Saturday, August 9, 2014

Friends Indeed

The four boys swore eternal friendship. "In good and bad times," they affirmed. With a knife, they slicked the thumb and drew blood. They picked up the four sheets of paper they had thoughtfully brought with them and wrote - 'in good and bad times'. The blood was not enough but it was the thought that counted. They looked at each other solemnly, overwhelmed by the solemnity of the promise.

At 12, the boys knew what the promise meant. They may not have money or luxuries, but they had each other. That was not to be dismissed lightly, each one knew that when he looked at the other three.

Nothing was small or big to share. Be it chocolates, juice or sweet, they made sure the others got a share. If one was compelled to partake of something without the rest, he would secretly pilfer an equivalent to atone for the mishap. The friendship was their faith, and there was no crime big enough to commit if their friendship was at stake.

The bond deepened. They repeated the ritual every anniversary. It seemed more than a ritual. It was the purpose of their life. One got the mobile, another the prepaid card, and the third and the fourth charged it in their homes taking turns. If two fought, the other two mediated. There was never any situation where there was any possibility of a break up.

Waah, the villagers wondered at the friendship. But they were also wary. United, they were strong. And their strength made them overconfident. If anyone questioned even one of them, he had to face all four. They were four bodies, one soul. They were four hearts with one mind. They were Brahma, with four faces but one brain.

Teenagers now, one question slowly raised its head. What would happen if one of them got a girlfriend or married? They laughed and joked. They didn't think one day one of them would succeed in beating the others in getting a girl to be their special friend. Was he a traitor? They watched him, the strain telling on their friendship. Did he spend more time with her? What did he do behind that tall tree, or hidden behind the bush?

He grinned and shared every small bit of his conversation with his 14-year-old 'girlfriend', but it all seemed so silly. Was he having them on? Was he betraying them? Were the girl and he making fun of them?

The mood was turning grim. It was like having a known traitor in their midst. And yet, without him they were nothing.

He was nothing too without them. He squirmed, wanting to prove his loyalty but unable to convince them, try as he did.

And then, his casual conversation took a serious turn. The girl and he, betrayed by their youthful bodies, the romantic dusk and the total privacy of the fields, went beyond mere words. He felt one with the universe as the two bodies united. What bliss!

He lay back, the girl on the crook of his arm, staring at the sky. Suddenly, he knew how to regain his friends' trust. He promised them heaven. When he lured the girl into the fields the next evening, she came trustingly, believing in the power of their love. She was hardly prepared to be the oblation he offered on the altar of their friendship. She lay whimpering, forgotten in a corner after each had tasted the promised heaven.

The four friends embraced, their friendship intact. In good and bad times, that had been their promise.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Project Status

Alka felt bored. She was in no mood for a movie, she didn't read books and her friends were all busy with various things. She called her husband Atul. "Come home early, na?" she pleaded with him sweetly.

Atul sounded impatient as usual. "You know I have a dinner meeting with some clients from abroad," he said.

Sighing, she cut the call and called the beautician one of her friends had recommended. "Can you come today? It is urgent,"  she lied easily. The lady agreed but quoted a price higher than what she normally charged, which was in itself higher than the parlour rates. That was the premium she would have to pay if she needed the service at her home, and at her convenience. Right now, it was an emergency - she was dying of boredom.

Three hours later, and a few thousand rupees lighter, Alka found herself back in the lap of boredom. Her teenager children had classes and did not need her to chaperone them. Her 47 year old husband had a career that did not brook interference from his wife. Alka's diversion came from her friends, who seemed to have conspired and left her in the lurch!

Reluctantly, she decided to go window shopping. But used to light-hearted gossiping with her friends, she felt rudderless as she peered through shop windows. She entered a shop, thinking she would look at clothes more closely. She kept a purple top against herself and peered into the mirror, undecided. She realised someone was shaking his head and glanced up, her eyes meeting those of the stranger in the mirror. She hurriedly put it away, glanced furtively at him and picked up a pink top. This time, he looked at her more openly though she herself felt shy to meet his eyes. His glance suggested this one didn't meet his approval either. He looked around and his glance fell on a rich green top. She walked across, feeling like a fool, but glad of this distraction. She kept it against herself and smiled. She nodded, went to the trial room to try it on properly and was elated - not just at the choice but this little interlude to her otherwise boring day.

She came out, paid the bill and saw the man leave with a package of his own. "Thanks," she called out. He turned and she realised that he was quite attractive. Though slightly filled out, his features still suggested a certain aquiline quality that appealed to her. She invited him to coffee at the cafe in the centre court of the shop. It was an impulsive gesture and she was pleasantly surprised at the way their conversation flowed easily. Ritvik - that was his name - was an artist, new to the city but planning to settle down here. She felt like a hostess and waxed eloquent about the places he should visit. Soon she was offering to chauffeur him to some choice places. He, in turn, promised to show her his works.

It should have ended with those empty promises. But social life no longer sustained her interest. She called him one day, unable to dismiss thoughts of him any longer. He had still not seen the sights the city offered, he told her in a tone that suggested that he had been waiting for her to do the honour. Flattered, and finding a new purpose, she drove him around the city. Over lunch and dinner, she became drawn to the fire in his belly to change the world. She had needed just this spark to rekindle her life. She adopted his causes; his interests became hers. She had something to look forward to. She found his dependence on her charming. She felt needed after a long time.

When he invited her to visit his studio-cum-residence, she went eagerly. She had no understanding of art, and his art left her confused. But his conviction about the subjects was enough for her. She clicked pictures of his works and mailed them to her friends, recommending them to buy them. She herself bought one piece that she thought she could hang in her house without feeling embarrassed. When Atul laughed at her purchase, she snapped at him angrily, "What do you know about art?"

He shrugged and buried his face in his laptop. He showed her a review of Ritvik's works - it had been ripped apart, especially the one she had bought paying nearly a fortune. She pursed her lips, resenting his chuckle. "Must be a novice writing," she replied defensively.

He laughed outright. "And you are the expert?" She did not deign him with a reply. "Looks like a good-looking chap," Atul continued. "Young, handsome, artist... Quite a potential firecracker combination. He is single?"

"How should I know?" she demanded. She hadn't really cared that much, but now she couldn't rest till she had the answer. Ritvik went still when she asked him that. "I am sorry," she said, instinct telling her she had touched a raw nerve. His break up story was quite tragic - rich girl, struggling artist, opposing family. "Oh, the poor boy," she thought sympathetically. He was not a boy, she guessed he was almost her age. But to know of the way he suffered and hid his feelings really touched her. She spent more and more time with Ritvik. He seemed to be grateful of her small gestures that were aimed to soothe him.

The more time she spent with Ritvik, the less did the life with Atul appeal to her. She watched her husband, comparing him to Ritvik. Less than five years separated the two men, but they belonged to different generations. Ritvik still had life in him, whereas Atul was fading. She felt drawn more and more to the artist and his unstructured life. She made excuses to be out with him, keeping away from the boring monotony of her domestic life.

Soon, it was not just dinner or lunch, that Ritvik and Alka shared but the bed too. It all seemed so  natural, and yet, when she really thought about it, it wasn't. That is what made it so special. Atul hardly seemed to care about her whereabouts. She wished he would find out about her affair. She wanted to shake him out of his smugness. Sometimes, she wanted to confess to Atul her indiscretion and get into a fight with him. She broke down at times, thinking back to the days when small fights would lead to making up and making love. Now, they just froze each other out.

When he returned from his trip, she chose a convenient moment to corner him and blurted out the truth. If she hoped for him to plead with her and renew their relationship, she was in for a shock. He served her divorce notice, used her admission of the affair to wrest custody of his children and left her penniless.

Thoroughly humiliated, she cut off from her friends - or did they cut her off? Defeated, she turned to Ritivik. He had packed off without a word. "He had taken the house only for a few months. He came looking to make a fortune, and he said he had," the neighbour informed her. "His friend Atul seems to have paid him for some project he undertook."

Alka felt her world slipping away. Within months she heard that Atul was getting married to a woman he had been dating for a couple of years behind her back. Alka realised she had been that project. That Atul had used her to get the divorce, keep the money and the children. And to think she had thought him blind! It was she who had been asleep with her eyes open!

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