Aakash stretched his right hand languidly and reached for the packet of cigarettes on his drawer. He sat upright, propped up both his pillows behind him and rested his back on it. There were just three left in the pack. He realized that he had smoked the other seventeen cigarettes in the last seven hours. Groping for the lighter under the quilt with both hands, he smiled as he remembered how he had promised to himself the previous year that he would never smoke again. He finally …
found the lighter and lit up.
The room didn’t have much. But then, the room wasn’t too big either. The bed where Aakash sat was at the far left corner. The sheets were crumpled and had probably not seen the laundry for a few weeks. Beside the bed was a white drawer with an assortment of paper clips, thumbtacks, his wallet, an almost empty glass of water, a couple of audiotapes and a black AIWA cassette player. The floor had a dark brown carpet, which conveniently hid the dust that it had accumulated over the last couple of years. He had a pair of blue jeans and a black shirt in a pile right next to the bed. On the right side, there was a study table on which sat a computer and a rack of books. The table however was so neat with its stretched cotton tablecloth and the few pens perfectly placed in a mug, that it almost looked incongruous to the rest of the room. The room soon became hazy with the cigarette smoke as Aakash opened a window behind him.
He sat there motionless except for his right hand moving the cigarette to and from his mouth. It looked as if he was a robot performing a mechanical job-just an unkempt robot at that. A dark patch of a four-day stubble covered most of his cheeks and chin and his hair looked dirty and disheveled. Aakash had always been a thin guy but the last few days of chain smoking and skipping meals had left him thinner; almost emaciated. His eyes seemed to have sunk even more and his aquiline nose seemed to be more prominent. One would never be able to tell what a handsome man Aakash used to be. Right then, he looked sickly and rather repulsive. The T-shirt that he was wearing once used to be white but now it was brownish. It was 6:15 pm and there were horns tooting and roadside vendors clamoring to advertise their goods outside. However, Aakash was oblivious to all this noise. For the last five days, his thoughts had been fixated on Priya.
The argument that he had with his wife that fateful day ran in his mind hundreds of times as he tried to analyze how it could have ended up so badly. It had started like any petty disagreement but somehow it blew out of proportions this particular day. He recollected how he was just back from work and she was home waiting for him as usual. The day had been hectic. She took his coat off and they both sat together in a couch in the living room. Over tea, she mentioned that they hadn’t been to the movies or gone out to eat in a long time. That was true but lately, work had really been taking a heavy toll on him and every day after work he felt drained. Besides, he had not been able to save anything at all in the previous seven years of marriage. The one bedroom apartment that they lived in cost him more than half of his income and the household expenses usually left him penniless at the end of each month. Therefore he did not particularly mind not being able to go out with his wife as much because he thought it would mitigate his finances. Priya told him that she felt neglected and bored. Although Aakash knew that his wife was right, he somehow felt that her opinion was rather selfish and inopportune. Thus began a difference in perspective, and a reason for argument. In a few minutes the couple were screaming at each other and dredging up the past to make their respective points, which made it ugly. This was not entirely unprecedented but this time around somehow, both of them felt deeply offended because both ended up saying things that they would never say in their sane minds. When she was told that she was nothing but an annoying hag, she had yelled back at him telling him that she would rid herself of him and go back to her parents. He didn’t stop her. He even remembers, for a while, he thought it was ‘good riddance’. Now as the row played on his mind many times, the only fault that he could find was the rage that both of them had flown into. He still thought he had a valid point and thinking wi! th a cooler head, appreciated his wife’s opinion even more. His attempts to call Priya the next day and the day after only elicited curt replies saying that she did not want to talk with him. He always had a gut feeling that his in-laws’ did not like him too much and with this incident, he was sure that they outright resented him.
Anyway, guilt-ridden Aakash had not been to work in the last four days. He did go to work the very next day that Priya left but all he could do at work was think about the fight and his wife. He had been absolutely unproductive and some of his colleagues even asked him if he was feeling okay. He decided not to go to work the next day. Since then he had just been lying on his bed smoking and surviving on noodles. His two forays outside his house in the previous four days were to the grocery store one block away to get his subsistence- noodles and cigarettes.
Aakash just sat there after finishing his smoke. He knew that he would have a hard time sleeping tonight because he had slept for the better part of the day. He had not taken any phone calls in the last few days and he was worried that his boss at work might fire him. He had been eyeing a promotion for a while now and his boss had hinted several times that he was definitely a candidate. But right now, he really did not want to think of his job. He missed his wife. He thought about the many happy moments that he had had with his wife in the last seven years of their marriage. He recalled the fantastic times when they went to Darjeeling for their honeymoon. How beautiful she looked with her body wrapped in a red sari, her long black hair oiled and combed neatly, the twinkle of recklessness in her big black eyes and her wanton, lipsticked lips that broke into a giggle at the most mundane of things. Aakash had really liked her even though he had met her just a couple of times before getting married. He had thought that he would finally be able to get over Puja who had been his girlfriend throughout College. And surprisingly, he was successful to a large extent. Priya’s solicitous and caring nature had overwhelmed Aakash. After getting married, he had unknowingly become distant from his friends and his life had basically revolved around his work and his wife. He was not talking much to even his folks who lived in Biratnagar.
Thinking of good times, his thoughts wandered to Puja. He had not seen her in the last seven years. The last time he talked with her was when he called her to congratulate her on her wedding, almost seven years ago. She had decided to get married to a guy who was a recent engineering graduate from Pulchowk Engineering Campus. Aakash and Puja had not been able to get married after both their parents expressed disapproval, mostly because of caste reasons. Both Aakash and Puja had decided to comply with their folks after almost a month of discussions and deliberations. As unusual as it sounds, it was a peaceful decision.
He was still sitting in the same position in his bed though he was working on his last cigarette now. He wondered what Puja would be like after all these years. One of his common friends had shown him a picture of Puja taken during a family picnic. She was wearing a light blue ‘kurta surwal’ and she had a baby girl in her lap. The one-year-old girl was the only one she had, he was told. But that was almost two years ago and he wouldn’t be surprised to learn if she had another one. He knew that she lived somewhere in Baneshwor but he didn’t know exactly where. Now that her thoughts were pervading his mind, he felt a curious urge to see her. He didn’t know why. The idea was just a whim but he just could not shake it off. He weighed it in his mind for a while and decided to call his friend who knew Puja. He kept the conversation brief and objective and managed to get Puja’s phone number, address and when she would be home. He learned that she was not working these days and would usually be home during the day. Making up his mind to go to her house the next day, he finally got out of bed and lumbered to the bathroom to freshen up. After a while, he fixed himself another bowl of noodles and a cup of tea and watched TV in the living room. He watched a teleserial and later fell asleep in the couch with the remote control in his hand.
He woke up around 5:30 in the morning to the sound of Deep Shrestha on the TV. He had a slight headache and his neck was aching from the awkward sleeping position on the couch. After a long cold shower, he shaved and dressed himself in jeans, white shirt and a gray tweed coat. He looked at himself in the mirror and thought he looked much better now but his eyes still had those dark lines and the coat felt like it was big for him. He made some tea and sunk in the couch again to watch TV. People were singing ‘bhajans’ on TV but he couldn’t care less. His mind was preoccupied with the prospective encounter.
By the time he left, it was tenish. He walked out of the house and into the teeming streets of Asan. The sun was warm and the air was filled with a cacophony of motorcycle and car horns. It felt nice for him to be able to escape the cluttered and gloomy confinement of his house. Walking along, he debated if he should take a taxi or the cheaper ‘Bikram Tampo’. He settled for a taxi when he saw one coming towards him and he flagged it. It took him almost twenty minutes for him to get to Baneshwor. Along the way, he tried to think of the things he would talk about with Puja. He felt a sense of apprehension that maybe she would act indifferently or maybe she would outright decline his proposal for the meeting. He asked the driver to stop at a store about a hundred feet away from Puja’s house. He went to the store and used the phone to call Puja. Puja answered the phone. Aakash was a little nervous when he heard Puja’s soft voice go “Hello” on the telephone.
“Hi Puja, it’s me, Aakash”
There was silence at the other end….
“Oh, what a pleasant surprise! How did you remember me today?”
“I always remember good friends”, he lied.” I was in Baneshwor and I thought I’d drop in to say hello if you were home”
“Umm okay, that’d be good.”
The hesitation in her voice was evident but Aakash went ahead and asked for directions anyway. Although he knew exactly which house it was, he pretended that he didn’t in order to make his story credible. He told her that he would be there in ten minutes before he hung up.
He knew he could reach the house within a minute so he paid the shopkeeper and made small talk with him about the weather and the recent bus accident in the Mahendra Highway, which had killed all thirty-five of the passengers. After checking his watch to make sure that ten minutes had passed, he sauntered towards Puja’s house.
The house was a white, one-storied building and did not look at all fancy; contrary to Aakash’s earlier imaginations. The first thing he noticed as he entered the gate was that most of the plants in the flowerpots were wizened up. There might have been around fifteen of them and not one of them had flowers on them. He remembered what someone had told him- that withered up flowers portend bad luck for the family. It was his grandmother who had told him about this superstition. He walked up to the house as he tried to banish such thoughts from his mind. When he reached the front door to the house, he ran his fingers through his hair just to make sure that they were in place and took a deep breath. He rang the doorbell and waited with nervous anticipation. However, the door didn’t open for quite a while. He heard some noise from within the house of what seemed like a table being dragged on the floor. About two minutes passed but there was no response. Then Aakash caught a glimpse of Puja through a small opening in the curtains of one of the windows. She held her baby in her left arm and was frantically changing the sheets on a bed.
A few moments later, Puja appeared at the door. She smiled and Aakash right away noticed that she had a bruise on her left cheek. Perhaps because of the bruise, Aakash did not find her to be particularly pretty. He had always thought Puja was much prettier than his wife but now it appeared to him that a baby and seven years of marriage later, she did not look half as beautiful as she used to. She was wearing a green sari with a gray shawl on top of it and was carrying her baby in her hands. However, she was the same polite and accommodating girl that she used to be, he thought. He went in and took off his coat. She took his coat and asked him to seat on the bed, which had fresh sheets while she took the coat. She returned soon and seated herself on a cushion facing him.
“How old is she?” he asked, trying to break the uneasy silence.
“She’ll be three this September” she said, “How many kids do you have?”
“None so far” he said and smiled. “And your girl is really cute.” He remarked, just because he realized that that’s what he was supposed to say.
“What’s her name?” he inquired.
“That’s a cute name; a cute name for a cute baby.” again he said it without really meaning it.
The bruise on her face was really bothering him and he was dying to ask her what had happened but he put it off with patience.
“So how is your umm?”
“Oh, he’s fine” she replied. “He’s at work.”
“What do you do these days?” he asked.
“Well I’ve just been staying home with the baby”. She said. “How about you?”
“I’m still working for the publishing company”
“She is a housewife for now…she is trying to find a job in one of the banks”
He felt like he had exhausted all topics of conversation and was searching for a good question to talk further. They both smiled at each other and unwittingly acknowledged the awkwardness of the situation. Impulsively, he folded his right leg over his left and put both his hands together. Then as if on cue, Puja got herself up and said she’d fix some tea for him. He mumbled some mild words of resistance but Puja went anyway.
Aakash actually felt thankful that she left because he was having a hard time looking for a suitable topic to talk about. The worst part, he felt, was that he did not have any objective to this visit. He looked around and studied the room. The table and the TV at Aakash’s left seemed to be collecting dust. Framed photographs on either side flanked the TV. One was of Puja’s wedding and the other was probably taken at the zoo. Both the pictures were of the couple. He noticed that she indeed looked more fetching when she got married. For a brief moment, he imagined what it would be like if he had married Puja. Puja’s husband did not look too handsome, he thought. The room surely did not paint a very prosperous picture of Puja’s family. Then he picked up a copy of ‘Gorkhapatra’ that was lying on the bed and started reading.
Puja appeared in the room after a while with her daughter in one arm and a cup of tea on a steel plate on the other. The way she was holding her baby and the cup of tea at the same time made Aakash uneasy so he walked up to her and took the cup lest the cup should fall, or heaven forbid, the baby should get hurt. He asked her why she was not having tea with him and she said she had a cup just a while ago. She settled down with her baby on the cushion on the floor.
Sipping on his tea, Aakash finally asked what he wanted to ask as soon as she had seen her, “How did you get that bruise on your face?”
‘Oh it’s nothing” she said and she looked to the floor. “I slipped in the kitchen yesterday.” She added. Her voice was meek and very unconvincing. He could make out that she was lying but he kept it to himself and wondered what could have happened. They continued talking. They talked about how much fun they had together in College. How they would talk endlessly on the phone and how they had promised each other that they would always stick with each other. They laughed at their own naivete. She reminded him how they had once gone to ‘Dakshinkali temple’ one Saturday morning and how Aakash proposed getting married right there and eloping. Puja’s senses had prevailed over Aakash’s whim then. All this talk made Aakash very nostalgic. He felt poignant and somewhat cheerful. He was enjoying the conversation very much nonetheless.
They reminisced and talked and for a while Aakash completely forgot about his estranged wife but the bruise on Puja’s face kept nagging him. He really wanted to know what actually happened to her. He finally got the answer when Puja, too carried away in laughter, tried to put the baby on the bed. Her shawl slipped a bit and Aakash could see red marks around her neck and on her arms. It looked like Puja had been hit by something like a rope or a belt. She covered herself up quickly. Another uneasy silence! Aakash surmised or knew rather, that Puja’s husband was abusing her. He just kept quiet looking for the right thing to say. To see the bruises all over her body hurt him very much. After what seemed like a long time, Puja finally confessed that her husband had alcohol problems and that he sometimes physically abused her in his drunken stupor. Her face was surprisingly stolid as if she was inured to the experience. She also said that her husband’s consultancy service was not doing too well mostly because of his dereliction at work. Aakash felt a terrible urge to hold Puja but refrained himself from doing so. He just did not know what the proper gesture would be. He mumbled a ‘sorry’ and bowed his head low like if in submission. He told her that she should definitely confront her husband and not take the injustice in resignation, like she seemed to be doing. She just nodded her head.
This revelation made Aakash feel restless, angry and sad, all at the same time. He deeply sympathized with Puja who was looking at her baby in her lap, who in turn seemed to be sleeping. Something inside Aakash prodded him to confide his recent crisis with Puja. Somehow, it felt like a natural thing to do. It seemed like his confession would alleviate her pain and would lighten his heart too. Hence he began pouring out his heart. He maintained a low, pathetic voice as he told her about the recent altercation with his wife. He told her how she declined to take his phone calls and how he had been languishing in his bedroom for the last few days. He also went on to say how he was hoping that his financial conditions would improve if he was promoted at work and now with his demonstrated negligence, he would be lucky if he weren’t fired. Puja listened to his stories with the same impassive bow of her head. She didn’t move nor did she speak a word. Aakash felt like he was talking to the wall but he felt much lighter after he was done with his outpourings. He sat there looking at her in silence for a while after which she slowly got up and walked towards him. She laid the baby on the bed and sat next to Aakash. She took his right hand in hers and when she looked up Aakash saw that her eyes had welled up and a couple of teardrops were streaming down both of her cheeks. To him, she looked extraordinarily beautiful at this moment. He kept on looking at her face. He could not put a finger at his feelings at this point. It made him wonder how much he still liked Puja. Her submission just made her look beautiful and very attractive. Absolutely overcome with emotions, he felt like letting Puja know that he still loved her but he kept it to himself. For a few minutes, the two of them held hands as Puja silently cried. He did not try to stop her from crying. They did not speak. Finally, Aakash sighed and mumbled that he should make his way. Puja gently slipped her hand from his and took the empty cup away.
As soon as Puja left, Aakash dug into the back pocket of his pants and took out his wallet. He always carried a one thousand rupee note in the small pocket of his wallet in case of an emergency. He took it out unfolded it and slid it below the pillow and the sheets of the bed. He then rose and straightened out his pants. The baby was sleeping peacefully in the bed. He couldn’t believe that it was almost two thirty in the afternoon. A few moments later, Puja came out with his coat and handed it to him. He noticed that she had washed her face and she was smiling. He smiled back at her and put his coat on. He told her that he had a great time meeting up with her after so long and she told him that she had a good time too. He took her hands into his once again and looked at her one final time. Both promised each other that they would try to keep in touch and somehow both knew that they would not.
Aakash felt that it was pretty warm outside. The first thing that occurred to his mind was what his wife would think if she came to learn about this meeting. He thought she would be really upset and decided that he would never tell her. Suddenly, he felt much more confident and optimistic. He knew that Puja’s problems indirectly came as a consolation to him and he hoped that his served the same purpose to her. He felt a sense of glee, even victory that he came of some use to her; that Puja would be really thankful to him when she discovered the money under the pillow. That she might even cry thinking of him once more. Maybe it was the feeling of being wanted and needed that was doing this to him, or maybe it was just the diversion from the drab and depressing times that his life had become in the last few days. Whatever it was, Aakash was happy. He did not want to think about his wife and his grim job prospects right now. He wanted to bask and savor this feeling of joy because he knew that it would not last too long.
Walking along, he came to the store that he had visited that morning to call Puja. He went up to the shopkeeper and asked for a pack of cigarettes. While the shopkeeper was getting him the cigarettes, he put his hands inside his coat pockets and he felt something in his left pocket. He took it out and there in his hand were six hundred and fifty rupees neatly folded together. He just stared at the money and a smile involuntarily escaped his lips. He was woken up from his momentary trance when the shopkeeper asked him if everything was okay. He said he was fine, paid for the cigarettes, lit one up, and started walking.