The lane in front of the school was a nightmare with its worn-out tarmac, non-existent pavement and the huge buses, mud flecked cars, rickety vans, hooded rickshaws and over-packed autos weaving in and out. Sandeep reached the dark blue, wrought iron gates five minutes late, thankful that the security guard let each child leave only with the person carrying the identification card. Sandeep did not have to flash his card though: the man at the gate still recognized him as the honest policeman in a primetime serial aired on a popular regional channel five years ago.
The salt and pepper moustachioed guard was keeping an eye on a group of little girls bouncing towards a pool car, when he noticed the actor and beamed at him. Sandeep smiled back and at the same time, his son Neel, who was ambling towards the gate, spotted him and broke into a run. Before the guard could warn him about the water that had leaked from another child’s bottle Neel stepped upon the wet patch, and the protracted school building, the high boundary walls, the pruned shrubs and shady trees whirled around him for a speck of a second. Sandeep lunged forward to prevent a fall but a hand, encircled by a silver bracelet, had already gripped the boy’s wrist. A cascade of brownish hair blocked Sandeep’s vision as the lady clung to the five year old until he had steadied himself.
“I hope you are not hurt,” Sandeep heard a familiar, mellifluous voice ask his son and sensed the thrust of a wave within him.
“Neha?” He asked in a tone tinged with hesitation, still wondering whether his ears were playing tricks.
His doubts were dispelled: he was hurled to a bygone chapter in his life as the woman flipped her hair and turned to face him. For a moment, he lost the ability to speak and his lips hung somewhere between a smile and a gape.
The glimmer of recognition lit up her eyes too. “Sandeep!” she squealed and laughed, clenching her fists, in the way people do when something unbelievingly exciting happens.
There were dark circles shadowing her hazel eyes, discoloured patches flecking her fair cheeks, a pair of parallel creases grooving her forehead and even a hint of facial hair above her upper lip – something which was not there or Sandeep had not noticed earlier. It was obvious that she was not aging gracefully. Once he had finished scrutinizing her appearance, he could not help feeling vindicated that his wife was not only much younger, but also far prettier than her.
“So is it your son?” she asked, affectionately ruffling Neel’s tiny curls. The boy tilted his face slightly upwards to take in her face and hair, his deeply set eyes streaked with curiocity as he wondered who she was.
“I’m sorry that I couldn’t attend his rice eating ceremony nor your wedding,” she apologized. “My husband had been posted in New Jersey at that time.”
“No problem,” Sandeep replied. He recalled inviting her to the two happy events in his life just to spite her.
“So does your child study here too?” he asked.
“I don’t have any,” she said with a shrug
“Excuse me,” said a young teacher, clad in a yellow salwar-kurta, hurrying out with a transparent folder that encased a pile of answer sheets. Sandeep, Neha and Neel trooped to the shade of a mango tree that grew out of an unpaved corner of the school grounds.
“Then?” Sandeep asked.
“I’m trying my hand at catering. I came here for a discussion with the headmistress regarding the food packets to be distributed on the Foundation Day.”
“That’s great! With your brains and hard work, I’m sure you’ll succeed in whatever you do,” Sandeep remarked with an encouraging grin, although he was astonished at her choice of vocation: he had always considered her to be academically inclined rather than business oriented, but reminded himself that it was only a tiny surprise compared to the mountainous shock she had imparted to him before.
On hearing the praise, Neha beamed with her eyes cast downwards. Neel, who was getting impatient, began to recite a rhyme at breakneck speed.
“I think we need to go,” said Sandeep and pursed his lips in an apologetic smile.
“Bye,” said Neha, letting her eyes linger on his face before resting them on the child.
Sandeep turned on his heels, but there was something hauling him back – an inexplicable force that compelled him to take another look at Neha’s blemished countenance. He halted to say, “Please come to my house when you can find some time. My wife will love to meet you.”
“Your house means…”
“Yes, the one you used to frequent.” Sandeep’s gaze drifted to the queue that snaked its way through the grilled verandas, past charts and maps pinned within glass covered boards.
“Sure, I will,” Neha replied.
“Please bring your husband along…if he’s in town,” Sandeep added to maintain propriety.
“No, he isn’t. He’s in Sydney.”
“Well, at least you come..”
“I’ll love to,” she said, gently squeezing Neel’s cheeks, before exchanging numbers with his father.
As he navigated through the choc-a-block lane, clutching his son’s hand, he wondered whether it had been wise to invite Neha or had he inadvertently fanned his subtle desire to meet her again. He tried to quell the nagging disquiet by telling himself that it was just a polite gesture, and before he could ruminate any further on the chance encounter his mobile phone started to ring. He realized with a jolt that he had been dying to hear from his wife, especially since she was a bundle of nerves in the morning: he was awash with momentary relief on glimpsing her name on the throbbing screen.
“The news is bad,” she almost wailed into the phone.
Sandeep tightened his grip around Neel’s wrist as they reached the main road.
“Had they called to say they are not going to hire you?” he asked calmly, suppressing his own tension. A grey Swift bearing the physician’s symbol of entwined serpents was honking behind a blue Indica with a learner’s sign.
“Yes, everywhere it’s the same answer. They don’t want someone who has not been working for seven years,” his wife sighed. “I wish I had not left the call-centre job soon after our marriage,” she lamented.
“What do you mean? How could you work under a boss who molested you?” he exclaimed, aghast at her regret about quitting the organization that had paid no heed to her complaints.
“I should have taken up another job before resigning from that one,” she rued.
The Swift ceased to beep as the Indica picked up speed and Sandeep craned his neck to read the number stuck in front of the bus looming behind them.
“Don’t worry. I’ve many auditions lined up next month,” Sandeep assured while waving to the bus to stop.
Neha could hear the whistling noise of her father’s snores from the next room. Cross-legged upon her bed and propped up against a cotton pillow, she logged into her mailbox. There was not even an apology from her husband, not that she had expected any. Her eyes fell on the bruises exposed by the rolled up sleeves of her over-sized nightdress – the one her mother always kept washed and ready for her visits. She could imagine the shock clouding her parents’ faces when she would announce her decision to them. They were as clueless about her marital life as they had been about her dating Sandeep when they fixed her marriage with Ranvijay. Not that she could blame her parents for the course her life took the day she was introduced to the man of their choice.
Tall, well-built, with sparkling eyes, an aquiline nose and shapely lips, Ranvijay was no less handsome than Sandeep. Moreover, the fun that would come along with being a rich man’s wife was too much to resist: she began to picture herself flitting around Ranvijay’s palatial house, donning silk gowns like the ones she had seen only in movies, sipping red wine, tapping her feet in the concerts of her favourite musicians, cheering her preferred team from the best stands or just lazing around in a fancy yacht. Her conscience pricked as the days knocked on each other, urging her to arrive at a decision, but she found a way to deal with it. She dragged in forgotten arguments with Sandeep, and re-opened and unearthed sealed and buried points of disagreements. Then she went on to blow up like a balloon his slightly annoying habits and clubbed all his minor failures together to be revisited again and again whenever in doubt, just the way she would revise her lessons before her exams.
Neha heard her mother’s footsteps in the corridor, the heaving of a jar and the tinkle of a glass. She had no wish to cut into her parents’ pension. Though relieved to have bagged the contract of supplying food packets to the school where her friend taught, she knew that she would have to seize bigger assignments to carve out a living. Ranvijay might utilize her absence to realize all his fantasies concerning Mrs Khambatta, his long-time obsession, but if Neha knew anything about him, it was unlikely that he would grant her a divorce anytime soon. Even if he did, she was unwilling to accept alimony or any form of help for her survival from a man like that.
Downloading the attachments mailed by her graphics designer friend, Neha clicked them open one by one, pondered over their respective appeal and finally selected the motif of her business card: she would carry it to the meeting with the new acquaintance whose daughter’s marriage had just been fixed.
Turning off the lights, Neha removed her slippers and climbed onto her bed, but sleep refused to creep upon her eye-lids. She recalled sitting on a long narrow park bench with Sandeep, gazing at the fountain water that branched and twisted to the music. He drew her so close that she could smell his deodorant and hear the throb of his racing heart. She turned to look into his desirously burning eyes and he lowered his face on hers until their lips met, brushed lightly against each other, and then locked with all the vigour and yearning of their youth.
Barged into Neha’s mind, a vision of Sandeep’s wife – whose photo she had seen in Facebook – wrapped around him, sleeping contentedly after a bout of lovemaking, shadowed by his large, laminated photograph of dancing peacocks. In the next room, their child inhaled the smells of new toys and hardbound story books as a realm populated by the most amazing cartoon characters opened up before his shuttered eyes.
Reena was sleeping like a corpse under the action of two tablespoons of cough syrup. She had been called in the evening for an interview. The air-conditioning in the lobby, where she was asked to wait, had worsened the cold that was pursuing her for weeks. She was unaware that her son had just woken from a nightmare and run of his room to cuddle beside her for safety. Awaken by the brush of his soft silky curls, Sandeep cradled his head, coaxed him out of his drenched shirt and patted his palpitating chest. Neel shivered all of a sudden, scared by the recollection of the visuals that had haunted him in his sleep. Sandeep whispered to him that he could confide in him what he had seen and assured that he would not laugh or scold or call him a sissy, but the child did not speak.
Nightmare was what Sandeep’s life had become when Neha met him one evening after his rehearsals and announced her decision to split. He, too, had been unable to express what he was trudging through – the pain spiking his heart; the heaviness weighing down on his scalp; the fond memories and never to be fulfilled dreams criss-crossing into barb-wire fences that barred any gaiety from riding in or stifling memories from escaping. He could not expect any consolation from his parents, who had never liked Neha for reasons unfathomable to him. His friends would try to brush off his sense of emptiness by remarking that he would find far more desirable women. His attempts at diversion crashed against walls; his yell for help echoed with her name. He fumbled and stumbled in the dark, tripping upon all her broken promises and abraded by the coarse arguments that attempted to justify her decision.
Neha was scorched by the flaming sun as she stepped out of the bank after cashing her cheque. It was 11:30 AM. The young Neha, a class topper and aspiring economist, would have never believed, if someone had told her then that she would earn her first income a decade after graduation. There was only one condition Ranvijay had laid down before their marriage: since his profession involved a lot of travel his wife could not have a career of her own. What was the point of marriage if the wife could not accompany him on his tours? His reasoning had made perfect sense to her. Moreover, her BA part two results were nowhere near her expectations: Ranvijay had breezed into her life two months before the tests, slashing her concentration and cramming her mind with all sorts of sights, sounds and touch.
No 379 whizzed towards her followed by bus numbered VH19. In a flicker of a second, Neha decided to board the second bus, instead of the first which would take her to her home. The bus was jam-packed: she swayed from side to side, gripping a vertical rod. Luck favoured as a woman near her soon left her seat and tottered towards the door. She quickly slipped into the vacated seat, took out her phone and clicked the number she had hurriedly saved the day before. Sandeep’s wife, who picked up the call, sounded genuinely happy that she would visit them. Neha was not sure why she wished to go in the first place. Could it be that she was feeling nostalgic for the house she used to frequent or eager to see once more the man whom she had loved but yet not loved enough to choose him over the prospects of a good life? Was she curious to meet the woman who had replaced her in his life or did she want to play with his child whose existence ebbed her guilt?
The bus screeched to a stop in front of Narayan Mandir. Neha stepped down on the pavement and stared at the temple: the walls bore a fresh coat of white paint and the blue, yellow and pink flags flying from its spires glazed against the sunlight. She noticed, even without stepping beyond its corrugated gates, that the plants in its premises had been trimmed and a pool had been dug and populated with blooming pink lotuses. A bunch of volunteers bustled about, ensuring that the devotees queued in a single file. It was a far cry from the time Neha had been scared to approach the main shrine with Sandeep’s kid sister, fearing a stampede.
The beggar sat hunched over his bowl near the temple gate. His shrivelled face had caught her notice the last time she had passed by him: now he was ancient – with a few wisps of white hair on his bald pate, a toothless mouth and his sun-burnt skin split up by innumerable lines like a land with too many inheritors. Neha heard her coin clink against the bottom of his round steel bowl as she moved on to take a halt at the pet shop, from where she had once bought a pair of goldfish. There was a tiny fort castle in one of the aquariums and black mollies, swordfishes, tiger sharks and discuses swam in and out of its windows, slid between the leaves of anubias, dug into the stones for delicacies and paired up behind the bubble blowing dolls. She passed by the familiar neem tree with its pointed leaves tapping on the tiled roof of a teashop. Noticing a sweet shop, she stepped in to buy a box of silver foiled barfi. With a turn towards the left she sighted Sandeep’s blue and white painted house but its front door was blocked from her view by a couple of burly men: one clad in jeans and a sleeveless denim shirt and the other wearing a brown checked shirt and khaki trousers. Neha narrowed her eyes, wondering what had brought these strangers to his house at precisely the time of her visit. She trotted past a new apartment complex and the revamped coaching centre, her eyes shielded by a pair of green tinted sunglasses and her fingers, reluctant to be unoccupied, clutching the straps of her handbag. With a few more steps, she could see Sandeep standing at the doorway, facing the men who had now started to yell. Before he could notice her she slipped into a narrow lane between two houses, her heart thumping with apprehension.
“There’s still fifty thousand left,” bellowed the man in jeans, who was taller among the two.
“I’ll pay it by next month,” Sandeep insisted.
“Haven’t we had enough of that?” sneered the man in khaki.
There was a stifling silence, then an incoherent noise, which Neha guessed, to her horror, had escaped from Sandeep’s lips. The windows of the neighbouring houses slid open and close noiselessly as she peeped to find the taller man drag her friend away from his door. Though Sandeep had picked up a few karate chops during the shooting of a film, he failed to recall any move and only flailed his arms in self-defence. The man in brown checked shirt grabbed his neck, banged his head against the shutter of a shop and send him tumbling towards a parked cab. His cranium missed the vehicle by inches and he fell on the tufts of grass that had sprouted near the foul smelling drain, following a recent spate of rain. Just then, Reena rushed out of the house, her eyes dilated in shock and her pallu slipping off her left shoulder. Hurling abuses upon Sandeep’s attackers, she proceeded to punch one of them, who promptly clasped her hands and broke into a mirthless laughter. Her bangles clattered as she frantically shook her hands to free them from his grasp; her face furrowed with the effort. Suddenly he let go of his grip causing her to hurtle backwards. She managed to regain her balance by encircling a lamppost with an arm and hastily rearranged her pallu and the folds of her sari.
Stroking the sleeve of her blouse with a grubby finger, the man in khaki threatened, “One more chance. If I don’t get the money by next week, she’ll be raped.” Reena shuddered but instead of retreating inside the house, she stayed rooted to the spot, her breath quickening and eyes blazing. Sandeep, who had wobbled to his feet, quelled his dizziness with a clench of his jaws: the vein on his forehead had begun to throb.
“And also your sister whom you had married off with our master’s money,” added the denim clad man. Lurching in Sandeep’s direction, he raised a hairy arm and pointed at his face. “We’ll make you watch.” Then he curled his betel juice stained lips in an oddly twisting manner.
“Your master’s money? Where would the money be if my father had not helped him reclaim his property? And have I not returned most of it?” Sandeep’s nostrils’ flared as he spoke. With his hands drawn into fists, his teeth gritting fiercely, he stomped towards his assailant.
“Leave them. They are not worth it,” his wife whispered, grabbing his right arm.
“We are not here to answer your questions,” drawled the shorter man, kicking away a stone that plopped into the drain. Leering at Reena, he brushed past her and stood right in front of her husband, such that their faces were just inches apart. “We want the money by next week,” he said and spat between Sandeep’s feet before turning and swaggering towards his bike. Straddling the two-wheeler, he shot the couple a menacing glance while his companion swung his leg high to mount another bike.
Removing her hands from her gaping mouth, Neha realized that her lips had gone dry from wordless screams. She took out a bottle from her handbag and gulped down all the water. Fingering her hair and finding it wet with sweat, she unfolded a napkin to towel it as much as she could. She would not embarrass Sandeep and his wife further by letting them guess that she had witnessed the ugly scuffle.
Twenty minutes elapsed before she rang the bell. Sandeep opened the door, gave a warm smile and looked into her eyes for more than a few seconds before ushering her into his house. Then he introduced her to Reena and led her to the living room she was well-acquainted with. The couple had changed their outfits, sprinkled a sweet smelling powder and touched up their hair: Sandeep had neatly parted his mop of curls, Reena had braided her long, straight locks. Neha tried to avert her eyes from his bruises lest he felt the need to cook up some explanation.
“Neel,” Sandeep called. “Say ‘hello’ to Neha Auntie.” The little boy came darting out of his room, a smile of recognition playing on his lips. Neha bend down to hug him and gifted him with a toy ship and a fluorescent green T-Rex that she had bought on the way. Tucking the dinosaur under an arm, he intently inspected the ship: as soon as he spotted a lid on its deck he got busy trying to slide it open with his thumb.
The furniture were the same as before: a couple of strategically placed cushions hid the holes in the sofa but scratches were discernible on the round central table, even across the floral engravings along its circumference. Reena flopped next to her on the double sofa and started to chat, unaware that her every gesture and word was being subjected to scrutiny.
It was during one of the ordinary turns in the conversation that Neha let go of the comparision and eased into Reena’s spontaneous company. Sandeep’s wife picked up their family album from a shelf and flipped though its pages, pausing at photos of baby Neel and her sister-in-law in bridal wear. Regaling Neha with some of the interesting incidents on the sets of the serials he had acted in, Sandeep was eager to know about the countries she had visited and she satisfied his curiosity with precise descriptions.
As Neha was led to the dining table she felt a ravenous appetite stir up within her: it seemed a blessing to experience a craving as uncomplicated as that of hunger. She broke into the mound of steaming rice on her plate to let the coriander sprinkled dal pool in the gap. Wolfing down mouthfuls of the dal soused rice, she occasionally bit into the crispy cauliflower pakoras. She took more helpings of rice to douse it with the spicy gravy of tomato chicken, which was served to her in a boat shaped blue china bowl.
Once lunch was over and the table cleared, Reena excused herself to read out a story to Neel. Slumping on the living room sofas after the hearty meal, Sandeep and Neha got drawn into a debate over a movie that he loved but she loathed. When the spirited discussion came to an end with both remaining glued to their owns opinions, a pall of silence fell over them. Unable to think of anything interesting to say, Sandeep was about to compliment her on her outfit – a black chikan salwar kurta dotted with silver, star shaped sequins, but restrained himself as he deemed it inappropriate, for reasons not quite clear to him. Neha fiddled with her handbag for a while, and said, “Please accept a small gift from me for your wedding and your son’s rice eating ceremony. I would have loved to attend them but unfortunately could not.”
Sandeep’s eyes popped out of his sockets as he saw her writing down a cheque of fifty-thousand. “Why the need for this formality?” he exclaimed in embarrassment, his mind set into turmoil by the opposing currents of relief and shame.
“What do you mean by formality?” Neha, who had expected such a reaction, rolled her eyes. “It’s out of affection.”
To shake off his discomfort, Sandeep reasoned with himself that fifty-thousand was no large amount coming from a rich man’s wife. If he got his big break, he would not hesitate to gift her generously on any occasion in her life that she would invite him to; perhaps on one of her lavishly celebrated wedding anniversaries. It was another matter that she had told him about the champagne, but not the chilled waters where Ranvijay had pushed her head, in a fit of rage, when she had chanced upon his messages for Mrs Khambatta. She had narrated the first ride in his BMW, skipping over the fact that after running down a mongrel he had shoved her out of the car, when she had failed to plug in her tears or steady her voice. She had vividly described the descent of the snowflakes at night, outside their log cabin in Japan, but omitted mention of the snow balls he had stuffed in her mouth, when her pregnancy test results turned out to be negative.
Reena, who had re-entered the room and seated herself, squinted in disbelief at the digits on the cheque. Sandeep remained stuck in his chair, staring at nothing in particular, the respite from his immediate crisis intercut with the stinging knowledge that it was the money from his ex-girlfriend – the generous gift from a woman who had left him for another man – which would bail him out. It was Reena who rose to her feet, minced to the next room, unlocked the cupboard and tucked Neha’s first and only earning safely within the folds of a sari. She hoped that her husband would cash it as soon as possible and then call the man they needed to pay. The faster the debt was gone, the better.
Collecting the change from the ticket counter, Neha dropped it in the external pocket of her handbag, zipped it and sprinted down the stairs to the underground platform. She saw the time of her train flashed across the board and glimpsed at her watch. There were eight minutes to go. She located a half empty bench and dropped down, next to an elderly gentleman. With a loud whistle the train whoosed into the track behind her: the doors opened with a swish. As she turned her head her eyes fell on a young couple, who were holding hands while stepping into the train that would travel in the direction opposite to hers. Crossing the penultimate station, the track would slowly slope upwards along its subterranean tunnel to emerge under the sky and glint in the streaming sunlight. Hearing the rattling of the train, people would turn to see it snake past the boundary walls; grit against the bridge that hung over an algae infested canal; send tremors through the soil clutched by the dense, extensive roots of towering, age-defying trees; sever the hum of monotonous routines and deaden the echoes of clashes: those unfamiliar with that part of the city would mistake it for just another train, unaware of its long journey underground. Such was the course of some emotions, too, she reflected and sighed.