A plush villa, a luxurious life and hidden beneath it a life that’s futile. Harshali weaves an intense story of a woman who is trapped in her pain. But on the surface it’s beautiful, sensuous, fired with fantasies, delusional. Find out why she waits for the time to be ripe, in this fiction, bidding her time, sipping three glasses of wine. The mystery and surprise ending holds poetic justice. Here’s a complex tale told with masterly ease, as part of the special feature on the International Women’s Day (IWD), exclusively for Different Truths.
Where is he? She wondered, fidgeting, almost dropping the glass, shattering the fine Noritake, moon dust wine goblet, on the ivory marble floor. She lay elegant on the pool chaise, a throw covering her stretched out legs, a symphony of comfort on the deck. The tasteful side table held the chilled bottle of her favourite Red Wine.
She looked at the nearby balcony again.
“I am leaving, honey.” Rituraj called from the door. “Are you sure you don’t want to come along.”
“Yes Raj, I am.” She said.
He walked up to her and stood frowning down at Sanjana.
He carries his polished shoes and carefully selected casual attire that must have taken him a good hour to put together rather well, she thought.
“Are you ok Sanju, you have been hibernating for months now. Isn’t it time to look ahead? Move on”.
Sitting down next to her, he took her fragile hand in his. The bruises on the good side of her face were still yellow. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to look at the bad side. He had trained himself to never look there. It made him gag. But this arrangement suited him, for now.
How did she survive? He couldn’t for the life of him fathom the strength it would take to douse the flames engulfing one’s face with their own bare hands. You can hire the best people to do a job but there are no guarantees. A difficult lesson to learn but this incident had taught him this much at least.
“Look, I know I am not the right person to say this but there is no going back. You will have to find the strength to …”
“Raj, aren’t you getting late for the party?”
“I… yes, ok”, he got up not sure of his place. With her, he never was.
“Well, see you then, might… uhhh… not be back. Ok”
“Hmmm, sure, have fun”, she said, looking at her hands rather than at him letting her luxurious curls cover her face.
She heard the clip clop of his expensive shoes on the gleaming marble fade and waited for the lock to fall in place and then … only then, released the pent up sigh that had been clamouring to burst free.
What an ass, she thought.
“Well red… red wine, it looks like it’s just you and me today” she sang the familiar tune, pulling at the cork.
Her eyes strayed to the nearby balcony. The balustrade was still empty even though the light was on inside.
Where is he? She thought again, willing the door to open.
It remained shut. She wanted to smash the bottle on the floor, see the red spill like blood. “Why waste good wine, when one can drink it”. She said, pouring the deep red into the crystal goblet.
A sound whispered, the one she had been waiting for, that of a door opening.
She looked up, smiled.
The first glass
He didn’t see her smile, they were not close enough. From his 1st floor balcony next to her villa, he could just make out a lady sitting on a brown sofa. The wind played with her open hair, running its fingers through her curls, as he wanted to. He knew she parted it in the middle. Of her features though, the eyes, nose and the others, he was keenly unaware and had remained so for four months now.
He saw her pour the wine, the diffused light shone through the lucent crystal she held, making the ruby discernible.
It was time to begin their daily ritual.
He had been looking forward to this moment since his last puff yesterday. Keeping the heavy, squat tumbler of single malt with ice and water on the sill, he lit his other vice.
This was His limit. One cigarette and a 60 ml every day. Three glasses of Red wine was hers. That was the limit they set for themselves, among other silent ones.
The lit orange tip glowed, she could see that, at least. His glass too, the amber caught the light from behind as he stood in shadows, like always. She wished she could see him clearly but she couldn’t risk being visible herself. The disfigurement after the accident was not something she wanted to display. Raj was right, she just wanted to hide. She looked up and raised her glass up, Sláinte. She saw him imitate the gesture.
Her fantasy had just begun.
From behind closed eyes she imagined strong fingers softly touching her face tracing each valley and peak of the scar tissue that ran like silt left on the river bank of her face. A working man’s hands with gentle strength. She lifted her head her eyes drawn to the glowing cigarette, a beacon.
Did he go back to his wife afterwards… she wondered then quashed the jealousy that wanted to snake up. Her time was limited and she couldn’t waste it on the mundane. She saw him watching her knowing that the luxury was unmet. Their similar Villas were several feet apart. But whenever he stood, his body still, intent, her heart beat faster as if he would suddenly whip out a pair of binoculars to gaze at her ugliness relegating these zephyr moments to the past.
She ducked her head wondering what she would do if she saw him one day. Would he gasp at the darkness that was painted on her face now? God’s brush had been unkind. Why couldn’t she carry this darkness inside, like everyone else? Why was she chosen to have it displayed on her body for everyone’s viewing pleasure?
Her thoughts were taking her to nooks that she usually avoided even in dreams. There were chance meetings in these niches. Coy smiles, a recognition and shining, naughty eyes. Shared memories, safe in the knowledge that this small slice of heaven and hell was just between them.
But today, her mind wouldn’t stop conjuring scenarios… a precursor to trouble.
The second glass
Who was she? He pondered as he saw her pour her second glass of the Red. Some rich man’s wife by the looks of it with lots of alone time. He had caught the husband too, a couple of times. He seemed like a lean, well-dressed man unlike his own burly self.
The flimsy white curtains being hung had attracted his attention to the Villa first.
Who in their right mind would have such impractical things waving about? But they had caught his eye. And then She had… caught and held him.
Her wheel chair bound life, her quietness as she sat there covered, protected from the sun, reading her laptop open, fascinated him. He couldn’t understand why? He felt drawn to her, this mystery woman and her life that he saw in bits, his imagination running riot.
She was his partner in their trapped loneliness, the isolation a consequence of marrying the wrong person. A vast desert with no oasis in sight and with the realisation that the oasis, even if it appears, will have to be discarded as a mirage for they were promised to this dry land.
She, was the rain, a respite that he drank greedily from, every night.
He could ask his wife about the frail lady in the wheelchair. She would know the whole story he was sure. But he refrained from mentioning her to anyone, hugging this one bit of life for himself. This at least he didn’t have to share in a relationship where oversharing was demanded as a right. He stood looking at her, wanting to reach out, talk to her, know her story but then … reality would intrude.
Tonight the north wind carried a hint of mist.
Were the heavens ready to release their grip on the storm clouds then, she thought. They had been grumbling loudly for the past couple of days.
How does this city look in the rainy season? She wanted to ask Him.
Being new to Gurgaon yet unable to explore it, agitated her, making her miss the familiarity of her old life, her hometown. Everyone knew her there, called her by name in acute contrast to this newness.
Maybe because I was the only daughter of the minister of state, she reflected.
But here, she was an unknown, unwanted. Raj and her father had conspired to hide her grotesqueness from the world ensnaring her within these ostentatious walls. But not before parading her ugliness before the media.
Like a damn freak show
It garnered a colossal wave of sympathy vote for Raj. The new favourite of the people was swept up from the sleepy hamlet of Meerut to the seat of power in Delhi. She, a wife, daughter and would have been mother was the living proof of the reality of politics. Burnt at the stake to make sure the husband climbed the ladder of success, rather literally in her case. Now of no use she was discarded until the next time they needed her to remind the voting majority of the ugly side of political rivalry.
Her mood soured. Taking a sip of the woody wine that she made sure he kept well stocked, a small compensation, she tried to shake off this ennui that seemed to engulf her. She felt the anger slipping through the fissures in the walls she had erected when she faced the truth after the so called accident. She was bidding time. Marking each ache, each twinge in the log she kept in her head.
She recalled the horror and pity in the eyes that looked at her once the bandages were removed. The bone numbing, nauseating pain she had endured during the debridement still gave her nightmares. The smell of her burnt skin being peeled off, one layer at a time assailed her nostrils even in sleep. The nurse had asked her softly to go ahead and scream, cry out but she hadn’t. She didn’t want to snuff out the inferno that was burning like hell fire inside her. There were no tears wasted on her fate or lack thereof. It was this anger held tightly in check within talon sharp fingers that drove her to recover from that awfulness.
But now… she wanted Him, this man who stood like a silent sentinel as if guarding her dreams. Every night.
Some days it would just be for a smoke, in his formals. Those nights she knew she had him for just one glass of wine. He would wait for her to finish that one glass before he lifted his hand to bid farewell. But on most nights they had their respective drinks looking at each other till she finished her third glass. There were parties at his house, there was joy and music but he always slipped out to stand with her for a while or shrugged his massive shoulders in apology if unable to spend more than a couple of minutes at the balustrade.
She covered her face with her hands, wanting so desperately to scream at this unfairness of life. Then feeling foolish, looked at him with wet eyes. He was standing straighter, peering through the darkness, calling out with every fibre of his being, asking what the matter was with a questioning nod of his head.
In her aloneness, now, she let the tears flow, slackening her grip on them just enough to let a couple slip out. Then bringing the glass to her lips shook her head to comfort the one that cared enough to ask.
The third glass
Her fingers shook slightly as she poured the last of the wine in the rounded luminance. Taking a cleansing breath she let the indulgence in self-pity dissipate. He looked blurry now, and further away. She was well on her way to the happy place. Resting her head, she watched him from behind heavy eyelids. She saw the amber was almost white and his elbows were now on the railing supporting his heavy frame. He was in the happy place too, she smiled.
She could make out the salt and pepper hair and recently a stubble had appeared. She wanted to touch his face, feel his jawline, to nuzzle, be held, touched in places that ached with a nameless and yet familiar need.
Torturing herself with these wants that were as unattainable as the waning gibbous moon shining bright tonight she slid lower, shutting off the lights. Though safe from prying eyes she felt impervious in this absolute darkness.
He leaned forward as her hand slipped inside the throw that covered her mangled legs. She felt him watch her as she let her mind overtake her body, walking down the slippery path of needs, taking the long lonely journey to pleasure.
He knew what would follow when the lights switched off. He saw her neck arch, the moon kind enough to afford him that much tonight and the rest his mind conjured. He watched the darkened house next door, straining to see, to hear something… anything.
Was that a wet moan he heard, he couldn’t be sure but then he tortured himself like this every time she shut the lights before the third glass.
Usually, she would drink her wine, one glass after the other, her mind was a million miles away. Looking at him intently as if having a serious, painful conversation. Sometimes she would do so soporific, music playing. And then there were a few days, like today, when she would… tempt. He waited, his manhood straining to be freed, wanting to go to her, find places that were yet undiscovered, bury himself in her. He wanted to see the arch of her neck up close, suck on the throbbing jugular. He wanted… so much more. He didn’t know what this was but he couldn’t stop and he didn’t feel guilty. He wasn’t doing anything… except in his head.
The light switched on and he imagined he could see the sheen of sweat on her forehead. She lifted the almost empty glass in mock salute, as did he. Bottoms up, she seemed to say. Lifting her hand, she said goodnight. He too nodded and lifted his hand. Promises made to meet tomorrow without a word exchanged.
He went inside the bedroom and turned in the darkness to stand behind the mesh door. He watched her as she pulled the blanket away from her painfully thin legs. He could fathom the trembling of her upper arms as she pulled herself sideways into the wheelchair bending to shift her legs from the chaise to the floor. They flopped uselessly, an unnecessary weight she carried around. She wheeled herself into the room, the doors sliding behind her as did the curtains. Some hi-tech remote controlled device hiding her from his gaze. He lay down and imagined her touching him. Closing his eyes let his imagination run amok.
The whirring sound of the curtains closing stopped, signalling that she could get on with her nightly abolitions. She was all alone in the ostentatiously decorated two-storey Villa, she had made sure it would be so. She wheeled her electric self in front of the massive mirror that covered a wall. Tracing her face, the malevolent crests, the flappy skin and the gorges that hadn’t filled reacquainting herself with their malice.
She raised her hands and pulled at the luxurious curls. They peeled off her bald skull, sticky with sweat. The tresses she had so lovingly oiled and nurtured burnt away under the deluge of a love gone awry. She looked at herself, feeling a wave of anger rise but ruthlessly strapped it secure. She cleaned and scrubbed, rubbed creams and lotions, slid on pressure bandages and arranged her pillows just so to finally lie awake. Her muscles ached, constricted, cramped, hurting like a dagger twisting but she didn’t make any sound. She lay listening to this symphony of pain her body beyond her control, the agony a living breathing dragon she battled with every night. Fists clenched she concentrated on the soundless house, staring intently at the moving needle on the clock before her, bidding time.
Oh! They would pay. She was her father’s daughter, after all.
Peeking out of the mesh door to see if she was out and about had become an involuntary tick, he couldn’t control. He knew she rarely opened her glass wall except at dusk or when it rained. That was how he had spotted Her the first time. Unmoving, silent. It had made him take a second look, the stillness. That night he had stepped out of the room to smoke to saw her sitting there, an empty wheelchair, her only company and watched as she steadily emptied the bottle. He had thought she couldn’t see him or wouldn’t notice but she had raised her hand to say good night looking up at him. Of its own volition, his own hand rose to signal back. And that was how their nightly rendezvous began.
Now, he said good night and locked his door, hurriedly changing into the white kurta making his drink and grabbing the pack of cigarettes from the drawer.
About to step out, he stopped and stared. She had company today. It looked like it was her husband. The idiot had taken the chaise, while she sat on the wheelchair her feet awkwardly dragging to one side.
Is he blind? Can he not see she is uncomfortable while he lounges relaxed? Should I step out, no it’s better to be safe.
He dragged a chair and sat just behind the mesh door, the breeze soft and quiet. With just the muted light he could see clearly enough that they were talking about something that was agitating the husband. He leaned forward wishing he could hear the words.
The first glass
It was time. She glanced at the empty balcony, disappointed and simultaneously relieved.
Apt, she thought smirking at fate.
“Raj. Stay please. For some time”, she said.
“You know I have a thing tonight”. He said “Well, ok for a bit. I should call my friends and let them know I shall be late.”
“Uff! They will keep. Come on. Here, say cheers.”
“Of course, Cheers,” he said ugly anchor around my neck, completing the sentence in his mind.
The glasses clinked, the sound sublime and sharp.
The second glass
This is too much, spending time with her was never part of the deal, he thought standing up and walking to the pool unable to sit next to her another moment.
Why did I agree to this? I should have just said ‘No’. I will have to talk to Baba about finding a clinic for her. I can’t abide by her hideousness anymore. To expect me to live with this horror is just not done. She had served her purpose and now it was time to move on, look ahead.
“What are you thinking?” she asked
“Hmmm… nothing. Just was missing home. Should we take a trip back soon? I am sure you want to meet Baba.”
Why were the words so slow to come out, he wondered. He turned towards her and saw a flash of something… concealed and never seen before, cross her eyes. Startled at its intensity the glass slipped from his nerveless fingers. The resultant splash had him jumping turning back to the blue sparkling water of the pool, to look at the bobbing glass in surprise.
“What happened, Raj? Oh, the glass, here let me get it”. She whirled her wheelchair to the pool net propped on the side of the wall.
“Don’t worry darling, it’s just a glass. I will fish it out for you. Were the two glasses too much?”
He could hear her come towards him, slowly, from behind. Her wheelchair made this buzzing noise that always irritated him.
“Come on, move faster you old cow”, he said
A sharp crack sounded just before he fell, adrift in the iridescent blue.
Why was he inside, he didn’t know how to swim, he hated the stupid pool, in the stupid house she had insisted they buy. Why was it getting foggier? His chest was too heavy. He seemed to be sinking yet weightless. What a strange feeling. Different. Why was there a whirring sound? It seemed to be getting closer by the minute.
He looked up to see if it was her wheelchair and found her sitting there lifting the glass of red to her grotesque lips as if from behind a mirror. The look in her eyes, that he could see clearly. It was the same one that had rushed past a few moments ago.
Then, he remembered an identical set of eyes that had found him staring staggered, unable to look away from the barbarity before him, perpetuated to fulfil his most cherished dream. Thin hands using a burning dupatta to douse the fire that engulfed the writhing frame.
Survival instinct, cannot be dulled even by a healthy dose of crushed sleeping pills. But add some painkillers and a handsome concoction of delayed time can be created. And so it was with Raj. His body fought to survive but his brain dulled by this handsome concoction took its own sweet time to realise the urgency. Almost about to break surface, his lunges filled and ready to burst, the pool cover slammed shut over his head, trapping him underwater.
The third glass
She wheeled herself back to the bottle, picking it up to pour her third glass of wine. Then watched in delight her dear husband struggle against the thick plastic of the pool cover to find that iota of air that was the difference between life and the absence of it.
She swirled her ruby in the pretty cut crystal, twirling the stem with thin fingers covered in web like scar tissue albeit sans finger nails. She sniffed the woody scent of a red that had been well aired and took a leisurely sip.
It took a while for it to quiet down, the air now pregnant with violence. She sat and observed each ripple created till there were no more. Her eyes, now stripped of the mask she hid behind, retribution danced naked in their depths.
She smiled thinking, one down, two more to go.
Could he really be seeing this? He thought his hand covering his mouth, as sweat ran down his body in rivulets. His drink and cigarette forgotten he stood frozen unable to tear his eyes away.
He should call the police, help the man, do something and yet he kept standing, rooted to the spot watching this tableau of hate unfolded by the very hands he had wanted to kiss. He saw her press the lever again and the pool cover whirled back to expose the truth of what she had done, cold blooded and premeditated. She picked up something, a mobile, he realised and spoke a few words. Then looking straight at him, raised her hand to wave at him, their nightly gesture.
Had he been played?
He saw her move forward gathering speed bringing her wheelchair to the edge of the pool.
No… don’t, he wanted to shout. He rushed out, letting the mesh door snap back with a crash that echoed in the silent night. Her head snapped up to look at him as she knew he looked at her. He nodded, as did she. His fingers unfurled and his hand left the balustrade as he waved back. Then silently slipped back into the dark room. He watched her pull back the wheel chair, drop to the tiled floor, and topple the chair on its side. Using her elbows she pulled herself to the lip of the pool. She looked his way once before her body slipped into the water, even as the sirens came closer.
Photos from the internet.
#IWD2017 #BeBoldForChange #Women #DifferentTruths
featured and interviewed by various e-magazines. Her poem and story were also published in the recent edition of ‘Unbound’ magazine. She is a trained Occupational Therapist from the Institute of The Physically Handicapped. She, as a teacher trainer conducts workshops to enhance
proficiency in advanced teaching methodologies.