2/23/17

Prose | Barnali Ray Shukla

Photo : Lee La

At five-something in the morning the world seemed a happier place to Ila.
Morning prayers wafted in from the masjid.  She was perched on the outer ledge of the window of her apartment on the 13th floor. Her wet tresses played truant.

The breeze was still strong. At a distance, a persistent Arabian Sea crashed against the rocks as if it had a secret to share with her but couldn’t.
In that wee light, impressions the rains had made last night were in silhouettes.

Devastation was a small word for the trail the waters had left behind.
Ila wasn’t thinking of the visible damage last evening had made.

She eased her grip on the empty wineglass that she was holding. Brought it really close to her eyes to check why the last traces of red wine refused to come to her. She struggled once more, but the last few drops just wouldn’t obey. She smiled at their audacity. She hadn’t smiled in the last twenty hours.

Her manicured hand wore a ring with a solitaire sitting on it proudly.
Ila removed the ring and tossed it into the wine glass.
The ring looked nicer in the wineglass, she thought.
She murmured, “Bye Rohit ”.
Ila looked down from where she sat and tossed the glass with the ring in it. Watched till it reached the ground.
From that height, she couldn’t tell if it shattered in silence.
Diamonds and waves crash but don’t shatter.
Dreams go in silence and no one hears them crash.
Possibly, dreams, diamonds and waves have nothing in common.

Ila had considered jumping. Ending her life with that one last jump.
Perhaps she had been sitting on the ledge for too long through the storm.
The alchemy of desires changes when you walk through a storm and she just had, alone.

The miscarriage was gnawing at her nerves, her womb, her heart.
That was last evening. Coping with it alone, was war.

Rohit, her boyfriend, was under the impression that the baby had been aborted. He was away sailing somewhere in the Pacific since March.
This was late June.

Ila was 36 and she had wanted that child.
She was certain that her life wouldn’t morph into any clich√©.
But destiny has strange ways, biology doesn’t. The most natural outcome of amorous nights of belonging to your beloved caught her unawares one morning. She had made several trips to her doctor just to be sure.

Rohit had guffawed when she declared she was pregnant. All he had spoken was about breach of trust and contraception, while sipping his beer. Moments, a few dinner plates and slammed doors later, he had stormed out of her home with his cellphone, car keys and wallet.
Had texted two days later, asking her to abort the appendage.

Ila gave out a short laugh as she recollected her memories. She tried changing her posture. She wouldn’t jump. Gingerly, she moved closer home, careful not to let the breeze affect her choice. When you give up on the idea of killing yourself, life becomes even more precious.

A pressure-cooker whistled in a kitchen that rose early. Joggers appeared, attempting to tame the city’s puddles. The newspaper boys wrapped in yellow and blue plastic were the knights on shining bicycles. The storm had left. The maximum city had erupted at the cracks.

She stepped back into her apartment with a dash of green-grey algae on her elbow and shin. She looked for her mobile phone. The only glow around as it sprung to life at her touch.

A polymer push-button phone purred to life in Nikhil ’s apartment, away from where Nikhil was. He was sure that the phone would stop ringing by the time he had his hands on it but realized that the caller was determined. He wasn’t surprised when his wife wondered aloud  who could be up that early. Nikhil  was not sure; it was not even seven in the morning.

***


There was a reason why Nikhil never avoided Ila’s calls.

Back in college, Nikhil was always nervous on the morning of an exam and to add to the anxiety, once, a breathless Ila had called him minutes before he was to appear for one. She said she had been in an accident. A spontaneous practical reaction – that he could not be of help –  had taught him a lesson for life.

His exam had started and Ila strode  into the  hall. She told him he had neither integrity nor a spine  and added that  he should stop calling himself her friend.  Then she wished him luck for his exam after apologizing to the invigilator and  drove herself to a doctor. That was the Ila, Nikhil knew. He never let her down  after that.

Ila’s voice  brought him back to the present.


***

 “Can we talk?”

Nikhil did not respond.

Ila  : Are you lost in thoughts or is Smita around ?

Nikhil :  Yes ? …Yes.

“Even better, take her permission…  I need you here, when can I see you?”

“I was thinking if you could…”

“Ok …forget it.”

“ It’s that building by the…?”

“1305 , Blue Mountain, ‘A’ Wing.”

Nikhil:  Smita, I need more sugar…

Ila : Morning cup of tea with a loving wife …you were always the lucky one bozo.

Nikhil :  And a lovely daughter, don’t forget. 

Ila :    Who knows, maybe we would have had a son…

Nikhil fell silent. His wife passed him the ‘Sports News’ page of the newspaper. His morning staple.

Ila : I don’t miss you Nikhil ...hope you know that.

Smita : Some more tea ?


***

Ila hung up. He stared at the phone for a moment.

Smita: Was it her?

Nikhil:  Ila … that sounds better.

He got up and finished the tea in one gulp, then took out a fresh towel, gave  a cursory pat on Smita’s shoulder and went straight to the shower.

Smita : You are going to meet her ...I mean Ila?

Nikhil : Yes  … don’t worry if I am late.

As Ila tossed her phone on the couch in the drawing room, she looked for something above the air-conditioner. There it was. A pigeon’s nest.
Two fledglings cozy in her old scarf, snug inside an empty carton of cinnamon cigarettes, now a little soggy with last night’s rain. The pigeon made gurgling sounds. Today, she looked more perplexed than usual.
Ila responded with a gurgle to thaw the brave young mother’s stupor.

“..And I am asking you  this one last time now--can I be their God-mother?” The pigeon blinked. Ila smiled.
The two helpless chicks huddled together. Pretty ugly creatures.

Ila wondered how her baby would have looked. A messy multi-cellular red ball of hope had left her belly much before the stipulated nine months. It had lived in her womb. She had held life within and inside her. She fought her tears as she gave a flying kiss to the pigeon.

Nikhil drove on, his lips repeating her address.  He hadn’t met Ila in years. That one phone call compressed the distance worth light years into a 18.3km drive. His mind wandered to the driving lessons he had given her long back and their day together in a lock-up, after a minor accident.

A sharp honk brought Nikhil back to his driving. The traffic light had turned green. The rush-hour traffic has no time for nostalgia.

Ila rummaged through her wardrobe. Her clothes felt way too designer or sexy. Finally, she found something friendly. In the bath, her fingers  played with the loofah while the big geyser took forever to assure warm water. Meanwhile, she found something stuck to the sole of her feet: a visiting card. Her mind raced to why the card looked familiar.

 One evening, high on  single-malts at the Hilton, Ila was made an offer by the creative-director of a rival company, with higher pay, perks and power to kill for. Ila had smiled through the entire conversation, pretending to not understand. The moment he left her side to attend to a call, someone accompanying him told her about the catch in his offer, “His wife needs to be pleased!”
Ila raised her glass to salute this piece of news. After a quick bottoms –up,  she walked to the dance floor,  and kissed the creative –director’s wife, on the mouth.

That night, Nikhil had called her a taxi. Only he could tell that this wasn’t to impress anybody but to ward off the creative director who had been hitting on her all evening.

But Anshuman, her then-boyfriend didn’t quite get it. She had narrated everything to him while he was glued to popcorn and Spanish football league on the TV screen.
He broke up with her the very next day.

***


Dressed in a flowing long skirt and a lime-green linen kurti, she emerged out of the bath toweling her hair vigorously. She stopped short as she noticed a man at the window, the window-cleaner, appointed by the building’s ‘society’.
She yelled at him in an unchaste mash-up of Indian languages of the region.
The man copiously apologized for attempting to throw away the pigeon nest.
Ila and the mother pigeon exchanged a knowing glance. Ila got closer to the window with her lighter. The threat was clear. If he didn’t want the rope harness to get burnt, he better be careful of what he threw out of her window.
Her slay-mode had worked.

She felt stronger as she opened the door for Nikhil, almost magically. Ila always recognized his footsteps. His boyish good looks and laughing eyes were just the way she remembered. Powder-blue linen looked nice on his proud shoulders. She wondered why her face lit up each time she encountered Nikhil. He stood at the door, awkward.

He looked at her, a cursory gaze. Avoided her eyes as if that could conceal the rush he felt. The void that became more apparent each time he saw her. She waited for an embrace by the threshold but there are times when a threshold is breached only with conviction. Neither had any, not at this moment.

She didn’t realize that some music was playing somewhere till the music stopped, betraying a silence that lurked into the awkwardness of the moment. Nikhil extended his hand. It held a brown-paper bag, she promptly dug into it.
Vada-pau and lots of green chilies. Nikhil, without making eye-contact, spoke “It rained so I thought maybe this is what you…”

She nodded and something in that nod welcomed him into her apartment.
A space that was spare but not sparse. Nikhil rehearsed a few lines in his head. He wasn’t sure that he knew what would happen next.
Her cellphone tore into the silence. It was Rohit.

Of all days possible, Rohit chose this very moment to tell her that he missed her. Ila took a make-believe drag from Nikhil’s unlit cigarette. In seconds, she stubbed it on Rohit’s claim that she loved him too much to not forgive him. She smirked, looked at her unadorned ring-finger. She missed the ring, yes. About Rohit, she wasn’t sure. She was certain that of all the people in the world, he was the last person whom she wanted anything from. She needed his signatures to close some joint accounts in their bank, that’s all.

The cold detachment in her voice told Nikhil that he shouldn’t be in the room now. The vapours of a relationship dying are unbearable. Nikhil looked around at an-imaginary-something. In his head, he even heard her say on the phone “I love you Rohit”.
Maybe, maybe not but Nikhil’s  imagination had already raced ahead.
It was restrained by a touch. Nikhil felt much more than the unlit cigarette on his shoulder. She planted it right back in his shirt pocket.

Ila      : Yes, that was Rohit

Nikhil:  Some ginger-tea with vada-pau?

Ila : Actually I don’t know him I think…

Nikhil:  Yet, you decide to have his baby?

Ila hadn’t seen this side of Nikhil. She stared.

Nikhil:  News travels …

Nikhil sauntered into the kitchen like fragrance wafts in from summer blooms.  She watched him fidget, standing near the kitchen counter.
His quest for a pan and tea-leaves seemed to go nowhere. Ila relented.
She parked him on a bar-stool, spun it around a few times, till she found his smile.

Ila      : How old is Anshu now?

Nikhil :  She turned four last month, you remember her name?

Ila      : Is she as pretty as her mother?

Nikhil :  She doesn’t look as bad as the father.

Ila       :  Thank God for small mercies ! Sugar ?

Nikhil  :  Usual.

Ila        :  I don’t know how my baby would have looked like.

The electric-kettle whistle seared through the image in  her head. She felt his breath giftwrapped in a dream on the arch of her slender neck. Her silver ear-rings nodded, certain about this man but she didn’t always agree with her earrings. She wasn’t sure if she could cope with intimacy at this point.

Ila       :  Keep away… married man!

Her reaction made him move away from her guarded body. They looked at each other for a moment that seemed like a year. She volunteered a smile. He stretched his arm for a packet of Oreo, on the third shelf of the kitchen panel. A packet of cookies between them ensured that they remained just ‘good friends’.

As he poured tea in their respective cups, she extracted a bottle from a drawer, full of pills.

Nikhil : Why are you doing this to yourself?
Ila :  I can’t be strong all the time.
Nikhil : Maybe you should get them in brighter colours…


***
Ila : What would have happened Nikhil if I had died and my baby had lived ?
Nikhil: Shut up!

Ila      : Marriage has been good for you partner…
Nikhil laughed.
Ila      :  It’s been a while, isn’t it ?
Nikhil: What ? sex ?
Ila      :  Since you laughed like that ?

Ila slowly left the kitchen. She didn’t feel like waiting for the answer. He didn’t follow her. He joined her a few minutes later; girls need time to gather their thoughts.  He sat next to her, quietly. She didn’t move away.

Ila : Don’t you have coll...I mean office?
Nikhil : We have met after what like now ...seven years!
Ila      : Stop counting!
Nikhil: Ok, so you ...and your office?
Ila      : No office.
Nikhil : Breakfast?
Ila      : No.
“Walk?”
“No”
“Scrabble?”
“No”
“ Football?”
“No”
“Maths?”
“No”
“Hide n’ seek?”
“No”
“Book cricket?”
“No”
 “Beer?”
“No”
“Wine?”
“No”
“Music?”
“Yes”
“Long drive”
“Yes”
“Love?”
“Yes?”
“Baby?”
“Yes?”
“With me? ”

For Ila, time stopped. She found herself tipping her head in a quiet nod.
The rains started afresh. The windows looked charming, drenched in the voluptuous monsoons.

Nikhil got up, started to shut the windows, the doors, drew the curtains. The day was overcast. He plucked a music CD from one of the drawers.
Ila was sitting on the floor, her head over her knees.
Her heart skipped a beat as she felt Nikhil’s hand on her forehead.
She was still. She heard him walk away. And walk back to her, this time he had a glass of water in one hand and a tablet.

“ Go on ...take it. We all can do with some help some time.” Ila obeyed.
She heard a metallic clink. He had taken his car keys out and found her set as well, for the house. Slowly, he got her on her feet and wrapped his raincoat around her.

Nikhil : Shall we?

She looked at this Nikhil as he looked only into her eyes, before scooping her up. They left the main door with her draped on him. She couldn’t believe an interface with the world in this amorphous form. She tried to protest about this abduction but he didn’t reply. First the elevator, then the parking lot, the car, he opened the door for her each time. Her girlfriends would never believe that she had known one man all along, in our times, who would do that, always.

Ila faintly protested.
Nikhil:  You were never such a coward.

Nikhil drove. Ila felt the years wash away.
Nikhil hadn’t yet looked at her.
The silence was as comfortable as a sunset on the shoulder on a January morning.

Nikhil : You remember Chandni tea stall?
Ila       :  Of course…
Nikhil: I was there last week, alone.

Ila was quiet.
Nikhil: I found this girl there.
Ila looked away.
Nikhil : She is this little..I call her Chandni.
Ila said nothing.
Nikhil : You can call her what you want
Ila : Meaning?
Nikhil : That is for you to find out…

Ila looked at the rain.
The breeze against the windscreen made the raindrops walk up.
Nikhil : She is about a month old, and I want her for us…

Ila put her right foot on his left foot.
The clutch relented, she changed the gears, Nikhil pulled over.
Nikhil : “ I want us a baby, Ila.”
Ila stared at the wipers, insistent for a yes from her.

The south-west monsoon persisted in its journey eastwards.
The rains washed away the salt. Ila and Nikhil headed for that tea and that one gift together, which made life more worthwhile than just love could ever make.
                                                                   
***

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