Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Longlist Nabanita Sengupta

Some Bonds are Forever
Phone calls were now very infrequent; meetings even more. Yet, the presence of each other in their lives was constant. Riza knew that there were some shoulders on which she could cry unabashed and unquestioned and that is why when her life reached the crisis she straightaway took a train to Delhi. For her Delhi is where heart is. A phone call, few clothes hurriedly dumped into the rucksack along with some essential documents, her wallet, a ticket in Tatkal quota and she was off.
Shivani hurried to finish her office chores. She had to be in time to receive Riza from the station. Paula, caught in her own domestic tangles in the last minute could not go to the station herself. So Shivani had to go alone. She missed her friend’s company and her reassuring presence. Shivani herself was quite tensed thinking how she would handle Riza, so heartbroken, so despondent she had seemed over the phone. She could have done with some company. But then, that’s what life were these days.

Paula required some quick thinking. She knew she could not antagonize her husband now of all the times, her best friend was coming over. She did not want her friend to get caught in their own domestic cacophony that tended to erupt at all times. She knew Riza was completely shattered by her own experience and at least for the time being she should not be burdened with anything more.
Paula often thought of the women in her life, and men. Life had been generous in bestowing her with friends. She thought of her hostel days, the carefree lives and rosy dreams and the friendship of Riza and Shivani. That was something really special, it was a bond that had developed naturally and grown with time, like a part of their own selves. She thought of those countless evenings when they had sat together in their hostel verandah, sipping mugs of coffee, painting their future in the brightest of colours, and debating earnestly on topics right from latest fashion to the international politics and even hottest boys of the neighbourhood; till life claimed each of them in different directions. Yet somehow the strings have remained attached which tugged at their hearts now and then. Those memories were therapeutic, they could lift her out of severest depression.

She went on a reminiscing spree and thought back to her short stint in the college, her colleagues, and her principal – a strong woman of convictions in her middle ages. That lady had been the strongest influence in her life. In spite of all the clichés in her life – a love marriage gone wrong, a career compromised for motherhood, an insensitive husband and boring domestic chores; there was one cliché she could reject with conviction – that a woman was another woman’s worst enemy. She still thought of the last day meeting she had with the principal. That lady tried her best to convince Paula that leaving job was not an option, especially since her job allowed her with enough time for the family. Perhaps the older one had sensed right then with her experience and intuition that this young, bright assistant professor of her college cannot remain content without her job for long. But just like once her new found love had; now her newly acquired motherhood blurred her discerning capacities. Even her mother-in-law, another woman whose prudence she had learnt to respect with time, had warned her against it. But that was the time when she gloated in a sense of self-sacrifice that she thought motherhood demanded. She had probably and perhaps wrongfully expected Rajan to stop her from doing it. And that was where she felt betrayed. Rajan did not stop her, instead said she was free to take whatever decision suited her, he could and will take care of the family. Was her ego hurt then? She still does not understand.

It was noon and though she had managed to coax Rajan into picking up their daughter home from school since he was working from home that day, he opted out of the chore this morning, excusing himself on the pretext of some emergency conference call. Paula was infuriated. She knew it was a ruse he was making simply to get her worked up. Previously she would have reacted differently. By now she had learnt to keep her moods under control. So instead of getting into useless arguments reminding him of his family obligations, she followed a simpler path of picking up her mobile and getting through Shivani. Unmarried still as she approached forty, Shivani was often the last minute answer to many of her female friends’ distress calls. And Riza was special.

Shivani hurried to finish her full day tasks in half a day even as she thanked her stars for sparing her a male companion for the rest of her life. She had her own demons of loneliness to slay, thoughts of dying alone in her old age, completely unattended, often snatched away her night’s sleep. But she had her means of dealing with them too. She had never viewed marriage through rosy glasses and has become even more skeptic as she saw her best friends drag through their matrimonial existences. What was it, she often thought, that made our parents click and what is it that we lack today. Was it actually what the elders say about this generation – lack of adaptability and self control? Or was it something else? That she herself was an outsider to this institution made her a detached and objective observer. Yet she often found herself to be at a loss. She had common friends marrying each other and she had friends opting for the marriages fixed by their parents. She had heard tales of agony from friends of both genders and she had tried her best to reach an understanding of the situations.
She shook herself out of her thoughts, quickly sent the last of the mails, shut down her laptop and rushed out of her office. She was looking forward to meet Riza after years, though not in the best of times. Memories tumbled one after the other as she approached New Delhi Railway station.

She knew Rajan – a passionate photographer and brilliant student of economics since their student days. Both he and Paula were brilliant in their respective fields. Their attraction for each other had stemmed largely from their mutual respect and their similar interests. Paula being a student in Sociology and he of Economics, both had dreamt of undertaking joint research projects since their post graduation days in the university. But then came marriage in between and overtook all their other areas of interest. Madly in love with each other, both went against their parents to get married and then took up jobs that took them away from their dream careers. When Shreya was about to be born Paula took the decision that still drives Shivani mad. Paula chucked her job to be a full time mummy. And problems were born. Rajan’s office engagements grew and he started devoting more time towards his career in order to earn a comfortable living. With the cushion of double income gone, he had to exert himself more. Then he had his photography – a passion that predated Paula. That further ate into their family time. Paula became more and more exasperated with her status as a homemaker which had no need for her academic excellence. Rajan’s promotions made her happy but at the same time made her feel the loss of her career all the more. In those days, Rajan had often asked Shivani for advice, exasperated with an unhappy home and an ever-increasing family expense. Shivani had tried her best to address the situation according to her understanding and sensitivity but perhaps there are some spaces which even closest friends cannot traverse. Shivani too could not sew holes that were developing within that relationship. Rajan slowly but steadily drifted in his own world of work and photography, aggravating the situation further and Paula, with her own pride and ego, did not bother to talk it out with him. They started drifting apart. Both were engulfed in the circles they had created around themselves and silently blamed the other for incompetence and insensitivity. Initially the cracks in the relationship were underground. Gradually, as time elapsed, they grew more irritable with each other and fissures started appearing on the surface and now, both are happier when the other is not around.

Shivani sighed. And her thoughts went back to Riza – the bubbliest one among the entire group. She knew how to be happy, how to live life. And now? Shivani flinched at the thought of seeing a heartbroken Riza. Shivani had warned Riza against settling for arranged marriage. She knew that her friend was not set for the kind of compromises that such a relationship required. Yet she went ahead, adventurous as usual, with a love for the unknown. Proving all her fears to be untrue, they were extremely compatible right from the day one of their relationship. Shlok was caring, considerate, broadminded, well-employed etc, and etc. It was like a fairytale. But fairy tales always have witches and demons too. Shlok had hidden the fact that he was incapable of carrying on a normal conjugal life. He had married Riza simply to retain all the semblances of a normal heterosexual middleclass individual. And he felt guilty about it too. His guilt made him pamper Riza initially to all the goodies of an extravagant lifestyle much beyond what his actual pocket allowed and it took Riza some time to grasp the reality. When the financial burden started proving heavier than he could handle, his pampering gave way to tortures. He would shout at the smallest pretext, call her names and lately had even taken to physical abuse. Riza was confused. She had her career to fall back upon. She could do without a child, as that, she thought, might put a brake on her flourishing career. But there were times when the lack of physical bonding left her restless, dissatisfied and infuriated. She writhed in agony at the duplicity of her husband. She could not stand being cheated upon. Though she felt bad for Shlok initially, that feeling gradually subsided as his tortures increased. Then one night she decided to call it quits. She simply left that house next morning and boarded the train, not even leaving a note for Shlok.

Shivani checked her watch. She was just on time to see Riza stepping down the train. She looked war-weathered. As they hugged each other, their eyes moistened. Riza’s body slumped against hers and she could feel a part of heaviness falling away. They could hold onto each other forever. 

On their way back home, Shivani felt that all their three selves had merged into that of one lonely traveler - Riza miles away from her spouse; Paula, living under the same roof yet estranged and as lonely as possible; and she herself – companionless. She thanked god, at least they had themselves to turn to – three of them could of course pull one decent life together.  
Few hours later, as the trio sat on Paula’s terrace sipping into freshly brewed coffee, life seemed to have come a full circle for each of them. They drew strength from each other and looked into the horizon full of possibilities. 

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