Uprooting oneself is never easy and now that the final moment has come, I find myself unprepared.
I don’t think Mark even realises the emptiness I feel inside me.
‘All set, Aman? You must be looking forward to moving back to India then?’ he says, as he sinks into the plush leather sofa and reaches for a can of beer.
I look at the bare walls where the Madhubhani paintings I had got from India had hung and I examine the holes left by the nails. Mark and I had hammered them into the wall, two years ago, when I had moved into this flat. The nails yanked out by Mark lie on the floor now.
‘You know, in India, we don’t have to do stuff like this,’ I reply, avoiding his question, concentrating instead on the task at hand. I take out the tube of wall-filler bought at Thorns, the best store in Norwich for all such things. I look at it. ‘Flexible filler decorator. For sealing and filling gaps and cracks before decorating,’ it reads. I squeeze out the required amount of the sealant carefully and fill the two holes in the wall. I add finishing touches to my repair work and stand back to admire it. Now it only needs a coat of paint.
‘That’s right. I know. And in India, you lead the life of a maharaja with four servants to do your bidding,’ replies Mark as he takes a swig of beer, resting his leg on the coffee table.
‘Well, not four servants. But at least we can afford to hire people to do our laundry and we don’t have clauses in our rental agreements which force one to fill holes like this,’ I reply.
Mark chuckles. ‘Filling holes ain’t so bad, eh?’ he drawls trying to do an Australian accent, but failing miserably and sounding very much English.
‘Depends on which ones,’ I retort and we both laugh, our laughter abating my feelings somewhat.
I clear up all the nails and sweep up the dust on the floor. Mark adds a second coat of paint to my patch-work on the wall.
‘It looks as good as new,’ I tell him. And it does.
‘Hmmm. You know, Aman, I was thinking of planning a trip to India once you’re settled there,’ he says.
‘You must, Mark. India is a fantastic place. It has beaches, mountains, hills, tons of culture—you name it,’ I reply.
‘If I come, will you introduce me to some nice Indian girls?’ ‘I do not know any “nice” Indian girls, Mark,’ I say.
And then, almost immediately, I think of Anjali.
She has been emailing me a lot recently. I am not sure what she wants from me. After Shruti, I am wary of getting close to anybody. And the last thing I want is a long-distance relationship. Or any relationship for that matter. I am happy to be immersed in my work. I don’t want to give Anjali any false hope.
Women are funny that way—you respond politely to them and they presume you are interested. I have tried to be as casual as possible in my erratic replies to her. It is as much of a red flag as I can wave. But Anjali refuses to back down and though it bothers me a little, it doesn’t bother me enough to be overly concerned or worried about her advances, if they can be so termed.
‘No? Not even one? Really?’ Mark looks incredulous.
‘Just wait until Eva hears this. I will tell her about your secret agenda to visit India,’ I wink.
‘Don’t even joke about it. She will never let me visit you then,’ he says, his face instantly changing its expression and his grey-green eyes narrowing. He runs his hand through his blond hair worriedly.
I don’t want to mention Anjali to Mark. He would never understand.
Mark has only two goals when it comes to women.
One, to get them to bed on the first date and two, to get them to bed on any date. Mark is about 6 ft 1’ and muscular to boot. He has the kind of body that can make it to the cover of a men’s fitness magazine. He works out thrice a week and plays football with the boys twice a week. He is very conscious of his appearance, and with his kind of looks and charm, he is popular with women.
In the three years that I have known him (I had known him before I moved to the UK as we had worked on some projects together), he has slept with at least eight women, even while having a steady relationship with Eva. Initially, I had found it very odd, my moral compass being at variance with Mark’s.
Friday nights are, by default, music night at a local pub. Mark and the others in my department (all English, I am the only Indian) have a routine they do on these pub visits. They call it ‘pulling’. This basically means attracting women and charming them enough to get them to go to bed with them. When they had first mentioned to me that they would be out at the pub ‘pulling’, I had asked ‘Pulling what?’ at which they had all burst into laughter.
Later I had learnt the subtle differences between the slang used by the British and the kind used back in India. In the UK, shagging meant having sex, while in India, it meant pleasuring yourself. They had other, amusing terms for that: ‘buffing the banana’, ‘applying the handbrake’, ‘teasing the weasel’ and the most hilarious one—‘rounding up the tadpoles’. It had taken me only a very brief while to get used to their accents, customs and usages and now, after two years, I feel right at home in Norwich with Mark and my other English friends.
‘So, let us do the final recce then, eh? Do you have the list?’ asks Mark.
I take out the rental agreement the real estate agent had given me when I had moved in. In the UK, unlike in India, they are very meticulous about property. The realtor had, along with me, examined each and every mark on the wall, noted each detail on the list that she had carried.
‘Crack on wall in foyer, small mark on wall facing the garden in the hall, dent on boiler,’ the list went on, making a precise note on the shape and condition of the property. At the time of handing back a property, the agent would compare it against this list. Any deviations would have to be taken care of by me. This was why I was so careful about repairing the holes left by nails. I do not want to shell out my hard-earned pounds towards damage to property. In the two years that I have worked here, I have saved up quite a bit and have a comfortable nest egg with which I intend buying an apartment in India.
I don’t want anything, especially the cost of repair, to make a dent in my plans.
Mark and I compare everything that is on the list.
‘So, all done then. I think we are handing it back to them in a better shape than it was in when we rented it,’ comments Mark. And I realise it is true.
Habits formed in childhood die hard and I have been meticulous about housekeeping from an early age. Baba passed away when I was seven and since then my mother raised me singlehandedly. As a child, I would feel miserable seeing her struggle to make both ends meet, and to help her out, I would tidy up the home before she came back from work. I wanted to make her life a little easier. Ever since I have told her I am moving back, she is over the moon even though I am relocating to Bangalore, not Gwalior where she lives.
Mark carries my suitcases to his car and puts them in the boot. There are a few formalities to be taken care of at work before I move to India and I will be spending the last two days of my stay in the
UK at a hotel close to office.
‘Let me shut down the heating and then we shall lock up and hand over the keys,’ I say, as I dash upstairs to the boiler room. All homes in the UK have a central heating system which comprises a huge metallic boiler housed in a ‘boiler room’. One can control the temperature, the settings and other things here. One would freeze to death without the heating.
When I turn off the boiler switch, I notice that the latch to the attic has come loose. The door, which is on the roof, has swung downwards and is open.
I am not tall enough to reach it without a ladder, so I call out to Mark.
‘Hey, Mark, just come and shut this attic door for me, will you?’ I peep out of the window on the first floor and call out to him.
Mark bounds up the stairs.
He reaches the door easily and pushes it back against the roof but finds something obstructing it.
He tries once more with the same result.
‘Get me something I can stand on. There seems to be something up there,’ he says.
‘I called you because I felt too lazy to go to the garage and get the ladder and now you want me to get it,’ I grumble.
‘It is up to you. Shall we just leave it then?’
‘No, wait, I’ll get it,’ I say. I rush downstairs to the garage, unlock it and carry the ladder up the stairs.
Mark climbs up and I hold the ladder steady.
From up there he says, ‘Hey, there seems to be a suitcase up here.’ As he takes it down, its clasp opens and the contents tumble out.
I freeze. I had forgotten all about this suitcase. I had shoved it up in the attic when I had first moved here.
It feels as though someone has punched me in the gut. I try to open my mouth but no words come out. My heart beats frantically. My hands go cold.
It is funny what memories can do to you. How they can grip you by the throat, choke you, strangle you. And just when you thought you had it all sorted, too.
Mark looks at me questioningly.
And finally I say, ‘Fuck,’ as I look at the contents of the suitcase now scattered on the floor.
‘It would be nice to spend Diwali with my folks, like last year,’ declares Rishabh as he enters the flat and throws down his laptop bag in the drawing room, on the carpet, like he always does.
It irks me today though, how casually he does it. I have told him several times that I don’t want that bag in the middle of the drawing room. Can’t he see how house-proud I am, for God’s sake? And how well I have done up the apartment? Our apartment is tiny (all of 900 square feet), which is supposedly ‘okay’ by Mumbai standards. For a person who has spent all her life in Bangalore and has grown up in a large bungalow, this 900-square-foot matchbox is hard to get used to. Whenever I complain that we do not have enough space, Rishabh never fails to remind me that we live in Lokhandwala Complex in
Andheri, which supposedly is one of the nicer suburbs.
‘Rishabh—please don’t throw your bag down on the carpet. How can you just leave it in the middle of the room like that? How many times do I have to remind you?’ I am annoyed now. His bag is such an eyesore. But he is oblivious to how out-of-place it looks.
‘Sorry, baby. I forgot. I will take it inside later,’ he says as he switches on the TV and flips channels.
I sit beside him, my eyes still on the bag. I wait for him to pick it up, my irritation growing with each minute. But Rishabh shows no signs of budging.
‘Do we have orange juice? Get me some, na,’ he says as he slumps further into the sofa, fully engrossed in a cricket match now, which is a replay of a test match between India and Australia. What men find fascinating in a match of which you already know the results, I don’t know. And now he wants me to get him orange juice too.
I grit my teeth and do not respond.
He looks at me and realises I am angry.
‘Arey—why do you always make a fuss? I will put it away when I get up. I told you, right.’
‘You never do. It always lies there till I put it away.’
‘That is because you put it away before I get up. You never give me a chance.’
‘I like the house clean. Look how well I have done it up.’
I have picked blue and white linen curtains. They contrast beautifully with the white futon and cream sofas that one can sink into. The carpet from Fab India is sea-blue and it goes well with the curtains. The whole effect is modern, plush, comfortable and luxurious, giving the room the illusion of spaciousness. And there is Rishabh’s ugly bag right in the middle of it all.
I cannot bear the sight of it anymore. I jump up and carry his bag and place it inside the closet in the spare room which doubles as a guest bedroom, which is where he should have kept it in the first place.
‘See? You never give me a chance. I would have taken it,’ he says, amused.
I don’t smile back. I go to the fridge and pour the juice and hand it over to him.
‘You are such a sweetheart. I love you, baby,’ he says as he pulls me towards him and motions for me to sit in his lap. I sit next to him and find my anger slowly dissipating. It is hard to be angry with Rishabh for long. He is an amiable guy, most of the time. He doesn’t get ruffled like me. I tend to flare up in an instant but I also cool down very fast. Rishabh, however, is always calm.
In the time that we have been married, he has lost his temper only once. It was with his office colleague. Then, too, he had not raised his voice. Just the steel in his voice and his ice-calm manner as he expressed exactly what he felt without mincing words, had given me the jitters.
Rishabh puts his right arm over my shoulders and draws me to him, as he holds his juice in the other hand and sips it. I am bored with cricket and I want to flip channels. His mobile rings and when he mutes the television to answer it, I get the perfect opportunity to flip to my favourite music channel. ‘Yeah—schedule it for tomorrow. Noon. In the morning I am meeting two others,’ I hear him say on the phone. ‘And is that a he or a she?’ he asks. He listens to the reply. ‘Oh yes, I had presumed Aman is a guy, but I had a doubt as I thought you said “she”. Anyway I will see her tomorrow,’ he says as he hangs up.
I have frozen on hearing the name Aman. I don’t even notice when Rishabh grabs the remote from my hand and changes the channel back to the cricket match.
The name Aman still has the power to set my heart racing and give me goosebumps. I have a hundred thousand memories associated with Aman. Indelible memories. After all, four years of one’s life is considerable time to spend with someone and even today, after nearly two years of my marriage to
Rishabh, it takes little to trigger memories of our time together.
I think of how when I would make the morning coffee, I would text Aman nonstop. I would go on till the buzzing phone woke him and he replied to me. I think of the silly little code words we had which made sense only to both of us. I think of how I had teased him about his name. I had told him that he was just A-man. He had replied that for me he might have been just A-man, but for him, I was his whole world. I had kissed him then. He had held me that day, as it rained outside and we had sat listening to the sound of raindrops on the window panes. I think of what an impossibly wonderful relationship it was. Suddenly, without warning, I am filled with a deep sense of longing. A sense of loss. A sense of despondency and helplessness.
And even though my husband’s arms are around me and I am resting my head on his shoulders, as he absently strokes my hair, his brow knitted in deep concentration watching his cricket, I realise I am a thousand miles away. I am in a different place. I am in a time when nothing mattered to me except Aman.
I continue sitting there with Rishabh till he asks me if I have made dinner or whether he should order Chinese takeaway, his favourite meal. It takes me a few minutes to comprehend his query.
Finally, I tell him to choose and we end up walking up to a restaurant nearby called Wang’s Kitchen. The main road near Lokhandwala has a lot of eateries and we are spoilt for choice.
I have to force myself to concentrate on what Rishabh is saying during the meal. He tells me that he is expanding his team and is conducting interviews to hire a new person. I am glad that he loves his job at Club Happiness, a holiday and resorts company. His rise in his workplace has been meteoric, and he now has a team of six people working under him. He tells me that he has scheduled three interviews for tomorrow.
‘I know, I overheard your conversation,’ I say.
‘Oh did you? I am interviewing someone called Aman who I presumed was a guy. Turns out it is short for Amandeep and it’s a lady. Such a funny name,’ he says.
‘No, I like the name. It is nice,’ I say, to my own surprise.
‘I didn’t know you liked Punju names. Next you will tell me you like Baljeet,’ he teases.
I refuse to take the bait. Also I don’t want to elucidate on my fascination for the name ‘Aman’. I have never mentioned Aman to Rishabh and I don’t intend to start now.
‘So who are the others you are interviewing? Are they any good?’ I ask him, cleverly changing the topic as the waiter serves us soup.
‘Look promising. Let’s see,’ he says.
He asks me about work and how my day was.
I tell him that a commercial vehicles manufacturing company has signed a memorandum of understanding with our finance division for their new range and I have to prepare a press release for the same. I also talk about how I have to chase journalists to get them to cover it.
‘You know, Club Happiness truly needs some serious PR talent like you,’ he says.
‘Hire me. Do you want to interview me?’ I smile.
‘It is definitely a possibility, Ms Shruti. Now, where do you see yourself in five years?’ he asks.
‘In a bigger, better bungalow in Bangalore as I plan to relocate. Who wants to stay in overcrowded Mumbai, where flats are the size of a matchbox?’ I reply, smartly.
‘Hmmm. That is a possibility. Club Happiness does have a branch in Bangalore. If we offer you a position there, would you join us?’ he asks.
‘Shut up and make it happen instead of showing me some dreams. I am not your woolly-eyed client whom you can sell a travel package as a holiday of a lifetime,’ I tease him back.
‘Ouch. That is below the belt. We don’t fool our clients.’
‘Yeah, you only fool your wife.’
‘The customer is not an idiot, she is your wife,’ he says, quoting David Ogilvy, the ad-man I admire immensely. I had written a paper on him in the final year of my PR and Advertising course. Naturally,
I have studied all the books he has written.
‘Ogilvy also said, “The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible” and right now you aren’t being funny Mr Rishabh Prasad, just annoying,’ I say. Rishabh smiles.
‘See, this is why I love you. You speak your mind and are so clever,’ he says.
I sit in silence and sip the soup. He does not know that I don’t always speak my mind and I am happy to let it be this way. There are some things best left buried. Like past memories that creep up on you.
When we have sex that night, I am slightly more aggressive than usual. I kiss Rishabh with ferocity. I can see he is taken aback by this slight shift in my style but he quickly recovers and kisses me back with equal passion.
Later as I fall asleep, I can’t help thinking that it is the best sex we have had in a long, long time. And all through it I had only been thinking of Aman.
Preserving keepsakes and memories when a relationship is over is a bad idea. But the sentimental fool that I am, I just couldn’t bear to throw them out. Perhaps I have held on to them in the hope that it isn’t over. Perhaps a small part of me has a tiny bit of hope that Shruti and I might get back together someday. Now, strewn all across the floor, these symbols of our love stir emotions that are hard to bear.
Mark looks at me questioningly as if to say, ‘Uh-oh’, and then looks at the scattered contents. He probably guesses their significance, but he is too English and too polite to show any emotion. I pick up a handmade book which lies open at a photograph of Shruti and me smiling into the camera. I am hugging her from behind and my face nestles in her shoulder. Shruti had made a book of memories for me which was a record of every single date we had gone on. She had made this scrapbook painstakingly, by hand, filled it with photos, the bus-tickets of the rides we had taken together, especially that weekend trip to Mysore, the restaurant bills and tickets to even the house of horrors we had visited, which had scared her witless. Shruti was such a romantic—every little detail mattered to her. She had taken almost a year to put this book together and had given it to me on my birthday. Perhaps her sentimentalism had rubbed off on me. I don’t know why it is, but I cherish this book. This was the first time ever that someone had created something so beautiful, exclusively for me. It was like a precious phase of our lives was captured in these pages. And it is so painful now to even look at it.
I gather it up hurriedly and close it.
There is also a beautiful wooden statue of a cat that she had got for me. I had once told her I liked cats but had never had one as a child as my mother was working and there simply wasn’t time for luxuries like a pet. There is a gold-plated ring studded with zircon stones which I had given her. She had returned it when she left me. What could I do with it? I couldn’t take it back to the store. There is a bottle of Versace cologne. I just couldn’t bear to use it after she had walked out. And then there are at least about eighty cards. Shruti was artistic and her hobby was card-making. She would make these cards for the smallest occasion and ‘surprise’ me. She would spray it with the perfume she used—Eternity by Calvin Klein. Even now, I get a whiff of it as I pick up each card. The smell used to drive me insane. I have carefully kept every single one. As I gather them one by one and put them back into the box, each one feels like a cold sharp knife plunged into my heart. There is a blue and white striped T-shirt which she had bought for me. It was a size too small and I could neither wear it nor bear to give it away. There is a Calvin and Hobbes book which she gave me when I had told her Calvin was my favourite character. There is a wallet—an expensive one from Hidesign which she had bought for me with her first salary, a mobile phone cover which I had used for a while (the inner flap still has her picture in it), and a Sheaffer pen.
These are what is left of the four happiest years of my life. The pain in seeing the physical evidence of something that no longer exists except in my memories, is excruciating.
There is a lump in my throat as I pick up everything hurriedly and shove it back into the suitcase. ‘Are you okay, mate?’ asks Mark, his eyes full of concern.
But I am not okay.
‘Do you need a drink?’ he asks and I nod again.
I am unable to speak. I carry the suitcase to Mark’s car and place it with the rest of my luggage. We sit in silence as Mark drives us both to Coach and Horses, one of our regular haunts.
Mark orders a beer for himself and, without asking, a whisky for me. I don’t protest. Just by looking at my ashen face, he has figured it all out.
am still trying to compose myself. But the truth of all that Shruti and I meant to each other has returned to haunt me. I had shut out all the memories of our love in a box. Literally. But today the illusion that I have healed and moved on has been shattered. After two years, the wounds have opened up again and made me realise that what has healed was just the surface. Underneath it is still raw, it is still painful. Lacerating. Unbearable.
‘I gather it was hard then, eh?’ says Mark.
Before I can reply, my phone rings. When I see the caller’s name flashing, I excuse myself and step outside the pub to take the call. The cold English air hits my face and I slide the sleeve of my jacket over my hand.
‘Hey, Vikram, how are you? And the kids and Dipika?’ I greet him, trying to make my voice as normal as I can. This call from him is a welcome distraction.
‘Hey, Aman, all of us are waiting eagerly. You arrive on Saturday morning, right?’ ‘Yes. I land in Mumbai and take the first flight to Bangalore,’ I confirm.
‘Good good, we’re all waiting for you. Ria and Reema keep asking how many days are left for you to arrive. I am tired of answering them,’ he says and I smile.
Vikram insists I stay with them, even though we both know that my office will accommodate me in the company guesthouse. I can never say no to Vikram. He has been a pillar of strength in my worst moment. I think of the time two years ago when I was so broken. It was he who goaded me to get out of India. It would do me good, he had said. He had completely understood my situation. He had, in his quiet way, given me a much-needed push, without even mentioning her name. I was too devastated at that time to think clearly, but he had actually done me a huge favour. It helped heal, to some extent, my wounded soul. Right from the days that I had joined as a management trainee, reporting to Vikram, he seemed to know exactly what I needed and had managed, as always, to steer me towards it.
The last time I was in India, Dipika had announced very solemnly that I was to be godfather to Ria and Reema.
‘Godfather? As in Mario Puzo?’ I had blinked.
Dipika had given me a mock-angry stare as if to say ‘stop fooling around’. I actually hadn’t been. I had no idea what being godfather to two little girls aged six and four meant. Vikram had shot me a warning look to comply. I did so and pretended to understand that if anything were to ever happen to her and Vikram, I would officially be responsible for the girls. I found it all too far-fetched, but had gone along just to please Dipika.
‘Here, speak to Dipika. She is clamouring to take the phone from me,’ says Vikram and Dipika comes on the line.
Dipika wants to know what time I will arrive and whether or not I will join them for breakfast. Dipika is a very attractive woman and has a perfect, sculpted body. It is hard to not notice the sensuality she exudes without even being aware of it, which all the more adds to her appeal. God, even her voice is sexy. If she weren’t Vikram’s wife, and if I did not have such a good equation with him, I would have hit on her for sure.
‘No, no. I will arrive by mid-morning, so will join you for lunch instead,’ I answer.
‘Great. Looking forward then. All of us, especially the girls, are waiting to see you,’ she says as she hangs up.
I step back into the warmth of the pub, glad to be out of the cold.
I join Mark and see that my whisky has arrived. I realise that I haven’t spoken about Shruti to anybody. Not even to Vikram, even though he had asked me about it.
But now that Mark has seen the contents of the box and my reaction to it, I feel I owe him some kind of explanation.
‘You know, she is the reason I moved to Norwich,’ I tell Mark.
‘Whoa, that is intense,’ he says.
am not sure if he even realises what a relationship actually means. After all, even though he claims Eva is his girlfriend, he has had several flings with other women. I doubt Mark will understand something so deep, so pure and so genuine. I had been madly in love with Shruti when she walked out. Of course, she was in love with me too. Undoubtedly. How can women do this—be in love with one guy and marry another? I don’t know.
For me, Shruti was truly ‘The One’ and I do not know if I will ever meet anyone like her. No one, just no woman, matches up to Shruti.
I do not know how to convey all this to Mark and I don’t think any of it will even make any sense to him.
‘So what happened then? Only if you want to talk about it, that is,’ says Mark.
‘I don’t think her parents approved of me,’ I say.
‘What do you mean her parents didn’t approve? Why? Was it like you did something? Or weren’t you rich enough for them?’ Mark is genuinely puzzled.
‘No, we are from different communities. She is south Indian and I am north Indian. We have a caste system, and marriages outside the community aren’t approved by elders,’ I try to simplify the Indian scenario to Mark. In India, it is not just two people getting married, it is two families connecting. Everybody is involved in a wedding, unlike in the UK, where the bride and groom decide and plan everything themselves and even foot the bill for their wedding, and only the closest family and friends are invited.
Mark had asked me about arranged marriages in India (all foreigners I have met have—they are fascinated by the concept) and I had explained to him that it is just like setting up a date with a prospective partner, only in this case it is set up by parents. He had found it strange and shocking that an adult should allow his or her parents or relatives to choose a life partner for him or her. But I had not gone into the dynamics of the caste system and how it worked.
‘So is that a problem then? Don’t people from different communities get married in India?’ asks Mark, now curious to know.
‘In cities they do. Urban India is very different from rural India. In the villages it is still frowned upon,’ I answer.
‘Oh—so was she from a village then?’
I smile in response, trying to picture Shruti as a village belle.
‘Of course not. It was complicated, Mark. Her mother got breast cancer and they did not know if she would make it. Her parents had been against me from the start. She broke up with me as her parents wanted her to get married to someone of their choice. I hope she is happy,’ I say as I take a large sip of whisky.
Mark nods and we sit in silence finishing our drink. It is hard for me to even think about Shruti, let alone speak to Mark about her. Mark senses it and changes the topic deftly to the upcoming football game. Norwich has a great football team and they are playing against Everton on Friday. He talks about how much he is looking forward to it. I try my best to feign interest but Shruti has exploded back into my life with the power and force of a storm and I am reeling under the impact of the resurrected memories.
Mark drops me to my hotel and the check-in formalities are completed in no time. Once I am in my room, the black suitcase with memories of Shruti calls out to me. I don’t want to revisit the past. It is sheer torture to do so.
But I am powerless. It is as though an invisible force is pulling me towards it. One part of me badly wants to throw this suitcase out. It is a dead relationship. It is over and she is now married to another guy, I remind myself. But another part of me wants to relive what I had with her, which is something that nobody can snatch away from me.
walk up and down the length of the room. The room overlooks River Wensum and today even the breathtaking view of the river and the cobbled walkway beside it, lined with weeping willow trees and flower beds, fails to distract me. I see a young woman and her child walking along the river path. The child stops to feed the ducks that swim alongside. The woman watches and smiles at the child. I wonder if she is a single mother. Then I see a man walk up to both of them and kiss the woman on the lips. He puts his arm around her shoulders and says something to the child who runs ahead in glee as they watch indulgently. The happy scene sends a fresh wave of agony through me as I recall how Shruti had laughingly talked about the children we would have, how many and what we would name them. We had sat watching the placid waters of the Kabini river, near Bangalore, on one of our dates, she leaning against me. I had laughed in response and said that I wanted two daughters, and she said she wanted a girl and a boy, a girl first preferably. We had so many plans—Shruti and I. And now all I have are memories and a boxful of painful reminders of the one that I cannot have.
I open the suitcase and gaze at the cards. I think about how her hands have created them and imagine her tucking away an errant wisp of hair as she worked. I remember the evening she had spent at my flat in Bangalore. She had lied to her parents about an overnight trip from her college and come away with me. I remember how shy she had been when we first made love. I recall how I had assured her it was fine and when we made love again, how delighted she had been. I think about my arms around her tiny waist and how she had cuddled up to me and we had slept together naked. Next morning I had made coffee for her and watched her sleep so peacefully. I smile wryly at the memory of her opening her eyes, seeing me there and shrieking in horror when she realised the bedsheet had fallen off her, exposing her breasts. She had quickly pulled it up and covered herself. How much I had laughed at her shyness. She was beautiful, my Shruti. She was amazing. She was one of a kind. My perfect woman. I would truly have moved heaven and earth for her. I would have got her the moon had she asked for it. Instead, she had walked away.
And left a gaping void in my heart. Leaving me incapable of ever loving another woman. She had taken my soul when she left.
I wonder how she is now. I wonder if her husband is good in bed. I realise I am gritting my teeth even as I think of her with another guy, even though he is her husband.
I am overcome by an urge to know where she is right now and what she is doing. I wonder whether she is happy or sad. She is sure to be on Facebook. She had ‘unfriended’ and blocked me the day that she had walked out and I had no access to her profile any more. It was painful, too, at that time to even face it and I had no desire to stalk her. So I had let it be.
But today, I cannot let go. So I log in to my profile on Facebook. Usually I do not give much thought to it and am slightly derisive of those who are addicted to it. But now I am grateful for this privacystealing, time-draining gargantuan social monster on which most people seem to spend hours.
I type in ‘Shruti Srinivasan’. There are hundreds of profiles by that name. I start checking each one. Most of the women have their own photographs as their profile pictures and so looking at their photos alone, they are easy to eliminate. When I reach the end of the page, I click on ‘show more results’ and it throws up more Shruti Srinivasans. One of the Shrutis has used a picture of a baby but it is easy to eliminate her as she has studied in Faizabad. This is not my Shruti. There is another Shruti who has used the picture of a rose as her profile picture and all the info that is there is that she lives in Dhanbad. My heart beats a little faster. I know my Shruti would never use the picture of a red rose as her profile picture, but I cannot just eliminate this one, as my Shruti loved red roses. I go to the profile and check out what she has liked. There are only Hindi movies there and my Shruti couldn’t speak a word of Hindi. So I eliminate the red-rose Shruti too. There is another Shruti who has used the picture of a bird breaking out of its cage and flying to freedom. Could this be my Shruti? I once again go to the profile and discover that this Shruti likes R.D. Burman and Lata Mangeshkar songs. She too is eliminated.
My Shruti never listened to either.
At the end of two hours I have hit a dead end and I haven’t found her.
Then it occurs to me that it could be because she had blocked me. That might be the reason I am unable to find her. I create a fake id and I log in. I once again go through all the ‘Shruti Srinivasans’ that my search throws up. By now I am familiar with all the Shrutis on Facebook. There is one who works in a software company, another who is a teacher, another who is a team leader at an international bank, another who works at a newspaper, another who works for a finance company and so on. I think I can write a thesis on ‘Shruti Srinivasans’ on FB. I can even write an essay on the Shruti with the red rose as her profile picture as I have studied her profile so much. But none of them is the one I am looking for.
And then something else occurs to me. Perhaps she has changed her name after her marriage. Perhaps she is no longer Shruti Srinivasan, but Shruti something else. If that is the case, then I will never be able to find her.
I rack my brains hard to try and remember the surname of the guy she was getting married to. Heck—I don’t even know the guy’s name or his last name. How will I ever find her? I don’t even know where she lives now. I remember how angry I was at our last meeting when she had met me to tell me it was over between us. After a lengthy meeting which mostly consisted of silences, after she announced her decision to break up and exit my life, my final parting words to her had been, ‘Look, Shruti, you know what we mean to each other. You know you are my life and I cannot imagine a future without you. You know where to reach me. You have my numbers, email and everything. If you change your mind, and I am hoping you do, please come back to me. I will be waiting to welcome you with open arms. But I, on my part, will never ever contact you, or stand in your way. That is a promise.’
She had hugged me and wept, but I had been too angry to hug her back.
I bite my lip at the memory. I set my laptop aside and walk towards the black suitcase and bring it back to my bed. My ex-box, I think, and am amused at the joke I am trying to make of it. But this is no joke. This is my life.
My heart beats faster as I open the box and take out the book that Shruti had made for me. It is made of handmade paper and has a red cover. ‘Red, the colour of passion. Suits us, Aman. It is our colour. Happy birthday, my love,’ she had said as she had handed it to me. I had presumed she was referring to the red wrapping paper. But when I had opened it, I saw it had a red cover too. I lovingly run my hand over the cover now.
I remember how Shruti had clicked pictures of me as I had opened the cover.
‘I want to remember these moments for ever. I want to see the look on your face when you discover what it is,’ she had said excitedly as I smiled. Then she had put her hand on mine and stopped me from opening it.
‘What do you think it could be? Guess,’ she had said.
‘Hmmm—seems like some kind of a diary,’ I had replied.
‘Ha ha… close, yes. But not a diary. Guess again,’ she had said.
I had playfully nipped her hand and she had laughed and said, ‘Ouch! That hurt! Wait, you dumbo—open the gift first.’
And as I had opened it, my expression had changed to complete amazement from the initial befuddlement as I discovered that she had actually made it all. She said it had taken her more than eight months to put it all together. And she had done it secretly, hiding from her parents, saving everything from all our dates, during that period. She said it was the grandest thing she could think of giving me. And she wanted to make something grand, something that I would cherish.
Oh, how she had succeeded. It has been two years since she went away. I am still spellbound by all the memories she has captured in vivid detail and put into the pages of this book.
I open to the first page. My heartbeats race, competing with each other. Part of me wants to close the book and throw it away, while another part wants to re-live everything that has been. I am torn, undecided. The book is sending me to a place I don’t want to go. I am done with it, it is the past, it is over—my head tells me. Yet my heart tugs.
Finally, it is the heart that wins.
I open the book and begin to read Shruti’s words, in her handwriting:
‘For Aman, with all my love’ and she has stuck a picture of us, clicked on her birthday, when we made that trip to Kabini River Lodge. I stare at the picture for a few minutes. I remember how we had asked the waiter to click it. My arms are around her waist and she is clutching me tight, as though afraid to let me go. She is smiling and so am I. It is a picture that screams ‘LOVE’. It is a picture which radiates happiness. It is a picture that says, ‘Oh, look at this lucky couple. These guys are going to be happy together for the rest of their lives.’ I have to fight back the urge to kiss her in the photo. I turn the page and begin to read:
My love Aman,
You must be fast asleep right now, as I work on this book. I meant to do this a long time back, when the idea first occurred to me. I wanted to give you something truly unique on your birthday. Something that would show you how much you mean to me. Something that would involve the best and most precious gift of all—TIME. (How quickly we run out of it. Before we even realise it, it has slipped away.) So I thought of creating this book, just for you, and writing in it every memorable date that we had, stick stuff in it—stuff that matters only to both of us. I hope to be doing that starting now, till your birthday, when I will present you this book.
Since your birthday is at least eight months away, I think I will have a great book. This is our baby—till we make a real one. Heh, heh. Take care of it, okay?
And I know you will love it!
Happy birthday to the greatest guy in the world.
All my love and some more. Shruti
The next page has at least fifty photos of me, which Shruti has printed out and used to make a border. It is like a frame. And then in the centre, this is what she has written:
If I could paint pictures, I would have made a million portraits of you.
If I could write poetry, I would have written a million poems for you. Instead, I write here this poem which conveys what I feel about you.
Stars in a moonless sky
What is it that you dream about she asks.
Your Smile,Your look
Your Kiss,Your hug
Your love,Your trust
Your words,Your feelings
Your warmth,Your concern Your presence,Your eyes He replies.
And she smiles as she understands the language of truth.
She mulls over his words
Long after he has slept
She lies awake
Weaving with them
Her security blanket
Wrapping them around herself
And then carefully squirrelling them away
On the days when there is nothing but blackness
For his words are the stars that illuminate her moonless sky.
And they are hers.
Nothing can take them away from each other now.
For words once uttered find their way into hearts And later spill over to paper In the form of poetry.
Perhaps this is what they call love.
I know you aren’t much into poetry but read this one please. I wrote this specially for you. Read each line. Multiply the emotions expressed in it by a million. That MUCH is how much I love you Aman. That MUCH.
Each of her entries is like that. Overflowing with love. Swearing undying devotion. So expressive. So full of emotion. So her.
And for me now, so full of pain. I read each and every entry that she wrote in that book. Each one brings a lump in my throat. As I continue reading, the lump just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Each of the entries written here brings a fresh wave of agony till I am submerged in it.
I want to find her right now and wave this book in front of her and ask her, ‘What happened to all this love, Shruti? What happened? Are you happy now? How the fuck did you do this to me? Don’t you have a conscience? Have you forgotten all that we had been through? Am I that disposable? Do you miss me? Do you think of me? Heck—do you even care? Or is your life now all around that husband of yours?’
And then it occurs to me. I could still find her by her email id. She has (or used to have) three email ids. Surely she would still be using one of them for Facebook?
So I log in to my email account. I am temporarily distracted by a mail from Anjali. She is asking for help for a piece she is writing and she wants to know, ‘What Men Really Want’. She has marked it to her friends as well as to me. Ha. What men want—it is not much. I write out a reply to her. I want to add, ‘Men want a woman who will be faithful to them and not walk off with another guy’. But I refrain. I send Anjali the email and then do a search in my account. In a few seconds, I pull out all three email ids that Shruti used to have.
I once again open Facebook with my fake id, and search using the email ids. And then it happens.
I find her.
Dipika stretches her legs and arms and squints as the morning sunlight plays hide-and-seek on her face.
She smiles and asks for another cup of coffee.
‘If it isn’t too much trouble, that is,’ she adds as an afterthought.
‘Of course not. No trouble. I knew you would want more, so I just made some extra. Let me pop it in the microwave,’ I say, walking towards the kitchen.
‘I so love your terrace, Anjali. It is so peaceful. I think it is the best thing about the house. And lovely deck chairs too. I can never get this kind of peace at home. Ria and Rima are a handful, you know. But I think I have told you all this a million times,’ she says as she leans back comfortably and closes her eyes.
‘I know, but they are such moppets. Little dolls,’ I reply.
‘Yes, when they are asleep,’ she laughs. ‘God, Anjali, I so needed this break,’ she says, still with her eyes closed.
‘Anytime. You are most welcome here. Offer open only for my favourite cousin, though,’ I reply.
I return back with the coffees and plonk down on the deck chair next to hers.
‘You know, Anjali, I wait to get away like this. I am so fed up of my life. Sometimes I feel I have had enough of husband, kids, the whole marriage thing.’
‘Why? Why in the world are you fed up?’ I ask. I am curious.
Dipika has the best of everything—a wonderful husband, two lovely girls and a beautifully done-up apartment, a posh penthouse, unlike my tiny one-bedroom flat where the only good part is the terrace. And the worst, an inquisitive landlord, a distant relative, who keeps a hawk’s eye on me and reports back everything to my parents. Dipika is lucky. She has a fabulous figure, she does not need to work to make a living, and has everything going for her.
She pauses now as though carefully considering how to answer my question.
‘What you see on the surface isn’t the whole picture. You only see the shine, the sheen, the gloss. Beneath it, there is masonry, peeling plaster, shaky foundations. It is all dressed up and you never notice it because of the veneer.’ Her voice is laced with bitterness and I am surprised.