Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Viplove Sharma


The Secret

“I am taking you to the best beach in the town, Sir.”
There was a sense of pride and a hint of arrogance in Tony’s voice as he drove his white Tata Indica through the street with his eyes back at his two passengers. The fingers of his right hand barely touched the rim of the wheel as his left elbow perched on the shoulder of his seat. The cross around his neck bounced from one side of his white, sleeveless Che Guevara shirt to the other every time the car went over a pothole. If there was one thing that was stable about him, it was his hair – black, well-oiled, combed all the way to the back of his head, with a carefully done zigzag undercut over his ear. The ring in his left ear sparkled, but not as much as his smile which had claimed victory even before reaching the destination that he had promised his passengers.
“Son, keep your eyes on the road, please!”
It was probably the tenth time those words were uttered by the feeble voice sitting behind Tony since he had picked the elderly couple from the airport the previous evening. The words were the same, the fear was the same, and the response was the same.
“Don’t worry, Madam! You are in safe hands. I can drive on these streets even in sleep!”
“Never mind, buddy. You do what I do when I drive. Just ignore her. You tell me about the beach.”
The two men fell short of giving each other a high five as the old man in the backseat leaned over to hear the endless fantasies that the driver had to share. The cornered woman did what she had been doing for what seemed to be a very long time. She looked out of the window. The outer world seemed so much nicer to her. There were women sitting by the roadside selling vegetables some of which she could not identify and made her curious about. And then there were fisherwomen with their fish of different sizes that made her reach for her nose. Soon after, there were women selling colorful flowers making her take deep breaths. She was happy to see working women, something she had always dreamed to be. All that time, the warm sea breeze whispered in her ears that the dream of a mountain girl was about to come true.
“Babu ji, when shall we go to a beach?”
“I will definitely take you there, my darling.”
“Will I get shells there?”
“Absolutely! Don’t forget to take a bag with you, a big one!”
“But when, Babu ji?”
“Next year, for sure!”
Years and then decades had passed since that promise made by her Babu ji (father) to Nirmala, but the “next year” never arrived. Even though she was a little girl, she knew that her father was not rich enough to fulfil her dream, so she was never disappointed, but her Babu ji was. Five decades later, she was five minutes away from her dream that she had never let go of. As she sat in that shaky taxi, she remembered her daughter, who knew of her dream and had arranged the trip, and then she looked up at the blue sky.
Babu ji must be so happy today,” she thought.
A few touristy shops and a line of coconut water sellers later, they arrived at the beach. Dushyant, the old man in the backseat, was the first one to step out of the car. Everything on him was a day old, that he had bought at the airport – blue flip flops, khaki shorts, yellow T-shirt with two blue coconut trees kissing each other printed on it, slightly oversized sunglasses, and perfectly fitting off-white hat. He outstretched his arms, bent his back a little, pushing his crotch forward, and then straightened up by letting out – “This is awesome!” He was almost ready to venture out as Nirmala struggled to open the door on her side. Tony came to her rescue as he helped her get out. Everything on her was so old that she did not remember how old they were. From a distance, all one could see on her was a light brown sari with red patterns on it, from the top of her head down to her toes. Her sandals were too ordinary to be noticed.
As Tony bid them farewell, the 50-year old love story continued to repeat itself. The man marched towards the beach, as his lady followed him a few feet behind.
The distance between the two kept increasing as the tall and skinny figure pushed the sand back frantically while the short and round figure struggled like a floating boat on a high tide. The sight of the sea made Nirmala stop, the waves in her mind came to a calm standstill. For the first time in years, she did not care where her man was, who as always did not care where she was. It was as if everything around her had vanished. All that she could see was the green sea and its white waves hitting the brown beach. All she could hear was the sound of the sea that she had always imagined. The sea was right there in front of her, waving her to join the fun. Her love affair with her childhood dream was startled by a familiar voice.
“Come on! What are you doing there?” Dushyant screamed from a distance.
The “boat” sailed much faster that time. Nirmala reached the edge where the wet sand started, and she looked down the slope that ended in the frothy waters. She was gripped with a feeling of elation as she saw shells scattered all over the beach. She remembered Babu ji’s words and regretted that she forgot to get a bag. She picked her first shell – a shining white one, unbroken, with brownish lines forming a pattern that amazed her. Who makes those patterns, she thought? Then she picked another one – of a different shape, orangish, with sharp edges, a miniature version of a shankh (conch), she thought. At every step, she found a different shell, and she was ready to spend the whole evening picking shells.
An arriving wave caught her eyes and they lit up like that of a child when they saw it receding back into the sea. She took off her sandals, walked down the wet sand and stood at the point where that wave had reached. The next wave arrived, but it fell short of her by a couple of feet. She stepped closer and waited for the next one. The next one did not disappoint her as it brushed her feet and a little bit of her sari. She let out a scream of elation and fear and jumped back. The mountain girl and her dream played the game of ‘one step forward and one step back’ for some time before her man brought her back to the real world.
“Why are you so scared? Come forward!”
Dushyant had gone so far from her that it took some time for her to spot him in the huge crowd of people. She noticed that there were men without any shirts, there were women wearing clothes that were hard to see, and then there were men and women in each other’s arms, at times doing things that made her look away. The feeling of excitement soon turned into that of discomfort. She turned around and started walking with her back to her dream.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
She turned back but her eyes did not see. “I am going to sit on the side.”
She then talked to the sun that was about to set. She told him how much she loved the sunsets in her village where she grew up. She bragged that no sunset could beat the one behind the mountains in front of her house. The sun promised to surprise her. She saw boats sailing across the sea, almost touching the red ball hovering over the horizon. The birds were flying back to their homes. She noticed that the patterns the birds made were the same as those in the skies above her mountains. Finally, the sun drowned itself in the sea leaving a reddish tinge on the sky and a rare smile on her face.
“You don’t know what you missed.” Her 76-year old kid walked up to her.
“You had fun, right? So, I am happy.” She began to stand up.
“Well, the fun is not over yet.” He said that with a wicked smile on his face. She did not have to ask him what he meant. She just acknowledged it with a sigh.
Tired of walking on the sand, she felt good sitting on a chair in a beachside shack that she was taken to, while her never-tiring-machine was busy scanning the menu. She looked at him and thanked her God for keeping him so fit. She remembered how handsome he was when they got married and was happy to see that he was still the same handsome man.
A waiter arrived. “Yes Sir. What would you like to have?”
“What is your best cocktail?” Dushyant asked the question in a way so that he did not leak the secret to the waiter that he had no idea about what was on the menu. The waiter however did not need to be told.
“Sir. What do you prefer? Whisky, rum or vodka?”
“Rum, of course.”
“Take Pina Colada in that case.”
“All right! Get one quick.”
The waiter turned to Nirmala. “What do you want, Madam?”
“Nothing.”
“Oh, come on! Don’t be a spoilsport. Order something.” There was a mix of order and request in Dushyant’s voice. She looked at the menu. The only part of it that she could understand was the rates. Everything was in 3 digits.
“It’s so expensive! I will just have water.”
The waiter was at another table by the time Dushyant could say anything. With two shakes of his head and a deep stare of his big eyes, he said – “For the first time, we came out to a nice place. And you just keep thinking about money.” Nirmala responded with silence and a short stare. Their routine conversation had just begun.
A few uneasy moments later, Nirmala started looking around. There were Indians, there were foreigners, and everyone was drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. She was happy that her man did not smoke but she was stunned to see some girls smoking. She wondered if their parents knew what they were doing there. She knew that her daughter would never break her heart by even thinking of smoking or drinking. She wished she could join them. At least she would have had someone to talk to. As she talked to herself, her man was busy getting amazed at the names of the drinks on the menu and laughing to himself.
The place was quite noisy, and Nirmala felt awkward sitting there though her man was enjoying every bit of it, which is what always mattered. In a few minutes, a tall and beautiful glass of Pina Colada with a pineapple wedge and a straw arrived. Accompanying it was an ordinary glass of water. The waiter left in a flash but the silence on their table did not leave.
Nirmala smelled the water to make sure it was water indeed as a young woman walked past their table and joined a man at the table next to them.  Nirmala noticed two sets of red bangles (chooda) on the hennaed arms of the woman in a white tank top and denim shorts. She took a sip of water and did what she would usually not do – speak to a stranger.
“Hello. Are you from North India?”
The young woman turned back and smiled. “Yes. I am from Delhi. Where are you from, Aunty?”
“I am from a small village near Nainital. I saw your bangles, so asked. Are you both recently married?”
The young woman looked at the man across her table and smiled even more than before. “Yes, Aunty. Just 9 days back!” The young man followed her with a smile though an abrupt one.
“Oh! You are on honeymoon? I won’t disturb you then. Carry on.” Nirmala let out a mischievous smile and grabbed the glass of water again.
“No. It’s okay. How about you both? How long have you been married?” The young woman’s curiosity could be heard in her voice and seen on her face.
Dushyant, who was quietly listening to the conversation thus far, made a big slurping sound with his straw in his almost empty glass. Nirmala chuckled as she said – “50 years.”
“Wow! That’s so amazing! Congratulations!”
“Thank you. What’s your name, dear?”
“Aayushi.” The young woman looked at her man and introduced him. “He is my love, Arjun.”
“Beautiful names.”
“And yours?”
“I am Nirmala. And he is… Listen! Tell your name!” She brought her man into the conversation.
“Oh. I am Dushyant Singh Jaitwal.” He went back to what he was doing, looking for the waiter.
“So nice to meet you both. May I ask you a question?” There was a glint in Aayushi’s eyes.
“Sure, dear. Go on.” Nirmala felt so good that she could answer her answers the whole evening.
“What is the secret behind your successful marriage?”
Nirmala smiled. She looked down, and then she looked at Dushyant. Several thoughts crossed her mind in that one moment. There were memories in which she was delighted to have him in her life and there were memories in which she wanted to run away from him. There were memories in which she thanked her God for gifting such a wonderful life and there were memories in which she wanted to end her life. All those memories played in front of her leaving her looking for an answer to the innocent question from a girl who had no idea what she was getting into. She was just like her daughter, and she told her exactly what she had told her daughter when she got married.
“I will tell you the secret, but you have to promise that you will practice it,” Nirmala said playfully.
“I promise,” said Aayushi.
“Alright. Listen very carefully.”
“Ahem.” Aayushi bended forward.
“It’s not just about what you want. It’s also about what your partner wants. Try taking care of your partner’s wants.”
Aayushi paused before she said – “Wow, Aunty! Those are such beautiful words. I will always remember that. Arjun, did you hear that?”
The young couple got into a friendly tussle over who should follow the advice more. Nirmala loved the way they both fought with each other like children, something that she could never do with Dushyant. Her mother had clear and firm instructions for her when she was about to be married – “Do whatever he tells you to do. Whatever!” But she did not have any regrets. She loved her man, and no matter how he was, she knew that he loved her too. He was from the generation of men who rarely expressed love, and she knew that more than he himself knew.
“Aunty! Why don’t you both come with us to the market after this? There is a lot of cool stuff out there. I would love to shop with you.”
“Oh no, dear. I am too tired for shopping. You people carry on.”
“Come on, Aunty! It will be so much fun.”
“You two should enjoy together. Remember, what I told you?” Nirmala winked at Aayushi.
“You are awesome, Aunty! As you say.”
Five or six Pina Coladas went down, the glass of water was left half empty, the neighboring table was left with a lot of wasted food and empty glasses, and the two couples separated. The younger couple headed towards the market and the older one walked back to their cab. On the way back to the hotel, Nirmala was quiet as usual but happier than what she was in the earlier ride. Dushyant was much quieter than usual thanks to the shots of rum dancing in his belly. Tony, for a change, drove the car looking at the road. At the end of the journey, he had to help both his passengers to get out of his car.
“Sir. Are you okay? Should I take you to your room?” The driver sounded concerned.
“I am absolutely fine. I can go on my own.” Dushyant wobbled a bit, but he was okay enough.
“That’s okay, son. I will take him.” Nirmala was used to it. 50 years.
The couple had planned to have dinner at the hotel but Dushyant dozed off as soon as he entered their room. Nirmala did not feel like eating alone. She sat out in the balcony that faced the beach next to the hotel. The sky was clear, filled with stars and the moon that was almost full. There were a handful of people on the beach, but she could not hear their voices in the sound of the sea waves. The waves were much bigger than what she had seen in the day, and they were much louder too. She talked to her childhood dream, the sea. She loved the way it was so calm even though it was so enormous. She wondered if it was the sound of the deodar trees in her village that was more calming or the one that she was experiencing on that night. And then she heard the sounds that the love of her life was making on the bed, the snores that she took a year to get used to.
“All those sounds are great, but I can’t live without the snores!”
She laughed to herself as she walked back into the room and slept by her man’s side.

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