This short story is selected as Story of the Month March’2015 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
‘Would you mind if I sit here?’ asked Arvind. ‘I cannot find an empty table in this whole cafeteria.’
‘Sure!’ Aarti told him with a smile ‘I was about to leave anyway.’
Arvind saw that Aarti’s plate still had two chapattis in it and her smile was one of those that his manager forced to put on his face whenever Arvind inquired about his promotion or raise; she was going to go away without finishing her lunch. She was about to get up when Arvind said ‘Actually I’m sorry. I was just making an excuse to be able to sit with you and talk to you, but you clearly don’t want to even share a table with me. Please finish your lunch’ He said with a rather stern voice ‘I’ll find another table.’
Arvind was trying to talk to Aarti from the day he joined this company. But they being in different teams, actually different department altogether, he never had a chance; and he figured that he must find an excuse to talk to her – but was unable to get one for past two months. Today he saw her sitting alone in the cafeteria, and knew that this might be a chance for him.
Aarti felt a bit embarrassed; she didn’t expect him to revert back in that manner – that too saying something so directly. She tried to conceal her uneasiness with a smile and said ‘I was actually about to leave; I remembered some urgent mail I had to send. I hope I didn’t offend you – if you still don’t believe me we can surely share a table at dinner.’ She picked up her plate in her right hand and her cell-phone and purse in her left and made way towards the washing room; and after two steps turned back and said ‘I’ll come down for dinner at 8:30.’ Then she paced off, maybe because she was still feeling hungry.
Arvind could easily see through her act but he didn’t mind. Dinner it is, he thought.
Instead of going back to her desk Aarti went to the ladies room on the 8th floor; she couldn’t hold her tears back any more. She hated men – all of them; she was already fighting hard to live in this world, trying to forget her past; but how could she – even after four years of that incident she can barely manage to talk to a man. She used to be a very strong girl; a tomboy with short hair – she was the third child and third daughter of her parents. How could this have happened to me? Most of my friends were boys. How could that one incident change my life so much?
Weeping like a little girl in the toilet she cursed her parents; why did they have to give birth to her – in this male dominated society, and knowing the answer only made her feel even bitter – they wanted a son. There were many times when she wondered how many girls like her were in India, who were given birth just because their parents wanted a son after they had two daughters; and when it was a girl again, the parents either tried again for a son or realizing that they were in no position to raise four children – tried to raise the third daughter as a son – ‘doodher swaad gholey metano’.
She didn’t actually mind that her parents tried to raise her as a boy; that was actually good for her – she could become strong when her sisters were very feeble minded. She wasn’t actually pissed at her parents – she was angry with the system, which have almost unanimously agreed to treat women as commodity; all the bad things that happened in her life was due to this mentality. When will this country learn to treat women as people, she thought.
A voice called out to her ‘Are you okay in there?’
‘I’m fine’ she answered in a broken voice ‘just one of those days you know.’
After a pause the voice spoke again slowly ‘Yeah! I have been there. I hope this is nothing serious. Do you want me to stay until you come out?’
Aarti pulled all the strength she could to her throat to make her voice steady ‘No. I’ll be fine. Thanks anyway.’ There were four clicks of high heels on the floor and a creak of the door.
Aarti pulled herself together, went out of the bathroom and splashed water on her face; she still was a rational person at the core. I cannot cling on to my past forever, I must let it go; I must be able to talk and freely mix with men. The act of one person shouldn’t poison my mind so much that I hate the rest of them. On a few occasions before this men tried to get near her, finding an excuse or the other, but she always ward them off with a cold but polite expression. But she didn’t want to live in the past anymore; she refused to yield to her nightmares.
Four years ago, when Aarti just passed out of college and entered her first job, she imagined life to be full of happiness. Her office was near Karunamoyee, Salt Lake. She was very popular in her office within a couple of months, sadly due to her good looks – she was a really beautiful girl with a boyish charm; she was different from the rest of her female colleagues. She already had a boyfriend from her college days but nobody knew in her office yet; not that this information would prevent anyone of her male colleagues to think any differently about her or look at her with a lesser, poorly concealed, lustful eyes.
Men, specially with a high paying job, do not care about the relationship status of a woman because they always think of themselves to be superior to the loser his female colleague was in a relationship with; but more than that because men always overestimate their own attractiveness – a byproduct of the male dominated mentality. My face is up here sometimes she would think; and some people did adore her face as well – what’s a great body without a beautiful face?
But she was used to this after spending three years of college, where the sex ratio of male to female was equal to that of the number of icy rocks in Saturn’s rings to the number of Saturn’s moons. All her male friends were from her school days; after she came to college she did not find a single male friend who wouldn’t have any romantic interest in her. But it was still ok; they knew that she was out of their league and she always kept a safe distance knowing the nature of these boys. But then she met Bhuwan – a nice average guy in all respect except he was very intelligent; and intelligence is what attracted Aarti. They were very close and by the end of the last semester Aarti confessed her love to Bhuwan; he accepted.
Aarti spent many sleepless nights wondering how could she even fall in love; she always thought herself to be the most rational girl who had no place for any vague emotion – using logic for everything was the one thing her friends hated about her. They often spoke behind her back to say that she was heartless, emotionless.
Bhuwan got a job in Bangalore and their newly blossomed love now had to stand the trial of distance; long distances are always very hard – but true love is ever so powerful to overcome any hardship. Bhuwan bought her a tata indicom cell-phone; he bought one himself – he could make unlimited calls to other tata indicom numbers with a monthly recharge of seven hundred Rupees; he had only one contact saved in this phone though.
Sometimes it was really tiresome to talk for hours. One day after a few months Aarti told Bhuwan that she needed some space; Bhuwan reacted violently – many arguments were exchanged. Aarti did not expect this; this was the first time he had shouted at her. But he apologized readily and told her that anytime she felt like not talking she could tell him freely; he wouldn’t mind.
But that day Aarti felt really bad; reassessing whatever they both said during their fight – she tried to be impartial while recalling the statements made, and in her mind argued on behalf of Bhuwan as well. On the whole she was very disturbed; that day she reached her office late and left late as well. She decided to take a walk to her home – which was just a couple of kilometers away – getting wet in the soft drizzle that might refresh her mind.
When her mind was at peace she decided to give Bhuwan a missed call so that he calls back. Generally Bhuwan called back within a minute, but he didn’t – Aarti gave a full ring now hoping that Bhuwan did not hear the last short ring. He didn’t call back. Aarti lost her peace again; she took out her other cell-phone and dialed for Bhuwan’s Vodafone number; No answer. Bhuwan was out partying with some of his colleagues – they went bowling at Amoeba. Aarti didn’t realize that she took a wrong turn somewhere; she didn’t recognize this gulli. She also didn’t notice until now that someone was following her.
The man was standing right below the dim streetlight; his face was in the shadow of his cap. She was about to cry for help when the light reflected from a shiny object in the man’s hand; he didn’t need to tell her that she must not shout. It was a bad day to wear saree to the office. I cannot even run. She held out her purse and cell-phones and spoke in a low but steady voice ‘Take these and let me go.’ Jaan bachi to laakho paaye. But it wasn’t money that the man was after.
Arvind was at the cafeteria by 8:25 and saved a table; he didn’t mind looking a bit desperate. Aarti came in around 8:35; with a sincere smile on her face she came towards Arvind – carrying a plate of rajma-chawal in her hands. He stood up and pulled the chair out for her. ‘Don’t be so formal’ Aarti said, her eyes with an expression of annoyance. They sat down.
‘You said you wanted to talk to me’ she inquired ‘why is that?’
He blushed ‘No particular reason; I thought you might be someone interesting to talk to.’
‘Anyway, I’m sorry I lied to you in the afternoon. I’m not a very good liar you see. I wouldn’t have done that if that wasn’t absolutely necessary for me. But I felt bad so I’m telling you the truth and I hope that you’d let that go.’
‘It was already out of my mind’ he chuckled.
Aarti wasn’t sure why was she talking to this guy but something about him told her that he wasn’t a bad guy. She was trying to assess this guy from his expressions, body language etc. when he said ‘You know I have a painful past too.’
‘Wha … What do you mean?!’ she was startled.
‘I can see it in your eyes. I can because I have the same eyes; I see them every day.’ He said ‘I’m guessing you’ll deny it, but that’s why I wanted to talk to you.’
‘No’ she spoke in a firm voice ‘I won’t deny it. But I’d suggest we don’t talk about our pasts now.’
‘Fair enough!’ he smiled ‘So how about we talk about that next Saturday evening?’
This was too much for Aarti to take. That she is sitting with this man right now was already demanding the highest capacity of her mental strength. She shook her head ‘Not this Saturday. I won’t tell you that I have any other engagements. The truth is that I’m not in position to go out with anyone, and please don’t ask me why.’
‘Okay, no problem’ he didn’t push it anymore. She was very troubled inside but she appreciated his understanding nature. They had their dinner. After this they met at the cafeteria with a slowly increasing frequency. Aarti began to get her old confidence back slowly.
After almost a year from that evening Aarti asked Arvind if he still wanted to take her out next Saturday evening. He smiled. By this time they had become more than acquaintances; but Aarti never mentioned about her past and Arvind never asked. Aarti found him funny, intelligent and caring, but she never tried to get any closer to him – she was still afraid. Arvind treated her well – as a good friend and with respect.
The first date was uneventful; they had a good time but it was like friends having dinner – Aarti certainly didn’t mind but she was worried that Arvind might take it otherwise. But he didn’t mind either and she could tell that. The second date was almost the same except for Arvind mentioning about future plans. She was in a dilemma now; she liked spending time with him – but she understood that she cannot love anyone ever again, with a wronged body and a broken heart; her logical mind was the only thing that kept her going.
Aarti decided to tell Arvind how she felt and about her past on the third date. She told him all that happened with her, and how Bhuwan went away from her life after the incident; Bhuwan said that it was Aarti’s fault that she was walking to home so late in the night – he said that he would be a bigger person and accept her if she accepted her fault and listened to his every word in the future; which made Aarti realize that even Bhuwan was a part of that system. She hated him; she hated everybody and specially men – and a man in particular whose skin, flesh and dried blood were taken, from the fingernails of her right hand, for the forensics.
She told Arvind ‘I cannot love anyone ever again. At least I cannot get intimate with anybody. I have grown a fear and hatred for physical contact; and I cannot promise that I can love someone truly now. I don’t want to lose you as a friend. I know I was the one who brought up the idea of dating to the surface again, but I’m really sorry; I cannot do this.’ Her eyes were moist.
‘I understand.’ said Arvind softly ‘do you remember that I told you that I have a bitter past too? I’ll tell you what happened with me. When I was a kid I was molested by my father, quite a few times.’ His cheeks and ears grew red; she looked at him in bewilderment.
‘Like you’ he continued ‘I have grown a hatred for physical contact myself. I wished to run away from my home several times; I couldn’t bear to see my father’s face everyday – it made me sick. But I had nowhere to go and no one to talk to; my mother died when I was six. I thought I could forget the past and could even forgive my father once I found someone who’d love me; but I never did – maybe I had become emotionally challenged. I tried to date many women but I couldn’t get close to them; each time we were about to get intimate it came back to me – the hatred for my father.’ he almost chocked and took a sip of water; she was stunned.
He spoke after a long pause ‘When I saw you I knew that you have been through something similar; like I told you – you have the same eyes as I do.’
‘Let’s not talk about that anymore’ she interrupted ‘maybe we were meant to find each other’ she forced a smile.
After a moment of silence Arvind looked into her eyes and said ‘Will you marry me? I just wish to be with you, that’s all. And given our conditions I think we are perfect for each other’, he too forcing a smile. She thought for a couple of minutes and said yes.
They have been married for almost five years now. It’s not like what Aarti imagined would be when she passed out of college – except for her problem with physical intimacy, everything was better. In last five years – she travelled more than she had planned for her whole life; she read more books than she did in the twenty-five years before that; she learned to swim, play harmonica, cook among other things; she has grown interest in gardening, sewing and sculpting. They have adopted a five year old girl. They have both quit their jobs and started a small business. They often visit orphanages and homes for girls, and try to help them in any way they can. Everything seems like a fairytale to her. If only we could overcome our past, she murmured to herself.
After the incident she never thought she could get back her happiness again; but here she was enjoying her life very much. Arvind had been such a great companion – he’s the best friend she has ever had. How does it matter that they’ve never touched each other? They understand and support each other; isn’t a marriage more about that? She didn’t care anyway – she never cared about what people said; but now she could truly not give a damn even about the system – she was doing her part to make it better and didn’t need to tell others to change; they will eventually have to change their mindsets.
It’s a very sad thought but knowing someone else has suffered a similar fate as you, sometimes lessens your pain. It’s because Arvind told her about his own misery, she could reach to the bottom of her heart to awaken the loving person, whom she thought was dead – murdered, inside her. She could love again, yes, and in a more unselfish manner. She could see beyond her own life now; she understood that there will always be good and bad – but we cannot let one single act of hatred suck away the love in our hearts. Love is more powerful than hate she reflected. By now she had forgiven Bhuwan. She has even tried to forgive the man who caused her so much pain; every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
Her cell-phone rang – it was Arvind. She came back to reality and picked up the phone, but the voice on the other side wasn’t his. The person on the other side spoke in a low voice and in a gentle tone ‘Ma’am, do you know Mr. Arvind? Your name was at the top of contacts, so I called you.’
‘Yes’ she was puzzled ‘he is my husband. Who are you? Why are you calling from his number?’
‘Ma’am I’m afraid Mr. Arvind was in a car accident. Can you please come down to N.R.S. Medical College immediately? Do you have anyone with you, or should I send someone?’
Aarti was speechless for a few seconds; then recovering she calmed her nerves and told the police officer that she’ll be there as soon as possible. The officer asked her to come to the emergency ward. Arvind was already dead; but the police didn’t want to break the news to her over the phone. Also Arvind’s face was completely deformed in the accident; he wasn’t wearing the seat belts – police needed to be sure of his identity as well.
Aarti was taken to verify the identity of the dead person. They asked her if there were any visible identification marks on his body; she didn’t know if there were any and she didn’t need to know – she could tell it was him by looking at his hands; the hands that reshaped her life without ever touching her. She told them that it was him. The police asked if they could match his DNA with any of his relatives. He has no relatives. ’It’s him’ Aarti spoke with a broken tone ‘you can take my word for it. There is no need for a DNA test and it won’t help in any way.’
Arvind’s DNA sample, cross checked with criminal database, would have identified an offender from a ten year old case.