Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Coming, Going

When the door-bell rang, he was adjusting the volume control of the hi-fi. Without heeding the bell, he listened to the music for a while, comfortably numbed and also bemused by not being able to recollect the name of the composer. It matched well, he thought, with the bright blue sky peeping through lace curtains and the cool dewy early morning air.

He went to the door and opened. He smiled at her as she walked in without a word. He closed the door and leaned against it, watching her. She kept her hand-bag on a side-table and her wind-cheater folded on the back of a chair. Then, she went to him. They stood there, hand in hand, looking at each other, smiling.

‘Missed you…’ she said as he pulled her towards him. ‘So much…’ The ‘much’ lingered long, soft and thick in the air, till they kissed.

They held each other as they swayed with the music, languorous dancing with impromptu steps, instincts leading and following. She leaned against his broad chest, opened a few buttons on his shirt and lightly traced lines in the light hair. Her left hand curled under his arm and held onto his shoulder or caressed his back. His hand circled around her, held her close and tight, with his head resting against her forehead or lightly kissing her ears, her hair, her forehead, her cheeks, her lips. His right hand lingered on her naked skin beneath her blouse, teasing and caressing, moving gently with the music from her breasts to her waist, back and forth.

‘How I wish I could remain like this forever…’ she said later when they rested on the floor cushions. ‘I could sleep…I could dream…lying here, against your chest, I feel so…’ her voice trailed.

Around noon, they dressed, rustled up a quick lunch and shared the meal standing in the compact kitchen of his rented well-furnished studio apartment. Two sparrows came to the kitchen window, looked in, tilted their head sideways and chirped at them and at each other. She opened the window and sprinkled some bread crumbs saying, ‘Sparrow-kutta…here…’ The birds came warily, pecked and left. He watched her, smiled at her, and happy with himself feeling her life filling every nook and cranny of his existence.

Around mid-afternoon, she put on her wind-cheater, picked up her hand-bag and moved towards the door. They kissed long and deeply.

‘I wish I didn’t have to go…’ she said and left.

He stood by the doorway and watched her walk away. A strange afternoon breeze disturbed her hair and he wanted to comb it down with his fingers. He watched her swaying hips and straight back. He remembered that he had first noticed her while admiring her elegant walking style. He stood there till she vanished.

He went back inside. He collected his belongings and packed it all in two suitcases and a large cardboard box. He cleaned up the place thoroughly trying for its pristine condition. At dusk, he rested for a while, sipping water, lazily reading an old mid-day newspaper, a leftover of his packing.

One large headline screamed about a lover killing a straying partner. A smaller news item was about a suicide after a painful separation. Everywhere, everyone seems to be coming, going, never staying together for long, he thought.

He loaded his suitcases and the box in his car. Then, he gave the house-keys to his landlord and received the deposit money. ‘Where are you going? Do you have a forwarding address?’ the landlord asked. He shrugged.

With a friendly wave from the car and a melancholic smile, he bid goodbye. At the cross-road, he squinted at the dying rays in the cool dewy late evening air, and tried to choose north, east, west or south.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The First Lover

For the ‘veteran’ petitioners like Sheila, the new Court was a big relief. No more of standing in the dusty (or muddy, if it rained) courtyard of the old place though most of them agreed that it used to have a nice homely feel. But, they preferred the new, bright and well-ventilated modern building. Sheila thought it was like comparing a favourite old family doctor’s dilapidated clinic and a chic antiseptic impersonal multi-speciality hospital.

Lunch break was over and, in his chamber, the judge was meeting the ‘cases’, reviewing their petitions and deciding their lives. Sheila and other petitioners, their respondents, lawyers and clerks sat in the court room waiting for their chance with the judge. Sheila’s lawyer (or rather, her main lawyer’s junior) Satheesh had assured her that it could be her last day in court, her lucky day. She had smiled. He always told her that. She was quite used to it.

How many years have gone by and how many appearances, she wondered. She still felt queasy before she left her house at 10:30 to reach the court by 10:45. There, lawyer Satheesh and his clerk would try to encourage her or give her instructions about what could happen that day. Each time her name was called in court, she felt her hands get clammy, heart pounding and legs ready to buckle. But, she was quite used to it.

Sheila sat next to Satheesh and his clerk. She listened to the discussion between lawyers and clients. She watched the grief, the determination and the rare smiles. One of the first things she realized in Court was that no case is personal or confidential. It had initially felt like a breach of trust but later it seemed more like a cure. At first, each case or grievance seemed strange and harsh. Then, the scenes got familiar having heard or seen some version at one time or the other.

One lady-lawyer (probably the lawyer of a male respondent, Sheila guessed) joked with her colleague, ‘Hai! My poor chap, you know, he drinks a peg or two and she has a problem with that. Kerala depends on such men for revenue generation, you know. He talks to other women and she has a problem. He tried calling me at night few times, you know, poor chap is such a smooth talker, a real panjarakuttan (flirt). If she has such problems, you know, why did she get married?’

The other (the male lawyer must be that of the petitioner-wife, Sheila decided) laughed and replied, ‘Well, she is going to be 30 lakhs richer with her problems. Now, he can talk as much as he wants with women without such problems. Make sure your client doesn’t disappear, ok? At least, till we get paid…let’s finish it off, ok? No more tricks, please…’

In another scene, a young man was telling his lawyer quite excitedly, ‘I want justice. I want the truth to come out. She can’t escape after ruining my life.’

The lawyer asked that client quietly but firmly, ‘Do you want a divorce or do you want truth and justice?’

Near the court counselor’s office, a lawyer was instructing a middle-aged lady, ‘Talk about those occasions when he hit you. And, when he created a fuss in your parents’ place…and, that he doesn’t know anything about the kids’ affairs…and, that he used your money and gold to start his business...and, that he did not give you any money. He will be telling the counselor that it was always good between you two...’

The mild lady replied softly, ‘There were good times too…people aren’t 100% villain, no?’

Her lawyer said with an exasperated tone, ‘If you say that, the counselor will say that that you two should meet an external counselor since there is still a lot of hope…’

The lady looked confused and also scared (maybe, about such ‘hope’ of returning to her husband, Sheila thought).

The lady’s lawyer quickly consoled her, ‘Don’t worry…just treat this place like any government office…the court officers want to hear the right words…to go ahead with the process…if you say the wrong words, they will get confused and they will treat your case like a badly filled form…and you will have to run around…till they get the form filled the way they expect…’

Sheila smiled at those familiar words. Her main lawyer Ashok had given her that advice long back, before she had filed her divorce petition. She had wanted to include only truth in her petition. Ashok had told her that even truth should be written with the right language.

Sheila looked at her watch – nearly 2:30. She had not had lunch. She did not feel hungry – her appetite always went for a toss a few days before and after such days. She took out a bottle of water from her bag and sipped. How she wished this would end…

She remembered the day she walked to Ashok’s house and requested him to be her divorce lawyer. Ashok is her elder brother’s childhood friend; or rather, was her brother’s friend before they parted ways. She had heard about a fight but never got to know the real reason – some girlie problem, she had concluded. She was eight when she first met Ashok. Her brother used to talk about Ashok’s maverick ways in school – a firebrand anti-social leader for the juniors and most of his peers but he was never well-liked. He was a pain for the school authority and teachers, Sheila’s brother used to say. If he had not been good in studies, Ashok would have been dismissed from school.

To Sheila, Ashok was an additional brother figure then – though he seemed fiercer than her own brothers. Ashok enquired about her studies and extra-curricular activities. He encouraged her to do better and rarely found her achievements praise-worthy. Much later, on her first date, she and her boyfriend had gone to the only Chinese restaurant in town. By sheer coincidence, Ashok also landed at that place for a solitary lunch. Ashok nodded seriously when she introduced her boyfriend. Ashok did not say a word, not even a simple Hi. Ashok sat at the table behind theirs, facing her boyfriend and she could nearly feel Ashok’s eyes on her back. Sheila remembered that it was an awful, quick and mostly silent first-date.

In the years that followed, she used to meet Ashok when they were both studying in Bangalore. Then, her brother and Ashok fought bitterly over some issue – neither of them would talk to her or anyone about the reason. She tried to keep in touch with Ashok but the fight with her brother affected them, too. She invited him for her wedding. Ashok did not turn up, probably because her brother had not invited him. Ashok did not invite her for his wedding – she heard that he had not invited anyone. She also heard about his wife’s death a few years later but by then, her troubled marriage dictated every moment of her life and she had no energy to think of anyone or anything beyond that suffocating world.

She still wondered if she had been impulsive when she decided to get out of that world. She thought about the strange decisive force that had made her ask Ashok to be her divorce lawyer. He ‘interrogated’ her extensively on three days at his place. On the second day, she had met his daughter Lakshmi for the first time – a lovely beautiful girl. The daughter had received her coldly at the door and when her father requested her to make tea for him and Sheila, she told her father that she had some homework to complete. Sheila heard the kid march upstairs to her room and bang a door. Ashok shrugged his shoulder and continued ‘interrogating’ Sheila.

Sheila told him everything about her marriage. The economic and intellectual mismatch, the insecurity, the fast decline of a life partner to be a beast of burden, the daily taunts and mental torture, even how they drifted to separate rooms. She tried to recollect the happy moments of that matrimony – a few movies, two trips and couple of convenient dinners at a restaurant.

On the third session, she admitted to Ashok that the problems could have started in a rather innocuous way. Her husband had mentioned once about a ‘close-relationship’ with a girl when he was in college. Sheila admitted to Ashok that she had then retorted quickly and without much thought, probably just to spite, that she also had a ‘lover’ once much before their wedding. A few months later, she had met her husband’s old girlfriend at a wedding. She had nearly laughed at her husband’s discomfiture in the presence of the garrulous rather grotesquely dressed up lady. Her husband never got to meet her first lover or even know the slightest details – the first lover’s ghostly anonymous presence probably served as the poltergeist wrecking their fragile marriage, Sheila confided in Ashok. Ashok asked her if her husband could produce any surprising evidence in court regarding the first lover. She shook her head.

Sheila realized that Ashok used these informal ‘interrogation’ sessions to decide if the petitioner was actually ready for a divorce or whether the client was just being frivolous and immature. At the end of the third session, Ashok informed her that he would help her. Ashok told her that his junior Satheesh would be dealing with the nitty-gritty details of the case and that he would keep track of its progress. After that third session, Sheila saw Ashok once or twice at his office or on the court premises but they never talked to each other. Sheila phoned him once, when she had felt very nervous about the proceedings, but he coldly told her to get in touch with Satheesh.

Sheila understood Ashok’s cold professionalism. She did not find fault with him for keeping her at a distance – she knew how she must appear to him. She knew how she wanted to lean on someone, a friend that would be there day in and day out while she fell into an abyss of loneliness and empty hopelessness. She knew how such a clinging person would appear to another. Sheila could understand Lakshmi’s reaction. Even she would have kept such a pathetic person away, away from personal involvement, Sheila told herself. Even a whiff of friendliness would have seemed like love while she struggled to breathe, suffocated by the air around her, the air of hatred, bitterness and fear.

Sheila struggled with the case alone, debating with herself, weighing the pros and cons on her own, with endless nights of nightmarish indecision, waking up tired and ready to give in to maintain status quo for the sake of some certainty, ready to give up her last dream of living without abuse, her last dream of hoping, even if it was just a hope without a smile. She had to make every decision on her own. There were days when she cursed Ashok for not being even a friend, just a friend.
While she waited for the judge to call, Sheila thought about all this – the past, her dull blank life and the many visits to Court. When she was called around 4:00, she followed lawyer Satheesh to the judge’s chamber. She went through the motions, detached, disinterested and mildly confused. It did not take long. When she left the Court, Satheesh accompanied her. She barely heard him say,

‘Well, that’s over…I will take care of the rest of the formalities. Do not worry about anything…’

She gave him an envelope with money as fees. And, he left her alone.

She walked slowly on the tree-lined path from the Court to the exit. She looked up. Through the trees, she could see the evening blue sky. She thought she should say a prayer or a word of thanks. But, she felt too tired and defeated even for that.

Sheila hardly felt the hand on her arm. A bit confused, she came out of her reverie and stared at the person standing next to her. It was Ashok’s daughter – she had grown taller, Sheila noticed. Lakshmi smiled at Sheila, pointed at her father who was standing near a car,

‘Aunty, we have been waiting…’