Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Liars

There were three main routes to the hospital cafeteria: the heart-breaking via the paediatric division; the nerve-wracking through the crowds in the unnamed collective with doctors for lupus, radiation and nervous disorders; and, the malodorous past the lab and toilet. Sreekanth found a less unappetizing way with help from a nurse, a service elevator at the back from the cardio division on the fourth floor. The nurse mistook him for a consulting doctor and he did not correct her.
The cafeteria itself was not unpleasant. The common area was large and airy. The two ‘gated’ areas for doctors and nurses were to the left of the sliding doors at entry. The payment counter, the first stop, followed by the serving area was to the right. Opposite to the entrance-cum-exit, windows spanned the wall from the tea-coffee stall on the right to the washroom on the left. The tables were cleaned, or given a casual wipe, once in a while. The floor was not dirty. The kitchen was visible, all metal and gleaming, the staff in white with a grey-checked apron. The patients’ food was prepared in a sterile enclosure within the kitchen. At 6:30 pm, that Thursday, the cafeteria was not crowded. The visiting hours were over at six, and dinner was served after half past seven. The whiteboard at the counter boasted lots of items, from dosa and pasta to fresh juice and ice-cream, but only vegetable sandwich and banana fritters apart from tea, coffee and milk were available at that hour.
Sreekanth paid for a vegetable sandwich and a cup of tea. He stood in the queue to be served. A lady at the front of the queue, collecting coffee and sandwich, seemed familiar to him. She walked to a table near the windows. She stood near the window, sipped coffee and stared at the backyard with car-park, a generator and an unpaved side-road to a new residential complex. She took a seat facing the window. Lost in thought, she looked down and slowly peeled back the napkin covering the sandwich. Sreekanth walked to the same table with his tea and sandwich. He stood near the seat diagonally opposite to hers.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asked her. She shook her head without looking at him.
He sat down, sipped tea, unwrapped the sandwich, his eyes never leaving her. She took a bite of her sandwich and frowned.
“That bad?” he asked.
“The cucumber must be a leftover from lunch.” She raised her head. “You…?” She gave a short laugh of surprise.
“Hi Sandhya, I was wondering if you would remember…” He smiled.
“What a surprise! What are you doing here, Sreekanth?”
“Wife in post-op, D&C or something,” he said.
“Do they keep one overnight for that?” she asked.
“I asked them to keep her in intensive care for at least one night,” he said with a deadpan face. “And you?”
“Husband…felt discomfort. Under observation in cardio,” she replied.
“Cool joint, that,” he said, “better than gynaec.”
“True,” she said, grinning, “fewer ladies though.”
He shrugged.
“What happened? The old you would have said something…like…”
“Bloody ladies?” he suggested.
They laughed. “How long…”, “When…” They spoke together.
They studied each other and did not speak for a while. She wore maroon blouse and black trousers; his hospital-wear black shirt and dark blue trousers. They were entering middle-age. His hair was totally grey, hers had a few strands. Both wore spectacles. His deep-set eyes looked tired, the lines to the side increased and lengthened when he smiled or stared intensely. She had dimples and gentle eyes. No other creases or wrinkles on his lean face or her softer oval one. Both were of medium height. Excess weight and lack of exercise showed on their slender build with rounding of edges and careless flab at the midriff. Her straight hair was shoulder-length. She kept tucking it in behind her right ear. A hair-band was on her left wrist. She sat with a straight back, not leaning against the chair, her legs crossed at the ankle and tucked to her left. His hair was short, an uncombed ruffle.  Her hands rested close to her cup and plate. He sat leaning forward, his arms on the table. They did not shake hands or touch, their fingers were close. Their focus on the other was unwavering. They did not seem to care if others were listening to or observing them. They were oblivious of the restless complaining kids and the loud munching and slurping of adults at the neighbouring table, the clatter of trays and cups in the wash area, and the shrill scratch of chair or table against floor.
“What do you do now?” she asked.
“Oh please!”
“Should we try the weather then?”
“Fine…I am retired and jobless,” he said, “now, ask the next question?”
“What next question?”
“Retired…really…you must have made a lot…how much?” he suggested.
“How much do you have, Sreekanth?” she asked seriously. He scowled. She laughed. “Left research?”
“Long back,” he replied, “Are you still in IT…telecom, right?”
“Now who is checking whether I am worth talking to?”
“Do you miss physics?” he asked.
“Not really.”
“Same here,” he said. “It was fun though.”
“Yeah, we got to see lovely places.”
“With tolerable company…?”
“Intolerable at times...”
They chuckled.
“Remember Trieste?” she asked.
“We will always have Trieste,” he said.
She groaned. “Haven’t you given up your Casablanca fixation?”
“The other girls wore two-piece bikini and you wore a three-piece salwar suit,” he continued with the Humphrey Bogart impression.
“Only one day,” she protested with a giggle, “that lovely day deserved my best.”
“Sure, the sunniest day when everyone was by the sea…”
“You too were in formals.”
“I had only formals,” he said.
She nodded. “We were poor then.”
“Very poor…”
“I borrowed from my sister to buy that salwar.”
“I stole from a friend to buy two T-shirts.”
“You didn’t wear T-shirts.”
“Turned out to be too small, even before wash,” he said, “and looked terribly cheap.”
“All of us looked cheap. Physics researchers were supposed to look cheap,” she said.
“Not small and cheap,” he said, “that too in Trieste.”
“That trip was great…my last lovely trip…” She leaned forward, elbow on table, fingers of her left hand against her cheek, head tilted. She looked at him, amused. “You were such a pain, Sreekanth.”
“Ouch…I was?” he asked with a faux-hurt tone.
“You were loud and opinionated on everything, from nuclear weapons to women’s fashion, every research field, and you had this trick of making girls run away from your company.”
“There was that Russian lady…” he pointed out.
“She thought you were a tenured Professor…what with the way you gave each speaker a hell of a time. And, she was desperate for someone to read her research paper.”
 “I remember…some ghastly experimental stuff on TGBA, nothing new, not even wrong.”
“Did you tell her that?” she asked.
“I did.”
“She must not have understood your feedback. How was her English?”
He shook his head. “Beautiful face, fat legs.”
“Shreeww, Shreeww…” she mimicked, “isn’t that what she called you?”
“Jealous, were you?” he asked.
“Ha! We girls used to call you the triple-O…opinionated, obnoxious and obstreperous.”
“Bet you were the only girl there with that vocabulary,” he said, “anyway, a guy giving more than one O to a girl can’t be all bad.”
“Sir, your jokes are stuck in the sixties.”
“You enjoyed my jokes then,” he said.
“Look who’s talking of lying.”
“What did I lie about?” she asked, all innocence.
“You told me you were married.”
She laughed.
“Made me wonder if I had made a pass at you,” he said.
“You make a pass? You were too busy being absolutely revolting.”
“Then, why did you tell me that?”
“I was practising.”
“For what…?”
“Remember the French prof?” she asked.
“That Pierre…? Oh boy, how could I forget his name?”
“Don’t worry…early Alzheimer’s…Pierre Bouchard.”
“Ah yes, that flirt,” he said. “He went after anything in skirt.”
“He was French and charming.”
“Did he try it with you?”
“Of course…”
“And did you tell him you were married?”
“Yes, but that excited him even more. I had to tell him I was expecting too.”
“Did that stop him?”
“Yes, he had seven kids,” she said, “he did not screw around where kids were involved.”
“No pun intended, I presume.”
“Of course…” She grinned. Then, serious, she said, “All profs went for those summer schools and conferences for their annual ego-fix…and to make some money.”
“And to see lovely places…with idiotic students begging for positions, in the proverbial bend-over for those middle-aged pricks…”
“We too…rewind for flashback!”
Both gave an exaggerated shiver, grimaced and then laughed together.
“But…you managed to get the postdoc position in that Bouchard’s lab,” he said, eyes narrowed.
“And…?” She challenged his insinuation with a hard glare.
“And I didn’t.” He scowled.
“Why didn’t you wear a skirt?”
“I would have had to wear a skirt and also do experimental work.” He looked grumpy.
“Well, you got that good German fellowship, didn’t you?”
“I wanted to be in Paris.”
“For what…?”
“The romance…”
“Sreekanth, romance wouldn’t have touched you with a 20-foot pole!”
“I was that bad, huh?”
“Bad would be an understatement.” She paused. “Only later, much later, did I wonder if that had been your goal all along.”
“To keep romance away?” he asked sounding incredulous.
“I was not that loony.”
“Oh yes, you were,” she said, “and you told me why.”
“I did?”
“You were hurting within, or so you said.”
“I told you that?”
“Yes,” she said. “I thought you were lying, giving the usual tragic hero crap.”
“I must have been…”
“We were so full of lies then,” she noted.
“Then…? Only then…?”
“When did I lie other than then?” she asked, once again all innocence.
“Remember that time we met in Goa, at the Taj?” he said.
“Oh then…”
“Oh yes, oh then…my hubby is sleeping, I slipped out for a massage,” he imitated her, “remember the coy newly-wed fluttering eyes act?”
“Wasn’t he sleeping?” she asked coyly.
“I saw you the next day, attending some IT conference,” he said.
“You too told me that you were there with your wife.”
“That was in response to you. I had to have a spouse.”
“For what…?”
“Me alone in Goa…? That would have sounded pathetic.”
“You could have been a Casanova out to ensnare single girls like me.”
“But, you claimed not to be single.” He had the hurt look. “Anyway, when was the last time a single guy like me, on a vacation, found a girl at a hotel? Back in the Dark Ages…?”
“I should have tried being single with you.” She laughed.
“You should…someday when you have time to kill,” he said. “By the way, Goa was two or three years after Trieste, right? I must have Alzheimer’s…just can’t get my timeline right these days.”
“Don’t worry…it’s our privilege to forget the unimportant.” She thought for a while. “Goa was after postdoc and before I got married, so, at least 4 years after Trieste. Were you still in research then?”
“Why did you leave research?” she asked.
“The fire burned out.”
“What did you do after?”
“Went to banking…”
“I never asked,” she said, “when I used to...”
“I…we…talked so much,” she said, “but I never asked about such stuff.”
“It hardly mattered.”
“None of that mattered,” she muttered.
She chewed her lips. He stared at his empty cup. He opened his sandwich and poked at a limp slice of cucumber.
“Definitely a day old,” he declared.
“Do you remember how often I used to call you?” she asked. “Whenever I got a chance…”
“Not once did I wonder if I was troubling you,” she said. “I did, didn’t I?”
“You did,” he said softly.
“I did not even ask if you were married,” she said. “No, I did. You told me you were not married.”
“I wasn’t, was I?”
“You were,” she said, “but I got to know that only later. Not that it would have…I was so…on the edge.”
She looked at him. He kept on inspecting the sandwich.
“I must have caused so much trouble for you,” she said.
He shrugged.
“Look at me.” She stared at him intensely.
He raised his head, returned her stare. “Time fixed that.”
She drew doodles on her plate with the sauce.
“Do you know what really puzzles me…even now…how…why I chose to call you,” she said. “Weren’t you puzzled too?”
“Nah…” he said.
“I found your number,” she said.
“Who gave it to you?”
“You did.”
“I gave you my number…?” He groaned. “I did not.”
“Yes, you did. You know you did.”
He kept quiet for a while. “Were you actually married then?” he asked.
She stared at him, lips pursed.
“I mean…when you used to call,” he replied.
“Did you think I was lying all that time?”
“Possible, right?” he said, “Just wondered now, that’s all.”
“You think I kept calling you, with all those sob stories, for a year or more…what, for fun?”
“A cute practical joke…?” he suggested.
“One should be a psycho to do that…” She added, after a long pause, “I was a psycho then.”
“First few years of marriage is usually like that,” he said.
“Few…? Six years for me.” She gave a bitter laugh. “It seemed like a lifetime, then…and now.”
They slipped into a brief silence.
“Do you remember any of it?” she asked.
“No,” he replied.
“My family stopped listening after two or three years, can’t even remember if my best friends lasted that long,” she said.
“Family and friends have never listened to me,” he said.
“My only prayer used to be, God, give me one person to believe what I say.”
“Such atrocious demands we make of God.”
“I was packing my old books. I found your number…”
“Always lost or close to being discarded,” he noted.
“Sree, will you shut up!” She stared at him. He raised his arms in surrender. He then sat with a finger on his lips. She tried to suppress a smile. “It was in a notepad, from that Goa IT conference. I remember laughing hysterically when I first thought of contacting you.”
“I have that effect, huh?” he asked with a wry grin.
“Of Trieste…even that brief encounter at Goa…” she said, “All I could remember was that we had not said one word of truth to each other.”
He gave a broad grin, looked pleased or satisfied.
“My lifeline number was to the one person who never wanted to talk to me,” she said.
“Is that what you thought?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “that’s what you made me think.”
He shrugged.
“I said to myself, if I call, I bet he will say, wrong number,” she said.
He laughed.
“There I was, going loony, near-suicidal, getting in touch with you after five or six years…I said, Hi Sreekanth, remember me, it’s Sandhya, and you said exactly that, sorry, wrong number!”
He continued laughing.
“Don’t laugh,” she said, laughing herself.
“I called you back, didn’t I?”
“After an hour or two…you let me stew…how I cursed you,” she said. “To tell you the truth, when you said wrong number, I felt relief. I said to myself, I still have some of my senses to know what you would do.”
“Sandhya, I think that was the beginning of a brief and cruel friendship,” he said, back to his Bogart tone.
“You and your Casablanca…”
“You seem to be quite familiar with it now.”
“We will always have Casablanca,” she said, grinning.
“Urghhh, too cheesy,” he protested with a laugh.
“Don’t you remember any of it?”
“You let me talk, and did I talk. And, you played the devil’s advocate role too well,” she said.
“That was not my intention,” he said.
“I got the hang of it. You suggested that I should be happy as a housewife. That made me search for a job. All I had to do was the exact opposite of what you suggested.”
“Story of my life,” he said, with the hurt look, “with girls.”
“You even justified his abuse. I remember your lines. Hey, I too am like that with the one I love. Casanova and Marquis de Sade, my dear Sandhya, just two sides of a coin…you said that, Sree!”
“I said that?” Sreekanth’s lips twitched with a twisted grin.
“Don’t you grin like that,” she snarled half-heartedly.
“A girl talks about physical and verbal abuse, alcoholism, sexual assault, and the one guy she approaches does not think it’s a good idea to take the girl’s side.” She sat with crossed arms, narrowed eyes, challenging him.
“Must have seemed too easy,” he suggested.
They slipped into a silence, staring at each other, her lips thin and compressed; his with the same half-grin; their eyes smiling.
 She laughed suddenly.
“Do you remember that letter you sent? My husband read it. You knew he would, right?” Sandhya asked. He shrugged. She continued, “He was paranoid by then. Suspected everything, everyone. Who is this nutcase? He asked me that. I still have it. ‘From Sreekumari’, you wrote on the back of the envelope.”
“You sure I wrote it?” he asked.
“A letter signed ‘Shreeww’? Who else would write such a crazy letter?”
“Someone out to spoil my rep…?”
“Three pages of your tiny scrawl, about ‘our’ Trieste conference, and ‘the fun we girls had’,” she said, with air quotes. “Do you know how many times I read that letter?”
“Jobless, huh…?”
“That letter kept me sane for months.”
“Sandhya, you read too much between the lines.”
“You wrote about ‘that wimp Vidya in our group’. Thank god, by then, I knew how to decipher your words.”
“Really?” he asked with a raised eyebrow.
“That made me meet a lawyer...I nearly approached the Women’s Commission too. That Vidya was a spunky girl, wasn’t she? We all thought she was so meek, so traditional. I was so shocked when she told us, at that party in Trieste…you were around, somehow…” she spoke fast, as if recording a memory before it got erased forever, “it sounded so unlike Vidya, those words from that tiny girl.” She put on a softer voice, nearly a whisper. “I filed a complaint with the Commission and they treated my dear husband well. He came back to me with a limp, a lisp and ready to split and run.” Sandhya gave a short appreciative laugh. “How we laughed at the way she said it.” She paused. “I too nearly filed for divorce after I got your letter…” 
“Is that when your husband suffered a heart attack?” Sreekanth asked.
She nodded. “A week or two later…and he got out of ICU a changed man…nothing works better than the fear of mortality…”
“Jolly good…”
“When I think of those days, some of the things I did still amazes me,” she said.
“Folly of youth…?”
“Youth…? We were well over thirty.” She shook her head. “I used to call you even after ten at night, when he was out, with friends or in some bar. There was this all-night phone-booth near my house. Calls were so expensive then, I had to call after ten.” She leaned forward a little and spoke softly, apologetically. “I really did not know you were married. You did not tell me, I did not ask.”
He shrugged.
“I must have caused so much trouble,” she said.
He shrugged again.
“Was she there when you told me about the trip to the hill-station?” she asked.
“What trip to which hill-station?” he asked.
“You know what I mean. Was your wife near you then?” she asked.
“Yeah, right, she would have decapitated me.”
“You told me to trust fantasy more than reality,” she said.
“I still live by that dictum,” he said.
“I told you that I had no fantasy left. I know your fantasy you said. I still remember your ‘tale’,” she included air quotes, “God, we were…” She looked embarrassed but pleased.
“The precursor of modern phone-sex?” he suggested.
“It wasn’t lurid,” she protested. “Well, a little racy, perhaps…”
He laughed.
“Those calls…you used to ramble on and on about the latest in physics, when we were in the field, gravitational waves, quasi-crystals, anyone listening would have thought we were scheming to find the theory of everything.”
They stared at each other, silent for a while.
“I must have taken that in like a bedtime story,” she said.
“Did I sing lullabies?” he asked, with a grin.
“You did, kind of,” she said.
“Oh boy…mid-life crisis, indeed…”
“Between physics, you inserted your stories. We lived quite a few stories in those calls,” she said, “but the hill station one was the best. That lie is the truth.” She looked away. He stared at his plate.
“Did you write it down somewhere?” she asked, facing him. He looked up, raised an eyebrow. She continued, “You know, in a diary or story or somewhere?”
He shook his head. He tapped the side of his forehead.
“Same here,” she said. “Clich├ęd it might be but that man and that woman on that hill-station, they will stay with me.”
She smiled, as if to lighten the seriousness of her statement.
His fingers touched hers briefly on the table.
They sat back, inspected the sandwiches.
“We should check if this cucumber shows up for dinner too,” he said.
“Oh boy, crowd’s arriving for dinner, I better scoot,” she said.
“Yeah, me too,” he said.
They stood up, deposited the plates and cups on a trolley near the wash area, and walked out of the cafeteria.
He told her about the easy route to the cardio division. He indicated that he was going past the toilet and the lab.
“It’s your wife in gynaec, right?” she asked.
“Wondering if it’s me instead?” he asked.
She giggled.
“I hope your husband is really there,” he said.
“Why would you hope for that?” She laughed and walked away with a wave.
He too waved and took the smelly path, smiling.

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