Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Shortlist, Madhumita Gupta

The Performance

She viewed herself as critically as ever and found her make-up flawless. Not even the eyes, trained to detect the tiniest imperfections, the eyes who would be there this evening, would be able to find anything amiss.

It had, after all, taken her years to master the art.
She then chose her outfit for the day with deliberate care – a black chiffon sari with Swaroski crystals, guaranteed to catch and reflect all the lights and hopefully deflect any penetrating eyes from her face.

Not that she wasn’t equal to any number of stares, but the sari would help. Definitely. She chose the solitaire dangler, Kumar’s latest offering, as her only ornament for the same reason. Just the size would make them gasp. She would be performing after a long gap, after all, and could do with all the help her accessories could provide.

Having dressed immaculately, true to her ‘style-icon’ status, she glanced at the clock - a few more minutes to kill. Should she risk a quick shot, just to help calm her frayed nerves? But Aparajita, Jita to friends, decided against it, she needed her wits around and a drink might cloud her mind.  Vimala, her trusted aide ever since childhood,  had come to check on her, found everything ok and slipped out.

She could hear the cars now and high-pitched laughter. She smiled to herself, how well she knew these peals of false laughter now- and wondered what had brought on this one - mirth or malice? She rather thought it would be the latter.

All the eyes turned to her and the cameras started flashing madly the moment she appeared on the top of the graceful staircase leading to the glittering hall below – her stage, all set for the unscripted drama.

She felt a surge of adrenaline. Any vestige of stage - fear she had expected, evaporated. Her lines came out natural, she extemporized with confidence. Her well- rehearsed soliloquy about the accident, recovery and her husband’s round-the-clock loving vigilance all these months, had many an eye misty. Ably supported by the ensemble cast of her husband, ma-in-law, sis-in-law and brother, she knew she had been an unequivocal success. But the last act, the climactic sequence still remained.
Later, she mingled with the guests, the veritable who’s who of the showbiz - the most successful of directors, among them Varun Bareth, the National awardee, in his trade-mark blue jeans and a checked shirt; the writer duo Amjad- Zayed, in their sparkling white kurta-pyjama; the shimmering starlets flocking and chirping like so many colorful birds, fawning around Kumar, as sickeningly usual as ever and the reigning queen, Sreelata watching everything from her perch on the bar-stool.
And then there was everybody who was anybody in the media, watching her every move like hawks. The most prominent and the most ruthless among them - Devina, ‘of Star-World’, was smiling beatifically, her claws sheathed at present, but Jita knew she would be the first one to pounce at the slightest lapse on her part.

This was the moment she should make the most of.
Nodding, smiling and waving gaily Aparajita made her way towards Sree, knowing very well that many eyes were following her intently.
“A coke, please,” she settled on the stool next to Sree and smiled at her.
“All recovered, I see,” Sree commented dryly.
“Your wishes, his care,” she said, noticing from the corner of her eye that Kumar had managed to disentangle himself from the simpering females and was walking towards them, only a slight something in his eyes giving his tension away.
Both the ladies, both equally good actresses, smiled up as he reached them. He put his arms around Jita’s shoulders, ever the loving husband and Jita reached out to hold Sree’s hand. As they’d all known it was the perfect photo-op which none of the photographers present, would miss unless he wanted to be kicked out of his job.

 Almost blinded by the flashes, Jita leaned over and whispered to Sree, “Just a few more minutes of this, then we needn’t see each-other ever again in our lives.”
Devina ambled over, the untouched glass in her hands, “What a pretty sight!” she drawled, “I take it there was no truth in the rumors, then?”
The two ladies smiled at each-other, “What do you think?” Jita asked, “you guys should be in fiction rather than reporting, no?”
Devina took the barb sportingly, “One has to live! So these rumors don’t disturb you?”
“Ummhmm…no, not any more, I know Kumar too well”
“And Sree how do you feel about Kumar?”

“I respect him tremendously as a senior and honestly, these stories about Kumar ji and myself were nauseating, to say the least. I was so honored when he chose me for his last movie….. don’t mind, Devina, you guys almost managed to spoil it…”

“And for the records, Devina, it was I who suggested Sree’s name, she’s the brightest star of the day and suited the role to the T,” added Aparajita with a challenging glitter in her eyes.
“How utterly sweet!” and with that Devina moved away, apparently satisfied.

“Happy?” Aparajita asked archly later in her chilly bedroom, “your reputation is intact now – the blameless family –man Kumar!” her solitaires clattered angrily on the glass- topped dressing table.
“You didn’t do it for me, you did it for your father, ok?” Kumar stopped in the process of shaking his tie loose.
“Yes, the one who was foolish enough to invest his life’s savings on his son-in-law’s magnum opus, thinking that would buy his daughter’s happiness!” Jita shot back moving towards her queen -sized bed, “yes, I value his life much more than your ‘image’. Our break-up would’ve broken his old-fashioned heart. But all the same, the next time you lay a finger on me, Kumar….I go straight to the police and…..”
“Are you, my dear, threatening me?” Kumar said silkily.

“Not really….just letting you know how things are…. Mr. Ved Prakash, my lawyer, if you remember, has this….”
 Aparajita, from her brief career as an actress, knew the importance of well - placed pause.
She continued, “…. letter in duplicate, one of which goes to the court and the second one straight to the media, namely, Devina, if anything happens to me, is that clear?”
“And” she continued, “I’ve put in every little thing which so far I’ve helped you hide from media in it…”
“Don’t be silly! Why would I do anything? I… I really love you, you know,” Kumar muttered, going red. Aparajita had successfully taken the wind off his sails.
“Right,” Aparjita switched off the lights. Kumar knew he had been dismissed. Head hanging low, he left, closing the door softly.
A lifetime of pretences, Aparajita lay thinking. She hadn’t known she’d have to continue acting even after leaving films - hiding her bruises as well as her heart, camouflaging his flings with warm smiles, calling them the media’s flights of fancy, putting up appearances as the most contented and happiest wife in Bollywood ……….all the time. The price of being a trophy wife!
Only at this time of the night, in the solitude of her room could she remove the mask and sink in an exhausted, dreamless sleep. Recovering for the next day’s performance.
A pity there were no Oscars for these flawless performances every day.

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