Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
“You look very handsome!” she said with a naughty smile and aimed her Nikon at me. I smiled, somewhat flustered and adjusted my scarf. She clicked. We were at a private Christmas party – a small gathering of no more than thirty people – hosted by my entrepreneur friend at his penthouse at Delhi. But who was she? I could not place her… perhaps a friend of my host. There was something captivating about her eyes — doe eyes! I wondered if I had seen her earlier. Maybe she resembled someone I knew.
“Am I too fast for you?” she added as she shifted a few steps sideways, stooped to catch me singly in her frame and snapped.
“Oh, no, not at all,” I replied, mightily pleased with myself, though a bit taken by surprise. Was I really looking dashing or was it her way of chatting with and pleasing everyone? I wondered. With an oval face that appeared perfectly chiselled, large eyes and with her hair tied back in a bun, she looked particularly striking. She had that smile that seemed to greet everyone around permanently with a ‘Merry Christmas’ kind of expression. Her stilettos added another three inches to her already tall figure. With that she stood nearly my height – five feet nine. She was fair, very fair, in her complexion, and from her accent I thought she was Anglo-Indian. But I could be wrong, these days most youngsters put on an accent, especially at parties. She could, at most, be in her mid-twenties. With all her grace, she flitted about among groups of people clicking away pictures and helping them fill their glasses.
I moved around among little groups of men and women, holding a glass of champagne, now ever more conscious of the compliment she had just offered. I found our host and approached him to ask about this girl when she caught me stealing a glance at her and headed straight for us.
“One more picture please,” she said as she got me and my host to stand side by side and focused her camera on us.
“Why not? Go on, shoot me; I am so pleased with your comment, ready to die for it,” I responded with some abandon.
“I am particularly fascinated by you,” she said and got me smiling. Flash, went the Nikon. That sentence worked better than “say cheese”, I thought and turned to my host with a who-is-she look. He understood. “Ah here, this is Debra. I bet you cannot spell that name,” he introduced her. “Debra, you know my friend, Sameer, don’t you?”
“Of course, I know Mr. Sameer,” she replied with all her attention on me.
She knew me? But how? I started rummaging inside my brain, but I could not trace any association with her. My host interrupted my thoughts. “By the way, Debra is helping me look after my guests, this evening,” he added. “Thanks Debbie, you’re doing a great job.” He moved on to another company. Left alone with her I was at a loss for words. I simply raised my glass, nodded and smiled in appreciation. That short introduction kept me challenged — Debra, how do you spell that name? But before I could ask her, she excused herself and hurried away to another group.
Whatever it was, I was enjoying her adulation. She reminded me of Liza. I filled my glass and let my mind drift to my first love. Liza and I went strong for a couple of years. We loved each other and had plans to marry, but her parents got her married off to someone else. I didn’t begrudge her that; after all, like many Indian girls she abided by her parents wishes and had to sacrifice her personal love. She loved me and wanted to marry me, she had told me that. I often used to tell her how beautiful she was, but she had never said what Debra told me – You look very handsome. I met Liza’s husband later, he was indeed handsome. Was that why she gave in to her parent’s choice without any resistance? Whatever, first love is something one never wishes to forget, and I still hold very dear the memories of that blissful spell.
I didn’t remain heartbroken for long after Liza got married. I found solace in Amrita, a small time stage actress. She was strikingly pretty, and that was why she could grab lead roles in many plays. She had her mind on the silver screen and had already made her debut appearance with a small role in a film. We always met at her place or mine, when she wasn’t occupied with her rehearsals. She avoided being spotted outdoors with me. We hugged and kissed, and that’s as far as we went during our brief interludes. She didn’t let me cross the line; I never went as far as I had gone with Liza.
Amrita was very beautiful, and I had told her that over and over again. She accepted my compliments with a smile or at times with a hug. Indeed, she still is very beautiful; I see her on TV sometimes, though now in motherly appearances.
I moved into another town and wrote her a couple of letters. We spoke over the phone sometimes, but our interactions dwindled as both of us got busy with our jobs. I could only keep track of her successes in films. She always had a bagful of assignments in the form of minor roles in television serials and in films, and she was quite content with that. She never got married.
And here I was, at the mercy of Debra, who was pouring me another drink. Our host had been very generous to keep the champagne flowing. “Can you spell Debra?” she asked with a glint of amusement in her eyes. She had caught me with the very question I had in mind for her.
“D, E, B, R, A,” I replied, carefully uttering each letter but with some uncertainty.
She pursed her dainty lips in the manner of a winner in a minor bet and shook her head from side to side. “No,” she said emphatically. “D, E, B, O, R, A, H, Debra,” she called out each letter and completed her assertion by pronouncing her name in two distinct syllables. “Never mind, I am still fascinated with you, handsome.” She moved on to look after other guests.
Was she pulling my leg? I wondered. Even if she was, it was quite all right. There was no way I could get serious with her, or she with me. Or could we? I put her at mid-twenties, or at most late-twenties. And I – in my fifties, early fifties if that be some consolation. Yet I was feeling good about her praises — fascinated with you, handsome! Even I am fascinated with those dainty lips of yours, they are designed to speak the sweetest words ever, I thought. This calls for another drink. I quaffed the remaining champagne in my glass.
I looked back at the list of women in my life, as I helped myself with another drink. There was Millie with whom I was fascinated in a casual sort of way. Honestly, one wouldn’t say she was beautiful but I repeatedly told her that she was the most beautiful girl in Delhi. She lapped up my flattery and was playfully naughty in her chides. I knew, as she did too, that we could not take our affair to any serious level. She was already engaged to someone in Mumbai.
This casual fling occurred when Millie joined our office for a small project work that lasted a couple of months. It fizzled out just the way it had started. She completed her assignment and moved back to Pune, and that was that. We had promised to keep in touch, and I wrote her a few emails with my smooth comments, to which she didn’t respond. I felt piqued, somewhat cheated. Even in an insincere way, she could have reciprocated; after all, she had been enjoying my adulatory attentions, to say nothing of my treats at expensive restaurants.
Whether it was Liza, Amrita or Millie, the compliments were always one way — from me to them, and never the other way. No one, not even Liza, had ever told me such endearing words. Men would be willing to die to hear such words from a girl. They would do anything to receive a compliment about their physical fitness, their good looks. Why else do men take to sports or to battle for that matter? But I guess, women, particularly Indian women, are reserved in their praise and in their love for men. Love is seldom expressed in words or with such gestures as hugs and kisses. And here I was facing Debra, no Deborah, yes Debbie, a contrarian Indian woman, who, at our first meeting, had caught me off guard with her praises and attention.
You look very handsome- the words kept ringing in my head. Her words were ethereal and reassuring. I was going rapturous over all these, and visualizing future possibilities between us, though I was far ahead of her in age. What is it she wants? The question kept popping up in my mind.
“One cannot get drunk on champagne,” said my host as he got my glass filled again.
“What is it she wants?” I asked him.
“Who? Deborah? Why don’t you ask her? Peace at home, I guess. Her parents used to quarrel over everything, every time. Anyway, that’s stopped now. Her mother died about a year back… I believe her father used to beat her mother up.”
“Oh, I have been lucky,” I mulled over aloud for my good friend, my host to hear. “I have been in love many times over; each time with all my heart, so much so that I never had the need to marry.”
But then there was Kavita, to whom I almost got married.
That was because our parents wanted us to get married. They got us engaged and let us meet each other briefly at times. During our so-called arranged dates, we visited cinemas and parks, often with a little relative of hers. Kavita’s parents seldom allowed me to take her out for more than an hour. Even during that brief spell she insisted that her little cousin accompany us. Eventually, I came to realise that she wasn’t the kind of girl I was looking forward to settling down with. I found her boring, unintelligent. All she had to talk about was what her parents or some friend had told her about settling down as a good housewife.
Even so I never failed to tell her that she was very pretty, to which she blushed or changed the topic. No hugs or thanks like Amrita used to offer. Imagine: I say “you look so beautiful in that dress”, and she says, “we must get back now; Mom has asked me to return home early”. What a put off!
After some deep thinking, I took the stand that I wasn’t prepared to spend the rest of my life with Kavita, who was intellectually lacking to the extent that with her, I would still be lonesome. As I think back now, maybe it was unfair on my part to break the engagement, but I take some comfort in the thought that it was better to have ended it in the beginning than to have ended it later in a divorce.
I was never sure of what I wanted in life. That’s how my life went on; I remained a bachelor boy, and many a lonely time I allowed my mind to indulge in nostalgic thoughts about the women in my life. And at every such moment Liza’s face popped up prominently. She was the one I cared for the most. Honestly, it wasn’t Liza’s or her parents” fault alone. Indeed, it wasn’t their fault at all. It was my parents to blame for not letting us marry. Religion was the issue — we, Hindus, they Christians… And Anglos at that! Poor Liza, she had no choice but to go by her parents’ guidance to cover her situation up. As I look back, it was I who was to blame the most, for sulking behind and not standing up to my parents” dogma. I have cursed myself in silence long enough. Indeed, just the other day, I had seen her in my dreams: She was reaching out to me while I was driving out. I slowed down, shook her hand through the window and drove on. I had woken up with a pang of nostalgia.
Why not another glass of the sparkling liquid? I questioned myself. Did someone say one can’t get drunk on champagne? Look at me. I was tottering, a bit; wasn’t I? No, I was walking straight. I walked over to the bar in the far corner. That was when the music started and the Christmas ball got rolling. I saw many eager feet tapping away on the floor. I placed my glass on the counter and indicated to the barman to fill it.
Someone took the glass away and held my hand. Deborah again. She smiled and asked me to join her on the floor. My mind was not thinking clearly now. My senses were a bit tipsy. Would it be all right to stagger on the floor? What about my host? Nothing. Then what about the others? Who others? Debra could not wait till my mind cleared. She held my hand and walked to the centre of the floor and started swinging to the slow rhythm. Well, we continued to dance till … I can’t remember.
But I remember some small talk we had. “You knew me, you said. Have we met earlier?” I asked.
“No we haven’t, but I know you from your letters.”
“Letters? I never wrote you… emm… on Facebook?
“I have this wish to reveal to you…” An announcement interrupted her revelation: “Dinner is served”.
Immediately, Deborah got reminded of her host-duties. “Oh me gosh! Is it time for dinner?” she exclaimed and left the floor. She then dutifully looked after the guests, including me.
It was time to leave. I was still elated and feeling good. I am past my midlife and I still see flowers. Am I not blessed? This twenty-something appears fascinated by me. While these thoughts crossed my mind, I bid farewell to my host and to Deborah. “Thanks Deborah,” I said. “You played the perfect host.”
She walked with me to the lift. I guessed she had something to tell me. Something personal! Something left half-said before dinner.
“You got my name right?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Deborah, spelt Deborah and spoken Debra, also Debbie. Right?
“Right. Deborah Wright. I am the daughter of Elizabeth Fernandez. Liza… She died of cancer, miserably… clutching your letters.” She smiled a melancholic smile into which she managed to add an obvious sense of satisfaction, as she waved at me and walked a couple of steps back, out of the lift.
Before my mind could arrange the many names and surnames that she told, the door shut and the lift started to descend.
And suddenly, came the moment of epiphany, everything fell into place. The doe-eyes, the pursed lips; I had seen them earlier. Liza, Elizabeth Fernandez. Elizabeth Wright. I remembered having met the handsome Mr. Wright with my Liza some 25 years ago. I looked up with longing; she had ascended.
Surendra Mohanty writes short stories, many of which have been published. Three of his stories were recently published by Rupa Publications in three different anthologies compiled by Ruskin Bond (Blowing My Own Trumpet in Tusker Tales, Where is the Tiger? in When the Tiger was King and Candidate Who Knew Too Much in Schooldays). He has contributed articles regularly to several magazines such as, ‘The International Indian’, ‘Telelife’, ‘B2B digest’ and ‘Young Times’ – all in Dubai. He used to live in Dubai where he did a cover story for ‘Telelife’, a leading entertainment magazine there. Presently, he is the publisher of a national magazine for school children titled Kloud 9. This quarterly magazine was conceived by him and was launched in May 2012. It is unique in that it publishes stories and poems written by school children from all over the country and also abroad. He took voluntary retirement from the Indian Navy in the rank of Commander in 2000. He is 56 years of age and works at KiiT International School, Bhubaneswar.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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