19th September 2010, 06.00 P.M.
Somewhere between Madurai and Trichy
I see Raghu’s body convulse. I see his eyes pop open with alarm as the vibrations of his phone tickle him awake. A moment passes, and it’s my turn to get startled.
Raghu rubs the sleep away from his eyes. He shakes his head a little to gather his thoughts, and wipes his sleeve across his mouth. I wait patiently for him to take his phone out. It’d make quite a sight to see how quickly the sleep routs once he does that. He, however, does not seem to be in a hurry to attend the call. He looks at his translucent reflection in the mirror, contrasted by fluorescent bulbs from within the bus and the curdling night from outside, and gingerly flattens his hair to its accustomed style. After looking around briefly in a manner of checking if everything is properly in place and tipping a perfunctory glance at his neighbour who looks normal enough to allow him some sleep unlike the one this morning, he takes out his phone. I am surprised how routine a call from Anitha has become for him, so much so he does not feel the involuntary urge to grab at a ringing phone like any normal person, but takes time to sort out his precedences. Ben’s term for that would be ‘negligence’.
One look at the display and his mouth hangs open. A person is calling his AirTel SIM -that being me- and the person is not Anitha. The term ‘crestfallen’ would fit for both of us now, but in entirely different contexts. I am disappointed the call is not from Anitha so it would not be Ben. He is worried the anonymous call has come to a number that is supposed to be privy to only one other person, save him.
His face screws up in thought. He closes his fingers around the phone which is shivering silently. The new number blinks with a dire persistence, showing no clues of its whereabouts or purpose. I see the colour drain from his face. He lets the phone jitter for the better part of a minute, all the while looking at the figures in the display as if they were playing tricks with him, as if looking at them long enough would magically transform the numbers into letters, specifically the set of letters spelling ‘Anitha’. All the same, the call ends after a while. I see the trouble in Raghu’s face anyway. I realise it as much as he does. The caller, whoever he is, did not hang up. He persevered so long as to make the machine run out of its patience and cut the call for him. He may call again.
He does. And not only once. It has been three more continual calls and twenty more minutes before Raghu gives up. He attends the call the fifth time, even now not before the passage of a fair amount of hesitant seconds.
He does not talk anything. He waits with bated breath, his eyes jiggling in their sockets. He is pressing his phone to his ear much like a commuting villager in the back seat of a bus would hold a cheap radio transmitting FM to his ear - the equipment held with two hands, all intent, no talk. To his annoyance, he receives the same response. Silence. Not a rustle, not a whiff of breath. Perfect silence.
A few more seconds pass. Then, curiosity kills the cat. “Hello,” He tries.
“Who are you?” His voice wavers now. A lump constricts his throat.
Still no answer. Raghu lets out a sigh. I guess he decides it is some kind of a wrong call.
His blatant relief breaks the spell. “I’m the father of the girl you’re spoiling, you son of a bitch,” says a calm, cold voice.
Raghu’s head jerks with a spasm, a reverberation of a stronger one through his body. He swallows hard. It is the calmness in the voice; I feel a touch of panic myself. Ben has told me a lot about Anitha and her family. Most of his comments about Anitha have been pejorative, but with regard to her father and mother he seems to have a soft spot. He has mentioned many a time the tenderness her father radiates to her, the kindness and indulgence in his voice whenever he speaks with her. What I hear now in this alien voice could not be remotely categorised as kindness. I have no recollection of Ben ever having said about her father using profane language either.
I expect Raghu to recover from his impulsive shock. He will give it back. He is no chicken. In this short term of mine, I have seen him go with goons he calls his friends to gang fights, raise his voice at anybody who would try to bend him away from his will, stand against threat if one came his way, like now. I do not have to wait long to see today is an exception, though. Not a muscle moves in his face. I pass it for the weight of guilt pressing down on him and the apprehension of having been caught, until a groan escapes him. Raghu is scared after all.
“I don’t know who you are. I have no intention of making it my business,” Her father continues, his voice still a quiet monotone. “You might not have any idea who I am, what I am capable of. I hold in my hands some powerful strings here. If I gave any of them so much as a twinge, you would find yourself feeling sorry for ever having known my daughter. So, I give you an option here. You hear it right, because it does not matter you are going to take my deal or drop it, this is the only time I’m talking to you. From this moment, you are becoming a nonentity to my daughter. I should hear no more of you, nor see any hint of your presence in my daughter’s life. I want you to roll back up that wriggling little pecker of yours and run away from her and don’t turn back. I will forget you the moment I hang up. I would wish you a prosperous life if you made sure you stayed forgotten.”
He waits five more seconds as if inviting Raghu to talk his mind out. Then the line goes dead.
Raghu looks into his phone dreamily for a few seconds. His breath is shallow now, I can feel it. This man has terrified him. I understand now why Raghu could not retort. Raghu has seen his share of belligerent smartmouths in his hometown. He knows that if a person bluffed, he did it loud. He himself yelled at people sometimes to push things through his way and later laughed it off with his friends on how miserable those scums looked once his voice rose. If a guy screams off his head threatening to kill you, what he really does is try to intimidate you. That goes without saying he himself might be scared to death. But if a guy leans close to you, and tells you to mind your own business sotto voce, that is a different story. More often than not, he means business. Anitha’s father means business.
Raghu replaces his phone into his breast pocket, heaves an exhausted sigh, leans forward to rest his forehead on the steel handhold atop the seat in front. I pity him now. His face is drained of all colour, his hands fidgeting together on his lap, his eyes shut down so tight that his eyelids are wrinkled. I could almost hear the clank of thoughts churning in his head. He could be thinking of a solution to his problem or just reproving himself or Anitha for playing it so recklessly. The troubled expression in his face vouches for the latter.
A sudden urge to talk to Ben takes me over. It comes out of nowhere, for no particular reason. I wish Anitha would call now. I could feel the cold fingers of panic clutch something deep inside me. Ben’s voice from this morning echoes in my head. Ben’s voice with none of its high spirits, uncharacteristically thoughtful and ponderous. The news he said, his diffident tone today and the manner of the threat Raghu had to face moments ago, all coalesce in the back of my mind to form a picture. It is not a pleasant one. I could see that much even before it acquires a shape. All of a sudden, I do not want it to materialise. It scares me like hell. I want Ben by my side now. Ben is always the levelheaded one among us two. He would give me comfort. He would alleviate my fears with something as silly as a wisecrack, deriding Anitha or Raghu. Ben would"
Raghu straightens up. His visage is set with a grim determination. He takes out his phone. I think he is going to call Anitha, and allow myself a brief, stupid moment of bliss before he turns the phone over. The ominous feeling inside my head swells. His face screws up in concentration, his lips purse as if to kiss. With studious care, he begins to disentangle the back panel of the phone. I watch baffled as his phone comes apart.
What the hell is he doing?
He squeezes the tips of his fingers into the edge of the battery and bucks it out. And"
And my world fills with colours.
All the morbid thoughts I have been mulling over evaporate into nothing. I stare awestruck at the new vista opened up all around me. Raghu’s face swim into my view, all too clearly. I take time to notice his well defined face, the black of his eyes, the curve of his nose, the bristles of his goatee and the real tan of his skin. Tiny beads of sweat litter his forehead. No surprise Anitha fell for him, I find myself thinking absently, he is more than just a plain guy. He easily passes for a handsome one. Everything I found shrouded under an obscure, ruddy cloak until now looks resplendent with its true colours. I look around in a frenzy, curious to take in more than I could, cursing the limited capacity of my Intelligent Waves that they capture, process and send to me only one perspective at a time. People’s faces appear in a different light altogether. I saw all these faces before, each an untidy splotch of colours, writhing and shivering like immiscible dyes spilt over water. Now I see them all the way they are; each face speaks a thousand words to me. I see senility glimmering in whitened, thinning hairs, unrest intrenched in deeply lined jowls, irritation boiling in angry scowled mouths, uncertainty screening indifferent, clouded eyes, and -the last and the least- happiness portrayed in smiling lips. Time has come for me to see face is the index of the mind indeed.
A screeching noise comes from his left, but I am too preoccupied with my new experience to get distracted. Night is falling outside. An expanse of faded, twilit green whizzes by beyond the windows. I remain hypnotised by the stunning beauty of the colour, green, even with its shine marred by the deepening shadows. It has been off-limits for me all these days. I have seen too much of red and all its associated shades smeared in varying proportions in almost everything in my view, and equally much black and grey in shadows, comparatively less blue in less intense lightings. I see green for the first time now.
As I gorge my sense of sight ravenously with the wonders it is being revealed with, I forget all about a sense I do not possess-touch. Raghu has been handling me from the time he opened up his phone, and all at once, I see myself stuck out of his window. A distant, impersonal voice tells me the screeching noise I heard came out of his opening his window. But why does he hold me like this outside? Has someone told him his SIM has to be aerated enough to function properly? Or has he appreciated the intelligence I have in one of his deep thoughts and holds me out so that I could have a good look of the world around? I am looking at the faded yellow paint of the bus in the dull glow of the dusk when he makes me understand his reason.
He lets go of me.
The first thing I feel is my exhilaration tapering off. I feel quizzical, trapped between the residues of my fascination and a mounting confusion over what is happening. Then, things fly and settle into their places. My gusto vanishes instantaneously, and a sundry mixture of feelings rush in to fill the place like air whooshing in to fill up a vacuum, betrayal and misery prominent among them. I understand everything now.
I understand why Ben never believed in Raghu and Anitha’s love.
I understand why Ben said someone was going to cry a river soon.
I understand why Ben did not buy it when I said Raghu was a formidable guy but he was selectively and uncharacteristically tolerant with Anitha because he loved her.
I understand why Raghu took pains to travel almost three hundred kilometres, up and down, to meet with Anitha every weekend.
I see myself hitting the road, literally that is, bounce back a bit and subside with a dull, plastic thud. I keep looking at the bus from which I was dropped until it passes beyond my view.
Ben was wrong. I was wrong. I was terrified a few moments ago for the same reason he was this morning. All we were worried about was just Anitha’s father because we thought his new knowledge might agitate him to the point of trying to break away his daughter’s company with Raghu, thus indirectly breaking us apart, too. Ben did not tell me this, yet I can see his line of reasoning well enough now. We were right in a way; the old man even started to sound real ugly. He nudged Raghu mildly through that phone call, probably in an attempt to size him up. A nudge. That was all it took to make Raghu show his true colours.
I lie in the wilderness of human traffic, diminutive and forlorn. Vehicles whizz by all around me. If I had been alone all this time, I would be only to glad to get out of here. But there has always been this one guy who made sure I never felt alone. It could be because I gave him the company he was yearning for since the start of his time. Or it could be because he was satisfied he was not alone and repaid me for my helping hand. Or because he was so talkative he wanted someone to always listen to his gabble. But if he had accompanied me only because of any of these reasons, I would not be thinking of nothing else but him even when I am counting my minutes. Ben is - was - my world. His affection for me stems from deep inside, a chasm of emotions I could not name. I am leaving him alone. It hurts me the most to think of Ben, the wisecracking, incorrigible, witty Ben, going back into his silent shell, this time with his heart heavy with my thoughts. It gives me a little content to know Ben would never be aware of the manner I am wiped away. The shame of this ignominious end will pass away with me.
I see scuffed tire of a car speeding up to me. As I wait for it to come closer to my end, only one question rings insistently in my mind.
What have Ben and I done to face this, at last? There goes a guy in a bus minutes away from here - with his nap resumed I’m sure - not with a hint of guilt for manipulating a girl’s life to sate his own lust. He is at peace while I have to toil here. I have seen many losers in my life with Raghu, but this end hits me hard, now that I am one myself. Ben and I were happy in our own little world changing and accepting things the way we liked. We have never caused anyone any harm. So why should we be the ones to lament and perish as the result of a human’s greed? It’s just unfair.
The answer, lame as it may, comes just before the climax.
Our love must not have satisfied the environmental factors of human ecosystem. It must have waned because the world revolves on ‘the survival of the fittest’. Maybe forms of love like that between Raghu and Anitha are the fittest today. Those of the sorts Ben and I developed between us are destined to the doom.
With that, I see the last thing in my life, the crisscrossing patterns on the wheel that would ease my passing.