7 March 2014

*Short Story* The show must go on

Rukmini smilingly watched as the girls giggled and screamed. Maybe it was a bad idea to have agreed to let them have a mike; the cacophony was reaching higher octaves as more drinks were consumed. For the first time, the entire bar had been commandeered for a party: they called it a bachelorette party. What was to her generation the application of turmeric and singing of folk songs, to these girls was dressing up in pink, sipping vodka martinis and dancing to Honey Singh. Rekha, the organizer had carefully planned everything: the menu, games, the music and even the after-party taxi rides back home. The only point of disagreement was on the food - Rukmini would not allow serving non-vegetarian food on the premises, even if it was catered from outside. After watching how much the girls enjoyed the arrangements, Rukmini wondered if she shouldn't offer Rekha a consultant's position for planning future events like these at the bar; it could be a new source of revenue. Although for future events she might have to use her discretion about the use of the sound system!

Rekha was a special person in Rukmini's bar. She had started to come when she was in her early twenties, fresh out of engineering college and newly inducted in a software company. She ended up a Shantam Pappum because she was hosting a foreign client, who had wanted to visit the place after seeing the signboard during her travel from hotel to the office. It was clear that Rekha was there reluctantly; back then though Rukmini paid a lot of attention to customers and soon charmed Rekha which resulted in her bringing other clients and then slowly, her friends. Rukmini had been delighted when she announced her engagement to a software colleague and even attended her wedding.

She didn't see Rekha for a while after that. When she tried to trace her through her friends, she got shoulder shrugs and heads swaying negatively, no one seemed to know what was going on and they were mildly irritated at her for retreating away from them. When Rukmini tried to reach Rekha at the number she was given, she got a male voice who said Rekha was unwell and will return her call when she got better. She never got a call. Rukmini had tried to catch her at work; but it turned out that she had quit. It had all added up to being peculiar, but Rukmini didn't pursue it anymore. Sometimes it was best to let people be. 

Rekha reappeared at Shantam Pappum, seven years after her wedding. Rukmini gasped loudly when she saw who it was and rushed to give her a hug. Rekha had come to organize a party for her friend. But first Rukmini wanted to hear what was going on in her life. The story she heard made her shudder. 

Upon marriage, Rekha had started life with her husband. Her in-laws were deeply religious and orthodox. She had known this before she got married and had mentally prepared herself to make some adjustments. Luckily, they wouldn't be living together so she had assumed that these adjustments would be required only when they met. In small ways she noticed how her husband too was held hostage to superstition. Since he rarely asked her to submit herself to it, she didn't feel it was a huge problem. A few months later her father-in-law fell sick and his malaise couldn't be diagnosed. Since her in-laws refused to come to the city for treatment, they spent time and resources trying to get him medical help at home. On weekdays there was work, on weekends trip to the native village; she soon lost contact with all her friends. Six months later, her father-in-law passed away, still undiagnosed. All through his illness various astrologers and local doctors were consulted. One of them put the idea in her mother-in-law's head that she, Rekha, the daughter-in-law was a bad omen and had brought evil spirits with her that eventually destroyed her father-in-law.

Rekha could understand why her mother-in-law would believe this: a man she was married to for three decades lay dying without a cause, the astrologer had provided her a person to pin the blame on, however irrational it may have been. What she didn't understand was her husband's reaction. Although he initially dismissed it, his actions spoke otherwise. If something happened to him at office, she would be blamed; if the car had a flat, she would be blamed. It was all said as a joke, but the frequency began to be distressing. She tried talking to him about it and he felt she was just blowing it all out of proportion. Her husband has been close to his father and she didn't want to emotionally upset him further while he was grieving.

Soon after, Rekha discovered she was pregnant. What was a joyful event, turned into hell. When her mother-in-law was informed, she immediately solicited the astrologer's opinion. He had deduced based on the stars, that if Rekha were to give birth to this child, her husband would die. Rekha's mother-in-law was so perturbed that she immediately rushed to the city to tell her son. When Rekha had got home from work, both mother and son had worked themselves up with the news, and asked her to get an abortion. Rekha refused. She implored her husband to see reason, but he was blinded either by the love he had for his mother, or the fear that he felt at the prospect of losing his life. For a week they tormented her, despite her parents stepping in to confront the mother-son duo; but nothing worked. Finally, she moved back with her parents. Her mother-in-law and husband had then suggested an alternate plan: she could keep the baby, but get a divorce. A brilliant strategy suggested by the astrologer. Rekha had tried meeting her husband without his mother, to understand if he felt similarly - unfortunately, he did. He said he loved her, so how did it matter if they aborted this one child? Surely, they will have more?

Abortion? Rekha cried at the very mention of the word. She had never considered this as a possibility in any situation. During the heated discussions of her student days, she was labelled pro-life, an anti-feminist, for voicing her opinion that she was against abortion. It was further sickening when the reason for the abortion was to her a silly superstition peddled by a charlatan. Rekha decided to go through the pregnancy, in the hope that the birth of her child, and subsequent non-death of her husband, believing strongly that the astrologer was a fake, would help her get back with her husband. She was wrong. Within a few weeks of her moving back with her parents, her husband filed for divorce. The husband re-married soon after the divorce, to a woman with the right stars, who also happened to be his first cousin. She later learned that as a consequence of consanguinity, the woman was unable to carry a baby to term; so her ex-husband would never die, because he would never become a father!

Thanks to the support of her parents, she had rebuilt her life. Her daughter was now 5 years old and cautiously discovering the world as a child of a single parent.

Rukmini watched Rekha as she embraced life fully, laughing as she spun around with her girlfriends, swaying her hips to the music: it takes courage to come out of a situation not of your making, and she was a shining example of that courage.

1 March 2014

*Short Story* The time between tiffin and dinner - II

This story is a continuation. Click to read PART -I

Rukmini went quiet. She didn't realize that she hadn't said anything, till Vikas cleared his throat and said,"Er, Em, I'm sorry if I offended you…" and before he had a chance to complete his sentence Rukmini replied in what she thought was a measured tone, "Sure. When?" By the time they reached the park, a date had been fixed.

When you are in your fourth decade, how do you dress up for a date? Your best kanjeevaram and flowers may be too traditional? Pants and cotton top might be too informal? A salwar suit, oh but she didn't have any of those! What she wore everyday were handloom cotton sarees, but they felt too much like work clothes. And who pays for dinner - was it expected or acceptable or appropriate to split the bill? These thoughts worked in her mind while the date neared. Rukmini was nervous; not outwardly, but inside her stomach was doing cartwheels and when she tried to imagine herself on the date, her heart rate accelerated. What will they talk about? What if he asks about the bar? And where was she going with this? In all the years since Murugan died, Rukmini had never imagined that she would be in a personal relationship with another man. Was she ready for it and importantly, did she want it? Her life was fulfilling already, so like any practical person she wondered what the point was in trying to meet a need that didn't exist. Yet, if she allowed herself to blush and seek out a corner of her mind that wasn't ruled by pragmatism, she had to admit that she found it all quite exhilarating.

Rukmini finally decided to wear a mangalgiri cotton saree with a zari border - the cloth felt soft and comforted her, while the zari added a dash of dressiness. Vikas picked her up outside the bar and they easily chatted away about where to eat. He had come prepared with options, he wanted to merely confirm that she enjoyed a particular cuisine. He was vegetarian too, and with a smile he added, "I also like to drink!" Rukmini was curious to know what conclusions he had drawn about her entrance and exit from the bar so she didn't rush in to disclose her profession.

They decided to eat Thai food. Right after their drinks arrived and each had taken a sip, Vikas abruptly said, "Look Rukmini I want to be honest about my intentions." Rukmini inwardly giggled at this. Intentions? They were two adults in a public place - she wasn't worried about intentions! "I want you to know where I am coming from. I was married and things didn't go as we planned. I was in a difficult place emotionally, and then I moved to this city to start afresh. I love my work, actually I own the company. Although I am not actively looking to get married, I saw you in the park and wanted to get to know you better. I don't know if this is romance or not, but at least I would like to see if we can try friendship first?" The speech was rehearsed; the words carefully picked so he didn't sound desperate. That's what Rukmini felt anyway. Vikas paused and Rukmini raised an eyebrow, "Let's get another drink, so you can get to know me better."

For the first time in her life, Rukmini told another adult, who wasn't professionally linked to her, what she did for a living. "I run a bar - it's for women only. I was married. My husband died in an accident and I had to do something to make ends meet. I had nothing to lose so I decided to take a big risk and start the bar." Vikas whistled out loud. Other people turned to look at them, but Vikas wasn't perturbed, "So the Smt Rukmini on the board is really you? You run Shantam Pappum? So that's why you wanted to eat dinner on a Tuesday, because the bar is closed, huh?" Rukmini nodded, bewildered about his response. Was he taking this positively or negatively?

"I have heard so much about you. From Sneha, my niece. She visits your bar frequently, as do her entire circle of friends. Now, I need a drink because I really want to get to know you better." He rubbed his hands with glee and signaled for the waiter's attention.

Vikas was inquisitive. He asked her a lot of questions about how it was to set up her business , sharing bits and pieces where his experiences intersected with hers. Dinner was consumed in the interim of Q & A. Rukmini felt she was being interviewed for a business magazine! But she had to admit that speaking about her journey with a fellow entrepreneur was quite enjoyable. Besides, Vikas was witty and by the end of the evening, her cheeks were aching from smiling. They decided that they would meet again. This time, it would at Vikas's house and he would cook.