Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Rinzu Rajan

Love Happens Only Once

I miss love like the deserts miss the rain. And August is my favourite month in the year that had willed love in my name, once upon a time. Those were the days when social networking was setting foot in India. The days when people of my age burned their money by logging onto Orkut, and getting smitten by the experience of checking out people of the opposite sex.

It was the year 2008, and I was into my first year of masters. I had taken an inkling for poetry considering the fears and tears I had fought for many light years. My untold story was yearning to yell from roof tops as poetry or fables or just common calling no one wanted to read. Even then I was managing all the attention, especially from a few men who were identifying a kind of intelligence which they think, that women of today's times did not have. For a boring Science student like me, making a ten male heads turn was nothing short of an achievement. In all these unscrupulous efforts I was making, his home coming was anticipated.

He had left on a September afternoon selling me sorrow I was trying to barter with poetry. We were old friends who met at the bible school. I remembered his name and the one incident that told me of his dauntlessness. His father had passed away a few days ago and instead of mourning he decided to attend the bible school as we all were supposed to do every year, as young teenagers with parents rigged by religion. I was awed by the grit of this fourteen year old boy who had just lost his father and wasn’t willing to let that truth cow him down.

We both were the most learned of the students in the class, and the only two people who loved to compete with confidence in the quizzes and competitions that were organized for us. I still remember, his head looked like a big blob of cactus plant with hair sticking out of his skull when he was fourteen, and I was the fat fair lady with long hair that was always held up as a pony tail, perhaps it resembled a pony's tail for the waves and wags it had. We fought, hated each other and always made sure our wits were at display when we faced each other. After his father's passing away his family decided to settle in Kochi and we lost touch from then on.

Orkut was elbowing its way into the young India with sightings of its pink circular logo and sky blue screen as regular a ritual as my tissue culture experiments. Tissue culture and molecular biology were compulsory  subjects that niggled my nerves, with a weekly Monday exam to test our knowledge of basics. I was motivated to pursue sciences after a reading a black mail note written by mom which was discovered stuck to the fridge, when I had expressed my desire to be a journalist. After a few months of pressed pestering that had failed, a written word was all she could think of as a warning call. Mom feared that my honesty would get me killed if I trailed behind the tabloid as a career. After trying to arm twist my parents to no avail, I chose the safer of the two options I had in my mind at that time.

In my masters days, I was this boring book worm that wiggled through pages and had no hobbies to save my soul. I preferred to sleep when I had nothing else to do while walking a good three miles was a physical activity that kept me in shape. Otherwise, Orkut would do the trick of keeping me busy, in the absence of boyfriends and even girlfriends. One such Wednesday evening, was the day marked for our meeting. I happened to come across his profile through a common friend and everything else is history. It boasted of an Amit Tharakan with the location pointing towards Kochi. I had my dreadful doubts about this being the same Amit I used to hate as a teenager. With fingers that were fearfully tap dancing I typed him an e-mail.
Hi. Are you the same Amit whose father was in the Indian Air force in the  late nineties and who lived along the streets of the St.Mary’s cathedral, Bandra?
Apologies if you are the wrong person.

I waited for his reply repining heavily for my impatience. A week later there came an e-mail and a yes to begin with. Indeed, he was the same confused porcupine head I had admired all these years although I was an unknown stranger to him. He  did not even remember my name. Even then I decided to deal with him like a diplomat. To begin with, I was sure that I had to be kind to him and tried reminding him of all the times in the bible class. Alas, he couldn't recall a single day from those times, and it seemed that I had already spoilt the broth.

Contrary to my perceptions, he started e-mailing me twice a week and used to call me as and when time permitted him. We loved those speedy replies and short messages that used to flood our inboxes and taught us a lesson or two in patience. As earth was revolving around the sun, our lives were also heading for a change. Our constant conversations transformed into endless discourses and if not for work and college we could have ended up setting a world record for the longest conversation held between two individuals on the phone.

On the first of January the next year, he proposed without a face to face communion. In a thoughtless moment of time, I retorted with a yes. What followed was a romance straight out of the books of a Shakespearean saga. He came to Delhi in February the following year, and without second thoughts about the world, we took to loving each other. His visits would take us to movies, retail therapy and even book hunting to libraries. Life was a poem that was watching its way to the aisle. Our parents started appreciating the liking we had for each other and mine had also let the message spread like wild fire within the family. His May day calling on my birthday brought us closer. We had taken to walking hand in hand while kissing at places where a thousand heads would turn to catch a glimpse of us. It seemed we had known each other for ages and our coming together was a plan God had inked in our lives. A day after his May visit he started staying aloof, all of a sudden. He was cheerless with his SMS replies and it seemed to me that he was only tolerating me for some unknown reason. One day an SMS from him changed the equation between us.
It read like this.

Let's end it here. Maybe you are not my kind of a girl.
This fiddler had made me dance very cleverly to his tunes to drown me in the end. No, it could not have ended this way with a callous SMS at my disposal. I tried seeking explanations and even wanted to talk to him. I dialled his number immediately without bothering about the repercussions. Thankfully he picked up the phone.

“What was all that?” I asked.
“I think it is clear.” he replied.
“No, it is not. Was I too unimportant to get dumped with an sms?”
“Not really, I did not want to hurt you, that is why did not wait to give explanations.” he said.
“Do you even know the meaning of “hurt?” I inquired.
And he banged the phone on my face.

I tried calling him again, and mailed him incessantly but to no avail. To add to my woes, our common friends started ignoring me as well. He hated me, his friends too and his family didn't want to see me. No news was good news then, not even my good grades in masters.

I was widowed in soul, left to fend for a reason no one was seeming to give me. It was over. And I had to reconcile with the fact. A “sorry” and “no thank you” was given to me as alms for a love I had defended with a watch dog's vigilance. The asylum would have surely been an answer had my family not supported me, although anti-depressants were the vitamins for me in those days.
A year and a half went by and with poetry serving as a purgative, my wounds started to heal. I tried to forget and often found myself in the middle of too much of annoyance I often poured on others as anger or apathy. Pain was a shadow, that never seemed to leave me alone, not even on a day when the sun was hiding behind the clouds.

During this time I met Joe. Along the trajectory of time on a forgetful Friday evening when the world around me was melting like biscuit crumbs wasting into a coffee. Orkut was the meeting place again and I remember the date very clearly, 18th August. This time around things happened differently. A stranger called Joe could be seen stalking my profile and giving me all the unheeded attention I wasn't expecting. My sole aim to stay on Orkut was to salvage my lost love. I was writing with clichéd commonness that was any day better than a fifth grader's poetry and much to my amazement, I was doing so without an inch of shamefulness. I rhymed without reason while bluntly committing follies when it came to free verses. In short, I was doing everything else other than poetry to talk of.
On another day, while loitering on Orkut I received a friend request from him. A bolt from the blue had already welcomed me a few months ago and to not add much to those woes, I decided to ignore it and let it pass by. I took to poetry classes in the meantime, with forms finding favour for my kind of learning. Even then the one thing that did not change was the friend request that stayed in my inbox. A few days later, a message was sent across to bid support to the friend request that was lying unattended.

This is Joe. I live in Singapore as you may see on my profile. I like your writing and follow your blog. May we become friends if trusting a stranger doesn't seem that difficult and all this doesn't sound cheesy to you?
Anticipating you reply,

Ten days later, I wrote back with a sense of anxiety aching my soul. It was a chicken and egg question! To send a reply or to stay put, and after a lot of reasonless reflection, it looked something like this.

Hey Joe,
Thanks for following my blog, and after much anxiety I am writing back to you
Hoping to not put you off with a late reply. Things weren't good at my end and as a result I have learned to keep to my own self. Yes, we can be friends and hoping we stay friends for a long time.
We became friends on Orkut and also started talking on phone. Through the bustling city life we both made sure that we had a little time for each other on the weekends.

Months passed and then years. From being a clichéd crow, I went to writing poems. Sometimes we met on phone and on the internet and he told me how with each passing day I was painting rainbows in my poems. When we exchanged conversations we happened to meet at the streets of his city, where the tube tarried down the noisy lanes and many times in the red and green buses that plied me back to my destination in Delhi. We met in poems I wrote for him and in stories I had never penned. We met in fights frivolously fought and in poetry readings where I spoke of him. I was finding inspiration in him and he was seeking a friend blessed by the written word who could have acted as a saviour for him with his eleventh hour official deadlines. He was struggling to build a business and I was his partner in crime. Friendship was taking root in us with time healing my old wounds.I whined with my pen, while he became a silent spectator to my theatrical words of wisdom.Social networking changed hands and much of India and the world then took their liking for facebook. We both moved to facebook and in regularity consigned to the usual hi's and hello's.

In between, time allowed me a few marriage dates. Doctors, engineers MBA's and even scientists offered to see the mute mannequin on offer. Somewhere the liberation in me wasn't allowing a traditional arrangement of matrimony. Marriage just couldn't have happened because of shady matrimonial sites or parents trying to stage a social hogwash. For neither was I willing to lose my economic independence and nor would I resign to the husband's family playing their games of autocracy on me, which surely had to be the first sign of surrender for a woman as per the Indian culture. The compulsion to get married was increasing with each passing day. I had shut the doors to love while forgetting the word adjustment. Then how was marriage supposed to happen?

Mom proposed an idea and I liked it, for better it is to know the devil than not. She enquired about the male Christian friends I had, for seeing me getting married to a non-Christian was a nightmare she was trying to shrug. The first name that impulsively struck like lightning was that of Joe's and I happened to blurt it out. Mom called him without second thoughts much like a RAW agent trying to unravel a mystery. Mom is our very own lady Sherlock Holmes.

“Is that Joe?” she asked.
Yes came the reply.
“This is Rachel’s mother.” she introduced herself with a sense of pride.
“Yes aunty.”  he answered.
“Rachel told me about you, and I thought I'd share a word with you, about you both.”
“Yes, aunty, I think she might have.” he said, with a giggle to break the sentence.
“Are you interested in her?”
A lull engulfed the conversation as I had expected him to have gone numb at a googly that was thrown at him. After gathering courage he continued.
"Need a picture of hers to show my parents, if you are ok with it? "
"Oh yes, that will be done soon."

They discussed family and the four generation of priests each of our families had to my dad's job and his. Maybe none of us had anticipated a marriage proposal, as early as this time in our friendship. Curiosity killed the cat and both of us were crying over the spilled milk, with no conversation happening for six months and beyond, after that historical event.

The following year in January he decided to pay a visit to Delhi. Out of the blues, on Christmas I got a call from him telling me of his Gurgaon visit and 8 th January was the day marked in our calendar for the rendezvous. A night before that fateful day, sleep refused to visit me and I spent the night staring at the yellow street lamp at the crooked corner in our street. He didn’t seem very excited to meet me. As he might have repeated it over a hundred times, much like an old noisy record that he won’t stay at the airport cafe beyond an hour. I didn’t not know if  it was too early to call this platonic complication as love. It was the coldest day of the season, when even the water could be seen shivering and I was preening to go for a date. She Cabs came to my rescue and a lovely lady driver was entrusted with the task of ferrying me to the airport.

In the morning, while trying to fix the fine lines and waves in my tresses, I left my passport at home. In the absence of a photo identity card, no one was willing to smuggle me in, until my folder of certificates was discovered accidentally in the black bag I often carried to the university. I thanked my stars for not letting carelessness play a spoilsport. While dillydallying around the washroom and alternatively reading the destination board with as much interest as my favourite book on feminism I awaited his arrival. A novena prayer, masonry underneath my feet that served as a mirror and a lot of tormented visitors holding placards with names, yawningly uninterested in the affairs of the day  played like a movie in Eastman colour in front of me.  Meanwhile a man came out dressed in a brown cardigan and a cap and shoes so torn, that they needed an urgent visit to the cobbler. Such a dumb looking fellow, couldn’t have been him, I said to myself in assurance and had he not gone in the other direction, a sparkling white colgate smile was waiting to greet him. Thank God it was not him!

He arrived a little later looking sagged and complaining about a fellow passenger who didn’t let him slip into a lazy afternoon siesta. My heart bled, for he didn’t stand an inch taller than me,  although he looked cute and his square rimmed spectacles added to his intellectual look. We kept walking along that tiled flooring trying to compete for the “Who is the shiest person in the world?” award, with no conversation, not even an eye contact happening! Finally, we decided to have coffee at the Costa, while he wasn't willing to settle for anything less than a cappuccino. I was appalled by his airiness because anyways I wasn't planning to take him to one of those South Indian cafes where he will have to sip coffee from steel glasses heated to boiling point. After two cups of coffee he declared to me that he wanted to spend more time with me and in a split second forgot his all important meeting at Gurgaon. We left the airport and went to one of the majestic malls in Gurgaon, in his call to spend more time with me. He told me that he wanted to share a meal with me. I don't know if that meant he wanted to spend more time with me or was aiming to empty his wallet at will.

Chowk was the restaurant that managed to grab our eyeballs for it rustic name and ambiance and in a jiffy we were positioned on the lush sofas inside. I being a vegetarian was the  other fact about me, which I trusted he knew of. For all the cribbing and cussing I did on facebook against meat eaters, this was something he missed. He is one of the rarest of rare of my facebook stalkers and even then he didn't know. Alas!

We shared a plate of mushroom gobi manchurian with paranthas, naan for me and pudina parantha for him. The other day a friend told me that there was this custom of taking supper,  before dinner in Singapore, the country he was coming from.This was our first supper together which seemed impossible until a few years ago, for the two continents we lived in. We discussed gender equality, Delhi rapes, our families, our parents and their jobs and possibly everything under the sun that could be squeezed into a two hour conversation. While taking leave and alighting into the parking space, he promised to come back the following year to discuss marriage with my parents.

There was a spring in my step and Joe was the reason,  although it was only a word of the mouth and it was long way before things would happen. PhD was coming to a closure and that was another reason for me to pop a champagne bottle. It was hot gossip in the corridors of our university, the stories about our professor’s sexual encounters and the grotesque manner in which he had harassed most of his female students. And I had also heard that a girl had committed suicide, a fortnight before her marriage when her future in-laws found out about her tryst with our professor.One such day while I was prattling to glory about him, he walked in into our laboratory and summoned me to his cubicle. I walked upto his room like a petrified guinea pig I had seen in the animal farms around our laboratory, afraid of the repercussions of him having found out the tad bits of the chatter with Priya, my colleague.

"We got to talk seriously." he said.
"Sure sir." I replied.
In the blink of an eye, he got up and locked the door behind me with a clink. 
 ''Look darling, the deal is simple. You make me happy and you get everything you ask for. Your PhD, a university position and even a post doctoral project.''
"Whaaat? I hope you know what you are saying sir?"
''Yes.You are beautiful Rachel and the day I saw you I knew it was you who could make me happy. My wife divorced me seven years ago, and since then I am a lonely man.''

I shuddered in fear like a deer trying to get away from the clutches of a tiger raring to tear apart its victim. In agitation, I happened to grab the glass of water kept on the table and guzzled it all in a go, praying for a silver lining in the dark cloud. Alas, my professor’s sardonic sneer was all I could see as if someone had pulled his lips and fastened it tightly around his ears. My choices were very narrow.
I have been seeing my professor since the last six months. I feel like a prostitute who has been forced to deal with a customer when my professor devours my body like a voracious vulture.

I will receive my PhD degree in a few days, amid much pomp and show at the yearly convocation that the university organizes at its premises. For this sheet of paper I had to sell off my body, without giving an afterthought about Joe. My professor is happy with the way I have coddled his desires.
Joe still calls me and I do not pick up. I am planning to switch to a new phone number and have deactivated my facebook account, severing all ties with him. I could never gather courage to confess to him, everything I had done to salvage four years of the sweat and blood I had shed for this degree. I hear that no one would have paid heed to me even if I had complained against my professor, for he was the brother-in-law of the university’s dean. I still weigh my options of making it back to Joe. And it seems that all doors leading to him were slammed shut on my face, the day I decided to sleep with my boss. They were, without a doubt.

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