Monday 15 September 2014

Short Story 2014 Shortlist, Proma Bhattacharjee

Through Her Eyes

Black or beige??
For the life of him Arjun could never decide which jacket went best with which shirt.
He tried to mix and match a few more, but each new ensemble made him look more hideous than the one before.

Maybe it’s the shirt, maybe it’s the light or maybe it’s just him.
Divorce proceedings does take its toll on a man, he thought acidly. Wasn’t divorce supposed to affect both partners equally? Doesn’t seem like it though. The last time he had seen Shraddha at the court, she was glowing. The ridiculous haircut suited her, he thought grudgingly. She had not spoken to him; then again he was used to her silences.

For the last 18 months his married life was a scene from a silent movie. No fights, no laughter, no conversations. His apartment was a tomb; his three years of marriage, a rotting corpse.
But what the hell, it was time to move on, to be back in the game.
 He was Arjun Sanyal. With those dreamy eyes and dimpled smile, he had forever been on women’s most wanted list; at least he was before he met his assumed ex better half anyway.
Today at 32, he was the Assistant Manager at a renowned MNC, single and ready to mingle. The fairer sex will come hunting in packs, he thought acerbically.

He did a few more permutations and combinations with his shirts and jackets, then gave up the whole institution altogether. He changed out of his cool grey shirt and chose a pristine white Calvin Klein T-shirt, a pair of well worn blue jeans. And he was ready for the kill.

As Arjun stepped out of his apartment, his phone started vibrating.
“Hey buddy, you ready?” His colleague and friend Siddharth’s voiced boomed from the other end.
“Yeah, just about.” Arjun assured his friend.
“Don’t be late; you don’t wanna keep a hot woman waiting. You never know, you might get lucky tonight.”  Siddharth chuckled as he signed off.
Arjun smiled and shook his head as he slipped his phone back into his pockets. Siddharth was the walking talking affirmation of the saying “Men only want one thing”.
Then again Rakshanda was seriously hot and any man would be thrilled to get lucky with her. And he was no different, maybe not tonight though.

Starting the engine of his Honda City, he thought about the first time he had made love to Shraddha, her lustrous black hair spread over his pillow framing her beautiful face, her eyes pools of love and desire, her lips swollen with his kisses... He felt a knot in his stomach; he would never see her that way again.

Shaking off the bitter thought he pulled into the main road. She had wanted the divorce, not him. So eager was she to get away from him that she did not even demand a penny as alimony. Who knows, she had probably found a super rich boyfriend or something he thought darkly.
The pub where he was supposed to meet Rakshanda was only a few minutes’ drive. Soon Arjun was pulling into the parking lot. There were already a few cars around, though it was relatively early for the pub to swing into its full colour, which usually happened past 10. Now it was only 9, but Rakshanda had insisted early.

Kaanch was the newest pub in the city catering to the hip, wealthy crowd. It had a dance floor, a huge bar serving vast choice of drinks from all over the world, a stage that boasted fashion shows, unconventional bands and occasional karaoke but the hottest attraction of Kaanch was the hookah bar. Wildly expensive and wildly crowded, Kaanch’s hookah bar seemed to have a perpetual queue. But what really distinguished this pub from the rest was the psychedelic aura that permeated not only in every brick and mortar of the pub but also manifested itself in the crowd.Every person who had crossed the threshold of Kaanch had given themselves up to undiluted hedonism. Hence it went without saying; Kaanch did not entertain below 18 customers.

Arjun made his way through the crowd towards the bar, his favourite place since the last year. He looked around for Rakshanda, but she was nowhere to be seen. Girls!! What on earth gave them the right to be late all the time? Well Shraddha was different, she had never kept him waiting, he thought mechanically.
 His phone buzzed again.

‘Running late. Might not make it .R.’
At least Rakshanda had the decency to send a sms.
Arjun ordered a straight scotch and looked around the pub. The place had really started to fill up; the crowd at the hookah bar was growing bigger by the second. The cosy sofas around the corner were filled with couples rolling in each other’s arms, drowned in liquor.
This was precisely the sort of place Shraddha loathed.
There is a difference between being modern and being shameless. 
But this is the kind of place Arjun had frequented during his MBA days. He loved the fag, he loved the booze, and he loved the women. And oddly enough this was the kind of place he had met Shraddha for the first time. He still remembered spotting her across the room, solitary figure among a group of nameless faceless girls, looking distinctly uncomfortable and totally out of place. It was not as if she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. Truth be told, he had already more than his fair share of women but there was something different about this girl. Something that made him want her immediately, not only in his bed but also in his life. He had gone up and spoken to her. She had come with a group of friends to live this experience and was hating every moment of it. The charmer that he was, it did not take him long to coax her number out of her. They had gone on their first date the very next day and before the week was over, they had readily fallen for each other.
Shraddha had filled the vacuum in Arjun’s life that he never realized he even had. Four years they had dated before tying the knot. Shraddha was not only his wife; she was his lover, his best friend. She was his person.

He was not even sure when their fairytale world had started crashing. One year after his wedding he received a great offer from a renowned company; the only catch was that, he had to shift to a new city. Without hesitation Shraddha had given up her job of a graphic designer in Kolkata, because she did not want to have a long distance relationship with her husband.
I’ll find a new job .Nobody stays jobless in Mumbai. She had joked.
“Your drink, sir,” the bartender’s crisp voice brought him back to the present.
Arjun gratefully accepted the drink and took a swig. When the hell did the pub become so crowded!!
 He checked his mobile, 9:30.
First date after seven years and your date is a no show. Just perfect.
“Waiter, a repeat.” At least he could drink himself to death.
Another habit that Shraddha abhorred, and something of late he was gaining expertise at. He had lost track of how many cigarettes he smoked during the day or how many pegs he downed after work. Yeah, he was becoming a pathetic loser. Work was the only thing keeping him sane.
“Move your sorry ass over will ya??”
What the hell. Arjun was sure he had heard her wrong.
“Unless you are Brad Pitt or the pub owner, I suggest you scoot over and let other people sit. This sofa is a public property.” This was definitely not Rakshanda.
The three glasses of scotch and the psychedelic atmosphere had already gotten to him. Feeling little unsteady he shifted slightly to his right, not knowing how to shoo away this lean figure in black.
Time to finish his drink and head off, but guzzling scotch quickly was simple as gulping acid.
“What’s the hurry pretty boy? Got a train to catch?” the husky voice was getting on Arjun’s nerves.
Arjun contemplated leaving the drink behind but decided against it. Couldn’t he manage to put up with one annoying female for a few minutes?
He checked his mobile again for messages and seeing none he signalled the waiter for the check.
“Date stood you up?” the voice probed again.
“Have you heard of a little thing called mind your own business?” Where the hell was the waiter?
“ Ooo touchy are we? Here is a girl hitting on a guy and he tells her to mind her own business. Talk about weird.”
“A word of advice, when you plan on hitting on a guy, don’t start off by referring to his sorry ass. Never works” Arjun shot back.
“Either that, or I am losing my touch, marriage does that to you” the husky voice turned hoarse for a nano second.
For the first time Arjun turned his head and looked her squarely in the face. It was hard to make out her features in the dance of light and shadows but she did not look unattractive, rather there was something oddly familiar about her.
Against his better judgement Arjun asked her cautiously “You married?”
“Nah not anymore. Why? You into married women or something?” she asked lightly.
“Not anymore.” Arjun said simply.
She was quiet for some time. 
“Wanna buy me a drink?”
Arjun hesitated for a second then ordered her vodka and another scotch for himself. The waiter who had so mysteriously disappeared minutes ago was all over the place now.
 “So how does it feel to be damaged goods?” She asked suddenly.
“Damaged?? hardly.” Arjun snorted. “Her loss you know. I was the best goddamn husband.” He could not keep the bitterness out of his voice.
I can’t live like this anymore Arjun.
Live like what?
She never told him.
“So she left you huh!! Shame! You are a really pretty fella.”  She was studying him over the rim of the glass.
Suddenly his irritation was back. What was he doing here pouring his personal life out to a complete stranger?
“My husband was a handsome man too you know. But I left him.” Arjun was not sure if she was talking to him, or to herself.
It was none of his business. Why can’t she go and yap somewhere else?
“Because... I could not live like that anymore.”
The air outside was deliciously cool. How long has it been since he had actually stood in the open air at night simply enjoying the night, the stars, the sliver of moon, the breeze...
Miss husky voice was still throwing up near the curb.
He regretted the thousandth time for bringing her outside.
“If you are claustrophobic, why go into a pub at all?” Arjun asked the girl who seemed to have emptied all the contents of her stomach and was now looking pale like a ghost.
“It’s the alcohol..I... I have low tolerance” She told him feebly.
“Help me out here, you have low alcohol tolerance yet you had about three large pegs back there....” Arjun could not bite back his amusement.
The glare she shot him should have incinerated him right on the spot if the adage “looks could kill” was to be taken literally.
“Be the sarcastic jackass you want to be. That’s what you guys are good at anyway”. She told him acidly.
“Back off your temper train honey, you don’t even know me. And if you have forgotten, I was the one who brought you out here when you started hyperventilating.” Arjun told her calmly.
It looked like she was about to argue again but she just leaned back against the lamppost and closed her eyes.
Lighting up a cigarette he studied the girl covertly. She was rather thin and pale. The dark circles below her eyes made her face look gaunt. Her hair was frizzy and rough. Arjun again had the strange feeling of déjà vu. He was sure he had never met her before, but the sense of familiarity was more powerful than ever.
“Where do you live?” He asked her softly.
She opened her eyes and studied him for sometime, a crooked smile dancing on her lips.
“What did you have in mind pretty boy?” Arjun did not miss the insinuation in her question.
“The name is Arjun and you can think all you want, but I just wanted to drop you home. Leaving a sick girl alone in a place like this is not something I want to go home with.”
She was silent awhile.
“Colaba. It’s an hour’s drive from here. Still feeling philanthropic?”
“Wait here, I will bring the car.”
Ten minutes later Arjun was pulling into the main road with Miss husky voice by his side.
Mumbai at night was not really different from that of day. Traffic was heavy 24/7 in this city. But today for some reason it was lighter.
He drove silently for 10 minutes; the girl was quiet for once.
 “I miss this you know.”
Arjun sighed. Why did she always have to say the weirdest things?
“Miss what?”
“The long drives, in the starry starry nights.” Her voice sounded far away.
 “Hate to rain on your parade, but this is the first time I am driving you, in a starry starry night.” Arjun told her flippantly.
She was again silent for some time.

“Every weekend we used to go out, just the two of us. No work, no responsibilities, just us. We would go to all the out of the way places. Try new things. It was beautiful. Then suddenly he did not have time anymore”
We haven’t gone anywhere since the last seven-eight months Arjun. You need a break, I need a break. Please just try to make it this time.
“Maybe he had too much work. It’s not easy to go backpacking with pending work.” Arjun was not sure who he was trying to reason with.
“Yeah, I know. That’s what he said. I understood you know. But don’t you think it should be relatively easy to come home to your wife on weekends?”
Arjun I understand you have a big project going on but I hardly get to see you nowadays. You come home late at nights, leave early. At least have lunch at home on Sundays.

“So you think your husband enjoyed spending less time with his wife. You know what, you women think we do it on purpose but that’s not it. Sometimes we have no choice.”
“So you think you men have no choice when they choose their boss’s dinner party over their wives’ birthday?”
I thought we could spend some time together, at least today...

Maybe sometimes you just have no choice. And why do you think your husband was working his ass off? He wanted to give you all the happiness in the world.”
Arjun was not even sure when his voice had rose an octave, when he had started sweating profusely, when he had started feeling all sick inside.

“What kind of happiness? The one called family; Husband, children. Or the kind that you buy for money?? ” her mirthless laughter was filled with derision.
I don’t want your money Arjun. I just want a divorce.
Arjun suddenly hit the brakes and the car running at 80 km/hrs skidded to a jerking halt. The insides of the car had become unbearably hot and he felt asphyxiated beyond reason. Opening the car door Arjun almost tumbled out on the empty road. All the emotions he had bottled up in his heart came gushing out.

 All the hurt he had repressed when he had seen tears in her eyes, not realizing that he was the only one who could wipe it; the pain he had felt when she told him she wanted divorce; the thousand deaths he had died when she had walked away from his life.
 Trembling uncontrollably, he sobbed over and over again,
“I am sorry, I am so sorry.”

He could not live like this either, he could not live without her. He did not want to live without her.
Arjun was not sure how long he had sat in that road. A gentle pressure on his shoulder made him look into the dark sad eyes of the girl who had just told him his own story.
“I see there is some place you need to be. You better get there.” She smiled and started walking.
Arjun looked at the retreating figure and suddenly remembered something.
“Hey!!! You never told me your name.”
The girl turned around briefly and smiled again.
“Shraddha.”  And she vanished into the darkness.

Arjun did not believe in the supernatural, he did not believe in divine intervention. Maybe this was just a coincidence. Or maybe he just witnessed the story called life. Maybe the world had thousands of Arjuns and Shraddhas. Some loved and lived, some loved and lost. Some told each other their feelings some did not. Some were forgiven, some eternally cursed. Some got the chance to make things right, some did not. But he did and he will.
He looked up at the star studded sky again and remembered the song he and his Shraddha used to sing.

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey...
Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
...How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they'll listen now.

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