When I was twenty-seven, I bought a flat on monthly instalments in the outskirts of Pune city. I was still living with my parents at the time, but I visited my flat whenever I needed to feel calm.
The walkway from the gate to my building was long and lined on both sides with innocent periwinkle shrubs. Inside, my flat was vacant barring a few cups, a milk pan, an induction stove on the kitchen counter, and a box of tea-bags on the shelf. All the walls were bare, and the floor was dusty. Eventually, I had to add a broom, a mop, and a bucket so I could clean the house whenever I visited. But I loved standing in my living room, listening to the sounds of children romping around the play area, their hollers reflecting within the volume of my house.
It should have been a peaceful period in my life. I was working for a software company as a programmer, and I was doing rather well. But there were times when I found myself being desolate over things. I often talked about it with my friend Rukhsar. I told her my feelings were not precise, and I could not describe them simply as sadness or longing. To which Rukhsar said, lightly,
‘When have you ever pinned yourself down to anything specific?’
Rukhsar was my best friend from the office, and she was almost always right about me. But there had been a few times when I had not been undetermined in my life. I had met Santu at the watercolour painting workshop he had conducted over a weekend, and we had dated for a while. It had felt exhilarating, like an experience in the colour mauve. I don’t know why I thought of it in terms of colour, maybe because Santu was a graphic designer and also a painter, or perhaps I was being semantically unoriginal in remembering that time. In any case, it had felt like being introduced to the idea of life, to what the commotion is all about.
Santu and I drank countless cups of tea at every famous tea-stall in Pune, and I spent a lot of time in his flat every time his house-mate was away. I was happy. Santu was happy. We could have gone on like that forever. Then Santu had looked at the calendar for possible dates for us to get married. I was not averse to marriage, in general, but I also knew that marriage is far greater than romance, that the needs of marriage are far greater than the needs of the people participating in it. I tried to think about Santu in that altered landscape. I zoomed into him to analyse everything he said and did while my heart thumped wildly with anticipatory unease. But I went too far, and then I could not see him anymore because my eyes had become blurred with that kind of focus. Now I can see how contradictory my behaviour was, but I didn’t know it then, and I broke up with him.
‘He is not my type,’ I generalised without having to define what my own type was.
Then a year passed. I was not unhappy during that time, but often I felt anxious as if someone had stolen all the furniture and electrical appliances from my flat. Every time I felt like that, it took me a while to calm down and remind myself that this was impossible because my flat was empty; I had never furnished it with anything.
One day at work, I goofed up with an integer value and crashed the build. I remember it well because that was also the day when Alok joined our company as a product manager. Our company was developing a machine learning-based software which worked capriciously. If the success rate of the algorithm reached around 70%, we thought it a spectacular achievement. It was that kind of a company, small, proprietary, kind, naive and peripheral in the big scheme of things. I wondered about why someone like Alok, who had previously been in a large multinational, had joined our company. Perhaps, I thought, it had to do with our managing director Dr Pai, who was well known in academic circles and working with whom was a matter of prestige. Then Rukhsar came to my desk with a stern look.
‘You have to be careful with your data types,’ she said, pointing at my computer screen. Thankfully, she had caught my bug in her testing cycle and saved me again.
My mother said she did not understand why I had bought my own house, but my father thought it a good investment. When I told Dr Pai about it, he congratulated me. He said it was wonderful that I was so young and yet so sure about what I wanted. But in truth, I had not been sure. Buying a flat had felt like a good idea, and I had gone ahead and done it.
The first time I visited my house, I turned all the taps on to see if they spouted water. The faucet from my kitchen sink flowed in an uneven stream, and when I switched on the yellow bulb above it, the water gleamed like so many golden crystals. It made me think about how one is always on the verge of losing something vital.
A few days later, I invited Santu to see my house. We drank dip-dip tea while sitting cross-legged in the balcony where dust had kept gathering in my absence. We talked about what pots I could plant here — lemon, chillies, aloe vera.
‘All the plants you love are very useful,’ he said.
‘Oh, are they? I hadn’t thought of them like that. What types do you love then?’ I said.
‘I love them all, I suppose,’ he said.
‘That sounds even worse than only wanting useful plants,’ I said.
He laughed and then became quiet.
‘Alright, I change my answer. I love that you love your useful plants,’ he said.
Alok was rather sweet, and everybody in the office began loving him right away. When he introduced himself in the all-hands meeting, he said he was from Delhi, and even though he missed eating the Chana-bhatura from there, he was also a big fan of Misal-pav popular in Pune. I thought, here is a man who knows exactly what type he is. I was intrigued, and Rukhsar laughed at my open curiosity.
‘Take care. Curiosity is the route to falling in love,’ she said.
‘You think I am curious because I am attracted to him?’ I said.
‘I meant the other way round. He will find your curiosity irresistible,’ she said.
‘But what about me? What will happen to me?’ I said.
‘I can’t tell you what even you don’t know, can I?’ she said.
‘You are of no help,’ I said.
‘Of course,’ she said, ‘Friends are useless like that.’
‘Then what are friendships for?’ I said.
‘For fun and games,’ she said.
Then she knocked on my head with a bent forefinger like she was checking I was still in there somewhere.
Rukhsar was a couple of years older than me. Perhaps it was this difference in age or perhaps the fact that she was married to a good man that gave her the space to express her true nature which was invariably kind and wise. There was one other person who was just as wise as Rukhsar, but I realised that only later.
Very sensibly, Alok became good friends with me. He invited me for a coffee. Then we went for dinner, and on another occasion, I took him to see a Marathi play. I saw him laugh at the right moments, and I was pleased that he had learnt quite a bit of Marathi. After the play, we walked back to his car, which was parked some distance away from the auditorium. It was midnight, and the roads were quiet but the air rustled like friction on silk. Alok held my hand in his, and it felt good to be held like that, our fingers knotted within the knot of the night. When we found his car, we got in and kissed, hidden by the dark film on the windshield.
Rukhsar knew everything, of course. Every morning when we met at the staircase and began the climb to our fifth-floor office as exercise, she raised her eyebrows and smiled.
‘What?’ I would say.
‘Nothing,’ she would say.
Alok and I went to shopping malls, and sometimes we bought things, and at other times we did not. We also watched a lot of movies during that period as we crunched through huge tubs of caramel and cheese popcorn. All the films we saw were love stories, not because we chose them particularly, but because most of the films showing in the multiplexes happened to be about love. We accepted the films at their face value and never analysed them afterwards. We also behaved erratically in other ways. We planned trips to far off places like Bali, Venice, Tokyo and Prague. We looked at hotels and Airbnbs and imagined how it must feel to inhabit those places even for a short time. My tiny flat, however, remained shut all this while because I did not have the time to make the long trip to the outskirts just to look at its bare walls and empty shelves.
I did not regret my little adventure with Santu. It had felt right in my body. I like to rely on expert opinion, and my body is an expert on its needs. That is also the reason why Rukhsar is my best friend and mentor. I pay attention to what she says because I believe she is an expert on life. During those confusing days, she gave me respite from my anguish.
She said, ‘Do you know, life can be experienced without having to die in the process?’
I tried to heed her words, but I continued to be anguished. I am beautiful, and I know at times this can be a liability. Some people feel the need to possess beauty or beautiful things, and sometimes they forget that the thing is a person. Other people’s wants can taint your needs.
When Alok and I finally did go on a trip together, it was our office trip with all our office friends, and we went in a minibus singing songs all along the one-hundred-and-fifty kilometres to meet the Arabian sea at Alibagh. At the hotel, I shared a room with Rukhsar in the north wing, and Alok shared one with a guy from the hardware team in the east wing. It rained ceaselessly in Alibagh. We became disheartened for a while, then we resolved to be unaffected by the weather. Every single day, all of us got drenched in rain as we walked down to the beach, and we soused ourselves further in the seawater. When we returned to the hotel shivering and streaked with sand, we took hurried showers in our rooms and went down to the restaurant to eat fried fish for lunch. It was a lovely vacation altogether. On the last day of the trip, however, everyone seemed to have had enough of the rain and chose to remain in the hotel and sip hot tea instead. But I couldn’t resist going in for one last dip.
I walked along the lane, which went straight down to the beach. When the paved path ended, I took my sandals off and walked barefoot. The sand squelched around my soles like mushy cake. When I turned around, I saw Alok was holding his shoes in his hands, and he was walking towards me, avoiding the little crabs that had suddenly appeared everywhere on the sand. We stood silent for a while, watching the sun go down like a sopping ball into the golden sea. Afterwards, Alok asked me if I would marry him, and I did not say yes. We kept standing on the beach, and the rain kept falling on us. Being still felt better than trying to do something specific. Eventually, we had to go back to the hotel, and on the next day, we returned to the city.
‘Why did I refuse him?’ I asked Rukhsar.
‘Maybe he is not the partner you want,’ she said.
But I was not sure if that was true. That evening, Rukhsar and I went down to the old city to buy a kurta, a surprise birthday gift for Rukhsar’s husband. We did not talk about our office affairs at all, and we found the perfect kurta in the first shop we entered. Then we ambled deeper into the fashion jewellery lanes and bought several jangling earrings on a whim.
Later that night, I forgot to take the earrings off before sleeping. They kept waking me up every time I turned in my sleep. When I awakened, I thought about what Alok had said on the beach: we were great together because we loved the same things. During one of those half-awake moments, I decided I ought to reconsider Alok’s proposal. What if everything he had said was relevant? But the next morning when I looked at my phone, I saw Alok had left me a WhatsApp message. It was an essay on how he felt about me, but after reading it, I did not know if he was in love with me or if he had gotten over the feeling. The only thing I understood was that he was going home on a pre-planned leave. I thought about the message and his going away, and I wondered if it could be seen as a good thing, a grace period for me to think things through. A few days later, we heard Alok was getting married.
Any news related to weddings was a sensation in our small office, but I felt distraught and strange for a while. Rukhsar asked me if I wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t know what there was to say. I went back to my flat instead and spent a weekend there, sweeping the dust and mourning for something. Maybe I needed to decide who I was once and for all and perhaps a severe classification would help me find love. I might have to start with my language, my ambiguous middle class, my city, the food I ate, and who knows what else. But I became exhausted from mopping the floor, and I just couldn’t do it. I survived on instant noodles and tea during that weekend. It was an intense experience.
That Sunday, Santu called me on the phone. I was surprised because we hadn’t spoken for months, and I think I had begun to accept his text messages in lieu of his voice. Hearing the soft and deep cadence of his speech nonplussed me. He told me that two of his paintings were on display as a part of a group show. He was thrilled about it and wanted to invite me to the exhibition. I agreed to go, of course.
At the gallery, I saw that he had changed his painting voice in some way. I didn’t know if it made his paintings better or worse, but I thought they felt rather intriguing. Afterwards, we argued about why he had become more abstract in his work and what direction he was going to pursue next. That evening we dined at my favourite restaurant, The Chinese Room, and even though I ate noodles again, I did eat better.
Alok was expected to return the next week, but Dr Pai kindly asked him to work from Delhi so he could have more time with his family to prepare for the wedding. When Alok did come back to work, he came as a married man. All of us congratulated him in a good-natured way. In turn, he distributed many types of sweets and snacks, and the office smelled of ghee and sugar for the whole week and attracted a string of vicious red ants.
On his first day, we sat around the lunch table with our motley lunch boxes expecting to hear more about the wedding and the new wife. But first, everyone wanted to talk about my lunch box which had a Mickey mouse printed on its lid.
‘It’s my cousin’s! I stayed at my aunt’s place, and this was the only spare box she had!’ I said.
Still, everyone joked about what my school-lunch might contain (cream biscuits, chocolates, berries?). But I knew they were waiting to see what might emerge from Alok’s lunch. Alok knew that too. He was taking his time, sitting with his lunch spread around him like a mini-explosion of Tupperware containers.
Love is a simple thing. Living in love is complicated.
That morning, while we were huffing up the stairs, I stopped Rukhsar on the third-floor landing because I wanted to tell her something important.
‘Rukhsar, I think I know what kind of a person I am,’ I said.
‘Tell me then,’ she said.
‘I am the uncertain kind. I don’t know who to be. I don’t feel like being anyone,’ I said.
She looked down at the foyer where people were swiping their cards and entering the building. She seemed intent on the rhythm of people stopping and walking, which appeared identical at first, but which wasn’t the same at all. She was wearing the pair of earrings that we had bought together, and it comforted me for some reason.
‘But sweetheart it is difficult to exist like that, in the way you mean,’ she said, ‘Being uncertain is a privilege, and it is not often given to women. You know that, right?’
I thought about my parents then, about my relatives, my empty house, the people who lived in my building, the people who drove their cars and who stood alongside me at the traffic signals. I thought about the vast system of nomenclature they espoused. But I also thought about Santu.
I had met him again last evening. He had moved to a different flat, where he had turned the living room into an office and a painting studio. It was a messy, chaotic place, where he lived and worked alone. For dinner, he had cooked cheeseballs and a quick fried rice using whatever he had found in his small fridge. We had talked throughout the evening and late into the night. He had told me how each person perceives the same colour differently, and I had told him how I might add a marigold plant to my possible balcony garden. Then he had apologised to me for bringing up marriage between us the last time we were together.
‘It is alright if you are not sure about anything. I am just happy to sit here and talk with you for as long as you will let me,’ he had said.
The next morning, I had woken up earlier than him. I had roamed around his studio, watching the morning sun fall on his computer and his sheaves of sketching papers on the desk. By the time he had woken up, it had gotten very late. He had found me a lunch box and asked if it was alright if he packed it with last night’s leftovers.
‘Of course,’ I had said.
He had dropped the box in my backpack, and I had rushed out of his house.
On the office staircase, I held on to Rukhsar’s elbow while she searched for comprehension on my face. I nodded, and Rukhsar, who has always understood me better than I do myself, pressed my hand and told me she was tremendously happy for me. We hugged and laughed, and the security guard from the third-floor office got distracted from his smartphone for a moment.
At the lunch table in our office, Alok began popping open one container after another. The array of food was dazzling: fulkas and chana, fried papad, gulab jamun, a fresh cucumber salad, sweetened curd, fennel for mouth freshening and some coffee in a tumbler. Alok kept pointing at each thing explaining how his wife had made it, and how he had helped her with it. She seemed to be a wonderful cook, and Alok was ecstatic. He caught my eye once, and I smiled back at him. In that glance, we settled on something, perhaps a kind of peace treaty or mutual indifference.
Then, quietly, I opened my Mickey mouse box. The cheeseballs rolled around. Rukhsar caught one and gobbled it up.
‘Your auntie knows how to cook a mean cheeseball, no?’ she whispered.
But I heard her, despite the din around us, and for the rest of the meal, we had to keep our faces straight even though we were guffawing in our heads.
A few days later, Santu gifted me a painting. It was huge and abstract and yet, I thought of it as a marigold plant in full bloom. What changes the tenor of a place, I wondered. When I went to the living room and heard the children in the play area, I thought their voices bounced unusually through the house. I puzzled over it for a while, and then I realised it was the simplest thing: my house was not empty anymore.
Nivedita Barve lives in Hyderabad, India, where she is working on her first novel. She is a software engineer by profession, who loves writing fiction as much as she enjoys writing code. Her short fiction has previously appeared in ‘The Bombay Review’.
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Nivedita’s short story ‘Arguments and Doubts’ published in ‘The Bombay Review’ can be read here:
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