Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Geeta Sahai

The Stalker

I am being stalked.

It has been stalking me since last 25 years. And every time its tentacles tighten around my neck, choking me to death, I run away. Five years ago when it tried to scare me to death, I ran away to this tiny hillock, Almora, on the southern edge of the Kumaon hills.  Nobody knew me here. Everybody thought I had come to take charge of the little known music school, Shankar Mahavidyalaya, to infuse fresh hopes and dreams in the crumbling aspirations of the young students.

The truth was something else. I decided to get rid of the past baggage; I decided not to be crippled by resentment and fear, to move on. Somewhere my inner voice was coaxing me to make an effort to move on, for my own sake. 
And today...this concert invitation card is once again pushing me to open the trapdoors of the ravages of time. 

“Madam, is there a music concert in your school?” The little boy interrupts my thoughts while keeping the steaming tea cup on the bench. I nod, confirming his query. Strong chilly wind cuts across my face. So many years have passed; yet, ‘it’ is there with me... a shadow, my stalker. It has repeatedly drugged me into doing things that I never wanted to do.
Breaking hearts, causing pain…
I was so nervous and you were so confident, sitting on the slightly raised platform, covered with chandini (white bed sheet). You were looking so relaxed, sitting crossed legs, with the sitar in your hands. Hesitatingly, I had put my right foot forward and knocked. “Can I...?”
You gave a meaningful, warm smile and indicated me to sit.
“You’re joining in the mid-session. Tell us something about your background.” You’d asked me the moment I sat down.
I froze.
Blood suddenly rushed to my cheeks. I quickly hid my hands below my legs, covering them with my saree corner.I do not know why but speaking in public has always been my shortcoming, since childhood. I forget everything. My mind goes blank, and things become hazy. All eyes had turned towards me but I was completely anaesthetized. I kept looking through the students, into the space. An awkward silence followed. And then, as if noticing my discomfort, you purposely began to strum softly. Heads rolled back.
I relaxed.

After the class, as I was packing up, I saw you carefully putting the sitar in the corner and mumbling something in Sanskrit. Perhaps you’d offered prayers to the instrument! And before I could disappear from your vision, I heard your voice. “So, Bhairavi, care for a cup of coffee?”
I was silent.
“Come.” You didn’t wait for my answer.

It was your idea that I should join music classes.  It was at a family wedding reception that you noticed me standing alone near a fountain, and without any formal greetings you suggested with a wine glass in your hands, “You must learn music…it will act as a therapy…” And then you began to hum an old classical song, Ae mohabbat tere anjam pe rona aaya, jaane kyun aaj tere naam pe rona aaya (Oh, love, it makes me cry to see the climax of love/ don’t know why, but I cried at the very mention of your name, today)The crowd gathered around you, and you secretly slipped your visiting card into my hands. I tugged it away in one of the jam-packed drawers of the dressing table and forgot about it. Till your aunt forced me to experiment with life. “Live for today. You’ve nothing but that and hope,” she had said. Even then I was hesitant, till today...
“Hello???....Good Morning...” You whispered into my ears, seeing me standing like a statue.
“Where to?” Pushing the saliva below the dry throat, I asked.
“Trust me.”

Hesitatingly, I followed behind you. You opened the car door like a suave gentleman, completely opposite of the personality I’d just met in the class. “For you, Madam.” I stepped in. Something was coaxing me to move ahead, towards an unknown, even though I didn’t want to.
Of course, to have a cup of coffee was an excuse.

“Where are we going?” While you were nervously trying to navigate through the traffic, the words inadvertently tumbled out of my mouth.
“Where ever you say.” I looked at you in bewilderment.
Everything appeared so surreal.
“Bhairavi!” You took my name as if trying to recollect something. “…such a beautiful name. You must learn to believe in your name…awe-inspiring… and not the opposite of it…so diffident, self-effacing…”

Fear and vulnerability lurking below the plastic emotions gushed out with a frightening violence. I was not used to caring. You immediately pulled the car at the side.
“Bhairavi, I didn’t mean to hurt your sentiments…really…but you must learn to believe in the normality of things…your face is too transparent…I know about Rahul and you…move on…”
I was surprised to know that you had already done some research on me. I was surprised but somewhere it also made me happy.

“And, by the way…who kept your name…Bhairavi… such a lovely name. It's my favourite raga too.”  You said it smilingly while offering me the face tissue.
That day you dropped me at my small one-room apartment in Delhi’s posh colony—Safdarjung Enclave, without a cup of coffee.

“Next time.”  You said and sped away, leaving dust particles suspended in the air.
With shaking hands, I rummaged my hand bag for the house keys and hopelessly plunged myself on the bed. Suddenly, the floodgates of dark, frightening images, faces, eyes…brown eyes, that throttling shriek began to envelop me, cutting across the thick haze of emotional dust and rubble.
At the age of 20, I married Rahul.
It was, I thought, my road to freedom.
Rahul was a painter. After marriage when for the first time Rahul pulled me near him, and his hands began to unbutton my blouse, I shrivelled with shame.
“I can’t,” I cried.

“Why, Bhairavi? It’s so natural when two people love.”
All his words of reassurance got doused in the spitting fire of anger, guilt, fear, self-doubt and that suffocating shriek. Tired, he went to the living room and lit a cigarette.
That was just the beginning.

With time, I became nothing more than a stroke of brush on his life’s canvas. I thought he would understand my fear. But he had no time to comprehend voices constantly echoing in my mind; voices bouncing off the walls, tearing me apart. And I had no strength to share with him my dilemmas. We began to live like strangers, without ever attempting to break the wall of silence.
Our fate was sealed.
Marriage crumbled.
Next morning when I woke up, the pillow was wet. The door bell was ringing. I rushed to open the door and was startled to see you standing at the door, reclining on the side wall, smiling, with food packets in both the hands. It was unbelievable. Rahul had never done so in 10 years of our married life, nay existence together, living in the same house. He was a sensitive artist to the world but at home…he had no time to be with me, to unravel my complexes. 
 “Bhairavi…where…lost? Won’t you ask me to come inside? Here, hold this.”
“Oh, yeah…so sorry…”
I quickly brought two cups from the kitchen.
“Just wanted to fulfil my last evening’s promise, after all everything begins from ‘now.’ Right?”
Grim battle ensued within me. ‘Let the past go. Allow the future to unfurl.’ Cacophonous voices tightened their grip over me. I stiffened and with stony eyes, I looked through you. “Khh…khh.” You deliberately made a gurgling sound, clearing your throat, in an effort to grab my attention. “So…coming for the class today?”
“ 3pm. Remember?”
“I know, I know.”
“Bhairavi …is something …is there some more coffee?” I knew you were watching me closely, and you wanted to ask me if something was troubling me, but you didn’t.
“Well… you know I have ambitious plans for you…I know with this god-gifted husky voice you can rule the classical world…no…no… don’t smile… I mean it.”  You were trying to cheer me up.
“Now, you are trying to be generous.”

“Why should I praise you? I am not gaining anything. Am I?...Just being honest.” And before I could say anything further you abruptly stood up. “Ok, I have to go, now. Class at 3, remember.”
You went away leaving me to the empty room that suddenly appeared emptier than ever before.  And I was frightened of empty rooms. I ran out, into the open, below the vast summer sky, walking aimlessly on the road, till 3pm. 
After the music class, I was making notes when you silently entered the library.
“Bhairavi, let’s go.” You whispered.
I will be telling a lie if I say that I didn’t like the way you spoke. There was a hint of belongingness in that authority.
“But…I’ve to finish…”
“Don’t worry. I’ll help you, later.”

I knew you were a bachelor, and five years younger to me. I knew I was confronting a battle within, every day. My husband, Rahul, had shifted to another city. Geographical distance was an alibi for the world to believe that we were a ‘couple,’ still.
The truth was we had separated long ago, while living under the same roof. I was clinging on to the illusion, knowing that it would lead me to nothing but vast stretch of desert and incomprehensible fear.
So, when you spoke with authority and showered your concern on me, I quite liked it. Suddenly, I felt like a woman, cared, respected, having an anchor to lean on. 
“Should we go for a long drive?” You asked eyes lingering on mine.
I rolled my eyes down.
“You know Bhairavi, ten years ago I came to the city, all alone, no support. I just had a dream to make it big in the musical world. My parents, relatives had abandoned me, then, but today!!” You took a deep sigh. “Well, I suppose that’s the truth of life, of existence...success changes everything, isn’t?”
I could feel the pain in your voice. Unknowingly, I kept my hands on yours at the steering wheel. You parked the car on the highway and with your left hand pulled me closer.
I didn’t object.
We kept sitting like this for hours, enjoying the beauty of the sunset, silently. 
This continued for days, months.

Every day I eagerly waited for the evening when you and I would go for a long drive, sit in a park and have dinner together. I was gaining my lost self-esteem. You shared your innermost thoughts, the secrets of boyhood, your first crush, love, saying that there should be no secrets between ‘us.’
“Roohi…Roohi was her name…she was so pretty. I fell head over heels in love with her. We lived together, secretly. But her parents came to know of it… they got her married …forcibly…in their own caste. I was shattered. I took to drugs…there was nobody… my music rescued me…”  Shutting your eyes you leaned back on the seat.  “That’s my life.” 

“Do you know where she is now? Is she happy?”
You nodded.
“Do you still love her?”
You looked at a distance, didn’t answer. 
I held your hand.

I envied your honesty. So many times I opened my mouth to tell you how as a child my trust was broken. I wanted to share with you the truth, to let you walk with me through the maze of horror and entwined alleys of shame and pain. I wanted to tell you how darkness numbs me. I wanted to tell you how I am constantly being stalked by my own shriek, fear. I wanted to tell you to hold my hand and take me out of the dark pit of condemnation, humiliation and paralytic thoughts.  
But I didn’t.
I couldn’t.

Courage, trust and inner strength were still not the best of my friends.
I was contented. I was learning to take one little step at a time by looking ahead and not backwards.
We were happy...till that day ...when you came to my flat at midnight. I remember it was Saturday. The next day being Sunday, you wanted to spend the night with me, at my place.

“Yes… wanted to surprise you.” A smile flitted over your lips. You embraced me from behind, and I swooned in your arms, forgetting everything. You shut the door with your foot, delicately picked me in your arms and carefully threw me on the bed. I rolled on the other side of the bed. You rolled behind me and embraced me in your arms. But as your hands began to grow tender on my body, I heard a piercing shriek. I turned my face. There was no one. I again heard the shriek. It cut through my senses.
I shivered.

I could hear the laughter, feel the power of the over-powering hands, smell the stench of the perspiration, and hear the throttling shriek. The stalker was back.
I began to protest.
I violently pushed you back and began to cry, inconsolably. You were shocked. “What happened, Bhairavi? It’s me, your Dhruv…”

I refused to listen. I shouted, screamed. “Please go away… leave me alone.” I gritted my teeth, pierced my nails into your skin. “Bhairavi!!!” You shouted in pain. It was as if a monster had entered my body, inciting me to inflict pain.

Shocked, paralyzed and heart-broken you reluctantly respected my wish.
Afterwards, I screamed, cried, and cursed myself. I banged my head against the wall. I ran behind you.
But you were nowhere.
You were gone.

Once again I was defeated.
Defeated by my dark secrets, shriek, my stalker.
Next morning, without letting you know I escaped to this hillock.
How could I tell you that my body is still wounded?
How could I tell you know that physical intimacy stifles me?  The scars of childhood continue to follow me everywhere.
I took the easiest way to existence.
I disappeared from your life, instead of confronting your questions. 

And today...
With misty eyes I try reading the name printed on the invitation card—
Pt. Dhruv Acharya’s first ever Hindustani Classical music concert
 in Almora
Time:6.30 pm
Venue: Shankar Mahavidyalaya …
“Madam, should I escort you to the school? It’s very dark and lonely now.” The shopkeeper asks holding a lantern in one hand.

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