Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013 Shortlist, Sanathkumar Pasupathy

The Last SMS

The name Vikas Tolani has come to epitomise the perils of using a mobile phone in a busy thoroughfare. The unfortunate event that led to his incarnation has now taken the form of a caution advisory notice like ‘Cigarette Smoking is Injurious to Your Health’ or ‘Do Not Drink and Drive’. This association was inevitable considering the widespread proliferation of the shocking video that had captured the incident. If one had not received it as an email forward, then they might have seen it on Facebook, and if they happened to miss it there, then there was no escaping the news channels.
Although we may blame the media’s tendency to sensationalise and lament at our nature to seek visual stimulation in the macabre, there were elements of this video that made it a compelling watch. The key element was the video’s unpredictability. Its frame gave a broad perspective, capturing the image of all the vehicles passing through the intersection. The camera was placed at an angle that made the four streets leading up to the crossing visible. There was plenty to see but nothing to focus on. Further distraction was caused by a background conversation recorded over the traffic’s din, suggestive of someone experimenting with the camera’s settings. Therefore, it was highly improbable that anyone watching the video for the first time would have noticed the truck coming in from the left. Neither would they have focused their attention on the tall lean frame of Vikas, who was meandering through the intersection. 
The unexpected nature of the accident jolted the viewer with surprise when the truck crashed into Vikas’ midriff. The screech of the tyres added an eerie sound effect as the camera tracked the spectacular flight of Vikas’ body along the street. He was, and this was confirmed later, dead on impact. So when his body bounced off the concrete road after flying 60 feet and splattered across the lanes, he was already dead. Those of us who felt guilty about watching the video in awe of the spectacular hang time of his body can take some solace from that fact.
There was no doubt that the last few seconds of Vikas’ life were spent operating his mobile phone. It was also clear from the video that he was not using it for conversational purposes. Just before the truck moved into his blind side, Vikas could be seen looking at the device while operating it. Perhaps this explains his distracted wandering into the middle of the intersection. The simplest explanation is that he was in the middle of texting someone before the truck hit him. Apart from this potentially accurate speculation, little else is known. The cellular network refused to disclose information on his cell phone usage, citing confidentiality. The police deemed this usage to be irrelevant to the case. Vikas’ grief-stricken parents were neither keen nor amenable to pursue the matter but stated that they were not the intended targets of his last SMS.
The speculation lasted a while in the news. What baffled them even more was the disappearance of Vikas’ phone. Considering what happened to his body, they were not optimistic about the phone’s condition, but its complete disappearance had a disgusting implication: that someone had stolen the broken phone from a man so gruesomely killed in an accident. One of the news channels, deploring the current state of morality, launched an unsuccessful investigation to snare this ‘heartless vulture’. Alas, no information was forthcoming. Soon enough, they moved on to capture the next breaking news story, and we moved on to other videos and email forwards. Vikas Tolani became the guy who died while texting in traffic.

Kavita Mhaske could still remember how her stomach had churned on hearing the news, and yet, she did not have enough time to grieve as the events that unfolded soon afterward took her through a roller coaster of emotions. Unlike us, she heard about the incident from a mutual friend approximately an hour after it took place. The news was broken to her over the phone very matter-of-factly with no attempt at softening the blow. Had the true nature of her relationship with Vikas been common knowledge in the office, or even known to close friends, the news might have been conveyed after more deliberation. But no one knew that they were seeing more than what was appropriate of each other for six months—inappropriate since Kavita had been married for three years when they met.
Hence, as the nature of the accident, the circumstances and its primary reason became clear, she oscillated between guilt and fear. Guilt, since she was the most likely recipient of Vikas’ last SMS as part of their deep ‘texting’ conversation, received only seconds before the fatal incident took place. And fear, because of the ramifications of being exposed, considering the scale and magnitude of the scandal. Not only was she having an extra-marital affair, but now, she was certain to be viewed as a party to the carelessness that resulted in the tragedy. The main consequence, however, was that her marriage would most certainly be over—a possibility that she had not quite considered in its entirety until now.
After all, it was supposed to be a harmless fling with a guy who had a reputation for being laid-back and casual. It was fun—something she missed very badly in her marriage. In fact, for a while, it had been too much fun since Vikas, it turned out, was full of surprises. He wasn’t the pub-hopping, mall-shopping, fast-food-gulping, nightclub-hopping rich spoilt brat she had thought he was. There was more to him. He was a fanatical dog lover. It was not uncommon for him to disappear in the middle of a conversation to play with a wandering Labrador. He took pride in being a member of a dog rescue team and got into arguments with owners who, he thought, mistreated their dogs. He dabbled in poetry, which he confessed to her was a recent foray. And he had a very subtle sense of humour—something that she had begun to get the hang of lately.

Despite these moments revealing a deeper personality, Kavita never let their relationship get serious. She was clear in her mind. She had ‘serious’ at home; this was supposed to be fun. ‘The moment Vikas gets serious about this, I’ll end it’, she told herself repeatedly. No, Vikas had given no indication of getting serious with her. So, why did he have to text her while crossing the road? Yes, they had not met or spoken with each other for a week, so there was bound to be some excitement. ‘But I never demanded an answer. He could have waited. I was not going anywhere’, she kept telling herself.
These ruminations could have continued longer had it not been for the widespread curiosity about the intended recipient of Vikas Tolani’s last SMS. ‘What is it to them?’ she protested to herself. ‘Why is everyone interested in knowing? We are a nation full of busybodies’, she concluded in disgust to anyone who broached the topic with her. But her anxiety was on the rise. Although the demands from the media to the cellular network bore no fruit, Kavita’s relief was short-lived since others had launched an investigation to unearth the missing phone.

She managed to put on a brave face throughout this anxious period. At home, she behaved as normally as possible. She continued the perfunctory exchange of trivia amidst household chores. She remained attentive during banter, laughed occasionally and never allowed herself to be lost in thought. She thought in bed, clutching her pillow tight, but even then she never twisted or turned in uneasiness. Throughout the ordeal, she prepared herself for a sudden revelation on a news channel or a summons from the police. She lived every moment on the edge, because life as she knew it could change within the blink of an eye.

But that moment never came, and with every passing day, it seemed that her secret would remain undiscovered after all. The mention of Vikas or his tragedy petered out in the office until it became a passing reference that preceded an uncomfortable silence. Other gruesome incidents became the Internet rage, and the memory of Vikas faded away. For Kavita, however, there was no relief from fear and anxiety. It was replaced with an ambivalence she found harder to contain. Try as she might, she could not go ahead with her life as though nothing had happened. All her life she had wondered how it would feel to get away with having done something wrong, like those backbenchers in school who escaped punishment even after harassing their teachers, like her best friend Shalini who cheated her way to a computer science degree. ‘Wouldn’t it be thrilling?’ she’d wondered. And it was thrilling while it lasted. But the thing she had been least prepared for was guilt. In her case, a gnawing conscience proved to be worse than a gloomy consequence.

She soon descended into a moody sullen state, which could no longer be ignored. Her mood swings were surprisingly met with a lot of understanding and care. Her office granted her leave, and her friends were generous and supportive, but the biggest surprise came from her husband. There was a remarkable change in his demeanour as he tried to cheer her up. It was as if he had suddenly found an adventurous spirit. ‘Let’s go for a trek’, he said. This from a man who refused to climb three flights of stairs if the lift stopped working. Within two weeks, they had covered all the restaurants the city had to offer, more than they had ever visited during their entire marriage. Kavita was bemused and even superficially happy. Yet all of this did nothing but increase her guilt, till it became an unbearable burden to carry. One day, it came out amidst tears and sobs. She let her secret out, gasping for air as if the guilt was asphyxiating her. She was no longer bothered about the consequences, she told her husband, but she could no longer live this lie. She needed to confess and hoped he would understand.

I embraced her sobbing body and said a silent prayer. I never was and never will be a religious man. But I prayed because I knew that I had been blessed with a miracle. The shock and outrage over her betrayal would have made most men in my situation remonstrate in some manner. But I had no reason to do so since I had already dealt with these emotions.
Imagine yourself in my position, in an arranged marriage with someone you knew was in a different league. I don’t know why Kavi agreed to marry me, but I can tell you this: I was infatuated. After marriage, that infatuation quickly turned into insecurity. Her lifestyle, tastes, palate and friends were from a different world—a world that I would never adjust to. All my attempts to fit in led to embarrassing consequences, until one day I stopped all attempts. Very soon, she got habituated to my reticence. From then on, I struggled with a daily fear losing her. Not that she ever complained or that she ever asked for or expected any participation from me. It was just that we lived in different worlds that met in our living room. How long could such a marriage sustain itself?
Imagine yourself then to be in this state of mind, pre-occupied with the idea that your marriage is on a ticking time bomb. Like me, imagine you were travelling in an autorickshaw on your way to work, and you heard a shrill screech of tyres followed by a crash. But since you were blind-sighted to the accident by a four-wheeler, your eyes instead catch sight of a projectile headed towards you. Further imagine that you, guided by your instinct, held your palms upwards and clasped the projectile. And like me, when you discover the object is a mobile phone and your attention goes to a particularly racy text message being displayed, you browse through the messages sent only to recognise the number to be your wife’s. What would you have done?
I stopped the rickshaw and ran towards the accident spot, and I was greeted with the most sickening state of a human body one can ever see. Filled with revulsion and loathing, I joined the many who were throwing up on the side. I had so many conflicting emotions over the man who lay sprawled on the concrete road that all I could do was puke some more. He was undoubtedly the owner of the mobile phone that flew into my hands and most certainly knew my wife in more ways than I would have liked.
I remember taking a long time to collect myself. Believe me, it was the most horrific sight one could see. Even the most curious busybody shied away from the scene. I went to a coffee shop and smoked a couple of cigarettes as I went through all the exchanged SMSes and call logs. Every time I was consumed with rage or my mind thought of retribution, I remembered the mangled carcass. But I had to confront her about this. She had to pay for her actions, I thought. If our marriage is doomed, then so be it. Why should I be the one suffering when she was having all the fun?
But things were more complicated than that I soon realised. It included the death of a human being in the most unfortunate and gruesome manner. And what of the serendipity that led to the phone falling into my hands. It cannot be coincidence. People get hit by trucks every day, but their mobile phones don’t fall into the laps of the husbands of the women they were sleeping with. This was abnormal; no, it was beyond normal, bereft of a convincing rational explanation. It was then that I realised that this was most certainly some form of divine intervention. We were getting a second chance at our marriage—a chance I accepted gleefully. Hence, I waited all along, never once betraying my secret since I saw Kavita overcome with anxiety, fear and guilt. I waited, since I understood that I was amidst a chain of events set on course by the master puppeteer, and my part was to remain silent. I did and will always remain silent. After all, this miracle was at the cost of a human life—a life that will always mean more than a statutory warning to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment