This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 19 Oct 2013 and won INR 500
This autumn, was not very much like that of the John Keats’ poem. It was quite the way majority of us perceived it as. Melancholic.
The roads littered with rusty leaves and the leafless trees adorning their sides depicted the nature’s transition into senescence. Amidst this picturesque landscape of September, there were many souls, waiting similarly to shed their dead-beat bodies.
One of such souls, lurching his way through the congested confines of his room hit a corner of an age-old Victorian furnishing.
“Damn these English…they still don’t stop hurting us,” he cursed.
Wincing in pain, he walked up to his bed and placed himself at its edge. He pulled out the drawer of his bedside cabinet. His fingers shook as they went inside and probed every item in it. Something smooth and chilly rubbed against his callous skin. Having carefully examined its shape with his fingers, he took it out.
Bringing it near his face, he began unwinding the lid. Gradually as the lid loosened itself more, his breaths became more and more deep. Just at the instant when it separated from the threads, he poked his nose into the opening, taking a deep inhalation.
You knew it, Pete.
He fixed the lid back onto it and pulled out an envelope from beneath his pillow. Reeling his way back to the main-door, he picked up his side-bag from the door-hanger. He placed the small jar and the envelope in it and closed the door behind him.
The door hit the frame with a bang as Maya rushed towards her wardrobe. Seconds later, there was another thud and her husband entered the room. Reaching out to her, Sohail hugged her from behind.
“Please honey, don’t do this to me. I swear I’ll manage everything soon. Don’t leave me, baby,” he pleaded.
Maya jerked off his hands from her body in disgust. “That’s enough you’ve done till now. This isn’t the life I had dreamt of, Sohail,” she replied exasperated, tossing her clothes into a suitcase.
“But you ever considered what will I do without you?”
“Oh, you? Without your wife around you nagging all day, you’ll love spending all the money on your friends, won’t you? The family hardly matters to you anymore!” She placed her hand on her tummy and looked into his eyes. “You ever contemplated about the future of this new one bound to come into our world?”
Sohail knew it was very difficult to convince her back from this, but that was all he could do at that time.
Love marriages often come with a cliché they use in the stock markets – “you survive the struggle, you save the marriage”. In Sohail’s case, it was the opposite. Maya was all he had to live for, the only source of vitality in his life. And now this relationship was in jeopardy.
“Why don’t you try to understand me, Maya?” He cursed his tongue as soon as the line left his mouth. Wrong statement. Wrong time.
“Understand you? You telling me to understand you? Huh, how many times have you tried doing that?” The pitch of her voice resonated with the frustration inside her heart. It was clearly comprehensible.
Sohail realized her point, but he couldn’t afford losing her for this. “Ok, Maya…mistakes do happen in everyone’s lives, but that doesn’t mean snapping a relationship just on a single argument is the solution to this problem,” he said looking into her eyes. “We will overcome this financial crisis together, honey, I swear. By the time he comes into this world, I’ll make up for everything. I’ll make both of you proud of me. But, please now, don’t leave me like this. It’s not even healthy for the baby. Let’s forget all this.”
“Enough of that sh*t, Sohail. I can’t tolerate it anymore,” she shouted fishing out her keys from the drawer. “You live on with your…”
“Just picture yourself in my place and you’ll know I can’t live without you…you’re the essence upon which my life sustains…” he begged, pacing behind her as she ran for the stairs.
“….Without you, I’m nothing…just nothing… You’re the fragrance of my life…I’m addicted to you…you’re the very reason I’m alive, Maya…”
“…Maya…?” Her mom caressed her shoulder as she brought her back from her reverie.
Maya straightened herself up on the sofa she was lying and looked into her mother’s eyes.
“You should go out and spend some time in the park. The more you stay at home and clutch on to those thoughts in your head, you’ll suffer more. And that would be bad for the little one, too.”
“Nothing’s going on in my head, Ma…I’m alright.”
“I don’t want to hear anything. Your dad and me are visiting the park and you’re coming with us. Now.” Her mom had always been the stern manager behind their family. She remembered how Sohail would get freaked out everytime he had to confront her mother.
Sighing, she pulled herself up and went inside her room.
Autumns have a metaphorical meaning in our life. As our life proceeds, we accumulate a layer of feelings, misconceptions, differences and opinions over our eyes. But behind all these, there’s only one thing that’s always waiting to be found. Happiness. And to experience that joy, that verve inside us, it’s necessary that we shed all those layers.
Making his way through the nature’s potpourri of fallen leaves and nuts, his stick guided him to the park’s entrance.
“How’re you, Mr. Peter,” the park watchman asked. “Enjoying the weather?”
“Not as much as you, Colonel,” he laughed.
Staggering himself to the end of the park, he rested on ‘his’ bench. He could feel the soft heat of the dusk kissing his skin. In his early days, he and his beloved used to come to this very spot and watch the sun hide behind the hills.
Now neither he had her by his side, nor could he see the crimson sun disappearing in the background of the birds returning home. All he had now was an addiction that pulled him out to this place every single day, just like she used to draw him there.
“How’re you, Colonel Uncle?”
The old watchman strained his cataract eyes for a clear vision. “Maya! Wow, what a surprise!”
She embraced him lightly. Colonel had always been a darling for all those in the neighbourhood. Everyone who came there at the park knew him and respected him. Even at sixty, he was a jovial fellow who always took care of everyone.
Bidding him goodbye, Maya followed her parents into the park. They made themselves comfortable at one corner of the park and then her dad joined his friends for gossip.
Sauntering her way through the auburn privets, Maya watched the other kids frolicking around with their parents. She missed visiting the parks with Sohail on the weekends and looking onto the toddlers playing around them. So will he look more like you or me, she used to ask him. Come on, it won’t be a boy. I want a girl, just like you. That little life inside her was the cord that kept both of them connected.
Surprisingly, as she was meandering around, her eyes fell on an old man on a bench sniffing out the air like a dog. Thinking herself not to be an embarrassment for him, she left the place quickly and joined her mother.
“Mom, who’s that man? Why is he behaving so strange?” she asked pointing out with her eyes.
“Him? That’s Peter. Sort of a lunatic. People say he worked at a wine shop in his early life and since then, he had lost his mind. Probably must have drunk too hard,” she grinned.
“Oh wait, what is he doing now? What are those in his hands?” she looked at him curiously.
“Glass jars. Everyday he brings those with him to catch the air around him. God knows why?”
Maya looked at him keenly from a distance. Peter was waving the container in his hands all around him, like a small kid trying to fly a toy-plane. Maya smirked at that little amusement. All of a sudden, he stopped and his eyes fixated on Maya.
“Oh sh*t, he saw me,” she told her mother, panicked.
“Don’t worry about that. He can’t see. Decades back, he got blind because of some country liquor he’d consumed,” her mother assured. “Come on, it’s getting late. We should return.”
Maya’s vision was still affix on his blank expressionless eyes. There wasn’t a single flicker of life within them. She wondered how he must have spent all these years in sheer darkness. Not getting to see the real colours of life.
Was she herself enjoying those colours? She felt rather suffocated. All her past reminiscences with Sohail had been strangulating her to death. She was dying every single day. Just like this old lunatic. She knew why. Sohail. But then, she shook herself trying not to remember it. She didn’t want to remember it.
Every thought dies one day, Maya. Each one of them.
Where is he today?
Her eyes sought for him everywhere. The bench was empty. There was no sign of his paraphernalia lying nearby. No trace of him in the whole park.
Maya’s mind drifted back to yesterday’s events. The way he abruptly ceased doing that thing with his glass jars and gazed directly into her eyes. Did he suddenly feel embarrassed by my presence? But he couldn’t see.
She walked up to his bench. After carefully inspecting all around, she placed herself there and looked at the park in front of her. She had the whole park in view from that place. She could see the kids swinging and playing on the see-saws. The trees that bordered the park stood naked with all their foliage being stripped off them. Whole place looked like an artist’s personification of the very season. She turned around. Behind her was an almost dried privet hedge that still adorned some greenish hue on it.
She took a deep breath in. That reminded her of Peter. How he was taking those deep short breaths last evening. Was he trying to smell something? Verifying that no one looked at her, she began taking small deep breaths.
One…two…three… She tried that for quite a minute.
No! She couldn’t smell anything remarkable except dust. Autumn filled the air with that particular smell. Worn out by that “experimental” deep breathing, she hung down her head for some air.
A week passed by. Maya would bring the envelope everyday with her, looking forward to hand it back to Mr. Peter. The envelope, signed by him, that she had found beneath the bench, the very first day he had disappeared.
She had given a long thought to it, whether she should open it or not. But she better planned to avoid falling into any kind of trouble with that lunatic, so she didn’t.
However, even Mr. Peter hadn’t shown himself in the park since then. Maya felt concerned about that old fellow. She had, quite somehow, grown empathetic towards him.
Just a direct stare into one’s eyes, into one’s life, followed by an abrupt period of withdrawal can make them go considerate about you. She speculated how her departure from Sohail’s life must have affected him. Even she wasn’t enjoying the isolation so far.
It had been quite dark and they were returning home. Maya decided to spend some time with Colonel Uncle, trying to get some details about Mr. Peter’s whereabouts.
“Busy, Colonel Uncle?”
“Maya! Not at all! Say how you’ve been?” He pushed forward his chair towards Maya to sit.
“Ah. It’s okay, Uncle. You be seated. I just wanted to ask you something.”
“Do you know Mr. Peter? That crazy old fellow, used to visit here often?
“Ahh. Mr. Peter Gonsalves. Oh yes, I very well knew him.”
“What do you mean by, you knew him?” Her eyes questioned him.
“Oh, you didn’t get the news? Poor fellow. He didn’t live long,” he mumbled grimly. “He passed away last week.”
“What!!!” Maya crouched down on her heels in utter disbelief. “How did that happen?”
“That had to happen soon. He had been suffering since long…”
Inside her home, Maya’s dad was glued onto the daily soaps on television, while her mother was busy cooking in the kitchen. Just then, the door knob clicked and a dejected Maya entered inside.
“Where you were so late, honey,” her mother inquired from the kitchen.
Without articulating a word, Maya climbed upstairs to her room.
“Remember she had walked up to talk to Colonel? Must have got late there,” her dad suggested.
Her mother’s eyes followed her climbing upstairs. She could sense something was wrong with her. She continued kneading the dough, thinking of the possibilities. Did she meet Sohail outside?
Maya reached into her vanity-bag and pulled out the envelope. Inside her head, there were a multitude of assumptions growing up. Was Mr. Peter trying to contact someone? Why did he leave the envelope there? Without waiting any longer, she tore it from its edge and yanked out the folded piece of paper from inside.
Unfolding it, she read the first line. Oh Beloved.
Maya gulped conjecturing as to whom the letter was addressed. She checked the envelope to see any details about the recipient. Apart from Mr. Peter’s initials, it had only two words: To You.
What was that supposed to mean? Was he expecting someone to pick it up? Who wrote it down for him?
She noticed the remaining letter had been typed out. Most probably on a brailler, she considered.
She progressed to read it further:
‘I know it’s you…It had always been you.
Somewhere inside me, I had this feeling that you’ll return to me once more…but why? Why are you leaving me again?
I still remember that scent of yours. That unique whiff you used to leave behind in those days. How that particular fragrance had made me go mad behind you!
Every evening I used to get magnetized to your bench by the perfume you wore. I knew I was getting addicted to it gradually. It was becoming an essential entity of my life.’
That was the same case with Sohail, she pondered, recalling those days they had first fallen in love at college. Whenever he would get chance, he would smell the floral aroma coming out of her hair.
‘You know I’d even joined the city perfumery just to decode the secrets behind your fragrance. Each one of them I had examined turned out to be just ordinary. None of them had the uniqueness like yours. I still giggle at the thought of how insanely I had begged you to give me a bottle of that aroma!
I, sometimes, wonder how obsessed I had become with your fragrance and in that process, with you…
Those evenings by your side, with our souls entwined. God, I miss them so much. Why did you leave, oh beloved…why? Just because I lost my eyes?
That had been the most fateful day of my life. A new formula I stumbled upon guaranteed me your exotic fragrance. That was my chance to freedom from that obsession. But it left me with nothing, but just darkness.
At a point, when I yearned for your support so much, you left me for perpetuity. And so did the fragrance of my life. Didn’t it ever happen to you, how I would have survived without you?
Every day the more I craved for that smell, the more it reminded me of you. I travelled everywhere I could, in quest of that lovelorn fragrance of yours. Within years, I shoved myself into bankruptcy. Years passed like decades. And I just wished to leave this monotonous world.
But even Sisyphus had achieved triumph over his monotony. And so did I. I had barely left any wounds on my heart. Each one of them had been smeared away by the sands of time.
And now, all of a sudden, after three decades of misery, you haunt me back to that same fragrance; torture me with those same memories. Every evening I spent there at the bench in the last six months anticipating you to break the ice between us and speak to me once more.
And just when I was expecting to see a new light into my lone existence, you again pulled yourself back. Why?
I sensed that aroma becoming weak since last week. Why are you creating the distances again? Why did you return to my life only to abandon it again?
Had it been like those days, I would have consoled myself for the loss. But at this age, at this stage of life, it’s impossible to bear that sudden vacuum within the heart. It kind of sucks me from within.
I can no longer survive with this pain. Time has taken a toll on me, and so have you.
I don’t know if you’re reading this letter or not, but if in case you’re, then probably you’re the last person I’m talking to. And that’s what I’ve always wanted to.
My world had already shattered the day you left me… and now I can’t let that happen to me again. This time, I’ll finish it up myself.
Without you, I’m nothing…just nothing… You are the fragrance of my life…I’ve been so much addicted to you all my life…you’ve always been the reason I was alive…’
The letter inundated Maya’s eyes with tears. She felt sorry for the life Mr. Peter had been living with. Somehow, the letter had struck a chord inside her. She felt so much connected to his feelings.
It had summoned up those memoirs of her days with Sohail. The way he used to cuddle her up from behind, sniffing her hair like a Cupid dog. You know perfumists should dissolve you into molecules and make essences from it, he used to tease.
She always had this funny notion that he must have fallen in love with her fragrance more than her, as a person. She couldn’t figure out how he must have been spending his days in her absence.
Maya looked at those last lines again with her moistened eyes. Somewhere deep inside her heart it echoed again…
You’re the very reason I’m alive, Maya…
Her heartbeats pumped up in a second. She realised her mistake…
The telephone rang downstairs.
Sirens blared in the back of his head. The torque exerted by the ambulance speeding through the traffic toppled the world around him. Oblivious of his surroundings, all he could appreciate was the ER attendant yelling into the wireless: “Sohail Dey. Road traffic accident. Please report onto the nearest hospital. Five minutes. Urgent.”
Suddenly, everything around him stopped moving and a bright light pierced through his eyes. Before he could fathom what was happening to him, he felt many hands grasping at him.
Minutes later, he could make out some unfamiliar faces probing all over him. Gradually, the lights blurred and he passed out.
His whole life rolled in front of his eyes.
He could see his parents smiling at him, calling out his name. The day he first went to the school. His most beloved teachers. His best buddies. His work colleagues. Maya. The time they spent together. Their wedding.
How bad he had wished Maya to return back to him. He also reminded himself of the letter he had written to her after she left him. He had saturated it up with remorse, his love for her and his fervour to see her soon with their baby.
Maybe she didn’t get it. Otherwise she would have definitely returned back. She loves me, I know.
Soon, Sohail felt few strands of hair fall on his face. He strained to open his eyes. He was greeted by a fuzzy description of Maya’s face. Near his foot-end, he could see his in-law parents sobbing, consoling each other. His eyes caught up with Maya’s.
Sohail tried to speak, but his tongue didn’t allow him to. He glared into Maya’s watery eyes and pleaded for forgiveness. He never wanted to be the reason behind those tears in their lives.
He pulled Maya close to her face and took a deep breath. The fragrance. Satisfied, he smiled at her.
Yes, you’ll always remain the fragrance of my life.
Whilst his eyelashes put a veil to his world, the fragrance-seeking soul left him with a last gasp.
A cold wind blew in from one of the windows and stabbed Maya in her face. She collapsed.
Six months later
The intern doctor frightened as she got the call in the wee hours of midnight. Finally, this was going to be the first delivery by her. And she had no consultant guiding her to do that.
She reached the labour room and waited for it to progress into its final stage. After about four hours of anticipation, the room echoed with an infant’s cries. Everyone burst into glee as the new intern successfully delivered the child.
Still panting on the bed, Maya heaved a sigh and looked towards her baby with joy spilling from her eyes.
“Congratulations, madam! It’s a girl!” declared the in-charge nurse.
Maya smiled to herself. She couldn’t utter a word out of excitement.
“Have you decided a name for this little one?” the intern enquired, looking excitedly at her first delivered baby.
The attendants suggested, “Usha would be nice. She happened at dawn, see.” Someone else added in, “No no, call her Vasantika, the first one to happen in this season.”
“I will call her Sugandha,” Maya whispered, unable to control her tears.
Outside in the hospital’s garden, a little herb danced in the light breeze as its new bud unfurled its petals at the first light of dawn.