Monday, March 11, 2013

To Believe Or Not To Believe

The area for arrivals at the Mumbai international airport looked drab, dusty and neglected in the mid-day sun. The cabdrivers cursed the heat and used their cardboard placards to swat flies or fan themselves. Even the relatives gathered there in droves seemed lethargic, drooping and unenthusiastic.
A man stood away from that crowd. He was of medium height, about forty, with signs of once being lean and now with careless weight gathering around the middle. He wore sandals, creased khaki casuals and a red-brown checked shirt neither tucked in nor ironed. He hardly looked at the exiting passengers or the crowd. His unsmiling eyes remained lowered. He chewed his lower lip and apart from that, he stood motionless. But his aloof and unfriendly demeanor seemed incongruous on the gentle features as much as his tanned face stood out against his fair chest. He held a sheet of paper loosely. He did not seem embarrassed to stand there with a placard but it looked as if he was trying to be missed.
The passengers that exited the building looked as dissipated as those people outside. A woman in her mid-thirties came out, pushing her baggage trolley unhurriedly. Spectacles with photo-chromatic lenses hid her eyes in the afternoon glare. She was a head shorter than the man. She wore flat-heeled shoes, black pants and a cream shirt. She slouched a little and, like his, her body showed lack of care and attention. But, she walked elegantly and there was still the attractive allure of being both athletic and curvaceous in some recent past. Her dead-pan face nearly matched his, serious and disinterested. She surveyed the placards. She noticed the man. From her position near the exit, she could not read the name on his drooping sheet of paper. She waited for him to look up. When she caught his attention, he stared at her without budging from his position. She pushed the trolley towards him and from about twelve feet away, studied the name scrawled on the sheet.
‘I am she,’ she said to him, coming a little closer.
‘Can I see your passport?’ he asked gravely. Without a word or a smile, she took her passport from her handbag and gave it to him. He checked the name, gave her a brief nod and returned her passport. ‘Won’t do if I take home the wrong girl,’ he said, still unsmiling.
‘It’s probably more fun,’ she said seriously, ‘with the wrong guy.’
‘Better luck next time.’ He took hold of her trolley and walked towards the car-park. She followed him.
 It was a thirty minute drive from the airport to his apartment in Powai.
‘How was the flight?’ he asked her during that drive.
‘Ok… but Heathrow was hell.’
‘Wasn’t there a storm warning well in advance?’
‘There was. I thought this flight would somehow beat it…’
‘Why the hurry… home-sick or something…?’
‘No… just wanted to leave London…’
‘Robbed a bank?’
‘Yeah… but left without the money....’
‘It’s the thought that matters…’
They were silent for a while. Then, she said, ‘This overnight stay was totally unexpected. The delay at Heathrow just screwed up everything.’
‘Sorry to be a bother.’
‘I could have stayed in a hotel. But before I knew it, my father arranged this.’
He turned to her briefly. His unfriendly gaze seemed to say to her, ‘Do you still want to go to a hotel? Please do.’ But instead, he said, ‘My brother-in-law called me yesterday evening.’
‘That must have been soon after I called my father with an update. Do you know my parents?’ she asked.
‘No. My brother-in-law seems to be close to your folks. Business partners, aren’t they?’
‘No, he is a good family friend.’
‘I know him better than some of my relatives. Been a while since I met him…’ she paused before mumbling, ‘probably, at my wedding.’ She turned to the man, ‘Didn’t he tell you anything about me?’
‘We don’t talk much.’
‘My father got terribly nervous about me spending a night in Mumbai,’ she laughed and added, ‘though he was ok with me living alone in London...’
He looked at her again. She thought he would ask, ‘Why alone in London? Aren’t you married?’ But he did not say anything.
‘Are you sure I am not spoiling your plans?’ she asked.
‘Even if you were, I would have to say you are not,’ he muttered before adding, ‘Since it is Sunday, it is ok. What time is your flight tomorrow?’
‘At ten in the morning…’
‘Fine... I will drop you at eight at the domestic airport…’
‘A taxi will do.’
‘Orders… pick from international, drop at domestic.’
‘And put up with her for a day?’
‘Yes, that too…’
They were silent after that. At Saki Naka, the market was buzzing with activity. The Chinese restaurants were filling up. Around Powai Lake, lovers and families tried to grab every nook and cranny that offered shade. At Hiranandani, the supermarkets were full. Couples walked lazily holding hands. Young parents pushed trolleys packed with the week’s purchase and a baby or two. Retired parents sat on benches waiting for their affluent kids to finish shopping. The man and the woman in that car could have been mistaken for one of those couples with the distance between them explained by some trivial Saturday night tiff. The woman stared blankly at the world without. The man too surveyed the scene sulkily, chewing his lower lip.
His apartment was neat and spacious. The hall-cum-dining area was sparsely furnished. The TV room and the kitchen were to the right and, the study room and the bedroom to the left. He showed her to the bedroom.
‘This is yours. Freshen up. I will call for a pizza. Are you ok with that for lunch?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘Any preferences…?’
‘Good. Feel free to use the phone. Call your Dad and tell him that you are with the right guy. Ok then… I will be in the TV room.’
She spoke with her parents. Then, she had a shower and changed into a light summer dress. She found him sprawled on floor cushions in the TV room. He had changed into track pants and a t-shirt. He had already set the dining table. They watched news on TV and waited for the home delivery. They shared the pizza, a large packet of crisps and a bottle of coke. They hardly spoke. After lunch, she offered to wash the dishes. He declined the offer and told her to take a nap.
She woke up late in the evening, around five. She could hear the sound of TV. She found him there, still lying on those floor cushions, sipping iced lemonade and munching cookies.
‘Want tea?’ he asked her.
‘Yes. I will make it.’ She quickly added, ‘May I?’
‘Feel free. Milk in the fridge, tea bags on the shelf near the stove, there are cookies there…’
‘Would you like a cup?’ she asked.
‘Nope… but I want some of those cookies.’ He smiled at her for the first time.
She smiled back. ‘I will try not to finish it.’
She made her cup, took that and a plate of cookies on a tray to the TV room. She sat on the single chair in that room, a reclining one. She placed the plate of cookies, on the floor, between them. He continued flipping through the channels and finally homed in on some songs, in Tamil or Telugu. 
‘Very relaxing to watch this,’ he explained, quite seriously but with a smile in his eyes.
‘Requires rapid eye movement…’
‘Induces sleep…’
‘And headache…’
‘Really…?’ He switched off the TV. They were silent for a while.
‘What do you do?’ she asked him. ‘Father said that you are an academic.’
‘Was... now, just a corporate nobody… one of those KPOs here… and you?’
‘Nothing now… was an engineer… before marriage…’
‘Happy housewife in London now…?’
She looked at him. He stared back.
‘What…?’ he asked.
‘Nothing...’ After a long pause, she asked, ‘What did your brother-in-law tell you about me?’
‘Nothing… we don’t talk much, I told you.’ When she did not say anything, he asked, ‘What did your father tell you about me?’
‘Get picked and dropped,’ she said with a smile.
‘Is that all?’
She hesitated, ‘And that I would be safe with you?’
He laughed, ‘Safe, huh? How did my brother-in-law convince your father about that, I wonder?’
She looked uncomfortable.
‘Is that all he told you?’ he asked.
‘That your family is away.’
‘Family is away? Convenient euphemism for divorce-in-progress…’
She shrugged.
‘Well, do you want to be safe and have dinner outside or do you want to try my cooking?’ he asked.
‘How is your cooking?’
‘Terrible. But every Sunday, I torture myself that way. Allows my palate to relish the crap I have to eat at office rest of the week.’
‘Ok, I am game for it.’ She paused before asking, ‘Can I help?’
He screwed up his lips and chewed his lower lip.
‘Ok, ok, I get the message,’ she said with a laugh.
‘What message?’
‘Get away, you nuisance – that message. I got it at the airport, too.’
‘That’s exactly what your Clint Eastwood face said to me, too…’
They laughed together.
‘I just prefer to cook on my own,’ he explained, ‘but if you want to help, can you do the washing?’
‘Yupp, brrr alright… Ok, so that’s settled. I will call you when there’s washing to be done.’
He went to the kitchen. She browsed through his collection of movies and then strolled to the study room to go through his collection of books. She could hear the sounds of vessels, of cutting and grinding, the sizzle of onions frying, and the smell of fried garlic and ginger filled the air.
After an hour or so, he called her. There was chicken simmering on the stove. He was sautéing vegetables. It was about seven then. After the vegetables and the chicken were done, he fried potato wedges and fish separately.
‘Are you ok with an early dinner?’ he asked her.
She nodded.
‘Will you have some wine?’
She shook her head.
‘Wokay, let’s have iced lemonade then, shall we?’
‘You can have wine,’ she suggested.
‘Better not…’
She looked at him. He did not elaborate. They set the dining table together.
‘Madame, first course...’ With a flourish, he placed the plates with fried potato wedges and fried fish.
‘Thank you, sir.’
They did not speak while eating. When they were through with that course, she complimented his cooking. He looked pleased but brushed it away with, ‘Ah, that’s the end of good news. Now, it is time for the bad news.’
He cleared the plates and brought fresh plates along with the chicken curry, sautéed vegetables, a salad of shredded carrots and plain rice.
‘Rather limited second course, I know, but please bear with me.’
The vegetables were a little under-done and the chicken a bit over-done. Both required rather liberal pinches of salt.
‘Quite good,’ she said.
‘If you had not said ‘quite’, I would have dipped your head in that curry.’ He laughed. ‘But tolerable, right…?’
She nodded with a broad smile.
‘Don’t worry… dessert will make up for it.’
‘I am quite stuffed.’
‘Well, we will have dessert after the washing.’
She rolled her eyes and gave an exaggerated groan.
They cleared the table. While she did the washing, he went to the balcony and smoked a cigarette. He then came to the kitchen and wiped the washed cutlery.
‘Can’t you just let it drain? Isn’t it unnecessary extra work?’ she asked.
‘Lazy bum,’ he said. ‘I just like to leave the place dry.’
Later, he filled two large bowls with generous scoops of ice-cream.
‘Come… let’s sit in the TV room.’
He sat on the floor cushions and she sat on the reclining chair facing him
‘Would you like to listen to music or watch a movie?’ he asked.
‘Not really…’
They sat silently for a while.
‘Thanks a lot… I have not enjoyed a meal that much for quite some time,’ she said.
He looked up from his bowl. He started chewing his lower lip.
‘Now, what are you irritated about?’ she asked with a laugh.
He laughed too. ‘Not irritated, just wondering if I should ask or not…’
‘Life in London…?’
‘Were you telling me the truth when you said that your brother-in-law did not tell you anything?’
 ‘I told you, didn’t I? My brother-in-law and I don’t do much talking.’
She kept looking at him.
He hesitated before saying, ‘Ok, he just mentioned that you had had a rough time and I should be nice.’
‘Is that why you looked at me at the airport as if I was something the cat brought in?’ she asked.
‘But I was nice, wasn’t I?’
‘Oh yes, very charming. Without a smile till half a day was over…’
‘Well, you didn’t look too pleased either…’
They were silent once again.
Then, she said rather abruptly, ‘I have just escaped jail time.’
‘Whoa! What did you do? Stealing at Harrods?’
‘Do I look like a kleptomaniac?’
‘Your glasses hide shifty eyes, I guess.’
She smiled, ‘No, for assault… GBH… grievous bodily harm…’
‘Whoa! Whoa, indeed! Who…?’
‘My husband…’
He raised a hand towards his neck, mimed the slash of a knife and raised an eyebrow at her.
She shook her head, ‘Just cut his arm… couldn’t do more… he locked himself in the bedroom and called the police.’
‘How did you escape jail-time?’
‘Out-of-court settlement… a cheap divorce for dropping all charges…’
‘Why what…? Why the assault…? Even my lawyer asked me that…I could see it in the eyes of everyone in the police station…the policewomen, too…every minute…’
The man listened to her, head lowered, not saying anything.
‘Do you know when it hurt the most? When I tried to explain… in the station or in the court, the disbelief was just dripping all over… and I felt like I was sinking in that…’
She stared at the man. He looked up at her. His serious expressionless face did not reveal anything.
She sat silently, breathing deeply. Though bodily present, her mind was clearly elsewhere and after a long while, when she spoke, even her voice seemed to come from a distance. She reminded him of those wild moments when he talked to himself, crazily hopeless, feeling empty, cursing the world, detached from everything and everyone, and worst of all, just too tired to feel anything.
‘A rape victim gets better treatment, at least some sympathy. At least, she is a victim. Who is going to believe a woman, an educated woman with means of her own, who lived without raising a protest in public or even with any family member or friend, who lived like a happy wife for two years… who will believe such a woman?’ Her voice cracked for a while. She had a spoon of ice-cream and breathed deeply. ‘What injuries can I show? Did the neighbours hear even one cry or shout from me? No. Who is going to believe me if I tell them that my husband, a respected and well-admired doctor, wanted me to scream each night? Which male does not know how to do it without leaving physical injury, leaving only the mind scarred and brutalized? Who is going to believe if I tell them that the only way I fought back was by withholding that scream? Why did I continue like that for two years?’
They sat silent for a long while. She saw him chewing his lower lip.
‘Well, do you believe me?’ she asked with a mirthless laugh.
He shrugged.
‘Well, you are not lying… that’s a relief.’
When he did not respond, she asked him, ‘Do you know that my father and your brother-in-law placed me here with you trying for some kind of matchmaking?’
‘God! They just can’t understand that I want to be alone… without worry…’
‘Do you feel the same way, too?’
‘Oh yes. But I am still in the process. And I don’t think it will get over anytime… especially, with the court system we have here…’
‘Why…? From what my father mentioned, I thought yours was divorce by mutual consent…’
This time he laughed but it hardly touched his eyes, ‘Looks like my brother-in-law has been selling me well… with false info…’
‘It is not mutual consent…?’
‘Far from it… there is a civil case… and a criminal case… she is out to take me to the cleaners…’
‘Somewhat like yours… I am supposed to be a sex maniac… she even had to put a special lock in the bedroom door and all that…’
‘Oh…’ she remained silent.
They did not say much after that. They got up and went to the kitchen. She washed the ice-cream bowls and he wiped those dry.
‘Good night,’ he said, ‘lock the door. You can set your own code… like those safes in hotel rooms.’
She remained silent, looking at him. She walked towards the bedroom. Near the door, she turned to see him go towards the TV room. She said, ‘Good night…’
He turned around. He stared at her, chewing his lower lip.
‘Does anyone believe you?’ she asked him, or maybe she was asking herself.
He shrugged as if he did not give a damn. Then, still staring at her, he raised an eyebrow, like raising a half-hearted query.
She shrugged.