Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Perfect Couple

At a crowded party, Ramesh stands alone at a table. He sips his drink slowly. A friend approaches him. They make small chat. They appreciate the hors-d’oeuvres, enquire about mutual acquaintances, make casual observations about the people around, comment on conversations they overhear and touch on topics, personal and professional. The friend does most of the talking.
‘Do you know why divorces are increasing?’ the friend asks. He continues, ‘Guys are just not as smart as the girls they marry.’
Ramesh nods politely.
The other goes on, ‘Look at my case. Hey, I studied well and went to the best colleges. I am street-smart and made lots of money. I wanted a housewife, and got that, that too from a bloody rich family with a bloody old name. But, hey, I am still the same old small-town chap. I can barely knot a tie, even now I can’t handle fork and knife, and bloody poetry and music, man, what the…! Man, she has class. We were as different as chalk and cheese, never had a chance. I envy you, man! You and your wife are perfect for each other!’
Ramesh remains silent. The friend waits expectantly for a response. Maybe, he wants Ramesh to console him, to say that he is not chalk, or that he is the cheese; at least, a modest shrug with regard to the compliment. He leaves after a while, to tackle the buffet meal, he says.
Ramesh stares blankly at the crowd. He mutters softly, ‘Yes, we are perfect for each other.’
He smiles. He recollects minor episodes of their early days. He remembers that they had been surprised with the initial surge of affection on both sides. He hardly knew his wife when they got married, having met her only a couple of times before the wedding. He had felt, even then, that they are a lovely match. Their family background, schooling and upbringing are roughly similar. They share a lot of interests, especially crime novels and BBC TV shows. They love shopping, that too, together. They are passionate, towards each other and about their career. The areas with mismatch of interests have never seemed too difficult. In their ten years together, their compatibility grew with each passing year. They have two kids, share responsibilities and work hard to build a great future for their family unit. They have had their problems, of course, and fixed most.
Ramesh does not feel like going for the main courses. He catches the attention of a passing waiter, replenishes his drink and the plate of appetizers.
A wry smile now develops on his face, lips slightly pursed, eyes narrowed, crinkled at the edges, not really with humor.
‘I am growing old. I can’t even remember those days clearly,’ he tells himself, not too softly. People at a table near him turn towards him. He smiles at them, points to the food and gestures that it is good. They nod, smile too, and return to their conversation.
Two weeks after their wedding, they returned to work. He used to leave home at half past seven in the morning and return around half past six in the evening. She preferred to start later since her work usually went on till late. She had a longer commute too but, on good days, she managed to get back before seven.
One night, she was delayed. Ramesh tried her mobile but it was switched off. He called her office but no one picked his call. He tried to watch television but it did not help. At eight, he put on his jacket, and stood outside their rented house. After half an hour, he moved towards the main road, inspecting each passing vehicle. He knew that there was no point in waiting outside but he could not sit within. She returned home at quarter past nine. Her boss dropped her off. She introduced them. Ramesh thanked her boss for giving her a lift. Her boss complimented them, for her hard work and for his understanding. When they were inside, Ramesh shouted at her. She apologized for not informing him about the delay and explained that she had been in an important meeting with a client.
A month later, on a weekend, they were at a mall near her office. Or did this episode happen earlier, he wondered, does not matter, he decided. They had gone for a matinee show, and then after some shopping they had had dinner at a nice Gujarati restaurant which served unlimited thali meals. At half past eight, or thereabouts, they were outside the mall, ready to go home.
‘I want to pick up a file from office,’ she said, ‘I will be back in five minutes.’
Ramesh waited. She came back after forty five minutes. During the rickshaw ride back home, she tried to calm him, telling him that a senior colleague had accosted her in office and that a discussion about a project had gone on and on.
He told her angrily, ‘Next time, you won’t find me waiting.’
He faced a similar situation a few weeks later, or was it many months later, he could not be sure. Once again, she did not return after ‘five minutes’. That time, he moved away from the meeting spot, hid behind a juice-stall and waited. She was back after thirty minutes. She did not seem surprised not to find him there. Unruffled, she caught an auto-rickshaw. After she had left, he raced to another and asked the driver of that to follow his wife’s rickshaw. The driver refused to ‘chase’ a woman. Ramesh explained calmly to the driver that he was ‘chasing’ his wife. The bemused driver raised his eyebrows but, without any further fuss, followed the other vehicle, and it was tough on roads congested with late-evening weekend traffic. Ramesh reached home a few minutes after his wife.
She said cheerfully, ‘See, I got here before you.’
Her job took her to big cities and small towns all over the country. They tried a schedule of phone-calls, to let Ramesh know that she was fine. But that never went according to plan. There were many nights when she was out late and could not keep in touch – working or traveling alone, in taxis, through areas avoided even by locals, on trains, staying at shady business hotels, meeting colleagues, factory workers and big honchos with dubious reputation. Ramesh slept little, worrying. Even when she called, his fears never really subsided, and awful dreams disturbed him. Morning newspaper and news channels on television fed fuel to that flaming fear. Cases of gang rape, murder and vicious assault followed him. Is it his wife… it could be his wife… it will be his wife, his paranoia worsened.       
At the party, he drinks and eats, absent-mindedly, oblivious to the music and the chatter around him. He thinks about those days when he went nearly crazy. He starts to sweat, even though he is standing beneath a vent of the air-conditioner. He feels uncomfortable. He tries to remember how he coped with the problem. Those memories and that period are fuzzy. It was not an overnight decision. He is sure that the desensitization took months.
Every day, he expects policemen at his door informing him, ‘Sir, your wife has been murdered.’ Or, that she has been brutalized and left barely alive.
Maybe, they would suspect him when he shows little surprise, he wonders. He knows that he would not feel anything when faced with such a situation.
It is late and some guests are leaving the party. Ramesh feels tired.
He goes to his wife, and says softly, ‘Hey cutie-pie, I am going home.’
She holds his hand and whispers, ‘You go ahead, love. I have to meet a few more people. What a bore! How will you go?’
‘I will take a taxi,’ he tells her. Expecting the drinks, they had come in a taxi.
‘I will do the same… that is, if I can’t get one of these goofies to give me a ride.’
‘See you…’
‘Sleep well…’
Outside, he feels better. He looks around for a taxi or a rickshaw. There are none available. He decides to walk home. It is a dark deserted road. He is calm and untroubled once again. He walks away from friends and acquaintances. He does not think about predators and preys. Silence follows him, not screams or cries for help. The danger that lurks in the shadows does not bother him.

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