Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Victor’s mother’s words hummed in his ears like the air pressure in the cochlear duct while landing. It hurt deep in an unbearably painful but strangely, pleasant way. The vigorous ear-digging seemed to help, at least ephemerally. With time however, the pain subsided and so did the effects of his mother’s words. Not that they got him too nonplussed. But it was something about the being high time he gets married part that troubled him. Not the idea but the prospect. It was a strange conundrum for him – girls who knew him wouldn’t really want to get married to him and the strangers who he was supposed to meet were likely to get to know him which would put them in the first category by default– thereby precipitating the predicament.
He often wondered if he was a passive listener or just plain passive. He had met classmates from school or even college who never seemed to recall his name. Not that he had left school a long time back, just about a decade. Surprisingly and agonizingly, he would remember their names, names of their sisters (especially the pretty ones) and sometimes, even the brothers’ names, but they would invariably struggle with his name. It’s not even that Victor was entirely invisible in his school days. Nor that he lacked ambition either. It’s just that he had his own benchmarks, his own league. Academically, he would identify a few students, albeit not the brightest group, in the class that he wanted to perform better than – and he would work doggedly to ensure that he was ahead of them. But Victor would never aspire higher for he knew his league, he just knew it.
Victor was enthusiastic about various other activities too. His interests took him from football fields to quiz competitions to debating to skits. But his participation was limited to being a linesman on the football field to the buzzer monitor in Quizzes to mic adjuster in debates to no-dialogue sentry in skits and the like. Victor’s name was as much a certainty in all events as was his name in spelling ‘victory’ – a fact that no one ever seemed to have noticed. You could never fault him for not trying but if anyone had ever cared to maintain the records, Victor arguably had the maximum participation certificates. The winner’s medal was not what he aspired for – for he knew better than anyone else – it was ‘not his league’.
The cool breeze of Bangalore hit him as he alighted from the plane and got into the waiting bus. He was feeling good about the smile that the stewardess gave him when she said goodnight. He could almost sense that sparkle in her eyes. He gave her a restrained smile – the one that’s possible when you have a bursting bladder and a chill in the air. He believed it was a dignified acknowledgement of her interest in him. He read her name – Paroma. “Has to be a Bong”, he thought triumphantly. He made a mental note of the name. Next time his shaadi.com or matrimony.com or any of the numerous matrimonial sites’ account that his mother subscribed to on his behalf showed the name Paroma – he would check it out. With that warm thought, Victor braved the cool breeze and adjusted his jacket.
Once in the bus, he was reminded of the growing restlessness in his bladder. To divert his attention from this uneasiness, he switched on his phone. Everyone around him was on the phone, speaking with concerned family, waiting drivers or paranoid bosses. Victor looked indulgently at his phone. “Ah! There comes the first message” – from Vodafone. Welcome to Karnataka Circle and details about the roaming charges. Second message – again from Vodafone – “Now enjoy home data roaming charges in Karnataka”. Victor continued to read. There was a third message too. From mother. Some text missing. Victor knew this meant two things and only two things. Have a safe flight and call me when you reach.
Now Victor really needed to get his mind and even his hand off his growing desperation. “Where on earth do these low cost airlines drop you off these days”, he wondered. There was only one way out – he called his mother. As was the norm, it kept ringing. “C’mon Mom, pick up!”He screamed silently. No response. He heard the electronic message fully in all three languages before disconnecting in a bid to stop thinking about the ‘pressure’. . Finally the bus reached the terminal and Victor made a dash to the men’s restroom. But he was late. Every urinal was occupied and had two equally desperate men in queue behind the first. Victor realized that any attempt to present his case to these gentlemen was futile. These were men possessed – of bladders full of liquid waste. With each waiting moment, Victor’s frustration grew – and unfortunately, help was not really at hand either. Finally, the moment arrived. Victor was reminded of the pre-owned car print-ad line that he’d seen on the flight – ‘You’re not her first, but do you really care?’ it said on a racy model’s shot. Like hell, he didn’t. As Victor got ready, fate played a cheap trick. His phone rang. He muttered unmentionables as he fished for his phone in his trousers pockets. Mother. No surprises there. He cut the call and focused on the job at hand, literally.
Once relieved of his carnal duties, Victor called his mother again. Busy again. Now this meant only one thing. She was still trying his number. After multiple attempts of each of them trying the other’s number, Victor finally got through. His dad picked up. This was an awkward moment that he had not prepared for. “Hello”, his Dad said. Silence.
“Hello?” his Dad repeated. “Is Mom around?” Victor managed to ask finally, even though he could very much hear her grumbling in the background – much to his dad’s and his own relief.
When his mother came on the phone, it seemed she had merely taken a 3 hour pause and started off exactly where they had, actually only she had, last stopped. She was still talking about the wedding and how everyone was asking about Victor’s wedding plans. Victor finally got a moment to mention to her that he’d reached safely – just as he heard his mother barking orders to the maid to make begoon bhajas in (ironically) less oil. His mother was mentioning something about some prospective girl’s profile being sent to him when she lost Victor’s attention completely. He hung up rather abruptly as he stopped walking and stared.
Standing in front of him, among the 10.00 pm crowd of weary travellers, stood a woman, almost nonchalantly, occasionally looking at her watch and not-so-patiently waiting for her luggage to arrive. The name came instantly to his tongue and with that, the memories. He measured her up – not in a pervert manner, for Victor was not capable of such thoughts when it came to certain people. Those long flowing locks, distinctly and naturally brown, the flawless and silken skin, the slender built, the upright and tall gait and those lovely hazel eyes. How could he forget those eyes? He found them unsettling every time he thought about them – considering he never really got to look into them. Simran Malhotra. It had to be her. She always reminded him of Kajol from DDLJ after she gets married to Shah Rukh Khan at the end of the movie. Victor was surprised at the recollection of that thought, and chuckled.
Victor didn’t know what to do. He was torn between walking up to her or just avoiding. So for the umpteenth time in his life, Victor Bose took a pragmatic decision. He retreated back to the restroom. Once inside, Victor tucked in his shirt properly. The stain from the dal he had on the flight suddenly seemed very visible to him now. He adjusted his pen to hide it partly. He looked at his shoes. “That son of a gun”, he muttered remembering the chubby kid who had trampled his shoes in the bus as he vigorously used a tissue to wipe the shoes clean. 27 years old, greying prematurely on the sides, bespectacled, medium height and medium built. In fact, everything about Victor was medium – height, weight, looks, intellect, sense of humour, salary, organizational hierarchy, ambition – not too bad but nothing great either. He washed his face, unruffled his travel worn hair and looked into the mirror. Victor was pleased with what he saw. He smiled. The man next to him gave him a passing look and Victor immediately grew conscious. Suddenly, the realization dawned on him that Simran was waiting for her luggage and not him.
He dashed out only to dash back in to collect his laptop and approached Simran just as she was picking up her suitcase from the belt. “Bright, red and trendy – how the suitcase complemented its owner”, Victor thought. He walked towards her, completely ignoring his luggage in another belt. Simran turned; looked at him (or at least that’s what he thought) and then she looked through him. But years of being ignored had made Victor hardier. He stood his ground and smiled. She still wasn’t looking until he shifted himself to be directly on her path. She looked at him quizzically, and he kept smiling. As the puzzled look on her face turned into irritation and bordered towards anger, Victor got his clue. “Simran Malhotra?” he asked. She stopped. Victor waited for the full import of his words on her. He needed a response from her as much as one needs an umbrella in a storm – it didn’t matter.
“Victor. Remember? We were in school together till 12th standard. Same class, Section B. What are you doing in Bangalore? Work? I am also here on a business trip”, Victor finished the last sentence with great self-importance. The travel weary head of Simran could only process this overload of information and questions partly. Victor, school, business trip. She was of course intelligent enough to tie the loose ends. Simran smiled and said, ‘Hello! How are you doing’? She immediately realized the enormity of her mistake in those words for Victor just took off telling her how long it has been to how surprised (and happy, he added emphatically) he was to meet her. She cut him mid-way through another of his rants and mentioned ‘I have to get going. Nice meeting you. Bye’. She concluded the conversation.
‘No problem. Let’s catch up some time. What’s your number?’ Sometimes, in his excitement or inebriated state, which was pretty much the same thing for him, Victor was incapable of taking cues. Finding no other way out, Simran committed the second mistake in the last five minutes. She gave him her number. Victor promptly called her. Simran was already moving ahead. ‘Simran’, he called out. She slowed down again and turned. ‘Your phone’s ringing’. She fished out the phone from her bag. It was vibrating and had an unidentified call. ‘That’s my number. Ah, don’t pick up, I’m on roaming you see’, Victor admitted unapologetically. She gave him an indifferent smile. ‘Ok’, she said. ‘Goodnight’. Victor waited for her to leave the terminal, actually waited till she disappeared from his view.
Pleased, Victor now turned around and almost failed to notice one suitcase still doing the rounds on the baggage claim belt. Something about it looked familiar. Slowly but surely, he warmed up to his surroundings. He picked up his suitcase. As he walked to the taxi stand, he just couldn’t stop himself from thinking about her.
“That smile, those eyes. Oh! Those lovely eyes” he thought warmly. As he walked out of the terminal, he half wished she was waiting for him to ask him in which direction he was going and may be travel together or maybe just have a coffee at the café outside the terminal before they went their respective ways. He deliberately looked around – in a matter-of-fact manner, trying to mask his anxiety.“No one there, no one on that side either. Nope. Absolutely no signs of her. She must have been in a hurry. After all, it’s way past 10 pm”, he thought. Victor hailed a taxi and gave his hotel address to the driver. After hurriedly closing the taxi door, he immediately checked his phone. He went to the last dialled number and stared at it. In the warmth of the taxi, Victor’s senses and reasons were also coming back. He closed his eyes and thought about her knowing that it won’t be the last time that night that he was going to think about her. And then he deleted her number. “Simran is out of my league. She will never go out with me”, he told his restless heart. And everything went quiet.
About 5 km ahead of him, in another car sat Simran Malhotra. She was checking her phone too. She looked at the number and thought about him. “Victor Bose. Of course, Victor”. How could she not remember him? They were in school for five years together. Same class, section B. And it has been just about a decade. Still that same old funny guy… But nice, and warm.“How difficult it was to ignore him tonight”? She wondered.“Thank God I was not in my air hostess uniform. What would he have thought of me? The class prefect now serving passengers on flights!” the thought repulsed her. She kept looking out of the window to ensure that she didn’t get stuck at a traffic signal with his car stopping next to her airlines car. She crouched slightly more in her seat. A failed attempt at marriage early in life and the hectic schedule of being an air hostess had brought her soaring aspirations to a brutal crash. She knew better that most men who showed interest in her saw her as a ‘trophy’ girlfriend and hung-out with her to feed their male ego. Otherwise, they were just not interested in an air hostess. But how she yearned to be with someone who would treat her like a normal person – whatever that meant. “Why is it so difficult”? She wondered. She stared at the number and then closed her eyes to think about him knowing that it won’t be the last time that night that she was going to think about him. Then she deleted his number. “Victor is out of my league. We’ll see if he ever calls” she sighed ruefully. And everything went quiet.
Victor reached his hotel. He connected to the wi-fi and checked his mail. There was a mail from one of the matrimonial sites with the subject: ‘Paroma checked your profile and would like to get in touch’. Victor smiled.
Strange are the ways of fate
Sometimes missing and sometimes late
How it conspires how strangely it does intrigue
For oblivious is the world to one’s own league!
About the Author:
Anupam Dey, 33, is an MBA Graduate who forsook a successful but seemingly sedate career in Banking to join a Start-up. In between his day job, his passion for long-distance running and his love for books, he writes to illustrate and elucidate his thoughts – mostly on his blog allinadezwork.blogspot.in. He aspires to run various International Marathons and write a travelogue on the experiences of a rookie runner. Despite selling financial stories for a living for long, this is really his first attempt at writing a short story. He lives in maximum city Mumbai, India.
Bangalore: A major city in Southern India
Begoon bhaja: Fried aubergines – a delectable Bengali dish
Bong: Colloquial for Bengali or from Bengal – a State in India
Bharatmatrimony.com: A matrimonial website
DDLJ: Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (The Brave Hearted Will Take Away the Bride) – arguably the most successful romantic movie in Indian Cinema (Bollywood)
Kajol: A famous Indian Movie Star
Karnataka: A State in India
Shaadi.com: A matrimonial website
Shah Rukh Khan: Need I explain? A famous Indian Movie Star
Vodafone: Telecom Service Provider
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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