Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Faithful

Ram Jivan was not feeling good at all. In fact, if he knew the phrase, we would’ve said he was feeling ‘goddamned awful’. His head was throbbing, his heart palpitating and his thoughts atrophying. He didn’t want to think and he couldn’t stop thinking. Alone in his one room living quarters, he felt downright miserable. There was no one to discuss his confusions with; his wife was at the village and his uncle’s son was an idiot. Not that his wife being here would’ve been much good. The two of them didn’t quite talk the way his mistress and master did. Ouch. That reference didn’t help. He didn’t want to think about his employers. He couldn’t stop thinking about his employers.

It had been three years since Ram Jivan had been employed by the mistress to drive her tiny tall-boy. From then till now, Ram Jivan had been a part of all of mistress’ experiences and episodes, accidents and achievements. When she graduated from the tall boy to a bigger sedan, provided by the organization she worked in, for Ram Jivan it had been ‘their’ acquisition. Proudly polishing the bright red vehicle in the office parking lot, Ram Jivan had good naturedly taken the teasing heaped upon by the other drivers and office boys. He’d been a tad embarrassed by mistress’ choice of colour – bright red was so extravagant – but quickly even that became a matter of pride. Nobody could miss the arrival of the vehicle, and Ram Jivan in his simple way always felt that it was the impressive presence of the car that had given them the prized slot in the parking lot, right in front, where only the top three or four cars were allowed. It had never occurred to him that the grade and quality of the car did not do the trick; it was the grade and quality of the person who owned it.

From hospital duty when mistress’s mother fell dangerously ill, to wild late night parties where Ram Jivan insisted on staying on, in the heat or the cold, just to ensure that mistress got home safe and sound, this faithful servant had been there like a watch dog through it all. He had, over the years, acquired a silent, self proclaimed stake in the family’s highs and lows. It did not matter what they said or thought, for him, their happiness was of supreme importance. When mistress finally decided to tie the knot with that wonderful gentleman who’d visit ever so often, Ram Jivan was sure nobody was happier than him. The fact that mistress was getting on in her years, and was refusing to ‘settle down’ had been bothering him no small amount. He’d silently shared in her mother’s anxieties, aggressively defended her when she came up in local domestic help gossip, and tried in his timid way to nudge her thoughts in the direction of matrimony. Ram Jivan today was convinced, even if nobody else was, that his little machinations had served a great deal in helping mistress make up her mind.

Damn. It was exactly this sense of ownership and emotional possession that made Ram Jivan so bitter today. His sense of outrage was heightened by the fact that his feelings just didn’t seem to matter. Because, although he didn’t know it, for Ram Jivan, his mistress’ world had become a microcosm of the world at large. If everything was all right in that one, everything was all right everywhere. When mistress did something to shake that balance, Ram Jivan went into a tizzy. He simply could not deal with it. He got headaches, belly aches, heart aches. A few times, when he’d attempted to bare his heart to the mistress, he had not been exactly rebuffed; she was gentle but firm. He had not exactly been encouraged. He knew his place. He was the driver, taken very good care of, paid handsomely and treated wonderfully. But he was not an equal. ‘I disagree’, ‘I disapprove’ and ‘I dislike’ were not part of his vocabulary with his employer.

As his mobile rang shrill in the tiny room, Ram Jivan snapped out of his reverie with a start. Ouch. It was already 10a.m. and he had not even started the fifteen minute walk to mistress' house. He had to report at ten past ten, and this was mistress' reminder call. He wouldn't take it. He couldn't start his day with her razor sharp voice and her ghost like ability to percieve where he was, even through the phone. His gasped 'nearly there madam, just around the corner' would be greeted with her whiplash 'you haven't even left home yet, Ram Jivan,' and he'd wilt. He'd have to start jogging right away, and pretend that he'd not heard the phone. She wouldn't fall for it though. And it was so unfair, considering that the entire delay was caused in the first place by these blasted thoughts of her.

Ram Jivan was all of twenty three. Not more than a lad when he started work, his initial three months with mistress had been extremely embarrassing. He’d drive, but she’d park for him. He’d drive, but she’d reverse for him. Still raw and untrained at the wheel, he had been the butt of jokes from parking attendants, mechanics and drivers. But mistress patiently saw him through those green years – well, not patiently perhaps. His ears would singe with the burning criticism and mistress’ brand of caustic sarcasm. But something about her made him stick on. He noticed that she spoke like that to everyone, and he never got a sense of class difference. It appeared to him that the entire world seemed stupid to his mistress, and he just happened to be one such person in the line of her vision. She could reduce grown men to tears and not even realize that she had. He not only learnt to deftly dodge her temper, he began to hotly defend it when others complained. Even Ram Jivan could not say what gave him this sense of fierce and possessive loyalty – perhaps it was generations of feudal culture, socio genetically sowed into him, or maybe it was the security of the job, in spite of the ghastly hours and unpredictable schedule. Whatever it was, Ram Jivan was here to stay.

Here to stay, and mind his own business. Well, at least that was the way Medha viewed it. She found her driver adorable and exasperating at the same time. While his body language betrayed volumes, his lips would gurgle inarticulate monosyllables. It was impossible to make him say a word when he chose to be silent, and that would infuriate Medha. What's with this guy, she'd exclaim to herself. One tadpole of a driver whom she'd groomed and trained, literally brought up and civilized, and here he was, giving her attitude.

Medha shook off her exasperation, and her eyes off the rear view mirror, through which she could see Ram Jivan's glum countenance. Psshaaah. She had enough to brood about, without allowing menials, even well meaning ones, to get under her skin.

Medha's normally excel sheet like brain was going into a tailspin these days. Little did driver and mistress know how similar their mindsets were, that hers was in as much of a turmoil as his. She glanced up furtively again into the rear view. Was this a good time to change course? She smiled grimly at the unintended pun in her head. Change the course of what? Her car? Her life?

Forget it. Get on with work first. This was no time to get distracted. Medha got off at the office entrance and sent the car back for her husband, who was going in late today. She flipped open her mobile to re-read a message from last night, for the nth time. The palpitation started, as did the slight tremble in her limbs. She snapped her cellphone shut and attempted to do the same with her wandering mind.

Some time in the afternoon Medha's phone beeped again. The message was simple, and devastating. "One shouldn't have to beg for coffee". Medha felt as though she'd choke. This was far out. This was movie dialogue and B grade scripts. This couldn't be her life. A thirty something working executive, ambitious, married, 'settled' was the word. This was insane.

The next fifteen minutes passed in a blur. 3 people came to discuss work with her and she could pay no attention. Her husband called and she wouldn't answer. Nothing worked. The visual focus of things around her changed. Some things stood out in sharp relief, while others receded into a blur. Medha shouldered her bag and stepped out of the office. Her reply sms was terse and equally simple. "Coming".

'Ram Jivan, South Park shopping mall please.' Did she imagine it, or did Ram Jivan's fingers clench over the steering wheel? What nonsense. This was just pure guilt. But why should she be guilty? She wasn't doing anything wrong. And Ram Jivan was hardly somebody she owed explanations to, about why she was setting off to a mall in the middle of a working day.

By the time she was at the familiar table at the cafe, Medha's celebrated composure was nowhere in sight. She couldn't figure if the tremor, the giddiness, the breathlessness was pleasurable or painful. She knew she wouldn't be able to stand. Her knees, as she'd identified the feeling in those countless trashy novels of adolescence, were wobbly! Yikes. She hated this reaction. She hated the fact that there was no source. Every impact should have a source. How can you deal with a reaction if there is no action to correct; change an effect when you can't identify the cause? This was the closest to 'being' as she had ever come. A pure state of being, with no state of doing, or undoing.... She didn't have a problem. She didn't know what to solve.

'Hi'.

Damn. Funny feelings. Coordinates: middle of tummy, top left. Shifting in whorls. The knees weren't exactly cooperating. The breathing had decided to join in the fun and games and take a merry go round ride up and down her wind pipe. She wanted to slap every separate part of her anatomy and force them to behave.

Medha couldn't look. She forced herself to. A cascade of emotions poured through her like paint, and she felt the fumes rise to her eyes. This was incredible. This was idiotic. 'Hi'.

Nikhil smiled. She decided it was him she really wanted to slap. That same smug smile, like he knew exactly what was going on, and blast it, that same darting vulnerable look around the eyes. How did they do it? How did they hold up these cliches like neon signs around their faces and prove everytime that the cliches were for real, and were fleeting?

Medha couldn't believe she was actually here. Why was she sharing a table and an hour with a man who had pretty much brought every stereotype of men to life? Why was she here to hear the same pleasant sounding rubbish every self help book warned against? Why did she fall for drivel like 'one shouldn't have to beg for coffee?' Why, when her own husband was not a chip of that old block, was not like anyone she'd ever met before, was not likely to make stereotypes come to life, was not about to behave like an overgrown jerk in search of mommy and mallika sherawat rolled into one.

Medha stayed on.

Several floors down in the basement parking lot, Ram Jivan was fuming.

He had spotted Nikhil's self driven 4 wheel drive swing into the complex. His baleful gaze had followed Nikhil's form as it pushed through the glass doors, went to the bank of elevators and got swallowed into a crowd entering the one going up to the 3rd floor. When Nikhil had hesitated for a fraction of a second next to a florist near the elevators, Ram Jivan had wanted to throw something big and heavy at him. But whether it was those waves of antipathy, or something else, Nikhil change his mind and went on up empty handed.

Ram Jivan decided that he did not like Nikhil. That he did not like any of this.

He had not realised he was actually gnashing his teeth, jaws clenched, when his cellphone rang. He sprang up in alarm. Was mistress already done? Should he get the car out? Would he have to grin at that dolt when he picked madam up, if he escorted her? Why couldn't he just stare out of the window deadpan like most other drivers did? But no, madam would give him tension on that too later. Might as well be polite and ....

Ram Jivan started; the phone was still ringing. When he looked at the screen his heart sank. Damn. It was sir. Obviously he must be looking for madam.... shit shit shit.

Ram Jivan answered with a pant as though he'd come running to his phone. "Haanji, namaste!"

"Ram Jivan, where's Medha? Why is her phone switched off? Its never switched off. Is she ok?"

A wave of relief and joy flooded over Ram Jivan. Here it was. His solution handed to him on a platter. "She's at the South Park mall sir. I'm here with her."

"At the mall??? At 3 in the afternoon on a working day? And has her battery gone, do you know? Do you have a spare charger for her?"

Ram Jivan's heart was melting for this good, kind, caring man; his righteous indignation progressively taking wing at the same time.... "I don't know sir, we should be back in the office soon. Maybe she has come to shop for something...."

"Ok tell her to call me the moment she gets into the car. If her phone isn't working, give me a missed call from yours, I'll call back..."

The conversation was ending. Ram Jivan could rapidly see the window of opportunity close. He broke into a sweat. How to say it, what to do... a random comment would be taken amiss. He could not just arbitrarily offer information that was not solicited; both sir and madam hated that... but in another few seconds sir would hang up....

Ram Jivan's normally dull wit suddenly sprang to life with the sparkle of moral light. He had it. Just in the nick of time, he had it.

"O that won't be necessary sir. After all, even if madam's phone is off, she can call you from Nikhil sir's phone I'm sure".

There was a pause.

"Nikhil? He's there too?"

Ram Jivan could hear the bugles of triumph, the drums of victory beating in the background. He was being crowned the king of goodness in heaven, and all was well with the world. His duty as the ever faithful had been done.

"Yes sir, I saw him enter the mall 5 minutes after madam. Oh, but then maybe he has come alone and maybe they won't even meet, and then maybe I will have to give you a missed call after all whenever...."

"Ya ok ok." click.

Ram Jivan stopped blabbering midway through his ramble. He smiled.

Oblivious to his machinations, far above, 2 people were huddled in an intense and charged conversation. They weren't touching, but somehow they had a sheen around them that seemed almost electric in its crackle. No waiter came near them, no wandering sales girl stopped to make her pitch. They had a big Do Not Disturb aura all over.

"I don't know what I want Medha. Except that I want you. I know this is crazy and I have nothing to offer. But I can't help it"

"I can't help it??? Who do you think you are, Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind?? Its 'beyond my control' and all that jazz? You remember I hope, that it's you who walked..."

"I know... I just want you. I need to hold you. I could go for you right here..."

Medha gulped and allowed the sudden flip flop plunge in her stomach to complete its routine. Quelling the urge to grab Nikhil by his hand and drag him straight back to his studio apartment, she breathed deep. They were silent while she allowed the lust fumes in her head to die down. Looking at Nikhil didn't help. It genuinely was Clarke Gable from Gone with the Wind. It was beyond their control. This unshakeable, unbreakable chemistry that wove its rope around them, and had for the 8 years they'd known each other. 2 to recognise it, 3 to fight it, 1 to give in to it, and 2 to recover from its tortured, terrible impact. Like being in a car crash and enjoying it. Like standing in the middle of a storm and relishing it. What made people enjoy destruction? What made people give in to the dark?

Medha shook her head. This scan of the last 8 years helped her focus. It had been a long journey from those horribly lonely, tear streaked, self worth devastated, body hungry, mind wandering years, towards finding good health again. She couldn't let herself get there again... or could she? She looked up. Nikhil was devouring her face with what she called his 'hungry eyes'. You always touch me with your eyes, she'd tell him. You don't look, you make physical contact.

"I know, I know, I don't want to mess anything up in your life.... its not like I could ever give you half the happiness you have today... I don't want to disturb anything... but damn it, I can't handle this no entry sign. Sorry, pun unitended" Nikhil grinned wrily.

"Wow. So this is not even about 'leave everything and come with me Medha', is it? It doesn't even have the honor of an abduction, the respectability of flight with another man? This is not a french novel. This is just plain and simple seedy infidelity you are looking for. Without having to take responsibility for another person's life, society, or even feelings."

"Why the sarcasm? Why do you always cut me down like this? What have I done? Don't you want me too?"

"Of course I do. I never could stop. But this shit has to, somewhere. I'm getting late. Unlike you, fancy book critic, I have a job to do..."

"Right."

By the time Medha stormed out of the mall, she was furious. And unfortunately, very turned on. Sex with Nikhil was like a drug. You wanted it so badly that the anticipation was almost crippling. But she was determined to kick the habit. Go cold turkey if need be. Home is where she needed to be right now. For grounding. For morality. For goodness.

For good.

"I'll wait for you at the apartment tonight." A voice warm-breath whispered into her loose hair, "With wine and pasta. And some music I picked up recently". Medha jumped out of her skin. But before she could retort, Nikhil had walked away towards his cherry coloured 4 wheel. Even the sight of that damn car could turn Medha into jelly. They had barely ever managed to get into the car and roll up the window before reaching, fevered, for each other... how mad, how dangerous, how insane those days were....

Medha called Ram Jivan and went back to work. Her resolution lasted with the sun. Her phone remained silent, except for one quick call to her husband and some garbled excuse about needing a midday break. She never really could lie to him point blank. Honesty was his corner stone, his identity. A half truth was what she managed at best.

When the sun set and the office boy came to draw the curtains in her cabin, she waved him away. Pushing back her chair, she stretched and purred, the afternoon's sensuality still lending a wine like langour to her limbs. She stood at the window and watched the city lights come on, and smiled. Just the thought of being with him made her so heavy-limbed and fluid... what would happen if she actually went...

His room came into her mind in sharp relief. Zonal, mood lighting, plush rugs, the smell of incense that Nikhil so loved, and books and manuscripts everywhere. Hard bound, paper back, recent works, classics, thumbed through, brand new... intoxicating, that smell....

And along with it came crashing other images. Medha alone in that room and no Nikhil in sight. Medha crying outside that door, drunk at 2a.m. and neighbours popping out, but no Nikhil. Medha calling the house when Nikhil switched off his phone, and hearing that phone echo unanswered in that empty hall.... Medha buying a new rug for the house only to hear a caustic 'trying to be my wife?'. Medha waiting and Medha hoping. Medha hopeless and still waiting. And finally, Medha not waiting anymore...

Shaking her head, confused, sad, hurt, Medha left office. Her past was tumbling into her present, and her heart was feeling fragile. Compared to the robust tremulousness of the afternoon, this stillness was fragile. She felt the tears prick at the back of her eyes. The whole thing was sad. The investment of emotions were sad, the letting go of dreams were sad, the waylaying of life on the pathway of ideas was sad. It was a futile world, this one of the heart, and whether you destroyed it or nurtured it, at the end of the day, something was left sad somewhere.

"Lets go home Ram Jivan" Medha uttered those words like a talisman. What would she go home and tell her husband? Should she go home at all? Or should she give in to the tempest that had never even yielded driftwood?

Ram Jivan observed his mistress through the rear view. She looked so sad. He felt awful. He wished he dared entertain her with some story, bring up some funny anecdote, like he did at times when she was grim and frowning after work. But this was different. He couldn't break that silence, it was too full...

Suddenly Medha felt the entire world tailspin and her heart get completely entangled with her thoughts.... nothing was working. Nothing was making sense. She needed a compass and north was missing.

"Ram Jivan...." she hesitated...

"Jee?"

"Uh... not home.... Apsara Apartments first.... just for a little bit" she almost whimpered out that last sentence like a pleading child...

Ram Jivan shut his eyes in despair for one furtive second. Apsara Apartments. Cherry coloured 4 wheel drive in the basement. Ever since Ram Jivan had joined mistress' service she had gone there only a few times, but he knew who stayed there, alright.

He decided it was time to get brazen. "Apsara Apartments? So late madam? This is the same place we used to go to, a few years back, no? And last 2 weeks you've asked me to drive by the same place about 3 times? Same place you want to go?"

Medha sighed. This was no good. She would go home and send him off first, and maybe drive out later herself. After dinner. After a chat with her husband.... a chat? About what? How could she hold up her tattered flag of petty conversation in front of his brilliant white mast of honesty? Discuss work? Her break at the mall?

"Never mind, lets go home" she instructed her driver, and settled back into her seat, a wave of terrible exhaustion passing over her.

Ram Jivan relaxed. One day at a time, he thought.

When Medha walked in home, her husband was surfing the net. He looked up briefly and smiled. Coffee? He asked, as usual.

Guilt. She felt. Not so usual. Not for anything tangible. Not for any wrong done. Simply for an adultery considered. Were trecherous thoughts more harmful, or deeds? Did a thought through in detail indiscretion, that had never happened, matter more in the final book of Right and Wrong, or a senseless, thoughtless, real trespass? Which one notched higher on the moral crime graph? If she got terribly drunk one night and kissed a stranger at a party, would that be worse? Or were these betraying, adulterous thoughts worse?

"Thanks baby" she sighed, settling down into the couch. "I'm not hungry tonight, so go ahead have your high calorie food".

Her husband grinned. And with a flourish pulled out a bowl of rich gooey cheese sauce pasta from behind him. "Already doing that".

Pasta? Sure, now there would be wine too. And maybe hubby darling too had bought new music. How charming. What a plethora of choice. Utterly delightful.

The entire macabre humour of the scene helped her make up her mind. The world was amoral. Life was amoral. Feelings too, were beyond ethics. What the heck. She'd go. She'd take advantage of this amazing man, who'd never ask. She'd totally trample his trust and then decide what to do with the debris later. She'd never tell him. She'd live this double life, as many husbands had done, over years, and not feel guilty about it. Loving him, desiring Nikhil, committing to both in her strange twisted sense of loyalty...

"I'm going out" she was about to say, but she was interrupted. "What were you doing at South Park mall today in the afternoon exactly? What was all that about a midday break? You have a recreation centre in office too."

"Uh... so? I felt like going there. I'm the boss. I can go anywhere. Who's gonna ask me at office? Look, I need to step out for a ...."

"Did you meet Nikhil?"

Medha's lungs collapsed. She was grateful that her husband normally didn't pay much attention to nuances of the face, because hers must've looked like a panchnaama.

"Nikhil?" she managed.

"Yeah, Ram Jivan said he saw Nikhil entering the mall after you. Was wondering if you ran into him while you were there?"

"Uh... no. I didn't. I window shopped, had a coffee, came back. Wish I'd known, would've invited him for a coffee too..."

"Why?"

"What do you mean, why?"

"I thought that man hurt you terribly. Made you lose your entire sense of self? Why would you invite him to join you for coffee on a nice afternoon sneak away from work?"

Medha looked up. Her husband was looking at her intently. His tone was casual but his body was arrested. His eyes sparking.

"Cmon Medha, you deserve a break when you want it, you know."

Was he talking about the afternoon? Or was he talking about something else? What an incredible man, Medha thought. She put down her bag, nodding slowly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. We are all entitled to enjoy our breaks to the fullest".

The next morning, when the doorbell rang, Medha felt too lazy to go downstairs. Her night had been fuzzy and warm, and loving. She decided to check from the balcony first.

"Car keys madam" Ram Jivan beamed up, a sword of sunlight splitting his face into two halves.

Half innocent, half wicked, thought Medha, staring down at him in exasperation, in affection, in wonder. She flung down the keys and went back to the bedroom.

"You know sweetie", she murmured, nuzzling into her husband's neck, "in a progressively individualistic world, where family, society and community have ceased to matter, its funny where the face of ethic can pop up. Odd, where we can suddenly get our moral bearing, our faith from."

"I know." Her husband said. "Now stop being profound while behaving like a dachshund".

6 comments:

Kaaju said...

Quickly! Can't wait :-D You've left the story at a tantalising point - Balaji would be proud of you ;-)

riya said...

Hee. Don't you think I had a career with Mills and Boon??? Shit. Missed my calling man....

pavita said...

while the m&b reading seems most interesting, there is an odd poignancy to leaving the story at 'to be contd...' may just aptly describe the constant flux that defines our life.

Kaaju said...

Brilliant! You take me up and down and on a crazy emotional rollercoaster with your story.

disillussioned_me said...

hey! this story was a very good read. do you write professionally?

riya said...

:-) wow. thats a nice question to hear! No I don't write professionally. VERY amateur in fact.