Ten years and counting, a man coming to terms with a broken relation has been left with a cynical take on life and the notion of love. Resigned to the fate of an urban dweller but with roots in hills, he has found his refuge in art and weekend wanderings with his adopted dog ‘Bholu’. On a fateful evening, listening to a radio show he hears a voice he had never forgotten…
Presenting a short story on love and loss – The girl who read Zodiac.
He saw the wilderness of city sweep past the aisle window ─ the roaring engines, the cacophony of crowds, blaring horns and the businesses. In a distance he could see the high rise offices. People like caged birds, enslaved in symmetrical cubicles, cockpits of cars and the concrete assortments called apartments. Despite the loud noises his ears could register the sound of silence. There were days when gazing at the setting sun he tried to remember her. Often than days, there were nights when the gleaming moonlight seemed to connect him to her. As if at that very precise moment she was looking at that light and thinking of him.
He yearned to say her name; to her.
The traffic signals were green. The tires spat dust.
The radio jockey was playing agony aunt offering lovelorn people expert counselling.
“Call her; tell her how much she means to you.”
“Take her out to a romantic movie followed by a dinner.”
“Buy her a nice black dress.”
So neatly labelled down like a recipe for dinner. He wondered if the RJ felt empathy for any of the callers or watched her watch and said to herself, “OK, twenty more minutes, two more sob stories to attend.”
Damn, he was the last of the romantics.
Love, in our times is like god. Everyone talks of it, fights for it and yet not many claim to have seen it. So they search for it. In office spaces, colleges, bustling malls, reunions, chat rooms, theatres and the likes. Some even subscribe to sun signs and tarots looking for a future. If only they realized that the fine print any given day, reads the same for a Cancerian, who will file for a divorce and the other who would well, be marrying.
“Hello RJ Smita!” said the voice on the radio.
His eyebrows twitched at the sound of the voice. He could have identified it in a chorus.
The lady at the other end of the receiver wiped mascara off her eyes. The dark circles under her eyes like stamps from a bygone era bore testimony to the sleepless nights spent on an overdose of cinematic pearls from the French New wave. And who knows if she too, bereaved along side Godard’s leading ladies. Perhaps the eyes have given away to waiting. It has been a long time since she last saw him. Thirteen calendars swept by, two of them with 29 days against February.
“This is Chhavi” said the caller’s voice.
A lifetime of betrayals had left her cynical and it showed in her voice like a lump in the throat.
“Another lie”, he said to himself. And what is a lie but a fabric of fiction. She always had a gift for story telling. An artist she was.
He knew the name behind the pseudonym, he knew the person. What he didn’t know was what the time had made of her. He waited with abated breath; now, comes that song dedication for her husband. But the voice had a story and not a song.
“Hi Chhavi! How are you today?”
“I am fine Smita. I wished to…”
“Hmm…had a quarrel with boy friend?” the cheeky voice of RJ was now dictating its divine knowledge.
“Uhm, not exactly. Well, I…I am a divorcee.”
The lava from earphone penetrated through his ear lobes. A slow thought like a cold warm crawled through his brain. True, he had disconnected from all that was mutual between them. Changed cities and let go of the career opportunities just to stay away from retracing the same self piteous path of misery and memories. He felt a sense of wrong creeping in his collar bone for being this distant from her; so far as to not even know of her pains.
The thought wavered through his brain and the haunting question resurfaced. How does a relation die?
Is it in the decaying and diminishing frequency of conversations─ when words give way or when the words go astray?
Is it in assigning meanings and memories to forsaken corners and forbidden rooms?
Is it in the strands of hair that come out of nowhere and everywhere? Or is it in the smell of the satin that lingers on even after washing.
The voice in the radio broke his monotony. Chhavi and Smita were on with their conversation.
“…It’s like missing a piece of the jigsaw. I contoured life along the margins, never in the thick of it. I miss being a part of his life and often I wonder what the present would be like if we were together. Measured in teaspoons, I have witnessed life change its colour and aroma. Yet still right there around the edges of old frames with sullen photographs, time teases me. Sometimes, we have the most precious of gifts right at our hands and we let it go. I don’t know if it was family pressure, the zodiac incompatibility or simply put my own indecision that led to this but what I now know for sure, in spite of the fact that I may sound like a teenage lovelorn girl is the very fact that I have never quite forgotten him. And to be honest, I don’t even know why I am calling a radio station to confess this. Perhaps to exorcise myself of what it could have been. And yet, I am at loss of courage to use my own name while I call you…”
“Chhavi, please calm down. How about having a glass of water and telling us how long has it been since you two separated?”
“We never really separated but went silent in our own worlds. Knowing of each other’s existence and yet oblivious to the daily humdrums. He was rooting for a job back then while my family was scouting potential matches. Being a maanglik, the stars were aligned against me and try as I may, I wouldn’t agree to his proposals for marriage. I accepted my ex-husband’s proposal for marriage, who my family had found through mutual acquaintances and matched the astrological charts. Now to think of it, even the perfect matches can’t guarantee for the stability of a marriage.”
“Did he know of your marriage?”
“Yes, I had invited him. Although he didn’t turn up as I expected.”
“Chhavi, did you love him?”
“Yes, I did and I still do.”
“Yet you let him go this easy…”
“I tried but my astrological chart infested beliefs and acceptance of life’s plans as destiny, I went with the flow. Now, I know it was futile.”
The mild mannered ‘Chhavi’ had rediscovered her rebel voice. He smiled thinking of the times that were. In the green room and cafeteria, the rehearsals of Shakespeare tragedies, and of sacred space between entwined fingers, time is but an audience to a man’s own illusion. The cliché was true, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Chhavi was still speaking.
“He was there in envelopes never mailed, messages saved in drafts, and numbers dialled and miffed to death before they would ring. One or the other permutation of his name is still there down the time line, in the email passwords. Guess I have been all awhile drowning and just beginning to realize it. My marriage lasted a year and a half. He was a good man but then we weren’t quite compatible and my indifference led him to astray, which I can understand. I signed on the dotted line for divorce as soon as he asked me, freeing him of me. If only there was some piece of paper to let go of relations framed in heart. Sometimes my probable pasts come knocking. Smita, have you ever felt the ecstasy of rediscovering crumbled moist laden inland letter from one of your closets or handwritten letter from an old diary? The scent of old times that a sealed stamp carries within itself…the careless scribbles that adorn old scrapbooks and notebook’s penult pages? It’s there where I have held him safe, treasured for only my eyes to see“.
He remembered the last time he met her at the park outside her PG. Like a little girl untying a yarn of wool, their conversations were flowing. He tried to replay the conversation in his head again, blending the setting with the green grass and drizzle of that day but the colours in his imagination were too gaudy. What was she wearing that day? All he could remember was the way her mascara wept away in the rain.
At nights she blamed all the assortments that stars presented, the Orion and Great Bear and the many she could draw by jotting an imaginary line using her index finger.
‘Pity’, she said to herself, ‘Dead stars from an eon long gone dictate our lives’
She had come a long way from being the enthusiastic girl with pig tails who demanded telescope over Barbies . Decade later, she hated astronomy.
The pundit had called it a celestial doom. Planetary position of birth charts and state of the stars.
He cared less for zodiacs than a cat would do for carpets she would ruin.
“What do stars have to do with weddings made on earth? “
“What if we belonged to a different religion. Would it have mattered?”
“In a far off galaxy, if there’s a form of life and let’s consider they see our planet and its inhabitants like a reality show to their amusement. Don’t you think they would be laughing their guts out trying to comprehend the rationale behind our matrimonial algebra? The stars we hardly know of and vice versa, somehow divinely know what’s in store for us? What a travesty!”
Often he would tell her that life isn’t like a stereo with buttons for pause and play. Fast forward to sneak in the future or a Rewind button to backtrack the pitfalls. We have to live it through, together. The rest is but a journey and we never quite know where we get next. The mantra was to Relax and enjoy the ride.
She would smirk at such remarks and recite tales of grand horror which were cursed upon that aunt in Allahabad and this cousin from Calcutta. ‘We have to respect the language of the star signs’, she would always quip. And he would go silent and steal a smile in a faux cough so as to divert the topic to Neruda and Gibran, the poetry always united them.
“How can we help you, Chhavi?” inquired RJ.
“I didn’t call expecting any help. I am clueless as to if there’s anything that I want out of it. It was like this big lump in my throat that I wished to pour out. Cleanse myself.”
“Al right Chhavi, we hope this chat helped you lighten up. Life is a mysterious journey and not all our choices are for good. It’s a pity that we can see only them in retrospective light. However, it’s also a blessing that we can learn from them for a future that is going to be better. Here’s this song exclusively for you. Take care Chhavi and don’t you let go on life!”
The familiar voices faded away to welcome a renaissance song from a Bollywood movie. The lyrics, a fusion of Hindi and Punjabi rap were a disgusting homage to Chhavi’s call. He switched off the radio, unplugged the earphones and got down at the bus stop.
He waded his way through the swarm of humans, atop a foot over bridge and down the waterlogged murky lanes. As he climbed the stairs, he saw Bholu on the window wagging his tail. He rang the bell. The maid took a while in opening the door but he didn’t care. Time was a luxury, he always had. Bholu charged at him with unrestrained affection and he reciprocated by hugging him for a longer duration than he normally did.
“Shall I make tea?” asked the maid.
“No, I guess I will take a walk. You please have it.”
He put his laptop down and went out with Bholu, along the alley leading to the community park. The signboard read, “Dogs not allowed”. He scoffed at the board and took Bholu in.
The kids were playing with Bholu as they would everyday, running in circles and jumping with joy. Settled at a park bench near the kids, from a distance he saw the world as always. The stories being played, the characters being written and some rewritten again. And he watched many a nights turn to day waiting for her piquant face to resurface but the planchet wouldn’t work. The spells wouldn’t do. Not today, he said to himself. She must have lived her life by the green door on a still greener hill; he knew her dream was to teach grammar to pony tailed girls in an old world convent. Resigned to the fate of an urban dweller with roots in hills, he knew it was time.
Wondering if the phone number was still in service, with trembling fingers, he dialled that divine sequence he had never quite forgotten. The white noise faded to give way to the ring.
“Hello” said the familiar voice at the other end.