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Short Stories

The mirage of an ocean

Written By: Smt.Sundri Uttamchandani

Suraj Saheb met me during the event. Pulling out a visiting card from his pocket and handing it to me, he said, “As friends who’ve studied together for seven years, our love for each other will not allow us to be content with meeting over here for a few minutes. Come home when you are free and bring your booklet of poems along with you.”

“I have my book with me today but I’m imprisoned in this meeting since an hour.” I wrote these words on a chit of paper and once again sent it to Suraj Saheb through the servant. And then, there was a miracle. Suraj Saheb himself entered the meeting. The sun’s rays on his diamond ring created a rainbow of colours throughout the room. Embracing me, he said. “Ram, it is your Bhabhi’s fault. Had I known earlier that you were coming, I would have pulled you inside. Thinking of you as my good friend, I feel a great joy but now your Bhabhi has separated my friend from me. Do one thing, you sit with your Bhabhi and I will go to the airport to pick up my partner…”

I was hardly over my friend’s cheerfulness that I realised that the servant had led me to Sunita Devi. I have no idea how I’ve never once laid my eyes on Sunita in the past fifteen years! I stood there with folded hands and continued to stand that way. At first, she simply kept staring at me. Then she laughed and said, “Yes, yes, Ram! My husband’s friend from Hyderabad! Please come and sit. She moved ahead and I followed her almost mesmerized. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined a room that looked as opulent as this one. The air from the air conditioner was masked by a perfume. A small sandalwood stool stood in the corner of the room, Sunita gestured to sit on it. There were many chairs with backrests yet I got this seat to sit on.
However, I now realised that the fragrance of sandalwood that spread across the entire room was actually coming from this seat. Sunita sat near me on a stool. The servant kept some dry fruits, biscuits and water on a small table. He also kept a round box. Sunita was not wearing any ornaments on her hands but when she was cracking the walnuts and offering them to me, I felt the same rainbow brightness of Suraj’s ring radiating across the room. “Have such beautiful fair hands come directly out of the diamond mines?” I asked Sunita, without any formality or hesitation.

She laughingly answered, “You are a poet, you will surely speak this way. But first, tell me when you were in Hyderabad during our wedding, where did you disappear for so many years after that? How many children do you have? Why did you never write any letter to your friend?” “Oh Oh! So many questions at once?”
These questions were mere introductions of the new circumstances of old friends. But how do I raise the topic of Nalini’s job with Suraj Saheb in such an atmosphere? After entering this dream palace, I had forgotten about my own Sudama nature. How I wish somebody had told me after partition that one needs to go to a big city to start all over again! But then, how would I have discovered the poet within me?

Say what you may, but this meeting of mine was an utter waste. When I narrated the story of Sunita and Suraj’s palatial lifestyle to Nalini, she kept her hand on my mouth and said, “Never go back to them again. We’re fine being people from Jodhpur. We do not wish to belong to Bombay. He simply left his friend in the company of his wife! Chhee Chhee! Why? Couldn’t he have taken you along with him to the airport?”

This ‘why’ only I could understand. How could I make Nalini understand? I felt the humble ring on my finger and the shoes on my feet. I did not compare Suraj’s face to mine in the mirror but the two of us who looked like brothers once did not look anything like each other anymore. He was like the sky above and I, the smelly earth below. Chhee chhee..these stupid thoughts that too in a poet! The poet is a king in the world of imagination! I remembered these lines - ‘Khud ko kar buland itna ke khuda bande se khud puchhe ki bata teri razaa kya hai’ - Make your will so strong that even God is forced to ask you ‘Tell me, what is it that you desire?’

‘All rubbish. Like a frog in the well who thinks of himself as great…’ This chain of thought, the warm embrace of the sun, the beauty and the good nature of Sunita - I don’t know what it was exactly that pulled me back once again to their door. As I reached the outer room, I felt compelled to return home because I hesitated to tell them that I was not just here to see them but was in need of a job. I started sweating profusely but as I heard the servants say that “Sir and Madam are not at home”, I felt relieved. Suddenly, two little angels came out of the room and started saying ‘Driver. Driver’ in the garden. They sat in the small turquoise blue car. The driver appeared saying, “You have to go to dance class?” and he drove them away. Poor me! They did not even notice their father’s best friend. Though Sunita had introduced me to them the last time I was here but perhaps I was standing in a corner…I remembered my own daughter Nandini… I have grown so old, I have a daughter of marriageable age!

It seemed just like yesterday. Suraj and me, like these two little angels, would wake up in the morning and create a riot to go Phaleli. We had no responsibilities and now our shoulders are burdened with responsibilities. As I was returning slowly, there was a liveliness in the bunglow. It seemed as though the sunflowers had woken up to the rays of the sun. I was shocked to see the servants run here and there. They all recognized the horn of their master’s car and so they were alert. But I understood their activity only when I saw the car coming in from the gate. Suraj alighted from the car followed by a Christian girl who was carrying some packets in her hand. Even Suraj had a few packets in his hands. The Christian girl shouted ‘Bholu’ and asked him get the carton of whisky bottles from the car dickey while she started opening the main door with her keys. In the meantime, Suraj greeted me and pulled me inside the room where Rosy, the Christian girl had already placed glasses with ice and whisky and plates full of almonds, cashews and cheeselings.

Looking around I asked, “Where is Bhabhi?”
“She must be around somewhere.” Saying this, he raised a toast and started drinking his whisky. Slowly while repeating old stories, he came onto something strange… “This bhabhi of yours has become too sharp after coming here.”
“Achha.”
“Oh yeah. Don’t even ask. Now look at Rosy. What does she do to her? I am her husband. Nobody will snatch me away from her…”

I started feeling suffocated. Is this our Suraj? Now his eyes were red and there was arrogance on his face. Winking at me, he said, “After all these girls too need to survive…”
“Meaning? You mean girls like Rosy...”
“Yeah. Am I not right? Actually Sunita has no occupation. She keeps idle and keeps thinking. Even my children are of no help. At 14, my elder daughter insisted on getting married to a Parsi boy. I thought it was better to poison her. There would be no reason to feel sad!”
I could no longer tolerate Suraj’s rambling. I covered my ears with my hands and said, “Can any father talk about his children in this way?”

“Children! Do you know the kind of dramas they have created? After four months of marriage, she came back to us…and her mother?...Even a burnt candle has some wick left in it but this woman has burnt totally from the roots.”
Sadness was now visible in Suraj’s words. It seemed as if he was about to cry. At that moment Rosy asked, “Your friends have not yet arrived. Shall I call them?’
“No. Now that Ram is here, he makes up for the absence of all friends.”
Suraj’s words were losing balance…

He stood up and stood behind Rosy’s chair. “Rosy! Are you fine?”
Rosy said, “Yes boss.”
“No…no…no. I’m not your Boss now.”
Suraj was trying to get rid of some imaginary burden.
I felt really disturbed within. As I stepped on the cigarette butt with my foot and was getting ready to go, I realized something was happening at the door. I raised my head and saw Sunita appear like an Angel! Suraj too looked in her direction and said, “Hello Sunita! Come over - there is just one peg left…”

Sunita came in but in a manner as if she had no relationship to anything there. I felt as if she had descended from heaven. Her feet were not on the ground - she approached me, and slowly said, “There was a call for you. They have called you back.”
I looked at the time, “Oh it’s so late!”
Suraj swaying, said, “Time has not passed - it has flown!”
I told a strange thing to myself, ‘Time must fly while living with Sunita. There is no question of time flying while with Rosy.’

Hesitantly, remembering the reason of my visit here, I told Suraj, “Now it is time for you to come to my house. Bring bhabhi along too.”
Suraj sat on the couch, “Surely. Surely” he said and tried to get up but was unable to.
I had seen the driver go with the angels. Ultimately, Sunita herself came to drop me in her car. She was driving and I was sitting by her side. For a moment it was as if we were going towards a garden on a horse. The reigns were in Sunita’s hands; I was only sitting behind her… “What a world!” slipped through my mouth.

“Did you say something?” Sunita slowed down the car.
“No nothing of significance actually.”
Sunita smiled looking in my direction and attended to the steering wheel again, accelerating the speed.
The gaze of this woman - full of brightness. Then I thought to myself - ‘What you couldn’t share with Suraj, if you tell that to Sunita then perhaps today’s journey would be worthwhile…’ Hesitantly I said, “I am indeed fortunate that you are coming to drop me home.”

Now Sunita slowed down her car and looking at me said, “Why have you suddenly addressed me in a formal way? I agree that you are indeed lucky.”
“What do you mean?” I quickly asked.
Sunita started laughing, “You are asking me for the meaning because I caught you stealing.”
“Have you not caught me stealing then?” I relaxed a bit against the car seat.
Now Sunita parked the car by the side of the road.

She said softly, “Now will you ask me why I stopped the car?”
“Yes” I was already confused, “So tell me…”
Looking at me and fidgeting with her handkerchief Sunita said, “Yesterday, Suraj and I were discussing something…”
“About what?” I gave a jerk.
“You are shaking like a child.”

I controlled myself and laughed.
“Suraj and I have decided that we need to have you at our new office Suryadhara in Andheri…”
I was staring at her surprised. I thought to myself that this is what I had come to ask for…
“I shall be the head just in name but you shall actually supervise and overlook the whole business…Don’t have any misunderstandings - I won’t be your boss, I promise you. I shall remain the same, your brother-like friend’s wife Sunita, that’s all…”
I was overwhelmed and I just took both her hands and touched them to my eyes.

The car started again. I closed my eyes and kept thinking of the moment where I touched her hands to my eyes. Cool, soft and pink hands. My mind said,
You have known my condition without me saying and how blissful I feel!’
“I think now we have to turn left, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes…” I opened my eyes to see. “The fifth bunglow on this road.” In a moment the car was in my aunt’s bunglow. I took Sunita inside my house. She embraced Nalini lightly.
“This is Suraj’s wife Sunita.” I introduced her to Nalini and Dadi.

“You thought I wouldn’t recognize her? Had I seen her somewhere else, perhaps I would have asked her if she was Sunita and Suraj’s daughter.” Everyone burst out laughing.
Nalini said, “I too have taken care of my body because this poet is fond of beauty but you look at least ten years younger than your age!’
Dadi said, “I had brought Nalini to your wedding. Your Suraj had sent a card and a big letter to Sukkhar. Then years passed by and suddenly Nalini and he have appeared in Bombay and they told me that they have to meet Suraj. They have remembered Suraj suddenly after so many years!”
I shook Dadi’s shoulders and said, “Do you know what heights Suraj has reached in all these years?”

“Son, even the Moon is not sitting down.”
“Even he is a famous poet. Every Sindhi is aware of his songs and poems. But Sudhama will remain Sudhama…” Seeing Nalini’s pale face, I put my hand to her mouth.
In the night when Nalini was sleeping next to me she asked, “Why did you clasp my mouth while I was talking about Sudhama?”
I simply laughed and embraced her, “Nalini, this friend heard me without saying anything…” I whispered in her ear.
Nalini then lovingly asked, “Did they say anything about the pay?”

“They are appointing me as the manager of their entirely new office.” Nalini heaved a sigh of relief, “Oh, it is so difficult without money. Today Dadi inquired how long we were planning to stay. She was thinking that our children might be missing us in Jodhpur.”
At the muhurat of the new office, Nalini saw the glass cabin and asked, “Will you be sitting in this cabin and overseeing the whole office?”
“No, this is for Suraj’s darling. He says that Sunita gets bored the whole day at home and then she irritates him in the night. He thinks that if the responsibility of looking after a branch office will be on her shoulder, then she will not trouble him anymore.”

“Is it?”
I knew very well what was implied by Nalini’s ‘is it?’
On returning home Nalini told Aunty, “Just see. It was a molehill under a mountain.”
Aunty immediately asked, Why? Didn’t Sudhama get any job from Krishna?”
I laughed and said, “It is not that Aunty. He did get the job but he shall have to work in the name of Suraj’s wife Sunita…”

Aunty slumped on the couch. After thinking she said, “The job might be in anybody’s name - what concern is it of yours? You are concerned with the money which you get.”
“He will get something else too aunty.” Nalini laughingly said.
“A fair lady will be sitting in a glass cage in front of him. This poor guy will do his job or write poems? The office will shut down in a month…” Nalini gave a loud laugh.
How suspicious is a woman’s mind!
I couldn’t sleep the entire night. My mind had grown very quiet.

After completing her kitchen chores when Nalini came in and found me awake, she handed me my diary of poems.
“Oh, why this?”
“Because you are in a mood to write a poem.”
Whether I was in a mood to write a poem or not was a different matter, but I still hadn’t forgotten the incident of placing Sunita’s cool, soft hands to my eyes.
Carrying her pillow when Nalini was about to switch off the lights and leave, I caught her by the arm and asked her, “Where are you going?”

“Arre baba, aunty’s house is so big; I can go and sleep in some room. How can I get sleep with the lights on?”
Kissing Nalini’s hand and looking at her entire being, I let her go. In Jodhpur’s small house when I used to write poems all night, then Nalini would keep awake, shutting her eyes. I felt humbled by her selfless sacrifice. At that time I wrote a poem in which Nalini and Sunita together appeared in a strange new form by the name of Kamudheni.
I had to look after the entire work of Suryadhara international, but for over a month I had to visit the main branch to learn about the job…

After office hours, Suraj would take Rosy and me for either a movie or to the Clubhouse. In a few days, I understood that Suraj had established Suryadhara international merely to keep Sunita out of his tracks and be close to Rosy. But there was a wall of wealth between us and I could not advise him in any way. I could see that Rosy was only interested in his money. I now began feeling very sorry for Sunita but Suraj too was my friend and inwardly I would blame him for leaving the path of honesty and walking towards lies.
Once it all became obvious. Rosy told Suraj blankly that ‘You have not valued me and I am going abroad for a job.’
Suraj came and told me, “Just see. I give her more than my wife, even then…”

I got an opportunity to support Sunita and said, “This is the problem with women like these. They are never satisfied,”
Suraj said, “But the idiot is asking me to buy a house for her mother. Now who is her mother to me?”
I said, “Friend try that too.” I was sure that the woman would leave him after she gets the house.
Before I could know whether Suraj got her a house or not, I had to join Sunita’s Suryadhara branch.
Sunita said, “I’m so bored here.”

I said, “There must be so much work here that you don’t get time to be bored.”
“Neither did the new manager teach me anything nor do I feel like working. I only sign papers without understanding them… well, now I have your company…”
To change the topic I asked, “From where did the gardener get you these flowers? Your flower bouquet carries such a nice fragrance! Otherwise roses from Bombay are not as fragrant as those from Hyderabad…”
Sunita smiled faintly and looking at the bouquet she said, “These are fake red roses. A friend from overseas had given it to me.”

I looked intently and they looked real with tender petals. That meant that the source of the fragrance in the cabin was somewhere else. But I laughed at the irony that there were artificial roses here and Suraj too had Rosy.
Sunita opened a file and gave it to me. I was thinking of Suraj and Sunita and looking at her. Sunita gestured to look at the file. Oh, right on the top of the file was a poem written by me, “Kumud, Your cool and pink hands…” My hidden smile was about to turn into laughter but I wanted to check Sunita’s expression too; she was serious and silent. My laughter disappeared. A fear gripped me instead.
Sunita said, “So have you started loving a damsel at this age? Your Nalini must be very sad looking at these poems.”

Clearing my throat I said, “Nalini is used to this kind of poetry of mine from even before our marriage. She believes that God has created man from a different soil and woman from a different soil. She says that she is made from feminine soil…”
Sunita was listening to all this intently with her hands under her chin. I suddenly kept quiet and said, “You too say something.” Putting both her hands down and taking a deep breath Sunita said, “This thought of your Nalini is really good… It is good for the entire womankind…But the circumstances for each woman are different. For some a situation arises when a husband and wife start living separately. Even though they live under the same roof, they do not share their joys and sorrows with each other. At such moments a woman feels depressed. All worldly pleasures appear like the mirage of an ocean…in such circumstances only work can be of help.”

I kept looking at Sunita’s ice cold being. Suddenly there was a picture of Nalini over her picture. Kitchen chores and household responsibilities had created a soft layer of blackness on Nalini’s self but she had never mentioned the deserted ocean inside her!
Sunita laughed and said,“Are you creating a poem on your new found love?”
I did not answer her but just kept staring at this apparition which was shining brightly from every angle. Just like sunrays falling on water, but inside there was a deserted ocean!

For quite some time Sunita was silent. Finally, as if shaking off smoke with her hands she said, “Look at your table, how many people have gathered there.”
Looking directly in my eyes Sunita said, “You have learned the job at the Santa Cruz branch and come here. Now teach me so that this crowd comes to my table… I wish to be busy with work.”
I was simply seeing the mirage of the ocean in the pupils of her eyes.
A new title of a poem came to my mind- ‘Kumud, you are the illusion of water’.

 

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