Could’ve..

It was killing her. Literally killing her. She didn’t know where it was coming from, this fist that was squeezing her chest. This burning in her eyes…oh the burning…if only she could put it off with a flood of tears. But she couldn’t. That she was sure of. It had never been in her to ease the pain with tears. The irony was the pain had an audience within her. A part of her that was standing back, slightly amused, saying “Hmm…so this is how it feels to have loved and lost.

Loved? Is that what she had been doing for the past few days? If that was so, then Gautham Vasudev Menon sure as hell had it wrong. There had been no violins or stolen glances or even a lingering smile. There as sure as hell were no proposals or ‘I’ll-love-you-till-the-end-of-my-lifes’. Not even an ‘I-have-a-thing-for-you’. Nor had she know, by some inexplicable cosmic suggestion that he was in love with her. In fact, to this day, she had no idea if he was.

However, it had all begun in a fashion that was the baap of all clichés – through a common friend. This ‘common friend’ (let’s call him – for it is a he in this particular story – Mr.CF for the moment) is the most evenly distributed species that has ever walked the earth – every gang has at least one. He is the most cheerful, vibrant guy you’ll ever meet. He has been in a relationship, a very exciting relationship since you’ve known him which is probably why he thinks his mission in life is to match of the people who are ‘meant-to-be’. And he is good. Almost 90 % success rate he has, even though his methods of connecting the people who are ‘meant-to-be’ is often questionable.

Regardless, it came as a surprise when Mr.CF came in one day and told her that someone has a thing for her. “Uvv…!” was her reaction, for that sure she was that he was pulling her leg. “No, seriously. Swear to God”, he insisted. She grinned at him and shrugged it off. A few days passed. Every time he passed her in the corridor (the CF i.e.), he’d ask her “Have you thought about what I told ya?” and she’d smile at him and wave it off.

To nobody’s surprise, as days passed on, the idea started growing on her. Curiosity came first. What was he like? What did he like in her? Did he find her gorgeous? Was there anything about her that he didn’t like? Did he notice her when she walked into the room? To find the answer to the first question, she did the obvious – landed up on his Facebook profile. And there, between the books he liked and the music he loved, she realised that she and he bowed to a different deity. Uh oh. A casual mention of a ‘hypothetical situation in which she falls in love with a guy of a different religion’ was presented before her parents. Negative.

“So..did you think about it? He’s really into you, you know…” CF told her.

“Religion scene aavm”, she told him.

“What if we work around that?”

“Na…you can’t work around that. At least, my folks can’t.”

“What if his folks can?”

“They can’t. No one can”, she responded.

“He’s gonna ask them. He wants to, but should he?”

She didn’t know what to say. The logical part in her, the realist, knew well that no good was ever gonna come out of it. It was one thing to spout “religion is bullshit”, another to practise it. After all, one’s life was never truly one’s own. What she didn’t anticipate was the part in her that wanted it to be true. Like the camel that crept in to rest its hump, he had crept into a corner of her mind and before she knew it, he’d carved out a cosy corner for himself.

Which was why, when CF turned up one evening and said “It’s not gonna work out. He asked his family. They said no. He’s devastated, but that’s just the way things are, I guess. You guys’ll be friends, right?”, all she could do was smile and say “Of course! I told you it’ll never work out.” She pretended that she couldn’t feel the tightness in her chest, the piercing needle of sorrow (or was it regret?) that threatened to burst her heart. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t mentioned, much less promised her anything.

And it wasn’t like she was in love with him. You couldn’t be in love with someone over a week’s time.

No, she definitely wasn’t in love with him.

But she could have. Over the week, she had realized that she could easily fall in love with him. It’s almost like the bud of a flower, ready to blossom but it’s just not quite there yet. And she liked him a lot, she really did. She thought about him often, but she didn’t love him.

She could, though. She knew she could.

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31 days

“No, he isn’t home.”

Pause.

“No sir, I don’t know where he is. He hasn’t contacted me.”

This time the pause is longer. She could almost feel the waves of disbelief emanating from the faceless, yet strangely terrifying man-with-the-deep voice at the other end of the phone. She waits for him to respond, to call her bluff and smack her with verbal threats as she had for the past 30 days.

Silence. She shifts the receiver to dry her sweaty palms on her sari pallu and absentmindedly rubs off the dust between the number keys of the telephone with her fingers. She waits. The sound of intake of breath through the phone is cut off abruptly. And then, just a dial tone.

Trembling hands replaced the receiver. She holds on to it for a moment, her eyes closed and the other hand clutching her mangalsutra. It seems as if she is safe. For now.

She heads to the kitchen, her eyes noting the time on the clock mounted on the wall. Quickly, efficiently, she steams the vegetables and strains the rice, pausing in between to spread the dosa batter on the pan. A pinch of salt here, a dash of oil there, she moves like a musician, a jazz player, coaxing flavour out of the numerous pots and pans that surround her. Before long, the kitchen is filled with food and the grumbling of her two minions-of-Satan. They move like Shaktimaan, little bouts of cyclone, flying from one place to another and leaving off isolated pools of destruction. For one the dosa is too thick, the other is “borrrred” (the number of ‘r’s being directly proportional to the level of dosa’s lameness) of dosa. She silently packs their lunch boxes, taking care to pack it the way each prefers it, as her eyes roam over her bundles of joy, noting the mismatched slides and wayward ribbons. With a light touch on the head and a tweak of the pigtails, she sees them off. Minutes later, she heads out of the house to her workplace.

The eerie silence and closed offices remind her of the phone call in the morning. It was from the District Collector’s office calling to enquire about her husband’s whereabouts. You see, her husband was one of the thousands taking part in the strike by the government employees against attempts to revoke financial benefits. Not unheard of or very dangerous, as a rule. But things took a turn for the worse when the Collector supposedly agreed to issue an arrest warrant in his name. Her husband handled a significant section in the Office and it was imperative that he get back to work, which was why his refusal to distance himself from the strike was to be dealt with seriously.

And so she had been walking on coal ever since that fateful evening when he was informed of the chance of arrest. A blur of backpack being pulled out and clothes being jammed in, a whirlwind of possible locations to lie low at, an array of quick phone calls, a quick pat on her cheek and he was gone. Her husband, the epitome of common man, with his unflinching sincerity and mild political activism might possibly be arrested. By the police. And locked in a cell.

Her head throbbed.

She thought of the nights when she packed up her 2 kids and headed off to a friends’ apartment, scared that the police might come in and haul her off in an attempt to lure out her husband. Every fleeting bob of light passing through the window was the police coming to get her. The ringing of the phone seemed to induce in her a sense of impending doom. She caught herself praying and making bargains with Him so that she and her own may be left alone. She was tired of living the double life, of acting as if she didn’t know where her husband was, of keeping up the charade of Daddy-has-gone-on-an-official-tour, of playing dumb with her colleagues.

Above all, she was tired of aching for him. Of finding bits of him everywhere. Strands of his salt and pepper hair (lately more salt than pepper) caught on the comb. The lingering scent of his aftershave. His books, with their corners neatly tucked, strewn about on the table…

The ringing of the darn phone cut through her thoughts. Again, the now-familiar sense of dread coursed through her. Involuntarily she shivered. And picked up the phone.

“Hello..?”

Aah… That familiar voice. A spasm of pleasure wriggled its way through her trepidation.

“How are you? Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. There’s some good news. The strike has officially ended.”

Relief. Sweet relief coursed through every cell of her body.

“After 31 days, I’ll finally be home tomorrow. I can’t wait to see the kids and you.”

“Ok”, she said. “They’ll be ecstatic.”

“See you then.” The phone went dead in her hand.

And she wept. In utter bliss.

***

The government employees’ agitation of February 2002 saw around 5.5 lakh government employees participating in an indefinite strike to protest against the curtailment of the benefits being enjoyed by them as part of the steps to overcome the financial crisis facing the State. The strike went on for 32 days.  For a detailed report, refer this link to an article which appeared in ‘The Hindu’ in connection with the same.

http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/2002/02/01/stories/2002020105000300.htm

http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/2002/03/10/stories/2002031006150600.htm