Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Woman He Saw

Lottegollahalli, on the outskirts of Bangalore, used to be ideal for research scholars with a young family living on a pathetic stipend – a neighborhood one rarely crossed, with dusty narrow lanes, clusters of small houses and a deserted railway station. On a Saturday, in mid-winter, Rakesh helped a colleague relocate to cheap new lodgings out there. Most of the day was spent shifting the belongings, cleaning and setting up the new place. Around early evening, a few acquaintances dropped by for an impromptu housewarming ceremony. Rakesh helped the friend’s wife rustle up a quick dinner, and prepared a fiery chicken curry for the booze party. It must have been the steady supply of beer and whiskey that made him volunteer even though he was dead-tired. The party went on till midnight by which time Rakesh was drunk and rather unsteady on his feet. His friend advised him to spend the night there but Rakesh, never comfortable with prolonged company and strange sleeping spaces, decided to get back to his own hostel-room.
That involved a three-kilometer walk, in the dead of the night, on the barely-lit New BEL Road, a stretch with shuttered small shops, few houses, gnarled trees, unfriendly dogs, unsettling play of light and shadows, and rumors of brutal gangs that murdered for a few rupees. Rakesh walked briskly, not due to fright but because that exaggerated sense of purpose rather than a casual meandering stroll suited his inebriated state. The first few hundred meters, he concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other, quickly and pointed in the same direction. He tested his drunkenness by pinching his nose, and laughed aloud when he could feel nothing. That’s when he heard a flurry of footsteps behind him.
He turned around but saw nothing or no one in the dark. Must be the liquor, he thought. He walked faster, paused, then repeated that set in bursts, and listened carefully. The footsteps followed his lead, treading along, braking and keeping pace with him. He continued on that deserted straight road, hoping for a deviation or hiding place to make a quick exit.
After half a kilometer of that nervous walk, he spotted a dark cross-road ahead. On the right, there was an unmanned gate to a housing society. Rakesh thought about scooting inside, but he did not want to get trapped in a cul-de-sac. About twenty meters further, on the left, there was a cluster of shops, partially hidden by a big tree. He sprinted ahead, and near the tree darted to the left. He hid in a dark passageway between the shops. He watched the road. He wiped sweat from his neck and forehead on the sleeve of his jacket.
For a long while, there was no sound or sight of the other. Rakesh wondered if he had imagined everything. When he was about to step out of hiding place, he heard the footsteps again.
A slender form, shrouded by a shawl from head to waist, hurried forward on the road, head down, glancing nervously at both sides of the road, loose tresses hiding the face. Rakesh waited till that apparition was about fifty meters ahead, and then, he stepped out and followed her. She stopped, looked back, still and tense. He too halted, sensing that she could not see him in the dark. The chase, reversed, continued.
Rakesh kept his distance. The lady walked briskly, at times nearly jogged, but it was not difficult for him not to lose her till the junction near Ramaiah College. There were a few shops still open at that hour, catering to groups of affluent college students. He looked around. The young lady had vanished. He glanced at his watch. That episode, from Lottegollahalli till there, happened over two and a half kilometers and in just twenty or thirty minutes, though time and distance had seemed dilated during the chase.
He turned left at the junction, on 80 Feet Road, towards Dollars Colony and Sanjay Nagar, for the last half kilometer of his excursion. Once again, away from the light at the junction and into darkness, he felt her presence. He stepped away from the road, and waited. Again, she appeared, her face half visible, looking tense.
He stepped out onto the road and confronted her.
She gave a startled cry.
‘Who are you? Why are you following me?’ he snarled. He was quite surprised to find little slurring in his voice, wondering if the liquor had evaporated during the chase.
‘Damn! You nearly killed me by jumping out like that,’ she said, standing a few meters away from him.
Rakesh remained silent, staring darkly, waiting for her explanation.
‘I was at a friend’s place near Lottegollahalli,’ she said, moving closer and then paused. She looked deeply worried.
‘Go on…’ he said, not really snarling this time, but still suspicious. How many people can have friends in that godforsaken place Lottegollahalli, he wondered.
‘You are drunk, aren’t you?’ she said, quite unable to check herself.
‘I was comfortably numb,’ he admitted, ‘before you started chasing me.’
She said, ‘Well, I thought I was safe following you… you looked respectable from behind… I could not get the stink from that distance.’ She giggled, as if to apologize for blurting about his odor. When he scowled, she continued, ‘Look, I was at a party… and it turned really unruly. I could not even find my friend. I decided to leave and get home.’
‘At midnight… on your own…?’ he asked incredulously.
‘I know… terribly stupid… but it was worse there.’
‘Where is your house?’
‘In Dollars Colony…’
‘I too live there…’ he said and quickly added, ‘in a hostel… come on, let’s go…’
They did not talk much after that. Near the end of 80 Feet Road, they turned to the right, and took the unpaved and muddy shortcut to Dollars Colony, past clusters of huts and low-class hovels.
His hostel was the first big building in that underdeveloped part of the Colony. She asked him if he had been there for long. He muttered grumpily that he had shifted to that awful place with no shops or life about three months back and that he had a lovely room on the ground floor with a window facing a bicycle stand and little privacy. They walked past the hostel. She did not refuse his offer to walk her home. Her house, which seemed modest when compared to the mansions in that area, was at the other more affluent and well-established end of the Colony. My name is Savithri, she told him before leaving. He waited outside the gate of her house till she entered and closed the door. Rakesh returned to his hostel, and collapsed into a deep slumber, finally feeling the exhaustion.
He woke up late on Sunday morning, had a brunch of eggs, toast and lots of coffee. His legs were aching, because of the excessive booze and not due to the exertions of the previous night, and the headache was an equal blinder. A long shower did not help much. He dozed till evening. It took another shower and a mug of coffee to revive him, partly. He thought of the woman he saw. For dinner, he went to a nearby restaurant and on the way back, took a detour and walked to her house. The place was dark and shuttered. He returned to the hostel.
He thought of going there again during the week that followed. But work and a nasty flu kept him busy. Anyway, he was undecided about whether he should visit her or not. By Wednesday, the fever peaked and he took leave from work. The hostel cooks, three friendly women, took turns serving coffee and toast or hot rice, rasam and fried potato; and, he added a paracetamol as dessert with each meal. He had dreams of overflowing liquor, Savithri and lurking shadows.
Thursday, around late evening, he went to her house. Again, the house seemed dark and shuttered. But then, most houses there were like that – the occupants probably enclosed in some air-conditioned space within. He opened the gate and approached the door.
The door opened as he was about to knock. Rakesh took a step back, alarmed. A lady, in the early or mid forties, stood at the doorway, smiling at him.
‘Rakesh, nice of you to come…’
He stood dumbstruck, wondering how she knew him.
‘Come in,’ she said. She switched on the lights in the drawing room.
He stepped inside, cautiously standing near the door, and managed to ask, ‘Savitri…?’
She closed the door and showed him to a sofa. She sat next to him, a leg tucked under her. She faced him head tilted a little, a hand on the back of the sofa towards him.
He noticed that the lady resembled Savitri a lot. But in the place of the girlish charm and nervousness, there was a mature allure, a heady mixture of fragility, experience and confidence. She did not have the girl’s long tresses. She sported a peculiar boy cut, which highlighted the grey in her hair rather than hid it. The body was fuller, the dimple deeper, lips wet and parted, a button or two on the blouse open at the top, and the jeans accentuated the lower curves.
He looked around the room and noticed the photo of the girl in a showcase.
Pointing at that, he uttered again, ‘Savithri…’ He knew that he sounded foolish, croaking the same each time, but that’s all he could manage.
The lady nodded. She waited for a while before saying, ‘I wonder why I keep it there. Looks so young, right?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Twenty years… how time flies... wish I could look so young again’ she said.
Rakesh turned to the lady, wary and reasonably sure that he was being taken for a ride. He laughed.
‘Ok, nice one… where is she?’ he asked.
‘I am Savithri,’ the lady said.
‘Yeah, yeah, and I am Saddam Hussein.’ Rakesh got up. ‘Ok, tell her that I was here. Nice meeting you.’ Rakesh went to the door and opened it. He turned to face the lady. She remained seated, bewitchingly attractive, with a smile on her lips and sadness in her eyes. He shook his head, wishing the apparition would just vanish, stepped outside, closed the door and walked away. He was disturbed and angry too. He wondered about the lady’s relationship to Savithri – her mother or most probably a playful aunt. He suspected that Savithri must be hiding in some corner of the house, laughing her head off, enjoying the prank.
The next few days went by slowly for Rakesh. He felt doubly troubled. The girl’s prank and absence angered and worried him. But there was another niggling realization, that the older lady he had met captivated him more than the girl. He wanted to go back to that house but a mixture of pride and hurt kept him away.
By Sunday, seven days after his walk from Lottegollahalli, he had recovered reasonably. That evening, he was in his room, scribbling senseless blank verse to ghosts that troubled him, listening to music on his old stereo, Moody Blues and their Nights in White Satin.
There was a knock on his door.
He opened the door to find Savithri, the girl.
He blurted out, ‘Savithri…’ He cursed the recent degradation of his eloquence.
She smiled and said, ‘Thought of checking on you. How have you been?’
‘Good,’ he replied stiffly, ‘and you…?’
‘Been really busy… had to leave for my village on Sunday and got back just yesterday…’ she said.
‘Hey, can you step outside? My mother is in the car and she wants to meet you.’
He followed her without a word, not really wanting to face the older woman, feeling terribly unsure about his emotions and desires.
The car was parked on the road, outside the hostel. Savithri’s mother stood by the door. Rakesh was glad to find that her mother was not the lady he had met on Thursday, though he was also troubled by that. That must have been an aunt, he decided.
Savithri’s mother greeted him with an affectionate hug.
She said, ‘I wanted to meet you last Sunday, but got back only yesterday evening, and you know how it is with closed houses, just a week and the cobwebs and dust gather like it’s been ages.’
‘Ah yes, I dropped by on Thursday…’ Rakesh interrupted.
‘Did you?’ the mother and daughter exclaimed together.
The mother continued, ‘What a pity we were not there. I wanted to thank you for bringing her home that night. This fool…’ she looked crossly at her daughter.
Savithri laughed, ‘Ah, you shouldn’t thank him too much… he chased me half the way and frightened me a lot…’
Rakesh hoped she would not mention his drunken state.
‘And he was dead drunk, too…’ Savithri concluded.
Her mother laughed, ‘I have felt like getting drunk too… to tolerate you and your antics…’
Rakesh joined in the friendly banter. For some reason, not clear to him then or later, he decided not to mention the lady he saw. At first, he was not sure if the mother-daughter team were just continuing with the practical joke. Then, he wondered if he had imagined it all, some type of outpouring from a fever oppressed brain, as the Bard might say. It was the third reason that buttressed his decision to keep mum about the lady.
Savithri and her mother invited him to their house. Rakesh visited them frequently. The same photo in the showcase stared at him each time. The other lady remained absent and he did not ask Savithri. He knew he was falling in love with the girl. And, he was not sure if any query to Savithri about the older lady would sound innocent enough or mask his inner thoughts. That became his secret, nearly a cherished and unavoidable deception.
Me and my wet dreams of mature women, he cursed himself.
How about that photo, he asked himself, more than eager to believe in the supernatural. Maybe, I saw that on the showcase the night I dropped her at home, the rational self tried to convince the susceptible part but with little success.
Three years later, after he got his Ph.D. and also a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, Rakesh proposed to Savithri. They got married before leaving for Germany. They were abroad for five years and returned when he obtained a faculty position in a new institute in Bangalore. The young couple preferred to live independently in the quarters provided by the Institute even though her mother still lived nearby in the house in Dollars’ Colony.
 They had their fair share of joys and troubles. They were terribly disappointed early on when they realized that they could not have kids of their own. They liked to believe that that did not strain their relationship but brought them closer, whenever they were at home. But, those were the heady days of economic boom. They spent more time in office, not by choice they told themselves. For their generation, me-time and together-time ended in some collective bucket list. That nearly broke that relationship. Strangely, two tragedies saved them. The global economic slump and the insecurity that followed gave the first shock. Then, the demise of her mother around then, in their seventh year in Bangalore, sealed their fate together. They had only each other, they must have realized.
They shifted to her mother’s house. The city had changed a lot but the house remained the same, the same old photo of Savithri still on the showcase.
‘Why can’t you wear jeans?’ Rakesh asked her, a few months after moving to that house. He had asked that question during their courting days too.
‘You know why,’ Savitri said, concentrating more on the stuff on her laptop, ‘I have fat legs, especially the shank. I have never worn jeans.’
‘But try it once, for me,’ he said.
She turned to him, shaking the unruly tresses from her face, staring at him, probing with curiosity and also a challenge. He wondered if he had blundered.
‘Not satisfied with the way I am?’ she asked.
‘Come on…’
‘Do you want me to be someone else?’ She was still smiling but he knew that that question, and it had cropped up more than a few times in their years together, was never really good-humored.
‘Don’t be silly…’
‘Is there someone else?’
He remained silent, and grumpy.
‘Or, was there someone else?’ She continued when he refused to speak, ‘I know that I have nagged you once or twice…’
‘Just once or twice…?’ he decided to go on the offensive.
‘Ok, a few times… but there has always been that feeling that there is someone between us…’
‘Don’t be paranoid…’
‘Fine, I am being paranoid…’ she turned back to her laptop.
Rakesh stared at her back.
He wondered, ‘How can I tell her about the lady who looks a lot like her? And, that I find the other more attracting.’ A fantasy would turn into a nightmare with that admission, he was sure.
Years rolled by, with minor erosion, leaving a few jagged edges but mostly smoothened planes.
On their seventeenth wedding anniversary, twenty years after that night-walk from Lottegollahalli, Rakesh returned home early from office to find the house empty. He found a note from Savithri on the dining table.
‘Will be back soon, love,’ the note said.
At half past five, he heard someone at the gate and he opened the door as she was trying to fit her key in the lock. She smiled and stepped in.
He stared at the boy-cut, a trendy fashion, and the premature grey that unruly long hair would have hidden. He took in the jeans, the white blouse, buttons open; and, the same amused, teasing, confident but still fragile look.
She hugged him, ‘Happy anniversary, love… Am I late? The salon took a while… and the shopping.’
He held her tightly, caressing the ample curves, for the first time his ardor made it appear, and he muttered in her ear, ‘My Savithri...’
Rakesh held back the question in his mind, ‘Where is my wife?’