A Short Story by Towfeeq Wani
Preeti said, “Maybe you better stop doing that. You have no idea how absurd and irritating it is” and I asked, sheepishly, “What?”
“Let go, like you will understand,” she replied her favourite reply and the customary silence followed. I tried my best to reckon what I was doing that she found particularly irritating. I had not pushed my index finger up the nostrils, for sure, like I used to do at the time I had left this city for good, five years ago. But then, I do a million other things people do not like and are easily offended with.
“I am sorry, Pretty” I said and tried to cover up the distance I had dawdled behind trying to apprehend the mistake I had committed.
“That: that ‘Pretty’. My name is Preeti and it should be pronounced in its Hindi accent. I don’t want to be named like a foreigner, and even if I do, Sameer doesn’t like it.” It was a surprise, not because I wasn’t expecting this to be the mistake she had been irritated about, but, because she had never addressed Sameer like that before. In those olden days, I would have expected a wonted ‘Mister’ before Sameer, but now as they were married, and had been so for the last three years, only Sameer seemed prerequisite for their bond. She had sent me an invitation through mail back then, which I had to reject quite reluctantly, after seeing it nearly two weeks later, when I returned home in the new city I had moved to. I would have loved to be there for her marriage, had I been anywhere near ‘her city’, which was of course ‘my old city’ too. For me, it was next to impossible to come from God knows which ocean or sea I was sailing through those days.
Pretty: yeah, that was what we used to call her in our school and college days. Even today, all these years later, I could very well sense every muscle of her face full of prettiness, although, the three years of marriage had well-nigh skinned her arms. The engagement ring perhaps a 1-carat diamond ring glistened on her right hand. A sign of marital status, or maybe, a manifestation of wealth, I thought. Now that we were walking together after all these years, the cackling laughter had shifted places with implicit silence. The evening breeze passed listlessly with pigeons gliding over it. In our school days, we used to shout whenever we saw them in the evenings, declaring that they too had finished their tiring school day and were returning home, only to complete their homework. But today, reticence sufficed. During a walk of about twenty minutes, we had not gone beyond a dozen sentences, even though, we had met after almost five long years. Marriages change people, or maybe, better to say, only girls.
“You should come over for dinner. Sameer will be happy to see you, and then, we often talk about you.” She said, finally.
“Thank you, I will see,” I replied and waved my hand as the automatic door of the bus slid close. I had waved my hand like that for nearly all my life, except for those five years I was away, and obviously for the years I was too young to join the school, which roundly meant eighteen years. The only difference between then and now was, perhaps, that today she refused to recognise my expectation to see her again, willingly or unwillingly, which defeated the very basic purpose of her inviting me over for the dinner at her house. I left the bus-stand, without waiting for the bus to leave. I too wanted to change the old habits now, though I was yet to get married. But, even then, I was not a girl. Being male meant that I could carry on my pre-marital habits to my post-marital life.
Later that week, as I got consumed in meeting so many other old friends and acquaintances, I hardly got time to think about Preeti, though, the prospect of her unwillingly inviting me for the dinner did cross my mind several times.
Weeks rolled by. It was almost the time I had to leave the city again and get back to my work, far away, when I bumped onto a tall, light-eyed, lanky fellow near the Old High School. Sailors and politicians have a problem of not recognising people easily, though the latter group pretends to remember everyone, every time. Now this man, he stood in front of me, smiling warmly, expecting me to shake his hand and start talking about the time our mother used to serve us food from the same utensil or something like that. My mind, on the other hand, was unable to fetch any old memories or clues related to him. I was almost sure I had never seen him before.
He waited for some more odd moments. Seeing my persistent awkward ‘I-don’t-think-we-have-met’ mood, he diluted his smile slowly and introduced himself, “Hello. I am Sameer, Preeti’s husband.”
I was unsure what exactly to reply with. He was the husband, caretaker, of a woman whose caretaker, if not husband, had been me for more than thrice the time she had lived with him. I envied him for taking her away from me. Now, she had ceased to be that old ‘Pretty’ I once knew. She no longer talked like that, she no longer smiled like that; in fact, she no longer lived like that. She even hated the name we knew her by, the same name she had loved more than her real name all her life, before marriage. For me, Sameer was the only person, living or dead, to be blamed for that.
“Hello” I smiled back, out of compulsion.
I shook his hand hard, channelling all my anger to the place where our palms and fingertips met. I had seen him just a few times before, in fact a long time ago, when he was in the senior batch at the Old High School, while I and Preeti were five years junior to him. Our time at school just overlapped for one year. After that I had never heard of him, until of course I read the invitation card of Preeti. I never asked Preeti why she married him, which according to me, was quite obviously her father’s decision.
“It is so good to see you after all these years. What a lovely place we have met at! The Old High School you remember it?” He chuckled pointing towards the board that had the name of our teenage school in white bold letters, on a black background. I faked a smile, again. “Now, as you are in the city, you should definitely visit our house over dinner,” he continued.
“Yeah, of course, it will be my pleasure. I am really sorry I couldn’t come over to your place last month when Preeti invited me, but you know, how busy. . .”
“Preeti invited you?” He interrupted, looking surprised, or maybe a little furious.
I was clueless what to say next. If Preeti had forgotten to tell him that she had met me, it was not a problem. But what if she was afraid to tell him and that I had revealed a secret that I was not supposed to? Preeti had told me that they often talk about me, and then Sameer mentioned that too. So, how could it be that she had not informed him about our meeting? I found myself in total confusion.
“She might have forgotten. I just bumped onto her near the bus station last month and she casually asked me for the dinner. Not a big deal, you see.” I lied, neatly. We had scheduled that meeting almost a week before we actually met. It was annoying, how I had to lie to him just because I had met his wife, who happened to be my only friend all through my school life. It was like he had the sole right over her, like he was the king and she was the subject, like he was the oppressor and she was the oppressed, like he was the dictator and she was the servant, like he was the master and she was the slave. It might seem to be the exaggerated version right now, but that was exactly how I felt that time.
“So, shall I see you tomorrow, at dinner?” He woke me from my stream of thoughts.
“Sure,” I managed to end the conversation. He walked away, to home, where Preeti must be waiting for him. After a certain time, people get used to pain and suffering, and beyond even that, they start falling in love with it, and then comes a point when they are afraid if treated with love, for they cannot afford to lose it, again and again. There, pain is found to be a better alternative to the love that is deemed to end. Preeti had surrendered herself to him, which left the question of her happiness unviable. His happiness and consent was all that mattered now. Like Preeti’s happiness and freedom, the idea of visiting their place for dinner was vague and out of question now.
Two days later, I left the city. I was the son of seas now; the land disowned me, like Preeti.
Towfeeq Wani has published a novel ‘The Graveyard’ in 2013 and is an aspiring screen-writer. Towfeeq can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org