Saturday, 15 August 2020

Kalpana Naghnoor, Short Story 2020 Longlist

Fucked


There is a charm about this Officers’ Club. It was started as a recreational place for the British Army Officers. After the Indian Independence -1947, it became a civilian club. Still, the secretaries appointed on a salary basis, are always ex-army men, we like to keep the clip in the heel, and the briskness of command. This club has over the years, with its careful selection of elite members, evolved into a hub of all that is intellectual, urbane, and polite.

It is structured well in terms of its cluster of buildings spread across to afford exclusivity for the various facilities, and the way it is managed and run very smoothly. There are office bearers elected annually, from amongst the members, to take care of the matters for its efficacious and smooth running. The president will preside over the vice-president, and ten other elected members, all these people will together make up the committee. These imminent members who are keen on serving on the committee, are people of calibre, it simply means, that at an age of forty and a little more, you have a business that is spinning money and needs little attention, you’ve arrived! The post is very prestigious. Eventually, if you do become the president your photo, as President of the club will be hung on the wall of fame. This is no ordinary club at all. Being the president of the Officer's Club is far more superior than to be the CEO of any listed company or even the President of India.

Nobody forgets a President of this club, and nobody forgets the excellent work the committee and the vice-president give as service. The new members too are selected, carefully as they will make up the permanent body of this institution. There are other clubs in the city, but they have not grown elite like the Officers’ Club, which spreads over seventy acres of verdant trees, secured by a white pristine running wall and three entrances well secured by guards.

The foyer is centrally positioned in the compound with a circular garden acting as a traffic regulating cynosure, with its deep emerald of perfectly manicured grass. There are pathways laid to enjoy a stroll across it and carefully laid terracotta to allow tables and chairs to be set upon them for the garden evening tea. Three large trees, a raintree, flame of the forest and the jacaranda spread over this circle and vie with each other in the spring months. While two Norway spruce stand sentinel to their competition. Then there are larger pathways, leading to the different facilities, like the gym, and swimming pool area. The squash court, tennis court, badminton and basketball courts all spaced out and accessible through pathways undercovers of the glade of various trees. Many dining and snacking areas add to the variety of this lovely club and not to mention, the purchase choice, with a supermarket, pharmacy, a store with frozen meats, green-grocer, and novelty store. There are more stalls, offering Indian street food, chaat, for the younger people, and a play area for children. This club represents its members, who are islands in their journey of life and the places they frequent within its precinct are zones they like to lose themselves in. The avid reader will head to the library, shutting out the world and into the realms of the mind. The tennis player will head to the court and stoke away his blues, the billiard-room is a strange place with strange on-goings.

My favourite is the coffee shop. Simply called the ‘Coffee Shop’, referred to as the café. The café is airconditioned and very cool in the summer months. It has very sensible seating, large deep orange couches, smaller ones too, chairs to suit the size of the many groups that may stroll in there. A large TV screen is set against the ebony panelling, and on low volume, so you can just stare at it and think through the things that are bothering you or enjoy the visuals and think of your narrative of it. There is seating in the garden space outside too. They call it the smoking zone. On pleasant days, I prefer to sit there alone with my Inspiron, the plug points are all provided, and I key my thoughts.

That day was a pleasant one, exactly why I was seated outside on the couch, the height of the table perfect for working on the laptop, and to sip a coffee and bite into a sandwich and spread them all comfortably, on the longish rectangle table. I push away the ashtray to the father most corner. I’m in a pensive mood, even if my eyes scan the tables occupied around me, nobody looks back or stares, so you can wear the glaze over your eyes and unashamedly plot a murder mystery. I noticed a tall man in his early thirties, wander between tables, not finding a spare one. He looked listless, and wandered nearer a tree, and below its glade, pulled out a pack of cigarette from the pocket of his trousers, cupped his hand as he held the lighter, a puff and both the cigarette packet and lighter went into his pocket. His second puff was a long in-breath and the exhalation of smoke was the release of the pent-up tension. The puffs followed, slower as the cigarette got smaller, it was now nearly the stub, he stared at what had helped him out of mental trauma, took the last puff and threw it into the mud bin provided.

He walked back to the smoking zone still no tables were available, I was watching him, our eyes met, and, on instinct, he asked, ‘May I?’

‘Please!’ I answered unhesitatingly, now familiarized with his obvious agitation, and possibly he was hungry as well. Besides, we were all club members, and familiar by face to most.

‘I’m Aditya,’ he introduced himself with a half rise from the couch, seating himself.

‘Veda,’ I proffered my hand and we shook on it.

‘I see you here often,’ he said.

I was surprised. I hadn’t noticed him before. ‘I see you doing this,’ he said strumming the air and then pointing to my laptop. I smiled.

‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘I like the company and the solitude if you know what I mean.’

‘Oh yes!’ he agreed. The non-intrusive acquaintances here. They are a blessing! Hope I’m not intruding?’ he asked.

‘No!’ I shake my head.

He pulls out his card and orders sandwiches and coffee, ‘You’re a writer he asks?’

I nod.

‘Veda Pillay?’

I nod.

‘Wow!’ he says. ‘I haven’t read any of your books.’

I nod in defeat.

‘Not into fiction,’ he explains.

I instantly feel better. The lesser-known writers like me hang on to every reader and words of praise, yet strangely we are aloof at other times, socially, not too friendly! I must admit.

‘May I?’ Aditya asks, pulling out the pack

‘Go ahead!’ I tell him.

He shakes his head, ‘I have too much going on, I’m so fucked! Sorry, He apologises. I nod, picking up my coffee, cold but almost full, I sip. I want to listen to what he has to say. ‘I had this fantastic job. Fell in love with my colleague. I love her to this very day. She did not love me back. She never realized I was in love with her. I asked her out many times! We went out, and we became best buddies,’ he stubbed out the cigarette and lit another one. ‘I realized she was the perfect one for me!’ He slides back into the couch, crosses his leg in man-style, his knee at a right angle. ‘But only now she was my person, you know the go-to-person, witty, smart, intelligent and good looking.’

‘You said good looking last!’ I remarked assuming that it was the least of the qualities she had among all other he loved so much.

‘She has killer looks, and mostly unaware of it. Slim tall, she jogs every morning, fair with lush hair worn straight and neat.’

I liked what he loved. He loved the unassuming person, that she was.

‘I love her nature most!’ he says, sitting up to receive the coffee and sandwich the waitress has brought. ‘Thank you,’ he says in her direction. The guy was well mannered.

He reaches for the cigarette pack and lighter. ‘Mind?’ he asks again. I shake my head. ‘He inhales deeply it reaches his heart and then his thoughts pour out again. ‘There are plenty of pretty girls out there. But beauty and brains are a rare combination and coupled with a razor-sharp wit and oodles of confidence.’ Then he pauses, and he shakes his head, that a girl so perfect exists!

‘I must run!’ he gulps down the last of the coffee. Picks up the sandwich, goes inside to the cash counter signs the voucher and returns, waves, ‘Bye!’ and leaves. I watch him walk away.

My mind is completely lost to him. I cannot imagine a girl not falling for a guy like Aditya. Tall, obviously he works out, well-mannered and good-looking himself in an unconventional way. But I had just met him. and to assess and assume by what was said in the passing as it were, will be a little naïve. But he intrigued me. I lost interest in what I was writing, the characters will now have to await further command, I close word and open google. I concentrate on the research required for my narrative and I make notes alongside on another document. It was seven by then. I too signed off at the cash counter left a tip and headed to where I had parked my car. I had a long night ahead. Aria my daughter will have returned from her dance class, she was sixteen and in her final year of school. Of course, she could choose ISC or opt for PUC there was time yet for it, this was only March. I turn the ignition on and think of Rishi. Love dilemmas! I sigh. I should have married him. He was now an acclaimed heart surgeon. We cross path now and then here at the club. He married three years after I did, he had patiently waited for me, never giving up on us. He has a beautiful wife now, Neelam, she is the picture-perfect woman. She is tall like Rishi, very slim, and pleasant always, I have seen her in the club. There is an air of sedateness about her which is calming and attractive. They have two handsome boys.

My parents found Madhav for me and insisted I marry him. He comes from a family of coffee estate owners from Chikmagalur. The estate life and a torpid income from it do nothing to stimulate the mind. Madhav is a good man, but very patriarchal in his approach, he has a large family and I am the only child of my parents, the largeness of his family was too intrusive. The wild ribald jokes and jocular laughter with male cousins was a little harsh for my ears. Since there are no good schools in Chikmagalur I was spared the trauma of living there. I continued in Bengaluru, and as life coursed, Madhav got comfortable in the estate among his parents and relatives, in the neighbouring estates. I have been told he has a live-in relationship with a woman in the town of Chikmagalur, and it is all very legit among the family, friends, and relatives’ circles because they together have a son. So, Aria and I are spared the many trips to Chikmagalur, we are given generous trips to the UK, US, Europe, and other places every year. I’ve made peace with it. I married when I was nineteen, completed my graduation after marriage. Aria was born before I graduated! But the birthing was the true test. Aria is sixteen and now at thirty-five I find myself lonely and wondering how my life would have coursed had I defied my parents. There are somethings we may never know.

Funnily enough, I met Aditya the very following day! ‘Hi!’ his voice was exuberant. I was extremely happy to see him since he had left me intrigued and less enchanted with the characters of my narrative.

‘May I?’ he asked.

‘Go ahead,’ I said taking out my card.

‘This one is on me!’ he said, firmly taking away my card and my handbag from me. He replaced the card into the correct slot in my red wallet and slipped it into my bag and gently pulled the zip across, and reverently set my bag on the couch beside me.

‘So, you are married!’ I deduced.

‘Sherlock!’ he replied. He lit the cigarette and by then the waitress came around and we ordered, the usual lattes and our choice of sandwich. He flicked the ash into the tray. ‘I like talking to you,’ he said. ‘It feels like there is a connection,’ he just shrugged, feeling he did not need to add more.

I nodded, not feeling the connection, but curiosity getting the better of me. Not because this was a remarkable story, but why did he feel so sorrowful or use the word fucked? It’s not like people have not loved and lost, you just get on with life. But there was a throbbing pain behind his exuberance. The pain was like a freshly baked aromatic mince pie, you want to cut into it.

‘I was telling you yesterday about that chick, right? My colleague?’

He didn’t need to jog my mind. I was trailing the story all night, and now in the evening ready to hear it. ‘Yeah,’ I nodded as casually as possible.

‘Yeah, I got so tired of being just friends it began to frustrate me. But I was not willing to risk changing that into a relationship unless she wanted. She is too precious! I did a crazy thing. I quit working there, though the salary was fab. Shifted to another company. Money wise, I got a neat twenty per cent hike. All good. But I just can’t stand being away from her! I thought if I put in the distance it would help, it doesn’t.’ He shrugged, studying the cigarette. ‘She was surprised that I left, but she assumed it was because the next job offered more. I let her believe that. But our close friends understood why I was leaving. Even my boss figured and my parents. But she was so oblivious to my love. How is that possible?’ he stubbed out the cigarette.

He sat prone as our order came, he placed my coffee before me, made sure the plate of sandwich was a comfortable distance from me. The guy was all consideration, politeness written all over him. Why had the girl not seen his love? He was the expressive sort.

‘Did you ever tell her you loved her?’ the question just spilt out.

‘Nope,’ he shook his head. ‘I meant to but when we went out together, it was so chill, I was afraid she may not like the shift from a good friendship to a guy-girl relationship,’ he explained. ‘She is important to me, it’s like my soul is rested with her!’

‘Okay.’ I nod. That was a little hard to digest in my prosaic mind. So, I sipped on the coffee and took a bite of the sandwich.

‘Sometimes I get the feeling that she knows how I feel about her but there is no reaction. Now the distance began killing me. So, the phone calls began. But it was never the same. She was busy when I was free, and I was busy when she was free. The time factor was against us. Even then we went out together and, in those meetings, two really, I realized she had moved even further away from any possible romance than before. She was just as friendly, more a buddy than a girl. I realized there was no future for us. I felt so fucked. I heard she was casually dating, nothing serious. I was getting restless with my life because she wasn’t in it!’ With that flourish, he got up. ‘Sorry I have to leave he looked at the time on his phone. He thumbed through some messages. He bent forward and hugged me, saying, ‘Bye,’ he went into the café to sign the voucher and waved from there as he left. I waved back.

***************************************************************************

Curious and more curiouser. ‘Where is the pizza?’ Aria asked.

I stared back at her dumbfounded. I was supposed to pick it up from the new patisserie kiosk which had just opened, at the club. ‘Sorry!’ I say horrified. I cannot explain my preoccupation with a comparative stranger like Aditya to her. ‘We’ll Swiggy.’ I say.

‘Okay,’ she agrees very easily, she opts for momos as I do. So happy for the lapse, we sink into the couch to stream Downton Abbey for the second time. It takes my mind away from Aditya and my awaiting characters in the un-revisited narrative.

It’s the weekend so Aria and I usually do something together. We took off in the morning, caught a movie at the mall. Went into Kobe Sizzlers. We ordered two iced teas, we shared the main and the dessert. We strolled out of there, went into Kalmane Coffee, that kind of settled us. We walked into Westside, then we went into Shopper’s Stop picked a few things and walked out of there. We walked across the road to Home Centre, spent more than two hours, browsing. Returned went into the Aldo store, hated ourselves for overspending but were excited with the merchandise. We returned home, we were both tired and happy. We warmed the milk, added Hershey’s chocolate syrup, a few marshmallows, and streamed Downton Abbey.

Sunday is a lazy day, we wake up like zombies around noon, order in and stay curled up for most of the day. It’s the time we talk. The day we tell each other about most things, and of days in all these years, Aria has a question for me.

‘Are you happy?’

‘Really? Why?’

‘Don’t know Mama, I am your main thingy. Then writing is your muse. That’s it!’

‘I’m happy. Do I look sad?’

‘No, you don’t look sad, but you do look drab. You don’t care about clothes. Yesterday, I bought such nice stuff, you were being practical about your purchase. Why is your confidence undermined? Why? Is it because of Dad fucking some bitch there!’

‘Aria!’ I was aghast. My daughter had never spoken to me ever before like that.

‘Fuck him, Mama. Forget the bastard. Let’s get on with our lives. We have enough.’ She finished and headed to the refrigerator and for the Baskin Robbin’s tub.

‘No!’ I said taking that away from her.

‘Then let’s shop again.’

‘Okay,’ I agreed not knowing where this was going. I had sheltered Aria from the weaving gossip as much as I could. But then the absence is felt more than seen. Madhav never came home, except once in two years, used the guest-bedroom and left. This has been the case in the last twelve years! My parents live in Chennai, so yes, we spend the winter vacations with them. But never once have my parents broached the subject having placed me in a horrible situation in life.

Aria changes into jeans and tells me too to do that. ‘Okay!’ I agree because she is in a mood. I slip on a pair and I’m surprised they are a little lose. ‘See you’ve lost weight and you don’t realize it because you’re wearing tents,’ she says referring to Kurtis.

I’m mesmerised by my image, yeah, I have shed ten pounds, I look taller than five-six, a little tanned sitting out in the café, so my light brown eyes look lighter, and larger because my cheeks have found the bone contours. My lips have always been full, so the lip-colour looks lush. I throw on a white self-embossed shirt, I feel cool.

Sundays are the worst days to shop. Places like Marks and Spencer’s are comparatively better, the lines are shorter as you wait your turn for the change room. So naturally, we go there. Fellow shoppers are polite not trying to cut the queue, a piece of casual advice or compliment is thrown your way, as you try on clothes, it feels good. I let my hurry-instincts lie low. I wallow in this slow and waited out shopping. Aria is happy with what I have bought. I look at the time, it is eight!

‘Let’s eat out Aria decides. She goes back to the cash counter the assistant is eager and listens. Then a broad smile reaches her eyes, from there tilting her head a little, she smiles at me. She walks away toward the change room, and Aria holds my elbow and guides me back to the change room. The cash assistant cuts off the tag of a turquoise dress, mid-length, and hands it over to me. I change into it, luckily my black stilettoes, and handbag somewhat go with it, though not completely. Anyway, I loosen my hair, comb it, and add on the lip colour. Aria is happy. She’s changed into a short dress.

‘Okay!’ I say let’s make an evening out of this. The store is so responsive to our plan, two reps walk us to the door and the doorman stands more upright. ‘Enjoy!’ three voices wish us.

‘Thank you!’ we respond. We look at each other standing on the elevator and laugh. It’s just fun to be spontaneous sometimes. The elevator takes us to the fourth floor, to a pan Asian restaurant. We order wine, as Aria says please several times. The Chenin Blanc is served to us. The platter of Dim Sim arrives with three sauce varieties. We pick and taste them with chopsticks. I, a little sloppy with it, when Aria freezes. I turn around and follow her gaze. Four tables away Madhav is seated with his son and Lakshmi, that’s what I’m told her name is.

‘Look away!’ I tell her.

She begins tackling another Dim Sim. She sips wine, and suddenly she is all calm. I have my back to the table where Madhav is seated, so I don’t know what is happening unless Aria tells me. I wait.

She smiles, ‘He has not stopped looking in our direction.’

‘Okay let’s order food. Will you share Kim Bap?’ I ask

‘Lovely!’ she agrees, ‘I do want their green tea ice cream later,’

We order, the waiter, suggests a platter again, we agree. He refills my glass. I have forbidden Aria more, the half measure poured into her glass, she must nurse until the end of dinner. So, I am giddy headed when Madhav comes to the table.

‘Hello!’

‘Didn’t know you were in town,’ I said, feeling confident. The floral cutaway was doing something to my spirit as was the wine. Madhav looked at the lipstick-stained wine glass.

‘What are you girls drinking?’ slick as ever, his best English put forth with the Oxford twist, his thick greying hair neatly lifted to add an inch to his six-two frame. The shoulders are broad I re-remember. He draws the chair right next to mine and sits down. His knees touch mine. He then picks my glass up places his lips where my lipstick stain is and takes a sip. ‘Very nice!’ he exclaims.

‘Very smooth!’ Aria says. She raises her hand, the waiter is quickly responsive, ‘Another clean wine glass for the lady,’ Aria says. Much to the chagrin of Madhav.

‘I suppose I should leave!’ Madhav gets up.

‘Yeah go back to that slut and that bastard son of yours,’ Aria says it so casually!

‘How dare you!’ Madhav bites his words, softly and reddening. Looking around to make sure nobody heard.

‘Fuck you! Don’t ever dare me!’ Aria warns. ‘I’m not like her, soft and forgiving. Anyway, you are not her type!’

What are you blabbering? I’m thinking. Half a glass of wine is all you had!

Madhav was too stunned. He meekly returned to where his second family was. I watched him until he reached there. Lakshmi looked at his stunned face, she hadn’t heard, nobody had heard, but us. She could tell we had exchanged unpleasant words, for which she stared back at us angrily. The son looked up ashamed. His gaze returned to his plate of food he was forking into his mouth. The Kim Bap arrived we ate it. Then we ordered the ice cream. We asked for the check and the waiter said it has been taken care of. I looked in the direction of Madhav. He just returned my look with a nod. We left.

What happened to us in the car was something I will never be able to explain. We laughed all the way home.

***************************************************************************

‘Hmm, something about you is different today!’ Aditya commented the following day.

I just smiled.

That morning when I dressed, I decided it was time to shed the leggings, they adjust to weight gain and loss, and so do Kurtis. They aren’t good for the ego. I slipped into a pair of light blue jeans, and because I felt I might meet Aditya, I wore a long top, close to a kurti, not to make apparent changes, I did not want to be misread. Misread for any reason.

‘How are you?’ it was just a question.

He shrugged.

I had ordered my coffee and sandwiches earlier as soon as I had come into the café. He had just come in and ordered his now. ‘It’s on me this time.’ I said.

He smiled taking in my words, a little of my appearance. ‘So, I married,’ he said.

‘What?’ I reacted uncomprehending the statement.

‘Carrying on with my story, remember? So-I-got-married!’ he enunciated.

‘How is that working?’ I asked.

‘I am so fucked!’ he sighed.

I was not sure of how to react to that statement. He laughed at my silence, shook his head on the irony of life and said, ‘I’m a total failure! I cannot keep my head together. I cannot have her, and I don’t want my wife either!’

‘What’s your wife’s name?’

‘Reema!’ he said like it was the most regretful thing he had ever announced.

‘You know you should try to make a go at it,’ I advised. It just came out. I usually don’t advise on matrimonial issues since I suffer from a failed marriage. I’m embarrassed by my namesake marital status.

‘Yeah, I am doing my best, but then it’s not working. I worry about what society will say if I divorce! I’m trying awfully hard!’

As he lit a cigarette, the coffee and sandwiches arrived. He drank the coffee as he held the cigarette. He stubbed it out and reached for a sandwich. He didn’t seem in a rush to leave. ‘I cannot stay much longer in this marriage!’ he sighed. It was a resignation of thought.

‘Don’t you ever think what Reema may want?’ I ask again not comfortable, in this conversation. I may sometimes just listen and take in the information without asking for it.

‘I don’t know what she wants out of the marriage, but she tells me I am mindless, too soft, she doesn’t think I’m intelligent. She finds me boring. I don’t want to say much else because it just gets more unpleasant to the ear.’

‘I understood his quandary. He was in love with someone he was too polite to win her over. Now he was too polite to stay married to over criticism of him. Why was just being nice to each other a problem these days?

I was in that pensive mood when the cologne and the smell of cigar wafted toward me. Even as I turned, and before I saw the figure approach, I had said, ‘Rishi?'

‘Hi!’ he wished coming into my vision as he turned the corner. His smile was wide and genuine.

Mine was half curled and confused. He read me well. ‘I saw you, through the glass,’ he pointed to one section of the gym, ‘So washed up and came down for a chat.’

‘I didn’t know, you used the gym here!’ I was surprised.

‘I don’t, I prefer to jog and stretch. But there is so much pollution in the city, the gym is good.’

‘This is Aditya, Rishi,’ I introduced them. They shook on that. Rishi went inside to place an order. While he was doing that, Aditya had a question for me. ‘Is he always in suits?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think it’s the doctor thing. They say a doctor’s tie is the heaven of germs!’ we both laughed on that. Rishi returned with my favourite dessert which the café has, but I never order. ‘Thank you,’ I took it. There was one for Aditya as well, which he declined. They made conversation as I relished my dessert in silence. Rishi decided it was time to go. ‘See around,’ he smiled.

We watched him leave. Suddenly I felt low. It was for the first time I realised I was still so much in love with him!

‘That’s why you don’t mind me smoking!’ Aditya observed.

‘What?’ I was confused out of my pain.

‘You smelt the cologne and the cigar, and you knew it was him, even before he walked into this section, the Smokers Zone,’ Aditya remarked. ‘The man wasn’t even smoking just that smell afloat and it reached you!’ Aditya was staring at me. He sat back reclined lower into the seat. He had his hands folded behind his head. He stared at the fading light nearer dusk. The trees were latticed against the twilight sky.

‘You know,’ he said, more forlorn than he had ever been before, ‘We are both fucked! Damn life!’ He sat up and pulled out the pack and a cigarette from it and lit it. ‘Let’s hope at least this kills us less painfully than love.’

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