Saturday, May 14, 2005

[Short Story] The winter of our lives

He squeezed his car in the space between two Maruti 800s in the cramped parking lot after spending the last fifteen minutes trying to find a suitable place to park his car. He never liked parking his expensive car in Indian markets as he was paranoid of getting a dent from one of the thousands of nincompoop drivers who had bribed their way to a driving license. He sighed and opened his car door which hit something metallic within a few inches of its movement. The movement of the car door was blocked by the adjacent car, leaving no room for him to get out. He cursed and moved over to the passenger side and tried the door there. Again the door was hindered in its motion but here it opened a significant bit more than its counterpart on the other side and he managed to squeeze out of the car. Locking his car was not a problem as he had the latest remote-controlled locking system that allowed him to secure the car at the press of a button.
He knew that the shop was going to be filled with people shopping for the coming festive season, which was exactly what he was here for. Usually in this season, the shop would be teeming with women and their husbands trying to get the attention of the over-worked and overwhelmed salespersons. The hustle and bustle of the shop never ceased to scare him and he always wondered why people would forego a little comfort over long waits in endless lines in an oxygen-scant environment to save a little money but then having been born with a silver spoon, he had never experienced the everyday financial pressures of a typical Indian middle-class family.
He walked the mile from his parked car to the shop, every step heightened his anxiety that he would miss the window of time during which his friend in the jewellery shop took his break. An old college friend of his, who had after graduation followed his father’s footsteps into the jewellery business by becoming his father’s replacement in the shop, working as one the store’s several helpers had told him that if he could come during his break he could help him but that he would not be able to go show him variety or give him much time to choose. At least, this way he could circumvent the crowd and finish his chore without wasting a lot of his precious time.
Nearer the store, there is always this horde of beggars who badgered the shoppers into giving them the alms that would feed their hungry children. They particularly targeted the upper middle-class men and he was no exception. With his designer suit, swiss watch, and RayBan sunglasses, he was the perfect target for them. He always gave alms generously as the sight of the improvised and their misfortune was unbearable to his eyes.
He stopped to look at the shabbily dressed woman with her child clutched in her arm. Her clothes were so filthy that it seemed that dirt from the entire world had claimed residence on her worn-out old clothes. The semi-naked child was as dirty as herself and there was no evidence of a chance to take a clean bath for weeks. It was sights like these that made him stop and wonder at the contradictory nature of the uparwala, the almighty who giveth and taketh. He dropped a ten-rupee note into her tiny cup and disappeared into the crowd that thronged the shop before she could realize what he had done and thank him for his generosity as he would have been embarrassed by the undeserved gratitude that she would have expressed.
The store was an old, famous enterprise that had built up its reputation as a trusted shop where the products could be reliably bought. It was a store that his mother would occasionally visit tagging him along with her when he was a child. Those days it was a smaller building and it was never crowded. All his sisters had got their wedding jewels made in this shop. He remembered being fascinated with the care with which the ornaments were passed around, with sighs of wonder as it passed from one female member of the family to another. Sometimes, he would be made to offer his neck as a model for the piece of gold. The joy of wearing jewellery was stayed with him for a long time and he was renowned in college for being the only guy around who could be found wearing multiple forms of gold at any point of time.
After the death of his father, his mother had to stop wearing jewellery in accordance with the norms that a widow had to follow and it had been a long time since she had visited the shop, much less bought an ornament for herself. So much had changed about the shop since then including the responsibility of the business passing to a new generation and a new entrance gate which he noticed was flashier than the one he remembered from his childhood days. The old doors were made of rosewood and were huge, giving the formidable impression of a fortress, unlike the small glass doors that opened into the shop now. As he walked inside, he noticed the interiors had changed too in quite the same way as the doors. He came out his reverie when somebody pushed from behind and without uttering a word of apology, the interloper moved on. He quickly glanced at the time and realizing that he had only had a few more minutes, he forged ahead.
Dressed in his designer suit and expensive sunglasses, he looked the part of an imposing picture of a son of a rich industrialist with a lot of connections, both political and financial. People rarely resisted such a person jumping the line and would make way for him when he had the words, excuse me, on his lips. Occasionally, he would have to explain that he was not there for some other business when he met with the occasional stern looks from a person who indicated towards the line. They usually bought his story as he did not look the part of a person who needed to save money.
As he trudged on through the milling crowd, his senses were swamped with a lot of sensory data. The extreme proximity from all sides, the nauseating smell of sweat mingled with the stale air-conditioned air of the environment, the loud conversations of different people, all combined over-worked his senses. Yet, amidst the entire mental disturbance all these different sensory activity was causing him, his brain sub-consciously noticed something familiar. He would never know what it was that caught his attention. He would forever think that it was providence that played a role in this chance happening. Whatever it was that caught his attention, it drove everything else out of his mind.

The tapping on her shoulders made her whirl around suddenly and look at the person beside her. She let out a short gasp followed by a swift movement of her hand to the open mouth as her mind recognized the person who had disturbed her, “you!!”

He looked at her mutely, struggling to find a word to express his surprise at finding her in such an unexpected place. She was wearing a cotton chiffon saree, the kind that was ideal for this situation, which had a nice pink design on it. Her hair was bunched up and her sparse jewellery consisted of the a pair of gold bangles, a ring on the ring finger of her left hand, a chain around her neck that was mostly hidden under her saree and a pair of studs in each of her earlobes.

The moment of recognition had passed but still the excitement of having met someone from the past remained, albeit a shade lesser in intensity compared to the initial shock.

“I thought you had gone forever and that I would never see you again.” And then she felt the anger surge through her and she said testily, “you did not even have the courtesy to answer to my letters!” It was much like the anger she had felt when a long time ago she had a punched a young cock-sure kid had mocked her in a playground. She had been playing with her friends when this new kid came to play with them. Wearing branded T-shirt, shorts and new shoes, he clearly different from the rest of them who were mostly attired in old clothes and chappals. It was a game of street cricket that they were playing and they let him join in the middle of the game. He had considered himself to be good at the game but when his bowling was taken apart and that too by a girl, a sense of shame and subsequently anger filled him, and he started calling her names. The argument became more heated but was brought to an abrupt end when he found himself on the ground after a fist had filled his field of view. It had been such a long time ago but it also had been the start of a remarkable friendship that had lasted a very long time but they had drifted apart some years ago. She smiled as she recalled the look of extreme fear on the face of her harasser as he looked up her with his bleeding nose. The smile squelched the ire she had felt earlier and she said, “Do you remember the first time we met?”

Relieved, he replied, “Of course I do. For a moment there I thought that there was going to be a dramatic re-enactment of that scene for the benefit of all these people.”

“Well, you always had the ability to vex me.”

He was about to note that it was not his fault that her temper flared for the most insignificant thing when he noticed that she was not alone. Listening to their conversation with an interest that could hardly be that of an eavesdropper was a man who could have been only one specific person.

“So, this must be your husband”, he said to her.

Reminded of his presence, she responded, “Yes, he is. Of course you wouldn’t know. You didn’t even respond to my wedding invitation. Not even the customary congratulatory message of an individual who hadn’t been able to attend it...”

Then she introduced them to each other. Her husband turned out to be an engineer in a construction company.

“Oh, you are the one who got the bloody nose! I have heard all about you!”

“In my defense, I did not know that she was taking Karate lessons. If I had, I would not have taunted her.” He continued,” After that, I befriended her in the hope that she would protect me but instead I had to suffer the bruises her punches gave me for years. I bet you are a victim of a little domestic violence.”

They all laughed at that. He noticed that her laughter was subdued now; it was more of a smile than a laugh. Her laugh had been legendary. She used to have a loud, neighing kind of laughter that carried a long distance which was embarrassing for her parents. They had had tried to discipline her laugh but had never succeeded before. It was that laugh that had rung out in the middle of a college play, at a moment that had not written or played out with an intention to make the audience laugh. The memory of that day was very clear in his mind as it had been very embarrassing for him; embarrassing because he had just made his entry and had spoken his first dialogue of the play on stage. It was a play they had worked on for weeks and he had been particularly proud of his part in the play and had enthusiastically gone about working on different aspect of it. He had procured the costumes, translated the dialogues from English and had taken gotten the props specially made. His enthusiasm had made her come to watch him, in spite of the fact that she had her mid-terms the next day. The play was A Streetcar Named Desire and he was playing the part that his idol Marlon Brando had played in the movie version of the 1950s. It would have two of him taped together to have looked like Brando from the movie and so, when he came out dressed as a sailor and spoke his first dialogue with the lisp of the Godfather, she had been unable to contain herself and had burst out laughing. It was much later, viewing at the photographs of the play and imagining his scene on the stage, when he realized how ridiculous he had been playing Stanley. Her laughter had showed him what he had tried to depict was quite contrary to what he was in reality. That laughter that had disappeared into the annals of human memory leaving nothing but a trace of its former effervescence in the years that had intervened between that day on stage and today where all she could produce was a little air. Yes, she had changed. Time was like the wind in the desert, always making, destroying or shifting the dunes of sand.

“I see that your fingers are bare. I take that as a sign of your bachelordom, am I right?”

Her husband’s question startled her and she grabbed his right hand and then his left. She looked at him with an unspoken question in her eyes and he immediately knew the reason for her puzzlement. But what could he say? The truth was that he had just lost his interest. Over the years, his passion for the one thing he really loved had declined and he had not noticed till it was too late and by then, he had become indifferent to it. He answered her with a barely noticeable shrug that was more expressed through his eyes than his shoulders.

“Perhaps it is with the intention of ending that freedom that you are here?” he continued in the same tone. He was completely oblivious of the silent exchange between the two old friends whose language could hardly be expected to be interpreted by a person out of the ring of the friendship.

“No, not really. I am here to buy a present for my mother and my sisters.” He was glad for the diversion. It gave him the chance to avoid the awkward moment that her husband’s observation had created. He went on about his mother’s love for the Mizhakadi style and how she still liked to peruse through her ornaments though wearing them was a taboo she strictly observed. On being asked about the Mizhakadi style, he started an elaborate lecture on the origins, features, virtues and beauty of the style, and how it has been on the decline on the popularity measure over the past century, and how he had trouble finding shops that made jewellery in that style and even if they did, there was a great paucity in the variety and number of designs allocated to it. He went on and on without realizing that he had long lost the attention of his audience. In part it was an attempt to circumvent the sticky query in her eyes and in part, it was a lost passion that had suddenly been given wings to let itself be expressed.
He had always been passionate about the theatre and had at one time wanted to be a theatre actor. It usually took him about a week to change his intended profession but the ambition of becoming a theatre personality lasted for far more than that. He took acting classes and voice modulation lessons, and she had to admit that he had become quite adroit at pitching his voice the most effective way for every situation. Hearing him speak on his pet topic now made her recall the heady days when his mother disapproved of his every career plans. As a concerned mother, she wanted him to be successful and she chastised him for wasting his time on what she considered to be frivolous activities. They would regularly have heated arguments over the matter, which usually ended with him walking out in a fury. It seemed like only yesterday that he had left his home in a huff, packing his bags and with hopes of a success in the theatre world. Yet, it wasn’t the same person who stood in front of her now. He did not seem to have the restless energy that characterized him in their more youthful days.
Looking back at those long lost times with nostalgia, she wondered she would be able to reconcile with her past self the emptiness that she had willfully surrounded herself with in the present. There were times of great ambitions and great rebellious behaviour, and somewhere along the way they had petered out… Lost in the myriad alleys of the past, she did not realize that he had stopped his monologue and was looking enquiringly at her. She smiled in an attempt to hide her unhappiness that was evident in her demeanour.
What was she thinking so deeply about?, he wondered. Is it just nostalgia or something more?
Seeing her had reminded him of the times of their youth when time seemed endless and they were eager to become independent. They had dreamed together of a life free of all obligations and expectations.
As it always happens when in crowds, they were pushed so close together that they could feel the hot air of the others’ breath.
They used to think alike in the old days and they instinctively knew the others’ state of mind. It had not changed much in spite of the gap in friendship all these years. A gesture was enough to get into the skin of the other. They say old habits die hard.
They also say that your eyes are the windows to your soul. One could peep into them and look right into your heart. Perhaps, that is only true among old friends…
It was like the years that had separated them had not managed to separate them actually and in an instant, they knew what the years had done to them. She knew why he had given up his dreams and followed the conventional path that leads to success as society defines it. And he understood why she had entered wedlock in accordance with the wishes of her parents and entered the household of another patriarch with whom she was expected to live out the rest of her life.
In that instant when they peeped into eachother’s lives, they sensed a mutual feeling of loneliness, a loneliness which breaks the walls of resistance of the toughest human being, a loneliness that grows in intensity rather than lessens in the company of human beings, a loneliness that can only be shared, understood and alleviated by old friends. You could do nothing about this loneliness as it so overwhelming that everything seems futile and you accept the changes in your life that you resisted against with great fervour before.
Inevitable, the world had changed around them and they too had with it. The flow of time had slowly eroded their identities. He was now known as the son of so and so, and she, the wife of so and so. Their lives were not their own anymore and it saddened them deeply to find the other in the same state as themselves.
The crowd jostled them violently and the spell of their private moment was broken.

3 comments:

pseudonym said...

this is the first time i hv read ur story so am not familiar with ur writing style, just wanna askt that why such a pompous build up for a simple story; gives a feeling like karan johar's flicks...

MadHat said...

I am so sad as I am so unappreciated :((

heavyNash said...

hi dude,

in case you havent guessed yet, this is tvac, the one and the only

and fear not, your story touched some chords in my biiiig heart;

i know i wont end up this way;

check out my retarded blog and leave a few comments (i hope you care enough)

--
HeavyNash

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