Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Bitch Called Love (Published in eFiction India July 2013)

“What can be said of a man who loves one woman and is loved by another? That he is a lucky bastard. That he can have his cake and eat it too. And that he definitely is the most laid person around me.”
“Quit mocking my situation, Rahul. This is serious. I don’t know what to do. I love Suma. I really do. But I care a lot for Sahana. I can’t seem to let go of her. I need her as much as I need Suma. And I know that’s not right. I... am confused. I mean, I’m not doing justice to any of us three in the process, right?”
“Ajit, you are reading too much into the situation. I think you should just enjoy the liberty you have right now and just, you know, go with the flow,” Rahul took a drag from his cigarette. “Bloody lucky bastard, I’d say. I haven’t had a single girl chasing me, nor have I felt real true louwe for anyone,” he sighed.
“You are too damn frivolous about this. Somehow I can’t… and I am going with the flow, if you haven’t yet noticed. But I feel terrible about it sometimes. I feel like I’m cheating myself, Suma as well as Sahana. I don’t want to do it, but I end up doing it, and then…”
“Cut the crap, dude. I’m pretty sleepy right now. What I don’t understand is why you start all this right after two drinks, and spoil my mood too. Blergh! Do what you want, bro. Good night, and happy think­ing!” Rahul turned on the bed and went to sleep. Ajit was left wondering to himself.

* * *

“Sahana, please, try and understand. I cannot, I am not able to fall in love with you. Don’t push me so hard. I’ll give up. I’m already under too much pressure.”
“Aji you just… don’t understand. No, you refuse to accept me for some stupid prejudice of yours. ‘You’re not the right woman for me.’ What nonsense! Tell me one woman who has understood you and your needs so well and supported you on everything. You go on saying true love is loving the person who loves you, and when such a person is there in front of you, you don’t want to accept that. I’m just so exasperated. I love you so dearly that I can’t give you up so easily. I don’t know what to call our relationship. I have done so much for you, and you don’t want to acknowledge that and…”
“Please don’t tell me I don’t acknowledge your love or things you do for me. I really really appreciate all that and I have always told you that. But I cannot fall in love with you. You don’t evoke that special feeling in me. You make me comfortable, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and you’re awesome in bed… but that doesn’t make love!” his voice was getting increasingly gruffy. “And, I’m warning you, if you want to keep testing my limits, let us cut off this relation right away. Let us be just good neighbours and leave each other alone.”
“That’s nothing less than threat, and Mr Ajit Prasad, I’m not gonna take that from you. No one tells me what to feel and how!” Sahana picked up her bag and got up from the bed. “But one final word. I love you more dearly than life itself, and you cannot change that.” And she walked off, leaving Ajit with his head between his hands.
* * *
“Do you want a coffee? I’m gonna grab a cup…”
“Yeah sure. Do you have a smoke too?”
Sahana’s laughter rang in her bedroom. “What, post-coital cigarette, eh?”
Ajit laughed too. “If you wanna call it by such a technical name, fine!”
“There, on the shelf. The lighter’s next to it, and the ash-tray is under the bed. I’ll make the coffee.”
Ajit’s phone rang. It was Suma.
“Sana, don’t speak, okay? It’s Suma calling.”
“Oh yeah, I’m not here, you’re not with me. Understand, understand, sir.” She laughed again, and went into the kitchen.
“Yeah, tell me honey. What’s up?”

* * *

“So, what do you think?”
“Yeah, suits you, but you can look much better.”
“This is the best I could do. I wasn’t ready to go for complete colour­ing. I thought this light burgundy shade looked charming. And you give such a lukewarm response!” Sahana cried.
“Honey, honey, you look awesome. I just said you have more potential! You’re a very charming woman, and I want people to know that. Come on, I’m buying you some funky attire to go with that hair of yours. How about trying out the new stuff at Lifestyle? Laika said there are some trendy things there. Might suit you.”
“Okay okay. Whatever you say.”
“Listen, it’s not about you obeying me here, okay? It’s about getting you a light makeover. Just a touch-up, actually, but something that’ll make you stand out in the crowd.”
“Makeover, yeah that’s right,” she smiled. “I love you, Aji. I love you so much.”
Aji returned the smile. “Let’s go, my pretty pie. Hop on to the bike.”

* * *

“Suma, you’re sure we’re doing the right thing? I mean, isn’t this too sudden for you? You haven’t even gotten over Vasishth yet… and then mar­rying me… you know how I am situated. With Sheela’s studies still going on and mom down in the hospital every month, I don’t know if I can…”
“Ajit, I am not worried about the finances. I have a good amount of savings, and of course I’ll work after marriage too. I have no issues with you giving off all your salary at home. And about Vasu. The earlier I forget him the better.
“Don’t worry I’m not using you as a rebound. I actually want to settle down with you. You’re the one for me; I’m sure of that. I want to know if you are fine. Anyone you’re involved with, or anything that doesn’t appeal to you? I mean, do you think I’ll be good enough for you?”
“Oh God, listen to you talk! I… listen, I know I never articulated it to you, but… but I love you. With all my heart. I can die for you. You tell me, when do you want me to come and meet your mother?”
Suma’s heart rose in a flutter. “Aji… you’re such a sweetheart. Make that this weekend. I assume there won’t be any problem from your side?”
“Not at all. My mother’ll be happy to hear I chose you. She’s always been a little partial to you among all my female friends.”
“Oh!” Suma blushed. “Very nice, my future hubby, then drop the call for now. I have work at eight in the morning, and oh my God, it’s two a.m. now! Sleep, sleep, sleep, idiot!”
“Hahaha… okay Sumi. Good night. Sweet dreams.”
“Sweet dreams, Aji.”

* * *

“So you’ve made the final choice now.”
“There’s no going back?”
“There is no need to. Not for me.”
“And what about me?”
“You already know I’m never going to marry you and give you a life you dream of. I have made that quite clear many times, I’m sure.”
“Yes you have, definitely. You and I are together on a ‘no-strings-at­tached’ basis. And all that only because I, the bloody fool, am in love with you. Ever occurred to you that you could be just taking advantage of me?”
“Fuck you, Sana. I thought we already discussed this. I am not in love with you. But I can’t seem to be able to let go of you. You are more than a friend, much more. I need you like the water I drink six times a day. You said you understood that. You said you wouldn’t accuse me of using you. You said you’ll be okay. Damn it, Sana!”
Sahana broke down. “Okay, sorry sorry. I am sorry. It’s just that some­times I just snap. I don’t know what I’m saying. Or rather, it all comes out in bitterness, and then it’s over, and then… I don’t understand. We make such an awesome pair. Why not?”
“Because I love Suma. More than I care for you. She’s the one for me, Sana. You and I are a mismatch. You’ll realise it when you get over your obsession.”
…Sahana cried bitterly. Ajit made no attempt to soothe her. He walked over to the shelf and took out a cigarette and sent swirls of smoke up at the fan in her bedroom. Then he picked up his clothes and went into the bathroom. She looked after him, gave out a long sigh and wiped her tears. In front of the mirror, she felt her face. She started out as if she was begin­ning to cry, but suddenly smiled. “Not so easy, not so soon. He’ll be back. I know it. This chapter’s not closing so easily, honey.”

* * *

“What is Sahana’s PAN card doing in your laptop bag?”
“Oh that? She gave it to me so I can fill in her bank form when I go there tomorrow. She doesn’t stay in Nashik, remember?”
“Then can’t she come down and do it herself some other day? Why do you have to do it for her?”
“Suma? What’s wrong with you? I keep doing odd chores for her anyway!”
“Stop doing that now. She’s not a baby. Let her handle her own things. She wants to take you with her for shopping, she wants your opinion on the dress she’s bought, she buys little nothings for you from everywhere she goes… I think she’s in love with you.”
“Oh Suma, you don’t know her for as many years as I do, that’s why. Or wait… you’re being jealous! Suma!”
“I know, I know, we spoke about this. You have close female friends, and I have to get used to it. But Sahana seems different from your other friends. I don’t like the feeling she gives me when the three of us are together.”
“Come on, give that girl a chance. You just met her once. You’re being…”
“You are being defensive about her. I don’t like that too.”
Ajit looked at her. He moved forward to hug her, but she shrugged it off.
“Pack your bags fast, Mister. The bus is at 9.”

* * *

It was a big gathering. Sahana’s friends, collegemates, professors and schoolteachers, the nuns and fathers from her orphanage. Ajit sat in a corner, as if set in marble. One of Sahana’s professors walked up to him.
“Ajit? I’m Naseema. Sahana used to refer to you as her local guardian. It is so unfortunate. I mean, a road accident… very, very unlucky, poor girl. Her parents died the same way. She was saved in that accident. Only to die in another one, 24 years later… The Lord has his own ways…”
Ajit looked up coldly. “Yes ma’am. He has. She was a lovely girl. Thanks for your condolences.” He blinked and paused for a few seconds, before continuing, almost apologetically, “Can you please write something about her on that golden sheet over there? She wanted me to maintain a scrap of writing from all those who attend her most important ritual after the age of 24. She wanted it to be the wedding, but… thanks.”
The professor patted Ajit’s shoulder lightly and moved on, unsure of how to take the bluntness in Ajit’s voice. Rahul came around to him, noticing his alabaster pose.
“Listen, take it easy. It’s not your fault. She’s made it clear in her letter, right? She couldn’t get over you, she was incapable of moving on. There’s no point in you dejecting over…”
“Shut up, Rahul,” Ajit groaned. Raising his eyes menacingly, he screeched through his teeth, “You’re always The Pragmatic. I am not. I cannot be. She chose to die… with my memories rather than give me up. She bloody took that accident on her because she realised Suma didn’t like her being friends with me. She couldn’t let go of me.”
His voice rose to a feverish pitch. “She fucking loved me like no one ever did. And I couldn’t give it to her. I couldn’t even make her feel better. Maybe I made her feel like a slut. ‘No strings attached’, my foot! There were strings all over the place, and I could spot none. I fucking took a long time to realise things. I had too much on my dish and I couldn’t clear it sooner. It is my fault, damn it!” His words resonated in the silent hall. Everyone turned to look at him. He sat down quietly again.
“Go sign the sheet, Rahul. She’d love to know what you think of her. Do write what you always used to say – ‘You’re bloody lucky Ajit. She’s so fucking pretty.’”


‘What can you say of a man who loved two women at the same time and could never decide whom to keep and whom to wave goodbye to? That he was confused. That he should have made a decision sooner. That he shouldn’t have waited until one of the women died. That, my friends, is the tragedy of the bitch called love.’

Phobia (Published in eFiction India September 2013)

The Radiology Department of the hospital was crowded. People were waiting on different chairs across the room in twos and threes and sometimes alone, with one of them drinking water every two minutes. Administrative staff in impeccably draped sarees and nurses in pale blues hurtled around with a definite sense of purpose. Occasionally, someone’s name was called, and that person would walk into one of the “secret” rooms accompanied by a pale blue dress. Their kin would give them reassuring nods or a pat on their back or arm, and the patients seem to gather courage from it to enter the chamber. A faint smell of medical spirits hung in the air, mixed with that of phenyl, and strangely, menthol.

Aleena strummed her fingers nervously on her vanity bag, clutching it close to her chest, looking around with a vague sense of panic. She was observing and thinking at the same time, leaving a misty look in her eyes. She did not smile at the pleasant burqa-clad woman to her right but noticed that she was clutching one infant and carrying another in her belly. She did not listen to what the fashionable couple on her left was talking about, though she heard the word ‘bladder’ more than once. She was lost in her own thoughts, as she anxiously waited for one of the pale blues to call her name, dreading what she would discover behind the doors.

It had been fifty days since her last period and she hadn’t had the next one yet. This was unusually late for her. Suhaan, her husband, could not accompany her to the hospital as he had an important meeting to attend to. But he was texting her every five minutes enquiring about the progress of the diagnosis. Is the blood test done? Did it hurt when they inserted a syringe into your veins? Is the urine test done? What is happening at the scanning centre? Why are the doctors so slow with examination? He was impatient. But unlike Aleena, who was hoping the tests would show a negative on pregnancy and instead blame the delayed periods on a cyst or a fibroid, he wanted it to be pregnancy. He actually wanted to be a father.

Aleena couldn’t believe it. It was a rare crop of men who wanted to be fathers at a young age, and boy, wasn’t it fortunate that she was married to one? No. Aleena was not quite looking forward to motherhood. It seemed quite terrorising to her, to be fully accountable for another human being. She couldn’t imagine how she could own a baby, a child, a teenager, an adult, one after the other, for the rest of her life. Her entire life would change, and Aleena was very averse to change. Even when she got married and came to Suhaan’s home, she refused to change for the sake of his parents. If there were things about her that annoyed his parents – she merely did them when they did not notice. Well, you could argue that was ‘change’ too, but it was of a lesser intensity and Aleena could live with that.

Suhaan said she was merely stubborn; she knew she was not just stubborn but selfish too. Suhaan was a go-with-the-flow man, taking everything in its stride, always ready to take up responsibilities and ownership of solutions. Aleena was quite the opposite – she was mortified at having to let go of herself.

In her darkest thoughts, she wondered if she could divorce Suhaan and go away, but then her better sense prevailed and brought her back to the reality of the institution of marriage and the feelings of her own parents.

One of the grey doors opened and a nurse called out, “Aleena Roy!” She stirred jerkily and approached the door. The nurse smiled gently, asking, “Pregnancy check-up?” She nodded, trying to curve her lips into a smile. The nurse waved her into the ante-chamber, separated by a blue curtain. She was directed to lie on the bed as a bespectacled doctor washed his hands at the sink next to the bed and offered her a benign smile. She tried to relax; muttering inside her head, “Relax, babes, it’s nothing to panic about…”

The nurse asked her to bare her tummy, and started applying a gel on her lower abdomen. A shudder ran down her spine. No, I don’t want to be pregnant, she panicked. She felt as if she should get off the bed and run while she had the chance. Scoot, her brain told her. Her thoughts ran wild in negation, and she felt as if she was in labour, or that her body was rejecting her personality, or like someone was about to give her an electric shock and she was protesting against it – the nurse gave her a sharp look, and she realised that her body had tightened into a knot. She exhaled deeply and relaxed her muscles a bit. She gave the nurse a faint smile. The nurse returned the smile pleasantly.

“Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right. What, you have bleeding or something?”

Aleena shook her head in negation. She could not bring herself to talk lest her fear come pouring out in torrents. It wasn’t just her own selfishness or loss of freedom or accountability that worried her in the pregnancy scenario. She wasn’t sure if she and Suhaan were financially prepared for it. Both of them had EMIs on loans in their name, those taken for their wedding two years ago and the purchase of a car recently.

Suhaan was also taking care of his younger brother’s studies – he was in his third year of engineering school – and Aleena had her mother to provide for. As it was, saving anything from their salaries was a rare luxury. Club a baby’s expenses – from pregnancy to delivery to school in the next six years – and they would be stretched tight. Even if she did take up a few of the freelance offers she received regularly, they would not be able to make ends meet. It was a scary thought, too scary to pursue. And then there was the case of how to look after the baby for the first two years while both Suhaan and Aleena had to work from 9am to 5pm – at the least. Aleena had been a student of psychology and she knew that the first six years of a baby’s life were the most formative ones.

In spite of having lived with Suhaan’s family for two years, she had neither got used to nor grown fond of his parents. They were ill-tempered and rustic. Their ideas were lagging behind by a century (that could be an exaggeration, but then, that’s the way she felt) and the only reason she and they lived in the same house was that apart from huge egos, they also shared an almost-vengeful hatred towards confrontation. She was positive that she would NOT leave the baby under their care – she did not trust them enough to hand over the nurturing of her formative baby. And if she had to get her own mother home to look after the baby (mom would be delighted about the baby, of course), it would mean shifting to another house, as the in-laws did not get along well enough. After all it was Aleena’s mom, would she be any less stubborn and proud?

That would mean more money being spent.

Aleena’s head ached with thoughts, and she could feel her temple vein pulsating. Meanwhile, the gel was applied, and she noticed that the doctor was readying the ultrasound machine. A tube with the transducer probe at its tip was in his hands, ready to be placed on her slimy belly, ready to find out whether her uterus held a living, growing organism or a simple cyst blocking the ovary or some other fancy stuff that female reproductive anatomies tend to harbour.

“When was your LMD?” The doctor asked as he drew her salwar further down and brought the cold device onto her lower abdomen.

“Last menstrual date? January eighteenth…”

“That means around fifty days? Have you completed the urine test?”

“I just gave a sample to the lab. Expecting results in an hour.”

“Hmmmm,” he peered into the screen, rubbing the probe across the abdomen in smooth twists of his wrist. “I can see some growth in the uterus.”

Aleena’s pulse quickened. Damn, she thought. When did we NOT use condoms, she tried to remember. Wasn’t she safe the last time they did it?

“This doesn’t seem normal,” the doctor said with furrowed brows. “Your uterus is very swollen. Have you had stomach pains of late?”

“Yes. I get piercing pains in the lower abdomen quite often. But… I think that’s just gas. Acidity. I have terrible gas trouble. From childhood.” A wave of fear was rising in her voice.

The doctor continued to gaze at the black and white readings on the screen. “What’s your name?”

The question surprised Aleena. He is just trying to make me comfortable, she told herself. “Aleena.”

“Aleena, I’m going to refer you to the oncology department. That one there is no foetus. It’s a 9-10mm tumour. Are you alone or did someone come with you?” His voice was cold and measured, but a bit sympathetic nevertheless.

Aleena gulped a mouthful of air. Her phone started ringing at the same time, blaring Sajna ji vaari vaari jaunji main, proclaiming it to be Suhaan’s call. Suddenly, she wished it was a foetus. 

It's Your Turn (2004, Published in eFiction India April 2013)

“Do I have to stay here all my life?” She questioned me with such innocence that I couldn’t restrain my tears. Every young girl who has come to me has asked me the same question. And every time, I told them, “You don’t have to, dear, you don’t have to.”

It has been eighteen years since I entered this profession, and I’ve seen all sorts of lucky and unlucky girls. The lucky ones had their saviours sweeping them off to safer places, while others have stayed on to rot in the squalor. Like me.

“What do I call you?” the girl was asking.

Everyone around here has called me amma these eight years. Eight years. That is too long a time. Eight years ago, our old amma was on her deathbed and she had told me, “You’ll be the next amma.”


The name commands respect and embodies motherly love. But how many can actually feel and exhibit that under the circumstances? I did not like our old amma, I just feared her. It is as likely that these girls now feel the same way about me. Not that this is a job I like. But I am helpless. I can do nothing at all, for I am chained. Chained to the wills of those around me. Amma is the matron, not the chief. She will never be one.

I clearly remember the day I was brought here. I was drugged by a man in the train. The tragedy struck when I was on my way to Vellore from my village in Trichy, to study medicine. 96% in my pre-university exams and I was the first girl in the village who had qualified to attend medical school. My father had prepared to send me to Vellore, to my paternal aunt’s house, but not without vehement protests from the elders of the village.

The entire village got together to organise a sabha and threatened to expel our entire family if I were to study further in such a distant place. Was it not enough that a girl had been allowed to study so much while she should be learning to cook and clean, that now she should be permitted to go so far away from her parents and pursue a life on her own?

But my father was a staunch believer in women’s rights and he stood up against the whole village. One by one the villagers were convinced of his resolute purpose and irrefutable arguments. All for the sake of his dear daughter in whom he believed. Whom he dreamt of as dressed in white, serving patients in the nearby Government hospital. And what luck that he should be sick on the day of departure and that she should travel alone.

Shattering his dreams and now serving…

When I opened my eyes, I was in a well-decked cot, complete with garlands of rose and mogra. I was bewildered. Where am I? What is going on? Am I dreaming?

As I wondered, the doors to the room opened and a big burly figure strode up to me. I cowered and withdrew into the corner of the cot. But those firm hands caught hold of me, and the aftermath has only remained as a subconscious memory. Oh, the agony of the moment! Even after eighteen years, I shudder at the thought of it – the struggle, the screams, the shame.

For hours after that first incident, I was totally unaware of what was going on. For two days, I lay in a subconscious state, alternately begging my father’s forgiveness and shouting for help. I remember a tight slap across my cheeks and slipping into blissful unconsciousness again, waking up only the next morning.

Amma came and talked to me, telling me I had no option but to stay. I was an absolute stranger to the city of Mumbai. The city where street boys turn into Bollywood stars, where crores are spent every day on entertainment, where a boy washing a car today could one day own a fleet of them.

But I had nowhere to go.

The red light district is like a prison; cordoned off from the city and yet so close to the people in it. It entertains men irrespective of caste and religion; people from all walks of life congregate here. We were unwanted, and yet in demand; scorned by the members of the same gender that should understand us, and looked down upon by the same gender that uses us.


Anyway, life has to go on. There is someone at the door already. Oh! It is 8 o’clock! Business will perk up.

“Oh Saraswati! Isn’t it your turn to go first today?”