Short story in Hindi by Suraj Prakash. Translated by Madhavi Mahadevan.
Hello. May I speak with Deepti ji on this number?
– Yes, this is Mrs Dhawan speaking.
– But I would like to speak with Deepti ji.
– I said so, didn’t I? I am Mrs Deepti Dhawan. What can I do for you?
– How are you?
– I’m fine… but who are you?
– Look here, I can’t guess. First, tell me your name, next tell me what work do you have with me?
– I have and I haven’t.
– Look here, please don’t speak in riddles. If you don’t identify yourself and your business with me, I’m putting this phone down.
– Please don’t! That would be catastrophic. I don’t have another one rupee coin.
– You’re being impertinent. Don’t you know whom you are talking to?
– I do know and that’s why I’m taking the liberty. Who knows better than I what Deepti’s temper can be like?
– Mr Whoever-you-are, you behavior is inappropriate. I’m keeping the phone down.
– And if I behave in the right and proper manner?
– At least, identify yourself. Why are you bothering me?
– Yaar, at least make one guess. It’s quite possible that the stranger at this end is someone well known to you.
– I can’t recognize your voice. You’ll have to tell me yourself.
– Alright. I’ll give you a hint, maybe that’ll do the trick.
– Go on.
– Twenty years ago, in 1979, on a cold December evening, in the country’s capital city Delhi, in Connaught Place, close to Regal Cinema, you had made an appointment for 6p.m. with a certain gentleman.
– Oh god! So you are the one. Today…Suddenly…Out of the blue! After so many years?
– Yes. Even today, twenty years later, this man, in all humility, is standing right there waiting for you.
– Don’t pretend! Tell me, how did you get hold of this number? This is only my fourth day in office and you’ve managed…
– There goes madam with her questions! But first, you have to answer mine. Why didn’t you show up that day? You kept me waiting for two and a half hours. We’d agreed that it would be our last meeting, despite that…
– Your foolishness hasn’t changed a bit. After so many years, how would I remember when, where and why I did not show up? Now, tell me, where are you speaking from and where have you been all these days?
– Baap re! You are talking about days? Twenty years have passed since this incident happened. All of seven thousand and three hundred days…maybe more.
– May be. Tell me, how are you? Where are you? How many are you?
– You could also ask why are you?
– No. I’m not going to ask that. I know that even you don’t know the answer to that one.
– Your way of talking hasn’t changed a bit.
– How would I know? Tell me, how did you happen to remember me after all these years? And you haven’t said how you got hold of my number.
– It’s like this, Deepti. I’ve never lived in this city of yours, but I’ve been coming here over the years and I’ve have been hearing about you regularly. Where you are, how you’ve been doing, where all you’ve been posted, and when you’ve got promoted. In fact, I could, if you like, give you an inventory of your foreign trips. I could even tell you the names of your two children, the classes they study in and their hobbies. Just don’t ask me how I happen to know all this.
– Baap re! You used to teach in a university. Since when did you join the intelligence services? How long have you been spying on me?
– Not spying, dear, only a natural curiosity in watching a special friend climb up the ladder of success. With every promotion of yours my chest would expand and broaden just a little bit more.
– But you never cared to ask about my welfare.
– I wanted to. But whenever I tried to do so, the barriers always came up from your side. In fact, I wanted to take on the contract for your welfare for the rest of your life, but you were the one who drew back. You were the one who did not want me to be involved in your life. You gave me a time to meet you, but never showed up. Many years ago, I had gone to your office to offer my good wishes on your promotion, you kept me waiting for two and a half hours in the reception and never came out to meet me. Only I know how terrible I felt that day because I had become such a stranger to you that I could not even meet you face to face and congratulate you on your success.
– You know everything… Those days, I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I was on probation, it was a new environment, new responsibilities. On top of that there was tension at home, too, my in-laws were so stiff and demanding, and you kept calling me. Only I know how difficult those initial one or two years were, how hard it was to hold myself together so that I did not crumble on any front.
– These were precisely the reasons why I was keen to meet you, to help you keep up your courage , think of a better way out of the situation. The funny thing is that they were also the reasons why you were avoiding me. We could, at least, have met as friends.
– Maybe you weren’t all that keen.
– Don’t give me that. In those days there was no one as keen as I was on you in the entire city. Even you accepted that for a fact.
– And now?
– Test me, if you want to. Despite the distance, I’ve kept up with news of you. As you can see for yourself, even twenty years later, I’m the one who has come here to meet you. And I’m the one who rang you up.
– But where are you? I’ve not heard a word about you in all this time.
– If you’d wanted to hear about me, you would have found a way. Anyways, I am where I always was, in the same department teaching the same subject that you, too, once taught. Did you ever come that way again?
– Several times, but…
– But you were afraid that you might run into me.
– No, it wasn’t that. Actually, how was I to face you? I felt that I was the one responsible for the whole messy situation. If I’d only shown a little more guts then…
– Then what?
– Then, instead of washing the nappies of Mr Dhawan’s children, I’d have been washing the nappies of your children.
– So all this struggle is only about getting nappies washed?
– The experience of all the married women in world seems to indicate that.
– What does your experience say?
– I’m not outside this world, am I?
– It’s hard to belief that even an IAS officer has to wash babies’ nappies!
– Shriman ji, be it IAS or IPS, when a woman gets married her primary roles are that of a wife and a mother. She has to fulfill these first, only then can she leave for office. You tell me, if I had continued to stay there, teaching in the same university, and if I’d been married to you, would I have been free of these duties?
– Absolutely. I would not have wanted all this. Tell me, when you used to visit my room, who made the coffee?
– Oh, forget it! Just because you made coffee once or twice it’s become a grand narrative, has it?
– Okay, tell me, do your spectacles still slip down the bridge of your nose, or have you got them tightened?
– Well, the bridge of my nose is as it always was. Even if I buy an expensive pair of glasses, they still slip.
– Still the same old Miss Nose -up-in-the-air
– Shall I answer that?
– I swear, the airs and graces of your nose were world famous.
– But they were certainly less than those of your nose. The twin streams of Ganga and Jamuna would run constantly from it. How is your cold problem these days?
– The same as ever.
– Why don’t you take something for it?
– You know how it is. If you take medicine, the cold leaves you in 7 days, and if you don’t take it, the cold goes away in a week. In such a scenario what’s the sense in taking anything at all?
– You’re a born miser, that’s all. The cold was yours, but the handkerchiefs sacrificed to its cause were mine. Looks like you haven’t changed a bit. Had I married you, I’d probably have died of starvation.
– Forget it! You used to polish off the samosas from my plate as well.
– As though you were the one who fed me the samosas! You’d place the order and leave the payment to me.
– By the way, that day after my return, did your mother really take poison or was it just a little drama to blackmail you, a surefire way of keeping you away from me?
– Let it go… My mother herself is no longer with us.
– Oh, sorry. I didn’t know that. And who else is there at home?
– You’re the one who does the spying. You should know
– No, it’s not like that. I want you to hear it from you, in your own words.
– The elder daughter Ananya is in her second year MBA. Her younger brother Dipankar is studying Engineering in IIT.
– And where is Mr Dhawan these days?
– On deputation to the World Bank
– Are you happy?
– Useless question.
– Firstly, one can’t ask this of any married woman, regardless of how close she is to you. Secondly, after twenty years of marriage, this question itself has no meaning. We no longer regard happiness or misery as the issue. The question now is how well adjusted are the husband and wife towards each other’s positives and negatives. Tell me about yourself. Is your story any different?
– What’s there to tell?
– Why? Had heard that within a year or so my wedding the procession of your baraat was taken out through the crowded bazaars of the city. And that you brought home a bride as pretty as the moon. How is that moon- faced beauty?
– What beauty? Which beauty?
– What do you mean?
– My marriage was a disaster. It lasted barely two and a half months.
– What happened?
– She was having an affair with her brother-in-law. She got married to me thinking that, at least, this way she would not break her sister’s home. However, she continued to meet him on the quiet. When I found out, I asked her to put a stop to it. But she could not. I filed for a divorce. Her sister committed suicide. Two homes shattered at the same time.
– Oh. I didn’t know that you had to go through something so awful. Where is she these days?
– In the beginning, she would live openly with her brother-in-law. Then I heard that she’d had a nervous breakdown. You really didn’t know all this?
– I’m telling you the truth. I’d only got the news of your wedding. I felt then that after my exit, you weren’t lonely for very long. I had no inkling that you’d gone through so much. Didn’t settle down again? No children?
– I had only two accidents written in my fate. Love and Marriage. There’s no third mishap written in my fate line.
– Why are you quiet?
– I’m thinking.
– Why is it that often times we get punished for mistakes we never made. Just one person’s mistake or pigheadedness can destroy so many lives, so many families.
– Let it go, Deepti. If all this was, indeed, written in my destiny, how could I have avoided it? That aside, tell me, is it possible for me to meet you? Just for a little while. Look at it this way, that after aeons, I want to, just once again, gaze at you the way I used to.
– Why not?
– No. Just no.
– Deepti, you know as well as I do that I can, under no circumstances, come back into your life. And you also know that you cannot nurture any affection or delusion about me. In my case, I never had any delusions in the first place. I got over all this a long time ago.
– Maybe that’s the reason I don’t want to meet you.
– Can’t we meet just like two old acquaintances and have a cup of coffee together?
– May I ask why?
– I know, and maybe you do as well, that even today we cannot meet normally, like two friends. It will not just end with a meeting over a cup of coffee. I know you very well. You may well be able to control yourself, you may have gotten over all that happened so many years ago. But I am not as strong even today. It’s always been difficult for me to hold myself back.
– I would never allow you to give in.
– That’s exactly what I don’t want. That I should have to use your shoulder to keep myself strong.
– And what if I’d walked in without a warning into your office?
– In my office, the first question a visitor is asked is his name and address. Then he is asked for the reason for the visit. Then I am asked whether I want to meet him or not.
– And this is how it should be. After all, you are working in a big ministry as a senior official with the status of a chief secretary, and I happen to be a down-at-heel teacher. Now, just about anyone cannot walk…
– Please stop it! There’s nothing official about this. It isn’t as if I haven’t thought of you or missed you. The most wonderful phase of my life was spent in your company. Those were probably the most meaningful days of my life. I was extremely lonely while preparing for the IAS exam and you were constantly by my side. To tell you the truth, I still feel a connection with you somewhere inside, even if I cannot give it a name or do not have the courage to renew the association. Societal norms don’t permit me to do that. Hello…Are you listening to me?
– Yes, yes…go on.
– After so many years, I will not be able to meet you face to face…Please try and understand.
– All right, we won’t meet. If not face to face, I can still view you from a distance. Let me see for myself, if your glasses still slip down your nose. I may not be allowed to push them back, but I can, at least, watch you. Let me see how my friend looks after becoming a joint secretary.
– Joint secretaries don’t have horns on their heads.
– What’s the harm in having a look?
– When I really needed you and when you should have tried your best to meet me, you never bothered, and now…
– Let’s not go into whether I was serious or not. The truth is that once your wedding was fixed, in one stroke you cut off all relationships.
– Don’t bluff. I came to meet you even after getting married.
– Yes. To flaunt your mangalsutra and your wedding bangles. As if to say I’m not your Deepti anymore, I’m Mrs Dhawan now, the wife of another man.
– Don’t abuse me now. You knew everything, and you accepted it… Like I didn’t matter to you at all.
– What else could I do but accept it? In response to my proposal, your mother staged a suicide by swallowing poison, and you immediately surrendered. It was enough to overcome any man.
– You could have shown some manliness. At least then I could have said that my choice was not wrong.
– Should I have abducted you in true film style, or should I have, like a lovelorn Majnu, banged my head to bits on your doorstep?
– Why are you digging up these dead matters after so long? Did you call me after twenty years only to remind me of all this?
– I had no such wish. You were the one who…
– You could have chatted about something else.
– There are so many topics to talk about. About what happened twenty years ago, about what happened in between. It would have been so nice if we could have met and chatted. But I won’t force you.
– Don’t be stubborn. I’m no longer your Deepti. All these topics…
– All right then. See you soon. I’m keeping the phone down.
– Don’t even dream of seeing me… Anyway, so nice of you to call after such a long time. It was a pleasant surprise. Didn’t realize how time just flew while we were chatting. I do have to rush for an urgent meeting. There are some papers I need to go through before that. But didn’t you say that you had just a single one-rupee coin? You couldn’t have been talking from a PCO for twenty minutes. Where are you calling from?
– It doesn’t matter. I, too, have an urgent meeting.
– So, did you come here in connection with that?
– Yes, it was about that. But I thought, under this pretext, I could also catch up with you.
– Where is your meeting being held?
– At the same place as yours.
– The meaning is clear, my dear. It’s your department that has called for the meeting to discuss the Non-conventional Energies Project of our university. The only bit of information that is of any personal significance to you is that I am running this project. It’s only after coming here that I got to know that you are dealing with this case and…
– Oh God! I just can’t believe it. What’s going to happen now? Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Made a fool of me for so long…
– Relax, dear. Relax. I’ll make it out that I’m meeting you for the first time in my life. Just ensure one little thing, will you? That your spectacles don’t slip…
– You cheat!
Suraj Prakash, author, translator and editor, has several short story collections, Adhoori Tasveer, Chhutay huay ghar, novels Haadson ke beech, Des Birana, and satirical essays to his credit. Among his translations are Animal Farm, Chronicle of a death, The diary of Anne Frank and the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin. He has also translated Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography and Prakash no parchhayo, a novel in Gujarati by Dinkar Joshi. He lives in Mumbai.