Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Arpa Mukhopadhyay


DEAR DIARY

***
I just wish we’d had some more time. It might have made all the difference…
***
Monday, 11th June 2012
                Do you talk to yourself?  Crack up at your own jokes? Amaze yourself with your wits and whine about the fools that cross your path? Have you ever been called "obstinate", “difficult", "distant", or "delusional"? And if you really are any of the above, do you really qualify as a lunatic? a maniac? a mad-man? a psycho? I overheard Russey calling me one this morning. The first day of the week my dear Diary, and it is plain unfortunate that people would start their days like this. A society like ours isn't equipped to deal with the self-engrossed, the self-satiated, the "different". I can understand. It doesn't affect me. I don’t feel the need to “belong” to a society that is only too busy dictating terms. I love myself and the ones that I am close to, and I’m perfectly aware of my sanity. I can hear voices within me - good, bad and ugly. They keep me company, talk to me, and even guide me. If anything, I am lucky. You may call me gifted. I am gifted to see, hear and feel the things that others might never be able to…
Wednesday, 13th June 2012
                Today was a regular day. Mother woke me up with a glass of warm milk. It's Wednesday - my favorite day as I get to gorge on Aloo parathas with lots of butter for breakfast. I gulped them down and quickly got ready for office lest D'Costa or Russey find another reason to run me down with their ever-scathing remarks. Mother rushed to apply curd-tika on my forehead before I left for office, and handed me a list of grocery items that I needed to get from the bazaar on my way back. A tika on the forehead is the easiest way to ward off an evil eye, and curd brings in good luck, thereby making the curd tika my mother’s best resort to keeping her only son protected in this big, bad world. I don’t believe in superstitions myself, but I don’t mind following a few to keep mother happy. I think I am very lucky to live with my mother and I love her the most in the world. I don't care if the idiots at work poke fun at me, "Eh, Arnie boy, coming to the club with us? Oh wait, momma's waiting up for you!" –VJ laughed last Friday as he left for Club Q after work with his other "cool" peers. Jealousy does things to people, you see...I’d rather go home, finish dinner and go to bed than drink liquor and dance all night long, whine and dine with strangers and be at their mercy to be carried back home, as if I were a dead man!
                Anyway, I reached office on time today. There was no sign of D'Costa and so his unending list of jibes would not ensue. I have been on bench for the last couple of weeks and the PMO decided to do me this huge favor (sarcasm, my dear Diary) by giving me a temporary internal IT project with D’Costa himself. I quickly glanced at Mary's seat. It was empty. This was a rather bad coincidence - another lost chance. I am sure VJ and clan felt the same way. After all Mary was the reason most of us tried to look our best in office, wore our neatly ironed shirts, applied enough deodorant for our neighbors to die of sneezing, queued to the coffee bar for reasons other than the saccharine drops of liquid dripping off the rarely-maintained vending machine, participated “willingly” in all those foolish team activities, and more often than not - the very purpose of coming to office. With no D’Costa or Mary around, I had no reason or incentive to stay back in office and came home early.
Friday, 29th June 2012
                Today has been a bad day. The PMO put me back in Russey’s project today. Russey summoned me to his seat before lunch and derided me in front of the team. My code supposedly had more bugs than the entire technical team’s combined. He started off - “Firstly, you would call me Sir. Can't you see how others address me? I need some discipline from you. You would complete your hours and talk to me and others with respect. Secondly, I am tired of all the complaints I have heard about your code – you supposedly have twelve years of IT experience and yet behave no better than a fresher!”
                I was so furious with Russey and his tone today that I decided to teach that little bastard a lesson on who’s the boss! I immediately reached for his collar, but had to stop short of punching his ugly, insolent face as I saw Mary entering the premises. “I am not others, and I am an IT professional, not a peon” saying which I quickly left the cubicle making sure that Mary didn't notice me in that state. Russey however made a mental note of my behavior and chuckled at his new-found knowledge. He would use it against me, I am sure.
Monday, 2nd July 2012
                Today was a great day. It was Mary’s turn to give our monthly technical presentation. She spoke on “Operating Systems – then and now” and how she slayed! Strutting about the room in a snow white cotton salwar kameez, she spoke in a voice so mellifluous that I thought I heard the shuffle of an angel's feet. With her pitch modulations, gestures, facial expressions and grace, she completely owned the stage, the room, and pretty much everyone in the audience. Never before had the training room been so occupied, and so enthralled. Attended by practically everyone I knew in the company; the presentation had become the biggest event of the month. As she finished, there was a thunderous applause. And then we saw something for the first time in the history of SciTech Industries – D’Costa, the most demoralizing superior one could ever come across in life actually stood up to give Mary a standing ovation! He gave a half an hour speech praising her and only got off the podium when his assistant gestured him to attend another meeting that he was already late for…That was something! I don't know how I felt about the whole thing: proud of Mary or sick of D’Costa, or both.
                I had first met Clinton D'Costa on the 21st of May 2005, the day I joined the company. A tall, dark, middle-aged man of rugged countenance, he was blessed with a glib-tongue that helped him have his way almost anywhere. In an industry like ours, where every ambitious individual is always trying to race ahead of his peers, D'Costa had succeeded in beating his every rival in climbing up the ladder and reaching a position that others could only dream of. He had tried every technique by the book and beyond, to reach where he had – worked like a dog, kissed asses, used his oratory skills to charm, slept with the boss's wife and blamed her for exploitation; thereby taking her husband's position, misled his peers, created political factions in the company – there really was nothing he hadn’t tried. All said and done, at the age of forty-five, he was already a managing director of SciTech Industries, a company that boasted of an employee strength of over fifty thousand.
                Coming back to Mary…I was still crushing over her after the presentation and went to the coffee bar, where I saw her chat with VJ, Russey and the others in my team. Oh, the pangs of jealousy! I quickly filled my coffee cup and was about to return to my desk when Russey "invited" me to join them. I can't really explain how weird this was: the idea of joining people I hate the most in the world, AND the person I had begun falling for, both at the same time, at the same table was beyond the uncomfortable. It was distressing, it was unsettling… Calculating all the pros and cons, I decided it wise to walk up to them. Who knew? It could be my golden opportunity to talk to Mary…
                I reached the table and smiled at all of them. They smiled back and continued talking. Mary was standing right next to me - making me freeze with her sheer presence. I was tempted to run away, but Russey decided to have some fun - "Mary, you know Arnab right? He had something to tell you" and suddenly all eyes were at me, including hers. Those huge hypnotic black stones of onyx were now drilling into mine, and I felt trapped in an endless stretch of beautiful midnight sky where I knew I could float forever and never escape… VJ prodded me again and I started muttering something that even I could not understand. Forget meaningful conversation, I couldn't even formulate one complete sentence. While the others had a nice laugh about it, Mary seemed concerned, maybe curious to know what I had in mind. Sensing encouragement, I finally managed to get a grip on myself and mustering up all my strength, I said - "Mary, you were great today! I really loved your presentation.” Mary smiled and said - "Thanks Arnab. I loved your presentation too, the one you gave six months back on Artificial Intelligence. I thought I would follow-up on that with you, but you seem so occupied always.” I said "Really? I would love to discuss anything with you Mary, anytime!”. And I had uttered two full sentences! Funny what encouragement does to people!
                My colleagues couldn't believe what just happened. She knew I existed, she loved a presentation that I had given six months back; one that these fools didn't even bother to attend, she thought I was hardworking, and…she wanted to come up and talk to me.
                For the rest of the day, all I did was smile and think about this incident, my dear Diary…I am not hungry tonight and I am sure I wouldn't get sleep either…
Wednesday, 4th July 2012
                It’s Wednesday again. I had my favorite Aloo parathas and Lassi topped with a nice, heart-to-heart with mother for breakfast. I am waiting for the right time to tell mother about Mary. She’s the one person I am closest to. Would she consider us an ideal match? The last time she said a girl wasn’t right for me was when I was still in engineering college. I was head over heels in love with Maya, as she was with me. But life had other plans. I still remember that fateful day. I was home after my sixth semester exams, when the news of Maya’s death had reached me - crushing me and leaving me with the inability to love again. Mother has been guilty ever since. She has been goading me to talk to women, start dating, and get married. “I can’t be with you forever Aru, you need to find a companion for yourself.” It has been seven long years since our last discussion and I don’t know if she is still on the same page. 
                Mary and I wave at each other and sometimes even talk these days, much to the chagrin of my teammates. Finding her alone at the coffee bar today, I initiated a conversation with her. I even discussed some fundamentals of machine learning with her. All of 25, she still understood everything I explained. Maybe she really finds me interesting. I feel like a teenager these days. I get butterflies in my stomach every time I see her. I am convinced that I am in love again…
Friday, 13th July 2012
                Mary wore a short black dress to work today, as if she came dressed for a date. She seemed busy, but I did get a chance to exchange numbers with her when she came to the coffee bar. Can you believe it? I have her number! I can die of happiness today. But you know how all the stars in the universe conspire to wreak havoc on you when your happiness quotient is on a rise. Russey came to my seat during snacks and called me for a quick meeting with D'Costa. They had many complaints. I was asked to complete all my pending tasks by EOD TODAY (In CAPS and bold). They decided to put me on disciplinary probation owing to my bad behavior and lousy performance at work. And within an hour’s time, my happiness quotient came down from +1 to –infinity.
                The strangest thing however happened in the evening. Russey came bossing around again, demanding me to sit late and finish the bug fixing. There was no sign of Mary in office. I wondered if she had already left for home, or went out with the team. I glanced out of the window. She was downstairs and hadn't left with them. Thank God! Was she waiting for a rickshaw to go home? A rickshaw passed by, but she didn't bother to hail it. After a while, I saw a black Audi A3 approaching, and stopping right next to her. She got into the Audi and left. I wonder where she went and with whom. Was it her date? This very thought is driving me mad and I have hardly been able to breathe.
                I somehow finished my work by twelve and came back home. I would get no sleep tonight for sure, my dear Diary… 
Saturday, 14th July 2012
                It's Saturday. I woke up and made a call to the mobile company to enable GPRS on my cell phone. I had to know everything– this urge, this uncontrollable desire to own Mary is filling me up. I added her on Facebook first. She accepted my request immediately. I checked her Facebook profile. She has a lot of pictures with her friends, and most of them - male. I don't like this. “Having drinks with mah bff!” reads the caption. Who on earth talks like that? Is it common for people her age? I shall ask her to keep away from these men. You can never trust them, especially with a woman so beautiful.
                My next action item was her WhatsApp account. I loved her display picture. She came online soon. Was she doing what I was doing? Cyber-stalking is what it is called these days. This is good. Maybe she was checking out my display pic too! Maybe she was waiting for my ping…Maybe she wanted to ping me but was too shy to initiate conversation. What should be my next step? Let me wait and watch...
Well she did come online a few more times (twelve times to be precise) but didn't ping me. But I am increasingly convinced now that we both have the same feelings for each other, it is just a matter of time now…my dear Diary..Good Night!
Friday, 27th July 2012
                I have worked very hard the last couple of weeks - came early to office, finished work before time, coded bug-free, left late, and took work home. I didn’t want to give them a reason to reprimand me anymore. For things to progress between Mary and me, it is necessary for me to do well. And unbelievable as it may seem, Russey has actually started taking notice of my work. I can see a change in him.
Mary came late to work today. Mary, Oh my dear Mary! She looked resplendent in red. I have started pinging her on WhatsApp these days.  Sometimes she responds, sometimes she doesn’t. I wonder why she doesn’t, when she doesn’t.
                I have started going with Russey, VJ and team for lunch. I have decided to be polite and more sociable. Women love men who are loved by all says the “The Dating Guide for Today’s Men” that I am cramming up these days. Also, humor and wit are considered to be the best social lubricants and aphrodisiacs. I think I am pretty well-endowed in that department, you see…I unleashed the casual, funny version of myself on my team today. I must say that my discussions and jokes were very well-received. In fact, my confidence was on such a high today, that I found no more reasons to delay asking her out. I wanted to take her to Barista by the Bay, or maybe a fine dine restaurant tonight itself. I inquired VJ about ideal places you could go to for your first date. He appeared surprised but helped me choose an impressive alfresco terrace restaurant, “At the Top” where we could have candle-lit dinner, sip on exquisite wine and look at the beautiful city lights from the fortieth floor while Elvis and Bolton played in the background. It would be a pleasant surprise for her as well, I am sure…
                It was a Friday and I needed to book the place early. I went to quickly check with her, but she had already left. This drove me crazy…This was becoming a ritual of sorts - come Friday and Mary would leave early from office, like really, really early.
I came home soon after, what else could I do? I pinged her on WhatsApp, but received no response.
                I have a headache now and I shall sleep soon. Good Night, dear Diary…
Saturday, 28th July 2012
                It's Saturday. I remember not so long ago, when I would wait eagerly for Saturdays. I would wake up late, mother and I would chat endlessly for hours, go out and shop for groceries, and watch television like there was no tomorrow. Life has changed. I look forward to weekdays now…the need to see Mary, meet her, talk to her, and be with her engulfs my very being like wild fire.
                I have preserved every little thing of hers - her every email, our chats, her pictures, the piece of paper on which she gave me her number, her signature that I stole from her last page, her hair clip that I found in her drawer, her handkerchief that she inadvertently (or purposely) dropped near my desk, I have them all in my showcase. I waited all day for her to come online, but she didn't.
Sunday, 29th July 2012
                I kept waiting for her to come online on WhatsApp since seven in the morning. She came online exactly nineteen times. She had still not responded to my older messages. She kept coming online but kept ignoring me. Why was she doing this to me? I don’t understand women. I think they do this on purpose to see how serious we men are about them. Anyway, I finally got a response when I was having my dinner, "Hi Arnab. Is anything urgent?" I desperately needed some breakthrough today. So I asked her if she would like to come out with me tomorrow. She curtly replied - "It's really late now Arnab. Let’s talk later. Good night". I pleaded with her "Please Mary, I am really looking forward to it. At least, meet me for coffee. We really need to talk. It’s important" She said nothing. I waited for another hour and then switched off my phone. I couldn't bear to see her online and not chat with me. 
Friday, 3rd August 2012
                It's been a bad week. D'Costa is personally making me slog, so much so that I can barely leave my seat. I have been so occupied with work that I have barely got time to look at Mary, let alone spend time with her. Something was off about her. To cheer her up, I sent her cards, chocolates and flowers. I pinged her on WhatsApp and even on our office messenger to check with her. I tried calling her, but she wouldn't answer. She is practically getting incommunicado these days. Why was she doing this to me? I am choking. I am finding it difficult to breathe…
                I went for a quick round of coffee. As I finished filling my coffee mug and turned around, I found Mary entering the coffee bar.  Seeing me, she stood still, visibly unsettled. When I gestured her to come over to my table, she reluctantly came and sat next to me. I confronted her about not responding to my messages and she said "Fine, tell me right away whatever it is that you so want to talk about."
                I was so troubled, so emotional that I was about to pour my entire heart out to her.  But D'Costa suddenly appeared from nowhere. "We need to discuss something. In my cabin immediately, Mary" What he needed to discuss with a junior tester immediately in his cabin was beyond my comprehension...Well. I had no option but to go back to my seat and wait for a chance encounter with Mary again. My hatred for this incorrigible, old man grows every passing day!
Saturday, 11th August 2012
                I woke up late today and am down with a really bad headache. I think this is what they call a hangover.
Let me narrate what happened yesterday -
I won the "Star Performer of the Month" award. Russey had personally appealed for my case. There would probably be a team-level celebration. Since D’Costa was nowhere in sight, Russey presented the award to me. He said “Well done, Bro”. It felt cool and kind of young to be called “Bro”. My teammates and I have really come a long way. I only wished Mary were around!
                VJ said "Come along. A couple of drinks with us won’t hurt you." I’ve never liked to indulge in drinking or smoking. But I was feeling low and I agreed to join my new friends to the nearest Irish pub. It was a Friday evening after all…and that what cool guys do!
                We started walking towards the pub at around 7 pm. As we were passing by the Barista, I felt like I saw Mary. She was sitting all by herself. Did she mysteriously know that I would pass by that route? Love? Serendipity? Anything? Well…My bubble burst soon after when I saw D’Costa walking towards her seat with two Grande’s in his hands. What surprised me the most was the way Mary welcomed him to her table. Is he the reason she has been avoiding me lately? Oh God…please don’t tell me they are having an affair! But what about me? She doesn't say it, but I know she loves me! All the indications are in place…Why is she doing this then? Is this over her fear of losing her job? Oh my poor poor Mary…Without any further ado, I rushed to the café to give that loser a piece of my mind. My friends saw this and quickly managed to pull me away “Come on Bro, we don’t want to create a scene here” VJ said.
                As they dragged me out, I saw a black Audi A3 outside the café. I had a close look at the vehicle. It was D’Costa’s. It had his initials. Son-of-a-Bitch! It had been him all along. Hideous to the point of no correction, this much-married, father-of-two, shameless rabid dog was using his powers to have his way with a beautiful young subordinate. I had to save her, but Russey said I should wait for the right time. We went to the pub and had some cocktails – Long Island Iced Tea's (LIT’s, as they are lovingly called) I remember having one, refusing the second, but ending up having it, and then probably going for a third one.
                And, that’s all that I can remember…
Sunday, 12th August 2012
                It’s strange that VJ and Russey called several times to check with me since yesterday. They kept enquiring about mother and asked where she was when they dropped me home Friday night. Now, how was I supposed to know, if I was not in my senses? They asked me about my previous company and where I hailed from, and other typical background verification-type questions. Now this is invading my personal space and I am not liking this at all. So what if I drank with them one night? So what if they carried me home that night? My background is none of their business and I will never bother to answer...
Monday, 13th August 2012
                It was our annual day in office today, a day our company goes out of its way to treat us with great respect. There’s food, drinks, dance and entertainment, all in grand scale – all five-star. There’s just one catch – the first three hours belong to them. They present the company’s growth, road map, progress in every sector, what went well and what didn’t, etc. - we are fed so much information that by the time they are done with their sermons; we typically lose all interest in the food and drinks (corporate strategy, perhaps). I left for the venue alone because my friends strangely didn’t bother to take me along.
                After two grueling hours, I decided to go to the terrace for some fresh air. We were on the twenty fifth floor and the view was breathtaking. It was getting dark, and I could see the beautiful, glittering city from the terrace. Sweet monsoon breeze combined with a light drizzle made the atmosphere very romantic. All I could think about was Mary, the unfortunate situation our love life was in because of D’Costa and the sudden change in my team’s behaviour today. As I turned to my right, I could suddenly see the silhouette of a tall girl with long hair. She was standing close to the glass railing on the other side of the terrace, gazing intently at the view…
                I don’t know what got into me. The hope that it could be Mary consumed me. I started approaching her. As I came closer, I began to realize that it was Mary indeed. The mood was perfect, and the atmosphere played great sport. I started moving with a gait so spirited that it could put a sprinter to shame. My heart was pounding. It was sheer ecstasy. The wish to hold her and talk her into loving me intoxicated me like the LITs I had the other night. We would be together. I would ensure that! As soon as she was within reach, I lunged forward and pulled her in for a hug. It surprised her. "It’s just me, sweetheart. Don’t worry, I really love you and I know you do too.” But she tried to get away. The drizzle had now turned into steady rain and I could feel Mary shivering. I tightened my grip around her for the shivering to stop. She started shouting, but I tightly closed her mouth, lest anyone saw us. This was our moment, and ours alone. After a few minutes of revolt, she stopped fighting back and seemed to be at peace, eyes tightly shut. I stepped forward, bent my head a little and started kissing her soft, wet lips, gently at first and then with a swift gradation of intensity. It was a moment of pure bliss. We were together finally….But very soon, as luck would have it, someone chose this most inopportune moment to barge into my private little moment of happiness. It was D’Costa - who else? the old rascal, fuming in envy and screaming his lungs out to me - “You pervert, what do you think are you doing? I will call the police right away”
As he dialed the number, I decided that I was done. I had had it with him and his stupid organization. I charged at him immediately. He threw up his arms like a goal keeper guarding his goal, but I pushed his elbow down and away, caught his head, and rolled him into the floor towards the glass railing. He rolled to a distance but was up on his feet quickly. He continued to retreat and put his hands in his pocket frantically searching for his phone. I continued advancing. He tried to counter me with a knock, but he missed and kept moving along the railing. I started punching his ugly face, now on the glass with blows of increasing intensity. I don’t remember exactly when the glass broke, and when D’Costa plummeted twenty-five floors down from the terrace. I just remember being glad that the nightmare was finally over. I turned around to look at Mary, but it seems like she had fainted. I tried to wake her up, but she wouldn’t. I could hear sirens wailing in the distance and knew that it was time to run away.
                I rushed home and told mother that we have to leave for Delhi. Mary would be fine soon, and I would call her to explain what happened. I know she loves me too and wouldn’t rat me out to the police. And we would all stay together like a happy family ever after!
***
                Well, things didn’t really go for Arnab as he had planned and written in his diary. The police caught up with him as he was trying to board the Rajdhani Express for Delhi. He tried to resist arrest but the police had all the proof that they needed. In his rush to escape, he had left his diary at home which the police recovered.
                VJ and I fully cooperated with the police and gave them all the information that we had. We might have never liked D’Costa, but we could never think of taking his life. And Mary? I don’t know what she had done to deserve such a fate – death by asphyxiation! Arnab didn’t even realize that in the heat of the moment when Mary was struggling to get away from him, he had actually ended up choking his beloved to death.
                We were initially right about Arnab. He was my subordinate and I always thought there was something diabolical, something very strange about him. But the façade that he wore in the last few months completely fooled VJ, me and most of our team members. We really thought he had improved. He worked well, started socializing with us and seemed to have genuine feelings for Mary.
The first time we realized that something was amiss was last Friday, when we went to drop him at his place after drinks. Arnab had always maintained that he lived with his mother and was very close to her, but we saw no trace of her in his house except for her garlanded portrait. Also, we had no idea of where he was before he joined SciTech Industries. He completely eluded any mention of his past. The police later spoke with his neighbors who said that he lived alone and never interacted with them.
                Arnab broke down and confessed to killing D’Costa when he heard of Mary’s death. He had woven a love story with Mary – all in his head. It was a one-sided affair and poor Mary had no idea of what she was getting into. While she was fine being friends with him, he misunderstood her friendliness for love and kept on pestering her with messages, mails, calls and flowers. Things took a turn for the worse when he started compulsively stalking her. He was getting increasingly jealous of D'Costa and his proximity to Mary. Of course, he did not know that Mary was D’Costa’s illegitimate daughter from a previous relationship that Mary had recently discovered. D’Costa felt guilty of his past and wanted to make amends. He also started getting protective about Mary, especially after she told him about Arnab’s increasingly clingy behavior.
                The police found proof that Arnab had killed his girlfriend, Maya fourteen years back during a squabble about his mother. Maya didn’t like his possessive mother and had suggested that they put her in an old age home, which drove Arnab mad. He choked Maya in a fit of rage and dumped her body in a river. The killer was never found, but the police read a remorse-filled account in his diary.
                The police psychologist revealed that Arnab had been dogged for years by his overbearing mother. She had never let him have his life – hang around with his friends, go for parties, have girlfriends, or get married. Around seven years back, she really pushed him over the edge when they had a heated discussion about Maya and he killed her that night by giving her a few extra pills of medicine. The doctor said that she had died due to an accidental drug overdose. He moved to Mumbai to escape her memories and joined our organization. But he could never really escape his mother. He started believing that she was alive and started living this imaginary life.
                We were quite close to discovering the truth, had all this not happened in such a hurry. Maybe we could've even saved Mary and D’Costa from their untimely deaths.
                I just wish we’d had some more time. It might have made all the difference…
***
END


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