Saturday, 15 August 2020

Megha Nayar, ShortStory 2020 Longlist

The Reconciliation

Ramya stormed into her room, copious tears streaming down her cheeks. She tossed her handbag into a corner and dived straight into the bed. Her mother promptly followed her into the room and sat down next to her, but Ramya was too busy sobbing into her pillow to notice.

“Ramya!” Malathi began gently, reaching out to stroke Ramya’s hair. She knew her daughter down to the bone. This was going to be a long, messy fight.

“Child, you need to understand that I’m not making unreasonable demands. Why don’t you ask any of your friends if their mums would ever allow such a thing?”

Ramya didn’t answer. She moved out of her mother’s reach and sat facing the window, all the while fuming inwardly.

Malathi resumed her sermon, as calm as ever.

“You don’t even know this guy well enough. What guarantee do I have that he will not misbehave with you or try to take advantage of you? You want to follow him to a city where you don’t even have any friends. How can I let you go like that?”

“Amma,” replied Ramya, still staring emptily out of the window, “you need to understand that you’re not talking to a teenager here. I’m a 26-year old woman, old enough to decide what I want in life. And what I want is to give us a chance together, so that I can figure out whether he is right for me. It’s actually quite simple. What part of this do you not understand?”

Malathi frowned. They had been going back and forth on this for three days, without any conclusion.

“Ramya, I’m not telling you to get married tomorrow. There is no hurry. If you want to know him better, talk to him on the phone, chat online, and maybe invite him to Chennai so that we can all meet him. That should give you ample time and evidence to make up your mind.”

“Ma, you know very well that speaking on the phone and actually living with a person are two entirely different things. I have so many friends who complain that their husbands have turned out very different from the boyfriends they were. Do you want Rithika or Antara to come and testify?”

“So what is the solution? Living with a guy without being married to him?”

“Yes. What is wrong with that? Don’t worry, I won’t get pregnant. And if you’re concerned that our relatives will spew filth, it’s not like they pay our bills anyway. Their opinions are irrelevant.”

“Ramya, I don’t think we will ever reach a consensus on this. Here’s my verdict: I will never permit you to take this risk. And I’m pretty sure your Dad will agree with me. I’m going to leave you alone for a while so that you can reconcile with the idea that this is not happening.”

And with that, Malathi was gone.

Ramya did not stir. She continued to stare blankly out at the street. She processed this development wordlessly, and when she felt slightly better, she reached out for her phone.

“Hello!” Antara trilled at the other end. “What happened? Did she agree? When are you finally joining our hero in Bangalore?”

“By the looks of it, never. Amma is being all sanctimonious, as expected. Either she has these exceptionally high standards for me alone, or she genuinely believes no women live with men they’re not married to.”

“Haha! But that was expected, sweetie. Did you think she’d happily let you go? That she’d come to see you off at the airport and bless your illicit little union?” Antara chuckled, clearly pleased with her own wit.

“Well, I hadn’t expected her to be so hard-headed either. Looks like one of you two will have to come home and do the convincing. It’s unlikely she’ll even listen to me any more,” said Ramya, dejected.

“Don’t worry. Tell me when to come. I’ll do the talking.”

“Today? Like, in half an hour?”

“Umm… that’s short notice.”

“I don’t have the luxury of time right now.”

“Okay, let me try. It’s you after all. Considering that you’ve promised me a five-star treat for helping you out with this, it’s the least I can do.”

“I never promised you a five-star treat, but never mind. You’re my best friend. You’re allowed to take advantage of my misery.”

Antara giggled, and Ramya forced herself to smile too. What would she do without Antsy!

In exactly twenty minutes, she heard the doorbell ring. She rushed to open the door, but her mum had beaten her to it.

“Oh, hello Antara! Come in, child. I guess my daughter made you an SOS call and invited you over.”

“Yes, aunty,” Antara smiled brightly. “She was very upset, so I had to come.”

“I see. And what is the POA? Are you here to cheer her up or to convince me?” Malathi smiled too.

Antara’s face flushed. “Aunty, you know me so well that I wouldn’t even try to pretend. Yes, I came over to talk to you.”

“Okay. And did Ramya not tell you I’ve already made my pronouncement?”

Antara fell silent. A few seconds later, she said, “Aunty, I have things to tell you. I just wish you’d hear me out. In the end, you can take your own call on whether Ramya should go.”

“I have already taken a call. But still, since you insist, I am listening.”

Antara stared at the floor for a while, as if composing her thoughts. Finally, she lifted her gaze, looked Malathi in the eyes and said, “Aunty, I am not happy with Raghav. I… I regret our marriage.”

Malathi was stunned. “But… But why, beta?”

“That’s just how it is, aunty. Now, before you remind me that every couple takes a while to adapt to each other, let me tell you that Raghav and I do not have any typical compatibility issues. We haven’t been fighting or arguing at all.”

“So then?”

Antara squirmed. “Aunty, it is just that we’re two perfectly good human beings who don’t belong together.”

Malathi found this terribly perplexing. “But if both of you are good people and like each other, what is the problem?”

“Aunty, being good human beings is vital, but it’s not all. There are innumerable men in the world who’re good human beings, but very few will be right for Ramya. There has to be a sustained connection between the couple, right?”

Malathi was quiet. She was still grappling with the burden of what she’d just heard.

Antara continued. “When Raghav and I first got talking, we had lots of share. Come to think of it, we’d spent the first 25 years of our lives without each other. Naturally, there was so much to recount! That gave us more than enough fodder for the first couple of months. We were also very eager to please – and hence, we were especially nice to each other. Even if one of us got bored listening to the other, we were too polite to say so.

Those initial conversations gave us the impression that all was well, that we had common interests. Hence, after three months, we told our respective parents to go ahead with the engagement. We were constantly in touch online, and we even met up a few times. But, just like you, my mother too was very apprehensive about letting us live together or take a trip together. She never allowed me to stay over at his place, even when his parents were around.

Hence, we had no choice but to agree to an early marriage. We were infatuated and did not want to prolong the wait.

However, once we got married, we began to see each other exactly as we were. We realised that we’re two entirely different individuals, with very different goals and expectations in life. Raghav wants to set up his own automobile venture sometime next year. It will be based in Chennai, which means that for at least the next five years or till the business stabilizes, he will remain in this city.

I, on the other hand, work freelance. Which means that I have the flexibility to move cities and experience new cultures. I am not a fan of Chennai’s social scene – I would love to work in Mumbai or Pune instead. Why, I would love to live abroad too! But being married to Raghav, that is not to be.”

“But Antara,” Malathi butted in, “Isn’t that a minor thing? I mean, you can always move once Raghav finds his feet in the trade. Is that really a deal-breaker?”

“Aunty, different professional priorities are just the tip of the iceberg. There are other differences too. He swears by literature, I am not into books. He loves science-fiction films, which I can’t decipher for nuts. He is a quiet guy with zero tolerance for loud music, while I love to have a good time. Almost all our choices are poles apart! When we don’t have anything in common, what do we make conversation about?”

Malathi was non-plussed. “But Antara, did you not think about all this before marriage?”

“I did, aunty! We did discuss our career plans, so I knew that he expected me to hang around in Chennai for some time. I realised that we didn’t have a lot of common ground in terms of interests. I was also concerned about his thoughts on having kids, adopting pets, etc. Which is why, I wanted to spend some time living with him, to understand him up-close.

But my parents kept telling me that what mattered was the guy’s nature and his family’s reputation. If those were good, all else would fall into place. On my part, I was quite besotted with Raghav, so I wasn’t being rational either. I went ahead and said yes, just so that we could begin our lives together.

We have realised, since getting married, that we’re on totally different ends of the spectrum. If we insist on remaining together, at least one of us will have to adjust at every juncture. And neither of us wants to do that to the other. We have only one life – we want to live it up, without bogging the other person down.

We are too mature to fight and give this an ugly turn, so we have decided to mutually separate. We’re just waiting for an opportune time to tell the parents.”

Malathi was quiet. She was yet to come to terms with what she had just heard. Despite her fears that this generation was taking marriage too lightly, a part of her admitted that Antara was making sense.

“In hindsight, it is very easy to say that one has been too quick to jump the gun. Lots of friends now tell me that I was stupid to marry him without considering these details. But did we have a choice? How am I to know a man inside out if we’re always at a distance?”

For the first time, Malathi’s expression softened. Ramya watched expectantly, without saying a word.

“And honestly, how big a deal is it if Ramya spends some time with Anand? Even if she chooses to get physically intimate with him, she is old enough to be responsible. Look at me – I am soon going to be a divorcée. I will have to live with the stigma and unhappiness of a failed union. Don’t you think a few days with a guy of her choice is a lesser risk than this?”

Malathi nodded her head almost imperceptibly, but Ramya caught the gesture. Perhaps, her mother had changed her mind.

But Malathi retired to her room. Antara, before leaving, motioned to Ramya to just wait and watch. The talking had been done, but it would take time before her words could be assimilated and acted upon.

The next morning, Malathi had something to say to Ramya. “Ask Anand to come and meet us this weekend. If we like him, you may move to Bangalore next month.”

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