If asked, she would not be able to put a finger on the exact moment when she became the prematurely old woman that was staring at her from the mirror. Looking at her dull sunken eyes, her mind flashed back to a photo buried somewhere among the pile of books, diaries and photo albums that lay slowly gathering dust in a small shelf in the corner of the bedroom. The photo was taken almost 10 years ago, where she sat with her friends outside her school in uniform, all looking happily into the camera. She remembered having very beautiful eyes back then – without dark circles or fine lines, two dark brown orbs cheerily gazing at the world defined by thick black kohl. She still wore the kohl exactly the same way – or so she remembered – though they did not look anything like the young spunky thing she was.
She looked at the shelf again, judging whether she wanted to look through her things for that photo – and put them back again. She shrugged without being aware. Oh never mind.
She looked back into the mirror, adjusting her khadi kurta and tucking her limp hair behind her ear. Absentminded, she glanced out of the window. Even though it was just 2 pm on an October day in Delhi, the sky was grey, with a nip in the air. Winter’s early this year, she thought. She switched off the lights in all the rooms, and locked the door before leaving – giving a vacuous smile to her next door neighbor in the 4-floor apartment building, Gina aunty.
“Hardly mid-October and it is already getting cold. Better get the razais and sweaters out, huh Riya?” the affable old lady, attending to her balcony garden, chirped. Riya snapped to attention. “Huh? Uh … yeah, aunty. I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Homi’s at work? Don’t you have office today?”
“Yeah, he just left an hour ago. He will be back at around midnight. As usual. My off day has been shifted to Tuesdays now, going out to meet a friend.”
“You young people! At a time when you should be enjoying a new married life, you are both so busy working. And at different hours and days as well! When will you get time to make kids?” she chided, accidently sprinkling too much water on her budding dahlias.
“Oh don’t worry, Gina aunty. Enough time for kids. And I’ll tell Homi you asked,” Riya smiled, half-amused, half-embarrassed, “Okay, I have to rush now. See you later, aunty!”
Rushing down the stairs, she didn’t quite catch what the bespectacled grandmother of 5 continued to mutter. Kids! she laughed to herself as she beckoned an auto in front of the lane.
“Kahaan jana hai, maidam?”
“Green park market, bhaiyya.”
“80 rupees lagega.”
“Roj aya jaya karti hoon yaha CR Park se. 60 rupaye se ek paisa zyada nahi.”
“Chalo 70 de dena maidam. CNG ka daam bahut barh gaya hai. Aap parhe likkhe logon ko to pata hain.”
“65 le lena. Ab chalo.”
The daily bargaining with auto drivers followed the same script, with minor changes as per destination and fee. Similar to so many other daily conversations, she philosophized – dazed eyes staring out at the disappearing traffic as the auto whirred by. The wind got chilly as the auto picked up speed on the surprisingly empty Ring Road. Should have worn a stole, she regretted.
She had married her long-time boyfriend less than a year ago. While he worked night shifts at an MNC in Gurgaon, she had a regular day job at a KPO in Noida.
“We’re never going to meet each other after we are married,” she had gushed, lying next to him at his bachelor pad with his arm supporting her head – a year or so before their marriage. “Don’t worry; I will wake you up ‘lovingly’ when I get home from work at night. And you can wake me ‘gently’ up for a few minutes before you go to work in the mornings,” Homi had grinned mischievously, looking down at her make a face.
Passing South Ex, she smiled sardonically to herself. That’s what we thought! Hardly 9 months into the post married life, and what she had prophesized was already happening. Getting back from work, he would be too tired except to exchange some perfunctory words before going to bed. And mornings would be too rushed an affair for her to do much except kiss his sleepy tousled head before dashing out of the house. All our conversations are on phone, it’s still like when we were in a long distance relationship for a few years, she realized suddenly with a pang.
The auto jolted to a stop. “Yeh lo aa gaya maidam.”
She counted out 65 rupees, and was putting the latch back on her bag, when she noticed Padma waving wildly from the other side of the road. Grinning, Riya waved back as she made to cross the road.
“You look SO grown up!” the dimpled girl with poker straight hair screamed as Riya approached her.
“Is that polite for old? And you look terrific as ever, obviously. How’s Arnab?” Padma shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “Okay.”
Despite both living in different cities at different times, and both having completely different personalities – they continued to be good friends as they grew from adolescents into women. They entered the quiet little pub ‘Charlie’s’ – Padma’s favorite in Delhi. Adjusting their eyes to the dim interiors, they made their way to a table at the back.
Riya took in the ambience. Wooden ceiling and floors with high back chairs on tall round tables – replete with a Johnny Cash number playing softly to complete the cowboy look. She rolled her eyes at Padma, who protested, “What? The food’s really good. You wait till you try the pork ribs.” Riya cheered up at that.
Pork and pubs have been quite off Riya’s list ever since her marriage. Homi wasn’t a fan of either, and living together meant she weaned off those habits over time. “Do they have steaks? I haven’t had one in so long!” she said as she looked through the menu.
“I am pregnant,” Padma said without preamble as they both settled into their chairs. Riya dropped her menu card in shock. After a passing waiter had picked it up and left after taking their orders, she looked at Padma, “Have you told Arnab yet? So, you guys getting married?”
Padma looked at her big concerned eyes for a while, and said, “It isn’t Arnab’s.”
“WHAT?” Riya shouted. A group of men sitting a few tables away turned around to look. She again said in a quieter voice, “What? Who is it? Have you been cheating on Arnab?”
Padma’s eyes filled with tears. “I didn’t mean to cheat… It’s just that we have been going through a rough phase. You know he doesn’t want to marry now, and has been keeping busy with his family business. Over a month ago, we had a big fight over it. You know my folks are pestering me to get married, especially after you did last December. I left for Chennai for an education conference. Later that night, all of us delegates went out for a party. There was this charming man from our Bangalore circle. We got talking, had a few too many drinks. I was already angry with Arnab. And …”
Both women sat in silence for a while, as the speakers changed songs to “Achy breaky heart”. “Did you tell this to that sonofa… that charming delegate?”
Padma’s lips quivered. “I can’t. After the … night, the following morning he told me that he was married with a kid and that this was a mistake – but we should take it in the right spirit and part as happy strangers. He said it was a wonderful night … and …,” she choked up.
Riya’s eyes flashed fire, as she reached out for her friend’s hands to comfort her. “That fucking asshole. Besides, even if we were to overlook that you slept with a complete stranger, why on earth didn’t you use protection?” she asked as kindly as she could, without conking Padma on her head for her silliness.
Padma waited while the waiter arrived with their food – a BBQ pork rib and mohito for Padma and a pork steak and beer for Riya.
“I … we... were too drunk to realize, I think. We didn’t even remember this the next morning. I missed my period this time and took a home pregnancy test a few days back…” she said, picking at her rib.
“What are you going to tell Arnab? Wait, you won’t tell him, will you? Just see a doctor and get rid of it.” Riya’s eyes searched Padma’s for agreement, with her forkful of steak hung in midair. She was suddenly afraid of the way Padma was looking at her.
“I told Arnab about the pregnancy. I told him it was his kid. He doesn’t know it wasn’t his. When we had sex last month, I wasn’t ovulating. But I was ovulating while in Chennai. So I know this kid is that other guy’s.”
“Wha… what did Arnab say?”
Padma’s face finally lit up in a shy smile. “He says we should get married now.”
For the second time, Riya’s shout of exclamation attracted the attention of the people in the pub. Rubbing her eyes with her index finger and thumb – a habit she has picked up lately – she contemplated the scenario. It was a win-win for all parties… “but at the cost of a lifelong lie?” she accused Padma.
The latter shifted uneasily in her seat, and maintaining composure, replied, “I know you would get judgmental, Riya. But I really needed to tell you. Everyone is not lucky as you and Homi da, you know. Dating since college, love marriage and living happily ever after. I don’t want to get rid of the baby, especially if it is the one thing that makes Arnab change his mind about getting married. Our parents don’t have to know.” The last sentence had a pleading note to it, as if Riya’s acceptance will settle the entire matter.
In a way, it did. Both the women have shared all their secrets since childhood – their crushes, kisses, boyfriends, sex – and both regarded each other’s decision as the last word in any issue.
Riya did not say anything. She knew that Padma has always been temperamental, but she had mellowed down a lot in her growing years, and would contemplate such a risky decision now only as a sort of last resort. She still did not want the burden of making such an unwise decision for her friend, but Padma’s misty, mascara-smudged eyes wore a look of extreme unhappiness. “I really think it’s a bad idea, and I don’t think I have to list down the repercussions that you will face IF the truth ever comes out. Please take some more time to think about it, Paddy. If you still think it’s wise after a couple of days, I will happily bestow my blessings on the three of you,” she told her softly.
Padma looked down at her plate in deep contemplation, and nodded. “Yes, I’ll do that, Reese. I am just so sure that things will all fall into place once we get married and have this kid.”
Coming out of ‘Charlie’s’, Padma took the metro back home. The sky had got darker, and it looked like it will rain anytime now. Sitting on a half empty carriage, she hoped she reached home before the rain. It wasn’t a long ride, and she looked around at the other passengers. A young couple, hardly out of school, was sitting a few seats away from her, talking animatedly. She smiled to herself, and Padma’s words came back to her. Everyone is not lucky as you and Homi da.
Her smile faltered as she recalled the last few months of their engagement – how she had nearly called off the wedding, but decided against it after considering the pain it would cause to everyone involved. And not once, but quite a few times. She wondered if she had done the right thing. Ironically, no one else except Homi – not even Padma – was aware of her indecisiveness. All her friends and relatives were so convinced that hers was such a happy relationship that she would have been embarrassed to tell anyone that it was becoming just the reverse.
And it sneaked up so stealthily that either of us hardly noticed. Arguments that were ended without any closures just for the sake of peace, the over-familiarity of old couples which transforms passion into the mundane, the taking for grantedness, the missed movie dinners – these and more somehow crept into their lives and choked the love out of it. Absence of apologies, inadequate apologies, the ennui and the jadedness –all these just tightened the stranglehold.
“Nehru Place metro station”, the P.A. announced.
Riya jerked into reality. As she came out of the metro station, the rain was already lashing fiercely at stranded passersby. Cursing under her breath, she was soaked to her bones by the time she reached her apartment.
The lock was gone from the door. Did Homi get back home early today?
Entering, she was greeted by the stereo playing “Wonderful Tonight” in the living room. “Homi?” she called out.
“Hey jaaneman!” Homi called out from the kitchen. Puzzled, she put her bag on the bed and went to him. He had her back to her and was cleaning the chicken at the sink. “I got off early today, so I did some shopping and came home. I am cooking dinner tonight. You relax – I rented the DVD of ‘The Scent of a Woman’. And there’s some beer in the fridge…” he paused as he turned around to see her dripping on the kitchen floor. “You will catch a cold! Go dry yourself. We’ll then watch the movie.”
She looked at him, standing in his pajamas and vest, his eyes hoping for some happy reaction for this unexpected surprise – and smiled. “You missed out that piece of chicken. It still isn’t clean,” she reprimanded before going to take a hot shower.
Coming out of the bathroom in her bathrobe, she went to the mirror. She smiled as she heard Homi bustling around in the kitchen, crooning to “Every Breath You Take” now playing on the stereo, and picked up the kohl to her eyes.