~ Aasma M N
In all her thirty-nine years of life, Shalini Sen had never quite acquired a taste for jewellery—with the exception of her wedding day almost fifteen years ago, she wore no bangles, no earrings, no anklets, not even a speck of a nose-ring. The only element of shringar on her body was a bright red bindi in the middle of her thick eyebrows. She was a rather plain woman by standards: a pair of black olives, seated in the sockets of an oblong face that shone bright in the Mumbai heat; thin, unsmiling lips in the shadow of a small button nose; dark choppy waves lapping the rounded shore of her shoulders. There was a mysterious air about her, an allure in the way she spoke without speaking—every movement so deliberate, so delicate, as though she would fall apart with the slightest exertion.
This morning, like every other morning, Shalini leaned slightly over the bathroom sink, observing her reflection in the cracked mirror as she carefully applied the round velvety sticker onto her skin. Paying no heed to the flickering light bulb overhead, she grabbed a shapeless hair tie off the plastic soap tray and wound her hair into a tight bun, making sure to pluck visible silver strands out of her scalp. Draping a white dupatta over her purple kurta, she walked out of the bathroom, just in time to turn off the boiling milk on the stove. She made her father some coffee in a steel tumbler and placed it before his newspaper-hidden form.
“I’m leaving for work,” she murmured, reaching for her lunch and a cloth bag filled with her client notes.
“So have you thought—”
“I’m leaving,” she said curtly and strode out of their little Borivli flat.
Sanjeev Sen’s face fell as he watched his daughter disappear down the stairs. He had told her about a boy called Satyajit last night, during dinner; he was of similar age, a Bengali too, well-mannered, worked in a call centre, did not smoke or drink—he would take good care of her, they would lead a happy life. But Shalini’s face had soured at this proposal, as it had done for every other proposal before. She left her half-eaten plate of pulao and shut herself in her room. Sanjeev was expecting her to behave like this, so it didn’t prick his heart too much. He drained the last drop of coffee, picked up the brown envelope with all her details and folded his hands in front of his wife’s garlanded photo on the wall. Only she could give him any hope today, apart from Satyajit.
The travel agency Shalini worked in was an hour-long train ride from her father’s Railway Pensioners’ quarters. Long, tiring commutes were never her cup of tea, but she tried to keep herself entertained daily by counting the number of people wearing a particular colour. Yesterday it was green, maroon the day before, and today, blue. She spotted three women in the front seats wearing sarees of varying shades of blue. One young lady had matching glass bangles too. The train halted with a hiss and a sigh at the next stop. One of the new passengers was a man in a light blue shirt. Shalini’s eyes lingered on his face as he tried to get past others standing in the way. She thought she recognised him. Their eyes briefly met, and Shalini immediately looked outside the window, heart thudding nervously. Ganesh, she thought. Yes, that’s his name. Her father had shown her his photo two months ago, even forced her to speak to him over the phone. He’d done all the asking—as though conducting some interview—and she’d replied monosyllabically on purpose. Her father was not very happy about that. Fortunately, the alliance proved unsuccessful, and things were back to normal again.
Ganesh was not the first and would not be the last of her rejected bridegrooms. After the collapse of her mere two-day marriage, Shalini had receded into a corner like a widow, vowing to never marry again. Par baba ko kaun samjhayega? she had asked herself countless times. She had repeated herself over and over to him, often drenched in hot tears of frustration, but her father was relentless; all he wanted to do was get her settled before it was his time to meet her mother. She had no energy left to argue with him anymore; silent treatment was her only best friend during such times. What of my wishes, baba? My happiness? Do they not matter to you? Do I not matter to you? Shalini could sense the beginnings of a headache. She closed her eyes and leaned against the window frame. The throbbing in her temples began to sync with the rhythmic lull of the train…Sat-ya-jit, Sat-ya-jit, Sat-ya-jit…
Holiday season like now meant Shalini's schedule was choc-a-bloc, and she was expected to work extra hours. Sometimes she was grateful for the stress it generated; it took her mind off the problems constantly brewing in her life. She liked to think everyone around her was also working to find solace—the ayahs cleaning the toilets and wiping the tabletops, perhaps they were taking a break from counting the number of people they were indebted to this month. Maybe the old peon bringing chai for her boss was just trying to satiate his unbearable loneliness by chatting animatedly with the staff. Whatever their reasons, it gave her comfort that she was not alone.
That evening, Shalini returned home a little later than usual. When she got to her floor, she was surprised to find the flat's windows pitch dark and the door firmly locked. Her father was clearly not at home. Worried, she squinted at her tiny watch in the dim orange illumination offered by the street light. 8:10. Shalini hastily unlocked the door and turned on the lights inside, scrambling to find a note or anything he may have left her to figure out where he was at this hour. All kinds of unpleasant thoughts filled her brain as she rummaged in the mess of dishes, threadbare tea towels, brooms, clothes and newspapers. What if he lost his way in the dark? Did he collapse somewhere? Is he in the hospital, hooked up to an IV, doctors poring over his limp body? Shalini’s eyes began swimming with tears. If only she had not been so angry with him that morning…he wouldn’t have got himself in harm’s way…he was her baba after all…
“Arre, what happened Shalini beta?”
Shalini swivelled around. “Baba,” she whispered at the silhouette in the doorway, a deluge of relief and tears taking over her face. She ran and hugged his frail frame.
Sanjeev was confused and pleased at the same time. It had been so long since his daughter had embraced him like this. He felt as though the more-than-a-decade-long tension between them regarding her marriage had melted away for a few magical minutes. He stroked her coarse hair, muttering something softly until her sobs subsided into silence. She pulled away, drying her wet cheeks and shifted her gaze to the floor. Too embarrassed to give an explanation for her sudden outburst, she tugged nervously at the hem of her kurta and started to put everything back in order.
Sanjeev sat down on the hard sofa, silently watching her move about the flat. “I…I went to meet Satyajit today,” he said very cautiously after a while. “Remember Satyajit?”
Shalini stalled for a moment, then nodded in reply.
Motivated by her positive reaction, he continued, “He is quite happy with this alliance, I think. Very polite fellow too. I have arranged to meet with him tomorrow in Satkar Hotel outside Churchgate. Isn’t that great?”
She didn’t know what to say, so turned to continue rebuilding a collapsed tower of shirts on the edge of the cot.
“You must come, beta, meet him at least once. He is a good man…I know you will like him very much. Just bear with me once, hm? Theek hai na?” he added softly, somehow trying to gauge her reaction by staring at her back.
“I have to check my schedule…” she murmured.
“No problem, no problem. I have said six p.m. only. You will be home by then.”
Shalini opened her mouth to offer another excuse but no sound came out. Instead, she grabbed a few soiled dupattas, and a packet of Tide from under the cot. “I’m going up to the terrace…I have to wash these.”
Sanjeev blinked. “At this hour?”
“Yes.” She padded up to the door, hiding her face in the fabric’s folds. “I need to.”
“Oh, alright…I shall go have my bath then. Don’t take too long.”
The terrace was deserted when Shalini went. Only one light bulb hung precariously over the tap in the parapet wall. She opened it with a squeak, filling the small tub beneath it with water. As she waited, she gazed at the city’s lights, winking at her from faraway high-rise buildings and houses made of glass. ‘He is a good man’…how does he know what a good man is like? they seemed to be asking her. Married you off to a cheat, a sadist…
The water was overflowing. Shalini’s fingers fumbled with the rusty knob for several seconds until it finally agreed to close. She squatted, slowly dipping the dupattas in the tub, and after they were thoroughly soaked, wringed them out on the dull white cement. She repeated the process, but the next time with detergent. Was this boring chore going to feel the same after meeting Satyajit? Would he charm her by pulling out a chair for her at the table? Would he still do it if they were married? Would he even see in her a woman worth marrying? So you are going to go. Shalini scowled at the street light. She snapped the wrung-out cloths in the wind, a hundred little droplets raining on her face. The scowl turned into a stupid smile. This was something she loved doing as a little girl, often with her friends from next door; they had given it a nickname too: chhoti baarish. The memory of that long-forgotten moment glimmered like a pearl in her eyes, outshining the bright neon sign of a hotel in the distance. The Tide smelled stronger than ever.
On her way downstairs, Shalini began humming a tune. She didn’t know the name of the song, its words or which film it was from; she had only heard someone whistle it next to her on the train some day. She remembered how it had sounded so happy as the notes danced on the stranger’s lips. She wanted to try and feel that too. The melody stayed on her tongue even as she stood watching the puris sizzle away in the pan.
The next morning, Sanjeev woke up late. He regretted the extra puris he had eaten for dinner; a full belly always put him into deep sleep. Grumbling, he pulled on a pair of pants and a pale green shirt, walking towards the hall before immediately doing an about-turn to get his spectacles. He hobbled back into the hall, adjusting them on the bridge of his nose, and was just about to call for Shalini when he realised that she must have already left for work. Sanjeev sighed and ran a hand through his thin white hair; the day was already off to an undesirable start. Everything needed to be double- and triple-checked beforehand to ensure today’s meeting with Satyajit went smoothly. The clock next to his wife’s photo seemed to be ticking louder than usual. 11:20. There was little time to lose.
Sanjeev retrieved an old black diary from a shelf, flipping its pages until he found Shalini’s office number scribbled inside the margin. He took the diary with him to the tiny CD shop downstairs, and dialled the number on the owner’s telephone.
“Hello, New Bombay Travel Agency.” a gravelly male voice answered.
“Yes, hello. Is Shalini there? Shalini Sen? I want to speak to her.”
“Shalini…no, she has already left sir.”
“Would you like to know about our special package—”
Sanjeev dropped the receiver and some random change onto the counter, momentarily stunning the shopkeeper and the rest of the customers. He scrambled from this alley to that, with no real sense of where he was going. He could feel the minutes slip through his fingers as they clutched the diary in a sweaty grip. Satyajit would soon be coming to Satkar Hotel. He somehow had to find his daughter by then. But Mumbai was so big—where was he supposed to go?
Shalini peered through the bars in the window. As she held onto the handle above, she caught glimpses of the Churchgate station sign. It kept appearing and disappearing like a sort of mirage, thanks to the scores of people walking past it. She imagined Satyajit to be one of them; perhaps he was already standing there, looking at his watch or adjusting his hair in the glass of the ticket counter. She had never seen or known him before, but was gradually painting a vivid portrait of him in her mind. A shot of unthinking confidence coursed through her veins, but the ground beneath her had already resumed its rocking motion. The sign was moving away from her—inch by inch, then all of a sudden. Shalini closed her eyes and sighed. Sorry baba, not today.