AT fifty two I fell in love again. It started out as a challenge, a pitting of wits and ended with us being devastatingly, terribly, foolishly in love. Of course, neither of us had planned for it to happen, and that is what made it so surprising. Isn't fifty two when you get ready to hang up your boots and smoke that pipe? And here I was, lusting after a woman who was married. Perhaps her very unavailability made her so attractive, or the fact that I, for once, had come across someone who filled that void in me.
Anyhow, this story is not about a lost love. It is about a lost child. And lost opportunities.
“KALYAN, this is Soda.” Our hostess introduced me to the languid eyed woman at a ridiculous Delhi ‘do’ I had been compelled to attend.
“Soda? What kind of a name is that?” I sneered at her, immediately taking in the cupid's bow lips, the backless choli, held together by a single knot, the waist length hair that swung in a plait.
“It's short for Saudamini.” She responded huskily, refusing to rise to the bait. “I read your column. It's very interesting. I asked Mita for an introduction. I am a writer too. Oh, nothing major... just a few poems…”
I cringed inwardly, as this was definitely a prelude to getting me to read her stuff.
“No, no.” She laughed, sensing my discomfiture. “I have no intention of displaying my rather amateurish writing to you. But I did want to question you about a point you made the other day…”
AND so it started. A friendship, I would tell myself, denying my physical response to her. I refused to touch her. Never once did I let my hand graze hers. Never did I lean in close enough to smell her perfume. Not at the beginning anyhow. Then there was the husband. A nice fellow. The devoted sort. I had a grudging admiration for him. To have found and held a woman like that required gumption.
She had a child. A son with learning disabilities. She was slightly embarrassed by him. As though it was her fault. As though her womb had refused to cooperate, and produced a faulty product, and therefore she must be to blame, for it was her womb. I was embarrassed for her. I saw it as regressive and pointless. Yet, our friendship grew.
Over coffees and sneaked cigarettes, we discussed politics and books. Over dinners that turned cold, we had heated arguments over religion. She believed in god, karma, prayer. I didn't. Ramesh, the husband, took note of the sparks, but he was used to indulging her. He was also used to her sudden obsessions and their quick souring.
“How can an educated, obviously intelligent woman like you believe that some entity whose existence hasn't been proven, controls our destiny?”
“Because I have faith. Incidents in my life have steered me to believe.”
“What sorts of incidents? Examples?”
She refused to be drawn, turning away in a huff towards the kitchen. I watched her go, exasperated and aroused in equal measure. After each of our arguments, I wished to make love to her. To grind into her and watch her face contort in ecstasy. Instead, I made do with another cigarette.
Ramesh joined me outside. He didn't smoke but brought out his beer. We sat in companionable silence, enjoying the balmy evening. The sunset had unleashed a myriad of hues in the sky, and the bougainvillea bush seemed to be on fire, the crimson bouncing off the magenta flowers, seeking to envelop each one of the surrounding plants in its reflected glory.
“I worry about Akash, K.”
“Why? He seems to be doing fine. Have there been any problems lately?”
“Well, the school called. He's been getting into fights with the other boys. He attacked one with a pair of scissors the other day.”
“What?! That's so unlike Akash. He seems such a gentle boy…”
“He was provoked. The other child had been calling him names, picking on him. I guess he just lost the plot.”
“That can happen with anyone. I mean, surely the school recognises that? Of course, he needs disciplining but Akash, of all kids, needs to be handled with care. Have you spoken to anyone in authority?”
“Yes, we have. We're trying to organise a counsellor. But there's more... He's been soiling himself, and the bed wetting has started again. For a fourteen-year-old, that's not good news.”
I agreed. I also wondered at this sudden unburdening. I was used to Ramesh being in the background. Soda was always the focal point of these meetings. Yet, she studiously avoided all mention of Akash's issues. As though glossing over the obvious would somehow make it go away.
Akash himself was an interesting study. He was taller than his mother. Overweight and extremely acne prone. A slightly foul smell followed him around, and he had no friends to speak of. Our very brief interactions consisted of me greeting him with an overly hearty “Hello my boy, how goes it?” and him responding with a grunt. Now and again, when our eyes accidentally met, I would get a glimpse of a very small, frightened child, unable to cope with the horrors of the world around him.
“HOW is the counselling going?” I asked Soda, a few weeks later over our rum and cokes.
“What counselling?” She spluttered, wide eyed.
“Akash's of course. Ramesh had mentioned….”
She turned apoplectic.
“There is NOTHING wrong with Akash!! Boys will be boys. I wish people would stop judging us!”
I knew then to leave well enough alone.
AS the Delhi Summer turned into a golden Autumn, I found my visits to their house increasing in frequency. I had only an empty apartment with an old, deaf ayah for company. The food she cooked was unpalatable, and her cleaning was cursory at best. Where my books had been my constant companions, I searched for a human connection now. Soda, with all her faults, was an alluring woman. She could sense I was drawn to her, and felt flattered. Yet, I was only the nth man responding to her beauty and her warmth.
“K, why have you never married?”
“Are you going to set me up Soda? Please don't! I find these things excruciating…”
“Don't answer my question with a question!”
“Well,” I leaned back on the sofa, and looked at Akash who sat in front of the Television, utterly engrossed, his hand moving into the packet of crisps, and back to his mouth with an automaton like regularity. “I just never met the right person.”
She looked at me from under her lashes, a coy look that she had perfected. “What kind of person?”
I knew she wanted me to say someone like her.
“Someone who agrees with me about religion being a pile of nonsense.”
Ramesh guffawed from the kitchen. He returned with his drink, and we raised our glasses to each other in a surreptitious complicity.
“Sunil is coming next week.” Soda intercepted our silent communication. “He'll stay a few days with us.”
I had heard about her brother and his hell raising ways. A politician's lackey, he was accustomed to throwing his weight about and very few people crossed him.
“Sunil mamu is coming?” Akash asked excitedly. It was the first time I had seen him excited about anything other than his computer games. “Do you think he'll let me play with his guns again?”
Soda smiled at him indulgently. “I think he might let you touch them. But really Akash, you are too young to play with them.”
“Guns? Am I hearing this right?” I looked at Ramesh, appalled.
“Oh, he has a license and everything. Besides, it's a bit of a hobby with him. He's part of Lokesh Sharma's entourage, and you know how it is, with these politicians and their followers.”
I felt a sudden unease to be in the midst of people who treated weapons that could maim and slaughter, so casually. I was a man of letters. Words were my weaponry and my armour.
“ …but you must come K! I'll do a nice dinner. Sunil is great company.”
I doubted that we would have much in common. I nearly concocted a prior appointment. Yet one look at Soda's expectant face, made all my arguments melt away. What was it about this woman that I could not resist?
IT was the Sunday that changed everything. The party was already in full swing when I arrived. Ramesh was playing bartender, and Soda the consummate hostess. But all eyes were on the tall, beefy man who sat holding court in their living room. Sunil gave off an air of importance. A ‘don't mess with me or you'll disappear’ aura. I guess, in the power hungry circles of Delhi, that was an undeniable part of his attraction.
I nursed my single malt, as I tried to stay inconspicuous. I simply could not get into it with this man. Our ideologies were so far removed from one another, it was as though we belonged to two different planets. So, I let him wax eloquent on the subject of politics and power play, as he saw it. Mentally, I bracketed him a fool and an ignoramus.
“What do you think K?” asked Ramesh pointedly of another badass, throwaway comment of his brother in law's.
“I don’t.” I replied obliquely.
“Are you too high and mighty to get involved in the discussion Mr. Bhushan?” a mightily sozzled Sunil raised himself up and staggered towards me. “The mountain is coming to Mohammad…. Tell me, doesn't that column of yours talk about the sectarian violence the last political party instigated?”
“Yes.” I answered calmly.
“Then don't you agree with what our party wants? Parity for all? Justice for all?”
“I agree with the principles, yes.”
“Good man! I knew we would see eye to eye. Get him another drink!” He enveloped me in a bear hug, reeking of alcohol, staleness and some expensive aftershave. “I need to go pee.”
I silently congratulated myself for ducking that one. I went outside for a smoke. Soda followed shortly after.
“You don't like him.”
I smiled and inhaled the smoke deeply.
“I don't like most people. Don't take it personally.”
“Hmmm,” she paused for a moment, looking at me intently, “I've written something I'd like you to see. If you don't mind.”
“Soda, I don't do poetry. I've told you before. I couldn't critique it, if my life depended on it.”
“But it doesn't! All I'm asking for is a bit of feedback.”
“Couldn't you just post it on Facebook or something? Isn't there an audience for that sort of thing?”
“K, why must you always be so unyielding?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but a shriek from the living room cut me short.
The AK-47 lay on the coffee table, as incongruous as a swan in a battlefield.
People milled around it, as though a celebrity had just been spotted. Some leaned forward to touch it reverently. Others admired it from a distance. The smug owner did little to disguise his delight.
“That's my Kalashnikov… my pride and joy.” Sunil stood back, swaying slightly.
“Can I touch it Mamu?” Akash asked nervously.
“NO!” I cut in and grabbed Akash by his arm, and dragged him towards his room.
“K! What are you doing?” cried Soda.
Sunil looked at me and started laughing. “Scared of guns, big guy?”
I ignored him and looked over at Ramesh. He swirled the ice in his glass, refusing to meet my eyes.
Akash struggled against my grip. I refused to relent. His gaze was vicious as I sat him on his bed and tried to explain fruitlessly.
“Akash… guns… they are bad things… they injure… they kill… You are so young… this is not for you to see...”
“Akash, go to bed!” Soda's voice was like a whiplash. “K, I think it's time for you to leave.”
The party was dispersing as I made my way out. I was nearly at my car, when she caught up with me.
“I know you think I'm an irresponsible mother, a callous one even. But you don't understand. Anything that brings a bit of joy into my son's life, I cannot, I will not deny him that.”
Her lips quivered as she looked up at me, and in that mad moment, I leaned forward and kissed her hard. She resisted at first, and then, with a desperate hunger kissed me back. Her tongue probing, seeking, finding. She pulled away just as suddenly. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. She turned and ran back home, leaving me hungry and dissatisfied.
Hungry and dissatisfied. That was my lot.