The intercom phone in the living room was ringing its receiver off. Rishi had fallen asleep on the sofa, watching reruns of his favourite shows on the television.
He woke up. Who was it on a Saturday afternoon!
“Shaab!” It was the security guard from the reception desk downstairs that was on the phone. “Shaab… one ‘mem’ has come to see you.”
Rishi sat up, rubbing his eyes.
“Who is she? Where has she come from?”
“I don’t know shaab.” The man replied. “She is not giving her name.”
“Alright. Ask her to wait there. I am coming downstairs.”
He had no intention of letting strange women into his house, while Jyoti was away. He wore his chappals and went to the lift.
Then he froze. A mortal fear took hold of him.
Not the lift! Something urged him. Take the stairs.
He was too scared to step into the lift when it arrived and opened its doors. He dragged himself to the stairwell and trudged down the five floors to the security desk. He was about to throw open the door and step out when he saw his visitor and stiffened.
No! It could not be!
He stood there for a while debating what to do. He had to talk to her, he had to send her away. But, she knew exactly where he lived now. And Rishi was tired of running away and picking up his life anew each time. This had to stop.
Taking a deep breath and gathering all of his courage, he stepped out of the stairwell and headed for the desk. Hearing the clacking of his chappals, she turned around. She was much fatter than he remembered. She wore a long flowing salwar-kameez and stood their glowing and beaming. She gave him a big smile of victory as he approached.
“Aha!” she shouted. “I found you!”
He pulled her aside, into the visitor’s lounge meant to receive unwanted guests. “Why do you persist on hounding me so much!” he pleaded. “Leave us alone!”
Slowly, she shook her head.
“I can’t and I won’t.” She said. She patted on her stomach. For the first time, he noticed, it was bulging.
“Though I have a baby on the way, I won’t give up.”
“But why?” he demanded.
“Do you want to talk about it here?” She asked, waving around the sparse room. “Take me upstairs to your apartment.”
“I…” Rishi hesitated.
“Come on,” She insisted. “I know Jyoti isn’t home.”
Rishi sighed. “Come on.”
He led the way to the lifts. The security guard gave him a strange look and went back to his nap.
Sweetie hesitated before she entered Rishi’s apartment. After a brief pause, she put her right foot forward in the traditional way to enter someone’s house while maintaining their ‘good karma’ and went in. She stood in the living room, looking around appreciatively.
“You like it?” Rishi asked her sarcastically.
“Hmmm.” She sighed. “I guess I could live here.”
Indeed. It was a beautiful apartment. It was a small complex of apartment buildings, enclosed as a community. There was a large garden and plenty of space for adults as well as children to play and have fun.
Jyoti had taken an instant liking to the place. She was naturally outgoing, and quickly made a lot of friends. If she was at home, their phone would be constantly busy. Jyoti had also got herself into all the usual ‘housewife activities’. Kitty-parties, get-togethers, girls’ outings and what not. Through her, he had met and socialized with a lot of their co-habitants. Otherwise, he may never even have heard of any of them.
Rishi went over to the sofa set and sat down on a single seater, making it clear to Sweetie that she ought to sit separately. But she ignored the signal and came right over to him and sat down on his lap.
“My!” he gasped. “You are heavy.”
Sweetie slapped him on the shoulder playfully.
“I am with child.” She smiled. She took his hand and placed it on her abdomen. “It could have been yours.” She said with a wink.
“Sweetie!” he said, trying to get up and pulling her off himself. “I’ve told you a thousand times. I don’t love you. Probably never will. You have got to stop doing this.”
“You know, that hurts.” She said grumpily, sitting down on the other sofa alone. “You could fall in love with Sneha. And then you fell for your colleague. Why not me? Am I so bad?” she demanded.
“I don’t know what to say.” Rishi admitted. “I just don’t feel it. This isn’t something you force you know.”
“How did you find love with Sneha?” she asked.
Rishi looked at her. She seemed genuinely interested to know. He told her about how they had met on a train well before college started and started to live together and then gradually fell in love with each other.
“Okay. And I guess you were cheating on your wife when you fell in love with your colleague.”
“Yes, I was cheating on Sneha with Jyoti.” He told her about how months of not having had sex and Jyoti’s proximity to him during their house shifting had caused his lust to explode on the poor girl.
“You raped her!” Sweetie cried. “Be happy that she somehow did not notice, and actually loved you back and married you.”
Rishi shrank back into his seat. He knew what Sweetie had just said was true. He had done a horrible thing years ago, when he had thrown himself on Jyoti.
Rishi shook his head in horror. He tried to change the subject to her. “So, you are married now, huh?”
“No.” She said.
“Nope. Was never married to divorce.”
He stared at her bulging belly.
She noticed his stare. “Oh this?” She laughed. “This was the result of a fling of sorrow.”
He was shocked.
She laughed at him. She shook her head with pity.
“When you disappeared from Mumbai, I was upset. I had this fling with a guy and I got pregnant…” She trailed off.
“Where is he now?” Rishi asked her seriously. “Why don’t you marry him? Or someone else!”
She laughed mockingly. “I won’t marry anyone except for you, Rishi.”
She bit her nail nervously and looked at it. Disgusted, she wiped her hand on her kurta.
“Besides, he is dead.”
“You killed him?” He cried out, shocked. He wouldn’t put it past her to do something of that sort.
“No, you idiot.” She scoffed. “He was a bum. He died in a police shootout somewhere.”
“So… what now?” he wondered out loud. He did not want to hear the answer though. He had a good idea of what she might say.
“When are they back? Jyoti and Anamika?”
“You are the stalker. Don’t you know?” He scowled.
“Oh, I do.” She replied. “Which is why I came. We have plenty of time.” She then gave a wicked evil smile to make his skin crawl.
“No!” he cried shooting up from the sofa. “No way!”
“Why not?” she asked. “Who is going to know about it?”
“The entire building?” He said. “From the guard downstairs and neighbours next door…”
She laughed again. His answer to every hard question she posed him seemed to evoke only laughter out of her. Didn’t she take anything seriously! She had brought a small bag with clothes with her. She didn’t take his refusals seriously and began to stay with him.
Thankfully, she agreed to sleep in the guest room.
One evening, Rishi came home from office and Sweetie was sitting there in her nightgown on the sofa, watching television. He took off his tie and coat and threw them on a couch as usual and went into the bedroom to change. A minute later, he heard the door shut behind him and the click of the bolt.
Rishi spun expecting to see her there. Strangely, it had not been his bedroom door. Curious, he went out to see and was just in time to see Sweetie ease back slowly down on the sofa.
“Are you alright?” he asked her with genuine concern. After all, she was pregnant and he had known her for many years now.
She shook her head. “You had left the main door open. Had got up to shut it.” She said wincing and nodding toward the main door. She winced again.
He went back in to change and freshen up. When he came back, he saw she had made him coffee. There was also a plate of snacks on the coffee table.
She was sitting on one of the single-seaters. He sat down on the three-seater at the end furthest from her. Slowly, he sipped his coffee and looked at her. She was not looking at him, preferring to stare at the soap show she was watching on the television. He looked at her and felt a pang of something pull at his heart. Maybe some guilt? He hoped it was not going to be romantic feelings for her. He had no intention of cheating on his wife, again. He would keep it platonic, he decided to himself.
He patted the seat next to him. “Come and sit with me.”
She rose and slowly walked over to him and sat down next to him. Rishi put his arm around her and she leaned her head onto his shoulders.
“Oh Rishi.” She whispered. Sweetie took Rishi’s other hand and put it on her stomach. “Hold me close to you. I want to squeeze as much as I can out of this.”
He held her close to him. They sat for a while. Rishi loved the smell of her hair. He kissed her forehead. She looked up at his face. He looked at her lips longingly.
Suddenly, he sat back. “No!” He cried.
He was out of breath from having kissed her for so long.
“This is… This is… wrong.” He gasped.
Sweetie sat up and put her head on his shoulder.
“It’s alright. Don’t worry about it.” She assured him.
Rishi couldn’t sleep that night. He was feeling restless. He went to the little bar in the dining room and mixed himself a drink. He took it to the balcony and sank back into the rocking chair there. Looking into the cloudy sky above, he wondered about his life.
A rustle of the curtains behind him woke him from his reverie. He turned to look. It was Sweetie. She looked beautiful in her nightgown. She was glowing because of her pregnancy. She drew a light shrug around her shoulders to seek some protection from the chilly breeze.
Rishi pulled up one of the balcony chairs and patted down the cushions for her.
“Looks like it is fixing to rain.” He said.
She nodded and sat down. He saw she was feeling the cold.
“Let me get you some coffee.” He offered, rising up.
She held out an arm and stopped him. “No… I couldn’t sleep. I want one of those.” She nodded to the glass of drink Rishi was holding.
She looked at the glass longingly.
“No way.” He cried. “You’re pregnant. You shouldn’t drink during such a time.”
She looked at him. He had a strange look in his eyes.
“Go on, say it. What’s on your mind?” she asked.
“I…” He started. “Why don’t you stay here, with us?” He blurted out. He broke into nervous laughter. “Now, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?”
She shook her head and chuckled. “You are saying that out of some kind of pity for my loneliness. I don’t want that.” She yawned. “I am feeling sleepy now.” She said stretching her arms and starting to rise up to go back to bed.
Rishi looked at her. He had known her for a long time now. Rishi, Sweetie and Sneha had been classmates in college. He did have affections for her. Now, looking at her, he felt a kind of animal lust building within himself.
Reaching out, he touched her arm. He had a certain look in his eyes.
“Okay.” She whispered, collapsing into his embrace.
When they woke up the next morning, the sky was rapidly brightening. There was a bright orange hue lighting up the horizon. The sun was about to rise for the day. They rose from the floor and went indoors. Sweetie went to the bathroom to wash up. Rishi wrapped a towel around himself and set about cleaning up the mess they had made on the balcony.
In the evening, they walked hand in hand on the flag-stone covered pathway that wound its way around the garden. For a while, they sat on the steps of the large central fountain. Rishi sat on the steps, Sweetie lay down on his lap, looking up at the stars. He had a hand on her head, gently stroking her.
Suddenly, a ball came bouncing up to them and a little girl ran in to pick it up.
“Oh crap!” Rishi muttered under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” Sweetie asked dreamily.
“That is Mrs Bhatia’s daughter.” Rishi stiffened. He hoped that the girl’s mother would not come there.
“Who?” Sweetie asked, concerned.
“Mrs Bhatia is this tattle-tale. She keeps calling Jyoti on her cell phone every five minutes. Telling her all the gossip.”
“Okay…” Sweetie began. She did not follow his train of thought. Then she realized it. “Oh!” she cried, sitting up hurriedly and straightening her dress.
And Mrs Bhatia showed up.
“Oh! Hello Rishi!” She gushed appearing through the bushes. She was looking curiously at this strange pregnant lady that Rishi was sitting with. “And who is your friend?” she enquired.
“This is just a friend from office.” He said calmly, but his heart was pounding away. That was the best excuse he could come up with at such short notice.
“Oh.” Mrs. Bhatia said, staring at Sweetie and her pregnant belly. “Is she staying with you? Does Jyoti know?”
Rishi groaned. He looked across at Sweetie.
Sweetie took up the tale. “Oh no, aunty, I was looking for a better place to stay and Rishi was showing me this lovely community.” She smiled at the other lady sweetly.
Mrs. Bhatia was not swayed. She was still suspicious. But she let it be. “Oh yes, this would be a great place to raise your child.”
Thankfully, her daughter tugged at her sari and pulled her away to play elsewhere. Rishi and Sweetie exhaled.
“Whew! That was close.” Rishi whistled.
“We had best go back indoors.” Sweetie suggested. “The air is damp and getting chiller.”
Rishi helped her up and went indoors. Unseen by them, Mrs Bhatia was taking photos of them on her cell phone. She even made a little video of them entering Rishi’s complex. This was interesting gossip! She chuckled to herself.
The next morning, Sweetie was making breakfast for them. It was a Sunday. Rishi was having his bath. The phone in the hall rang. Sweetie didn’t want to risk answering it, because the phone had no display to tell her who was calling. She was letting it ring. The ringing stopped. She heaved a sigh of relief. But almost immediately, the phone started to ring again. It was getting on her nerves.
She walked to the bathroom and knocked on Rishi’s door.
“Rishi?” She called above the roar of the water.
“Yeah?” He answered, shutting off his shower.
“The phone is ringing its head off in the hall. Someone is desperately trying to get in touch.”
“Oh shit!” He cursed. “I’ll be right out.”
Momentarily, he came out, wrapped in a towel. The phone was still ringing. Dripping water onto the floor, he headed to the hall and picked up the phone.
“Hello?” he asked into the receiver.
“Hey baby. It’s me.” Chimed a sweet voice at the other end.
“Oh. Hi.” He said, trying to recover his breath. “Sorry, I was in the shower.” He said, panting.
“Oh, I am on my way home. I thought you would come over to pick me up!” She said. “But you weren’t at the airport.”
“So, how are you coming?” He asked, surprised.
“I took a cab.”
He could hear the sound of traffic behind her. His heart skipped a beat. Was she supposed to be back today? Oh God! What was he going to do with Sweetie!
“Don’t worry. I am almost home.” She said. “I am by the supermarket.”
He felt the wind get knocked out of his lungs as if someone had dealt him a knock-out punch.
“Okay. I’ll be down to fetch you.” He fumbled.
Jyoti laughed. “Oh, silly boy! I am just going to the railway station. I will be there only tomorrow morning.” She hung up.
Rishi heaved a sigh of relief. But he had only a short amount of time to pack away Sweetie and clean up the house to remove traces of her visit.
Gulping down the breakfast she had made, he discussed it with Sweetie. “I could find you a place somewhere near here. Maybe on my way from here to office.” He offered to her.
Just as they were getting ready to go out to see a few apartments, Sweetie experienced cramps.
“Do you want to go to a doctor?” Rishi asked with concern.
“No.” She gasped. “I get these from time to time. They will go away in an hour.”
“Best you lie down then.” He said.
He helped her lie down on the bed and lay down next to her. They talked about the old days and their lives apart. Both of them forgot completely about the apartment for her. Both of them forgot about Jyoti and Anamika coming home in the morning.
Rishi was in the balcony reading his newspaper when the doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it.” Sweetie called.
He heard the door open.
“What are you doing here!” Rishi heard Jyoti’s voice shriek in horror.
Rishi jumped up, flinging the newspaper — it flew off the balcony. He ran inside to see Jyoti standing outside the door, her bags on the floor around her. Anamika stood beside her, not knowing what to make of the scene. Sweetie stood inside the house, her hands still on the door that she had opened. There was a welcoming smile starting to form on her lips. The scene seemed frozen in time.
Quickly, he made up the distance.
“Come inside.” He said. “Things are not how they look.”
Jyoti looked at him with disbelief. “After all this…” She said.
Unfortunately for him, Rishi was in his underwear and Sweetie stood there in a very flimsy nightgown.
“I am going back to my mothers'” Jyoti declared at last. She grabbed Anamika’s arm and turned around to go.
Rishi flew outside the door. “No! Wait!” He cried.
But Jyoti flung him aside and stepped in the elevator. He tried begging her to stay and listen even as the elevator doors shut in his face.
Dejectedly, he plodded back. Sweetie was lying on the long sofa, sipping her coffee.
“She left, huh?” She smiled.
Rishi was still in shock.
Sweetie slapped him on his shoulder and laughed. “Oh, calm down, will you!”
“How can I be calm? Did you not see how angry she is?”
Sweetie watched him pitifully from her seat on the sofa. But she didn’t move. Instead, she smiled wickedly. Her efforts of the past fifteen years had finally borne fruit and life had delivered the love of her life to her, bound and parceled. She would let him grieve tonight.
Rishi woke up with a cold sweat. He looked up to see that the air conditioning was not running. He was feeling hot. He groped around his nightstand for the remote control for the air conditioner and turned it on. For a while, he lay back, out of his sheets, panting in the heat.
He lifted his hand, scratched his chest and threw his hand back and felt it hit a human body. The hair on the nape of his neck stood up straight. He sat up bolt upright and turned on his table lamp. There was a girl asleep next to him, under the blankets. She felt cold to his touch. Slowly, his heart beating a million times a second, he turned her around.
The face he saw both shocked him, and sent a wash of relief over him.
He leant down and gave her an involuntary hug. The girl stirred awake.
“What are you doing Rishi!” she scolded him. “Let me sleep, I have to get up early in the morning.”
“I just had a bad dream. You go back to sleep darling.” He kissed her and lay down himself, switching off the table lamp.
In the dark, he smiled happily. Phew! He sighed.
The usual morning sound of tinkling temple bells woke him up. He opened his eyes to see his wife of twelve years walk in, freshly dressed after her bath, carrying her usual assorted tray of puja-wares and letting the smoke from her incense sticks spread around the room. In one hand, she held a little bell that she was ringing as she walked. He watched her from his position and reminded himself how much he loved her.
She saw him staring at him. Without pausing her chant of her prayers, she asked him what was up with an upward nod of her freshly washed still towel-wrapped head. He shook his head and smiled, getting out of bed to hit the bathroom to get ready.
When he got to the kitchen table, she had already made him his breakfast. His office bag stood ready on a side table, with his shoes cleaned and shined by the side of a sofa. As he sat munching his eggs and toast, she came by to pour him some coffee. He put his arms around her waist and hugged her tight.
“I love you so much.” He sighed. “Never leave me.”
She freed herself from his embrace and laughed. “What has gotten into you Rishi? You were mighty strange at night as well.” She said, remembering what he had done.
“Nothing.” He said, gulping down some coffee and pulling her onto his lap with one hand. “I had a bad dream. Thankfully, I woke up.” He smiled, kissing her. “Anamika gone to school okay?” he enquired.
“Of course! Do you even remember you have a daughter?” Jyoti laughed, rising up.
“I’ll make it up to her this weekend. I had promised to take her to the theme park.” He winked.
“You’d better!” Jyoti scowled at him. “Or she’d raise all hell.”
The intercom phone rang. Rishi groaned and went to answer it. Jyoti was busy with her dishes. It had to be one of her kitty-party lady friends he guessed.
“Yes?” He said into the receiver.
“Shaab!” Came the lisping voice of the security guard from the reception desk downstairs, “Shaab… one ‘mem’ has come to see you.”
Rishi felt the chills rising up from his feet. Tendrils of ice were climbing slowly up his spine as he dared to ask the man.
“Who is it?” He trembled as he said those words. He hoped the guard would not give him the answer he feared the most.
He could hear the man ask the visitor and have what sounded like a small argument with her.
“She doesn’t want to say. I ask her, but she don’t want to say!”
“Tell her to wait in the visitor’s lounge. I will be down soon.” He said and hung up.
He sat down heavily on the sofa. His chest was paining with the throb of his heart. He was petrified.
Jyoti noticed the sudden change in his manner and rushed over.
“Darling, what’s wrong?” she asked, kneeling down on the floor next to him. “Tell me.”
Rishi always used to criticize the characters in the TV soaps they watched for keeping things secret and trying to solve puzzles on their own weird tracks instead of telling each other and handling it together. This was exactly one of those situations. He decided to tell her.
He started at the top and told her everything.
“And now I get the exact same call…” He finished his tale.
“Oh! My God!” Jyoti cried.
She hugged him.
She sat down on the sofa next to him and said with a smile. “You know, you got your ending wrong. I would have chased that bitch out of my house. Not left her to you and run away!”
“Good girl.” He said appreciatively. “But what do we do now?”
“Don’t be silly. This is not a dream or a TV soap. It must be someone else. One of my weirder friends. Come, let’s go down together and take a look.”
As they approached the visitor’s lounge, Rishi heaved a sigh of relief when he spotted their visitor.
“Oh, hello Jyoti!” The visitor greeted Jyoti, rising up.
Jyoti smiled and greeted her. “Hello Kala!”