felt some satisfaction, being called aunty by a nine year old. How come there is a grandmother in that house when there are no children? Sanju always wondered.

She missed both her grandmothers a lot. She hardly saw them. Sometimes she visited on Diwali or for a few days during her summer vacations. She treasured those moments with her grandparents. One was in Dehradun and the other was in Kanpur. Both of them never visited their house in Noida. “There is nothing for us there” was their reply whenever they were invited to stay over.

She stood outside her house and fumbled with the keys. She pulled out the silver key and opened the silver lock. The iron grill door opened. She then pulled out the golden key and opened the golden lock. She struggled to close the grill door, holding two locks and the key bunch in her left hand. She then opened the wooden door and went inside the house, throwing both the locks and the keys on the couch in the living room.

She ran to her room and threw her school bag on her bed, and went straight to the dining table. She poured herself a glass of water from the jug. “No fridge water” her mother always warned her.

“If you drink fridge water, you will lose your voice and will not be able to sing anymore” Sanju loved to sing.

Her mother had put out the green tuck box today. Sanju eagerly opened it, waiting to see what goodies lay in store for her that afternoon. Apples. She scrunched her face and closed the box. They had become brown and the room smelled like the Sector 22 market as soon as she opened the box. She looked around; there was nothing else that her mother had put out for her. No cookies, no cakes, no Munch. Angry, she went to the kitchen to search for something to eat. The big box was sitting right on top. She could see the Namkeen packet inside, pressing against the translucent white plastic, trying hard to break free.

“No, I cannot reach it even if I stand on the stool” she thought with frustration and ran back to the dining room.

She opened the thermos flask and poured out her Bournvita into the yellow mug. She took a sip. It was tepid, as usual. She spat out the bits of cream floating on top that stuck to her tongue. She hated that. Holding the mug in one hand, she opened out the door to the balcony and stood outside. She smiled at Rakesh who was standing on the opposite balcony. He was holding a red mug.

“Next month, I will get the red mug with my Bournvita” Sanju decided. He took up his right hand to his mouth questioningly, “Did you eat?” he gestured. Sanju shook her head back slowly, sadly. He shrugged back.

They stood for a while smiling at each other, sipping their chocolate flavored health drinks from free mugs. Both wishing they had the other colour. Hers was tepid, but his would be hot enough she thought. Shiny didi would have mixed fresh Bournvita for him and strained off the bits of cream. Shiny didi was in eighth standard and was allowed to light the gas stove.

Rakesh was also in her school, her class. In fourth standard, but he was in section C. She was in section A. The three of them, Sanju, Rakesh and Shiny didi along with Karan and Rinkie from R block were rickshaw mates. Every morning, Sanju’s mother dragged her out of bed, hurriedly dressed her, made her stuff two slices of bread into her reluctant mouth, wash it down with a yellow mug of Bournvita and literally chased her out of the house to the waiting rickshaw already overflowing with children and schoolbags.

The rickshaw uncle would then pedal the five of them and their schoolbags for another two kilometers to school on his broomstick legs, coughing and spitting every five minutes. Sanju hated the rickshaw uncle’s smell and always sat at the back, her legs hanging outside, facing the opposite direction, smiling and waving at the cars they tried to cunningly overtake in the traffic jams. The same rickshaw uncle would pick them up at three o’clock and drop them back home.

Rakesh, Shiny didi, Karan and Rinkie had come for her birthday party the previous month. Why is my birthday only on 16th of July, she wondered. Couldn’t it be on the 16th of every month? This year, she had actually celebrated two birthdays. On her Real Birthday, she had to go to school, but she took a box of Alpenlebies to distribute to all her friends and a tin of Haldiram Rasagullas for her class teacher. They had all sang Happy Birthday and clapped. Everyone was so nice to her that day.

And then that Saturday, she had a Second Birthday with a party at home. Her Delhi uncle and her Ghaziabad uncle had come with their aunties. Reema aunty and uncle had come from Sector 61 with her little cousin Coco. She was a bit disappointed that none of her classmates from school had come though she had announced that they were all invited before handing out the sweets on her Real Birthday.

Three other kids from their building had also come. Sanju smiled at them sweetly, though she didn’t like them. All of them wore the party hats, ate the goodies laid out and admired the decorations. They are all so jealous of me, Sanju thought. They all sang Happy Birthday again as she cut the clown shaped cake.

Her mother had dressed her up like a film star that day and she even allowed her to apply a touch of lipstick. Sanju had pouted her lips for the rest of the evening, trying hard not to press her lips together lest the lipstick faded away. She ran up to the mirror every now and then to check whether it had worn away. They had taken a lot of pictures and videos and her father played it on his laptop after the guests had left. The three of them had sat on her parents’ bed and watched happily.

Rakesh and Shiny didi had given her a pencil box that opened on both sides. Karan had given her a doll and Rinkie had given her a shiny necklace with matching earrings. The three kids had brought some fluorescent crayons, sketch pens and a Spiderman doll. She hated the Spiderman doll and hated the kid who brought it even more now.

Her uncles and aunties had disappointingly handed her envelopes of money. Her mother had allowed her to remove the one rupee coins stuck to the envelopes but took away the money inside.

“I will put it in your name in a bank account Sanju, the money will grow with you” she said.

“That is my money,” Sanju thought angrily. “They gave it to me and I want to buy that doll house from Geepee Store.”

But she knew that her mother would scold her if she said it out loud. No,not today. Her mother had been so sweet to her since morning and she did not want to spoil that. It was afterall her Second Birthday.

***

Sanju wished so badly that her mother would be there to open the door for her every afternoon when she returned from school. Make her hot Bournvita and Maggi noodles. She wanted to tell her that Miss had praised her in front of the whole class for finishing her sums first. She wanted to tell her that a frog had hopped inside their class today and Rita had screamed and climbed up on the table. She wanted to tell her mother that Vijay had Made Toilet in his pants today.

Sanju giggled recalling how Miss had pushed him outside, muttering unapprovingly “You are in fourth standard Vijay, what is this?”

But she knew she could never share all this with her mother. Even if she did, it would just be acknowledged with a grunt from her before she started yelling at her to finish her homework.

But Sanju was glad that her mother came home to her every evening. Rinkie lived with her father and her grandmother. Her mother’s office had sent her to America six months ago and she had not come back yet. Rinkie said that she phoned  every day and promised to bring her gifts, but still, Sanju decided that she was luckier. She prayed that her mother’s office would never send her to America.

She finished her Bournvita and turned the yellow mug upside down to show Rakesh on the opposite balcony. He did the same with his red mug and they both giggled. Shiny didi came and shooed Rakesh back inside the house. They both smiled and waved at Sanju before closing the door. Sanju wiped her mouth with her school tie and went back inside the house.

She went to her room and changed into the clothes her mother had laid out on the bed for her. She hung up her school uniform on the cupboard handle and pondered for a minute. She could start doing her homework, but then she decided not to. If she finished it now, her mother would not sit with her for even those few minutes in the evening. Everyday, her mother darted back and forth from the kitchen to the dining table where Sanju sat with her homework. She was always irritated and raised her voice at the tiniest mistakes Sanju made, but somehow Sanju cherished these moments with her mother. She asked her the silliest doubts and enjoyed it when her mother tried to explain to her.

“Is it Either or Ither mummy? You say Either but my Miss says Ither” she would ask in between long division and her mother would reply in an exasperated tone “Both are right Sanju, now finish your sums.”

So she put her homework back in the bag and looked around the room wondering what else she could do now.

She was bored of the computer games. She wanted to ask her father to download some new games, but didn’t know when to ask him. He always sat with his laptop on his bed and never did anything on the other computer. These days he signaled angrily at her to leave the room whenever she went up to him.

She switched on the TV and surfed channels for a while. She tried to watch Disney channel for sometime and then went back and forth from Pogo to Hungama. She was bored. Kareena Kapoor was dancing on Sony. Sanju loved Kareena. She turned up the volume and began to sing with her. She climbed on the couch and began to dance. She had been in the group dance for the annual day last year and was hoping to do a solo number this year. She jumped up and down happily with Kareena mimicking her movements and her facial expressions. She folded up her pink T shirt high up to her chest and pulled her pants a bit lower to expose her belly button. She ran one hand through her hair and the other all over her body, singing along, pink with excitement. She plopped down on the couch happy and exhausted after the song was over. An advertisement.

“I will become an actress when I grow big”, she decided. She made a mental note to dig into her mother’s dressing table later. It was forbidden, but then Mummy is not here, she thought.

She sat waiting in anticipation for the next song but it was a boring one. Disappointed, she changed channels again. Hannah Montana was crooning away on Disney. Sanju sang along with her loudly, trying to get the words, the tune and the accent right. She moved away from the TV, still singing along. Hannah Montana didn’t dance as well as Kareena.

She opened the wooden living room door and stood behind the iron grill doors, looking out through the holes. Her mother had told her never to open the grill doors once she came home.

“It is like I am in jail,” Sanju thought angrily “Anyway, mummy is not here.” The bolt squeaked loudly tickling her teeth. She opened the grill door and stood on the doorstep, not knowing what to do next. She stood on the door and swung it back and forth, staring into the empty hallway.

The door of the opposite apartment opened. An Uncle came out. He was not a new Uncle, she had seen him many times, but her parents had never spoken to him. She didn’t know his name.

The Uncle smiled at her and nodded, wriggling his fingers gesturing to her to come to him. Sanju shook her head and smiled shyly. He gestured again. And she shook her head again swinging the door almost closing it.

The Uncle went back inside. “Oh no”, Sanju thought. “He is angry with me. I should have gone when he called.” She stood on the door and swung it back and forth again, loudly, hoping he would hear it and come out.

A minute later he came back and stood on his doorstep. He had a Munch and a packet of Lays in his hands. He smiled and called her.

Sanju’s face broke out into a huge smile. She ran to him.

The iron grill door swung slowly and banged against the wall.

Hannah Montana continued to croon on Disney channel.

A housefly buzzed greedily over the sticky yellow mug lying on the dining table.

Inside the darkened apartment, the Uncle smiled again. This time, Sanju didn’t smile back.

Knowing

We make such a lovely picture today that we could sell anything on Indian television right now. Anything from expensive suiting to insurance policies. Or multinational banks. Or maybe even pure gold jewelry.  Or a health drink. A teary eyed mother, grey haired  in silk and pearls dabbing her eyes with the edge of her sari pallu. A proud father glancing around in all directions to no one in particular and mumbling ‘My son, my son’, much like how he says ‘Peace be with you’ at mass every Sunday. And a son who has just been awarded his doctorate from the most prestigious university in the United States of America.

I am enjoying playing the stereotypical ignorant- but- proud -mother moment today. I really still don’t fully understand what Aryan’s doctorate is for. But I know that it is something that will help save lives someday. And I know that my son must be something of a prodigy for getting this PhD at twenty four. That is all that matters to me. Ravi is beaming so much that the metal cap on his last molar flashed when it caught a ray of light from somewhere. That metal cap after his root canal treatment on that tooth, his symbol of martyrdom. Why spend money on a ceramic cap for a tooth that won’t show when that money can buy Aryan food for a couple of days in America, he had said, feeling proud of the sacrifice he was making for his son. It wasn’t like my son actually needed his parents to go on an austerity drive and tighten their belts to put food on his table though. He had gone there on a full scholarship and was sending money back home for the past few years. I resented Ravi for trying to take any bit of credit for Aryan’s American education.

That crash diet and tucked in stomach have helped Ravi fit into this suit he is wearing today, but the pride that has filled every pore of his body is making it burst at the seams. A rare wave of fondness sweeps over me when I look at him today. Was this the man I came to America with 35 years ago? The man with whom I went back to India with six months later, carrying Geetu in my womb and the blame of having brought him bad luck on my shoulders. It wasn’t Lehman Brothers or the sub prime crisis that led to the recession that got him fired. It was his new, luckless wife. We were never able to step into America again afterwards, and a day did not pass for the next thirty five years without me having to hear how it was I who was to blame for the wretched existence we were forced to lead in India.

In an arranged marriage, they told me that familiarity will lead to like and like will lead to love. But in our marriage, everything led to hate. Ok, let me give him some credit here. Ravi never hated me, it was I who hated him. I hated him for taking it for granted that the freshly graduated mechanical engineer would be a contented housewife. I hated him for making my brain rust over the next three decades. I hated him for calling up his mother every night to report to her about what I had cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner and go on to say that it tasted nothing like what she churned out from her magic kitchen. I hated him for switching off the bedroom  light the moment he wanted to go to sleep, ignoring me lying down beside him engrossed in a Dan Brown novel. I hated him for not noticing my new haircut, my new clothes. I hated him for not asking me if I had eaten dinner whenever I laid out his food when he came home past midnight. I hated him for not being Mathew McConnaughey or Hugh Grant. I hated him for not being able to talk about Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. I hated him for being 11 years older than me. I hated him. I hated him, but I continued to exist as his wife. For Geetu. For my parents’ place in society . For his parents’ place in society. For his sister’s wedding. For his sister’s husband’s family’s place in society. For his office parties. For his bedroom. For his kitchen. I continued to exist as his wife. And every day, I began to shrink a little so that I could enter that shell I was building. The shell that would protect me from the life I hated.

But then everything suddenly changed. It must have been a year before Aryan was conceived that my life was suddenly took a turn, and to the surprise of luckless me, it was a turn for the better. I had shrunk myself into a non-entity and was living a comfortable life inside that little shell I had entered when all of a sudden there was birdsong and sunshine in my life again. Maybe it was the very act of taking out my engineering degree from that suitcase on the loft or being able to step out of the house for something other than restocking my pantry. I wasn’t actually applying my engineering skills in that job, but I was doing something more than two loads of laundry a week and it was so liberating. I suddenly started to have someone tell me that my writing was really good or that the peacock green kurta made my eyes sparkle. I had something to wake up for every morning and because of that, I had something to come back to every evening.

And then, Aryan was born. When I look at Geetu these days, I feel guilty. She has turned out pretty good inspite of all what I put her through. She is in a solid marriage full of laughter and love today. So no, I think I managed to smile through the hate I had for her father successfully. I hope she has blanked out those few days when I was in the hospital after I overdosed on sleeping pills when she was five years old. I’ve never been able to get over the guilt of having done something so selfish. I love Geetu, my firstborn. My daughter, the one I dreamed of dressing up in pretty pinks and yellows since I was thirteen. I love her, I do. But I don’t love her as much as I love Aryan. There, I said it. And I feel bad because I don’t even feel bad about it. But I am Aryan’s mother today and I won’t allow myself to think about anything else. Anything.

***

Aryan comes up to me and envelops me in a bear hug. He is so tall, towering over me and Ravi. My heart fills up with so much emotion that it hurts. Blood rushes to my head and I can hear my heart beat in my ears. He says something, I cannot hear. The thudding gets louder and I sit down. He gives me a peck on my cheek and goes over to speak to a friend who just waved to him. I look at my boy. He is surrounded by a group of friends now and they are all laughing about something. A girl walks up to him and puts her arm around his waist. Aryan puts his arm around her shoulder, glances at me and raises his eyebrows seeking my approval. I smile back at him. There is so much happiness in the air today.

***

And to think that twenty five years ago, I sat on a wooden bench in the basement of that building, bladder full of water, planning for this moment today to never happen. He was with me all the way, holding my hand through it all, saying that he supports whatever decision I make. But deep inside he didn’t want me to do it. He wanted me to keep the baby. It was the only thing we have to show for ourselves, for these months of joy we shared together. We have no other future, he said, let this baby be the future we share. And then he leaned over and whispered in my ear ‘I love you . I love you both’ Maybe it was the claustrophobia I felt in that tiny medical lab, maybe it was his hot breath that warmed me when he whispered those words or maybe it was just my heart telling me to. But I just grabbed my purse and ran outside. He ran behind me, following me up the narrow steps to the main road. I flagged down an autorickshaw and jumped into it  before he could catch up with me. And as I was leaving,  I looked back and saw him wave. I am not sure if it was a wave goodbye or a wave asking me to stop for him. I just waved back. I’m sure he couldn’t have seen me through that hazy plastic autorickshaw window, but that wave was my closure.

***

He kept his word. I’m surprised at how we have managed to stay unconnected all these years. I still  haven’t mustered up the courage to Google him.  He left to Australia a few weeks before Aryan was born. We remained in touch only on the phone after that afternoon at the abortion clinic. No words of our love were spoken though. It was just pure business. I would keep the baby, but as mine, not ours. He would never contact us again. Ever. His PR to Australia was coming through and he would have left anyway. ‘You’ll know, Deepak’, I said to him when he called me from the airport after having made his his wife and children wait somewhere far away. ‘You’ll always know. This whatever we have had for the past two years is stronger than any other bond I’ve made in my entire life. And you are leaving a part of that behind with me. You needn’t be here. Whatever happens, somehow, you’ll just Know’

***

Do you Know, Deepak? Wherever you are, can you sense something today? Your son has just been awarded his PhD and I am here celebrating it with him and the man with whom I raised him.  But I can sense it Deepak, I can see you opening a bottle of your favorite scotch tonight and celebrating too. Because I know that you Know. Like you’ve always Known.

We.

Dedicated to that child who should have been

Ball and Chain

This discussion today just reminded me of a story I’d written some years ago. I kindof cringe at the whole story now, but it anyway I hope it is not as bad as this  book

Karthika took the thali up to her face and touched each eye with it. It was her way of showing reverence to the symbol of her marriage. To her husband.

It was her mother-in-law’s Puja, where every year a group of married women got together and prayed for their husband’s lives. They held out their thalis to be anointed with the sacred red kumkum. Praying that they would never have to remove their thalis until the day they die. It was a blessed boon to die as a still married woman.

Karthika was one confused woman. She was twenty eight, convent educated, had a master’s degree in computer engineering. She had traveled to three countries and worked with Americans and Europeans. But in her heart she was still the small town girl from Tamilnadu. It was an identity crisis she couldn’t cope with. She knew that the thali and the sentiments that her mother, mother-in-law and grandmother thrust on her was just a blind ancient tradition, fuelled further by endless Tamil movies.

Her husband’s life and future did not depend on the appendage hanging on the heavy rope shaped gold chain on her neck. Her brain told her that, but her small town heart said something else. Why anger the Gods? So she wore it and treated it with the expected amount of respect. Sometimes she wished that she could trade it for a lighter more delicate model. Like the black bead mangalsutras the North Indians wore. She had suggested it once, but her mother-in-law had been scandalized. This was her family’s pride and self respect that hung on her neck. Not something that could be compromised.

Her mother-in-law always made it a point to mention that they had given her a thali chain that weighed eleven sovereigns. Eighty eight grams. She conveniently never mentioned the hundred sovereigns of gold that Karthika’s father had decked his daughter in. Or even the ten odd sovereigns that were gifted to the groom, her husband Ram. Bracelets and chains that, thankfully, he never wore.

The moment the marriage broker had shown Ram’s profile to her father, he had decided that Ram should become his son- in- law. A post graduate, only son, no bad habits, earning over a lakh a month, own flat in Chennai. The works. Ram was every father’s dream for his daughter. Most importantly their horoscopes had matched perfectly.

What more could a retired railway employee ask for. He had immediately given his consent to the alliance and withdrawn his entire life’s savings from the Post Office deposits for the wedding expenses. It did not even occur to him to ask Karthika for her consent. But anyway, Karthika wouldn’t have dared to say no even if he had asked her.

She went through the lavish wedding as she was expected to and dutifully slipped into wedded life with no hiccups. All her jewellery had been put back into the safety locker immediately after the wedding. Only the eleven sovereign thali chain and two bangles remained on her. It was almost three years now, and she had forgotten what her jewellery looked like.

Over the first year of her marriage they had kept adding to her thali. The thali itself was typical to her community. A one inch long odd shaped piece of gold with two protruding peaks. Supposed to signify something divine, but she felt it looked more like a frog with protruding eyes. There were some gold beads added after three months, then some gold tubes. Then a couple of black beads. It kept getting heavier and heavier, weighing her down. But each addition increased her husband’s life. She accepted dutifully.

Even when she went to the US for three months she was not allowed to remove it. She wore it hidden deep inside shirts as she travelled to work every day. One daring moment in an office party she had unbuttoned an extra button on her shirt, hoping to expose a bit of cleavage like her American counterparts. But to her ill luck, it was the thali that popped out unexpectedly and was noticed rather than her breasts. She spent the rest of the evening showing it to admiring Americans who were fascinated by the whole concept of the thali, and more so by the concept of supposedly “For the Rest of your Life”. Something totally alien in a land of speed dating and speedier divorces.

The chain chaffed the skin at the back of her neck in the hot Chennai summers. The thali created a small black scar just below her breasts where it constantly rubbed against her sensitive skin. There were moments when she was tempted to remove it. But something deep inside her knew that she could never forgive herself if anything happened to Ram if she did remove it. Sometimes she wanted to pull it off and hurl it into the ocean, fantasizing at the thought of her thali creating a fault in the ocean floor and causing a tsunami centuries later, like the idol in the movie Dasavatharam.

Once she wondered what would happen if she got into a swimming pool wearing nothing but the chain. Maybe she would sink like a stone?

But otherwise, she silently wore it. Never complaining. Ball and chain around her neck. To be relieved only in death.

Ram himself had been a bitter disappointment. She had grown up on a good dose of Hindi and Tamil movies. She expected him to sweep her off her feet with small romances and surprises. She expected a honeymoon at least in Ooty if not in Switzerland. But instead they had gone on a temple tour. With his entire family in tow.

She sometimes wished he would sneak up behind her in the kitchen and squeeze her waist naughtily, knowing well that his mother was watching TV in the next room. She longed for jasmine flowers placed on the pillow some night, a subtle suggestion of what lay ahead. A suggestive email or SMS in the middle of work, surprise weekend beach trips and long walks on the golden sands.

But that was not Ram. He was a good husband. A great provider. A supportive man. He was well read and well traveled. But that was it. There were times when she even wondered whether he was normal. He had no friends, (and therefore no bad habits according to her father), no hobbies, nothing. He was a workaholic, which again was a good thing according to her father. He watched cricket matches, but only because he felt he had to keep track of statistics. He watched movies, but only because he could critically analyse the lighting andangles and find faults in the direction. He watched the news on every channel each night for an “In depth analysis”. He read almost every newspaper in circulation. That was all there was to him.

They had gone to the doctor some time ago since she had not conceived even after two years of marriage. The doctor did all the tests and had told them that nothing was wrong with both of them and they should keep trying. Karthika tried to make the situation lighter, “Sure Doctor,” she had said “At least the “trying” part is fun”.

The doctor had laughed heartily and agreed. But Ram sat there with his face set like stone, shocked at his wife’s words. Not something that a “Family girl” would say openly. He drove back home in a hurt silence, while Karthika looked out of the window trying hard not to giggle recollecting his stunned expression.

On the whole he was a bore. A good man, but a big bore.

He frustrated her with his timetables. He never had his breakfast before eight o’clock or after nine o’clock in the morning. Many Sundays when her in-laws were out of town, they had bitter arguments over breakfast served after ten. He woke up at five o’clock every morning to do his yoga while she stayed in bed enjoying the last lazy moments stretching luxuriously, fantasizing about the imaginary surprises in store for her that day.

He even had a fixed time for making love. No sex before ten pm was the unwritten rule.

It was like an imaginary lock he had installed on the bedroom door. Swipe in before ten pm, and the lock would beep loudly, red lights blinking wildly. Access denied.

And when the Love was actually Made, it was as process oriented as his projects. Done with perfect textbook precision, error free, time bound. Within the budget. She could sometimes even sense the status updates he kept giving himself every minute. Five minutes more to go for project delivery. Now four minutes. Three.

Actually, doctor, the trying is not fun

And then, three months ago her life had changed. Vinod had joined her project as a senior manager. He was a tall cheerful man, full of life. He had a great sense of humour and was a great conversationalist. He even joked about his divorce during lunch with the team once.

“I was George Bush and she was Bin Lady” he said with a booming laugh, “it was doomed from the beginning.”

He took everything with such ease that even deadlines became something to look forward to after his arrival. He made small jokes during status meetings and crazy faces during con-calls with foreign clients. The entire team loved him. But for Karthika, it was something much deeper. In Vinod she began to see all that she wanted to see in Ram. Her feelings did not go unnoticed.

Vinod too began to find himself drawn to her. There were a lot of unsaid words hanging in the glass walled conference rooms long after they had discussed the project status. There were a lot of unnecessary daily updates that they gave each other sitting across the table, gazing into each others eyes. She began to feel his presence even before she saw him enter the room. She sometimes felt a delicious shiver run through her body, only to look up and catch him staring at her with brimming desire from across the hall. The air around them kept getting thick with a fog of sexual energy, and she found herself getting drawn deeper and deeper, closer to him inside that fog.

It was the celebration of their project delivery that Friday. They had abandoned their workstations and taken off to a beach resort. While the rest of the team rejoiced in the liquor that had begun to flow by five pm and beach cricket, Karthika and Vinod sat on the sand, looking aimlessly into the horizon. The silence between them spoke everything they wanted to say to each other. His hand slowly crept across the sand and reached out to hers. She immediately sensed it and withdrew her hand even before their fingers touched.

Darkness slowly began to set it. Dinner was served. Everyone chattered animatedly over the banquet forgetting office pressures. Karthika and Vinod spoke to everyone else, but between themselves the only words that passed were through their eyes.

The team packed themselves into the four cars for their return trip. Karthika went straight and sat in Vinod’s car. She knew that Venkat would be driving past her house, so before he suggested that she get into his car she went into Vinod’s car and closed the door. Three others got into the back seat. Everyone had exhausted their words and it was music that filled the car on the way back. After they had dropped off the others, it was just the two of them in the car. The silence continued.

He stopped in front of a building. “This is where I live”, he said, breaking the silence at last. “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee?” It was ten pm. She could hear her heart beat bouncing off the car doors loudly.

Her heart cried out

“Yes”

She took a deep breath.

“No”. It came out as a whisper.

He didn’t say a word. He dropped her in front of her apartment and waited till she got inside, then drove away.

The next day she woke up with a terrible headache at 8 o’clock in the morning. Ram looked at her accusingly, when she gave him his coffee at 8.30. The neglected husband. He always had it at 7 am. His parents had already left for Tirupati early in the morning.

Karthika looked at the clock, and decided to finish breakfast before 9 to avoid another accusing stare.

She tried hard to blank out the events of the previous day as she made the dosas. She sang loudly with the radio and tried hard to concentrate on what the blabbering DJs were saying. But the same words kept echoing in her mind all the time.

 “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

“No”.

The afternoon was hot and sultry. It looked like it was going to rain. Ram was sitting on the sofa reading the news paper like he was giving an exam on the news the next day. She went up and sat next to him. She picked up the remote and surfed through some random channels. The clouds outside were becoming dark and menacing. She stopped at a music channel. It was a hot song sequence. The heroine was dripping wet in a black saree, worn precariously low over her hips and seducing a reluctant hero.

Karthika pulled up her feet on the sofa, snuggled closer to Ram and looked up into his eyes. He lay down the news paper, looked at the TV screen. He said nothing, he just smiled. He took the remote from her hand and went back two channels. BBC News.

Access card swiped before ten pm. Access denied.

Of Course.

She got up in a huff, visibly upset and angry and went to the bedroom. Blindly she changed her clothes. She reached out for a light blue saree. Draped it carelessly, clipped her hair up  and grabbed her handbag.

“I’m going to the beauty parlour”, she said and rushed out of the door angrily. He said nothing; he got up to close the door. It was only after she got into the auto rickshaw and heard herself saying, “Anna Nagar” that she herself realized where she was headed.

It was not to the beauty parlour.

The auto rickshaw stopped in front of the now familiar building from the previous night. She picked up her phone and dialed.

“What is your apartment number?” she asked brusquely.

“C45”, he answered, confused.

She hung up before he could say anything else.

A few minutes later, she stood outside C45. There was no hesitation when she rang the doorbell. Vinod opened the door, a look of total surprise in his eyes. She pushed him and walked past into the living room with fierce determination.

“I have come for that cup of coffee you offered yesterday”

He stared at her for a moment and his face broke out into a grin. He looked like a happy schoolboy who had just been selected for the football team.

He turned and went into the kitchen.

She stared behind him, a bit confused, as he walked away.” Coffee? Really?” she thought to herself.

She looked around and entered his bedroom. She stood in front of the mirror.

She removed the barrette and let her hair fall to her shoulders, and ran her fingers through her silky tresses. She turned around and studied herself.

”Not too bad” she thought.

That moment, he entered with two cups of coffee. He placed the cups on the dressing table and looked at her. Without a word, he opened his arms. Happily, she rushed in, leaving the coffee to grow cold.

He kissed her hungrily, wetting her face like an eager puppy. His hands moved all over her body, not knowing where to begin. He gently laid her on the bed and lay down beside her. She sank into the pillow, trying to bypass all the thoughts that came rushing into her mind at full speed, all at once, competing for priority.

He removed her saree pallu, fumbling with the pin, poking into her shoulder as he removed it. He looked at her breasts in the light blue blouse and he buried his face between them. She had never felt this sort of a heady feeling in her life before. She sank deeper and deeper into the moment, eagerly awaiting the ecstasy to follow. She felt a sudden throbbing. She remembered the woman from the porn movie she had once watched secretly. She transformed herself into the porn star. She grabbed his head with a savage energy, running her fingers through his hair, pushing him deeper into her chest. Suddenly the throbbing became more urgent; she wanted his wet kisses there. With the same savage force, she pushed his head downwards.

The next moment she was thrown forward and he screamed with pain.

There is no other way to recreate the last few seconds except through an action replay.

In slow motion.

Rewind…….. naip hitw demaercs eh……….

He was enjoying her at his own pace, panting heavily, dribbling all over her, when the porn star took over. As she grabbed his head and pushed it downwards, his open mouth had gotten caught on her thali. Caught between the savage monster pushing him downwards and the eighty odd grams of gold rope pulling him upwards, his upper lip got fish hooked in the gold appendages that hung between her breasts and tore, dripping blood all over the blue chiffon pallu spread across the bed like a fan.

She stood up in horror and instinctively grabbed her thali, rubbing the back of her neck where the impact had grazed her. There was a bright red glob of blood on the very peaks where auspicious kumkum of the same colour had adorned it the previous week. She grabbed her pallu and wiped it off quickly.

She stared for a moment at the figure in front of her, hair disheveled standing up like two horns on either side of his head, bare chested  blue jeans unzipped, holding the bloodied bed sheet to his bleeding lip, face distorted in pain.

What began as a small giggle slowly evolved into a loud hysterical laughter as she ran out of the bedroom, out into the hallway, into the street. Into the pouring rain.

It was only when she sat down in an auto rickshaw, still laughing, that she realized that there were tears running down her cheeks.

Whether they were tears of laughter, tears of sorrow, tears of relief or tears of realization. She couldn’t tell.