TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY AYUSHEE ARORA
Naina, sitting inside the airplane, was trembling nervously, and felt as disappointed and hopeless as a soaring bird that had suddenly been taken captive by a hawk. She could not make heads or tails of this providential hand dealt out by fate’s cards, that had thrown her entire life into disarray and upheaval.
Upon reaching Delhi, she remained seated in the airplane seat looking as lost as a toddler estranged from its parents in a supermarket. Once the crowd dispersed, an air hostess, the perfect picture of polite concern and professionalism, approached her and asked, “Ma’am, can I help you?”
“No, I’m fine,” Naina replied.
For a long time, she sat on the chair, gazing blankly at the departing passengers. Her mind was filled with numerous questions. Which home, which city and which address did she need to go to?
The air hostess took out her baggage. Naina got up, descended the stairs, and entered the airport building. She stood at the prepaid taxi counter in silence for a long time. Then, with great difficulty, she managed to mention the name of the street where she was headed. As she sat in the taxi, a feeling of unease started creeping inside her head. She couldn’t remember the house number. The taxi driver drove around the street for a long time, left and right. Eventually, he turned to her and said, “Madam, I also need to get back home.” Shaken out of her reverie, Naina struggled to regain her bearings. After searching for a long time, she took out a visiting card from her purse and struggled to read the address written in fine print on the card. When she reached home, she felt an odd emptiness in her chest. Her head was throbbing with intense pain. Seeing her condition, the household staff was worried. Holding her head with both hands, she staggered into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed.
The sound of the phone ringing kept reverberating through Naina’s mind all throughout that sleepless night. Rosy’s words, spoken softly, continued to haunt her heart and plague her mind. “Sometimes, I feel that people like Sir hide all their sorrows behind the veil of intoxication. From grandiose projects, to fulfilling his desires, there are still unmet dreams hidden beneath the surface. Perhaps unwittingly, his demeanour appears ruthless. I understand you feel that your trust has been shattered, and your heart has been broken into a million different pieces. Please, if possible, forget about Sir.”
While bidding farewell at the airport, Rosy had spoken those words in a low, hushed tone. Naina vividly remembered that it was a day in scorching-hot June when she had first met Ravi Bhushan. Several people, male and female alike, bustled about at the wedding. Some faces were familiar, while others were markedly unknown. One of those unfamiliar faces belonged to the enigma that was Ravi Bhushan. Standing near a decorated tree with colourful rangoli, he was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. The smoke veiled his face, making it even more mysterious. When he introduced himself with a cigarette between his lips and traditional folded hands, Naina felt a slight tremor run through her body. She was expecting a typical greeting, but when she looked at Ravi, her own eyes seemed to be getting lost in the smoke of his cigarette. She wanted to say hello or hi, but for some reason, she held back and observed him silently amid the entire atmosphere, caught in the grasp of some unfamiliar stirrings. Naina felt that this man was somewhat different, as if she was witnessing glimpses of another persona within him, something that went far above and beyond the usual crowd. Braving the throng of people, Naina’s eyes repeatedly sought out just Ravi.
Their first meeting had left a deep impact on Naina, and she felt a bit dazed. However, a few months later, when they met again for a business lunch, Ravi appeared friendly and affable. The formalities were exchanged, and business cards were handed out. Naina then realized that Ravi Bhushan was not just a well-known architect in Mumbai but also a prominent figure in the country. Though they had not discussed their first meeting, Ravi didn’t seem to remember it. He could have said that they had met before, but he didn’t. A famous industrialist had called that meeting to discuss matters pertaining to interior decoration. Ravi had designed his grandson’s office which was now complete. The meeting was to discuss its décor. After lunch, while they were drinking coffee, Naina found him quite affable and realized after talking to him professionally that this man, despite his fame, had a down-to-earth and unpretentious nature, free from arrogance or affectation.
Naina had to return to Delhi the next day. She did return. A week later, Ravi Bhushan called her. He would call her almost daily after that, and Naina found it somewhat odd because despite being an interior designer, she didn’t have much in common with an architect like Ravi Bhushan. However, she couldn’t refuse the calls, as he was a respected architect, and he was quite suave and sophisticated in his conversations. When he called the third or the fourth time, Naina began to wonder why he called because they hadn’t discussed any particular plan or business idea. But then she thought that perhaps he had secured a big project in Delhi and was merely forming reliable contacts. Unlike her professional interactions with many other people throughout the day, there was something different about these calls and she couldn’t put her pulse on what exactly was different about these calls. The season had passed when she would receive phone calls that wouldn’t pertain to work. Naina’s nostalgia took her back to her school days when conversations with friends never seemed to end. Now, in the age of computers and whirlwind technology, there was no time left for emotions.
It was a rainy, humid August when Ravi Bhushan visited her city for a meeting. Naina felt, for some inexplicable reason, that Ravi Bhushan had used work as a pretext to come and meet her. She dismissed this suspicion by attributing it to the conversations they had on the telephone. After all, a busy man doesn’t undertake journeys without reason. But were his eyes not signalling a different emotion? As Ravi Bhushan walked out of her bungalow after a prolonged evening tea, Naina stood at the porch. Just as he was leaving, he turned back and waved. Waving back to him, Naina found herself inadvertently hesitating and touching her raised hand with a soft gesture. When he lowered her hand and looked at him, she was taken aback. There was a warmth, a deep attraction in those eyes. A profound allure! She lowered her hand and asked herself, “Could this be your illusion, Naina?”
Like colours that seem to permeate the air before the weather changes, something similar was happening to Naina. The joy of having found something, but what? In this whirlwind of thoughts, she started walking towards the plaza that she had to decorate all by herself. All the trees along the way appeared adorned with shiny leaves, and the evening was even more pink, with faint streaks of mauve colour filling the sky here and there. As she returned home, the streetlights were lit up like Diwali decorations scattered across the rooftops, distributing lines of light far into the distance.
Today, after ages, her mood seemed lighter. No irritation, no complaints, no bitterness, or restlessness was bothering her. As she seemingly floated in the air and entered the house, the servant informed her that the master of the house had rushed off to perform an emergency operation, and hence, he would return late. Hearing this, she didn’t react with her usual anger; instead, she shrugged indifferently and entered her bedroom, humming to herself.
After her shower, when she sat in front of the dressing table wrapped in a dressing gown, she started carefully scrutinizing her own face as if seeing it for the first time. Slight shadows under her eyes, several crows’ feet near her lips, a glimpse of grey around the hair on her temples, and a probing curiosity in her eyes, about how she looked. She felt her soft and radiant skin. The smile that appeared on her lips seemed unfamiliar. Despite her fatigue, she felt a sense of vitality within. After dinner, as she lay on the bed, she realized that after ages, her body was resting on a soft mattress. She took a relaxed breath and closed her eyes, and Ravi’s face floated in front of her.
Upon reaching Mumbai, Ravi called Naina to let her know he had reached safely. When he called again at night, for the first time, Naina felt a strange uneasiness in her hearing his voice. Then, the phone conversations extended from five minutes to half an hour, the talk morphing into something more personal than professional – had she eaten, how was her day, how’s the weather? Naina would eagerly await Ravi’s call starting from eight in the evening, even though the phone would ring around ten, during this time she managed all her work so that she could talk comfortably. She had found a companion, to fill her lonely silences, her empty house and her barren heart- a companion with whom she could share her joys and sorrows.
For the last five to six years, Naina’s solitude had been increasing. Both her sons had gone to the United States for their studies. Ever since Narendra became a director, he had been so occupied that Naina started getting irritated. She couldn’t fathom the madness of spending day and night in the hospital; after all, there were responsibilities at home too. After a whole day of flying, even birds return to their nests. For the past three days, Dr Narendra hadn’t returned home; an extremely complex case had come up. Several foreign professors were also toiling day and night in the medical field. Naina was aware of the seriousness of the situation, but when everyday is in crisis mode, how can a person live alone at home? How long can one watch TV, call friends, and attend parties? She had started feeling weary from all sides.
She found a little joy only in her office, where her heart would find solace in work. Or perhaps reading her children’s email messages and hearing their voices on the phone would make her happy. Narendra usually returned so exhausted that he would eat and fall asleep, and when Naina would talk on the phone and lie down, a question would bloom in her mind like a bed of flowers – what did Ravi Bhushan mean to her- a friend or a brother?
On her birthday, Naina was melancholic without her children. Narendra was also abroad. That night, when Ravi learned the reason for her sadness over the phone and expressed that he wanted to see Naina happy, he offered her the remaining years of his life as a gift. Naina, overcome with emotion, asked if she could call Ravi her brother. In response, Ravi quickly said, “No, no, we are not brother and sister, our relationship is like that of close friends.” Upon hearing this, Naina’s heart filled with trust, and the whole world seemed fragrant to her. After all, the most significant relationship was that of friendship, devoid of greed, bonds, or forced constraints. You can take as much as you want from it, without limitations. This night completely transformed the nature of their conversation. Their conversations continued until three in the morning, inadvertently turning towards a new direction.
Naina’s younger brother, who had passed away in a car accident just two years ago, was very close to her. They had been friends since childhood. When he came from Varanasi to Delhi for a job, asking about Naina’s happiness was his first concern. For a few days, Narendra accompanied the brother-sister duo on their sightseeing and shopping expeditions, but soon got caught up in the daily quagmire of hospital activities once again. Naina didn’t miss his absence. She had regained her childhood. She had already done all the shopping for her brother’s wedding in Delhi. But who could prevent fate? A week before the wedding, he died in a car accident near Tala Katora. Dr Narendra couldn’t do anything. After all, he wasn’t a miracle worker who could bring the dead back to life. Naina was submerged in deep sorrow. After that tragedy, her sons went to America. Naina felt that she was alone in this world, that no one had the time to talk to her, to spend time with her.
Naina had married Narendra of her own free will. Both had assessed each other before marriage, but life is always a thing that moves ahead with time, not a stagnant horoscope filled with multiple symbols! Testing their work, Narendra, who had participated in the race of life, was no longer the same person as before. His life values no longer remained rooted, and he began to search for solutions in fluidity. Many things troubled Naina. There were several questions she wanted to ask Narendra. However, he answered her every question with silence. Naina also started getting more involved in her work at the office alongside Narendra, but with time, she began to realize that her old home had somewhere been lost.
In Naina’s heart, there was a hidden resentment against Narendra that sometimes surfaced during her phone conversations with Ravi. Finally, one day Ravi said, “Why do you tolerate all this? Come, leave everything and come to me.” Hearing this, Naina was taken aback. She was about to ask, what exactly is our relationship? Then she stopped to think. She kept pondering over Ravi’s invitation all night, trying to capture the tones of unspoken love in it, questioning herself, “Is it Ravi?” And she probed herself, searching deep within her heart, whether Ravi was present there. She was surprised and asked herself if this relationship had begun unknowingly, what would be the end?
In any case, Ravi had brought a new zany freshness into Naina’s life, which increased her attachment to life. Happiness replaced fatigue. She felt like dressing up. Due to the desire to adorn herself, she had applied layers of cream and scent, and every night, her mind began to flutter at the thought of Ravi’s invitation for her to come to Bombay. She started seeing another home in her own home. In the rhythm of conversations, the affection of friendship had transformed into the desire of a man and a woman. It was an enticing situation in which Naina was gradually losing herself. Other women in her circle would complement her face, seeing the freshness, and she felt that at this stage of life when women start turning towards worldly responsibilities, spirituality or undergo a transformation like a dry river, what a blessing the Almighty had bestowed upon her, that had made her heart beat again and fresh affection blossomed in her life like a fresh bud.
Narendra and Naina’s life had once been a happy one. They both dedicated their time to their respective fields with a sense of liberation, free from the burden on their minds, and unaffected by household responsibilities. Observing their successes, they decided to send their children abroad for higher education. Both the children were exceptionally talented. They received scholarships and filled with enthusiasm, they reached America. After their departure, Dr Narendra’s interest in his work grew even more, leading to further progress and increased affluence. However, the same did not hold true for Naina. Her work began to feel less engaging, and her mind wandered, preoccupied with thoughts of her children. The house felt empty, and she began to lose her appetite. After a few months, she regained her composure, perhaps due to new projects at the hospital, but a sense of melancholy continued to linger in her mind. A melancholy that Ravi Bhushan had managed to dispel.
She began preparing to go to Mumbai. Narendra was under the assumption that her trip to Mumbai was a professional one. There was nothing that seemed extraordinary. They both were used to being away from each other, leaving home at different times. So, one morning, Narendra bid farewell to Naina, wishing safe journey, and Naina, as always, offered him some advice and tips before he left. Then, she got busy with packing.
When Naina stood in front of the mirror, dressed in her new clothes, she felt that the shadow of age hadn’t yet cast its veil on her face. Happiness illuminated her countenance. This thought kindled her excitement to such an extent that she wondered if Ravi Bhushan stopped her and implored her to stay with him, what decision would she make? Ravi Bhushan had already made it clear in plain words that she was wasting her time and no one was waiting for her there. “I am here, come on – I’ll hang up. Decide. I will call you in ten minutes.” His words, though addressing minor grievances, healed the wounds of her heart and made her realize she hadn’t been living her life to the fullest. Sometimes a mother, sometimes a wife, sometimes a daughter-in-law – now she could live her own life. Ravi Bhushan was an architect who, before constructing a building, would sketch its blueprint, visualizing the entire structure as a model. He could also make a robust plan for life. Maybe not a Taj Mahal for his beloved, but at least a small home, which she could decorate as she pleased. Naina applied lipstick with complete confidence and looked intently at her reflection. It was time to take flight.
The flight from Delhi to Mumbai was short. Naina’s heart was pounding rapidly. After just two meetings, the events that had unfolded were at an emotional depth that was hard to fathom. All the verbal exchanges were small, but they held a magic that echoed in Naina’s head. There was no end to Ravi Bhushan’s joy last night when he found out that Naina had decided to come to Mumbai. His voice carried a sense of urgency, reassuring Naina that the final years of her life would be spent with Ravi Bhushan, and that would be her end. Gently, Naina said, “That’s where my journey ends.” She picked up her bag and began descending the stairs of the aircraft. She was afraid Ravi might become so emotional that he would cling to her right there at the airport. Or worse, he might kiss her in front of everyone. Naina blushed like a young girl. Love at any age has its own reasoning, a power that can break down all walls of age, caste, religion, and language.
Naina’s restless eyes were searching for Ravi Bhushan in the crowd. When she stepped outside, she found Ravi standing amidst the mist, looking towards her. She approached anxiously, but upon seeing Ravi’s sombre expression, her enthusiasm wavered. There was no trace of emotion there, only a formal smile. A casual, nonchalant look from Ravi unnerved Naina. She got into the car with slow steps, which Ravi himself was driving.
Naina’s heart felt a pang. Her mind wandered off somewhere. Looking at Ravi’s serious face, her thoughts repeatedly questioned whether this was the same man who conversed with great passion until the late hours of the night and sometimes well into the morning, filling hearts and minds with enthusiasm.
“Are you feeling better?”
“You seem quite quiet.”
“Actually, I get caught up in work during the day, so I don’t feel like talking!”
Ravi’s faint smile and response reassured Naina. A subdued joy rekindled within her, and she started chuckling. Amidst their conversation, Naina didn’t realize that they had reached the hotel. Ravi parked the car near the beachfront chairs and continued talking. Then, Ravi took a deep breath, put down an empty tea cup, and said, “I need to leave Mumbai today. There’s a hotel being built in Ahmedabad, and there’s an issue there. It’s fortunate we met. There’s an evening flight for Delhi. If you wish, you can stay back. I’ll be back in two or three days.”
Naina hesitated for a moment, unable to find an answer. She felt a pang in her heart. But she quickly composed herself.
With a deep gaze, Naina looked at Ravi. There was a sense of emptiness in his eyes. She assured herself that they were both at a stage in life where duty comes before personal desires. Ravi had mentioned that meeting, staying, and living are not something that can be calculated in advance. Sometimes a brief encounter can have a profound impact on an entire lifetime. Naina felt that Ravi had come to meet her only for a few hours, after all. Now she too was going to spend a couple of days in a different city, and what was wrong with that? After all, Ravi was an architect, his work was to design, and to see his designs come to life required patience, discipline. There was no need for her to display such anxiety, nor did she need to read more into his behaviour.
With a new perspective, Naina returned to Delhi. The servants who had planned a two to three-day leisurely vacation were now in a frenzy. At around ten o’clock, the phone rang loudly. It was Ravi calling from Ahmedabad. Naina clutched her phone, placed the food tray on the table, and went to the bedroom. Immersed in conversation, she forgot about everything. Before hanging up, she received a virtual kiss, and her face lit up with numerous smiles. She closed her eyes. Before her lay the map of a fulfilling life, where she and Ravi would be. She smiled and opened her eyes, saying to herself -“Naina, work with patience. I understand that your task is to adorn empty rooms, but why such haste? The glass of life, brimming with abundant nectar, is in your hands. Sip it slowly, sip by sip, so that tranquillity spreads within you, just as dry earth absorbs water gradually, nurturing its parchedness.”
Naina had a dream one night.
There was a beautiful house with a grassy field in front, surrounded by gardens blooming with flowers. Under a grand, shady tree, Ravi sat beside her. On a table in front lay a map, and while pointing at it, Ravi said, “Naina, my project in Japan has been highly appreciated. I hope to initiate it during this winter. You’ll be with me, and witness the marvel of my destiny” – spoken in a manner that even words would pale before them.
“No, Ravi, we won’t go in winter; we’ll go in spring, when trees laden with flowers will welcome us from every direction. The radiant sun will shine in the sky above. Then it will be enjoyable to visit Hiroshima, a city that has rebuilt itself after the bombings, just as our lives, obtained through the crucible of hardships, have found their place!” Naina laughs.
Hearing her words, Ravi Bhushan burst into hearty laughter and with deeply captivating eyes, he gazed at Naina. He placed a cigarette in his mouth, lit the lighter, and the flickering flames transformed the cigarette’s tip into a crimson dot. Amidst the swirls of smoke, Naina’s ears heard, ”Your eyes are so beautiful. Why didn’t I meet you earlier, Naina? If I hadn’t wandered like this, unable to let go of the struggles of life, even then, Naina, don’t ever leave me, don’t walk away from me, stay by my side till the very end of the horizon.”
The dream of the night lingered in Naina’s mind. Her heart told her that she could leave the world, but not him – he had become an integral part of her breath, completely assimilated into her being. Separating from him would mean dividing her body into two halves- ‘not anymore, Ravi, I am yours now. Only yours. Just as Meera became one with Krishna, I have become one with Ravi. My devotion is yours, my loyalty is yours, the new beginning of my life is yours!’
For several days, Ravi Bhushan’s words echoed in Naina’s ears day and night, intoxicating her every moment. While working, she would pause; while talking, she would fall silent.
“Naina! How do you manage to live in that atmosphere? Come, I’m waiting here for you. Believe in me. Look at this Ravi Bhushan with your own eyes, he is yours. Naina, he is only yours. I’ll wipe away all your sorrows. I’ll love you so much that you’ll bloom again, like a freshly blossomed rose, fragrant and vibrant.”
The constant engagement with the telephone until late hours of the night resulted in the interruption of other calls. Many times, Narendra heard about the deteriorating condition of the patient, called home, but couldn’t have a conversation. Even the emails from the sons had the same mention, which didn’t particularly affect Narendra. After all, Naina must be talking to her clients on the phone, while he was always on duty.
But on that day, for some reason, Narendra was engulfed by a wave of anger when a call came from Kanpur. The patient’s relatives had exhausted themselves by making calls. When the call came in the morning, the patient had already taken a sleeping pill, and only that medicine could have saved his life if it had been given in time. If only it had been available when needed. Naina’s reckless behaviour had infuriated him. This patient was his biggest achievement in his career. The operation had been successful, and his work in the medical field had been acclaimed. His pictures were published in newspapers. BBC had broadcast a special interview with him. What was the meaning of this success?
Naina found Narendra’s words deeply hurtful. She had the argument that there would be numerous calls in the entire hospital, and she had her own cellular phone. Was the entire medical department dependent on a single phone? When Narendra explained that he had turned off his phone due to exhaustion, just so he could get a good night’s sleep before he had to give a lecture the next day, Naina was taken aback. It seemed as if Narendra was blaming all his tiredness and troubles on Naina. She had overlooked all his mistakes with a smile, but how long could she keep doing that? She was human too; she needed love, appreciation, and grateful words so that she could live her life happily. But her entire life, she had been surrounded by criticisms and taunts from every corner of the house. Her husband had never asked what she needed; what unfulfilled desires resided in her heart. Ravi was right, she thought, “Why am I stuck here?”
Naina was very upset that night. She hadn’t revealed her inner turmoil to Ravi, even though he had said that his room was open for her and he stayed there so late just to talk to her. But now, faced with Ravi’s emotional words, Naina’s eyes began to fill with tears. Her tears welled up, and her cheeks were wet. She held her sobs as she listened to Ravi’s voice:
“Naina, if you were here, these tears would find comfort. I consider the tears in your eyes very sacred. Preserve them. My door is open; come whenever you want, Naina.”
As Naina was taking a bath, she stared at her reflection. Her every limb seemed eager to celebrate, her mind wandered aimlessly. Ravi hadn’t kissed her cheeks like this before, and this time, all the red roses that had bloomed in the air during their flight at night would bloom on her face. What would it feel like when she would always be with Ravi? She hadn’t experienced this for years; neither from her husband nor from her sons. Her relationship with her husband had taken on a different form, where the bed had almost disappeared, and responsibilities, family, work, and future problems had taken its place. All of this had diminished slowly.
Her mind was like a wandering ascetic, leading a life separate from the touch of a man, where the desire for his touch was being overcome by concerns about patients. All of this had diminished gradually. But today’s reality was that the sweet word of love, like a drop of honey, had left her earthly existence in practical terms.
The death of the patient in Kanpur had raised various questions for Narendra. Answers to these questions were being sought from him. Those who were jealous of him were using all this to taunt him. Everyone knew about this, but the matter had already escalated. Narendra was very troubled those days. He needed someone close to him who could listen to his situation and show genuine empathy. His children were far away. Naina was very upset. In search of peace, he often went to his friends and would return home to find Naina engrossed in her phone. He would open a bottle of alcohol in frustration and start drinking alone, then he would slump onto the sofa and fall asleep. The vibrating cell phone remained in his pocket, buzzing continuously. This situation did not last long.
He received an invitation to a conference, which not only resolved the disturbance in his life but also restored his lost reputation. Since the news about the conference was in the newspapers every day, and the only representative from India was Dr Narendra Kumar, the atmosphere changed for the better without delay.
Naina had already planned to leave home permanently. She had no connection with Narendra, and there had been no communication between them for the past two weeks. She had temporarily delegated her office responsibilities to her assistant, mentioning only that she was going to Mumbai for a month-long project. She had informed Narendra of the same, using the same words she had told her employees. She had removed all the jewellery from the locker at the bank that she had received from her maternal home and had purchased herself. She placed the cheque book in her purse and arranged for a month’s worth of groceries and water supply. She paid the pending bills. She did everything that had been part of her duty until now. Once all this was done, she booked her seat and started packing her clothes in the suitcase. Narendra had already left. He was supposed to return after a week. She completed her essential tasks and set off to meet a couple of important people.
At night, when Ravi Bhushan called, Naina revealed that she would be arriving the next morning on a flight. He noted down the flight number and the airline’s name. After ending the call, Ravi Bhushan perhaps informed someone and then dialled again, initiating a long conversation. Around two o’clock, the conversation concluded. After hanging up, Naina stretched her legs and lay down on the bed. The caravan of memories began to pass before her eyes, emerging from the corners of her home.
The beginning of marriage, the birth of children, the aging of parents-in-law, illnesses, followed by death, the home of her parents, the goodness and flaws of relatives connected to her work – all these thoughts suddenly occupied her mind. Would the children accept this relationship? Perhaps they might start despising her. She wished that they could be more compassionate than they had been when Narendra had struck up an intimate friendship with a junior doctor.
Back then, the household was full of tension. If the girl’s parents hadn’t arranged her marriage, she would have created turmoil in this house. At that time, the children were young, eleven and thirteen years old. Nanina wasn’t even working then. The future used to terrify her like a dark cave. Encouraged by her friends, she had taken out her old degree certificate from a file and had decorated a small businessman’s office on someone’s recommendation. After that, work kept coming, and her position in the household grew stronger every day.
Narendra was sad about the breakdown of his relationship. The woman met Narendra multiple times, even after she got married. Two years later, both husband and wife left for Saudi Arabia, and Narendra kept himself occupied with work to console his heart. Today, Naina wasn’t thinking of all those stories with anger; instead, she was instilling herself with a contented belief that she had fulfilled her role as a housewife perfectly. Perhaps their sons’ wedding would take place soon, and they would just leave. In both her sons, she sensed the furore and agitation of the rat race, and the coldness of relationships. But what could one do when a person changed and emotions began to be perceived as foolishness?
While colouring her hair, Naina suddenly paused, her hands trembling. Overwhelmed by doubt, she entered the garden full of blooming flowers and began to ask herself: If all of this turned out to be a deception and Ravi turned out to be like Narendra, what would she do? Would she be able to bear the loneliness then? Was there any logic to attraction at this age? Was this reality the basis for her decision to leave everything behind? Could this impulse be standing against the truth? Love is not meaningless. Ravi Bhushan is a responsible person; his age didn’t warrant unnecessary actions. Yet, there was a scarcity of young women in Mumbai. He was drawn to her, perhaps due to the disillusionment of past life, or it could be said that after one crop is harvested, it’s time to plant the next seed. Life is synonymous with continuity, so feelings too can bloom repeatedly!
Dressed in her new suit, perfume, and cream, Naina carefully applied lipstick. As she fastened the clasp, doubt once again gripped her heart, fearing she would become a laughingstock in the name of this fever. Was leaving the past behind and moving towards the new direction also a sign of foolishness? Naina glanced at the mirror, answering her doubt defiantly that not many years of her life were left. Let that be lost in contemplation. Embrace old age. This phase of life was that of the fading youth, but it was also true that she was still young. Managing this fervour was a challenge, and the current truth was that Ravi Bhushan had kindled a fragrance in her consciousness, a desire that touched her very soul.
The bud had bloomed. She made tea, took a bath, and wore clothes in Ravi’s favourite colours. The whole night had passed with restless eyes. Finally, the last chapter of her domestic life was about to end that day. But the new sun filled her with enthusiasm instead of exhaustion! Naina knew that the beginning of a new life had already dawned within her heart’s mirror. Yet, there was no practical outline in sight. She knew Ravi was married, with three children. His parents had passed away. His only sister was happily settled in her in-laws’ home. There was no significant responsibility left for him that could hinder her life. The elder daughter was already married. The son was studying abroad with his foreign wife, and only the younger daughter was in high school. Now, the challenge was from society, and Naina was ready for it in every way possible. She had faced criticism and appreciation at every step. And now, she was prepared for every outcome.
When the plane took off, Naina couldn’t tell when her heart skipped a beat. It shocked her when all the passengers started taking out their luggage. Naina’s faint smile appeared. With a purse full of jewellery slung over her shoulder and a handbag, she managed to get up with difficulty and followed the other passengers. Despite the cliché of running away from home, how novel it felt! When the year was turning into a strand of white hair and the feet had taken root in the ground like an old banyan tree, setting the foundation for a new life at every turn was an extraordinary experience!
As Naina descended the airplane stairs, she felt like the trapped bird finally spreading its wings after decades, flying towards gardens filled with fruits, flowers, and swaying in the breeze on the branches of trees with thick green leaves, where she could sing only love songs and create melodies, the lyrics of which had been hidden in her heart for so long.
With her luggage in hand, as she stepped outside, her anxious eyes started searching for Ravi. Amidst the crowd, a uniformed driver stepped forward and politely asked, “Mrs. Naina?”
“Sir had a meeting, so he couldn’t come.”
Saluting, he extended his hand to take her bag and then walked behind the other passengers.
Naina held a bouquet of pink roses in her hands, feeling the thorns among the petals. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her new pink salwar suit, matching lipstick, her jewellery of fresh white pearls and pink stones, the entire effort of making herself presentable had been in vain after all. She had spent the entire distance from Delhi to Mumbai glancing at the mirror, waiting for that first glance to fall on her. The flames of longing turned to ashes. Although she repressed all her misgivings, the logical arguments in her mind could not be allayed. She struggled to reassure herself that such negative feelings were unwarranted. Ravi was a busy man. He might be running short of time. How could she expect him to arrange everything perfectly when their new life was about to begin? If he didn’t care about her, why would he send the car? But despite her efforts, a sense of doubt crept in. Why didn’t he inform her about the change in their plans? The memory of his sweet words brought a smile to Naina’s face, but as the car suddenly stopped, her heart skipped a beat. The shadow of happiness on her pale face was replaced by worry. “Where are we going?” she asked with a slight tremor in her voice.
“I don’t know, Mem Sahib. Sir said to take you wherever you want and note down the location, so I can call him after the meeting.”
“What does that mean? Wasn’t something else decided? Did Ravi forget everything?” Naina thought to herself, her mind racing.
“He just said that, Mem Sahib. He wanted to ensure you are comfortable. He will call after the meeting to speak to you,” the driver said gently.
“Tell me where to go.”
“Let’s go to Sir’s office,” Naina blurted out.
The car started sliding swiftly on the road. The canopy of joy on her face began to slowly descend. Worries and questions rose like bubbles- had Ravi’s devout wife created some conflict? Where should she stay in this city? The arrangements for her previous stays were made by others when she had visited the city twice before. This time, the invitation was from Ravi. He had clearly said, “I am your culprit. Last time, your stay was modest, but this time, I will book a suite at the Taj Mahal Hotel. I will decorate it with flowers so that we can remain unconscious in each other’s arms for several days in their presence. Then we’ll see how to begin our life. I’m not in a hurry now. Day and night are in our control. Have faith in me. I am here for you. You know, I have two hearts, one with you and the other in my profession!”
Thinking of these words, Naina smiled briskly. But in the very next moment, the car’s sudden halt startled her. The attempt to capture a fleeting smile on her wan face proved unsuccessful. Attempting to preserve a hint of happiness on her pale face, Naina disembarked from the car. The curiosity to see Ravi’s cabin surfaced in her mind. She recalled how he would refer to his office room as home and invite her to stay there whenever she visited the city. He would often say that he found more peace in his office than at home, and everything he needed was available there. That’s why Naina needed to take her first step into his house.
Naina arrived at the eleventh floor following the driver in the lift. Ravi’s office was splendid. In a square room, two people were working under a lamp, their heads bent. Behind the counter were phones of various colours, and a young woman sat there. She looked up when she saw Naina.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“I need to meet Mr. Ravi Bhushan.”
“For what reason, may I know your good name, please?” the woman asked, flipping through the pages of her diary.
“Naina.” A sharp sense of humiliation pricked Naina, but she had to give her name.
“I’m sorry, ma’am! There is no appointment scheduled for you with the boss today.”
“He had sent me to pick Madam up.” The driver interjected.
“Oh, then please say so.” With that, the woman opened the door to another room and, in a very humble tone, said, “I’m sorry, ma’am. The receptionist informed me about your arrival through the phone. The car reached you on time, didn’t it?”
“Yes, the driver had arrived. When will Ravi return from the meeting?” Naina asked, sitting on the sofa.
“A call came for the boss. He’ll go to the site after the meeting. He’ll be back at the office by noon.”
“Oh! So, he remembered that I was coming.” Naina muttered in sadness.
“Yes?” The woman looked at Naina in surprise.
“Nothing,” Naina quickly replied.
“The bathroom is here. You can freshen up, and I’ll bring you some coffee.”
Saying this, the woman left the room. The driver entered with Naina’s luggage and left it in the corner before exiting. Then, a half-dressed man entered with a sheet in his hand, took a brief look at Naina, placed the sheet on the table without uttering a word, and left the room. Naina was left wondering about his behaviour. Her mood was sour, but not so much that she couldn’t sense the curiosity in the atmosphere. She got up and went to the bathroom. After fixing her hair, applying a new layer of lipstick, she came out and examined the room. Behind Ravi’s large desk hung a painting of a sprawling sea. On the left, there was a pile of rolled papers. A lamp hung from the top of the desk, and there were two telephones. Behind the desk was a tall blue chair, and Naina imagined that Ravi would sit there while making phone calls.
“Listen, Naina, I couldn’t establish any emotional connection with my wife. I tried a lot, but that fragrance that I was looking for never spread between us. Can a person be merely bound by societal ties and suffer and struggle throughout their life, unable to snatch a moment for themselves?”
The door opened, and Naina looked up. A woman entered the room, holding a tray of coffee and sandwiches. She placed the tray on the table and started to leave the room when she turned back.
“Sorry, ma’am! I left you alone for a while. My name is Rosy. Please have some coffee. The coffee from our office is famous among the employees.”
As Rosy spoke, she extended the tray of coffee forward. Just then, the phone rang. “Hello, Ravi’s Associates’ office! There is no such information available. When did you talk last night? Sorry, sir, I don’t have any information about last night’s conversations. If you’d like, you can call back at two o’clock.” With that, Rosy took a deep breath, shook her head, and hung up the phone.
Naina felt that there were strange emotions on her face and a sense of distress in her eyes. She wanted to ask what happened, but then she thought that even though Ravi was close to her, this was still his office. There was no need for her to express her concerns. As she took a sip of coffee, the tone of Ravi’s outburst echoed in her mind, “I will confront each one of them. The elites of society will have to be accountable one day. I am here, come and answer my questions. Is humiliation worse than exploitation? Is it better to live in one state or keep denying everything? It’s not a good thing to be afraid of accepting the truth. Casting stones at me is not a great human feat. If you have the courage, come forward.”
Naina couldn’t understand who he had addressed in such a monologue. She did know that within Ravi, there was a caged wounded bird struggling to quench its thirst with venom. His manner of speech contained both wandering and pause, freedom and limitation. It was both rebellion and restraint. It was accepting the truth and not fearing it. She knew all this to some extent.
With a sudden jerk, the door of the room opened, and suddenly, the tall six-foot Ravi Bhushan entered. A cigarette was in his lips. Smoke covered his forehead, and with slightly tilted eyes, he looked at Naina sitting on the sofa. Placing the cigarette in an ashtray on the tall table beside him, he extended both his hands towards Naina, greeting her with a respectful nod, “Are you alright?”
Naina’s face turned red, and she stammered, “Yes? Yes, I’m fine.”
“Where did you stop this time?” As he sat on his chair, Ravi Bhushan asked Naina.
“Can’t you remember what you said last night?” Naina asked with a mix of anger and surprise.
“Actually, I don’t remember all the things said under an intoxication. If you say so, I’ll believe it. I must have said something, for sure.” Ravi Bhushan laughed as he leaned back and said.
“Yes Sir!” Rosy’s sir voice rang from behind the clock.
“It’s time for lunch.” Ravi Bhushan said.
“Yes Sir, I’ll order it right away”, Rosy said and turned away.
“Now, tell me what I had said yesterday. With alcohol the doors and windows of my mind open fully. My friends often tell me that I say quite deep things when I’m drunk.”
“I beg your pardon?”, Naina thought he was teasing her!
“Sometimes it feels good to fantasize. Is it not a skill to create something that will not exist in reality? I don’t know if you will agree, despite all the glitz and glamour, our jobs are quite dry and I feel suffocated following these straight lines and running around in circles. Do you understand what I am trying to imply? I am trying to point out the poverty of the thought, the narrowness of minds…”
“Do you drink?”
“I don’t hide anything from anyone. Sometimes when one is trying to put up with intolerable circumstances, one has to seek support from unnecessary things.” Ravi Bhushan was speaking quite a lot at daytime, absorbed in himself.
“Whatever you said at night, were all of those a product of your intoxication? Those promises, those…”, Naina’s breathed raggedly.
“That must have been the case. Often, I make a lot of plans when I am intoxicated, in a very detailed manner, but when the client arrives, trust me, I don’t remember a word of it.”, ravi said innocently.
“Not even the fact that you had called me several times? Not even that Taj Mahal?” The Taj Mahal constructed in Naina’s mind began to crumble.
“Taj Mahal? Did I talk to you about how I would like to make one as well? My goodness! I really am a genius. But I would not like to have my hands cut like Ustad Muhammed Musa.” Ravi Bhushan guffawed. Meanwhile, a steam engine hurtled within Naina’s mind, whistling, spreading thick smoke everywhere. Her eyes burned. With trembling lips, she asked, “You must remember talking to me or have you forgotten that as well?”
“Of course, I remember! I call Delhi every day to ask after you but I don’t recall the directions in which the conversations head. I don’t have the habit to enquire later, so if I have ever spoken out of turn, please excuse me. I may be uncouth but it is never my intention to hurt or harm anyone. Here, take this handkerchief. Please get a hold of yourself.”
“I am alright.”, Naina wiped her tears.
“If you want, we can also go and sit someplace else. Ah! Your food is here.”
“Sir, have you taken your blood pressure medicine this morning?”, Rosy asked gently.
“No”, Ravi Bhushan realized the secret to his agitated state!
“Sir, you have a call.” Rosy picked up the ringing phone.
“Hello, my sweet heart! I don’t remember, well, I have a client from Delhi this morning. I can’t leave now. Sorry! Why don’t you go with your mummy?” Ravi Bhushan said on the phone.
“Sir, you have a meeting at five at the Leela with Mr. Brijesh Madan and then at seven you need to be at the Naaz where following the seminar you will have dinner.”
“Alright”, and then turning to Naina, he said, “Naina, you go ahead and have lunch.”
Saying this, Ravi Bhushan came and sat next to Naina on the sofa. Naina raised her eyes and looked at Ravi’s face. She wondered if Ravi was really serious, not teasing her. Then were all those things that he said for the past eleven months a lie? Can someone sustain such a long lie every night? Did verbal words not have any accountability? Did the spoken word just vanish into thin air? How could she trust that there was no truth, no emotion in those words? Was there no sincerity? Granted, they weren’t written, but he had given her a whole new world.
Naina didn’t want to create a scene, so despite her reluctance, she took out the food from her plate. The rest of the office staff were coming into the room one after another. Some were picking up things, and Rosy was standing nearby.
“Where are you staying? Oh, sorry! Wherever you want to stay, my driver will take you. You can keep the car with you. Give the driver your phone number; I’ll take your leave now. Yes, Rosy, you stay with Ma’am, so she doesn’t face any trouble. I hope we will see each other soon.” Ravi glanced at the big briefcase, wiped his hands with a napkin, and stood up. Naina watched him leave helplessly. Tears welled up in her eyes, and the severity of the humiliation broke all her barriers!
“Ma’am!” Rosy locked the door in a hurry, “Please pull yourself together, Ma’am! Sir doesn’t remember things from the night, please believe me. People are often troubled by this habit of his, even his office staff. Please don’t cry like this, Ma’am!” Rosy, looking flustered, tried to reassure the distressed Naina.
“I’m fine,” Naina said, trying to compose herself.
“Sir is a good person, otherwise I would have quit long ago. But when such accidents happen, I often ask myself, is Sir truly an honest and sensitive person, or is he mentally unstable?”
Naina went to the bathroom to collect herself. When she had cried her heart out, she washed her face and came out. Avoiding Rosy’s gaze, she began looking at the pictures hanging on the wall.
“In this group photograph, who is who?” Naina suddenly got up from her place and asked. She wondered why she seemed uncomfortable with Rosy’s insight into her life.
“These are Sir’s students.”
Naina looked at the picture carefully.
“This lady,” Naina looked closely. “That’s Sarla ji. When you came to the office, Nizam Sahab mistook you for Sarla ji. You resemble her a lot; he was telling.”
“Where is she now?” Naina’s mind suddenly became alert.
“After marriage, no one knows where she went. I heard Sir and Sarla ji wanted to get married, but…” Rosy said softly.
“How complicated everything has become,” Naina said softly.
“Sir is honest at work, that’s why he faces constant challenges. Yet, he hasn’t achieved everything he wanted. That’s why sometimes he becomes very bitter. If you can, forgive him, Ma’am.” There was a plea in Rosy’s eyes.
Naina returned and sat on the couch. Rosy didn’t know what had happened with her. She couldn’t understand the crumbling walls, lifeless maps, and the collapse of the inner world of a person. She couldn’t comprehend the accounting of brokenness; she was too young for that. She couldn’t account for the ruins of empty buildings inside her chest. Naina felt she needed to leave.
“Can I get a booking for the evening or night flight?” Naina asked casually.
“Sure, Ma’am! Are you sure you won’t stay?”
“I need to return today itself,” Naina smiled faintly. “Okay, Ma’am!” Relief spread across Rosy’s face.
In the morning, Naina felt as if she had awakened after a long illness. She went to the bathroom and washed her face with cold water. The headache still lingered. While sipping tea, her gaze fell upon a photograph of Narendra and their sons. All three of them seemed like strangers to her. She felt detached from the ship of memories that had brought her to this isolated island. With vacant eyes, she stared at her phone, a surge of anger welling up inside her, urging her to throw the phone against the wall, to vent her frustration, to bang her head against the wall. The tremor in her hand was turning into shivers. Along with the shivers, a simmering turmoil was growing inside her.
Narendra had gone away for a week. The servants were somewhat irritated at the early return of the mistress of the house. Throughout the afternoon, they kept hovering around the room, trying to say something about having lunch. One of them even dared to peek into the room, but seeing Naina lying down, he retreated. Everyone was distressed that there was no doctor, no medicine, and their mistress couldn’t even bear a slight sneeze. Naina was sinking into a world of pain, oblivious to everything around her. Disappointment and the bitterness of humiliation were agitating her muscles. The woman that breathed inside her seemed to be battling a storm.
What was the purpose of living life without love? Would anyone ever be able to love anyone anymore? A love that can decipher the unspoken words between two people? A love that could become eternal, immersed in the masterpiece even after centuries? A love that could be forever recorded on the open pages of a book? Or perhaps just enough for it to remain alive in the hearts of two individuals for a fleeting moment, with unwavering honesty?
The dim twilight had entered the room. Naina had no urge to get up and turn on the light. A while ago, a servant had come. The cup of tea was still on the table. The ticking of the clock echoed in her ears. Such echoes and sensations had been felt by her once before, when she had undergone a major surgery. After the surgery that left a crescent-shaped scar on her abdomen, her uterus had been removed, and she had felt a profound unconsciousness, as if a heavy stone had been placed on her stomach. After resting for two months, when she became capable of going to the office again, the lady doctor had advised her husband,
“Doctor Narendra, after this procedure, women tend to become agitated and sensitive. There’s a shift in mood, so you will need to take special care of your wife. She’ll require more attention. So, during times of anger and disappointment, you should be especially attentive to her. Besides, you are a successful doctor, you know all the complications. What more can I say?”
“Ma’am, should I call the doctor? Someone from the hospital can come.” The servant, holding the utensils, suggested.
“No.” A drowned voice emerged.
The room was lit. The darkness was deepening within Naina. The ticking of the clock felt like a hammer striking her head. Just then, the phone rang, as it always did at exactly ten o’clock. Without thinking, Naina’s hand reached out instinctively.
“Did you fall asleep?”
“No.” Naina’s entire being blazed with intensity.
“I have to go to Italy next week. This time I’ll take you along, I’m planning to rest for a while. This way, we can have our honeymoon too, what do you say?” Then, a pause, followed by passionate kisses.
Naina’s wounded existence surged with life amidst the waves of emotions. What is this mesmerizing power of words that’s pulling her back towards them? What about everything that had happened? Disturbed, she hung up the phone – “No, no, revisiting all of this is pointless now. How much pain can one endure? But she would be tormented all the same if she stayed away from these words. What would be her choice? If in the end, every truth is proven to be a lie, then why couldn’t she accept this lie as the truth? After all, it’s also a facet of reality.”
Just then, the phone rang again.
“You are a beautiful woman, like a lamp in my lonely life, which can never be extinguished. The foundation of my faith is very solid. Trust me.”
Naina’s trembling inner self was thawing with the intense warmth of Ravi Bhushan’s voice, and slowly, she found herself entering the courtyard of the Taj Mahal, where the Yamuna flowed in the moonlight. There, the sands of reality and the flow of water had been side by side for who knows how long!
“Are you listening, if you have nothing to say, then come. Have faith in me.”
The ground of Naina’s mind, filled with the firmament of Ravi Bhushan, began to rotate in circles. Her hand slipped from the telephone, and the rapidly flowing blood from her nostrils started soaking the cloth, soaking it to wet her neck. Naina’s breaths sounded slow and faint. The telephone kept ringing insistently. As if they were saying, “Believe me, have faith in me. I can’t live without you, come! The doors of my house are open for you. Naina, say something.”
Naina entered the embrace of eternal slumber, like Mumtaz in her tomb.
Also, read Tenderness & Other Poems by Rosana Crispim Da Costa translated from the Italian by Brenda Poster and published in The Antonym: