She knocked on my door on that rainy night. It was just past the midnight hour and the incessant rains lashed the window panes mercilessly. The wind howled in agony. It was one of those nights when I craved to drown a bottle of Scotch and lose myself to blissful oblivion rather than tempt the anguish causing havoc in my mind. She could have gone anywhere in this huge, crowded city. There are a million places to lose yourself if you want to. Yet she knocked on my door.
I was surprised, well not really. The rains always create a strange backdrop, where time flows at a subdued pace. It unearths forgotten thoughts and kindles latent desires and gives them an illusion of romance. Against that backdrop, something unexpected seems the most natural thing in the world.
She stood at my door, drenched, sari clinging to her slender frame, drops of water dripping from her long, dark hair, her lips glistening, highlighting the seductive appeal of her chiselled face. She was Nandini, my best friend’s wife.
Pritesh and I were childhood buddies. We both hailed from the same city of Ahmedabad and shared the same school and same memories. At one time, we dated the same girl and were simultaneously rejected by her. Professional aspirations brought me to Mumbai where I slowly built my business from scratch, married the girl my parents had chosen and lived a respectable and monotonous life. My wife Toral is a pretty woman with all the homely virtues of making the perfect pickle, mending the torn buttons of my shirt without being told, and keeping our humble abode clean and tidy with rare zeal. She is easy to please; a trip to the jeweller often achieves the result. She laughs and cries over silly soaps in the television and is absolutely unaware and unenthusiastic about anything beyond the cocoon she lives in.
Pritesh, on the other hand, went to USA to pursue his dream of becoming a neurologist and after completing his MD from a reputed university, he worked as an intern in a leading hospital in New York City. It was during his internship that he met Nandini who had a boutique in the city, showcasing ethnic Indian wear. They had a brief courtship and plunged headlong into holy matrimony before knowing anything about each other save their respective names and the needs of their bodies in bed; both insufficient ingredients for a lifelong bond.
I first met Nandini at the dinner party hosted by Pritesh to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. He was in India on a short break. Having missed the chance to attend his wedding in USA, I was naturally curious to meet his wife. I had obviously expected a westernised lady, with contemporary tastes. But I was totally unprepared for the lady who met my eyes. She was unlike any woman I have ever seen before. Tall and svelte, she was wearing a transparent, golden chiffon sari and an elegant black blouse. She held the centre stage, shaking hands and chatting animatedly with a combination of graceful poise and unabashed charm. She captivated her eager audience with the easy flow of conversation and seemed to be equally at ease while discussing the sensex figure and Bollywood gossip. I was spellbound and tongue tied, hopelessly entranced, and spent the evening in a daze.
Back home, I could hardly sleep. I tried in vain to remind myself that she was my best friend’s wife and these are tender grounds, not to be treaded on. Yet I ended up fantasising about that very woman. Little did I know that I had allowed myself to kindle a spark that would one day flare up to a full-fledged fire and engulf my entire consciousness to a point of obsession.
A week later, Pritesh called me to say that they would be shortly returning to USA. I took this opportunity to invite them home for lunch the very next day. My wife was happy to display her culinary skills and prepared an elaborate seven course meal which turned out really well. Strange that I remember that detail as most of the afternoon was lost in conversation with Nandini. I had not exchanged a single word except a courtesy “Hello” with her the other evening. But this time, in the comfort and familiarity of home, I opened up and talked like never before. We struck an immediate connection. Our conversation was filled with passionate outbursts of events and memories that were special to us. I did not remember when was the last time I had enjoyed conversing with someone like this. I don’t even know, hardly noticed the reaction of my wife or Pritesh; the latter I vaguely recall had stretched out on the living room couch and fallen asleep after a while.
At around 4.30 in the afternoon, my wife went in to get some tea. I suggested to Nandini that we go inside in the study and switch on the AC as it was a sultry summer day and the temperature reached 36 degree Celsius. We played some music and I poured two glasses of wine, to hell with the tea. This was highly improper, but I was hardly myself.
You put a man and woman together, intoxicate them with conversation that drifts closer to personal issues and pour them a bottle of red. I am sure 90 times out of 100 they will end up in bed. The remaining ten percent can be accounted for by situational constraints or extreme self control. In our case, it proved to be the former as my wife entered with a tray laden with tea and some sweet delicacies. If she was surprised to see us there, with the wine and music and all, she did an outstanding job of hiding it. Anyways, the spell was broken. Soon Pritesh got up and joined us and the afternoon drifted back to normal.
That was the last I saw of Nandini. I did hear that Pritesh and she had separated and were working out divorce settlement. The strange situation that had arisen in our house that afternoon somewhat changed my equation with my wife. I was annoyed that Toral had accepted the scene so naturally and did not badger me with a series of questions and accusations which, to be fair, would have infuriated me more. But her total lack of interest made me mad. I almost longed for her to be jealous. Her nonchalance irritated and confused me.
One year passed. Nandini had never made any effort to contact me. Neither have I. I assumed she had moved on with life. I was not even aware where she was; till that rainy night.
I remember that evening very well. We were invited to the anniversary of my husband’s best friend Pritesh. It was a cocktail dinner at an elite restaurant. I am always uneasy in such situations. I hoped my husband would understand my nervousness and put me at ease.
I had met Pritesh once before, just after our marriage. I remember him as a very thoughtful, composed looking guy who always had kind words for everyone. I was curious to see his wife. However, when I saw her in that room, I was disappointed. She was flamboyantly dressed and was talking too much and laughing too loud and too confidently, absorbing a lot of adulation without batting an eyelash. Maybe I am prejudiced by my conservative roots, but in my heart I do have a modern outlook, if only my husband would care to understand. I do appreciate beauty and brains in women but Nandini appeared to possess neither. She was like the cheap temptress one browses privately in glossy magazines. It was beyond me what spell she cast on my husband as he seemed enthralled by her whole evening. He had eyes and ears only for Nandini and he hardly noticed what he ate or what he spoke. Least of all in his sphere of attention was me, his wife.
A week later my husband invited Pritesh and Nandini over for lunch. Obviously, he took it for granted that I would willingly lay out a fitting meal. I actually didn’t mind. It had been a while we had guests coming over. And I am happy for the care I took to select, prepare and display the meal as it was warmly welcomed by Pritesh. How wonderful it feels to be appreciated for something! My husband made a fool of himself by directing all possible conversation and attention only to Nandini. I knew Pritesh felt a bit uncomfortable, so I suggested that he take some rest. The heavy meal, along with the afternoon heat had had a drowsy effect on us. As Pritesh was resting, I cleared up the table, all the while trying to gauge what it was in her that demanded such unwavering reverence. All I heard them discuss were vague political theories, few exotic locations, some upcoming artistes, a business scam, etc. They had no interest in actual people, actual life. I doubt they were aware of the current price of onions or how many children our maid had or the name of the boy who cleaned our car. My husband would obviously snort at the mention of such frivolities; they do not fit into his lofty world view. Little does he realise that they touch our world more than his obscure philosophies do.
When I walked in with tea that afternoon, Pritesh was still asleep on the couch. I took the opportunity to let my eyes rest on his reclining figure for a second, and wonder what it would be like to be the wife of a man who had a kind word to say every day. I may be traditional in my appearance but my thoughts are not guarded by conventions. As I stood with the tea tray on my hands, I let my thoughts roam stray and imagined myself to be married to this man who was sleeping on our living room couch. How lovely would it be to have dinner each evening, with the man who understands my thoughts, knowing that I am loved for being myself. As I stood like that for those few abstract moments, Pritesh opened his eyes and was startled to see me staring. Somehow, that broke the spell and flow of my thoughts. I realised that he was just another man, a polite stranger, who had appreciated my efforts to cook; a feat that didn’t necessarily qualify him to be my soul mate who could read my unspoken words. With that realisation, it dawned on me that I was desperately unhappy in my marriage and without knowing myself, I must have been searching for a refuge to unleash my deepest yearnings.
I knew they were in the study, the AC was a pretence, they wanted to be alone. The wine and music at the odd hour did not surprise me; I was still recovering from my own trail of unrestrained emotions.
Over the next few months, I noticed a subtle difference in the attitude of my husband. In the past, he had at least pretended to be concerned about my happiness. He had indulged me in the occasional shopping spree and I let him believe that was all that is needed to complete my sphere of contentment. This delusion cheered him up greatly; maybe he prided himself on performing the duties of a husband with patience. But now, the slightest of things started provoking unnecessary irritation from him. Since charm and overt display of emotions was never my forte, I let myself slip into an abyss of despair. Then one day I discovered I was pregnant.
She stood there on my door, eyes inviting. Well, it was a night of storms, the perfect excuse to let in someone under the pretext of refuge. Who was I fooling? From the moment she walked in, I knew where this was headed. One year was a long enough time to overcome any infatuation I may have felt had it not been for the fire burning in my heart, scorching my soul. I lent her some of my wife’s clothes to change into. I suggested some tea. She turned it down. She wanted something stronger. The bottle of Chivas Regal stood on the table, inviting an opportunity to tread unknown paths. As if by design, the lights went out; an occurrence which is not uncommon during heavy rains. I uttered an expletory under my breath and went to the kitchen to hunt for candles. As I shuffled through the drawers, I heard her tiptoe behind me. My heart almost exploded. You put a man and woman together on a rainy night with the lights out and the rest is history.
The bright lights penetrated the thin veil of my living room curtains and woke me up. My eyes drifted to the clock on the wall. It was 12 noon. I must have been smashed, completely. My head hurt, the tell-tale signs of a bad hangover. Traces of my clothes lay scattered on the carpet. Amidst them I glimpsed a peach embroidered handkerchief. Confused, I stared at it. The memories of last night invaded my mind in a sudden wave and with it came a gush of inexplicable emotions which I could not name. My heart was hollow and all the currents vibrating within were like the empty voices in a cave, banging against the walls, repeating and mocking each other.
Last night I had lived the fantasy that had started as a stealthy thought a year ago and gradually expanded to invade my entire life. Then why was I feeling so futile? Nandini had made love to me. Then why was I not experiencing the ultimate fulfilment? Why were my feet not in the clouds? Why did the memories collide with each other and disappear in a meaningless blur and all that I remember is her hoarse tone admonishing my childhood friend?
The pain in my head was killing me. I forced myself to get up and switch on the coffee-maker. I suddenly missed my wife. I had been meaning to call her to come back. It had been three months since the day we lost our unborn child. My wife was still trying to emerge from the depths of bereavement. She had been away all the while at her parents’ house.
The coffee was ready. I poured myself a mug and tried to clear my brain. I had been shattered. When the doctor had announced our fate that left us with no options to consider, I had felt victimised, incapable. Why was I fighting this alone? If both my wife and I were drowning in the same waters, why didn’t we pull each other up? Why were we fighting separately? The coffee must have worked as some of the fog cleared from my brain. Nandini. It was Nandini or the thought of her that had created this wall. From the time I had set my eyes on her, I had placed her on a pedestal and attributed everything that was lacking in my life to her. It was I who created that aura around her. Her image grew larger than life in my mind’s eye till it burnt me in that flame of obsession. Stripped of that aura, she was just a very ordinary woman who bitched about her ex-husband while making love to his best friend. And I, what about I? Who was I? I must be the most wretched and worthless soul on earth.
I drained the coffee and poured myself another cup. I imagined my wife in this kitchen, making paranthas for breakfast. A familiar longing tugged at my heart. It was not the paranthas I craved for, it was the woman who had gone through the routine of making them for me every day. I missed the woman who was subdued, average, unassuming; the woman whose smile could light up the room easily. I missed my wife. Why did it take me so long to understand the incredible virtue of simplicity?
I wait each day for the call to come. I wait for my husband. I want to rise from the shadows of the gloom that is fast consuming me. I am not broken yet, my spirit longs to go on, to recreate, retune. Then one day he arrives. There is no phone call to announce his intention, no elaborate arrangements to greet him; he just arrives. And when I look at the man who has come, I realise he is not the stranger I had shared a house with. My heart smiles in expectation. He is my husband and he has come to take me home.
The fire had burnt itself. It was time to sweep away the ashes and light a new flame.