Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Anu scanned the place to catch some known faces. There weren’t any. The coffee shop was bustling with youngsters lost in their own world. Colourful outfits, loud chatter and the aroma of coffee. She felt intoxicated sitting before him. His light brown eyes heldher gaze and shifted in between to the loose strands of hair grazing her face. As if a spell had broken, she checked her phone for missed calls. There were none. She looked back quickly at him. He wouldn’t have noticed, she thought. She didn’t want him to know something else was on her mind. They had met each other a few times at the Artiste’s Nook and she thought there was some kind of an aura around him, a carelessness and indifference towards things. She felt special for being noticed by him. This time they had exchanged more than hello- names and phone numbers.After their purchases they had landed in the open coffee shop diagonally opposite the Artiste’s Nook.
“What is it? Any problem?”
“No—not really, I’m sorry. Yes, Vardhaman you were telling me about your first exhibition,” she tried hard to remember what he was saying while she was looking into her phone.
“Mrs Anant, it was nice meeting you and nicer to have had coffee with you.” Vardhaman stood up and picked up his things: rolls of canvas, linseed oil, turpentine and colour tubes.
“Call me Anupama or better still Anu,” she said hating herself for looking into the phone.
“Alright then Anu- that feels strange but if you insist-‘virtuous’ women usually distance themselves from me. I come from a notorious past and going by my present, no change in future.” Vardhaman smiled at Anu and she wished he was lying. It couldn’t be, she thought and for a split second envied the women who made his past notorious, what if what he said was true?
“I will take an auto, you don’t have to drop me,” the words had tumbled out and she wondered why.
“No problem, I will drop you, there is no one waiting for me at home, if I may call the place I live so.”
Vardhaman walked ahead. Not wanting to be left far behind, she quickly ran her fingers on the pleats of her sari and clutching the purse and the stationary she had just bought, she walked briskly to match his steps; her eyes taking in intently tiny details, of his unkempt salt and pepper hair, of the bottle green knee lengthkurta drowning the dark blue jeans, of the cruelly-looked-after pair of cracked heels showing from a pair of worn out kolhapuris and finally the slight drag in his gait.
He opened the back door and transferred all the things and as if he knew she was looking at him, he smiled and said, “Put your things in here, long way to go.”
“Never mind I’ll hold them” she said settling down in the front seat.
For a while there was silence in the car as they merged into the ocean of cars, cars and more cars and occasional push carts. People and vehicles looked like automatons, the noise shut out by the windows. The ac was on and some bollywood number was playing on the stereo.
“Would you mind if I take you to my place first and then drop you to your place?”
“Um— actually my son is returning late from school today. I think it should be ok, just give me a minute.”
Anu’s trembling fingers dialled a number on her phone, “Vimla, can you stay back a little longer today? I thought I’d come back soon but—anyway Sonu is coming home late today. In case—”
A voice from the other side instantly put her at ease.
Anu looked at Vardhaman. What was he thinking of her? There was a faint smile on his lips or his face was like that, she thought. Some people look as if they are smiling always like they are enjoying their own judgements about people.
“So, you have a good help and I guess Sonu is anywhere between 7 and 9 years?”
“You seem to be good at guesses. You are right on both.”
As they drove over humps and bumps and turned in and out of a few narrow alleys, the car stopped before an apartment building, old and discoloured. Anu quickly counted the houses, one, two—eight. The one with closed windows and no clothes hanging in the balcony could be his, the one on the second floor, she thought.
There was no lift and they climbed a narrow staircase painted in dull yellow. There were two houses on each floor, facing each other. Some curious faces peeped out of the peep window beside their door to catch a glimpse of Anu but all they got to see was her loose braid oscillating on her fair back, her flame orange blouse and an off white pallu quickly disappearing on the flight of stairs. Vardhamanstood before a door on the second floor and tried three different keys before opening the lock of his flat. “Strange, so unlike Anant” thought Anu, the first time Anant came to her mind in these two-three hours.Was remembering Anant like a foreboding, she thought.
The putrid odour seared her nostrils and her eyes quickly scanned the place for the wash room, anytime she would throw up. Vardhaman seemed to be searching for something in the pile of clothes lying on what looked like a single bed. All she could see of it were two legs in cheap yellowish wood.
“A bachelor’s heaven!”
“Take out the e for heaven’s sake, it’s only my haven. Call it Rapunzel’s cottage if you like—look at the mini windows, they are minier than the mini idlis!”
“And I’m thinking I should make us tea if I find the half litre milk pouch I tossed into this pile and if the milk behaves like it should. Didn’t boil it in a hurry.”
“Umm, can I help you?” Anu waded through the cigar butts and dusty magazines lying unabashed suggesting his fetish for scantily clad women.
Vardhaman wasn’t aware of his image forming in her mind which she would weigh with that of Anant’s in the privacy of her plush home. She would wonder how they weighed, differently and balanced.
“I bet you can’t get anywhere closer than this. Getting your hands dirty for a cup of tea?”
Getting hands dirty? She thought,am neck deep in dirt for whatever it might be. Something that I wish not to admit. About its worth, I don’t want to debate.
Her mind connected to Anant, he wanted everything sick clean and organised. All his actions came with the planned-for-the-day tag and dust, he wouldn’t tolerate a speck of it anywhere in the house, even on the roadside trees! The dinner plates in which he ate had tohave a starry glint under the chandelier or they weren’t clean enough. “Oh Anant! can you leave me alone with this man whom I have followed in a trance? Can you, please?” she pleaded.
“Here is your tea Anu and don’t tell me how it tastes.”
Holding the white clay cup that had fine cracks and a tinge of brown, she sipped reluctantly wishing for her lips not to touch the rim.
“It is good.”
His eyes seemed to catch her dishonesty or fine sense of etiquette.
Tea sipped, cups washed and what followed was a silence of anticipation. “Who would make the first move?” each thought and the silence continued till it became overbearing for Anu, the war inside her.
“Anu, don’t do this to yourself. You give in to the demand of the moment and be guiltfree. That makes everything acceptable.”
“I don’t really know why you are here, with someone like me. But I know you are fighting a battle and I want you to win. Beautiful women win battles,” he said nearing her.
He walked up to her and took her hand into his. She saw that his nails weren’t clipped in more than a month, he smelt of paint and sweat standing so close.He seized the moment of her weakness and herboth in a tight gripand she struggled to break free. Her Calvin Klein could not breathe his raw savagery.
Anu pushed him away “I’m sorry, I should be going. I’m sorry— I’m sorry—”
She picked up her things and without looking back dashed outside.
Back at home, the day unfolded once again before her eyes as she sat looking at Sonu who had slept holdingthe silver toy car in his right hand. Why I can’t be like Sonu, she thought and where will I find my silver car.
She came to her room.She stumbled at the edge of the carpet. “Would he know of my secret adventure?” She looked at Anant, he was smiling. She looked straight into his eyes and questioned, “Did I betray you Anant? To the extent I followed him to his house, yes. But then I couldn’t just let him touch me like you did. Anant,I ran from there like I was chased by a wildfire.”
“He didn’t love me the way you did. No, there was no commitment, no matching vibes. It was pure lust up for grabs like something put on sale. I don’t want it Anant, but you know what, it was nice I went up to the threshold of a world I had never seen. It was nice to make sure that that was not the world I wanted for myself.”
Anant smiled, he always smiled Anu thought, so reassuring.
She threw herself on the bed, picked up her cell phone and dialled.
“Sorry for that. I wasn’t just comfortable—I mean—” she fumbled for more words, twisting the tassels of the bolster around her fingers. A teasing calm on the other side and Vardhaman cradled the phone with “You must be tired, sleep well.”Why he thinks I am tired, Anu wondered as she tried hard to sleep.
Weeks later they met again.
The same store, the same coffee shop, the same conversations. Vardhaman seemed to have totally put the incident behind him. She felt comforted and whether he was deliberately making her feel so, she didn’t care to contemplate the possibilities. He asked her if he could drop her like a gentleman. She agreed and climbed into his car, she remembered that he had not forced anything on her.
“Anu how about a stop at my house for purely a tea?” She nodded.There were the same magazines, the same pile of soiled clothes and the putrid odour. But this time she didn’t feel like throwing up. They had tea in the brownish white cups and this time it was sugarless. He had run out of sugar three days back. But the tea tasted ‘good’, Anu said.
She returned home and looked at her son.He was watching TV, the silver toy car in his right hand. She remembered Anant had bought it for his birthday. Why I can’t be like Sonu, she thought, but I haven’t got my silver car yet!
She came to her room and stumbled and fell at the edge of her carpet. She looked at Anant. This time she stared harder into his eyes;he did nothing but smiled reassuringly. Was he laughing seeing me fall? Anu asked herself.
“When will I stop looking for you in him?” she questioned him. He didn’t answer.
Anu and Vardhamanmet again and again. In her search for Anant, each time Anu lost a bit of herself until she was totally lost. She hadn’t found Anantin spite of that.
She stood before Anant defeated, “Where are you Anant? Where will I find you?” When will I find you?” She stood before him like a cracked mirror waiting to shatter to pieces.
“Look up, I’m right here. I was always here. Were you really looking for me?” she heard him talk.
“Why didn’t you tell me?I stood before you begging like a lost child.” Anu tried to reach for Anant through the framed glass.
“I let you find your answers Anu, you never really loved me, did you? And I can’t believe you were looking for me. It’s possible you were on a mission finding the Anant you wanted to see in me. The Anant you are looking for is not in me, not in anyone. Your Anant is perfect and so does not exist.”
“Everything is lost. Yes, everything is lost.” Anu felt the anger and remorse build up within her. She stood under the shower and scrubbed herself hard trying to wash off Vardhaman. He just wouldn’t go and she sat drowned in Nivea lather while Sonu slept clutching in his right hand the silver toy car.
Author’s Bio: Daya Bhat has published her first collection of poems in English ‘A maiden of 29’ with the Writers Workshop (India) in Dec 2013. She also writes poems in Kannada and has co-translated into English a biography and a memoir yet to be published. Her prior occupations are related to teaching and computer software. Her other hobbies include painting and blogging. She derives her inspiration and themes from the bustling everyday life around her and couples it with her perspective. She lives in Bangalore, India.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)