Friday, February 22, 2013

Friday Fiction: The Redemption Of Ahalya


He walked the dark, smelly lane leading to the rundown building in a manner that more than gave away his familiarity with it. He did this every week. But where it should have become habit and taken a place below the stream of conscious thought, he had been thinking about it more and not less. Where it should have become part of routine, it was beginning to stand out in stark contrast to it. Sometimes it was the only reason he lived through the week at all. To walk this walk to the rundown building No. 53 on Bhikaji Cama lane. 

He entered the small landing on the ground floor and started climbing to the fourth floor. A few men sat on the steps outside doing nothing in particular but no one asked him any questions. They knew he would go to room No. 8, just like every week, come out at the end of two hours and walk out just as habitually as he had walked in, into the darkness that swallowed almost all those who visited No. 53 every day. No one dared to stay till dawn. 

Today he didn’t enter room No. 8 without first waiting outside a few seconds, almost hesitant. He looked around and saw some women standing at the doors of their rooms in the dingy corridor. They stared at him nonchalantly. He felt uncomfortable. He had never seen their faces before. Never known their names. Was he even supposed to? Was anyone really? Did it even matter that they had names? Or what those names meant? Who gave them these names? He himself had started by only asking for the room number. And soon they had even stopped asking. He wiped the back of his neck once though he wasn’t sweating, something he unconsciously did when he was nervous. And then he stared inside room No. 8 for a second before stepping in.

“You’ve sprayed perfume today.” She stated more than asked. 
“Well, I…I just felt like it. Do you like it?” He shifted his weight from the left leg to the right.
“That’s nice…you felt like it. It’s just that you’ve never sprayed perfume before. Why you would need to while coming here anyway?” She almost shrugged her shoulders.

Before he could say anything to make her feel nice she had reached the cot and sat down like she did every time, waiting for him to come over. It was hard to tell what she was feeling, if she was feeling anything at all. What did she feel, staying in this place day in and day out and just watching one man being replaced by another, one after the other inside room No. 8? The hangings on the wall never changed. The cot remained the same. Did the sheets change even? He had never bothered noticing the sheets before today, not even the first time. He had been too nervous. Not nervous like today though. 

And she remained the same. Dispassionate, distant. Available but unreachable. She hardly ever said anything but she always listened. He didn’t remember when he had started talking to her though. Maybe one of those bad days at work. Who else could he have talked to, the lonely existence that he led? And then it had become a regular feature of his visits. In fact, sometimes he just talked and did nothing else. 

She didn’t seem to mind. The rates didn’t change anyway. Sometimes she asked questions about what he was saying, as if she were genuinely interested in knowing what lives people outside building No. 53 led. But there was never a hint of longing to go out and experience those lives. Her acceptance seemed complete. Even of things he said. She never seemed to doubt the truth in them. But every time he had tried to ask her any questions about her life, she would only say one thing, “You should drink some water, you have been talking for too long.” And then she would get up and fetch a glass of water, breaking his stream of thought, their stream of one-way conversation, that connection. And then they would go back into bed or he would go back to his house.

Today he remained standing even as she sat on the cot; he stared at her intently. He looked at her face as she looked out the window, and he saw how her jaw line somehow seemed hardened on purpose. As if she were preparing to detach herself from what was to happen next. Shouldn’t it be easy now, for that detachment to come? After so many…but he didn’t know how many…years? Months? He hadn’t been able to find out in the last seven months. Suddenly she looked at him and broke his stream of thought, again, “So are we going to talk today?”

“What do you mean ‘we’ are going to talk? It’s only I who talk, you never do.” He was surprised at his own ability to say something like that but almost relieved at this turn of events. Her excuse for fetching water wouldn’t work now. He had only just arrived.
“It’s best we keep it that way.” She stated calmly and looked at the window again.
“Best for what? Best for whom?”
“For both of us.”
“But I’d like to know you.” He almost implored.
“You do know that people don’t come here to get to know each other.”She didn’t even look at him this time.
“Be that as it may, is it wrong if someone wants to know you?”
“What do you think?” She passed the ball right back.
“If you are going to stay here forever then maybe yes.”
“I do not see a reason why I wouldn’t.”
Whether it was the stream of conversation or a sudden newfound courage, he was only glad for that moment when he said, “You won’t because I’d like to marry you.”

Even before she could react he felt his legs go weak himself and sat down on the floor right where he was standing. He was staring at the ground like he had done something wrong. Even if he had found the courage to say what he had come to say, he did not have the courage to see what effect it had had on her. She would very likely be enraged at this outrageous idea. Did he even know what he was talking about? He did and he wanted her to somehow know that. But the words escaped him. He wanted to say so much to her but where could he begin? In the last seven months, she had come to mean so much to him. She was the only woman he had been with in all this time, ever in fact, and to him it didn’t matter that she had been with other men. He had come to love her in a way he couldn’t even begin to explain. He wanted to give her quiet dignity its rightful place in the world. He didn’t know her story and how she had managed to stay sane after so many…but how many…years? Months? But he wanted to give her a home beyond No. 53 and he wanted to have a home himself. A place where he could come home to her and have the same conversation they had every week but without having to leave at the end of two hours. Yes it did sound a little outrageous, come to think of it. And now that he had used up all his courage to utter the one thing he wanted to, he didn’t have the courage to see rage in those eyes that had never betrayed any emotion all these days. He didn’t want it to be his last memory of them.

But then he heard her sob and looked up at the cot. He couldn’t see her face; she had buried it in her hands but she was sobbing violently, her body shaking now. It was still impossible to tell what she was feeling, even if her cold exterior had broken down. And he continued sitting there and looking at her, too weak with the anticipation of what was to come to be able to get up and comfort her. After what seemed like forever, he managed to stand up and she looked at him. Her eyes still seemed blank and so did his, maybe the confusion had wiped away any traces of what they really felt about it all. It was a good blank slate to start a new beginning with. 

He walked up to her and helped her stand up, clumsily wiping her face. She then bent down to touch his feet, no more a commodity but a woman who was loved by a man. For all those years…but how many…she had forgotten…of burying the part of her that was human and being treated like an object that belonged in someone’s fantasy, one sentence had changed her life and brought meaning to all that transpired in the last seven months between her and him. It was like waking from deep slumber, a bad dream, and remembering what it felt like to really feel an emotion, one that washed one’s existence pure of everything else that had ever happened…love. It would be a difficult journey to begin but that one sentence was enough to help her fight on. 

He did not know what would happen next and how she could even be released from No. 53. There were many questions hanging in the air and he didn’t know where to begin but he thought a good place to start would be by embracing her – his love, his life – and asking the first: “What is your name?”