This short story is selected as Story of the Month February’2014 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
It was the age of social networking and Shalini was glad to have found solace in the medium. For a loner that she was, this platform made her feel connected to the outside world. And why not?
She had found innumerable friends, acquaintances and once disconnected family members on the medium. Nothing was more pleasurable to her than the very idea of bonding and re-connecting with long lost friends.
She was a bit shy and reserved and never ventured the idea of accepting anonymous friend requests from complete strangers or people, even if they happened to be connected through some mutual friends. For her, they had to be connected to her in some good way or in some memorable way and the new friend request opposed to every bit of that!
However, until a few days ago, she was desperately hoping to see the request!
It was a regular day in the life of Shalini Dastoor, when she started checking her ‘Inbox’ before starting her daily article writing. For an active freelance writer that she was, she always felt it difficult to find time for socializing post 9’ish and so liked to wrap up this tiny part of her social world, first thing in the morning or else it would go in stand-by mode until night.
Post checking her inbox, she checked on the comments on her pictures. She had recently posted the pictures of her six month old toddler Vivaan and was basking in the compliments, when suddenly she noticed the comment from a familiar name.
“Hey Shalu, good to have found you at last! What a cute son you have! He looks so much like you, all chubby and cutie pie!” –Nidhi
‘Shalu’, the name rang a familiar feeling of love in Shalini’s heart. She smiled silently thinking how she used to feel ‘loved’ with this familiar name.
She whizzed past the list of comments, occasionally thanking people. However, she completely ignored Nidhi’s comment, gave her a general thanks and went back at work.
However, unlike other days, she kept coming back, signing in to check on her Inbox every now and then. She ‘was’ expecting the obvious, but there was no sign of it.
‘I shouldn’t be thinking about it!’ she convinced herself as she went to check on her toddler.
The day went by in her routine writing, cooking and playing with her toddler, yet from time to time, she drew back to her laptop to check on that ‘obvious’. She detested the idea, yet she desperately hoped to see it!
“What are you up to?” asked Raj, Shalini’s husband, giving her a quizzical look. “I’ve never seen you this restless with work?”
“Oh it isn’t work!” she replied casually. “It’s just checking on Vivaan’s picture. He has become the latest heartthrob and has been receiving likes and comments from all across the world!”
Raj picked up his toddler and nudged him fondly, making the child smile and gurgle his happiness in reply.
“Is our cutie pie a star already?” he asked without looking at Shalini. He was too engrossed to let his baby pull a shaft of his hair and spectacles.
“Yeah, it seems so!” she replied absent mindedly, as she surfed through the list of comments once again to find something new.
She somehow was no longer interested in reading the sea of comments. All she did was scroll down to look at Nidhi’s comment, which was nowhere in sight, post the last one.
Slightly dejected, she shut her laptop close and went back to her baby, who by then was feeling jubilant to have got a firm grip over his father’s hair, while the father good naturedly yelled.
Raj had fallen asleep and so had their son. Shalini was gently patting him, post his feed and tucking him in his crib, when she saw her android phone light up with a vibration. Shalini looked at the time. It was already 11 at night.
“Who on earth would it be now?” she mumbled in irritation as she yawned. Carefully tucking his son up, she slowly picked up her brightened cell phone. She had to check it quick as the little flashlight might awaken the kid.
Her heart skipped a beat. It was the obvious! A friend request from Nidhi!
Shalini felt a little elated, yet she did not click on ‘confirm’ tab. She kept her cell phone back on her bed side table and sat on the bed. She looked at her son’s crib, where the toddler’s chest heaved in slow motion. It was peaceful to watch him sleep, but today there was something extra peaceful about his demeanor! Or was it just her?
She sighed and decided to sleep.
The next day, as she flipped open her cell phone, the message stood there seeking her to confirm. However, Shalini could not strangely muster the courage to accept and acknowledge the fact that her school friend had come back in her life.
She let it go by, while getting on with her days, but still felt a pang of unknown guilt.
‘It wasn’t my fault!’ her thought bubble told her. ‘She was the one who distanced and now she can’t return just because she fancies too!’ she added to her thoughts grumbling.
Old feelings of hurt and sadness revived as she remembered the days.
School days were not so good with Shalini. She had repeated a class and was gathering efforts to get onto with her studies and new life in class. With her familial problems and school pressure and some friends boycotting her, life had held no meaning. Yet, she continued with the help of her sister and tried to move on.
Nidhi had brought in peace and acceptance into her life. Nidhi made Shalini feel normal again. She talked to her, shared tiffin with her and did everything to make her feel better. This had instilled confidence in Shalini and she felt she was doing well in accepting the world around her with more liberal attitude.
They were soon labeled as ‘soul sisters’ and wherever Nidhi went, Shalini ensured that she was around to help her.
Nidhi was no great student, but together they started scaling inches up in studies, in life and perspective towards people in general. Although, Nidhi never acknowledged this fact to Shalini or anybody else, but she did improve in studies because of the constant encouragement and push from Shalini. Shalini remembered how she used to take pains to get notes and updates on various subjects for her.
Shalini knew that she had to be there with Nidhi through thick and thin until something jerked her from that state of fantasy.
“I have to crack Medical exam and get through that college this time!” Nidhi had spoken exasperatedly one day. “My father has put in a lot of effort to make me educated and now I have to fulfill his desire of becoming a great dentist!”
Shalini admired her for her value and belief system.
“That’s great! I’m sure you will be able to! After all, you have a strong backing from him.”
“What do you mean by backing?” Nidhi shot back. “You think I’m talking about donation from him to get into the college?”
Shalini looked zapped. “Of course not! I meant about him being a great dentist himself and his ability to support you with your studies!”
“Really!” she looked at Shalini suspiciously.
“Anyway, why don’t you try and become something?” she asked menacingly.
Shalini froze. For the first time, she sensed an air of challenge in her voice.
“What do you want from life?” She repeated, looking at Shalini with an air of boredom.
“Umm… I haven’t really thought, but yeah not medical because I don’t think I have it in me! I…”
“You are right!” Nidhi spoke blatantly. “Maybe, you can do plain Bachelor’s or something! You are more suitable for that!”
Shalini felt a stab of pain. It wasn’t like she was a great student and could have cracked an IAS, but with ‘plain bachelor’s, Nidhi made it feel like some low level qualifying course, suitable for a low IQ Nidhi. She felt a stab of pain, yet she kept quiet.
Post school, life moved on. Nidhi got an admission on donation, quite contradictory to her statement. Her father, it appeared, had shelled a large corpus for her daughter, for being on the rolls of some senior hierarchal position in Lucknow dental college.
And Shalini, as per Nidhi, did the ‘plain bachelor’s’ in literature, from a college in Delhi, something she always liked and took pleasure in. Reading and writing was her only medium of spending good time!
Shalini loved the idea of visiting her and her family during vacations. Living away from home made her yearn for her family and Nidhi. She cherished the time with her family and liked the idea of re-igniting nostalgia. However, things were no longer rosy with Nidhi’s talks as they used to be before.
“Is there any future in ‘Literature’?” Nidhi had asked nonchalantly one day, when Shalini had been visiting her.
“Yeah why not!” Shalini replied to her question in a not-so-sure way! The only reason she could give herself was that she loved reading literature and writing.
Shalini did not know where the discussion was leading too, yet she knew that a career in literature led somewhere. Now that she was pursuing the course, she would find out what all options it had and give it back to Nidhi for the sake of an answer, for sure.
The next few visits grew all the more uncomfortable and alien for Shalini. She grew distressed and felt distanced from Nidhi on her next few visits. Shalini felt Nidhi’s taunts about her ‘no-future with literature’ increasingly hurtful. Although, she tried to reason out with various options like journalism, media and advertising and writing, but all she got from her friend was a cheesy ‘I’m sure’ smile and a guffaw!
The final nail in the coffin was brought, when post her course completion, Nidhi joined her father’s dental clinic and assisted him with patients. She grew more proud about her ‘earning’ label and got another reason to belittle Shalini’s non-working status.
Shalini’s marriage had been fixed and she was moving out soon to settle in Bangalore with her husband.
“Good that now marriage is on the cards!” Nidhi had replied in a sarcastic tone on hearing the news. “After all, if not doing a job, then at least you are doing something else to kill time!” she reasoned with Shalini, who looked hurt.
Timid for what she was, Shalini decided to stop speaking to her about the marriage plans and details. It was the biggest day of her life, yet she felt a pang of guilt and resentment for her best friend, who could not be a part of her wedding.
Shalini started adjusting into her new life with Raj in Bangalore, but the very status of ‘housewife’ started haunting her and she grew more restless. Nidhi’s e-mails grew hauntingly over her mind, reminding her repeatedly to reply her back, but replying back to Nidhi was never her forte!
“Why don’t you work?” Raj had opined one day. “You have a Master’s in Literature! I’m sure you’ll do well in some content writing or journalism kind of jobs!”
“Can I?” Shalini asked reluctantly. “Will I get jobs?”
Raj smiled looking amused. “Of course you will. I have many friends, who are in the field of journalism and they can assist you!”
Shalini had felt light and happy hearing the idea. She did not know whether she wanted to work or not, but the very ability to answer Nidhi back was what fuelled her desire to take up her copywriting work with a top firm in Bangalore.
From copywriter, to being a full-time freelance writer, life had taken a full swing for Shalini during five years of her marriage. Her job had given her a new zeal, a fresh start and above all a new meaning. She loved her work and aspired to be a writer in life.
The happiness that her job and achievements brought in, felt very big in front of the replies she planned to give back to Nidhi , especially after every time she read her taunting e-mails. As a result, her equation fell back into oblivion and the two friends lost connect.
Now almost after five years, Shalini, looked at the screen blinking red over her Inbox, and felt the feelings reviving. She thought of answering back for so many things that had gone unsaid or unexplained in the past, but just couldn’t muster the courage. All she did was to press the ‘confirm’ button and get over with it.
The reaction was immediate. It was as if Nidhi had been online and waiting for this confirmation. Within ten minutes of Shalini’s acceptance, she pinged her back.
Shalini’s eyes lingered on the size of the message content and feared the worst.
It’s been a long time since we spoke! You seem to be doing quite well in your domestic life. I must say, you have a very cute child. I’m sure life must be great as a mommy now! You were always good with home and domesticity. I knew you would do well. I, on the other hand, was too upright for all that and would have died with just that ‘homemaker’ status.
Anyway, I’m now based in Delhi, with my husband, who too is a dentist. We have recently opened a clinic together and are paving our way to little name and fame. I’m so happy to have done ‘Dentistry’ as you know I was always meant for it!
What about you? How do you spend your time? I know with a kid so small, you must be hardly getting any time for yourself, forget about a career! Not that you anyway fit the bill! J
Anyway, do let me know more about Raj’s work and say ‘namaste’ to your parents!
It’s always good to talk to you! Do reply.
Lots of love
Hot tears welled in Shalini’s eyes. In an impulse, she deleted the e-mail and blocked Nidhi from her networking page.
She was heaving breathlessly, trying to control the rage that was brewing inside. Here she was trying to forget the past and making an effort to move ahead in life and here was Nidhi, still the same old belittling pest!
At that sudden spur of moment, Shalini felt like getting back to her, with a reply to shut up! Nonetheless, she stood still and allowed hot tears to roll down her cheeks, without feeling the pain and angst of her insult once again.
‘She’s still the same!’ she thought.
“What happened?” Raj asked her tenderly.
Shalini was jolted back from her painful thoughts. She didn’t realize that Raj was back home, early from his office.
She quickly wiped her tears and smiled in vain.
“I know it’s Nidhi! Isn’t it? You have finally heard from her!” he asked loosening his tie.
“How did you…”
“It’s written over your face. Actually, I accidentally picked up your phone to ring ma today, when I noticed your ‘Inbox’ page open, with her unread mail.”
“Oh!” Shalini sighed. “It doesn’t matter!”
“It does!” Raj retorted angrily. “Why don’t you reply her once and for all and finish this? Can’t you see the pain she gives you with her words?”
“I will ignore her the way I have.”
“That will not solve anything. She has to know that you feel bad about the way she talks!”
Shalini kept quiet and fed ‘Cerelac’ to her toddler, who gave a quizzical look to mommy for shedding tears. The water droplets were quite a lot of amusement for him and he stared at her without blinking.
Raj heaved a frustrated sigh and left her alone.
At night, Shalini was about to hit the bed, after winding up her article deadlines, when she noticed a red buzz. Another e-mail and who should it be, but Nidhi!
I’m coming to Bangalore for some work. Can we meet? It will be fun to re-ignite those past memories and connect again as old pals!
I am flying down tonight and will be free after 5 in the evening tomorrow. Come and meet me at ‘Grand Hotel’. I’m sure you’ll figure out where it is. After you all, you know Bangalore much more than I do. Plus, I’m also relying on you for some nice shopping and food hopping in Bangalore. I’ve heard so much about the place!
Also, bring along Raj if possible. Let me connect to him as well! I’m sure you are pretty excited at the idea of meeting me again. I know how I was the only one in your life, before Raj arrived.
Anyway, I will talk lots later. Give my love to chubby!
‘I was the only one in your life!’ Shalini read as the old feeling of resentment flooded in. She read the phone no. that was added at the end to the footnote.
Shalini waited with bated breath for the clock to strike 5 the next day. Sharp at 5 in the evening, she dialed Nidhi’s number.
“Hello” a woman spoke at the other end.
“Nidhi?” Shalini asked sounding surprised. Her voice strangely sounded familiar, but could not strike a chord.
“Shalu!” and she could hear the woman scream in animated delight. “I’m so excited. Where are you? Are you waiting for me in the lobby? Just wait for five sec…..”
“I called to say that I could not make it” Shalini lied. “I had work, so I could not come.”
“Oh, but I thought you would. I mean you never say no to….”
“I have priorities now Nidhi.” Shalini spoke weighing each word carefully. “I could not leave my work behind for meeting…”
This time Nidhi stopped her in-between.
“You are making it sound as if you are very busy” and Shalini could hear that same old mocking guffaw. “C’mon, you could get your child along! After all, I don’t hop in Bangalore every day!”
Shalini tried to control that bubbling rage inside her and spoke silently, “I know Nidhi, but I can’t help it. I’m actually quite busy. In fact, I have some deadlines to meet.”
There was a pause at the other end. “What deadlines?” Nidhi asked sounding suddenly serious. “Don’t tell me you work?”
“Yes Nidhi. I do work.” Shalini replied coldly. “I work from home these days because of my child, so I have to finish my work in scheduled times for my clients. They won’t wait because I had to meet a friend. I’m sure you’ll know all about professional etiquettes, Nidhi?” Shalini was surprised at her own tone of taunt.
“Oh yeah sure, I do understand! It’s really surprising that you are working with a child.”
Shalini could hear that same tone of mockery.
Suddenly Shalini did not feel anything and she replied as coldly as possible.
“Yes, it’s tough, but I enjoy my work and life. In fact, I believe that if you have meaningful people in your life, work and life becomes quite easy!
For a long time, Shalini could hear Nidhi’s breath on the phone.
“Anyway, I’m putting up at this hotel for the next four days and…” but Nidhi could not complete.
“Good, enjoy your stay in Bangalore! Unfortunately, I won’t be able to meet you because of my work, so maybe some other time!” and Shalini hung up abruptly.
Deep inside, Shalini felt relieved. A heavy baggage had lifted from her heart. She felt happy. There was no more any sign of disappointment, guilt or remorse at what she had done.
“Maybe I should have done that long time back!” she confessed to Raj, as she told him about the episode.
“I should have done what was obvious long time back, but anyway I’m so glad that I have successfully and very happily disconnected that line now.”
Raj smiled and squeezed her hand. A confident smile spread across her face. It was what was missing in her face for days!