Thursday, December 21, 2017

She Went

Alex’s story starts with the ending: She went.
The first time I read that story, a few years back, I took it as a smartass beginning. Writers should grab attention from the word go, diktat one in writing one-oh-one. In the same uncharitable vein, I expected a sentimental melodrama. It turned out to be an odd love story, if that is the right genre–odd not because of the matter-of-fact delivery; not due to his death either, although that has made everything about him unsettling, unfamiliar. Alive, he would be the stranger he had become. We parted ways long back, ten fifteen years, all lines cut, pretence nought. Dead, the best friend resurrected. I did not go for the burial. I still avoid his folks and our common friends. But, he refused to let go of me. Five months after his death, I ran into his mother and got the story he left for me.
I was arguing with the fruit-seller at Statue Junction. He is a cheat but he has his regulars, like me, with time to waste or an urge to needle him. He objected to me picking and choosing oranges, ‘You can’t take all the good ones.’ I dared him to stop me. In the background, the lame half-wit at the lottery-stall chuckled. Those at the coffee-shop and the newspaper-stand observed impartially. He did not like my quote. I placed the money on his pushcart, ignored his protests and turned to leave with my purchase.
I saw her then. She was watching me with a smile.
‘Hullo, Aunty,’ I said.
She has greyed a little, otherwise the same; above average height, back straight, beautiful, graceful; and, with the same steady gaze, her soft, kind eyes.  
She raised her hand and ruffled my untidy prematurely grey hair. ‘You should use dye,’ she said.
‘I know, searching for the cheapest white,’ I said.
She lowered her hand to my arm.
‘Sanjay, it’s been a long time.’
‘Lovely to see you,’ I meant it.
‘Can’t you drop in to meet us old ones?’
I shrugged.  
‘Come with me,’ she said.
‘Yes, now.’
She held my hand. It was tough walking side-by-side on that crowded street, dodging vehicles and pedestrians, avoiding holes in the footpath. I must have stopped when we got to their lane, twenty meters from the Junction. She did not let go. I thought I saw two young lads race past, Alex and I. Where were we going–to the British Council Library behind the Secretariat or for a treat at Arul Jyothi, the vegetarian joint near the Junction? Those institutions, like us, have vanished or changed beyond recognition. Once, we ran after a car with two lovely sisters in the back seat, their parents in front too surprised with our enthusiasm to protest. The girls laughed and waved when we quit the chase, leaving us doubled over, panting and carelessly happy.
At their gate, I nearly called out his name like I used to. His father had a mean-looking Doberman and I always made sure someone was minding the dog. I turned to Aunty. She nodded. I reached over and opened the latch. It was like stepping into an old photo, without the people or the dog. The Portuguese-style villa, the courtyard untidy with leaves of the guava and mango trees, the steps where I remove my shoes even though I am told not to bother, they wear footwear in the house, the wood panelling,  high ceiling, red-tiled floor, polished sturdy old furniture, the old-world charm I envied. There was also the smell of fried fish from the kitchen, and that whiff of irritation that came with the rest.
I sat in the drawing room. That was not like before. I used to go straight to Alex’s room.
I asked about Uncle.
‘At the farmhouse,’ Aunty said.
They never got along, lovely characters both–the beautiful disciplined doctor and the handsome engineer turned urban cowboy; her quiet elegance; his machines, lousy friends and loud curses. Alex got the best from both.
We never talked about his parents, or mine. If I had told him I felt like a bastard in my happy home, he would not have understood. He must have thought I was luckier than him that way, the only way I managed to be better than him.
‘Theirs must have been a love marriage,’ I told him. We must have been talking about marriage, in general. Then, I believed in the adage about opposites attracting, and that groovy people never settled for a staid arranged affair.
Alex corrected me, ‘No love marriages in my family.’ He pointed at the photos on the wall, the sepia prints of proud ancestors, men in suits, educated ladies. ‘Only good genes admitted, never love.’ That could have been a joke.
He was proud of his lineage. He bragged about a photo of a maternal great grandfather, taken ‘when the grand old man still wore the sacred thread’. I never got to see that photo of ‘the converted Brahmin’. I did not hide my disgust when Alex talked of such. He brushed aside my protest, referring to it as a chip on my shoulder rather than taking it as a liberal progressive protest. It is possible I felt short-changed. Class and lineage hardly mattered when we were in school. We were boys in similar white shirts and black shorts or pants. History started with us. That changed after school. Some like Alex got a past, those like me continued without a rewrite.
‘I discovered my history and porn at the same time,’ I told him.
‘That explains the scant attention one topic received,’ Alex observed.
That must have been a year or two before we went our own ways. Jokes apart, I did search for and find my own set of photos and stories, to show, to hide, to tell, to remain untold. There was obvious poverty and talk of old money with little to show.
‘There was love in my family,’ I declared. He did not ask for details. I did not have to reveal I was not really sure about the love part. Sure there were men and their women, no dearth of kids either, in and out of wedlock. Some cases sounded cute, a few cruel, no major heartbreak or tragedy. As far as I could make out, the affairs were amicably settled, with sound economics winning over equal opportunity.
We compared our families’ rogue gallery too. The rascals, unlike the ambiguous lovers, made our families seem similar. I presented a grand uncle as the prime villain, a revolutionary Robin Hood with a penchant for beheading his rich victims. His signature used to be a bloody handprint at the scene of crime. Alex laughed when I noted that my ancestor got caught red-handed even without forensic science and fingerprints. From Alex’s side, it was a rapist uncle. His guy took a shortcut home through a cemetery one night, came across a barely-conscious woman lying half-naked and bleeding, clearly a victim of a heinous gang rape. He too raped her before scooting from the scene. I asked Alex if the police had investigated that case; he told me to get real. I was quite sure he made up most of that but the burden of proof was on me. He won that contest too.
Aunty brought a tray with a tall glass of juice and a plate of plum cake, just like in the old days, well, almost; there used to be a glass for Alex. She sat next to me on the sofa.
‘What happened to you two?’ Aunty asked.
I shrugged.
‘You two were like brothers.’
She was right. We were like brothers, the best of friends.
‘Was it because of some girl?’ she asked.
I nodded. That was a convenient lie.
The end of the relationship was gradual and unsurprising, not even bitter, an end that began with an unequal balance that gave way to a lost meaning.
She talked about his depression before the suicide.
‘I was abroad then,’ I told her. Not that I would have visited even if I was here.
She was kind, ‘I knew you would not come for his burial.’ 
She wept. I held her.
‘He will always be with us,’ she said.
I nodded.
‘He left something for you,’ she said.
I winced. Bloody Alex, he always had to have the last say.
She went inside and returned with a yellow envelope, the type with waterproof padding. She handed it over.
‘To Sanjay,’ his neat scrawl occupied little space on the cover.
‘In his sui…’ she paused, choking on those words, ‘in his last note, he mentioned he is leaving you a story. Remember his stories? He never gave up writing, not even after becoming a successful doctor.’
I sat with her for a long while, neither of us speaking much. I left promising to visit again. She seemed pleased even though she must have understood it was a lie.
The envelope was well-sealed. He need not have bothered. They would not have bothered to read his story, even if it was for them.
Once or twice he let out his bitterness. ‘They treat my writing like how people dealt with lepers.’
‘That will change…just get published, or win some prize, make some money,’ I said.
‘You don’t get it, do you? Even then, they won’t read my stories,’ he said.
That too was a topic we did not touch upon too often. It would have been the same with my family, that is, if I tried my hand at writing. It is just not the kind of stuff folks like us do, they would say.
He could always depend on me to read his writing; maybe, I am his friend for that; and, to be one up on me in almost every way.

At home, after dinner, when I was sure I would not be interrupted, I opened that envelope. Considering my first impression, I must have been irritated then.
The story, nearly a novella, focuses on the two in love. Their names are not revealed (she is referred to by a nickname once, ‘Deeps’). He does not waste space on the beginning or the ending of the love affair, allowing those two words at the start ‘She went’ to say all about the denouement. As for how he (that is, the protagonist) met her, he offers this: ‘I met her, like most such cases, not through love at first sight or some unforgettable encounter but via a circumcatalyst.’  That was his word for a mixture of circumstances (around which one’s life circles) and a catalyst (in this case, a common friend to whom he felt a physical attraction). Why they needed a catalyst or why a particular set of circumstances resulted in love, those questions are supposed to be irrelevant.
There are no details of other actors, friends or families, pressing demands or complications. The little there is about that is included in casual talk in some crowded place, it could have been about the weather instead, it seemed as if those were code-words for some secret love-chat between the two. The story was all about them. Strangely, the minutiae of their moments together do not seem tedious or pointless, racy or awkward. I still have the notes I jotted down in that first sitting:
1.    Definitely autobiographical;
2.    A celebration of life and love;
3.    What.F.Luck!;
4.    She went? Wrong usage or intentional? She left? She went away? She was taken away? She had to go?
5.    Is the life-after irrelevant?
The last point was because I was trying to unearth some clue about Alex’s depression and suicide. The third was just envy, I admit–another battle lost in the endless war between us. I hate to think he defeated me in the search for love too. Of course, this could be just fiction, his best fiction. I am not really sure, even now, about that first point.

For a while I thought of getting it published. It remained in a storage box along with old diaries and love letters, and went with me to Berlin, London, Bangalore and Mumbai. I shifted through three jobs in those years, moved away from academia to the corporate world. Life was more or less the same though. On the personal front, I was not yet ready for marriage. I had good relationships that did not last too long. Then, a ‘circumcatalyst’ happened.
For about two years, Veena and I were just colleagues in two departments of the same company, exchanging Hi-n-Bye’s and corporate gossip. I admired her, she is beautiful and intelligent, but from far. Then, at an interdepartmental get-together), we were in the same cricket team (HR’s idea that outdoor games would improve the synergy between departments, irony one might say with hindsight). I held her spectacles when she bowled and she enjoyed my sledging. Later that evening, before drinks and dinner, we got some time on our own and we talked. I could not sleep that night. She told me later that she did not have any such problem. She arranged the lunch at a Chinese restaurant the following weekend though. I got her a gift, a stuffed toy. She liked it a lot.
That stuffed toy was not my idea. I was already using Alex’s story as a handbook. I tried to convince myself it was not shameless plagiarism. Are we truly original all the time? Don’t we use all the books and movies and songs we have come across? Fiction does not die. Isn’t it because many have used it successfully that oft-repeated scenes are passed from one generation to the next? Even our gestures and mannerisms, aren’t those copied from past masters? Didn’t some famous writer say so in one of his novels? Was it one of those Latin American or East European writers, those writers with names so well-suited for writers, Marquez, Kundera? (Alex used to complain: ‘Have you ever heard of a writer named Alex?’)
I was enjoying the love affair too much to envy Alex for having thought of it first. I must have when I had a free moment, though that was rare in those heady days. 
I stuck to Alex’s script. Eating out, time together at home, lover’s quarrels, presents…when I had gone through all the scenes in his story, I tried minor variations and shamelessly produced sequels and remakes. Nothing could beat the original. One thought used to intrigue me a lot: how could it work so well? Once, we were in a movie-hall and a scene from Alex’s story was reproduced almost verbatim: the holding of hands, rub of arms, touching her breasts, how she moved closer. It was a full show. We did not think about the people around us. We did not care if someone would object or if we would be abused and tarred by some moral police. We were so selfishly and deliciously obsessed with ourselves.
She too went.

Did I expect it? It was not a sad or bitter ending. She has kids. When her relationship with her husband improved, or when his promises had to be given a chance, and their separation ended, she went. I think I would have married her if given a chance. Or, that’s me painting an honourable picture of myself. For a few days the vacuum she left behind seemed unendurable. But then, we are made to endure worse hangovers. What if it had been death that separated us, would I have wasted time complaining to God?
Alex was right, I realized. Those moments in love are all that matters. The funny thing about love is that it refuses to be relegated to the past. A new love would just have to learn to live with that, possibly re-enacting some of it if not all of it.
That begs the question: when Alex had that, why did he get depressed and kill himself (even if it was fiction and even if he could not write a finer piece)?
Months went by. I started to think of settling down. I bought a house. I got a promotion. I got married.
I made a resolution before that. I decided not to use even one scene from Alex’s story in my marriage.
A few days after our wedding, when we were going through the gifts, I came across a lovely gift. The card with it said, ‘To Deeps and her hubby, Your BFF, Swathi’.
I asked my wife, ‘Are you called Deeps?’
‘Some close friends from my younger days call me that,’ she said.
I thought of asking her if she knew a guy called Alex. I did not.
I do not call her ‘Deeps’. Alex’s story has to end.  


  1. Enjoyed it. One of your best. Excellent narration. Could picture the scenes. You could expand this one into a full length novel.

    1. Thanks a lot for reading this. :-) Great encouragement...truly appreciate it.