by Prashila Naik
Like an orderly herd of elephants, one whoosh follows another right up until Rajat caps up his chocolate flavored deodorant can, its strong even if soon-to-dissipate scent overpowering his senses, easily reminding him of how such actions are so out of his element. He has been overtly embarrassed by those precise elements for too long to dwell on their originality anymore.
Rajat puts the can down and quickly finger-combs his badly gelled hair, simultaneously checking his reflection in the mirror, turning one way and another to ensure that his shirt is tucked in properly before rushing to the door, worried that he may miss the 7:15 local train.
As he sprints down the stairway of the building that houses the apartment he shares with three other men, all of whom at that instant are blissfully sleeping in their underwear, and starts his short sojourn to the railway station, Rajat thinks of Shreya. He hopes she will turn up dressed in that sea-green salwaar kameez that complements her pale yellow skin so well.
A little further down the road, he sees some school kids indulging in lively banter as they wait for their school bus to arrive. Rajat momentarily slows down to look at them, that familiar longing and melancholy rushing back to him in high tides, reminiscent of a far-away time and a dreaded memory that sends an easy chill down his spine.
One of the kids, a bespectacled boy, excessively plump and unconcerned about it, turns his head just then and notices him. Rajat looks away that very instant, guilty as if he has been caught in the midst of an act of voyeurism that he had absolutely no intention of committing.
He looks blankly at the road ahead of him and tries hard to get his focus back on Shreya, imagining the flare of her frock-shaped kurta falling down just a little below her knees and jiggling delightfully every time she walks with that delicate swagger, her badly stained teeth she absolutely loathes and yet refuses to fix, her annoyingly charming habit of beginning almost every other sentence with “My goodness.” Sometimes she hardly seems real to him or at least real in the context of his otherwise trompe-l’oeil life. A woman like that, his friend or more than a friend...
Rajat feels that warm rush of excitement yet again, a sensation that he cannot quite define but can clearly experience. An experience made even more pristine with all the innocence it symbolizes, an experience so much in contrast with all the salacity his roommates indulge in, those thrusts, that skin, that brazen vulgarity, a complete lack of grace and refinement, a degeneration of their bodies and souls. He is amazed that they do it, just as he is amazed at the objects of their depravities, the women and how they are possibly able to live such lives, constantly on display, constantly an object of someone’s desire or gratification.
He almost misses the lane heading to the station, his thoughts having moved back to Shreya and the breakfast dish she would eventually choose after much deliberation. It’s his turn to pay, and for a second Rajat is worried that he isn’t carrying sufficient money. He stops right where he is, almost causing the woman walking behind him to stumble into him. Ignoring the stare of extreme hatred she casts in his direction before walking past him, Rajat pulls his wallet out of his back pocket. There is a 500-rupee note and four 100-rupee notes and some coins that he doesn’t bother to count.
Relieved and simultaneously astonished at the proof of his apparent absentmindedness, he puts the wallet back into his pocket, this time the front one, afraid that a potential pickpocket might have somehow spotted him in the midst of his silliness. But he gets through the train journey unscathed with his wallet and his money, and with the plans he has made, all unscathed too.
Shreya is not on her seat at the receptionist’s counter. Neither are the flowers there, nor is her bright-red water bottle. Rajat lingers around the area, anxious and yet expecting her to appear any second, smiling and genuinely happy to see him, but she doesn’t turn up.
Frustrated, he walks up to his work-desk, his old computer monitor gaping blankly at him, as clueless to the purpose of its existence as he is himself. He decides to go for breakfast on his own, silently fuming at her convenient absence when his cell phone lets out that frail beep. It has to be one of those messages about hair loss or weight loss or expert astrology advice, nothing remotely of any interest to him. And yet his fingers eagerly reach out to unlock the little blue screen, as if reaching out to the discovery of some priceless treasures.
His eyes light up. It is a message from Shreya herself. She is at home, alone and too bored to step out to work. Rajat stops reading and looks up. So typical of her, all this impulsiveness.
He smiles again, yearning for their breakfast together and simultaneously yearning to be away from the work waiting on the other side of that morose computer monitor. He starts reading the message once again. At home, alone, too bored. Why don’t you come over? Just tell your manager you are not feeling well and are going back home...
As he steps into the building where she lives with her currently absent parents, overtly conscious of all the surrounding eyes that aren’t even set on him, and yet strangely excited for the same reasons, Rajat tries to think of why he ended up agreeing to this insane idea of hers.
Shreya opens the door, dressed in a satin gown, hair tied in a messy bun, her face aglow with the happiness that only a few extra moments of sleep can impart. He finds it hard to look at her without letting his eyes wander all over her body. Something in the manner in which the outline of her legs stands out through the clingy fabric of her gown, making them more real than the times he has seen them covered in perfectly fitting leggings, forces him to look away.
“I think I will go. A lot of work is pending,” he says, ashamed for no reason in particular, desperate to get away from the sudden proximity he is unable to assign a meaning to, and turns around, when he suddenly realizes that her fingers are now around the watch on his wrist.
“My goodness. You are not going anywhere.” Still holding onto his wrist, Shreya drags him inside the house, ignoring all his silent and verbal protests.
She lets go off his wrist only after he makes himself extremely uncomfortable on her sofa, littered with single pages from a newspaper, peels of oranges, stray grains of rice chivda now soft and abandoned. Somewhere through this menagerie, Rajat tries to calm down the erratic breathing patterns that seem to settle inside his chest. But the efforts are proved futile when Shreya sits down next to him, the clingy gown now sticking to her body in even more vulgarly distracting creases.
“I knew you would come,” she says and lets her head rest on the nook of his shoulder. Rajat stiffens, not appreciating the gesture, instead focusing on the picture of her parents right in front of his eyes, a picture that was probably taken in some kind of a hill station, a picture that soon lets his thoughts move to his own parents.
“My parents never took a picture together,” he says as if speaking to himself, his eyes already staring into the space leading to the laminated dining table where he would sit for breakfast, his mother and father arguing, the man threatening to kill the woman, and the woman returning the threats with a terrifying zeal and candor.
His eyes downcast, his teeth unable to chew the thick paratha served to him alongside that little tease of mango pickle, he is waiting for the moment to pass. Only one day the moment lasts too long, and one of the threats materializes. He has no clear memory of the sequence, no clear idea of what happened, only a vague sensation of some screams and some spattered blood somewhere on the floor and on his right sleeve and the vague sensation of having heard his name...
“Oh God, Raj, you are thinking of that day again, aren’t you? It’s high time you got over it. You are no longer that same ten-year old boy,” Shreya says, much to his annoyance. So many times his thoughts have been cruelly aborted before they could get to their natural conclusion.
“And I did not call you here so that you just sit and act like a statue,” she continues and then in a swift motion that takes him by surprise, sits on his lap, wrapping her thin arms round his neck, nuzzling his forehead in such a manner that those long forgotten tickles threaten to erupt out of the rest of his body, making him feel defenseless and desecrated.
Rajat has an urge to push her away even as she continues to nuzzle his ear, intermittently giggling against it, as if repeating a secret she has never told him before. Her giggles get fainter and her hold around his neck tighter as he suddenly feels an unusual sensation of having his earlobe pressed between her teeth, the tickles now giving way to something stranger, a sudden rush of blood, moving upwards, downwards, in every direction until he can no longer bear it.
“What are you doing? Stop it,” he says and pushes her with such brusqueness that she almost falls off the sofa, her eyes and mouth wide open in incomprehension.
“I... I thought you liked me,” Shreya says at last, dragging herself into a sitting position, amazed that she had to provide an explanation for something so obvious and annoyed with the awareness of the obvious manner in which her advances have been spurned.
“I do like you, but that doesn’t mean...” Rajat’s voice trails off; he is suddenly disgusted by her pink gown, her startlingly prominent collarbones which are otherwise hidden behind her hair that now falls all around her face, its careful sophistication lost amongst all its unruly tendrils that are almost obscene in their dishevelment.
At that moment, she is nothing like the woman he is besotted with. The woman who has so brazenly bitten his ear is closer to the women his roommates constantly watch on their laptops or cell phone screens...
“I need to go,” he says and rushes to the door. “I am sorry. I shouldn’t have come here.” Rajat stops by the door and turns around.
Shreya is busy staring into her lap, her lips pursed together in what can only be a potent mixture of resentment and anger, looking like a hapless and pathetic woman desperately in need of comfort. Rajat feels sad that he has none of that comfort or, for that matter, anything to offer to her. Well... nothing except his love.
Copyright © 2013 by Prashila Naik