THE DARK ABODE

Sarojini Sahoo

THE DARK ABODE

Sarojini Sahoo
Translated by Mahendra Kumar Dash English Copy Editing by Paul J. McKenna

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Second English Edition 2009 by Indian AGE Communication Originally Published from India as Gambhiri Gahara in 2005. Also published from Bangladesh as Mithya Gerosthali in 2007. © 2005-2009 by Sarojini Sahoo. All rights reserved. All artwork © 2008 by Ed Baker. All rights reserved.

ISBN 13: 978-81-906956-2-6

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in the which is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

PRINTED IN INDIA
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About the author... Well known for her frankness, Sarojini Sahoo is a prime figure and trendsetter of feminism in contemporary Oriya literature. For her, feminism is not a gender problem or any confrontational attack on male hegemony, so it is quite different from that of Virginia Woolf or Judith Butler. She accepts feminism as a total entity of femalehood which is completely separate from the man’s world. She writes with a greater consciousness of the bodies of women, which would create a more honest and appropriate style of openness, fragmentation, and non-linearity. She has received many awards, accolades, and honors including, but not limited to the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award (1993), the Jahnkar Award (1992), the Bhubaneswar Book Fair Award and the Prajatantra Award. Her works have been translated and published in English as well as many languages of the Indian subcontinent. Her stories have been included in anthologies published by Harper Collins, National Book Trust, Gnanapith, and Sahitya Akademi. She has published eight anthologies of short stories and five novels. Her English publications include an anthology of short stories Waiting for Manna and this novel, The Dark Abode. Born in the small town of Dhenkanal in Orissa (India), Sahoo has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Oriya Literature and a Bachelor of Law degree from Utkal University. She now teaches at a degree college in Belpahar, Jharsududa of Orissa. She is the second daughter of Mr. Ishwar Chandra Sahoo and Mrs. (late) Nalini Devi and is married to Mr. Jagadish Mohanty, a veteran writer of Orissa . They have a son and daughter. About the Translator... Mahendra Kumar Dash is a software professional and an avid follower of Oriya literature whose mission it is to spread Oriya works in English. About the Artist... The cover art and the inner sketches are drawn specially for this work by Ed Baker. Ed lives in Maryland (USA) and is a published poet and artist. About the copy editor and bookmaker... Paul J. McKenna is a jack-of-all-trades living in the USA. He holds a Bachelors degree in Music Education, a certificate in Children’s Literature, and is a published writer. He works as a court reporter

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and also has his own music production and graphic design business.

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Forward… It is said in the Saimdarua Lahiri that Uma is the source of all power in the universe and because of her; Lord Shiva gets all of his powers. She is often depicted as half of Lord Shiva, the supreme god, and she also is a major symbol of female sexuality. Her name refers to her being born daughter Himalaya, lord of the mountains. Beautiful, gentle, powerful consort of Shiva, mother of Ganesh, Kartikeya, Saraswati and Laxshmi, she encompasses their powers and exudes a tranquil, serene beauty and provides a calm within. Uma is a symbol of many noble traditional (Hindu) virtues: fertility, marital felicity, spousal devotion, asceticism and power. She refers to the symbol of early feminine power and energy. Known formally as goddess Uma, Lady of the Mountains, she shows us how to balance the many aspects of our lives. Beautiful and (benignly) powerful, she is also known as Shakti, Parvati (consort of Shiva), Ambika, Annapurna , Bhairavi, Candi, Gauri, Durga, Jagadmatai (Mother of the World), Kali, Kanyakumari,Kumari, Mahadevi, and Syama. Is the protagonist in this novel a modern, living form of Uma? Is she all that Uma represents in human form? I invite you to decide whether she is or isn’t. Other English works by Sarojini Sahoo… Sarojini Sahoo Short Stories (2006), published by Grassroots, India, ISBN 81-89040-26-X Waiting for Manna (2008), Communication, India, ISBN 978-81-906956-0-2 published by Indian AGE

Partial Published works by Ed Baker… Restoration Poems (2008), published by Country Valley Press ISBN: 978-0-9820196-0-3 Neighbors, Books 1,2,3 & 4 (2009) http://www.newmystics.com/lit/EdBaker.html Good Night, Moria Press, e-book and print version: http://www.moriapoetry.com/ebooks.html Song of Chin and Hexapoems II, Ungovernable Press, via their blog: http://mischievoice.blogspot.com/ Points/Counterpoints, Fact Simile Press, e-book: http://issuu.com/fact-simile/docs/points_counterpoints
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More on Ed Baker: http://edbaker.maikosoft.com

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Dedicated to

Suresh Palamel

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Call her by name and she will appear. Gaze upon her face; her beauty. Celebrate: metta, mudita, upekkhs

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CHAPTER 1

“You are a fairy without wings.” The very first sentence of the e-mail made Kuki blush. Getting soothing emails embellished with romantic poems had become routine for her. The e-mails seemed to mark the exchange of feelings between two teenaged lovebirds separated by distance. He had written, “You are a fairy without wings. But that does not deter you from trying to break free of all your shackles. If somebody were to gift you wings, would you come and join me here?” Kuki would read the e-mail umpteen times to discover and rediscover the sense of every single word and try to experience them with the imagination of a poet, blushing shyly all the while. It was as if she had become a dreamy and bubbly teenager in these last few days. Her outlook seemed to have become pure and fresh and she seemed to have returned to her sensational sweet sixteen again. Kuki had never been into writing poetry; nor was he, really. Yet each of his letters was poetic and tasteful. While writing poetry, he would often slip into the realm of prose and vice-versa with remarkable spontaneity. Kuki’s heart had initially been reluctant to heed the invitation and she remembered the first letter she had written, “My body is too frail for its moods. My aging flesh follows the demands and diktats of family life. My weary senses return to my courtyard seeking warmth among my kids. Now my wings no longer have their old charisma that I will fly in response to your call. There is no longer that endless, expansive, azure sky for me, nor its grand brilliance that would absorb me inside its bosom. But you shot cupid’s arrow and a thrill rippled through my body, mesmerizing me; and the music of the unforgotten years sounded once again in my soul.” “Why are you so lonely? Perhaps you do not know. It was when you entered my life that I first began to dream.
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I have enjoyed many women indiscriminately. I have been sincerely insincere with them. I was like a butterfly passionately addicted to pleasure, sucking the juice of flowers and leaving them stunned and bewildered only to hop on to other flowers. But it was you who made me realize what love was. Do you know what I pray for? I pray I can remain stuck like a pollen grain to your petal-feet, listening to your anklet chimes.” Aniket, her husband, used to write such gratifying lines for Kuki when she was sixteen or seventeen. “I would be blessed to adorn your feet.” How old was Aniket then? Twenty, perhaps twenty-one. Time had played its all too familiar but never-welcome tricks and had now left its mark on the color of his hair and the wrinkles on Kuki’s body. Youth had been left behind somewhere far away near the distant horizon. And love? It was as if love had been long buried under the apple cart of life, condemned to a monotonous and never-ending treadmill. Her dreams and aspirations lay hidden beneath the rubble of the dreamhouse of immortal romance that she had once built so enthusiastically. Safiq was taking great pains to convince Kuki that he was not flirting with her. His love was sincere and intense and not a fleeting and ephemeral one. He would sometimes send her a sketch drawn from his imagination or some favorite quotations of his. Quoting Einstein, he had once written, “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.” Slowly and without any reason whatsoever, this person she had never met had somehow begun to occupy a corner of her heart, and perhaps, of her subconscious mind, too. It puzzled her immensely, though. How could a man love someone so intensely without ever having even seen her? What was the motive? How was this possible? She had even raised this question once, so intrigued had she been by the question. Apt came the unique and flattering reply. “Who told you I have not seen you? Look—aren’t you exactly like this?” The sketch sent as an attachment with the mail was
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somehow ‘Kuki’ for this man. The sketch revealed that he had spent these last few days bringing his imagination to life, Kuki thought. How eccentric these artists were! The girl in the sketch had locks of hair hanging down to her shoulder. Emotions of trust and anxiety were playing hide-and-seek on her face. A nubile nymphet oozing youth, she was draped in an almost transparent fabric clinging to her every curvaceous contour, revealing more then it was hiding, leaving nothing to the imagination. A creeper wound its way round her waist and her navel was tinged with a shade of topaz. Kuki kept looking at the sketch and tried to find herself in it. Which part of her body did the sketch resemble most? The dark almond shaped eyes? The aquiline neck? The rotund bust? The navel? No, perhaps the resemblance lay in the coy smile. It was that smile that defined his perceptions of her. How could Kuki have concealed it within herself? Plagued by orthodox and conservative thoughts, she would retreat a step even as she moved two steps towards that man. No, Kuki had never engrossed herself in amorous love. The reason for her fear and suspicion was beyond her comprehension. Perhaps the man had read her thoughts much earlier; that was perhaps why he had tried to purge her doubts and dilemmas. “Listen, we must transcend the petty considerations of caste, religion and nationality. Never allow them a place in your heart.” But Kuki found it impossible to ignore her age-old values ingrained so deeply within herself. It was not as if she had never met a Muslim. When she was a child, they had lived in a house that was adjacent to a Muslim colony. She had also had a few Muslim friends at school. She used to visit their houses as well. Shabnam came from a prosperous family. Their house was well decorated, with manicured lawns and many different varieties of roses in their garden, all of which spoke highly of their status. They had a Doberman whom Kuki was very scared of. Sitting under a tree in the garden, Shabnam would tell Kuki stories about Allah.
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Then there was Latifa, another friend of Kuki’s. In sharp contrast to Shabnam, Latifa’s family lived in a gloomy, muddy and filthy house in very unhygienic surroundings somewhere deep inside the colony. A foul smell would emanate from their yard which was always flecked with droppings of goats and hens, and sometimes, even feces of children. Kuki could never invite them to her home. She would steer off the topic even if they expressed their desire to visit her at her home. They had, of course, come to her house a few times, but her mother would always grumble after they left. Angry, she would start throwing the utensils this way and that with a resounding crash. She would start washing the bed-sheets as soon as they had left. Kuki had to wash in the backyard the utensils with which she served food to her friends. As the mattresses could not be washed, they were sanctified with sprinkles of holy water from the Ganga. Kuki used to do all this out of fear of getting a beating. However, she herself had never considered Muslims untouchable. True, Kuki hadn’t ever considered them untouchable but wasn’t there a faint ray of mistrust concealed somewhere inside her? This was something more than any personal vendetta; there was no personal reason behind her mistrust of Muslims. She was what her circumstances, upbringing and environment had made her. The prejudices had seeped into her psyche. She couldn’t help it. As a child she had often heard elders say, “Don’t trust even a dead Muslim.” She had never analyzed or questioned this stance. She had accepted such dictums at face value, like so many other things. Although the inhabitants of that ‘colony’ were not looked upon as creatures from some other planet, they were still never considered as one of them. It was as if, to them, the Muslim ‘colony’ was a miniature Pakistan! He was from Pakistan. Kuki had never imagined that she would someday fall so intensely in love with a Pakistani. She found it impossible to refuse his passionate overtures. On the contrary, she would spend hour after starry-eyed hour poring over his e-mails with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a teenager. Each time she re-read his
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messages, she discovered new meanings in them—it was as if she had never read them before. If she took too long to reply, she would find a passionate letter, choked with emotion, waiting for her in her inbox the next morning. He would write that he wanted to lie down with his head in her lap and weep. “Each night my visions wander far, To places I cannot travel to; And there they mingle with your thoughts In a lovers’ rendezvous” Kuki would send him a list of all the household chores she had to manage and earnestly plead with him not to be so restless over the slightest of delays on her part in replying to his e-mails. But she herself would become listless as she ran through his letters. He once wrote in desperation, “I know I can never visit India, nor can you come to me here in Pakistan. The relationship between the two countries, the visa problem, and so many different restrictions will keep us separated. We may not be able to even see each other; yet, if you so agree, we can belong to one another till death overtakes us. But please never mope over the fact that you are a Hindu, and I, a Muslim, or that you are an Indian, and I, a Pakistani.” She had read Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” But the word, ‘Pakistani’ was synonymous with ‘terrorist’ for her. A slew of questions disturbed her. What if her husband and children were to discover this secret online affair? What if her son were to ask, “Mama, how dare you love a Pakistani?” Her son, her own flesh and blood, was no less than a fundamentalist. The very thought of Muslims made his blood boil. The younger one was more gentle. He loved her very much, so perhaps he would sit by her and say, “You don’t know, mama; all Pakistanis are terrorists. You have not seen the movie, ‘XYZ.’” What would Kuki say, then? The man offered namaz only once in a while; nor was he very fastidious about observing Roza during Ramzan. On Id-ul-Fitre he preferred a quiet nap. Instead of going to the
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Idgah, he would sleep quietly at home. He believed in Allah, of course, but he called himself a Kafir. He would bombard Kuki with child-like inquisitive queries in every letter of his. She tried to explain things to him the way she did to her children. She would narrate to him many tales from Hindu mythology, the Upanishads in particular. He would be overwhelmed by each tale. He said there was a fascinating and well-defined philosophy in Hindu mythology—something that the Quran lacked. The Quran spoke only of social commitment; its aim was to build a healthy society, he said. Whenever she woke up early in her childhood, Kuki would hear the “Allah Ho Akbar” cry floating in from the mosque. One could not hear bhajans from the Hindu temples, though. The mosque in their town would wake up at dawn while the temple was still wrapped in sleep. Her younger sister couldn't help but frown each time she was disturbed in her sleep by the cacophony blasting through the loudspeakers of the mosque around the corner. She would grumble, “Is Allah deaf? Why do they call so loudly?” Kuki had once ventured into the mosque with Shabnam. Shabnam took her to every nook and corner of the mosque. Kuki was ten or eleven then. Although her eyes were looking for a deity in that big vacant room, she didn’t dare ask Shabnam about it; she was engulfed with some strange fear. She was petrified that someone would recognize her and ask, “Hey, aren’t you a Hindu child? How dare you come inside?” She ran out of the mosque when she couldn’t bear it any longer. And she had never visited a mosque since then. It was a vacuum for her. Her notion of what a mosque was really like was as vague as her notion of Islam. Of course, she knew that there was no idol-worship in Islam and had even made offerings once at the dargah of Moinuddin Chisti. Yet the absence of a deity in the dark interiors filled her own heart with an unusual emptiness. Kuki would often make fun of Hinduism. We have created numerous gods for our endless desires: for birth, death, wealth, wisdom, everything one could think of. Yet her
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heart looked for an idol where no idol was there. The human mind searched for something concrete and tangible. She knew God was formless, without attributes, and impossible to define. She knew God was nothingness yet omnipresent, but her heart could still not accept the empty chamber. But did love care for religion? The true religion of love was to tread the untrodden path. It was as if he had totally mesmerized Kuki. “Each passing day makes me love even more and more,” he had once written. “Today, more than yesterday, and tomorrow, more than today.” Kuki also felt that there was a freshness in their love, a freshness that refused to fade away or become stale with the passage of time. And she was utterly fascinated by this man’s absolute frankness and candor. He had revealed everything about himself, even the darkest of his sins, in his very first letter: He had two wives and four children. His first wife lived in the village and did not have any sexual relations with him now. But her two daughters stayed with him in town and were pursuing their higher studies. His second wife, incidentally, had been his student. He had had sexual relations with her before their marriage. He had also had a long-term relationship with Linda Johnson, an American girl, who had clued him into the intricacies of sex. But he was no longer in touch with her. Kuki had read this man’s life story the way she read the newspapers. “A complete pervert!” His ‘love’ was like M. F. Hussain’s love for Madhuri. It was not her cup of tea, she had thought. “Perversion goes hand in hand with genius; be it Einstein or Flaubert, it boosts creativity.” This was the only consolation for her. While the man’s honest and spontaneous ramblings impressed Kuki, his habit of going astray had filled her with utter disdain and contempt. After reading his letters, Kuki became curious about the nikah of Muslims. Of course, she knew a Muslim man
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could marry four times. She had once quizzed Professor Siddiqui to satisfy her curiosity. He cited several references from the Quran and tried to explain things to her. “Look madam, the Quran doesn’t encourage four marriages in the sense you look at it. The law was actually made to protect women and the destitute. Many men die on the battlefield. The system of polygamy was devised to protect widows and orphans and to save them from harassment.” Kuki felt a sense of relief after hearing Professor Siddiqui’s analysis, but the feeling was short-lived. The man who loved her had not married a second time to save some helpless woman! And what of his relationship with Linda Johnson? Yet, Kuki couldn’t forget his love for her. She felt as if no one had ever given her so much in her entire life. Kuki was gradually drifting away from her own usual domestic self. She felt as if she was living in a dream world where there was no one else apart from the two of them. She lost interest in devising innovative delicacies for her children. Nor could she apply her mind to the little problems Aniket came up with. The plants, unwatered, began to wither away. The garden had stopped smiling in delight; with their moth-eaten petals, the flowers sat gloomily, looking emaciated. Portions of the lawn had become bald, rooms had been smutted with spider webs, and a patina of dust had gathered on the idols placed on the shelves. Taking advantage of her absent-mindedness, the housemaid was skipping her work. Her domestic set-up was moving through a period of chaos. But where was she? She became obsessed with sitting in front of the computer and responding to the call of love. She was trying to provide shape to all that remained unexpressed within her. And to her surprise, even after saying so much everyday, new thoughts would blossom inside her like an endlessly meandering stream. levels. They had decided to have their conversation at three

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The first one was about the common man’s world; the second was ethereal love; and the third one related to sensual love. In the course of this conversation, Kuki mastered several words she had never been able to use earlier. After her children had left for school and college, and Aniket, for work, she would spend hours on the computer, writing letters to this man. She would be very upset whenever she heard of any strains in the relations between India and Pakistan. The prospect of a war between these countries frightened her immensely. Even the thought that her home, children, husband, parents, siblings, and other relatives were all together here was not of much consolation to her. Perhaps everything would be destroyed by a bomb. She felt as if her heart was beating at some unseen place in Pakistan and would suddenly stop with the dropping of a bomb, leaving behind a pool of blood. Her world would come crashing down. Kuki often felt that India and Pakistan should not have been two different nations at all. What was the need to divide them and leave them fighting forever? Kuki had never seen Kashmir. But what could there possibly be in Kashmir that the two countries had been fighting over ever it as if she was a beautiful damsel? Her blood would curdle whenever she heard of terrorist activities in Kashmir. Shocked by the brutality of those people, she had decided Pakistan was a heartless country. Like Sparta, Pakistan had been manufacturing militants masquerading as jehadis. But all her notions changed after she came to know him. She realized there were still some people with compassion and intelligence amidst the oppressive ambience created by the military junta. Aniket and Kuki were returning from their visit to a hill-station. As they could not get reservations, they had to wait in Delhi for three more days. While visiting various places, they had entered the Dhumimal art gallery. Kuki was fond of art but Aniket had quite different feelings about it. Modern painting, like modern poetry, was obscure to him. He felt suffocated in the serene ambience of the gallery and preferred to go outside for a smoke. Kuki was
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now left alone with her senses. As she scanned through each painting hanging on the wall, one painting in particular held her eyes. There was a strange loneliness written all over the painting. She felt as if someone had held her hand and dragged her down some unfamiliar street of an unknown city to a very lonely man; a man whose anguish was so acute that it was yet to find expression in words. The tiny letters read: Alienation, oil-on-canvas, 191 x 143cms, Safiq Mohammed, published by Pakistani Art Forum, Lahore. Kuki did not have enough money to buy the painting yet she felt life would lose all meaning for her if she could not buy it. Rich people never understood painting, yet they would buy paintings to show their wealth off, she thought. She was a connoisseur of art, but could not afford to buy paintings. She couldn’t concentrate on any other painting that day; she kept returning to that one canvas. The man at the counter asked, “Madam, we can get a print of the painting. Would you like one?” Kuki had been delighted. She had returned with the print and brochure. She could get Safiq Mohammed’s email address from the brochure. Then she had knocked on the door of Safiq Mohammed’s consciousness. She had never imagined that someone eager for her would say, “Each night my vision wanders to a place I can’t travel to.” “Why can’t you come to India?” Kuki asked him. “Restrictions on travel between the two countries have been relaxed now. Besides, you are an artist. You are famous for Alienation. Who will come in your way? If Sheema Kermani’s troupe can perform in Kolkata, if the Pakistani cricket team can come and play in Indian cities, why can’t you come to India?” He tried to evade the question, and instead, diverted Kuki’s mind to a love poem replete with effusive sentimentality. He was as much outspoken as he was emotional in writing the poem. As if he had been trying to find an answer to that question, “If Sheema Kermani’s troupe can perform in Kolkata, if the Pakistani cricket team can come and play in Indian cities, why can’t you come to
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India?” One day he wrote a reply of sorts, “The whole world is a stage. Never think that India and Pakistan constitute the entire world. There are so many other places in the world where we can move freely and chat for hours and where I can hum poems close to your ears under the moonlight. One room and one bed is all we need to dissolve all barriers and barbed-wire fences. It is my dream that someday I will take you to a place like that. This man is tempting me with a dream again, Kuki thought. He began to tempt her with a dream at a time when her heart craved freedom from the monotonous letter writing; freedom from an unresolved mystery! Yes, the world was vast, big and wide. Besides, how much space did two people need? As Kuki wove such dreams, the man offered her a strange proposal. “You know, I wish to sketch the most priceless painting of my life with your love. Come close to me, become my skin, my self, my world, and bless me with the gift of fatherhood.” Kuki was both startled and offended by the man’s candid proposal but she also felt a shiver of excitement. An invitation beckoned her from a distance as if she was a goddess and that a devotee from some remote place was coming to worship her. She felt restless, but whom could she confide to? There was no one at all. Yet she wished she could speak to someone. She wished she could tell someone that there was a man she felt like writing poetry for. An unknown fear also plagued her. The gentle breeze kissed her forehead and wafted by, sending a shiver down her spine and inducing a feeling at once unfamiliar and so well known. “I am in this prison of a soul that I have created for myself dwelling over my unrequited love for you." Finally she wrote, “Okay, I am more than willing to come to you with all my love and dedication and bless you with fatherhood. If I, me, my body, can be the canvas for your priceless painting, I am ready and I am looking forward to your most beautiful creation after Alienation. Kuki’s consent delighted him. He wrote, in his next letter, “You are the beacon of my life; the new dawn in my existence. You came into my life, and I began to see life
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anew. I’ll sketch the most priceless painting of my life with your love. I’ll tie your name with mine. As you are the new morning of my life, you won’t be Kuki any longer, but ‘Rokshana.’ I want to introduce you to the whole world as Rokshana.” Kuki felt numb. Her whole world seemed to be crumbling into dust at her feet. The skies suddenly looked grey and gloomy, the rustling leaves, dead, and the chirpy birds, silent. She became very pensive. She was not herself any longer. She was somebody else. Then who was she until today? Whom did the man love? Kuki or Rokshana? But Kuki had never wanted to marry him. She had desired only love, unconditional love. Why such a condition, then? Why ‘Rokshana’ instead of ‘Kuki?’ Who was this Rokshana? From where had she suddenly surfaced? Where had she remained hidden all these years? Within the recesses of his wild imagination or in the pages of the Quran? The very thought sent a shudder down her spine. Am I being selfish? Is it selfish to want to preserve oneself and one’s own identity? She drafted the return e-mail in her mind: “Look at me. Feel me in my wholeness. Experience me as I am. Don‘t try to transform me. Let me be myself. Don't push me into oblivion. Accept me as I am. Accept me with my wrinkles, my tokens of age, the traces of my beauty, my innocence, and my arrogance. Accept me as I am. Do not try to transform me. Tell me, whom do you want? The complete Kuki or the new Rokshana?” Kuki became restless. Her otherwise nimble fingers seemed reluctant to move over the keyboard. Her words refused to find shape. She groped in the darkness for the right letters, for the right words for her emotions. But everything remained as formless and shapeless and vague as ever. After much effort, Kuki managed to jot down everything she wanted to say. A wave of relief swept over her. She wished to fly like a bird. She wanted to return to her threshold and her garden. The rose leaves had shriveled up. The buds on the dahlia plant refused to blossom; those wild plants looked pale behind the grass. Smut had piled up in the corners of the house. Dust
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gathered on the furniture. Sarees lay in a mess in the cupboard. A peepal plant had sent down roots beside the bathroom window. Kuki had been far away from her domestic self for too long. It was time for her to return to it once again. Kuki tried to arrange everything neatly in her house. She chatted heartily with the plants in the garden, and they also smiled at her new look. She finished all her household chores that afternoon and even prepared delicacies for everybody. Her house began to feel complete with broad smiles lighting up every face. Yet, a Rokshana still writhed somewhere in Kuki’s consciousness. She could not bring herself to send the letter she had written. There was no mail for her either. She hadn’t received anything after that day. The inbox showed, “You have zero unread mail.” Yet her heart would pound heavily; the man would be desperately searching through his mailbox everyday. Perhaps he would think something dreadful had happened to her. She would often have this funny feeling at the oddest of hours that the man would come and knock on her door, or would stand by the window and smoke cigarette after cigarette, desperate to meet her. Kuki sat once again in front of the blank monitor, her listless fingers on the keyboard. Perhaps, her fingers would now come to life. Perhaps she would write now: “Hey, look, I have returned again to your world. I am Rokshana, not Kuki. But what is there in a name? It is meaningless. I will gift you fatherhood. You can now start the most priceless painting of your life.” Kuki’s fingers became animated, but she reclined into silence after a few lines. She reopened the old letter in which she had expressed her desire to be Kuki and only Kuki. But a sense of emptiness kept her gazing at the lifeless and now useless computer. What would her next course of action be? Was she ready to relinquish her own identity and start afresh or was it best for her to find solace in her very own small paradise, her sweet home?

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What about her love, then, the love she had nurtured in her breast all these days? Was it false? What about her hopes, her dreams, her despair? Could she possibly survive without the love of that man? On one hand, there was Aniket and his old, sweet and stable world with its lost charm. On the other, there was Safiq and his alluring, exciting new world. Both had stretched their hands out towards her. Which one would she embrace? What had she hoped to find? she wondered. These were the things men lived by; the forms of their spirit, of their culture, of their enjoyment. She had seen nothing else anywhere for many years. She remained immersed in her pensive introspection; her body was still as a statue. It was time for her to move but in which direction was she to move? Experience and instinct battled ferociously inside her. She had felt her fingers raring to run over the keyboard. But she remained motionless. All of a sudden a thought blazed through her mind -- Nuni. Yes, it was Julius Caesar who had given the name ‘Nuni’ to his beloved Cleopatra. Love encompasses every obsession. One can even feel like giving a new name to that very special person and calling her by that name. What was she so worried about? Why should the fact that someone wanted to call her by a special name give rise to such a dilemma and such hairsplitting? Why was she getting so upset? It was a kind of rebirth for her. Kuki started on her third e-mail. “I am ready to live my lovely life with you, as your beloved. You can call me by any name you want to. Yours, ROKSHANA”

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CHAPTER 2

Rokshana, Words become stagnant All sound chokes in the throat. Wringing all moisture from the expression, Distorting meaning, All my efforts in finding you With these jumbled words Drain me out fully, And turns futile. Safiq wrote a small poem this time. Even though painting was the umbilical cord of their blooming relationship, Kuki had never had a chance to see any of his paintings except the one at Dhoomimal Art Gallery in Delhi. She knew Safiq the poet better than Safiq the painter. When she wrote as much to him, Safiq said, “I’ve never been a poet. It is you who has made me one. Your intense love has given birth to the poet inside me. You can provide forms to your feelings in poetry.” But Kuki found it was beyond her. Expressing her feelings in the form of poetry was not her cup of tea. But did that mean that she loved him any less than he loved her? Kuki had written, “I don’t have a fertile literary mind like you do. I can’t juggle with words to convey my feelings. I can’t imagine the sky, the moon and daffodils as you do. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I cannot articulate my dreams or abstractions as you do. Nor am I very proficient in English. But your abilities compensate for my inabilities in this field.” “What is so special about words?” Safiq wrote in reply. “All that matters is that you convey your feelings. It doesn’t matter what means or language you use. It can be

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as primitive a language as gestures or non-verbal cues or even lip movements.” She was enthralled by his broad-mindedness and his enthusiasm. After ‘meeting’ Kuki, he had started visiting the library, scanning through voluminous books on the geography, history and culture of India. All this was just so that he could understand her better. He wanted to rid himself of his misconceptions about India. He had even started learning Kuki’s mother tongue, a few words every day. He tried to use some of those words in the e-mails he sent her. “I love you.” A small expression, but he seemed to have searched the whole world for it. Je t’aime. French. Ich liebe Dich. German. S’ agapo. Greek. Ani ohev otach. Hebrew. Te amo. Spanish Amo-te. Portuguese. Jag a’lskar dig. Swedish. Dutch, Japanese, Albanian, Morocco, Polish, Russian and even Latin. He’d carried on and on, giving expression to his desire in 38 languages. “Do you know what they mean?” he’d written at the end of the list. “They all mean ‘I love you.’” Kuki was tired of reading all this. It was impossible to remember more than two or three of them. What kind of a guy was he anyway? Sometimes like a haughty adolescent? A naughty teenager? A wild, original but perverted genius? She had addressed him as “My hot and sweet hamburger.” And Safiq had asked, “Hamburger? How come me, a hamburger?”

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“Because you possess a teenager’s sensibility coupled with a wise man’s intellect,” she replied. Safiq had been delighted with the compliment. Kuki sometimes addressed him as the ‘sun,’ and sometimes as the ‘banyan’ tree. The sun because it provided sustenance to all creatures, and banyan tree because it provided shade and shelter to many. Safiq was always full of praise for the funny but innovative sobriquets Kuki used for him. It was as if the two of them were playing out a game of words among themselves. Kuki had once been out of town for eight days. When she came back and opened her mailbox, there was a bunch of e-mails from him. His restlessness and longing echoed powerfully and poignantly in each of his e-mails. He had written: “One week without you, is like one moment Without air, like one day without food And a week without water. One week without you is like a month Without sunshine or shelter; One week without your voice is like a Year without the sound of music, or birds Or of rain and thunder. One week without your comfort Is a week without sleep. For my heart knows no rest, And my nights give me no peace. One week without your love, and my days are Bereft of all beauty; though I see all around me, others who are called ‘beautiful,’ none compares with your visage As I spend my hours gazing at your picture. One week without talking to you Is like years alone in the wilderness, Or on a deserted island; though I may talk with people on the streets, My heart feels lonely and stifled. One week without you is like a year
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In prison; though I may come and go As I please, my soul knows no freedom. One week without you in my life is like No life at all; darling. The mail also carried the following solitary line: “I have turned blind. Come back soon to hold my hand.” It reminded her of a similar line she had read somewhere during her school days. Perhaps it was a line penned by the ancient Oriya poet, Upendra Bhanja—“As a newly blind yearns.” All of Kuki’s replies were terse, rational and devoid of superfluous emotion. It was as if Kuki was the mistress, and Safiq, her servant. Each word keyed in by Kuki was important to him. Sometimes Kuki had the feeling Safiq was her pampered, naughty son who had gone astray and was trying to return to being normal. She had never tried to bring him to the correct path, but Safiq himself was trying his best to come to grips with the new world he was encountering. Kuki’s world was a strange one to him, as indeed his world was to her. While telling her about himself, he had once blurted out, “I have had sex with 52 different women. Have you had any such experience, Rokshana?” He sounded like a victorious soldier, proudly describing his sexual exploits. After reading that e-mail, Kuki was really heartbroken. Her faith in him lay shattered. She had got emotionally attached to a person who was nothing short of promiscuous and perverted. There was a limit to everything. How had she become so entangled with this disgraceful creature? she scolded herself. She felt betrayed. The more she delved into the matter, the more intensely did she feel an all-encompassing darkness closing in on her. Was this what the darkness of hell was like? She was new to this kind of lifestyle. It was not as if she hadn’t heard of extramarital affairs. But every time the faintest of weakness for someone else had bloomed inside
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her, she had simply wiped it out as if she was scrubbing dirt off a used utensil. So this kind of thing also exists in this world? she thought to herself. She had encountered such things on television and page-three reports, but she had never understood the psyche of the individuals involved. Just imagining the scenes of lust made her shudder. She felt stifled and suffocated. Kuki had never met Safiq in person. She had only the photo he had sent with his first e-mail at the beginning of their virtual relationship. Staring at the photo, Kuki thought what is divine pleasure for this man is acute anguish for me. And this was the man about whom she had begun to harbour such intense dreams? The relationship she had nurtured all this while, was all of this nothing at all? Enjoy today to the fullest and forget tomorrow? She had never believed in this creed. As if ‘one-night stands’ could snatch moments of happiness; like beggars enjoying a plate of mutton with their alms at the end of the day, trying to forget the trials and tribulations of life. But was it possible for a man to live only for himself? How would his children grow up? With parents spending their evenings in obscure nightclubs, who would teach their children, “A for apple” or “A plus B whole square…,” etc? What kind of trauma would the children be living through? She was suffering the pangs of sharp and penetrating remorse. She felt only disgust and hatred for the man when she remembered his words, “I have had sex with 52 different women.” What does he think of women? Are they mere commodities, only toys for carnal pleasure for him? What about emotions? What about the heart, the mind, the soul —does nothing except flesh have any importance? Does Safiq have a heart at all?

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This man had duped her with his sweet and alluring words, she thought. She felt betrayed. Perhaps she was just the next woman on his list, number 53. Perhaps she meant nothing more than that to him. Paroxysms of grief and loneliness submerged into her consciousness. Though he had never had the opportunity to touch Kuki, they had derived pleasure from the e-mails expressing all the bedroom emotions through the medium of words. She had to be naked before such a person, for whom nothing but the body meant anything. Kuki felt very sad, and that sadness snowballed into repentance and anger. She was getting irritated over trivial matters. She felt as if her world had turned topsy-turvy. She had made a mistake; she had chosen the wrong person, someone who was not worthy of her. She wouldn’t be able to return to her own world. She became quieter and quieter. Her stoic understanding. silence was beyond her family’s

“What’s wrong? Are you ill? Is it the old stomach ache again?” Aniket inquired. “If it was the old stomach ache, wouldn’t I tell you about it? What do you think?” she retorted, irritated. “You do nothing but sit tight at home all day. You don’t have to slog ten hours a day in the office. Why are you so quiet? What’s wrong? Did someone call from my place?” “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with me. Why would I be quiet? There’s nothing wrong at all. Everything is fine. I am absolutely fine!” The face is the reflection of the mind, she thought, but she preferred not to speak out. Did she always have to be her usual bubbly, active self? Didn’t she deserve some time for her own self? Couldn’t she feel like just sitting down and thinking?
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“Mama, I feel sad when you’re so quiet,” the younger son said. “Don’t bother her,” Aniket told him. “She’s in a bad mood.” My thoughts must have affected my facial appearance, Kuki thought. But to whom could she confide all her problems, her feelings, and dilemmas? How could she strike a balance between the two worlds in which she now lived? Was she doing justice to her family? Kuki thought of closing the back door of her mind -- for good. Aniket had asked the children not to disturb their mother. The children were busy in their own world. Aniket was engrossed in the newspapers and television. She was feeling very lonely in her own home. The other day, she had spent the entire evening in bed. She had forgotten that she was a homemaker. The others were waiting for her to serve them their food. Aniket was finding it more and more difficult to distract himself with the newspapers. “How are you now?” he was asking every now and then. “Do you want to take some medicine? Let’s visit the doctor!” “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work,” she would reply. “Just give me a few more minutes. “

She would inquire, “It’s okay, we’ll have bread omelet today? What do you all say? Bread is okay with you, isn’t it?” “Of course,” replied the younger son. pizza some other day.” “We’ll have

Kuki felt guilty and sad. What was she doing? The family was thoroughly dependent on her—and what did she think she was doing? There was more to life than her own ambitions and aspirations. She felt she was responsible for her children and her husband.
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Kuki got up abruptly to cook for her family. But her loving family did not allow her to, thus leaving her again in the world of thoughts and gloom, guilt and sorrow. When everybody had left the house the next day, she felt herself drawn irresistibly towards the computer. She logged on just to see if she had gotten any e-mails from Safiq. Her heart began beating faster. Her fingers ran all across the keyboard. Her mailbox was empty and showed no unread e-mails. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Even when she was not at home, e-mails had flooded her mailbox. So what was the matter now? Had Safiq wanted freedom from her by telling her the story about having sex with 52 different women? Her thoughts outstripped her erring feet. Would the abhorrence of Kuki automatically pull her away from the relationship? She frantically logged on to the internet five or six times that day, fervently praying for an e-mail from him. But it was all in vain. Each time she saw her empty inbox, she felt more and more frustrated. “Where are you Safiq?” she cried out loudly. She felt herself surrendering to a series of incoherent expressions. She switched on the TV to distract herself. But she found herself unable to concentrate on the family serials that were playing on various channels. She tried to sleep but without success. She remembered Safiq’s words: “Within you I lose myself; Without you, I find myself searching To be lost again.” She thought of visiting the neighbors to keep herself busy in idle chatter. She felt a deep sorrow pressing down upon her. But this feeling of sorrow was different. Last night she had felt guilty; she had felt the sorrow of having been betrayed, duped by a Casanova. A vision of this man laughing at her and announcing, “You know, I can conquer any woman” had haunted her.
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The feeling of betrayal was not around the next day. It had been replaced by the sadness of losing her love. She didn’t want to lose Safiq. There was nothing more intoxicating than being in love. She didn’t want to lose that love. The emotions that had haunted her last night became irrelevant today. After two days, Kuki discovered two new e-mails from him in her inbox. “What’s wrong? Why have you stopped e-mailing me? Are you unwell? Any problem in your family? Perhaps you have gone out of town without informing me? Has my e-mail hurt your sentiments?” He sounded very eager and anxious. “I just did not know I had missed you as much I do.” It was as if Kuki had been re-born. She was smiling. The sunshine came back into her life. Some magical power seemed to have set everything back in motion. Nobody would ever have any inkling of this secret. Like a moth drawn towards the fire, she found herself drawn to the computer. She gave vent to her feelings; almost without knowing it, she started scolding the man. “What is the point of living like a caterpillar, of leading a life of unbridled enjoyment of female flesh without any emotions or attachments? Do you think I have been attracted towards you in anticipation of physical pleasure? I wish I was aware of all this from the beginning.” “You’re insulting me, baby. You’re calling me a caterpillar!” replied Safiq. “Yes, I do agree that I have lived a caterpillar’s life. In the flush of youth, I have enjoyed female flesh every night. But Rokshana, you are the first woman who has been able to usher me into the world of pure and unselfish love. You are different from the others. I will show you one day how much I love you and how much I respect you and your feelings. I will prove it to you one day. Don’t leave me. I touch your feet with my head. Forgive me for my grave misdeeds. But don’t leave me. And please don’t call me a caterpillar.”

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CHAPTER 3

“Please don’t call me a caterpillar.” Perhaps she had hurt Safiq. Should Kuki have hurt him like this? Should she have used all those names for a man she loved -- a barbaric Satan, a flesh-hungry coward, a tasteless, promiscuous man? She should have thought twice before choosing her words. Hadn’t she been too reckless? How hurt he must have been! Kuki’s heart bled for him. The problem with Kuki was that she could never suppress her feelings. She was not the kind of person who could wear a fake smile on her face. She had known everything about Safiq right from the beginning and had accepted him, so there was no point in raking up his past all over again now. She had insulted the man repeatedly and rebuked him many times. But surprisingly, their relationship had only grown stronger. It was all destiny, Kuki thought. Everything seemed to have been decided by some supreme being, including the fact that she would come across Safiq at a time when she was busy charting out her son’s future, observing the rituals for the well-being of her family, and deciding on monetary investments that promised to double her wealth. At this point, life brought her back 20 years. Neither he could live without her, nor could she. Still, they would fight angrily with each other. Kuki had written, “You are my destiny. Otherwise, why does my mind reach out to you regardless of the endless obstacles that lay ahead? ” “You belong to the land of my enemy, I do not share your beliefs. What similarities do you have with my nature? Still, there is something; pull me near you. Like a leaf fallen from the tree I reach out to you, when I find myself free.”
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Safiq had replied in his own crazy way: “O my sweet erotic goddess, don’t say things like that.”

That day, Safiq had taken Tabassum to a late-night dinner party. They returned home in the wee hours of the morning. In his studio, his canvas, colors and computer all waited for him, and Rokshana, waited inside the computer. Unhurriedly, he reached her. He logged on to the internet, and Rokshana invited him to come to her and sit close to her on her desktop. Safiq wrote, “I did not go to the New Years party so Tabassum forced me to attend the late-night dinner party. I didn’t want to leave you alone, but I couldn’t say no to Tabassum. I drank heavily. I don’t know how to dance. Do you? My eyes searched for you amongst the crowd but you were inside my heart. I was having wine and observing Tabassum. She was engrossed with her boyfriend; they were going wild. She was almost half fucked!” The drunken Safiq had written, “You are the greatest woman in my life. I have given all my property in my village to my first wife. This mansion, I have gifted to my second. But I have placed you in my heart. We will never part ways. There is no one for me except you.” In a few moments of madness, he had written three poems, ‘O My Mother,’ ‘O My Daughter,’ and ‘O My Sweet Wife.’ All three were dedicated to Kuki. He had imagined Kuki in these three forms only. Every poem was a testimony to his yearning for Kuki’s presence and companionship. “You know Rokshana,” Safiq had written several times, “this studio is where I get eternal peace. It feels as if we are very close and I can almost feel your presence inside the computer. I dream of you. I miss you. I yearn for you. Yet you’re not really there in person. There is only a vacuum, a yawning void.”

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Kuki had observed during these last few days that Safiq would wait for Tabassum like some nocturnal animal into the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes he would wait for her return before sitting down to paint or sometimes, before writing a 24-kb e-mail to Kuki. Safiq’s nights trundled along, weighed by the wait for Tabassum’s return from parties that wound up at dawn and never before. Ever since Kuki started corresponding with Safiq, she had been reading about Tabassum’s exploits. But Safiq did not seem bothered at all. No frustrations. No objections. Once in a while, Tabassum put in an appearance in his emails as well. “Baby, come to my arms. Tabassum is yet to come home.” It’s now 1:00 a.m.

And sometimes he wrote, “Tabassum has just gone out with her youngest boyfriend. You know this chap, Shamim, is just 25!” Or, “Rokshana, Tabassum has gone on a date today. The maid is on leave. I helped my daughter with the cooking. We have just finished dinner. A peg of rum and a cigar and I’ll be right with you.” Tabassum used to go out on dates with her boyfriends and return only after midnight or shortly before dawn. Safiq had given enough freedom to his second wife, Tabassum. But Kuki had not noticed any expression of annoyance or anger on his part with regard to Tabassum. At least he is not one of those selfish men who indulge in polygamy and expect their wives to be completely loyal to them, Kuki thought. Sometimes, Kuki found it difficult to accept Tabassum’s activities. But she never expressed her reservations to Safiq. He might not like her comments, she feared. She had only asked him once, “What do you do in the evening in your house? No offering of Namaz? No discussions? No reminiscing about the past? Nobody to

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whisper goodnight to the children. Don’t the children ever ask where their mother has gone? Don’t they complain?” Safiq would often forget to answer Kuki’s queries. That was what happened on this occasion. But Kuki’s middle-class mentality could not accept Tabassum and her activities. Still, she had made a conscious effort not to interfere in their personal lives. “You know Rokshana,” Safiq had written once, “something very odd happened today. While in bed with Tabassum, I called out your name several times. To my surprise, instead of getting angry, Tabassum smiled sweetly and said, ‘Why love a woman who can never be yours?’ I know Tabassum. She can’t tolerate any other woman in my life. How did she accept you like that without any complaints? It’s a miracle, my sex goddess. It’s nothing short of a miracle!” She felt thrilled on reading Safiq’s tale, but it troubled her as well. No feelings, no emotions, no caring; only flesh? What kind of fantastic world was this? Was he giving vent to his fantasies and painting a dream world? One that did not exist in reality? Aniket had taken her to Darjeeling once. A new place to her, she had wandered around it like a vagabond. Inadvertently they had entered the red-light area of Darjeeling. She was witness to a strange sight. Poverty and want were palpable all around her. Yet the women here were draped in beautiful saris, sported cheap and heavy make-up and wore flowers in their hair. They smiled alluringly as they stood in front of their houses. “Why are these people standing around like this?” Kuki had asked Aniket. Without answering, Aniket had pulled her away from that street. And said, breathlessly, “That’s a red-light area, an area for prostitutes.” Oh God! They lived in such conditions! Her heart bled for them. They didn’t even get the respect a beggar did, she thought.
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Darjeeling had been unbelievably beautiful, but she still couldn’t forget that street. It still haunted her. But those women had to trade their bodies out of sheer helplessness and dire need. What was forcing Safiq and his ilk? She simply could not come to grips with their lifestyle. For them, the female body was nothing more than a commodity, an instrument of pleasure. Kuki had once asked, “How come you have become so liberal? Aren’t your mullahs very conservative? Don’t they criticize your recklessness? Aren’t you afraid of being punished under the Shariyat laws? Doesn’t Tabassum wear a burqa?” “We have two Pakistan’s, Rokshana,” Safiq had written, “one for the have-nots and another for the affluent. We belong to the latter. Most of us follow the West. For the affluent, there is no ‘taboo.’ They live far away from the clutches of the shariyat. People here label me proAmerican. The mullahs you are talking about are for the common people of Pakistan. They are taught only religious matters in the madrassas. But why do you ask all this? Have you still not pardoned me for all my past misdemeanors? Perhaps you think I am yet to relinquish my old lifestyle? Do you find it so difficult to believe me when I say there is nobody else in my life now? I know I am not exactly a perfect match for you, sweetheart. I know I have committed so many blunders but I need you to forgive me, my baby goddess. I can’t live without you and your smile.”

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CHAPTER 4

“I know I am not exactly a perfect match for you, sweetheart. I know I have committed so many blunders; but I need you to forgive me, my baby goddess. I can’t live without you and your smile.” Yes, she felt disturbed by this man’s misdemeanors. She was in the throes of acute mental turmoil. She was at liberty to close the door on him forever at any moment she wished to, but she found herself quite unable to do so. Something was stopping her. Some divine force she could not overcome. Some strange attraction kept them going. She felt hypnotized by his words, his expressions of undying love. She was entangled in a web of mystical love. She could not help sitting before the computer and replying to his e-mails. Whatever she wrote to him, however harshly she rebuked him, she couldn’t go to sleep without writing to him. Behind her hard exterior, she had a soft heart; and that heart of hers refused to let go of him for some strange and mysterious reason. What sin had the man committed that he had to provide explanations in every mail he sent to her? What was it that he felt so guilty about? Was he involved in a murder? Had he looted people? Exploited others? Was he a terrorist; had he shot indiscriminately into a crowd? If not, then why this tone of repentance and remorse? Why this feeling of guilt? What kind of a sin was he so repentant for? “I know I am not exactly a perfect match for you, sweetheart. I know I have committed so many blunders; but I need you to forgive me, my baby goddess. I can’t live without you and your smile.” No, Kuki had never raised these questions; she had deliberately steered clear of things that could hurt him. But as their relationship ambled along, Safiq had gradually shed all inhibitions and laid his past bare for her to witness.

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Now, a worried Safiq wrote, “I can’t write you a long mail today. I am very busy; I have been summoned for an interrogation. I am very busy. I will write you a long e-mail after I return.” This was his shortest e-mail to date. What was the matter? Why the summoning? Kuki felt worried. But whom could she ask? She didn’t have his or his neighbor's address or phone number. Of course, she wouldn’t have called even if she have them. As for Tabassum, she had never met or spoken to her. Moreover, it was difficult calling a Pakistani number from a public booth. Her concern clamored for articulation. It was so strange. Here was a man she had never seen, never touched, never smelled; a man who was a thousand miles away. Yet she could still feel his presence every moment. Who would believe her? Kuki was deeply troubled; had Safiq landed in trouble because of her? She was from an enemy nation after all. Had the ISI found anything? There was another reason why Kuki felt so troubled. In his madness, Safiq had made several copies of Kuki’s photo. One for his wallet; one for his car; another for his stud; and yet another one for his walls. “Who is she? Your wife or girlfriend?” a friend had asked him once. “She is everything to me,” he had replied. “Don’t you feel afraid to hang my photos all over the place?” Kuki had asked once, “How do your children react?” “They know all about it. You are my everything,” he had answered without the slightest hesitation as if he had nothing to be apologetic about. Tabassum told them everything before even I did. You should come here and see what kind of reception they extend to you. You’d be the darling of the house here.” Alas, if only she could say the same about her family. If her husband and children ever found out, Aniket would either die of uncontrolled anger or would kill her. Would her
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children ever call her ‘mother’ again? Kuki could live, be discussed and respected comfortably in a family in Pakistan, but what was Safiq’s status in her family? He was only something to be tucked inside a folder of her inbox. He could only be someone who would engage in gossip and banter with Kuki. A fairy had once turned a youth into a lamb. If Kuki had a magic wand, she would also love to transform Safiq. The next day, she received an e-mail from Safiq. He couldn’t hide anything from Kuki. He had written, “I want to leave the country. I hate the system of this nation. I hate that military junta. They have taken the skeleton out of the cupboard and revived the case that had been dead for all of these last two years, at a time when it doesn’t have any meaning.” He had left it at that. He was just bemoaning his plight. What case? Why was he so worried? Kuki felt like reaching out to him and consoling him. She wanted to say, “Don’t worry, I am with you.” But his worried condition made her gauge the seriousness of his trouble. “I don’t give a damn. I don’t care for anybody,” he was writing repeatedly. “What is the matter? What is it you’re so upset about?” Kuki asked in her next e-mail. “If it’s not too personal, tell me about your troubles. Why are you so worried?” After reading his reply, Kuki’s hatred for the man grew manifold. She couldn’t understand him at all… “Two years ago, I did something wrong,” Safiq wrote. “It didn’t create much trouble at that time. But now, a military officer has revived the case to blackmail Tabassum. I did something wrong once, Rokshana. There was this girl, one of my students, and also the model for one of my paintings—I had sex with her. The girl later got married and today lives happily with her family. She might have forgotten the past. It doesn’t mean anything today. But the military office is using that girl to blackmail Tabassum.

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Model? Blackmail? What model? What painting? Kuki couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Kuki only understood that he had been in a relationship with one of his female students two years ago. She was aware of his unbridled lifestyle, but all this stuff about blackmail was new to her. Safiq had gotten her extremely worried; her mind spent the next few days partly in India and partly in Pakistan. “Please explain what exactly you mean,” Kuki had written. “I can’t understand what you’re saying. Isn’t it true that you didn’t feel any emotional attachment towards the girl? Without loving her, you had sex with her; that’s tantamount to rape. You forced her when she did not consent; that’s why she filed a case, right? Then how can you possibly write it doesn’t mean anything? All these are petty irritants to you; and you don’t give a damn, eh? How can you do this, Safiq?” A grievously hurt and defeated Safiq had written in reponse, “The patient is just a body for a doctor, Rokshana. For me, too, she should have been just another body. That’s where I went wrong. Her eyes, breasts, and lips invited me to touch them and fulfill the very purpose of their existence. Yes, Rokshana, I have committed a wrong. But Rokshana, the girl did not cry a single teardrop that day. Why the sudden change? Somebody must have egged her on to file a complaint. Who that somebody is I am yet to discover! Yet I know that I have wronged! I am sorry Rokshana! I am forever your culprit. Safiq.” Kuki had abandoned her conservative middle-class thinking long ago along with all her sorrows, helplessness and failures. She had immersed herself in her love of Safiq, forgetting the real world. Married life was such a strange entity. It wiped out all traces of love; wrung it out of the relationship. Living on a day-to-day basis with another person slowly begins to appear like the discharge of one’s duties as set out in a contract. The stream of love hides itself in some obscure niche. Was this what was happening to Kuki? Was she
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desperate to regain that lost stream of love? Was Safiq the answer to that problem? Kuki remembered that she had not fallen ill for the last eight months. She had smiled her way through these last few months. All the rebukes and the mishaps had not succeeded in leaving her heartbroken. Aniket’s anger and outbursts didn’t seem to matter to her any longer. When was the last time she had fallen ill? Yes, one year back. Aniket had almost single-handedly dragged her from the doorstep of death. She had needed three bottles of AB- blood. She had an ulcer in the intestine. Continual bleeding had made her anemic. Her hemoglobin count hovered around the danger mark. Looking after the children at home, arranging for blood for Kuki, staying up through the night, cleaning the bedpan, changing the soiled bed sheets—all of this had fallen on Aniket’s shoulders. At the end of it all, Aniket looked rather like a tired hero. She had returned from hospital after eight days. Aniket, obsessed with cleanliness, had sanitized all her belongings with Dettol. Watch, shoe, chains, rings, etc. Aniket still remained apprehensive. He was haunted by the vision of a virus moving around here and there in the house. She was yet to recover fully. Aniket was juggling his responsibilities at home and work with great difficulty; the officials had forwarded his Character Record, which was required for his promotion. He looked disturbed. There were no forerunners ahead of him for the promotion. His contemporaries had left him behind long ago. All his competitors now were his juniors. He knows Joshi well enough. Dash, too. “How did Pradhan get promoted?” Aniket grumbled, “His father-inlaw is an MP. Nobody appreciates hard work and sweat and toil these days. Status overrides everything. How much hold you have with the top brass is what matters, nothing else. Your father had once reversed the transfer of your brother-in-law. Why don’t you ask him if he can put in a
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word for me with some MLA or MP” “Father has grown old. He has given up politics. What can he possibly do now?” Kuki mused. “Why don’t you say that he wouldn’t do for me what he has done for your brother-in-law Bastard! Here I am, washing everything for his daughter, yet he still doesn’t care a fig for me.” When Aniket got angry, he would use foul language. One would be hard-pressed then to guess that he was a civilized, urban-educated executive working with a wellknown MNC. “Why are you blaming my father?” Kuki questioned, “Has he said no to you? Everything will be okay; don’t worry.” “Nothing will be okay, nothing…,” growled Aniket. Kuki felt very sad for Aniket; she could feel his sadness. His sadness was snowballing into a huge inferiority complex. He would leave for work early in the morning, only to return at eight in the evening. When he was in sales, spending the day running around from pillar to post to procure orders, his colleagues in the office spent their days sitting in the comfortable air-conditioned room and earned themselves quick promotions to boot. When he was posted at the office, the men in the field got the promotions, flaunting unbelievable sales statistics. And he remained where he had been. “Who cares for a small-town guy from Orissa? Being born in Orissa is a curse,” Aniket would often complain. Kuki felt for Aniket. He was struggling against factors and prejudices that were well beyond his control. What was the big deal if he was from a village and his father was a farmer? How did it matter that he had gone to a vernacularmedium school? He had proved himself by taking his engineering degree from the IIT. There was no reason why he should not be treated as an equal. It was not just empty sympathy; she had supported him actively on many
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occasions. Locals always had the upper hand, she knew. But it was not as if ‘outsiders’ climbing up the corporate ladder was unheard of. Aniket's short temper and unbridled anger were proving to be a handicap in his quest for that elusive promotion. It had taken Kuki close to a month to recover fully. The children had been clamoring for a shopping spree for several days. Aniket took all of them out. The kids had a wild day; they gorged on pizza and enjoyed themselves inside Disneyland. It was a long time since Kuki had last ventured out of her house. After the pizza session, the children had clamored for Bhelpuri. And what a blunder she had made! In the midst of the chaos, fun, and merry making, she had drunk a glass of water from a roadside stall. Aniket had become red with rage. He had given Kuki a tight slap, reducing the whole gathering to stunned silence. “I have spent thousands for you; I have had do take such pains to nurse you back to health—who asked you to take water from the roadside? Couldn’t you have brought a water bottle from home?” The sight of the stunned customers, shopkeepers, and onlookers had filled Kuki with shame. She was not at all prepared for this humiliation. She tried to say something, but her voice trailed off and her stare dissolved into tears rolling uncontrollably down her cheeks. And she had looked away, turning her face towards the road. “Get rid of that bug in your head, Aniket,” she had muttered. “I can’t stand that odious bug which makes you lose all sense of propriety every now and then. This bug is much more dangerous than any virus I might be carrying. I don’t need your status. I don’t need your love. I don’t want this life.”

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CHAPTER 5

“I don’t need your love. I don’t want this life.” even suicidal tendencies refused to touch her. She disgusted with the life she was leading. There perpetual gloom and loneliness in her life with hardly flashes of tenderness or love.

But was was any

Could she have ever guessed that this very life would open up such new vistas in front of her? On one hand there was Aniket; short-tempered and obsessed with cleanliness. On the other, there was Safiq; honest, broad-minded but perverted. A quiet strength and constancy went in Aniket’s favor, while Safiq impressed her with his sensitivity and tact. If someone were to ask her, “Whom do you want?” she would answer, “Both.” It didn’t sound nice, but she knew she couldn’t be happy with either one or the other by himself. But was such a thing possible? Could Aniket tolerate Kuki’s relationship with Safiq? He would probably go mad. He would either kill Kuki or himself -- or both. He would destroy everything in sight. The house would be full of corpses and shards. And he would sit over the ruins, pondering the heinous crime he had committed. Once, while they were traveling on a train, the man sitting opposite them had dared to stare at Kuki. That had been enough to make Aniket lose his cool. He had given him a piece of his mind. That night, he had found himself unable to go to sleep. Kuki was his property; he would scold her, beat her, love her, adorn her with sarees and jewelry. And Kuki would accompany him like his shadow at parties and picnics that he went to. She had no idea where Tista was now. She had been Kuki’s roommate at the university. A hardcore liberal, Tista had said something to Aniket in Kuki’s absence. When she came back from her village, Aniket had said, “Kuki, I would
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like to bow my head in front of you.” Kuki was astonished. What had happened? What did he mean? Aniket was a student of IIT Kharagpur then. He used to come to meet Kuki sometimes. Kuki had not known about his imminent visit on that occasion. She returned on Monday and found herself greeted with those words. “How do you manage to cope with this Tista? Do you know what kind of a girl she is? I have been observing her for the last two days; I am quite stunned. Really Kuki, it’s quite amazing—the way you manage to keep yourself insulated from all these nasty elements. It’s a good thing that you go home every Saturday.” Kuki understood what must have happened. Tista must have blurted out all her secrets. A very outspoken and extrovert girl, she had no sense of what to say and what not to say. She had a steady boyfriend, but she still went around with several lovers. “Just wait another year,” Aniket had said, “then I will imprison you. You will be mine and only mine.” Simply caged, what else? Imprisoned in a golden cage—that was her condition. Kuki desperately longed to escape from the cage and fly to freedom. She remembered a disconcerting situation Aniket had put her into once. She was in her M.A. final year then. Matrimonial proposals were pouring in for her. Kuki was very disturbed. She couldn’t write to Aniket regularly. She felt as if she was on a boat that was being dragged along by the powerful current and she had no say in what was happening in her life. Aniket visited her suddenly one day at her hostel. Disheveled hair, unkempt beard, the royal arrogance of youth written all over him. Looking like a mad man, he had handed over a plastic bag to Kuki and said, “All the letters, photos, gifts you have ever sent me. I want to be free of all this. I can’t tolerate the way you are neglecting me. It’s better that I move out of your life and you live happily.” Aniket seemed to be burning with rage. The scene caught the attention of the other lovebirds in front of the
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hostel. Kuki was perplexed. Was this the end of their relationship? But, why? Who was at fault? She started trembling. Her tears couldn’t stop Aniket, though; he had returned to his hostel. Did Aniket doubt her faithfulness? Did he think she was seeing somebody else on campus? Why had he created this drama? Aniket hadn’t left her, though; he was her destiny. A few lines from Kuki had been enough to bring Aniket back into her life and keep them together ‘til date. Aniket was the love of her youth and Safiq, the love of her middle age. She had often observed that Safiq cleverly disentangled himself from any discussion on Aniket. He seemed to harbour no visible interest or curiosity regarding Aniket, as if he had discounted his presence in Kuki’s life. It was as if there were only Safiq and Rokshana, alias Kuki. Sometimes she thought Safiq was jealous of Aniket. When she mentioned, while writing poetry, that she was writing all this for Aniket too, Safiq would write back, “My love for you is purer, more intense and eternal than Aniket’s.” You are my fire And your love burns right through my soul Your love can make me whole. Because you are my life, my world Without you there is no me. You are everything I ever wanted Or have ever dreamed of. With you I have been reborn With your seductive charms, into the mystique of the universe. Pulsing with your love. My very spirit is astounded because you are a magical whisper of love. I love you, Now, and always will. Because it is pure destiny, Forever meant to be. Our two hearts and souls together always,
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Until death do us part. And we will meet once more In heaven above. “I will take you with me one day, Safiq had written. “Will you come with me? I won’t care for any of your protests. I am planning to go to Paris. There is a post lying vacant at Columbia University; I have applied there. I know it’s not easy getting in there; there is fierce competition. Still, for your sake, I won’t give up. I have to write a parathesis on Islamic art for that.” “You know the famous Louvre art gallery? I will take you there. Will you come with me? I have a dream—I want to kiss you on your crimson lips in front of everybody there. Ah darling, I am dying for your lips.” These were just dreams. Kuki didn’t know if she would ever be able to go climb up the Eiffel tower to see Paris, the City of Light, the fashion capital of the world, stretched out below her. Nor did she know if she could ever sit with Safiq in a park, their palms entwined. But it felt good to dream. At an age when family worries crowd your mind, dreams open up a fantasy world in front of you—one in which you can be a completely different person. It was never too late in life; one could always make a fresh start. “You know, Rokshana,” Safiq had written, “I have started on the painting that was bothering me so much. You are my inspiration, Rokshana. Your love and Tabassum’s sadness inspire my creativity. I can’t tolerate Tabassum’s pain and I can’t live without your love. Without you, I am nothing. Never leave me, please; I am ready to do anything for you. I can go to every nook and corner of the world to get a glimpse of you; I will wait for you ‘til my last breath. Rokshana, don’t ever abandon me.” “I have nothing to hide from you, Rokshana. We are not separate; rather, you are like family. What will I hide from you about Tabassum! You came into my life and everything changed! You are the harbinger of hope. Tabassum started smiling, and I, too. You are my lady luck. Never, ever talk about leaving me, okay?”

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“Why are you always scared of losing me?” Kuki had written. “Do you really think I would abandon you and go off? You are my destiny. I don’t know where the stream of my life is taking me. I can no longer differentiate between what is stable and what is fleeting. Am I running after a mirage or towards absolute fulfillment? There is so much I don’t know, Safiq. I don’t know whether I will be part of this world tomorrow or not. Don’t know whether I will ever be able to come to your country, or you to mine. I don’t know how the great Berlin Wall crumbled. I don’t know the truth about the big bang theory and I don’t know why a scientist suddenly begins to believe in fate. I don’t know why a muchrevered monk visits a prostitute in the last phase of his life. There is so much I don’t know.” “If you don’t, then who does?” Safiq had written. “You are my goddess, my angel; I gaze upon your beauty, awestruck. I have never seen an angel fly so low.”

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CHAPTER 6

“I gaze upon your beauty, awestruck. I have never seen an angel fly so low,” Safiq had written. “Since you walked into my life, there is no worry, no sadness… nothing!” The e-mail made Kuki laugh. Alas! If she were a real angel, she would not have had to tolerate all the agony she went through. “When you see me and touch me,” Kuki had written, “you will realize that I am an ordinary human being with my own sorrows and grief, doubts and dissatisfactions. I am no goddess; I possess no divine powers. I hunger. I thirst. I crave for sex. I have my own aspirations and ambitions. I also pretend. I also lie. I also betray Aniket and live my life behind a mask.” “Why am I so important to you? What have I given you anyway?” Replying to Kuki’s mail, Safiq had written: “There are angels In heaven above And they shine with the light Of an inner love; Your love is a light That brightens each day Of all the people you see on the way. Rokshana, you are responsible for the smile always planted on my lips these days. What more could you have given me? I don’t have anything to hide from you. I have no separate existence.” You know, I have not been to a nightclub, even once since your arrival; never indulged in group sex. Your love has been a beacon for me. I am sad only for Tabassum. You know I have allowed her every freedom. I have never
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stopped her from going on dates with her boyfriends. But in the world of glitter and glamour, she made the mistake of not being able to differentiate between human and demon. She is in trouble today. She fell into the clutches of an Army man. The man was very wicked and selfish. Taking advantage of her simplicity, he tried to gift her to his boss for a night. But Tabassum was not ready for this. The incident left her shell-shocked. She has confined herself to the house since that fateful incident. A long period of depression, it is as if she has turned into a lifeless frame. Even the thought of touching her is difficult for me today. She was suffering from depression and harboring selfdestructive thoughts. And there was this nasty guy repeatedly asking for her on the phone. But she was not at all ready to face that guy again. Still, the military guy wanted her, hook or by crook. Do you know what he did in desperation, finally? He started blackmailing me. He thought he could get to Tabassum by blackmailing me. You already know how he blackmailed me. He reopened the two-year-old case that everybody had forgotten about and brought it out from cold storage. You remember I had to go to Islamabad for an interrogation a few days back. But, my angel, nobody can touch me as long as you are by my side. I hadn’t expected everything to settle down so soon. I love you Rokshana; I adore you. When my sky turns grey and the bolts of lightning start flashing and it seems tomorrow will never come, I turn to you and you’re my angel sent to me from above. Kuki had initially had a poor impression of Tabassum. She had thought of her as a woman of dubious character. She was a middle-class woman; how could she open herself up to so many men? She must be desperate for sex; must be some kind of a maniac. Tabassum had several boyfriends, Safiq had told her. Her youngest boyfriend was just twenty-five. He used to massage her and help her in
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the kitchen and with the housework as well. A sex slave, perhaps. There was something most disgusting and intolerable yet, the man who had come to fix their daughter Nagma’s marriage had kissed Tabassum. He was one of Safiq’s cousins. After everybody had left, Tabassum kicked up a row and declared she would not marry her daughter into that bastard's house. She felt they were planning to take Nagma as their daughter-in-law only as a way of getting to her. They thought it would then be easier for them to get access to her. It could turn out to be very difficult to handle a person who was behaving like this from the very beginning. Better not to enter into a relationship with such people at all, she had opined. Kuki had heard about this incident long ago. Safiq had solicited her opinion on the matter. “Tell me, what’s the way out? I can’t come to a decision. Should I marry Nagma into their family or not? If I endorse Tabassum’s decision, Nagma will complain that her stepmother is playing a spoilsport and making unnecessary trouble.” At that time, Kuki had not paid too much importance to the complexity of the issue; she had been preoccupied primarily with Tabassum’s relationships. How come anybody could come and touch her body? She was a woman; why didn’t she resist? Didn’t she have any selfrespect? She had written to him advising him not to enter into an alliance there as trouble seemed to have been brewing right from the very beginning. But this incident, coupled with the one relating to the military man, made Kuki a bit softer towards Tabassum. She became more sympathetic towards her. At least she was not the person of dubious character that she had first thought. Kuki had a feeling that it was the perverted Safiq who was responsible for Tabassum’s exploits. The poor wife, in trying to keep pace with her husband, had run into
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rough weather. Kuki’s hatred for Tabassum slowly began to evaporate. She imagined her as a beautiful woman sitting quietly with eyes like beads of glass -- emotionless, dead eyes reflecting the anguish of her aching heart. Kuki had written, “Please let Tabassum know that I am equally sad for her. What happened to her was not good. How could that man offer his beloved to someone else? Was Tabassum a lifeless object? Her helplessness has made me restless. I am really sad for her state of affairs. Be with her, Safiq; give her company. Sorrows are an integral part of this life. You will face sorrow every moment of your life. Who knows better, Safiq, than that man, how empty and helpless is his core in spite of his bright suit, glazed appearance and beautiful smile? I don’t know. Regarding this world of corporal pleasure, I have little experience. I had a ‘love marriage’ with Aniket, but we didn’t have any physical relationship before marriage. After marriage, I discovered that Aniket was not very sensitive or open to understanding female physiology. Sex is just a game for him. I am yet to discover what an orgasm is. You will be astonished to know that I have not been kissed for the last fourteen years. I know it probably seems very unnatural, but I feel the love between Aniket and me is intact; it has not withered or wilted even a bit. If it had, his sorrows would not have made me so sad. You know this love is just like the wail of the violin, timeless and enchanting, but at the same time, conscious and subconscious. Go back to Tabassum. Feel for her. Give her company. Spend as much time with her as you can.”

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CHAPTER 7

“Feel for her. Give her company. Spend as much time with her as you can. But with whom? Tabassum or you? I couldn’t believe my eyes at first, baby—your husband hasn’t kissed you even once in the last fourteen years! That’s terrible! I really feel terrible for you. I didn’t know your husband was such an impotent and effeminate creature. Fourteen years! What a waste! How is this possible? I can understand your pain. Don’t worry. Now that I am in your life, I will provide you with all these little pleasures you have missed out on. I feel terrible for you, Rokshana. How come you have not told me anything of this ‘til now? Come to my arms, baby; I want to give you a hug.” The long e-mail was full of descriptions of physical intimacy and lovemaking in different positions and postures. She felt suffocated. She felt wet. She was feeling really off. If only he hadn’t called Aniket impotent. This she could not digest that easily. She felt very angry with Safiq. Was the man jealous of Aniket? She had observed earlier, too, that Safiq had never evinced any curiosity about Aniket. He had replied to any references to Aniket with studied silence as if there was nobody called Aniket. As if she was a spinster. After so many days, he had written something about Aniket; even then, he had not taken his name. He had referred to him only as ‘my counterpart.’ She read the mail again and again. Every time, she stopped when she reached the word ‘impotent.’ Useless and insensitive fellow, she thought. No, she would stop her correspondence with him immediately. How dare he call her husband ‘impotent?’ Did he think Kuki had established a relationship with him because she was deprived of sexual satisfaction in her married life? Could this man think of nothing but sexual love? What kind of a person was he?

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Her anger egged her on to demand an explanation from Safiq. “How dare you call my husband impotent? How insensitive of you! How dare you! You must be jealous of him! I am deeply hurt by your words. Marriage is boring, true! It is a contract to be honored till death; an institution that fetters one into slavery and formality. But the moment you disregard the norms of married life, you realize how your existence itself is questioned and how you become helpless and isolated. Is the body everything, Safiq? Don’t emotions matter at all? What about words like beauty and taste? You are an artist. What can I tell you about beauty that goes beyond the realms of the physical? The stimulating thoughts of a thinker? Of eternally fruitful love? Those are the hallmarks of an artist, aren’t they? If you love me, Safiq, you have to love me as I am. You have to love all the ingredients that make Kuki -- the beauty, the ugliness, my present, my past, my relatives, my land and my thoughts. You have to accept everything. Do you agree to all this?” No, Kuki did not ask for a kiss or write any sentimental sentences in this letter. She felt relaxed after sending the e-mail in a fit of rage. A heavy load seemed to have been lifted off her chest. But the very next moment, a chilling thought raced through her. What if Safiq didn’t reply? What if he felt insulted after reading her mail? Would this be the end of their relationship? A feeling of emptiness surrounded her. What did she want? What did she expect from Safiq? What if Safiq said, “I am fine with my perverted life; you can carry on living in your world? Who are you to insult me repeatedly like this? Who gave you the right to dictate my life? You be in your world with Aniket and leave me in my own world. Our worlds are too different. You talk of ‘love.’ But what is there in love? Where does it exist? Why detest the body so much when the body is the physical manifestation of one’s existence? Is it possible for attraction to exist where there is no body? Is it
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possible to feel love without this body made up of the five elements?” Thus did Safiq reply, an hour after Kuki sent her email. She had not expected a reply so fast; she had thought Safiq would break off all relations with her. “I can’t understand why you misunderstand me!” Safiq had written, “Why should I be jealous of my counterpart when my precious treasure is kept safe under his supervision? Rather, I should be grateful to him. What mistake have I committed that you are so angry with me? It was you who wrote that you had not been kissed by your partner for the last fourteen years. How can I make you understand? I love your inner beauty. I have never known true love; I have spent my life savoring female flesh. But you have taught me the meaning of true love. How do I describe what I feel for you? We have never met, but I feel you are with me every single moment. You are my life, Rokshana. You have taught me so much about life. You have taught me things that will help me become the kind of person I need to be. You have taught me to love without holding back. Please forgive me if I have hurt you inadvertently. Please don’t misunderstand me. I have no existence without you. You do not know how many dreams I have dreamt about you. Someday, we will be together; we will share the same address. Every time I pray to Allah, I ask for you, baby. I am very busy with my para-thesis. That is why I am not in a position to write long e-mails to you nowadays. I haven’t been able to devote much time to the painting either. It’s likely that I won’t be able to touch the painting for the next one month or so. I have to complete the parathesis by the end of December. I must submit the thesis by the first week of January. That is the only way I can get closer to you. Give me your blessings, my mother, so that I can complete my para-thesis.” It was as if a storm had passed by. Kuki indulged in a bout of painstaking introspection. In the last few days, she had realized that the differences between nations,
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religions, and castes have little meaning in front of the supreme authority. All such differences were insignificant when compared to the desires and cravings of the human mind. Kuki regretted the harsh letter she had sent to Safiq. Why did she lose her temper so quickly? The truth was that Safiq loved her immensely and respected her, too. What was Safiq’s fault? Anybody who read the e-mail would have thought the way he had. How could she convey to him the comatose state of affairs of her married life? The so-called chemistry of a marital relationship? Would Kuki write, “You know Safiq, prior to your arrival I had forgotten the language of love. My moments were never alone, not even in the darkness of night. But the strong, hairy, broad-chested man was becoming meaningless for me. We were spending nights together in the same bed. But we had forgotten about our relationship. It was as if somebody had unleashed some black magic and the senses had become numb, bereft of all feelings and sensitivities.” Would Kuki write, “Safiq, how did you know that we were spending eight hours in bed but in deep slumber? How did you know that we were just marking time, not quite living our lives to the fullest?” What was the use of writing all this to Safiq? It would just be washing her dirty linen in public. But Aniket was not impotent; he was just obsessed with cleanliness. Sometimes he would feel suffocated when Kuki’s breath tickled his cheeks or neck. Unable to sleep, he would turn his back towards Kuki. That was why Kuki kept a long pillow between them. Once they were done with intercourse, the pillow stood as a wall again, separating the two souls. He saw more bacteria than feelings in a kiss… In their house, everybody had a different glass for drinking water. Lip contact was scrupulously avoided. No one used anybody else’s towel. Everybody had a separate soap designated for himself or herself. The washbasin,
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kitchen, latrine—the bottle of Dettol proclaimed its presence everywhere. Habits changed, and attitudes, too. Likes and dislikes also changed. Aniket had never liked the idea of Kuki working in some office and mixing with ten other men. He had the notion that women lose their softness and simplicity if they worked. Kuki would often feel suffocated inside the house, particularly when she had to face Aniket’s tantrums. She would dream about going far away from him. She thought it would be better to live alone and work at some office than spend her life wasting away in this house with Aniket. She would open up all her certificates every once in a while and touch them tenderly, wondering how those papers had all lost their charm and relevance with time. It was too late for her to try to get a job. Opening an NGO was a good option but could Aniket tolerate the idea? Kuki would plan to open a nursery school. She would mull over where the school building would be located. What courses would it offer? What would its working hours be like? Such questions would constantly haunt her. Aniket loved his family a lot. He was very careful; he would never waste his evenings but come straight home from work. He would have a cup of tea and immediately start teaching the children. Then, there would be the short evening bath followed by a half hour in the prayer room. Kuki understood Aniket very well. He could do anything for his family. Chawla would sometimes say jokingly, “Brother, it’s not enough to look after the family; look after your job also.” At first glance, Aniket appeared very irate and short tempered. Yet, he was actually very lonely and helpless. Aniket felt nobody loved him; neither his father, his mother, sister, children, nor the neighbors. He did not even hesitate to complain against Kuki herself.

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If Aniket had read Safiq’s e-mail, he would have gone insane. “This is what you’ve been doing behind my back?” he would have said. “I am impotent, huh? Useless, aren’t I? I’ve loved you so much and you have betrayed me like this.” Can even the most patient and tolerant man stand being called ‘impotent?’ It was enough to get his blood boiling? After some time he would cool down and say, “It’s just my luck.” And he would start giving expression to his childhood frustrations. He would complain about how he was never his parents’ favorite; about how his mother would persuade his father to give pocket money to his younger brother but never to him. Even when he went for a movie, she would give him only the money for the tickets, not a paisa more. He had once visited his elder sister’s place and had ventured out to the market. He saw some delicious sweets being prepared in the roadside hotel but he had only the bus fare for his journey back home. So, he came back without buying anything. His sister asked, “You went to the market. Didn’t you get any sweets?” He said, “I didn’t have money.” Surprised, she had offered him a ten-rupee note. “Everybody’s heart cries for Ramu, the younger son. Have you ever seen anyone thinking of me?” he had lamented. Aniket also suffered from the delusion that his children loved Kuki more than they loved him -- all this, in spite of the fact that Aniket was more attached to them. As Kuki was unwell most of the time, it was Aniket who spent sleepless nights with the children when they fell sick; nursing them, feeding them, making sure they had their medicine at the right time. He listened to all their complaints and demands. Still, the kids loved Kuki more. Sometimes, Aniket would give vent to his frustrations, saying, “You don’t understand the worth of a father. You’ll understand only after my death.”

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Kuki would placate him—“Why are you telling them all this? What do they understand? Love and affection—are these things to be displayed publicly?” “I know,” Aniket would insist, “Our children are more attached to their mother.” Kuki would get angry. “So what if the children love their mother? What’s wrong with that? Every baby loves his mother first.” The children would try to remove Aniket's misconceptions, but they were rewarded with only reprimands that would force them back into silence. “Your anger is taking the children away from you. Not everybody is a Kuki who would try to understand you and your feelings.” Aniket heaved a deep sigh and started biting his nails. This irritated Kuki. She warned him, “You are asking for bad luck. Don’t you know it’s inauspicious to bite your nails? Why are you so pensive and absentminded?” “Mukherjee and Sharma have gone to Chicago and New York this time,” Aniket said, “all because they sucked up to their immediate bosses. They have gone with their family this time.” The company had sent Aniket to the USA only once, and very reluctantly at that. He had spent his days quaking in fear lest someone else should snatch the opportunity from him at the last moment. He was so desperate that he had taken a vow to offer puja in the Jagannath temple if he managed to go abroad. And he had done so too. What happened to Aniket nobody knew, but on returning from the office, he had initiated the process for getting passports for all of them and had got them ready within six months. “Who knows when you get a chance?” he had said, “whenever it comes, we will all go together and have fun.”

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Kuki never showed any interest in getting herself a passport. But had she ever imagined that somebody else would offer her a trip abroad saying, “One day I will take you to Paris. We will see the Louvre near the river Seine. And in front of everyone there, I will kiss you and say, ‘meet my wife.’”

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CHAPTER 8

“Meet my wife,” Aniket introduced Kuki even as she was sipping a bottle of Coca-Cola some distance away. “Hello,” said Kuki, with a questioning look in her eyes. “I didn’t see you at Saturday’s party,” asked the gentleman. “She’s not exactly a party animal. She doesn’t feel very comfortable in a crowd,” Aniket said on behalf of Kuki. “Oh, but why this unwillingness to enjoy life? should live life to the fullest.” You

“No, no, it’s nothing like that; I hardly get time after taking care of the household chores and the studies of my children,” Kuki was forced to say. “Meaning?” the gentleman gave her a quizzical look. The discussion now took a turn with the arrival of Mr. Khosla. As they were busy gossiping, Kuki busied herself in savoring the paneer pakoda and the light gazhals playing in the background. In the meantime, Mrs. Sharma started talking about her children and the coaching classes they were attending, about whose daughter had gone to Australia, and whose to the USA for higher studies and so on. As they were leaving the party, they met the same gentleman again. “You’re leaving?” he asked with a smile. “Yes sir,” said Kuki, nodding her head.

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“Come to our house sometime.” “Yes, we will,” Aniket said. Wishing him goodnight, they left the hall. The children wanted to stay on, but Aniket herded them away. “Who was the gentleman you introduced me to? don’t think I’ve ever seen him before,” asked Kuki. “Mr. Chowhan. My immediate boss.” “Oh my God! I thought he was one of your colleagues. How could I be so stupid?” “Why? What you would have done if you’d known?” Aniket asked with a naughty smile. Embarrassed, Kuki poked Aniket and said, “Don’t talk rubbish,” and pointed towards the children. Aniket was laughing as before when he felt something was wrong with the vehicle. It was making an unusual noise. “What’s the matter?” Kuki asked. “It seems the accelerator is not working.” refused to move after a few yards. The car I

“What’s the matter, Papa?” the elder son asked, leaning forward from the back seat. “Just sit back and wait,” Aniket rebuked him. Making a false start, the vehicle moved ahead a few feet. But it stopped again and refused to move as if somebody had cursed it. Aniket pored over the bonnet. Half an hour passed by in this way. There was no garage nearby so they could not even send for a mechanic. Aniket started biting his nails in tension. “Papa, how do we go home? Do we ask for a lift?” the younger son asked.

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“Sit quietly,” Kuki scolded him. She was also irritated with Aniket. She had asked him several times to send the car to the garage, or to sell it off and buy a new one, but he had never listened; let him suffer now. “What will we do now?” the elder son asked, breaking the silence again. Aniket was trying to figure out what could be done. It was getting late. There were only a few vehicles plying the road now. “If someone from our colony comes by, you all can go ahead; I’ll stay on and work things out,” Aniket said. Right at that moment, they saw an auto rickshaw coming towards them. Aniket stopped it and asked for help. They decided they would all go home and Aniket would return with a mechanic from the city. But the auto rickshaw driver advised them not to leave the car on the road in the middle of the night; the police might pick up the car. That would be another headache. “Get a rope, instead. My auto rickshaw will tow your car. It’s a matter of only five or six kilometers.” Kuki felt relieved now. All of them sat in the car and the auto rickshaw began to tow the car. But soon, the rope broke off. The auto rickshaw driver repaired the rope but asked them to sit inside the auto rickshaw this time. The three-wheeler trundled on slowly, as if writhing in pain. They somehow managed to reach home, traversing half the distance by auto rickshaw, and covering half the distance on foot. The children were completely worn out by the time they got back home. The children felt very bad about the whole incident. All the way back home, they kept murmuring under their breath. “Mama, give this old car to the scrap dealer,” the eldest son said. “Please keep quiet. Daddy will get angry if he hears you.” She calmed her son down. But she herself was quite agitated. During the rains last year, water had seeped into the garage. It had even gotten inside the car. By the time
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the water receded, the vehicle was badly damaged. The foam seats had swollen up. The metal doors showed signs of rusting. But Aniket refused to spend any money on repairing the car, saying “We will buy a new one, anyway.” But the new car had not yet materialized for some reason or the other. “You know, mama, Ankur and all of them saw our car being towed by the auto rickshaw,” Kuki’s younger son said. “They’ll make fun of us tomorrow. Why don’t you get rid of that old car? Please, mama, never ask us to sit in that vehicle again.” The elder one said, “Verma uncle has bought a new Santro. Everybody in the colony except us has a new car.” The children’s conversation seemed to ignite Aniket’s suppressed anger. He grabbed the cane on the study table and marched towards the kids furiously, muttering, “You idiot, you can’t even score an eighty in math and you want a Santro.” Kuki intercepted him. “They’re just kids; why are you picking on them? Many people saw us; the children felt bad about it and just spoke their mind. Why be so angry? “You have spoilt them, you bitch. You’ve spoilt them silly.” He started caning Kuki now. Kuki groaned and writhed in pain. After a while, Aniket calmed down and threw the cane away. Sobbing in pain, Kuki saw the window of the room in front of her open suddenly. The children had gone to their respective rooms. But hatred and anger were visible in their eyes. Red scars dotted her waist and her hands. She was in great pain. The tears refused to stop; tears of humiliation, not of pain. She tried desperately to suppress the tears. She wanted to leave the house and go away. Her mind was filled with pure hatred for Aniket. What was the use of education? What was the use of earning a good salary? Aniket wasn’t a human being. He became so insensitive when he was angry. He became a senseless scoundrel. She had often felt that suicide was a better
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option. But how could she be so selfish and escape from this world leaving the innocent children in the hands of a barbarian like Aniket? Kuki saw her elder son lying restlessly on the bed. “I am switching off the lights; go to bed,” said Kuki. There was no response from him. His face was unusually disturbed; it looked pensive and aged. He had some of Aniket’s genes. He was shorttempered; he would vent all his anger on Kuki. He would start breaking things when he got angry. He would disembowel the pillows and take the eggs out of the refrigerator and start throwing them around making a mess. He would beat Aniket up when he grew up, Kuki felt; her son could not tolerate Aniket. Kuki feared her elder son in the same way that he feared Aniket. But she knew now that his anger was directed against Aniket. Still, he would never come to her with assuaging words or a soothing touch. The younger one, of course, had already tried to console his mother in his own way. While Kuki was changing her clothes, Aniket had been setting up the mosquito nets in both rooms. Kuki did not feel like sharing the same bed with Aniket, but she went and lay down quietly. When she dropped off to sleep, Aniket was yet to join her. Kuki suddenly awoke at the stroke of midnight. She felt someone touching her and saw Aniket applying medicine over her scars -- on her back, her waist, and her hands. Kuki lay still, her eyes closed. But how long could one control oneself? The tears came in a flood and the night passed without a moment’s rest.

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CHAPTER 9

The whole night passed without a moment’s rest. Slouched in front of the computer, dawn had set in and the birds started chirping. “No, no more waiting. I decided to send the e-mail; let us see what is in store for me,” wrote Safiq. What was making him suffer so much? So many spelling mistakes in the letter! None of his previous e-mails had ever contained so many mistakes. It seemed he was suffering from some terrible mental agony. That was why his fingers had just rolled over the keyboard in one spontaneous sitting. The predominant theme of the letter was Safiq’s fear of losing Kuki. Was Kuki so precious to him? How could he feel so much attachment for a woman he has not seen, let alone touched? Attached to the e-mail were several photos of Safiq. She had been urging him for quite some time to send her a few of his photographs. She only had that single passportsized photograph he had sent her in his very first e-mail. Quite a handsome chap. Ruby lips, military moustache, fair complexion. Six feet tall. Wheatish complexion. Three months after receiving Safiq’s first photograph, Kuki had sent him her snaps. But by that time, Safiq had already imagined her and sent her a painting, asking “Look, aren’t you exactly like this?” The painting had convinced her of Safiq’s eagerness to meet her. So she had sent him her photo as well. A slim girl with a coy smile. Safiq had prepared so many copies of that picture; the copies adorned his studio, car, wallet and diary. She had saved Safiq’s photo on her computer, in a
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folder people did not generally open. She would often open the picture and ogle it with all the concentration she could muster. One day, she inadvertently deleted it while cleaning up the computer. It was impossible for her to see him now, but his face was indelibly imprinted in her memory and her heart. She shared all her emotions with this imaginary person who lived in her heart. One day, she told him she had lost the photo and requested him to send her a new one. Safiq ignored her request. But Kuki would keep reminding him every now and then. “I had asked you for something. It seems you have forgotten all about it. Someday, you will forget me in the same way.” Safiq couldn’t resist responding. He had written, “I don’t have a photo. Haven’t taken any for the last twenty-odd years. I feel awkward going to the studio and getting myself photographed. But, I can do anything for you, you know. I’ll definitely get myself photographed and send my snap as soon as possible.” He had kept saying things like that, but the photograph had not materialized. Kuki became listless. If that was a photograph from twenty years ago, how must the guy look now? Perhaps a bit aged. Kuki herself had put on some weight. Her face had become well-rounded. She imagined a man in his fifties, with brown eyes, ruby lips, moustache, and salt and pepper hair. One day she had written, “I don’t need the photo any longer. I don’t care whether you look photogenic now or not. But what hurts me is the way you avoided my request. I can accept you as you are—doesn’t matter if you are lame or blind or anything else. But your silence in the face of my repeated requests hurts me to the core. What are you so afraid of? After sharing so much with you, do you think your appearance will change anything? Don’t you have any faith in me at all?” This e-mail had really stirred Safiq. Disturbed by her letter, he had sent her four photos in different poses.
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One under the tree, another on a bridge, another one in a park, and so on. Without opening the photos she had started reading the text. There was a terrible fear submerged under the words of the e-mail. What was the fear? She had found it disturbing and alarming. Switching the view to ‘full screen’ on the monitor, she had been stunned. There was absolutely no similarity with the earlier photograph he had sent. Who was this stranger? Was it with this man she had been exchanging e-mails, then? She had been indulging herself in virtual sex, taking on different positions from the Kamasutra. No, it was impossible. This man didn’t seem nearly as fair. Not much hair on his head. No moustache…this couldn’t be Safiq. It did not match with the image she had constructed in her imagination. Was it some sort of conspiracy? The man was a cheat. A crook. That was why he had been so hesitant about sending her his photographs. That was why he had written, “I am sending you the photographs; now everything is in the hands of fate!” That explained his strange reluctance. Then who was that in the first photo? Had he sent somebody else’s photo to impress her? Kuki felt duped and sullied. She started sobbing. Why this farce? His eagerness, his emotions, his love poems—was everything fake? If he really loved her, then why did he feel the need for all these lies? Had he not known that he would be caught one day and that it would really hurt Kuki? Kuki had heard that love was impossible on the internet; that one could only indulge in flattery and feel sexual attraction. A relationship was ever so fleeting in this cyber world. In the conditioned environment, you could only respond as your counterpart desired. It was the stuff of dreams and fantasies; little more and little less. Only the body existed in cyber love; the mind was absent. She should have been more careful. She reprimanded herself.
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Safiq was a votary of sensual love and sexual pleasure. But Kuki was a very different person. She had trod this path ignorant of its pitfalls. Whom could she confide in? Aniket? The person who was closest to her? How could she confide in him? How would he react? What would become of her family? How could she have fallen in love at this age? And with such a man? She read his letter over and over again. Zooming in on the photographs, she tried to imagine Safiq. This must be some other person. This man was a stranger. She felt sad; she would now be able to conjure up in her imagination the image of only this man, not the one she had seen earlier. “How could you cheat me?” Kuki wrote. “Who was that man, and who is the person in the new photographs? They are not the same person. How am I to know who is Safiq? Which one have I given my heart to? Try to understand my pain. Try to understand how difficult it is for me.” “Why did you do this? What pleasure did you get out of this? I did not expect this from you. It’ll be very difficult trying to keep this relationship going after this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to ever write to you again. Perhaps this will be my last letter to you. I am completely shattered. I don’t want to have anything to do with you any longer.” And she had clicked on the ‘Send’ button. Almost immediately, she remembered Safiq’s words: “And the greatest miracle is how I need you and how you need me, too.” Replying to Kuki’s letter, Safiq had written, “I knew something like this would happen. That’s why I was reluctant to send the photographs. Is it my fault that time has wrought such a change in me? How can I convince you? Both the photographs are of the same person—me. It was a mistake on my part to send you the first photograph—the
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one taken twenty years ago. But I didn’t have any ulterior motivations; it was just that I didn’t have any more recent snap. Though I have seen my face in the mirror everyday, I have not been able to mark the subtle changes that have come over me. I wouldn’t have sent you the snap if you had not insisted so fervently. I should have realized what time does to one’s appearance. I rebuked Allah today. Why has he let age wreak havoc on my appearance like this? Why did he not keep me perennially handsome? Remember, Rokshana, I have told you many times that I am not handsome. But you have never believed me; you thought I was being modest. Down to earth. But looks aren’t everything, are they? I love you a lot, Rokshana. When you talk about leaving me, I can feel the darkness engulfing me. What happened to all your promises? You are the one who had once written, ‘I can accept you as are—doesn’t matter if you are lame or blind or anything else.’ Have you forgotten your promises so fast? How can I convince you that I am not a cheat? You mean the world to me. Honestly!” “Rokshana, Rokshana, First, I apologize For the way I have been These last few days; My insecurities Got the better of me. Please don’t run away. As I lie here in the dark, Silence fills the air; I wonder why did not notice Just how much you care. This lifetime is not over, Yet I feel it frozen in place; I need to hold you;
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I need to touch your face. I know that what I did Must have really hurt a lot, But it was not done on purpose. It was no conspiracy. I am sorry; please forgive me. Many, many apologies. I am sorry; please forgive me. I can’t live without your love, Your smile and your touch.” Safiq had sounded like a contrite adolescent. She read as one mesmerized and felt her anger recede. She felt better now. As if she could spy a new dawn bordering the clouds on the horizon. She tried opening the photographs again and touching them up using Adobe Photoshop. She tried all the available options. She tried to see how the man in the picture would look when he got old. Those rosy lips were now looking a little pale. Those brown eyes. The eyebrows had thinned. She added a few wrinkles here and there. Same chin. Without the moustache, the face looked totally different. A little less hair and one could hardly recognize him. Kuki used the computer program to paint on a moustache—the kind the man in the first picture sported. Scrutinizing the two photographs, she realized the two individuals were actually one. The man was not lying to her. She realized her mistake. Safiq must think her a very suspicious woman. He must be thinking, ‘To me, she is an angel, and for her, I am a cheat? I worship her as a goddess, but she is no different from the other 52.’ What could she write? Kuki was at a loss for words. Should she write she was sorry? For some unknown reason, her fingers were reluctant to move over the keyboard. If Safiq could apologize without committing any wrong, why couldn’t she? Acknowledging one’s mistake never hurts a person. “Sorry,” she wrote finally, “It wasn’t meant to hurt you. The photographs are so different that anybody would be perplexed. If you had sent the recent snap right at the beginning, these problems would not have cropped up. I
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have never met you; I have only imagined you. I have to love this appearance of yours; I hope you understand my predicament.” After sending the e-mail, she felt disturbed. What if Safiq had imagined her as a beautiful damsel and she did not meet his expectations? Would she cease to be the object of Safiq’s fascination? She, too, had changed considerably with the passage of time. Would he perhaps complain, “Such a difficult climb, all for such paltry rewards” when they finally met?

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CHAPTER 10

Such a difficult climb; all for such paltry rewards! Kuki sat thinking as Aniket slept at her side. How cute and innocent he looked. His face looked almost divinely peaceful, devoid of all worries. After the peaceful slumber, his body will be ready to take on new challenges again. His mind will also rev up and begin to control all his dreams and aspirations, prodding him to fight; urging him to lead and conquer. Only a couple of hours ago, the doctor had prescribed medicine for Aniket and asked him to sleep with a warning for him not to be wake up until he woke up by himself. The doctor had warned that he needed to cut down on stress. What could Kuki say? In today’s world, there were a thousand reasons for stress. In ancient times, when people lived hand-to-mouth, one’s wants were limited. There was less stress then. Today, life had become a rat race. Everybody was competing against everybody else. And amidst this chaos, she did know what she herself wanted. Kuki still could not understand why Aniket had got so stressed out that his blood pressure had reached 230. She had tried to make him see sense. She had told him, “Not all children can be brilliant. Not everybody can be top of the class. Nowadays there are many private engineering colleges. If you spend money, you can have a good education even if you cannot make it into the elite institutions.” Aniket had been stunned. “What makes you think I am not willing to spend money? The problem is that the boy has gone astray. If he had studied hard, he would have gotten a seat in one of the government colleges. You don’t understand—there is a world of difference in the status of a private college and a government college. What will you say to people? That your son is studying at some private
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college? Okay, if not any IIT, then at least a government institute…” “Don’t worry,” Kuki had said. “God has created everybody; He must have made some provision for each of us to survive.” Aniket got angry. stupid!” “What?” “A foolish mother and a foolish son. You were a second-rate student! So what if you have an MA! Arts— that doesn’t count!” Aniket made fun of her like this. He would often insult her and belittle her achievements. Sometimes Kuki wondered what had impressed Aniket that he had proposed to her. All his love for her had vanished. It was as if all that were things of her previous birth and she was living a different life with Aniket now. Desperate to avoid a confrontation so early in the morning, Kuki had ignored his remarks. The discussion had stopped at that. What was bothering him so much? How could she fathom the deep undercurrents playing themselves out in complicated eddies deep in the recesses of Aniket’s mind? Kuki found it difficult these days to understand what Aniket really wanted. He had been stressed out about his promotion over the last two years. But now that he had got the promotion, was he happy? No. Had it made any difference to their lifestyle? His salary became forty-two thousand from thirty-five thousand. Did it matter? He used to be in the head office; now he was in the field. He had been craving for field work while he had an office posting. Now that he was in the field and was obliged to attend to customer calls any time of the day or night, he was pining away for office work. An office posting meant you could at least sit comfortably in an air-conditioned chamber. You could doze off whenever you wanted to. That is human nature—it always seems greener on the “Like mother, like son. Both

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other side of the pasture. And was that why there was so much stress and dissatisfaction all around? “You are never happy,” Kuki had remarked. “Once you get what you want, you begin craving something else. Surely, you realize you can’t have everything your way; what would happen to the others if you got everything?” Aniket had become angry. “Of course, it’s easy for you to make such comments. You don’t have to go out and work. You just do a little bit of cooking and then make merry, watching Ekta Kapoor serials.” Kuki never shouted at Aniket lest the neighbors should hear. But Aniket had always been very shorttempered. Was Aniket worried about the house? A ruffian had occupied their flat in Bhubaneswar. He had paid some money initially, but had now stopped paying the rent altogether. He was misbehaving with them, thereby trying to discourage anyone from going back to him to ask for the rent again. So, no relative was willing to go to him to ask for the rent. Such a beautiful duplex house. Aniket had spent seven or eight lakhs on that house. Aniket’s younger brother had somehow fallen into that ruffian’s trap; he had failed to gauge the person properly. He had handed over the keys of the house to him. The man had said he was building his own house and would move out as soon as it was ready. But that was eight years ago; the man had still not vacated the house. Whenever Aniket went to him, the man went into hiding. His beautiful wife would cajole Aniket with her sweet talk and say they would vacate the flat very soon. Her husband’s prawn company was running at a loss—that was why there had been a gap in the payment of rent. Next month they would pay it in full. Aniket would get convinced every time only to be disappointed the next month when the rent failed to reach him. Kuki did not like going there. She had gone to meet the man once. The man came out, but not his wife. He had
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said, “Madam, please sit and have a cup of tea. My wife has gone to the neighbors; she’ll be back soon.” Seeing his red eyes, Kuki had felt scared. She had just asked, “When you are vacating the house?” “I can’t vacate whenever you tell me,” answered in a grim voice. I’ll have to alternative arrangement first. True, I have not for one-and-a-half years. Come next week; I full.” the man had make some paid the rent will pay it in

“Next week. I will be in Mumbai next week.” “No problem. I’ll send you a demand draft then.” Kuki hadn’t felt like talking to him any further. The hooligan! They could go to court. But that was another headache. Who would manage all that? They had considered filing a complaint to the police. But what guarantee was there that the police would help them? Kuki had returned home. Seeing her face, her nephew, who had come to see her off at the railway station, had said, “Aunty, don’t worry. I will remove the nail with the help of another nail. I’ll hire some other hooligans.” “Are you sure that’s safe?” Kuki had questioned. But the prospect of the protracted legal process was also very depressing. Her nephew had called a few days back and said he had gone to the man with some hooligans. But they had turned out to be old friends of the man. They had had tea at his house and said, “Anil, brother, don’t worry; he will vacate soon. We will talk to him.” Aniket came to know from Anil that the man worked in the security department of the Blue Prawn Company. There was some tension between the villagers and the company. So the company had appointed this man to protect its interests there. It was only out of fear of this man that the villagers had kept quiet till now.

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Putting down the receiver, Aniket had cradled his head in his hands. The house was lost now; it must be worth at least twenty lakh at the present market rates. Kuki also felt sad and intimidated by the prospect of having to build another house. She scolded Aniket’s brother mildly for his foolishness. Even at this moment of crisis, Aniket stood by his brother and quarreled with Kuki. Finally, Kuki had tried to console Aniket, saying that they had never deliberately caused harm to anybody else; so therefore, she believed no harm would come to them either. But Aniket’s face still looked very grim. Still Kuki continued. “Forget the house. It was never ours as such; we have never stayed in that house barring that one single night. It’s impossible for us to feel any real attachment for that house. Perhaps it was just not destined for us. In any case, we’ll spend our whole lives moving from one city to another. The children will grow up and settle in some other city. Who knows how long we will live after retirement—so why worry about the house? I have always dreamt of going to the Himalayas and making a permanent shelter out of a cave there. You’ll find me in the Himalayas one day.” “How can you harbour such romantic thoughts now? Aniket rebuked her. “How can you be so romantic instead of looking after this household properly? You don’t even know the meaning of the word ‘duty.’ Have you ever thought of anything beyond the children? Do you know how much EMI we are paying for the house that is going to be someone else’s? Do you know how much bank balance we have? How much I get in hand? Have you ever thought of sharing all these burdens with Aniket? You just sit in the confines of the house and dream all kinds of romantic dreams.” Kuki felt like crying. A terrible fear also gripped her. Had Aniket somehow got an inkling of the tumult in her heart? No, that was impossible. He would not have taken
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things so lightly if he had the faintest of inklings. The fact that Aniket was scolding her and highlighting all her weaknesses made her feel like crying, particularly because it was Aniket who doubted her abilities and never shared anything with her. He got a sense of satisfaction doing everything on his own. That was why he had freed her from these responsibilities. It was difficult to say what was behind this —Kuki’s disinterest or Aniket’s lack of confidence in Kuki’s abilities. However, the truth was that Kuki was not concerned with these things at all. Perhaps that was why she was indulging herself with the romantic relationship with Safiq, dreaming of flying away like a bird from the confines of the home in which she presently lived. And a tired Aniket had been shouldering the burden of the household all this time. Aniket was in a deep sleep -- free from worries about the children, free from thoughts of promotions, free from the anxieties of losing his property. Kuki scolded herself. Had she really been an equal partner, she thought to herself, wouldn’t she have taken half the responsibilities? If the responsibilities had been shared, Aniket would not have slept like a log now. If something happened to Aniket suddenly, what would she do? She knew nothing. She had no idea of his monthly salary, his loan repayments, his investments in shares, his insurance premiums. She knew nothing of how food came to the house, how the monthly budget was prepared. Would her children accept this innocent, foolish mother? Aniket sometimes made fun of her, calling her a white elephant. He said that she was similar to rearing a white elephant; of no use, really, but the expenditure ran into the thousands. Safiq had once written:

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“If you are truly mine, I will put you on top of my most valuable goods, my antiques, my diamonds, my pearls and all my riches. I will put you in the glass showcase and polish you everyday; keep you glittering. And I will honor you, cherish you, squeeze you, and hold you tight all night. I will let you carry me and place me on your pillow right by your side, kiss you good night, and hold you all through the night.”

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CHAPTER 11

“If you are truly mine, I will put you on top of my most valuable goods, my antiques, my diamonds, my pearls and all my riches. I will put you in the glass showcase and polish you everyday; keep you glittering. And I will honor you, cherish you, squeeze you, and hold you tight all night. I will let you carry me and place me on your pillow right by your side, kiss you good night and hold you all through the night.” That was what Safiq had written. Was Kuki an object? A showpiece? An owner’s pride and neighbor’s envy? Didn’t Kuki have an identity of her own? What was she—a white elephant? Was she just a possession to be showed off by whoever ‘owned’ her? “I am very happy today Rokshana,” Safiq had written, “I can’t wait to share my happiness with you. My para-thesis has been accepted by Columbia University. I have an interview scheduled for the end of this month in Paris. Ninety para-theses have been accepted but there are only three posts. The competition is intense. Who knows if I’ll make it or not? All this hard work and perseverance—all this is only for you. You are my angel; I can do anything I want if I have your blessings. Will you bless me?” No sooner had she finished reading the mail than her telephone started ringing. “Hello Rokshana,” a quiet voice from the other side murmured. Kuki had begun to accept the name as her own by now. The very name sent the blood rushing through her veins. “Safiq?” She couldn’t control her happiness. But a terrible fear also surged in. “Why did you call me? I asked you not to. It’s so risky; the animosity between our countries is at its peak now.” “I know. But I just wanted to hear your sweet voice.
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Couldn’t help myself.” “I was just reading your mail. has been nominated?” So your para-thesis

“It was all because of you. Otherwise, how did my paper get selected from such a crowd? You are a goddess. You are part of Allah himself. “You idiot! What kind of things you say!” “I am telling you the truth. Subhanakalla humma vabhi hamdika, wata baarakasmuka va ta-ala jadduka, wa laa-ilaha ghairuk. Bismillah hi rehmaanir raheem.” “What are you blabbering? I can’t understand any of it,” Kuki muttered. “You are my God Almighty. I just called to tell you this. I want to offer namaz to you.” Safiq was talking freely, without a care in the world. But Kuki felt very nervous. It was not easy for her to control the crazy Safiq. Safiq had convinced himself that anything nice that was happening to him was all because of Rokshana-Kuki. Kuki came into his life and the case against him was withdrawn. Kuki came into his life and his name had begun to be discussed in the international arena. Such a long list of good things had begun happening to him after he had come across Kuki. Kuki didn’t take Safiq’s contentions seriously at all; if she had brought good fortune to Safiq, then why not to Aniket? Why had he not been able to lead a happy life in spite of earning such a handsome salary? Sometimes, he called her an angel, sometimes, a goddess. “Every night I dream of heaven. I dream that they are looking for an angel—one that went missing the very day you stepped into my life. The day all my sorrows vanished and I took a step into a different realm, crossing
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the boundary between the natural and the supernatural.” “Oh God, if only that had been true,” Kuki thought. “If only I had possessed such a magical charm that brought good luck to people who crossed my path, making them all happy and prosperous. I would have ordered the two countries to erase their animosity and things would have been all right at once.” “Nagma’s marriage has been fixed,” Safiq wrote. “The boy is a software professional in the USA. I hope she gets married before I leave for Paris. What do you say? Tabassum wants me to talk to Nissar, my first wife and Nagma’s mother. But I don’t want her to know about all this. What do you think the right thing to do would be? Please let me know.” Kuki couldn’t figure out what to write. What was the importance of her opinion? She had seen neither Safiq nor Tabassum; neither Nissar nor Nagma; neither their house in the village nor the mansion in Lahore. She had no idea why Safiq did not like his first wife, even though he looked after the two daughters. What could she write? She didn’t even know anything about how Nagma got along with her mother. But, the mother’s opinion must be taken into account in any case. She is the biological mother after all. Nissar’s rights on Nagma were more organic than Tabassum’s. “I have no idea why you don’t get along with Nissar, Safiq,” Kuki had written. “Why is there so much bitterness between you two? Why did you marry her and what prompted the breakup? Why do you dislike her so much? Still, I think you should ask her at least once; she is Nagma’s mother, after all. It’s her daughter’s marriage, you know.” “Yes, I hate Nissar,” Safiq had written. “There are a million reasons behind it. She is uneducated. She is frigid. She doesn’t like my perversion. She is quarrelsome and a nag. I got married to Nissar when I was still a student. She is a very complex lady. I thoroughly detest her.”
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The e-mail made Kuki feel sad for Nissar. It was not her fault that she had not been given an education. Frigid? What exactly did Safiq mean? Most women are termed frigid because of their bashfulness. An open enunciation of sexual desire was not encouraged by society, particularly on the part of women. Of course, things had become slightly better with the passage of time. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘sexy’ had become synonyms. Regarding perversions, what wife would want her husband to be a pervert? Kuki suddenly realized that her world was in no way any different from Nissar’s. She couldn’t help praising Tabassum’s tolerance. She had been patient with Safiq’s lifestyle for a long time now. At least she understood the importance of seeking Nissar’s opinion on Nagma’s marriage. She was sensitive enough for that. After taking Kuki’s and Tabassum’s opinions, Safiq was thus forced to go to his village. He was sad because it would keep him away from Kuki for three days. Whenever he left the city, he felt weighed down by the fact that he would be disconnected from Kuki. It was as if he was going far, far away. His study-cum-studio was like a bedroom for him and Kuki. He would not allow anybody to come in; not even Tabassum. He had reserved the room for Kuki. After his work got over, he would write to Kuki saying that he had returned into her arms. “Bind me with your smiles and laughter and your chicanery and magic.” Kuki, too, had got used to this kind of thing. Thus, she soon began to feel restless. It was as if she had become a drug addict! During those three days of Safiq’s absence, she had opened all the e-mails sent by Safiq and read them again. She dreamt of Paris, the unseen land where Safiq had promised to take her. Paris, with its beautiful women, sophisticated wines, and stunning fashion! Would she ever be able to go to Paris? Would she ever be able to see Paris from the Eiffel Tower? Immediately after returning to Lahore, Safiq had written: “I was telling you about that complex, insane
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woman, Nissar. She wants the marriage to take place in the village. Nobody agrees to this proposal. I was telling you all but none of you listened. Tabassum and you are responsible for this. I went to talk to that woman only at your behest. I knew from the very beginning that something like this would happen. Tabassum and Nagma don’t want the marriage to take place in the village. So I have decided that I will conduct the marriage ceremony secretly in Lahore and will not inform Nissar.” What could Kuki say in their family matter? But she also thought it would be better if the ceremony was conducted in Lahore. All their friends, relatives and acquaintances were in Lahore, after all. So Lahore was a logical choice. But finally Nissar won and it was decided that the marriage would take place in the village. “You know, I am not a family man. I don’t know anything about what kind of things need to be bought and what needs to be done. What will I do there? But Tabassum is insisting that I should be there. I would be very bored in the village. I’d have nothing to do. Still, as the father of the bride, I should be there to offer her hand to the groom. I was very angry with Allah today, Rokshana. Why is he keeping my Rokshana away from me? You know you are everything to me! How long do I have to stand the pains of this separation? You know, Nagma wants her Indiawali mother to come and attend her marriage. I have tried to make her understand—how is that possible? With the relationship between the two nations the way they are, how can her Indiawali mum come to Lahore? The thought of having to be away from you again makes me sad, Rokshana. But I have no option this time—it is for our daughter. Won’t you bless her?” Guddu, Kuki’s jaundice at that time. had reassured them about. The medicine younger son, was suffering from Kuki was very nervous. The doctor saying there was nothing to worry was having its desired effect and he
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would recover soon. Aniket was on leave for two days. But he would not allow the child to sleep in peace. Sitting beside him, he had kept asking, “Tell me the truth. Did you drink water from the school tap? Did you have ice-cream from the roadside vendor? You must have had some street food! If you had asked me, wouldn’t I have brought icecream for you? Look at your condition now.” Kuki was getting irritated. If this went on, the child would not be able to sleep. It wasn’t as if he would get well any sooner if he admitted his mistake. Still, Kuki had remained silent. No point quarrelling in front of the sick child. At night, Aniket declared that the younger son would sleep in his bed and the older one in Kuki’s. Kuki felt very sad. She felt humiliated by Aniket’s declaration; it was as if he did not think she was concerned or competent enough. It was nothing new. She remembered an incident from way back. Their eldest son was just eight years old then. Aniket was returning from Chennai for the Puja holidays. They had not been able to manage first-class or A.C. reservations. With great difficulty, they had somehow wrangled two seats in second class. Kuki had taken the lower berth, and Aniket the side upper berth. In spite of Kuki’s dissent, Aniket had taken his son to the upper birth and was trying to make him sleep on his chest. It was an old habit of his. Kuki had observed them for a long time. But she had not realized when they had fallen asleep. Suddenly, the sound of the boy’s cries woke up the whole compartment. Kuki had taken her son on her lap before Aniket could come down. The onlookers all blamed Kuki for being irresponsible enough to let her husband take the child to the upper berth. Everybody had stared at Kuki. She had unbuttoned her blouse to feed her baby, forgetting that she had stopped breastfeeding him some time ago following the traditional ritual. Aniket believed that Kuki always craved for comfort and enjoyed sleeping more than anything else. So, he would allow Kuki to sleep peacefully and sometimes make unsavory comments about it. It was as if he could not
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forget the first few days of their conjugal life. Once, Kuki had fallen asleep while the forbidden act was midway. Aniket was heartbroken and insulted. For a long time, he had kept his anger suppressed deep in his mind. During her son’s jaundice, too, she had not been able to keep herself awake. She just couldn’t help sleeping. But she had wanted to hold her son while sleeping. Just to keep her hands on his body. She had felt hurt by Aniket’s decision. How could she sleep separately leaving her sick and suffering child in a separate place? Not surprisingly, she couldn’t sleep at all that night. Stray thoughts kept invading her mind. Nagma’s Indiawali mummy jaan. Indiawali mum. Why did all these incidents happen to her? For Safiq, she was not just a human being; she was a goddess. With her blessings, anything was possible. Safiq wanted her company throughout his life. Once Safiq had written: “Love me when I am old and wrinkled; Peel off my elastic stockings Swing me from the chandeliers Let’s be randy old deer. Hold me safe through the night When my hairs will have turned white. Believe me when I say it’s true I have waited all my life for you.” Aniket would go back to the office the next day. Guddu had no fever now; he was just feeling weak. She had to send an e-mail to Safiq, blessing Nagma and wishing her good luck. Kuki came out of her room to see Guddu. He was sleeping peacefully. Aniket was snoring, one hand on his son. Kuki returned to her room. Could she go to sleep with her hand on her sick child? She felt like crying. She felt like screaming, “Who does this life belong to -- herself or Aniket?”

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“Who does this life belong to?” Herself, or Aniket? Safiq would seek Kuki’s opinion in every matter. Both literally and figuratively, Kuki inhabited two worlds. Aniket ignored her but Safiq craved for her. Safiq wanted her to show him the right direction in every matter and to solve all his problems. But Aniket never let Kuki do that. He never offered her that opportunity. Aniket needed her but not for his decisions. Rather, he needed her to be there to open the door when he returned from the office, to keep his tie in position, and to take his shoes off. Safiq needed her emotionally and psychologically; Aniket needed her physically. Her importance to him was only of a menial, physical nature rather than emotional or psychological. Mrs. Das was a socialite and a party animal. Mr. Das was the one who made her breakfast in the morning. “Why didn’t you marry Mr. Das?” “I don’t go out every day. Why do you get so angry if I go out once in a while? All right, I’ll play the watchman from now on, saluting you whenever you come into the house, okay?” The comment stung Aniket to the hilt. “Remember your limits,” he warned, “Saluting is not a bad thing.” Were Kuki and Aniket drifting apart? Why all these complaints? Why did she feel the need to vent all her anger and squeeze out the poison that had remained suppressed for ages? Had all this suddenly gushed to the surface with the arrival of Safiq?

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Why this comparison? Aniket and Safiq; Safiq and Aniket. Aniket had never played around with women. He had been sincere and faithful to Kuki. And Safiq, too, had not hidden anything; he had shared with her whatever had happened in his life earlier. “I am not fake or a fraud. I am like this. If you want me, hold on to me; if not, let me go.” The comparison was inevitable even if she was reluctant to indulge in comparisons. Each one suited his role to perfection. Safiq was her smile now; her dreams. Yes, he was the dream maker. He had showered her with dreams. Life never ended; it sprouted again, anew, afresh. Kuki had gone on from having half a life to enjoying a full life. It was her destiny. She was writing to Nagma and Tabassum for the first time. Wishing them well and praying for them. Whatever she knew about them, she had heard from Safiq. There had never been any direct contact between them. What could she write? Nagma was a girl she had never seen but who loved her so much. She called Kuki her ‘Indiawali’ mother. She wrote a few lines tentatively and felt suddenly relaxed. Long ago, Safiq had written, “Our family is very large. Half of it stays in India, and half of it in Pakistan. At that time, Kuki had not paid attention to him. She addressed Nagma in her e-mail and sent it to Safiq’s inbox. She did not worry about whether Safiq would convey her wishes to Nagma or not. Perhaps he would; perhaps not. Safiq’s family may not quite have adopted her after all. Who knew how Nagma would react after all? Safiq would go to his village with his family early the next morning. Then there would be silence for three or four days. Life would seem to grind to a halt. Time would stand still. Once, Kuki had gone out for four days and there was an e-mail from Safiq, waiting to be read. Four days pass Ever the further apart I miss you; somehow you crept quietly into my heart

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Your smile, oh god, how it’s stoked the flames of longing in me. This longing, this I got to have This eternal fire to fill. This emotional current raging as your lips touched me. As your hands, they stroked and they feel so divine Rokshana you showered me with sunshine. Bathed me with morning dew Is it any wonder that I fell in love with you? And if you go turning away from me, My heart will bleed and my tears will roll free, My life will be empty, you will take it from me. I will only be a shell, And I shall have no control Over the breath I take. So remember me when the wind blows with savage force, Think of me in the winter with nature’s seasonal death. Remember me when the sun no longer shines Remember that once you were mine. Kuki suddenly got a call after he had gone to his village. at that time. “What happened? asked. “I have warned you not any sense; you’ll land us both in from Safiq hardly two days Fortunately, Kuki was alone Why did you call me?” she to call me. You don’t have trouble!”

Safiq had no words of defense for himself. Kuki scolded him but was secretly very excited and pleased. She found herself taken over by the aroma of love and excitement. “I couldn’t wait,” Safiq said with a tinge of sadness. “There are no cybercafés out here. I have finally got through to you after trying frantically for the last four hours. The booth owner is mad at me because I have blocked his phone for such a long time. Let’s talk fast so that we can say more. How are you? Do you miss me or not? Without you life seems futile. I want to get back to Lahore as soon as possible. Once I get back to Lahore, I will be back in your

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arms. I have no role here, I am getting bored doing nothing.” “How come you don’t have any work? engagement over?” “She’s getting engaged today.” “She’s getting engaged today and you spent four hours in the telephone booth! Are you crazy?” “Yes, I am crazy. Just the thought of hearing your sweet voice drives me crazy.” “Go home. Everybody must be waiting for you.” Safiq had tried to say something more. But the line got disconnected. Kuki waited a long time for him to call again but it was all in vain. Kuki was surprised by Safiq’s madness. She knew that poets and artists were eccentric in their own ways, but how could a person spend four hours in an STD booth on the day of his daughter’s engagement? But Safiq’s madness also filled Kuki with immense pleasure. Was this love? She could feel Safiq more closely than Aniket. It felt as if Safiq's breath warmed her chest and his spirit moved inside the house. Kuki felt disturbed after the call. Her conscience had never wanted Safiq to call her. The relationship between the two countries was not good; they could end up in deep trouble for nothing. If something like that happened, how could she face Aniket? What could she tell him? Her children? Her parents? Neighbors? That it was all for love? Nobody would believe her? Love, and that too at this age? She would rather die than face such embarrassment. Did a woman live only for herself? Only for her own selfish desires? Could she suppress her nature and desire for her family and state? Is Nagma’s

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Kuki would sometimes get very frightened, thinking such thoughts. But it was as if she was a slave of destiny; it was as if she had no control over her actions. After a few days, Safiq had written a letter. “I have returned to my place, my studio. Whenever I close my eyes, you dance on my wall. I can see you on the monitor of the computer. Our relationship has weathered eight long years. You are my life. Still you are fresh as a red rose petal. Eight long years? Reading that letter, Kuki had stopped at the word ‘eight.’ It’s only been a year and Safiq had written ‘eight long years.’ Had the mail been meant for somebody else? Who had occupied his mind for the last eight years? Not Kuki, of course. Someone else? Linda? Could it be Linda Johnson? His infatuation with Kuki—was it nothing but one big lie then? Kuki had thought Safiq had left his past behind him after encountering her. She had hoped he had abandoned his flirtatious dispensation. But it seemed he had not changed at all. Kuki did not know why she felt so defeated and insulted. She had been trapped by a veteran philanderer. Not just Kuki. He must be flirting with so many women in the cyber world. Kuki was the best but she was only one among many. Kuki felt jealous. She felt only she had a right over Safiq. Nobody else could touch Safiq while she was alive. She now understood Radha’s predicament as she wrestled with her emotions for Krishna. But she had never tried to leash Safiq in. She had never asked him to change his lifestyle. She had never told him he would have to steer away from all others if he wanted to have her for his own. So, why was she so disappointed now?

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Still, she was not convinced. She had never wanted to offer herself to such a man. She felt jealous of Linda and angry with Safiq. After everybody had left the house, she vented all her anger in an e-mail to Safiq. “Our relationship is just a year old. Why did you write eight years? Are you drunk? Or did you send me an e-mail that was meant for someone else? How dare you? I have no desire of talking to you about this; if possible, reply immediately after reading this mail.” Within an hour of sending the mail, she had got a phone call from Safiq. He had sounded quite normal and jovial. “I’d written ‘eight’ years in the mail,” he had said and burst into laughter. His laughter seemed to ignite a fire inside Kuki. “How dare you offer me the rose meant for somebody else!” Kuki’s harsh tone silenced Safiq. “You love Linda; I don’t mind. You send her letters; I don’t object. You do whatever you want to. Who am I to curb your freedom? But why did you send me that mail that was meant for her? It has hurt me a lot.” He spoke very slowly, “I don’t have any relationship with Linda, Rokshana. I don’t even know where she is now or what she does. How can I clear your doubts? I really love you, Rokshana!” She then heard him kissing into the receiver. “Are you still miffed with me? Why do you doubt me time and again? Is it because I am a Pakistani? Because I am not a Hindu?” Kuki didn’t reply. Safiq understood it was difficult to convince Kuki over the phone. So he just said, “Will mail you soon” and brought the receiver down.

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He wrote a five-page mail after that. It was choked with emotion, but did not have a single sentence countering Kuki’s charge. Kuki was his life, he wrote. She was everything for him; without her, he couldn’t live a single moment, he had written. There was also a poem. “Do I love you? Don’t you know by now? Do I love you? Must I show you how? Do I love you? Beyond the shadow of doubt As mighty river flows As the meadow gale plays With wind on summer days Do I love you? Yes, in every way As sacred as a hymn, and the Bible full of prayers, From whisper to a roar Very much and even more.” Kuki’s anger was now melting like magic and all her hurt was dissolving away into nothingness. Within a couple of days, everything was normal. Misunderstandings and occasional quarrels in domestic life are just like the clouds of autumn. There would be a sudden momentary shower followed immediately by brilliant sunshine. Safiq had called her again the next day. “What is it, Safiq? Why don’t you listen to me? You’ll get me into trouble. You know the Mumbai police! We will be harassed unnecessarily.” “Am I a terrorist, baby? You have kept me in that league.” Kuki had remained silent. “I am calling from Islamabad, Rokshana. I have come here for my visa. My interview for the visa to Paris is scheduled for the 15th. Don’t know whether I will get it or not. The embassy officials questioned me as if they don’t
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have any faith in me. And told me to go back home. The panel would decide and the news would be conveyed to me. I think I’ll wait another couple of days, though. And yes, I called you for two reasons. But you got so angry that I couldn’t ask.” “All right, tell me,” said Kuki. “Will you accompany me to Paris this time? I am in a real mess emotionally. I want to take you along this time itself. We will roam around and have a lot of fun. But I’m also worried that if you come with me now, you may not agree to accompany me again later. I wish you could be at my side throughout my whole life. I’ll try to get a permanent job after staying there for four years. But you know, the real problem is if I fail in the interview, I will fail to get you too. You tell me Rokshana, are you coming with me this time or do you want to join me later?” “Idiot!” Kuki had said. “And what was your second reason?” “Calling you and mailing you is not so easy from Islamabad. But you didn’t answer my first question. Are you coming with me this time?” “You go there and come back after you’ve proved yourself.” “You tell me something. I am calling from outside, so I can’t say anything.” “What shall I say?” “Silly!” He had kissed the receiver and said, “I’ll go now, ok!” Safiq really loved her a lot. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have worried so much about her. Alas, how could she possibly meet this lover? Was it at all possible? On one side lay her dreams, and on the other, hard reality. Surely, nobody else could be living this kind of a life?
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CHAPTER 13

Surely, nobody else could be living this kind of a life. She had been living a totally different life in secret -- a life without Aniket, without her children -- a life in which there was no Bandra, no Mumbai, no relatives; invisible yet strong enough to make somebody smile...and cry. This life, too, would come to an end when Kuki died. Aniket would never get a whiff of this life. The children would never know that their mother was in a different world, living in a different country. Perhaps some day, the earthquake would shatter her world. Everything would be crushed. Her relatives would desert her. Her husband and children would refuse to look at her. She would be alone and helpless. Nobody would be there to show her sympathy. She had sinned and must pay for her transgressions. She felt sad the whole day but could not pinpoint the cause of her sadness. She could not bring herself to write a single e-mail the whole day. In the evening, when the kids had gone to Pizza Corner, Kuki finally got down to it. Perhaps it was anger; perhaps, sorrow. She was not in control of her own self. “I don’t know why, but I’m not exactly feeling upbeat,” Kuki wrote. “I have a feeling something bad will happen. It’s a matter of divine providence that we met up. I can’t live without you, but continuing our relationship has its own dangers. I hope you won’t misunderstand me; I am very disturbed. Whatever I am writing today doesn’t matter.” The next paragraph was an expression of her love and longing for him. By the time she had finished writing, she saw that a new mail had arrived. She was surprised and started reading through it, deciding to postpone sending her own mail till later.

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The mail sounded terse but familiar. “I’m in a bad mood today. I don’t want to stay in this country. To be honest, had it not been for Tabassum and my children, I would have settled in Paris with you forever. You know Rokshana, they pelted stones at my house today. The mullahs are really after me. That is why I haven’t been able to write to you. My angel, I am feeling very lonely today. I will write to you later.” Was it telepathy? Was she feeling disturbed because Safiq was facing a problem there on the other side of the border? His mail got her very upset. Her heartbeat went up. What had happened? Why the demonstrations? Had he been caught out by the mullahs? Nothing was impossible. He was such a reckless guy. She had been right in anticipating something like this. What was the need to tell Tabassum and his children everything about their relationship? She felt disturbed. She felt her legs trembling. She did not send him the letter she had already composed. Instead, she wrote, “Why don’t you tell me what happened? I am worried.” No, Safiq did not call. The children returned home. The noise arrived home. The children were munching on popcorn while watching comedy serials. They were asking why Kuki was not laughing. She was sitting beside them, but she could not garner any interest in the serials. She felt as if she was running a temperature. Why had Safiq not called? What had happened to him? Seeing her pale face, Aniket had asked, “Are you feeling unwell?” “I have a headache,” Kuki had lied.

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“Must have taken a shower at the wrong time.” “No, I haven’t washed my head today.” “Then, maybe your bowels are not clear?” “Perhaps. It’s a bad headache.” “Have a cup of tea.” “You finish off your puja first. together.” We will drink

It was part of Aniket’s daily routine. After returning from work, he would take a bath and then perform puja for half an hour. Then he would have his tea. She was not as keen on puja as he was. Aniket kept an account of where to offer coconuts, where to offer food to the needy, and so on and so forth in his diary. Kuki also performed puja sometimes, but not as spontaneously. She could not bring herself to ask God for anything. She would remain absent-minded while performing puja. Which of her sorrows would she ask God to alleviate? Today, though, there was something Kuki wanted to ask for. She prayed to God for Safiq’s safety and well-being. There were four telephone calls that evening. Two of them were from Aniket’s office friends. Another one was from the wife of the bank officer. The last call was from Kuki’s younger sister. Every time the phone rang, Kuki’s heart started racing faster. Every time she thought it was Safiq. Kuki hadn’t given him any fixed time. She had just told him to call her after reading her mail. What if Safiq checked his mail in the evening? Kuki refrained from attending any of the calls. Her elder son berated her once, asking why she was sitting near the phone if she did not want to pick it up. “Somebody pick
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up the phone,” Aniket bawled. But Kuki thought she would have to say, “Wrong number!” if it was Safiq, and on hearing her voice, Safiq might just refuse to hang up and start talking instead. Her worries about Safiq kept her up all night. She only managed to go to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Even then, she found herself plagued by bad dreams. In the morning, she felt bloated and sleepy. Things didn’t improve even after she had her morning tea. By ten, everybody had left home. She kept thinking of Safiq now. How was he now? Why hadn’t he called? Had something bad happened to him? She was not able to suppress her anxiety. Suddenly the much-awaited call came. “What happened? Why were there demonstrations in front of your house?” A barrage of questions flooded in. “Why are you so scared, Rokshana? serious has happened.” Nothing that

“No, you must tell me everything in detail.” I had only said, “I don’t have any country. An artist is not bound by any physical boundaries.” “Whom did you say that to?” “The press.” “Press? You mean you called a press conference? When did you convene a press conference?” “You know I don’t believe in religion,” Safiq said. “For me, Hindus, Christians, Muslims are all equal. But I do believe in God. I believe in you. I love you. Your love is my inspiration. You are everything to me. You are my goddess. I have seen you nude so many times in my dreams, Rokshana. I was in trouble in my country for my painting, ‘Goddess.’ You know Islam does not believe in goddesses. There is only one God. So, they called me a ‘kafir.’ They
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blamed me; they said I was an atheist and that I had provided Hinduism a place in my painting. That was why I had called a press conference; I declared, “I don’t have any country. An artist has no country, no religion.” Now the media’s made an unnecessary hue and cry over that statement and that attracted the attention of the fundamentalists.” “Why do you do all these crazy things?” asked Kuki. “Art is my passion. So you tell me, aren’t you my goddess? Doesn’t an artist have the right to give shape to his thoughts on canvas?” “Safiq, I’m very scared about you. They won’t harm you, will they?” “Silly, there is no reason to be scared. What can they do to me? Forget all that. My goddess, you come into my arms. I want to feel you close to me.” What could Kuki say to this mad artist? He had reached a level where pleasure and liberation co-existed. Kuki was sometimes a goddess, sometimes an object of pleasure or inspiration for him. Kuki found the Sanskrit flashing across her mind. verses from Kundalini

Yatrasthi moksha na cha tatra bhoga Yatarsthi bhoga na cha tatra mokshah Shree sundaree sevana mokshascha karasthanaiba. tatparanam bhogascha

Kuki knew that if she wrote the lines to Safiq, he would ask, “What is Kundalini? Who is she?” Who would explain all that to him? She did not care what form he gave her in his imagination. But let him be safe and well and smiling all the time.

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But how long could this continue? How long could they keep the relationship going? There must be an end somewhere. What was that end? Did Safiq know where this life was leading them -- hell or heaven? Whatever it will be, they had no option but to carry on…

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CHAPTER 14

“I have to carry on…” Safiq said on the phone. “I have to carry on for you Rokshana. Otherwise, what was the need for me to go for the interview at this age. What was the need to go for the tiring para-thesis instead of my painting? The acerbity between our two countries won’t allow us to be together, so we must look for a third country.” “Nagma’s marriage is just ahead; do you think it’s such a good idea?” Kuki questioned. “What is my role in her marriage? Tabassum is there. You know Rokshana, she is so busy that she has stopped her dating and all that. Actually without Tabassum, I would not have been able to run the household.” “Still, you have to help her.” “My job is to serve you.” Paris?” “From where are you calling? When are you going to

“I am now in Karachi. I have come here to get some money from my elder sister. I’ll start for Paris day after tomorrow. You didn’t give me an answer, Rokshana. I am really heartbroken because I feel I have lost my chance to get you. What if I can’t clear the interview? I don’t know whether I will get you in this lifetime or not. I am calling from outside, so I won’t be able to kiss you today. I will call you from Paris. I only have a four-day visa; I’ll have to return quickly. Nowadays, there are lots of restrictions.” “Yeah, they’ve become extra careful because of the terrorism problem.” Kuki tried to stop herself but it was too

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late. What would Safiq think? But then, it was true, wasn’t it? But Safiq had ignored her words. Kissed her on the receiver and kept it down. Had he felt bad? Had he been hurt by her remarks? In any case, didn’t she have this fear somewhere in her mind? Safiq might actually be a member of a terrorist outfit. One never knew. Was she getting entangled in something dangerous? She could never understand the enmity that human beings harbored against each other. Was religion the only thing that fuelled terrorism? What about economic exploitation? The developed countries refused to stop exploiting the Third World countries and the latter refused to put an end to terrorism. Whatever the reason, who was suffering? The whole of mankind. She had never brought up the subject of terrorism with Safiq, nor the question of religion or of the political relationship between the two countries. They had both decided to keep these discussions at bay for the time being. Kuki had never asked why Safiq’s people killed her people. Rather, it was Safiq who would sometimes speak of forging one country, somewhat like the merging of East and West Berlin. It was as if the two of them understood each other perfectly while the rest of the world felt suffocated with all the noise, bloodshed, explosion, acrid smoke and the dust that filled their lungs. The two of them seemed immune to everything. They seemed to live in another world. Ignoring this conscious world, they were floating towards a wonderful region of ecstasy. Kuki was like the Nairatma, that beautiful heavenly being, Mokshya, who sits on the unreachable distance of the top of hill? And the crazy Safiq is struggling to reach the peak to unite with Nairatma, that beautiful Mokshya. Conquering this hill was a most onerous task. That beautiful woman, Nairatma, waited for her lover with a peacock feather in her hair and colorful beads round her
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neck. The soothing smell of her yoni (vagina) wafted in like a breeze. They would unite, and their union would bless them with a wonderful heavenly pleasure. That is when they would take off their masks of this unreal world. They would ultimately reach a state of egoless formless nothingness. There would be no society, culture, or civilization, not even nature herself, for them. Kuki felt remorse over her outburst. Instead of wishing him good luck, she had thrown a tantrum. She should have wished him well. Anyway, it was no use crying over spilt milk; she would e-mail him and wish him luck. After writing to him, she felt relaxed; she even started humming a song. Then came the call from Aniket’s village—Kuki’s mother-in-law was ill. She has been admitted to hospital. Kuki called up Aniket immediately. They would have to go to their village. Getting a train reservation was next to impossible, so they would have to take a flight instead. Aniket was very nervous; Kuki consoled him. Once she reached the village, Kuki had hardly a moment to spare. She almost forgot Safiq. Ten days had now passed. Her mother-in-law was recovering. Because of her hectic schedule, Kuki was getting so tired at the end of the day that she was not even dreaming. She was sleeping soundly. Aniket suggested to his mother that she should accompany him to Mumbai. This made Kuki very anxious; what would happen to her secret world? It was nice to live in two worlds, a real one and a virtual one, at the same time. True, her mother-in-law would not understand what was happening on the computer, but would she be able to sit in front of the computer when she was around? Could she continue to look at Safiq’s photo in that lonely room for hours on end? Could she feel his breath all over her? Kuki was not at all happy with Aniket’s suggestion but she couldn’t protest or disagree. How could she do
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that? Aniket was only proposing to take his ill mother along —it was the most natural thing to do. It wouldn’t look good if he didn’t want her to take her along with him. Who knew how long she would be in Mumbai? Could the mad Safiq abstain from calling her? Perhaps it would become impossible to continue their relationship. Perhaps she had sent him her last mail when she had come to Orissa. It wouldn’t be possible for her to send e-mails to him any longer. But just two days before their scheduled departure, Kuki’s mother-in-law decided not to accompany them to Mumbai. She couldn’t leave her village, she decided; she wouldn’t feel comfortable in Mumbai. She wouldn’t have a problem in the village; her nephews lived close by. Kuki thanked God Almighty for solving the problem as soon as it had surfaced. After reaching Mumbai, Kuki checked her e-mail scanning her inbox frantically for something from Safiq. She found two long e-mails. Finishing all her chores, she sat down in front of her computer. “I’d called you from Paris,” Safiq had written. “But nobody picked up the phone; perhaps your phone is out of order. Or, maybe you didn’t expect me to call you from Paris? But I couldn’t help it, Rokshana. The interview went well. It seems Allah has listened to my prayers. You also pray to your Lord Shiva so that I get the job. You’ll really come and join me here and stay with me, won’t you?” So Safiq had actually gone there. Would he get the job? He was up against stiff competition. The western world didn’t have a very good opinion of people from Safiq’s part of the world. It would be touch and go. Finishing the first one, Kuki opened Safiq’s second email. Safiq had written, “After reaching there, I extended my stay by another three days. There was a surprise, Rokshana. I met Linda there. She is not well at all. Her drunkard husband does not treat her well at all. She has filed for divorce. Once it is approved, they would go back to
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the USA again. I stayed the last few days with her. Slept with her and got caught unaware by base impulse. She is really in great trouble. Are you angry with me for sleeping with her? She needs me. She seeks my love. Incidentally, I found myself taking your name even when I was enjoying her. I realized at that moment that without you, my life means nothing. I am incomplete without you.” The letter left Kuki stunned. She just uttered one word weakly, “Safiq…”

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CHAPTER 15

“Safiq, why…? Don’t you know that to achieve something you have to focus, concentrate and concentrate? If you waiver, you will slip up? Knowing everything, why did you look back?” This time, Kuki was not jealous of Linda. She could think only of Safiq. He still had not mended his habits. Pure? That is not a word Kuki used; rather, it was Safiq who used to say, “You know Rokshana, I have to remain pure in order to get you. I won’t get you until I become a gentleman. You don’t know, but I perform Vazu before writing to you. Do you know what that is? It is the ritual bath one has to take before offering Namaz; one has to be physically pure before one embarks on Namaz.” Why he felt the need to come out pure was something Kuki had no idea about. Neither had she any idea about why he had such feelings of sin and guilt. Why did he think himself a sinner? The one-night stand with Linda might be an accidental affair. Perhaps the grief of an old friend had drawn him closer. Perhaps, but why did he need to tell her about it? Didn’t he understand that it would hurt her? Kuki spent the whole day wallowing in self-pity, hunched in front of the computer, but she couldn’t bring herself to compose a single e-mail. Kuki had never tried to change Safiq. If he had tried to change anything about himself, he had done so on his own. But why was Safiq was trying to change? What for? To get Kuki? But Kuki had accepted him the way he was right from the beginning; she had always known everything about him. So what was the point of his trying to reform himself now? Kuki had not sent Safiq any mail that day. But the next day, an e-mail had arrived from Safiq. “What’s the matter, Rokshana? Are you unwell? Didn’t you get my last
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letter? How do I make you understand, Rokshana, how sad I am—it is time for another bout of separation. I am so angry with Allah: why is he giving us all this pain! But I have to go for Nagma’s marriage. There is hardly any communication with my village, so I have to go early to make some arrangements. Three weeks apart from you is enough to make me cry. I don’t even know if the village has ISD connections. How can I stay there without you, Rokshana? You know, Rokshana, Nagma wants her Indiawali mother to attend her wedding. But I have explained to her that it’s impossible. Just look at the relationship between the two countries. If you came, I would introduce you to all my friends and relatives. I am very tired, Rokshana. Tabassum made me walk all through the afternoon and evening as she went around purchasing sarees and jewelry. Women don’t wear sarees here as you know, but women from the aristocratic families wear them at weddings. If you were here, I would have selected a red saree for you. A seven-lakh rupee meher has been finalized for Nagma’s marriage. You know what meher is, right? If, for some reason, her husband should give talaq to her, then he has to pay back the meher. The actual marriage ceremony lasts only an hour for us, but it is stretched to four hours to make it more memorable. Before the ceremony, turmeric paste is applied to the bride. There is music, singing and dancing. I wish you were here for the ceremony. I have forgotten myself amidst all this, Rokshana. I have completely forgotten that I am an artist and I have my own independent life. But I also want Nagma’s marriage to be over before I leave for Paris. At least, I can spend two years in Paris quietly. Rokshana, will you come with me? Come on, baby, before going to village! I love you.” The lines that followed were full of description of sexual enjoyment. The letter ended with, “Just wait till I return.” Safiq obviously had no idea that Kuki had not emailed him out of sheer self-respect. She would wait a long time now. She would not sit before the computer in her
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leisure time. Would Safiq remember her in the bustle of the marriage? Tabassum was the one who would do all the work anyway. What did Nagma look like? What was his village like? She had seen neither Safiq nor Nagma. Still, she felt sad, thinking that she couldn’t attend the wedding. She could no longer visualize the bitterness now--or the bloodshed. Nor could she smell the gunpowder. Why did political boundaries usher in so many divisions, war, and hatred? Love, hunger, pain, happiness, sex, sympathy—did they have different colours in different human beings? Would Nagma actually expect Kuki’s presence at her marriage? Kuki wondered. The rituals seemed to be quite similar. The turmeric and the mehndi that was applied before a girl was married. The festive mood, with song, music and dance were also the same. It wiped out bitterness among human beings, turned foes into friends and vice-versa sometimes. During the three weeks of separation, Kuki immersed herself in Aniket’s world. They visited the Siddhivinayak temple in their new Santro car. For a few days, Kuki even looked after her younger son’s homework. But Aniket was not happy with her involvement in his children’s studies. Safiq was not there. So there was nothing for her to do now. After Aniket and the children left, the loneliness would begin to seep into her bones. The very silence would take on a threatening dimension. She tried to mingle with the neighbors, spent time in small talk and kitty parties and playing housie. Still, Safiq was always there like an absent presence. She spent her time hoping against hope that Safiq would call. One day Kuki decided not to go to the housie session. She waited for Safiq’s call, read some old letters and generally enjoyed herself. When would Safiq return? Why did he have to go so early? She felt irritated. Suddenly, there was a call from Mrs. Malavya; she wanted her for her kitty party. Kuki feigned illness. She repeated
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this every time she got an invitation after this. detached herself from the rest of the group.

Thus she

Nagma’s wedding was just two or three days away. Safiq’s call took Kuki by surprise. The wedding was just a day away now. “Why did you return to Lahore so quickly? Is everything okay?” “Yes, everything is fine. The house is full of relatives. I didn’t know we had so many relatives. You ask, ‘Is everything okay?’ What is okay? I am not happy at all. I am missing you terribly here. It is a difficult time for me. Another two days. I will come back to you as soon as possible after the wedding ceremony.” “Your village doesn’t have an ISD connection—how are you calling me?” Kuki asked. “O baby, I am calling you from a small town here. This is thirty-five kilometers from my village.” “Are you there for some work?” “What work? Can’t I come here to talk to you?” “That’s fine, but so far?” “You are not in a good mood, Rokshana? You are not happy that I called you?” “I was waiting for your call,” said Kuki. “Come, come to my arms, baby.” A disturbance in the connection prevented the conversation from going much further. The things Kuki had wanted to say remained in her heart, demanding to be nursed. True to his words, Safiq returned to Lahore within two days of the wedding ceremony. He was e-mailing Kuki after a gap of fifteen or seventeen days. He was very happy.
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“We have just arrived from our village. Tabassum is busy cleaning the house. Samim is also helping her. You know Samim, right? Her young boyfriend? I came to my study straightaway. I’m yet to perform vazu. I’m feeling very lonely. I had never imagined that bidding goodbye to my daughter would be so difficult. I never knew that a father’s heart feels so empty after his daughter leaves. It was as if I was donating a piece of my body. I couldn't help crying. If you were near me, I would have cried with my head resting on your chest. Everything remains in its place in the house. Her books, her shoes, everything. But she is not there. She has been here for twenty-two long years. Now she is no longer in this house. Don’t get angry for this short e-mail, Rokshana. I will write you a longer letter tonight.” Kuki mailed him words of consolation. “Nagma must be happy with her husband. Don’t worry; everything will be all right. You will see, one day, Nagma will want to leave your house on her own; she will crave to go back to her husband’s place.” Within days, Kuki and Safiq had returned to their old ways. Tabassum was busy with her dates. After just ten or twelve days, Safiq gave her the good news. He had got the position at Columbia University. He was ecstatic. “I had never imagined that this would be so easy, Rokshana,” he had written. “I can’t believe that I’ll be going to Paris. I have visited London and Paris many times before. But I have never felt as excited as I am feeling now. Every time it was about my career. But this time it’s something different. It’s for you. It’s for your love. I am very thrilled, baby. There are just a few more steps before I reach the moon, where I will be with you and you will be with me.”

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CHAPTER 16

“...where I will be with you and you will be with me. Nothing else in this world. Through sex, we will reach the supernatural from the natural. That is Osho’s theory, isn’t it, Rokshana?” asked Safiq. “Do you know anything about Osho? I am very interested in his theories. Are sex and Tantra related? Do people in your country regard Osho as God?” Till now they had had many intellectual discussions on various topics but never on Osho and Tantra. Why had Osho come into the picture all of a sudden? Kuki had read a few books on Osho earlier. But she never really had any interest. She had not found any of them thought-provoking. She was at a loss about what to write to Safiq. She finally wrote: “I have read a little. His theories sounded logical when I was reading them, but they failed to have any lasting impact. Since time immemorial, our Hindu tradition has given a lot of importance to yoga. Based on that, the concept of Kundalini comes from the yogic philosophy of ancient India and refers to the mother intelligence behind yogic awakening and spiritual maturity. You know, Safiq, our sages and saints have imagined six points in the human body. Six points: the anus, gonads, navel, heart, throat, and forehead. These are the chakras. Each chakra presents us with the opportunity to establish a root relationship and to satisfy a deep soul desire. And Kundalini sits at the base of the spinal cord – at the anus. When the worshipper gains control over his mind and desires, the Kundalini automatically crosses all these six charkas gradually. Our sages opine that the person doing penance gets Moksha when the Kundalini reaches the forehead, the ultimate destination, a lotus with a thousand petals. Kundalini crosses all these six chakras. Osho has modified the concept a bit and chosen sex as the medium to enter into these chakras.
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But Safiq, what are you interested in all this? You have never wanted to be a saint. Never have you shown any interest in becoming a guru. Our love is behind our physical attraction. Our love will sustain us and will lead us to sexual pleasure. Osho had a different take; he merged sex with Yoga. He said, ‘Imagine that you are in deep slumber during intercourse as if you don’t have any worry, any rush. Gradually you begin to fell feel that your body and your soul are not yours—at that moment, you will move from consciousness to super-consciousness, that bliss, that Siddhi. And whoever told you we regard Osho as God? In our country, every individual has the right to accept a point of view or to reject it. Faith depends on individual priorities and preferences. If one regards Osho as God, that doesn’t mean that he or she would force others to accept the same. In our country, there are so many sadhus that many people take them as incarnations of God. But the theory has both its advocates and its opponents. If you are so interested in Osho, I will read more about him and reply to you.” Safiq replied the next day. “Rokshana, after reading your letter, I felt as if I was entering a whole new world. When we meet, shall we try out Osho’s theory? And you didn’t write about Tantra? Did you forget?” In the next paragraph he had written, “Rokshana, as my Paris trip draws near, I am getting more and more excited. I have started dreaming about our future life, baby. I hope you won’t say no to me.” The last paragraph was again a description of their future sexual union—something Kuki had got used to by now. “I am soaking your lips. Give me your saliva, insert your tongue into my mouth.” Kuki found the mail disturbing. What would he get by experimenting with sex? Safiq understands only sex, nothing else. Love and emotion were of no significance for him. What about his words then? “You are my everything; without you, I am nothing.” Did all this have no meaning for

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him at all? She was disgusted with his interest in sexual experiments. “No Safiq,” Kuki wrote back. “I cannot help you in your attempt to experiment with Osho’s philosophy; I am an ordinary woman. My needs are very human; I need only love to live out this life. What will I get from yoga and worship? You can carry on your experiments with somebody else, I won’t stop you. I just want to live happily. I don’t want Moksha. I would prefer to be a silent spectator for whom you would be running towards me time and again braving all the obstacles. That’s what I desire. You have asked about Tantra. There are divergent views on this. For some, it is as a method of attaining Moksha, and for others, it is black magic. You can perform miracles with Tantra. But this very fact has also degraded the reputation of Tantra. I have heard that for a small mistake in pronunciation the punishment of Tantra is damning. It can totally wipe out the man. Anyway, forget it! How did we get here? Our path was the path of love. Come back to it. What will we get from all this Sadhana and Moksha? What is there in Moksha anyway?” It was so difficult to satisfy Safiq, the mad artist, Kuki thought after sending the mail. It was so difficult to understand what he wanted. When evening came, Kuki’s lifestyle would undergo a radical transformation with Aniket’s arrival. While teaching his son, Aniket had pulled his son’s ears so hard that they had begun to bleed. While applying balm, Kuki had murmured something about Aniket and that had triggered off a quarrel. As a result, Kuki didn’t feel like having anything for dinner. She was the one who had to adjust to every situation that came up in the household. Suicide was not an option for her, nor was going back to her father’s house; she could not think of divorce either. Life continued as a matter of inertia.

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The next morning, the tears of the previous night were forgotten. Kuki sent everybody off after cooking for them and serving them food. After the housemaid left, she sat in front of the monitor again. Waiting for her was a mail from Safiq. Safiq had written, “You Hindus are very orthodox and superstitious. Why did you say no to helping me in my experiments with Osho’s theory? Are you angry at me? Why have you asked me to look for another partner? Why are you so orthodox, baby?” Kuki was startled. “You Hindus?” What did Safiq mean? When did the Hindu-Muslim thing come into their relationship? Safiq had insulted her by calling her an orthodox Hindu. Who had given him the right to label her an orthodox fanatic? What did it mean? Was Safiq losing interest in her? What did identity mean for an individual? Religion, culture—what was it that defined identity? How had religion forced its way into their relationship? Kuki wasn’t particularly concerned over the nature of God. Nor was she very philosophical. She had never worried about Nirvana or Moksha or salvation. She had just wanted to live her life to the fullest. She had just wanted to be herself, to live every moment of life. All this talk of Tantra and stuff like that was meaningless for her. But the “You Hindus” bit had still hurt her. Why? Where had this emotion hidden all these years? She couldn’t close her eyes to it. The word ‘secular’ seemed so distant and hazy now. Kuki couldn’t control herself. She mailed Safiq back immediately. Copied and pasted the sentence, “You Hindus are very orthodox and superstitious” and wrote, “This sentence has really hurt me, Safiq. I am surprised at myself thinking of my inability to discover this brutal complexity of your mode of thought. If you think I am not suitable for you, you can leave me. We are not made for each other. Leave this Hindu lover. I know it’s difficult for me to forget you, perhaps impossible. What about you? Yours Rokshana.”

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After every misunderstanding they had, Kuki used to mail him and a sense of relief would flood her. But this time was an exception. She tried to keep herself busy watching TV and reading the newspaper but it was all in vain. Perhaps she was waiting for Safiq’s phone call. Perhaps Safiq would call and ask her, “Why do you get angry for nothing? I’m sorry; I’ll never hurt you again.” But that was not to be. Safiq did not call. Her desperation gave way to anxiety. She logged in to check her inbox again but there was no unread mail. Perhaps Safiq hadn’t checked his mail, she tried to console herself. But the phrase, “You Hindus,” still rankled her. They had been marching ahead peacefully in total disregard to nation, caste, religion, and language. From where had this phrase crept in now? The next day Kuki again opened her inbox. But there was still no unread mail. She felt like calling Safiq. She felt sorry. Was Safiq angry with her? She felt as if her world had crashed. No, Safiq could not get angry at her. Even if he was, he could not behave like this. He must have gone somewhere; that was why he had not been able to check his e-mail. But he usually wrote to her before going out anywhere or at least called her after reaching wherever he was traveling to. But why not this time? Every time they had had a misunderstanding, they had been able to put their differences into cold storage and march on. None of their differences had made any difference to their relationship. Had she sent the e-mail to a wrong address? But how could she do that? She still waited for the call. But the phone did not ring. She could control herself no longer and wrote, “Didn’t you get my e-mail? Why haven’t you replied? Are you really angry with me? But, why? Which of my words have hurt you so much that you want to bring our relationship to an end? I am really worried. Please mail me.” After a couple again. No, there was man got angry. How had hurt her and now of hours, she checked her mailbox no mail for her. How easily did this cruel he was! He was the one who he was the one who was putting on
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airs. Her anger had melted away by now. Instead, she was absorbed in thoughts of losing Safiq. She was like an addict who would die without the stuff. She could feel her frisson and tried to control her shivering by holding her palms together. The empty house unnerved her. She could not share a single word with anyone. She kept her hand on the wall and cried as if the wall could offer her consolation. How could somebody get so angry? How could somebody get so angry? All those words, “You are my goddess; you are my very life,” was all of that fake? She couldn’t sleep. Next day, she logged on to the computer again with trembling fingers. True to her fears, the mailbox had no new mail. Was Safiq a cheat? Had he been playing games with Kuki all along? Did Safiq want to cut off his relationship with her before visiting Paris to leave himself free and unfettered? Without Safiq’s letters, life became meaningless for her. A sense of terrible emptiness seemed to engulf her. Whom could she communicate her mental turmoil to? Kuki again wrote to Safiq. “Safiq, if you are angry with me, please forgive me. I have tried my best to live without you but I cannot. Till now, you have adored me as a goddess; now it’s my turn. I bow my head in front of you. Please write to me; please come back to me. Life is meaningless without you. Yours, Helpless Angel.” This time, Kuki thought, Safiq wouldn’t be able to control himself. He would definitely reply to her. He was infatuated with her after all. Perhaps he had just become a little chauvinistic. Would he be able to resist the temptation of comforting her if he came to know that Kuki was crying? It was raining intermittently. Power cuts, too, had become more frequent. Still, Kuki tried to log in as often as she could. She missed Safiq a lot. She had already sent at least fifteen e-mails to Safiq in these last few days. And she had reconciled herself to the fact that Safiq would perhaps never write to her again. But she kept returning to the computer as a matter of habit. After fifteen days, she was
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surprised to see an unread mail in her inbox. The sender’s e-mail address had an air of unusual charm and familiarity that day. She clicked on the mail with trembling fingers. The screen went blank as it started to load, adding to her impatience and restlessness. “Safiq, please hurry up,” she muttered under her breath. It was a short e-mail. “I have been arrested by the police after the London bomb blast. According to London police, one of my friends has links with this blast. And that good friend of mine has been in regular touch with me. So I am under the scanner. I am under heavy scrutiny. I was allowed to come home for only an hour today. I read all your letters. I have no idea when I will be able to get out of this predicament. If I come out, we will talk again. Please don’t misunderstand me. Safiq.” Her heart began to beat faster. She had never imagined this facet of Safiq’s personality. Was it the same Safiq who had come into her life a year back as her dream man and opened up a bag of dreams for her? Had he camouflaged a bomb inside those dreams? The person who had come as a creator one day, who had planted a beautiful garden and brought a permanent smile on the flowers, who had covered the field with a lush green carpet of grass—could the same person have turned a cruel destroyer? There was a mistake somewhere. Yes, it was nothing but a blatant lie! He must have tried to run away. But why had he taken such a stupid step? Wasn’t silence the best policy for him? Kuki found herself very tired now. What was the meaning of this drama, this game? Perhaps none of this had happened; perhaps it was all part of one big illusion. But what about those e-mails? The expressions of love? The lust? Kuki had saved one of his letters safely in the folder. He had once written to her: “Rokshana, do you know what it is like to imagine my life without your love? Do you know what it is like to look up in the velvet night sky and not be able to sight a single star? Do you know what it is like to see the birds sing their sweet
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song, and yet not hear their sound? Do you know what it is like to feel your heart inside you and yet not feel it beat? Do you know what it is like to be in a crowd of people smiling, lunching, sharing their love together and yet be all alone with no one with you? Do you know what it is like when the light of your life has been extinguished and you are left in absolute and complete darkness, frightened and lonely? Do you know what it is like when the one you love so deeply and dearly is so far away? Your heart cries out her name and yet there is no reply. So what do you do at such times? How do you keep your wits about you? How do you maintain some semblance of normal life, when all you can do is think about the person you are so much in love with and whom you would do or give anything just to be with? You feel lost somewhere between the cruel reality of life and dream-like fairytale that you wish to live in.” Kuki became restless. Did you know all this beforehand, Safiq? Did you know that our relationship would reach this point someday? Is that why you had once written, “I don’t know why, but I feel that time is running in the reverse direction. Every moment tends to increase the distance between us. Time is taking you away and the time will come when it will be impossible for me to get you. Had I been an angel like you, I would have flown down to your place. Reaching you, I would have defied the cruelty of time. If I had two long hands, I would have stopped the hands of the clocks and hold time to a standstill.” Kuki searched her computer. Everywhere she felt Safiq’s presence. In her password, in her own room. Safiq was present everywhere. His paintings, his language, his words and his poems. Safiq had once said, “What answer can I give when you ask me why I love you so much? Not all questions have answers. Perhaps Allah has chosen you to come to my world, solving all my problems, making me happy and pure and crystal clear. I love you because you have made me realize my own worth. And you have taught me those words based on which I can live a life with dignity. Was Safiq involved in terrorism before he had come into her life? He was willing to relinquish terrorism for sake of Kuki’s love. But he was liable for punishment for all his
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past wrongs. What if he approached Kuki again after accepting his punishment? Could Kuki accept him as before? She could not, irrespective of the intensity or purity of his love. But how could Safiq be a terrorist? Could a man who wielded guns hold a canvas; could such a man write love poems? How could a man who got a kick out of seeing pools of blood be as sensitive as that? Doubts beset her lonely and daring soul. “I have no nationality,” Safiq had said. “I follow no religion. An artist doesn’t have any nation.” He was difficult to understand. The expressions of love made over the last few days felt like a hallucination. It was memorable but painful; painful, but incredible. Tears rolled down her cheeks. To whom could she express her feelings? Whom could she tell that she was someone else as well; that she was Rokshana? She had lost that identity. Safiq had written, “With you, my Rokshana, I have discovered eternity. I pray to Allah that the embers of our relationship never cool down. I pray to Allah without knowing whether my prayer will reach Him or not. I have no idea whether Allah will accept my prayers or not.” That was the Safiq she knew. She found it so difficult to recognize today’s Safiq. Where was this Safiq? His poetry, his longing, his madness? The way he used to call her frantically while calling her from a public booth during his daughter’s marriage. The Safiq of today seemed but a shadow of his previous self, of the Safiq she knew and loved. Perhaps she was dreaming an endless dream. She was slipping on her legs and somebody beside her was picking her up and taking her towards a new land, a land where there was no pain, no atrocity, no conflict; only love and desire. Then she suddenly woke up to reality. The darkness was everywhere; the heavy clouds covered everything and flashes of lightening tore through them every now and then. There was water everywhere. Her younger son came up and said, “Mummy, mummy, there’s so much water on the streets. The cars have also been submerged. The water level is going up.”
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Kuki emerged out of her dreams. She looked out through the window. There was a flood. Nature had unleashed its fury on the city. The maximum city, Mumbai, was now going to be submerged. She suddenly remembered Aniket. Where was Aniket?

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Where was Aniket? Who was knocking on the door so furiously? Perhaps Aniket had returned and was knocking on the door, she thought. Perhaps the rain had stopped or it was just the wind, blowing intermittently and making a knocking sound on the door. What time was it? She felt as if somebody was calling her. Somebody’s earnest calls disturbed her sleep. “Kuki, Kuki.” She was groping in the dark for the door to the bedroom. She followed the wall. Her forehead dashed against the door of the almirah, but she still made her way in the darkness to the main door. Who could it be? Aniket? The face was unclear. She felt disturbed when she found there was nobody at the door. Who was knocking the door then? The wind? Or, was she dreaming? Kuki shut the door properly and returned inside. It was not a good sign. Kuki felt like crying. Was Aniket in danger? Was he trying desperately to get back to them? Whom could she ask for help? Everybody was in the same situation. At least one person from each family had been stranded in the rains the like of which they had never seen before. Who would go out to look for Aniket? She had last heard from Aniket the previous afternoon when he had called her, saying, “It’s raining heavily, Kuki. I’ll come home when it stops.” Then the telephone connection had suddenly snapped, leaving Kuki in the lurch, with no clues about his whereabouts. Since then, she has had no information from Aniket. The telephone had gone dead. And Aniket was yet to return. She had a feeling that this calamity would not spare anybody. It would drown everybody. It was still raining heavily. The water level was climbing gradually. Mumbai city would soon be submerged and would meet its watery grave under the sea. So many addresses would be wiped out. From so many souls, it would blow away ego and anger alike. The floods would wash away so many dreams and
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aspirations. In the stream of time, this moment was next to nothing; it was of little significance. Perhaps tomorrow, she wouldn’t be there; perhaps even Aniket would not be there. All the unfulfilled desires and sorrows would remain drowned under the watery rubble. But life would continue. Every calamity was survived by some seeds, some flowers, some feeble chirping of birds, some fearful lives. And they would rebuild an egoless world where there would be no bitterness or bloodshed. Everybody would busy themselves with their reconstruction. The seeds would appear as green paddy fields, flowers would dot the beautiful garden, birds would fleck the sky and fearful human beings would again start creating the same bitterness and atom bombs. Kuki switched on the light and saw that it was two in the morning. It was raining cats and dogs outside. Turning the light out, Kuki continued sitting in the darkness. She had never felt so close to Aniket. Perhaps physical proximity reduced the intensity of togetherness. Aniket was there. But when he was there, he was nothing more than another being. So near, yet so far. They had tea together. Quarreled together. Deposited money in the joint passbook for building the home, rearing the children. But had she ever been crazy for Aniket? Had she ever craved for Aniket? She remembered the lines: “You are my beautiful widow and I am the skeleton of your husband.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. Perhaps Aniket was trying to find his way back home in neck-deep water and the water level just kept growing. Perhaps he would drown after some time. Kuki started sobbing, imagining the possible predicament of Aniket. Were these tears of love or of uncertainty? She had no idea where these tears had hidden all these years. Yes, she loved Aniket. Kuki’s life was reduced to half without Aniket. So many things remained half-done. The children were yet to stand on their own feet. “Aniket, wherever you are, please come back. You are not Safiq that you will run away dashing all my hopes. Please come back,
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Aniket.” She started feeling very insecure and started questioning herself. Was all this punishment for her sins? Would she have to lose Aniket for her transgressions? No, Aniket could not go away, cheating her the way Safiq had done! Kuki’s younger son growled in his sleep. She returned from the hall. She had got accustomed to the darkness by now. Her younger son was whispering something in his sleep. “What is it? sleep; nothing has frightened because They had started questions. Are you dreaming? Go on; go back to happened.” The children were very Aniket had not returned that evening. bombarding Kuki with uncomfortable

“Why is papa not returning?” “Why didn’t you urge papa to take the car?” “Mummy, where is papa now?” “He won’t get drowned, will he?” “What will we do if papa never returns?” “Will you shut up?” the elder one had ordered the younger. Kuki had hugged the two children. She had tried to hide her anxiety with words of sanity and wisdom. “I am there, right. Why are you worried? Papa will come back. After the rain stops, we will call Uncle. Nothing will happen, you’ll see. Papa will call us once the rain stops. Perhaps he is stuck somewhere because of the rain.” Kuki had cooked something. But the children had not wanted to eat. She, too, had skipped dinner. The mom and her two children had gone to sleep, clinging to each other and waiting for Aniket.

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It was a bad time for Kuki. No Safiq. No Aniket. Till yesterday, she was building castles in the air. Till a few days back, she could count on Aniket when she fell ill. And now there was nobody. And Safiq was talking of taking her to Paris. She remembered the Picasso painting Safiq had sent her once from Paris. ‘Le cocu magnifique.’ “Do you know, Rokshana, what ‘Le cocu magnifique’ means? It means the husband whose wife has illicit relations with some other man.” The sketch was very strange. A woman was sleeping on a four-wheeled vehicle, with her legs crossed. Her genitals were wide open and exposed. A naked man dragged the vehicle and a group of naked men were enjoying the scene. On the left side was a girl in a frock, a whip raised in her hand. Kuki had found it difficult to understand the painting. She was not an artist like Safiq. But why had this dark and rainy night brought the painting back to Kuki’s mind? She recalled the meaning again. ‘Le cocu magnifique’ meant the husband whose wife had illicit relations with some other man. A strange sense of guilt overwhelmed her. She had never felt this way. Then, why today? “Oh Aniket, please come back. Come home; you will see how desperate I am and how my heart beats for you.” She longingly looked towards the main door to the home. Kuki’s eyes opened wide; was she hallucinating? She could make out Aniket’s silhouette. Her hands tried to reach Aniket and embrace and feel him.

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CHAPTER 18

Her hands tried to reach Aniket and embrace and feel him. She could not believe her eyes; there was Aniket standing outside the door. She wanted to hug him tight and never let him go. “Life is meaningless without you. We would have been nowhere without you.” “Okay, let’s go in. Why all this drama outside?” So saying, he entered the house as if nothing had happened in the last forty-eight hours. As if he had just returned from office as on any other day. The children woke up. “Papa where were you? You know, a lot of people have been washed away in this flood. We feared you might have been washed away as well. Why didn’t you call us? Were you caught in the water?” “Why should I be caught in the water? I was at the office. I had informed mummy.” “When did you inform me? The connection died midway through the conversation. And you have not called me since.” “So you were safe. much then?” Why mummy was crying so

“That was just your mummy’s drama; I am not a slum dweller that I will get washed away. I was safe inside the office.” Kuki got very irritated by Aniket’s comments. “Natural calamity doesn’t differentiate between the rich and the poor.” “I know it doesn’t. But what is the need to cry in front of the kids making them more nervous. The way you hugged me, I can understand how nervous you must have made the children. Why do you always have to behave like an idiot?”

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“What IIT you have attended nobody knows—the kind of pride you bask in. And your family, too, doesn’t hesitate before making a display of it at the slightest opportunity. “Are we making a display of it using your father’s money? Shall I talk about your family?” “Oh, you please shut up! Doesn’t feel good.” Not in the morning.

Before moving away, Kuki asked, “How about a cup of coffee?” Even though she knew that Aniket wouldn’t touch anything until he changed his clothes. First, he would wash his clothes in the washing machine and then sit on the sofa. His obsession with cleanliness could get on one’s nerves. Handing over a towel to Aniket, Kuki went to the kitchen and suddenly realized that they were out of wheat flour. Because of the heavy rain, the vendor, too, had not delivered bread. She had given puffed rice to the children the last two days. But Aniket didn’t like that. He would not understand that it was impossible to go to the department store because of the rain. He would complain that everything in the household came to a standstill in his absence. Finally, Kuki prepared some vermicelli. While Aniket was busy bathing and worshipping the gods, Kuki prepared the list of groceries that needed to be bought immediately. Aniket spent not less than half an hour over his puja. But Kuki was quite the opposite. It was as if two people of opposite natures had come together. Surprisingly, they had chosen each other and were in love. Perhaps it was a case of opposites attracting. After marriage, Kuki had realized that Aniket was practical and rational; Aniket had realized that Kuki was the emotional and sensitive type. Aniket was still busy with his puja. Kuki walked out to the balcony. One couldn’t quite see the whole of Mumbai from here. But she could see the half-drenched and drowned buildings of Mumbai. The road was waterlogged.
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Water would have seeped into their house if they had still been in their ground-floor house. This flat had seemed like a jail for Kuki. She hadn’t liked the idea of leaving the ground floor house with its own garden and lawn. There was a special charm attached to it. The children had also sided with Kuki. The elder one had planted a rose plant, which had grown taller than him by now. For the younger one, catching his school bus was easier from the ground floor. One could run to the bus stop with one’s belt and shoes clutched in hand the moment the school bus sounded its horn. But if you lived in a flat, you had to be prepared before the bus arrived. “These houses are all old,” Aniket had said. “Water has seeped in all around the walls. The doors have become weak. Everybody wants to move to a brand new flat and you still want to hold on to this place. Let’s go and check out a modern flat. We need an extra room that can be converted into a study. You should be modern. You are clinging to the old garden, well, rose plant…what is the use of this attachment? They had had to agree to Aniket’s proposal and had moved into this new flat. Whatever had happened had worked out to their benefit. The rain and the flood had not affected them so badly. If they had been on the ground floor… Aniket called for Kuki from the dining table. As she served upma, Aniket said, “Not so much. Give me less.” Kuki knew Aniket did not like upma. “Do you want cornflakes instead?” she asked. “We’re out of flour, onions, and bread.” “I have just arrived and you have already started telling me about what we don’t have.” “It was raining so heavily that neither could I go to the shop, nor could I send any of the children.” After breakfast, Aniket started for the office, saying “I could have taken a day’s leave today, but there’s some
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urgent work pending at office. So, I’ll go to work today. What a life we had these last two days inside the office. The office bus was nowhere to be seen; it must have got stuck somewhere. We survived on whatever was available in the office canteen. I’d joined my table with Namdev’s and used them as a bed.” “Namdev?” asked Kuki. “He’s a very panicky creature. He ran home in this rain. His parents stay in Bandra. I don’t think he made it home. His wife called me just after he had left.” “Oh, that’s bad. His wife was pregnant.” Aniket set off without another word. Before leaving, he asked if it was okay if he brought the groceries in the evening. After Aniket left, their elder son said he needed to go out for Physics tuitions. The younger one decided he would go to his friend’s place to check if his school was open. Within an hour, the house was empty. An eerie silence reigned in the house. this silence that reminded her of Safiq. And it was

She had not thought of Safiq for a long time now. Why? Because of hatred? Out of self-respect? Or, was it because the situation had left her with no option? What was Safiq doing now? Where was he? She wished the mind was a blackboard from where she could erase all the things she wanted to. The entire problem would have been solved. Safiq, where are you? In jail? Or in your own house? Or in your department, your old world or in group sex? Or inside your theme? Was he thinking of her? She still nursed a soft corner in her heart for Safiq. She knew that Safiq wouldn’t return like Aniket. Still, how could she erase Safiq from her mind? “Where are you, Safiq? Life is as dry as a summer afternoon without you. There is no chirping of birds on the leafless tress. As if all the branches and twigs of the trees
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are begging the skies for a drop of water. You, too, must come back, the way Aniket did. Come back as a poet, not as a terrorist. Come back as a lover. Are you caged inside the big walls of the Central Jail—is that why you are so silent? Do you still remember your Rokshana? Or, have the ravages of time erased all your memories? Have the probing questions of Interpol left you exhausted? Does your body still carry the scars of police atrocities? It pains me a lot. Why? So near, yet so far? I wish I could cover you in my sari. You know, Safiq, there is hardly any difference between you and me. Both are caged and both are tortured. Kuki sat in front of the computer. Her fingers had not rolled over the keyboard for a long time. This place had been so dear to her once. But now this place only accentuated her sadness. The message, “You have zero unread mails,” seemed to be mocking her. She could go no further. Kuki returned to the kitchen. Once more, Kuki switched the computer on. She read the last letter where he had written, “I have been arrested by the police after the London bomb blast.” A very short mail. “Inshallah we will meet again”—the last sentence. Still, a grain of hope lingered resolutely in some corner of her heart. Kuki opened some of the poems Safiq had written her. She felt hypnotized by the sweet smell of love. She seemed to be in a dream world. Opening Wordpad, Kuki started keying in her own feeling and emotions. Kuki was astonished. Till now Safiq had been writing poetry. She had never tried her hand at poetry. Where had this faint stream lain hidden inside her? How had it suddenly erupted? Should she send the poem to Safiq? It didn’t matter whether she got a reply or not. Could Safiq come back after the interrogation? Would he be searching for her? She kept hoping for a mail addressed to Rokshana. Kuki logged onto the internet. She covered her face with both her hands. No, she could not tolerate the blank
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inbox. Through the gap between the fingers, she read the familiar message, “You have zero unread messages.” A terrible sadness overwhelmed her. But she couldn’t control herself. Just typed, “Safiq. How are you? Your Rokshana,” and sent the one-liner to the familiar e-mail address. No, she didn’t send the poem. She couldn’t muster the courage to do so. After sending the mail, a sudden fear engulfed her. What if Interpol tracked the e-mail down to her IP address? What she would do? Who was this Safiq? What was her relationship with him? Could she face her relatives, family, and above all, her nation? She felt repentant but what else could have been done?

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CHAPTER 19

But what else could have been done? Aniket said, “It’s not in my hands. The order has come from above. If I don’t go, somebody else will. But the company will never send me abroad again. My colleagues have been waiting eagerly for an opportunity like this and they will laugh at me if I say no to the offer. The air was heavy with silence. Then Kuki said, “Abroad is fine, but at least it could have been the USA or Canada, or even Thailand or Malaysia. But Kuwait…!” “Why? Don’t human beings live in Kuwait? What is there to be so scared of?” There was certainly reason for fear. “Two Indian drivers had been abducted only a few days back,” Kuki reminded Aniket. “Do you think I am a driver?” Aniket just got irritated. “A job is a job. You can’t be dramatic about it. I am paid for doing my work. Even if my company sends me to hell, I have to oblige. Otherwise, we will all have to starve to death.” Kuki responded, “We would only be half alive if you went away. You’d be gone for a year—neither can we accompany you, nor can we go back to Orissa for that period. The children’s education can’t be held up for one whole year. Besides, it’s a crucial time for the elder one; he has to decide on his career plans. If you go away at this juncture, I really don’t know how to handle things.” “Now you understand how difficult it is to run a household,” Aniket smiled and continued, “You haven’t even started discharging the responsibilities and you’re already worried to death.”

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“Why, what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t I be worried? Who else should be worried if not me?” “That’s what I am pondering over. What can be done about it? It’s true; you’ll face a lot of trouble this one year.” “You are ready to leave and go so far away. What if there is some problem tomorrow? Who would stand by me?” Then she thought to herself, “ What if the police, while investigating Safiq’s connections, reach my house?” Kuki almost had blurted it out but managed to stop herself at the last moment. “You know how often I fall ill,” she said instead. Aniket suddenly started scolding her in a fit of rage. “Am I a watchman, employed to watch over you 24 hours a day?” “Why are you using foul language?” “What did I say? You tell me—has there been a single month when you haven’t fallen ill?” “I haven’t fallen ill in the last eleven months,” Kuki retorted. “You haven’t been to the doctor in the last eleven months, yes, but it’s not as if you haven’t fallen ill. If you are so worried about your health, I’ll ask my mother to come here and stay with you the whole year.” “Oh my God! What an idea! I can still manage a year alone with my children, but don’t talk of bringing your mother here. She is old. Who will manage everything if she falls ill?” “You’re right,” Aniket concurred, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to leave you all alone for a whole year, but at the same time, I don’t want to miss this opportunity either.” The word “opportunity” suddenly reminded Kuki of Safiq. He had been precisely in this dilemma while he had
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gone for the interview. He also had said, “I can’t figure out what to do, Rokshana. I can either take you there now or after getting a permanent job after five or six months. Then again, what if I don’t get the job? What if I flunk the interview? I’ll lose the opportunity to make you mine then.” Why did the old memories have to come back so strongly? Memories were difficult to wipe out, even if you tried. Aniket took them to Zaveri Market that day and bought Kuki a mangalsutra. He also got jeans, T-shirts and wallets for the children. They were very happy. Their father was going abroad. But Aniket was still worried; he was spending so much on the children in an attempt to allay some of his fears before setting out. Kuki communicated her decision to Aniket just before going to bed: “You go on, Aniket. Time will fly. We know this colony well. These people are old friends. Remember that time when Mr. Joglekar donated blood for me?” This is how things happen, Kuki thought. She had wanted to fly away. But it was Aniket who was leaving the nest. She had no option but to accept this hard reality. She was also surprised at herself. At one point, she had wanted undisturbed solitude in this flat so that she could roam the skies with Safiq. And now, when Aniket was all set to leave her alone and go abroad, it was not happiness but a sense of emptiness that overwhelmed her. What was the time now? Aniket and the children had fallen off to sleep long ago. But she was still awake. She felt restless. Aniket was leaving her for one year. How would she live without him? She brought out her diary to suppress her restlessness. She had jotted down some of Safiq’s poetry there. She had been very nervous after Safiq’s arrest and had deleted all his e-mails out of fear. But before doing that, she had jotted down some of his quoted poems. She stumbled upon one poem in particular:

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“The candle flickers softly on a table set for two There is no one on this planet tonight apart from me and you. A nice romantic dinner and a bottle of chilled wine And we are here together in a moment stopped in time A love so few have ever known and this is its bright night. Alone within our little world, you and I and candlelight. So soon we will set free the feeling that we want to share; And I am held here spell bound by your laughter in the air. Thoughts of love, like falling leaves Swinging in the autumn breeze, Flow in our minds, in our eyes. A tender look and longing sighs; We touch and the fire starts— The fire we have kindled in our hearts. We kiss and hear the angels sing As heaven’s gift to me you bring And happily I would die for you Here at this table set for two.”

A car made its way to the parking space breaking the silence of the night. It must be Mrs. Sood. She usually returned at this time after having dinner. Kuki switched the table lamp off and went near the bed, where Aniket lay stretched out in slumber. A long round pillow separated the two. Kuki chuckled. Here they were, so close, yet so far, choosing their own territories and marking out their own boundaries. Kuki did not feel like going to sleep. She just lay on the cot silently. Aniket began to make funny growling noises. Shaking him awake, Kuki asked, “Did you have a bad dream?” “Horrible,” he said, turning towards her.

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“What?” “I am not safe at all,” Aniket muttered before falling off to sleep again.

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CHAPTER 20

“I am not safe at all,” Safiq had written. After so many days of silence, she was not expecting a mail from him. It was four months since he had last written to her. Kuki no longer logged on to the internet very often. She remembered Safiq sometimes, but that painful sense of longing was a thing of the past. The time for Aniket’s departure was drawing closer. She was busy with her kids and family. She was trying to cope with the different demands of her two children. She didn’t know what happened to her. One day, she just had an irresistible desire to log on to the internet. She was surprised to see an e-mail waiting in her inbox. She couldn’t wait to see the name of the sender. Perhaps it was a virus. Perhaps an invitation to chat. Spam, perhaps. But all her apprehensions proved wrong. She read the name of the sender and her joy knew no limits. Till that time, she had thought that Safiq must be in jail; why else had he stopped mailing her? In any case, she had had her doubts about his involvement in the web of terrorism. Safiq’s mail put all her apprehensions to a rest. The mail had been sent a whole week ago. And she had not read it yet. What would Safiq be thinking? “I am not safe at all,” he had written. “My e-mail and phone calls are under scrutiny. I have lost my job and am ruined. I am a victim of fate, baby. I have lost all hope in humankind, baby. Samim, that boyfriend of Tabassum, has turned out to be an informer.” A tinge of sadness shrouded her. She had suspected something like this when Safiq got arrested. Still, she felt pity for him. “If possible, I’ll write a long letter,” he had written. “But you shouldn’t write to me in the mean time. I don’t want you to land in trouble because of me. You pray to God, Rokshana; one day, we will meet. I don’t know if I’ll be able to extricate myself from this military conspiracy. They are hounding me from all sides. I don’t know what will
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happen to me! Still, if God so wants, we will definitely meet one day. Yours, Safiq.” The mail left her heartbroken. She just wanted to fly off to some distant land. To take Safiq’s head into her lap and stroke his hair. To say, “I always knew you couldn’t be a culprit. There must be a big conspiracy behind you. I still have complete faith in you. I still believe you.” But she couldn’t bring herself to write a single sentence. Safiq had advised her not to write. All her anger now turned towards Tabassum. She was the real culprit. A bitch. It was because of her that Safiq had landed in all this trouble. What was Safiq’s fault? She had many boyfriends; the military officer would have become the next one. What was the problem? What difference would it have made to her if the military officer gifted her to his superior? At least Safiq would have been all right if she had agreed to the proposal. There were a few things Kuki did not yet understand. What made it so painful for Tabassum? Why had she gone into depression for such a long time? Once a woman lost her dignity, what right did she have to pick and choose? What did Tabassum want? What sorrow did she suffer from? What unfulfilled desires led girls like Tabassum to indulge in flesh trade? A strange affliction had gripped the Asian and African nations. The attractions of the West and an abhorrence of their supremacy had left them at the crossroads. There was no longer any talk of socialism and capitalism. Nobody bothered about the Cold War today. The whole world had only one worry—terrorism. Terrorism had today become international; it no longer respected any boundaries. It had spread its tentacles all over the globe like a hydra. You could not eliminate terrorism by eliminating a single country. A sense of unease haunted Kuki the whole day. Safiq was probably out on bail. He had lost his job, his self157

respect; he was a vagabond today. Perhaps he had retreated to a corner of his room like a defeated soldier. He must be blaming his luck while thinking about the job in Paris and the golden moments with Kuki. What were his children and Tabassum doing? The thought of Safiq’s children upset her. She could not fathom how her heart cried out so intensely for these people whom she had never met. What were his children doing? Who was running the household? They must be under severe financial and emotional pressure. So many thoughts disturbed her. She had only one consolation. Safiq was not a cheat. He has not betrayed her. He was in trouble himself. The knowledge that Safiq was not a terrorist and that he was in no way related to any terrorist outfit kindled a ray of hope in her heart. Had he been a terrorist, he wouldn’t have said he was a victim of the military establishment. He would have said he was a culprit before his fate. The short letter was meant to resuscitate their relationship, she thought. A new softness… She had no idea what the rule of the land was on that side of the border. What kind of a sentence would he have to serve? Was Safiq an undertrial now, or had he been arrested? What were the charges against him? From whom could she find out about Safiq? Nagma was in the USA with her husband after their marriage. She didn’t have Nagma’s e-e-mail address. What would Tabassum be doing now? Roaming around in her glitzy world or trying to arrange for lawyers for Safiq? “You know Rokshana,” Safiq had once written, “this is not a new problem. I have been harassed because of my truthfulness many times before.” He had written this in response to Kuki’s queries regarding his painting, ‘Goddess.’ “I was a student of anthropology before completing my diploma from the art school. During that period, I faced a lot of flak for my paper. Do you know what my mistake was? I wanted to investigate the origins of the Indus Valley

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civilization in my paper and I wanted to show that India and Pakistan shared common roots. I have faced such problems right from my student days, baby. The professor had called me to his chamber and ridiculed me. He reprimanded me saying that writing such a baseless paper had put him in trouble. If a correct and unmotivated history is indispensable for the foundation of a strong nation, then, why such double standards? You will be surprised to know that here, history starts from the seventh century. Arabic history is the history of our land.” “There is a tussle over history in our country as well,” Kuki had written. “Our history seems to change as the ruling party changes. A person is projected either as a hero or a villain depending on what party is in power. The history that a father had read is totally different from the history his son reads. Tell me, Safiq, when will history be free from all this parochialism?” This old conversation came to her mind. Had Safiq been put under the legal scanner because of such utterances? She was desperate to write to him and to find out more about his predicament. But she controlled herself with great difficulty as Safiq had warned her not to e-mail him. Kuki walked away from the computer. Safiq would definitely write to her. He would write as soon as he freed himself from this conspiracy. In a month, a year, five years... She would wait for that day.

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CHAPTER 21

She would wait for that day. Alone. Was it difficult for her to live without Aniket? Otherwise, why did she feel so restless inside? Whenever Aniket went out for a week or two, she would stop cooking fancy things. She would just whip up something or other for the sake of feeding the children. The children had complained that she would cheat them like this whenever Aniket was not around. It was as if all her make-up was for Aniket only. She had felt how proud her father was of his son-in-law working for an MNC. But inside the four walls of the house, their attitudes did not match. They could not even to talk freely with each other. Still, Aniket was someone she could depend on. If he went abroad for a year, how would she manage the whole household? She felt like an innocent kid observing the world as a silent spectator. When you are caged, the mind wants to go out and wander free, but when it is let open in the vast open world, getting bearings becomes the most difficult task. A strange fear had gripped her but she tried not to let it show. It was the same sense of fear she had experienced at the time of Safiq’s success in the interview. Safiq had asked, “Rokshana, you won’t say no at the eleventh hour to coming with me, will you?” She didn’t know if she would have succeeded in breaking free with Safiq. But Safiq’s love for her was so strong that Kuki had no doubt she would want to follow him to any corner of the world. Aniket’s reasons for leaving her might be totally different from the reasons behind Kuki deserting Aniket. But she had a feeling that either way, her household would run into rough weather. That evening, Aniket tried tutoring her about all her responsibilities—he explained what things she would need to do in his absence. Opening a small diary, he asked her to go through each and every item carefully. He explained, “I
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have written everything down. Just have a look while I’m still around so that you don’t face any problem after I leave. You are yet to try out these responsibilities. You could at least have gone to the banks and lightened my burden. I also have everything saved in the PC in different files. If some files get corrupted, then this diary will come in handy.” Kuki praised Aniket silently. How careful he was! These things came so easily to him. “See,” said Aniket, “the recurring deposit has to be put into ICICI bank every month. You must send a cheque of Rs 10,000 before the 31st of March towards payment of the LIC premium. I have written down the policy number and premium amount here. The housing loan reimbursement will be automatically deducted from my salary. So you need not worry about that. Three certificates will mature this year. I have made out all the papers; just call the office and encash them. I have talked to a travel agent; if you need him, just give him a call and he will be there to help you. You can go anywhere you want. Remember not to drive when I am not around.” This was a totally new experience for Kuki. Aniket was going away entrusting her with all the responsibilities. She had never taken any interest in the bank balance and home loan and such things. Till today, Aniket had managed all this the same way as he had managed the studies of the children. One understood another’s importance only when the ‘another’ was absent. One realized someone else’s worth only when he was away. Go, Aniket, go. Let your shadow overshadow you in your absence. Wouldn’t Tabassum face all these problems in absence of Safiq? Perhaps not! Safiq had once written he couldn’t manage his family. Tabassum looked after everything. Kuki’s case was exactly the opposite. She should have learnt to manage things on her own. Aniket brought out all the prescriptions and went through them with her—“These are your old prescriptions. If your health deteriorates, show all these to Dr. Mehta. It’ll
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help him to understand the problem if he acquaints himself with your medical history.” Kuki felt like crying. Love for her did exist then in some corner of his heart. How much did Aniket care for her! But she had only seen his harshness till now. Why are you like this Aniket? Why don’t you ever talk sweetly? Once we loved each other and sought each other, but after putting your feet on the moon you realized only the roughness of its surface. You know there is a lot of love hidden in the address, “Baby”. Why don’t you call me like that just once! Kuki’s eyes were full of tears. She was trembling with some unknown emotion. She felt helpless. “What’s the matter?” asked Aniket. “If you cry like this, how you will manage the children when I am away?” Aniket was biting his nails. He, too, felt like crying. But he didn’t want to show his weakness. “Why are you behaving like a rustic woman? Your friend, Renu, has settled down in America all on her own. Now, see this—this is the cheque for Union Bank. No need to worry about the elder son. For the younger one, just sign this cheque for the tuition fees. Their school has the cheque system. This is our joint passbook. Tell me if I’ve forgotten anything.” “You are behaving as if you are leaving for good,” Kuki stated. “Who knows? What if the plane crashes? Or if I am abducted? Or there is a bomb blast?” This angered Kuki. “Oh, please shut up. you saying all that rubbish? Shut up!” Why are

“Life’s like that! Who knows what will happen?” Yes, that’s true. Till yesterday Safiq was busy with wine and women, intent on just enjoying his life. He was savoring the forbidden fruits of love with Kuki. Now, he was suddenly a cursed animal.
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Aniket opened many files and rearranged them. He spent around an hour or so in front of the computer. He didn’t switch on the TV after dinner. He went straight to bed instead. Kuki was not there. Aniket fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow. He’d had a hard day. He had just transferred charge of the office. Then there were so many little things to do at home. She felt like kissing Aniket, but she was scared he might wake up and scold her. What if he asked, “Now, what drama is going on here? Please let me sleep; I am tired.” Wouldn’t that hurt her? She silently got up from the bed. She took out the diary from the book rack and started reading one of the poems Safiq had sent to her. Kuki felt somebody was awake; perhaps Aniket was calling her. She quickly closed the diary and went back to the bedroom. Aniket was sleeping soundly. Kuki slowly crawled back onto the bed. Was Safiq a fantasy? Had she imagined a man who did not really exist? Like the helpless captain who confuses the pole star with some other star on a cloudy night during his endless voyage on the vast sea? But how could she? Safiq had proved himself so many times. She often heard his voice, which turned her face pale with an unusual thrill. She could smell his manly body every single moment. Even now it felt as if he is standing beside her. Wasn’t it strange how she and Aniket shared the same room but they were so far apart? Oh God, why was life so difficult and so full of disappointment? Kuki quietly went down to the study and sat down mechanically in front of the computer. She seemed to gain a new courage. Before this, she had never sat at the computer in Aniket’s presence. Her love had been camouflaged inside this PC. The PC made its familiar sound as it was switched on, ripping the silence of the night to shreds. The sound made her nervous. But she was already halfway through. There was no question of backtracking. There would be

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another sound if she tried to shut it down. She had no way out now. As Kuki switched the monitor on, Aniket roared from behind her, “May I know what is going on at this ungodly hour?” “Just trying to read the newspaper on the internet.” “Oh, this is the only time you get to read the newspaper. You won’t let me sleep, will you? Moving through the night like some sinister woman. And in the morning, you’ll be complaining, saying your blood pressure has shot up again and asking me to take you to the doctor.” Oh, hell! She just tried to ignore his words. It was this very Aniket who had created an email ID in her name, saying “The world is moving at a furious pace; you’ve been left far behind. Enter the cyber world; check it out for yourself. The world has become a small place. And that same Aniket was saying this now. She shut the computer down and tried to sleep. How long? How much longer would she have to tolerate this terrorism? How much longer? How long would terrorism have to be tolerated with the wink of one’s eyes?

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CHAPTER 22

How much longer? How long would terrorism have to be tolerated with the wink of one’s eyes? Why would some simple and unarmed, faultless folks have to die every day for no reason at all? The dead remained frozen on camera as the media focused on them. The ghastly incident had shaken everybody; those ghastly inhuman scenes as you switched the TV on. The mangled houses, scattered limbless human beings, the pools of blood. The cries, the speechless kids unable to fathom the gravity of the situation. The smell of gunpowder seemed to have drugged and intoxicated Mankind. What wrong had the girl done— the one who had come on an excursion from distant Assam and had gone to market to purchase some gifts for her friends and relatives? What was the fault of the young boy who had come from some nondescript village in Bihar in search of a job? What did the terrorists have to say to the kid whose parents had left home promising to return with sweets and balloons and to sit and watch television together? The kid didn’t know that there was a house loan of lakhs of rupees now sitting on her shoulders. Perhaps, she would be reduced to begging on the streets after a few days! Fraternity as a concept had been wiped out of the lexicon. God seemed to have gone into deep slumber, disgusted at the activities of those He had created. Was Safiq involved in a conspiracy like this? There had been no response from his side after the short mail highlighting his innocence and blaming his luck. Kuki was gradually losing faith in mankind. She was feeling lost and had begun to seriously doubt Safiq. The scene kept haunting her mind. Was Safiq somehow related to these conspiracies? Today, there
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seemed to be a bomb waiting to explode in every red rose bouquet. The serial bomb blasts in Paharganj and Sarojininagar had really marred the Diwali celebrations. How could she say any longer that God’s creation was beautiful? Thick layers of smoke had engulfed the whole city. Cries of the amputated victims resounded against the concrete walls of the buildings all around. The market had become a mortuary. If Safiq had been there under the open sky, as usual reciting his love poetry, she would definitely have asked him, how can you think of love amidst all these ruins? Why don’t you capture this moment with a smack of red paint on your canvas? You were the one who familiarized me with the paintings of Picasso. You were the one who told me that the World War had brought a sea change over Picasso’s paintings. Relinquishing the Cubist style, he had started to paint perfect physique and posture of his model like a classicist. No doubt, Picasso was influenced by Agren. At that time, Mariterz Volatire was his model. But all of a sudden, the World War changed his style. The faces of his models were disfigured. Perhaps he was trying to reflect his own sadness and helplessness in his art. By the time the Second World War transpired, his models had changed drastically, the faces and bodies taking on surprising shapes. In one picture, he had displayed the profile of both the front side and the back. He was using this technique of disfigurement to highlight the deep pain and anguish inside him. Safiq, I want you to try and capture time. Display the shape of human pain and helplessness in the larger scheme of things. Just show the color and collage depicting the ruthlessness of man. Whichever news channel you switched to, it was the same news you encountered; the same gruesome scenes. Kuki switched the TV off.

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The children had left. Aniket had gone to his village to visit his mother before going abroad. Kuki was left alone in the sprawling house. She had serious misgivings about Aniket’s visit to Kuwait. A collage of thoughts crowded her mind. Couldn’t he refuse the offer? Mukherjee and Gupta had bypassed the problem very cleverly. Surely, he could have offered some excuse. Life was like a drop of water on a lotus leaf. There was no guarantee that you would come back safe. Everyday, some people would be victims of terrorism. One day, she was reading a Bengali newspaper—she couldn’t remember exactly which one. Perhaps it was Pratham Alo or Ittefak or Jugantar. Someone had quoted Kazi Najrul Islam’s version, Mou-Lovi—Moulavi. Mou—lovi meant desire for honey. He had mocked the fundamentalists and their craze for heaven where they would like to live a luxurious life with the Hur fairies after their death. They trained the pupils of Koumi madrasa to believe that only through jihads could reach heaven after death and could enjoy life with the Hur fairy. One could become a good jehadi by killing a large number of Kafirs. And as reward, he would enjoy more and more fairies in Heaven after his death. The article had surprised her. Was there any lack of fairies in this world? Lack of love, happiness, conjugal bliss? What was the point of risking one’s life for the sake of a heaven nobody had seen, known or visited? Was it true that the only objective of terrorists was to be among the fairies? Perhaps not. Just ask the rich countries! Ask why they had been busy for years exploiting the simple people of the underdeveloped countries! Ask America where the robots it had sent to evict the USSR from Afghanistan would go. Where would they dump all the arms and ammunition? How could they forget their training? Arms always demanded blood and life. The TV swamped the room with the horrendous scenes. The rule of death. The whole day passed with the tinge of sadness. She had so much leisure but she still did not crave for Safiq’s mail. The bomb blast seemed to have
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crippled her and turned her to lifeless stone. It was almost as if the smoke had turned her mind and had made her face similar to the paintings of Picasso: disfigured. Someone had crushed the petals of the love-rose beyond recognition. And to think that only a few days back, she had been living in his love.

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CHAPTER 23

Only a few days back, she had been living in his love. That love was still there, but now failed to make its presence felt. She felt exactly like that after receiving the call from Safiq. The phone rang suddenly in the morning as she was entering the bathroom. Kuki came running in anticipation of a call from Aniket. But the sound of Safiq’s voice left her stunned. The stunned feeling gave way to happiness within moments. The address, “Rokshana,” was sufficient to bring her to tears. It was almost four months since she had last heard his voice. The same alluring voice now inquired, “Rokshana, how are you, baby?” “Safiq, my God, I can’t believe this.” Her lips quivered with pleasure. Her body shook in unprecedented excitement. The music of his presence was singing a swift melody in her blood. “Baby, did you check my mail?” “You’ve sent me an e-mail? No, I haven’t got it. I haven’t checked my e-mail for some time now.” “Open it right now and go through it. I have written you everything. Rokshana, one thing I will ask—will you speak the truth?” “Ask.” “Do you still love me? The way you used to?” “Yes.” “Your impression hasn’t changed?” “No,” Kuki replied. “Baby, I am calling you from outside. They are tracking my mails and calls. I have come out on bail for two days. I miss you, baby, I love you. Baby, I am hanging up.
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You’ll know the rest from the mail.” He kissed the receiver furtively. Was it a dream? Or had she actually talked to Safiq? The room seemed suddenly filled with the fragrance of love. It seemed as if somebody was singing love songs. Oh, how pleasant were those rhymes. How clear was the tone. Instead of going to the bathroom, Kuki ran to the computer. The internet connection was erratic. She began to lose patience. She would log on to the cyber world and Safiq would spread his arms, inviting her, uttering, “Come baby, come.” She logged in and immediately found an e-mail waiting for her. But who was this Stephan? It was not from Safiq. She became sad and disappointed. Where was Safiq’s message? An unknown fear engulfed her. Who was this Stephan? Someone who wanted to chat with her? Kuki had never chatted with strangers. She had no faith in those superficial relationships. Till now, she had avoided these fake and fleeting relationships. She had seen Aniket, too, chatting on some occasions. Her elder son had also started going to a cybercafé to chat, she knew. She had tried many times to dissuade him. Kuki couldn’t decide whether to open the mail or not. She finally thought, “Let me open it; I’ll decide later whether to reply to it or not.” A surprise lay in store for her. It was Safiq--“My sweet angel, Rokshana.” But why had he used a fake name? Perhaps to avoid being detected by the military junta? Perhaps in order to avoid landing Kuki in trouble. “I don’t know how to start,” Safiq had written, “because this is the beginning of the end of our relationship. But I still have to take this risk today. Because if I cannot do it today, I can never gather my courage to stand before you and say that fate has a tragic drama written for me! I have been serving as an undertrial. Not a single charge has been framed against me. I am planning to file a

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writ petition saying that I cannot be held like this without any charge or witness till I am proved guilty. You know, Rokshana, the nation becomes an enemy of the individual where he has no means left with him. Think of ‘K’ in Kafka’s The Trial. I feel like ‘K’ myself. But what do we understand by the ‘nation?’ I still believe a nation is nothing more than an individual. The whole nation is administered by an individual’s moods and wishes if not whims and fancies. And the ruler is just a human being. Whatever the USA is doing is little more than the personal agenda of George W. Bush? So, too, isn’t Pakistan a puppet of Musharraf? Internal conflicts or problems are actually conflicts between individuals or their ideologies. Being in judicial custody now, I realize what human fate is and how you can’t ignore it.” This part of the mail made Kuki pensive. She doubted if she had the courage to read the rest. The maid was about leave, finishing her duties. She asked, “Madam, you were going to take a bath.” Without replying, she gestured for her to be silent. At the end of the mail was attached another of Safiq’s poems. But she couldn’t continue reading the mail. She felt like flying to Safiq and saying, “Come, Safiq, come to the seashore, where there wouldn’t be any rules and regulations binding human relationships and emotions.” Was she crying? Why were her cheeks wet? Safiq’s last mail read: “Everything is okay now in my family. For a few days, everybody was worried. But now they have accepted it. My absence no more matters to them. Tabassum is busy with her dating. But I am grateful to her. Arranging lawyers for me, visiting me daily—she is taking care of all this in spite of her busy life.” Rokshana, will you wait for me? Till I get out of custody? You mean everything to me, baby. Never ever leave me.

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My biggest fear was seeing you leave Seeing you move without me I sit here and try to understand why Fate left me here all alone With a pain so strong A pain of great loss, The pain of a broken heart; You healed my tiniest cuts And made me see the bright star in the sky, So why, Why did you have to leave? Leave me so broken and bruised I make believe that you are here It’s the only way I see clear I am just so alone that I can’t share these feelings with you. I know it’s love. So why can’t you see you are the only one for me The only one who can touch the bottom of my soul And break this pain with a love so whole I need you now and always will. So please just open your arms and take me in I pray for you because it’s so cold. I need that feeling of love That feeling that I am never alone. I loved you, I miss you, I love you still; I swear this feeling will never get old. This special love that you showed me grows in my heart even if we are apart. That love I miss when I am lonely; It grows in my heart even if we are apart, That love which makes you my one and only-It grows in my heart even when we are apart.” Kuki sat down and wiped the tears from her cheeks, at a loss to fathom the depths and impossibilities of a human relationship nipped in the bud by so many unreasonable constraints. She would wait. For Safiq, for her love, till all her hairs turned grey, till the wrinkles conquered her face, and perhaps till the day she closed her eyes for good. She would wait for the voice that once charmed her ears and echoed with a subtle resonance in

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her soul, a voice she had never told anyone about, then or ever since.

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