Thursday, March 24, 2011

Chapter 21- If I should meet thee after long years - - -

“May I come in?” Siddharth asked again, with what Shikha thought was an uncertain smile.

She recovered enough poise to nod and point to the chair next to her, but she still felt dazed. He turned the chair so that he could face her, and sat down.

He looked very much the same. She remembered that he was a fitness freak. He was dressed casually in slacks and jeans. His celebrity status didn’t seem to have affected him. But then, one never knows, she thought.

“What can I do for you?” she asked coldly.

“So formal?” he asked with a brief smile.

“What else do you expect?” Suddenly, Shikha found herself getting angry and resentful. If ever she saw him again, she wanted to appear blasé and cool, and the way she was feeling now, she could definitely not put on that front . She was caught unawares and didn’t get enough time to get into the right frame of mind.

He became serious. “I came here for a meeting with the PWD Department. They are our clients. Thought I’ll look you up. I met Lavanya when I went for the alumni meet” he paused and then said “I want to tell you how sorry I am – about your father and husband”

“Thanks”, said Shikha. “Nice of you to come”

Another pause.

Then Shikha said “You should have called. What if I wasn’t here?”

“I was afraid you would refuse to see me if I called you”.

She looked at him then, straight into his eyes and said “Yes. You are right there”.


“How are you?” asked Siddharth looking very solemn.

“Have moved on”, Shikha said, trying to sound cheerful.

“I can see that. Good”.

“And you’ve become a celebrity, eh? Congratulations, Mallu’s pride and India’s envy” said Shikha grinning at him

Siddharth laughed and she joined him. “You haven’t changed , have you?”, he said.

That sobered her. “I have. I have changed. One hell of a lot”

“Sorry, Very insensitive of me”, he said. Shikha shrugged.

“Ok. Guess I should be going,” said Silddharth getting up. Shikha followed suit. And then he said something which made her angry. “Can I see you again? Will you keep in touch?” he asked earnestly.

“What for, Siddharth?”

He said nothing, Just stood there looking at her.

“What’s the idea?”

“Nothing dishonourable, if that’s what you mean”, he said. For once she saw him low on confidence, and she felt happy.

I didn’t say anything to mean anything”, she said in a steely voice

He looked away, then back at her, hesitated and looked away again. Abruptly, he faced her squarely and said in a quiet, steady voice.

“Shikha, will you believe me if I tell you that - I still love you?”

“No” said Shikha, looking at him. He held her gaze, and seeing a derisive expression creep into her eyes, he looked away.

“So what do you want to do now? Propose to me?” Shikha asked, her voice heavy with sarcasm.

“Yes” he said. He seemed dead in the earnest.

She was caught off guard and looked up at him, startled. And then she looked mad, really really mad, and so he added hastily “Though I didn’t intend to do pop the question at the first meeting”.

“How can you - -What do you think I am - - ” Shikha stammered, fuming.

“I’m sorry Shikha. At that point in time, I thought that was the best thing to do”

“Oh Oh! And at this point in time, you think this is the best thing to do, eh? That’s famous, Mr Siddharth Cherian Padickalveedu. Is it your celebrity status that makes you think that you can play fast and loose with me? And what if at another point of time in future, you feel dumping me again is the right thing to do?”

Sidharth kept a poker face and said “Say whatever you wish, Shikha. You have every right to, and I deserve it”.

“Oh yes you do. That’s the only right thing you’ve said so far”, she snapped. And throwing a venomous look at him, she asked slowly and deliberately, in a tone that made him wince. “Have you forgotten that I’m a widow now. What will papa Padickalveedu have to say about the most eligible bachelor in India marrying a widow?” she sneered.

Siddharth refused to be provoked. “No” he said, his voice serious and well under control, as though he had come prepared for this query. ”I haven’t forgotten. It changes nothing for me”

Shikha shrugged disgustedly and threw up her hands in a gesture of indignation and irritation. Suddenly, she was angry. So very angry that it made her deadly quiet. He discarded me so unceremoniously – as though I were an inconvenience in his scheme of things. And now he proposes to me, because it suits him! What does he think he is? What does he think of me? As though I was waiting for a move from his side to jump at another chance of becoming his wife? Does he realize that his decision three years back had triggered off a series of events which were the most painful ones in my life? How different my life would have been if this man had the guts to marry me, she thought bitterly. And now he has the nerve to propose to me, as though erasing the past was as easy as deleting a selected text from Microsoft Word! How dare he!

“But it changes everything for me”, said Shikha harshly. “Listen, I’m back on track now and am happy and peaceful and contended. Please leave me alone and don’t destabilize my precarious normalcy, ok?”

He nodded and said, “I understand. I’ll leave now. Give yourself time, Shikha, and think about it”. Did she see a plea in his eyes? “And give me a call when you change your mind?”

“'When'?” asked Shikha sardonically. “Lack of confidence was never one of the tragic flaws in your character, eh Siddharth?”, she said rather nastily.

“Ok. I used the wrong word. I meant ‘If’ ”

Shikha shook her head in disbelief and looked away, out of the window. A few dried leaves were being blown in circles by a mild breeze. She watched them fascinated. The breeze which moved them must have stopped, for suddenly they lay they still – innocuous. I’d have hardly noticed them if the breeze had not disturbed them, she thought, irrelevantly. And even as she watched, they were blown away.

Then she heard Siddharth’s voice, as though coming from far away. He sounded subdued. “See you Shikha. Take care”, he said. She looked back at him with a small smile. He seemed to study her face as though trying to read her thoughts, and then turned to go. With his hand on the handle of the half glass door, he paused for a moment as though reluctant to leave. Then he turned around abruptly and looked at her with that irresistible twinkle in his eyes, and said, “Tomorrow is another day”.

He then walked out of the cubicle without looking back, without giving her time to respond.

Shikha couldn’t concentrate on her work after he left. Disgusted with herself, she packed up her laptop and books and walked towards her room. How dare he, she thought over and over again. What cheek! What a preposterous thing to do, to walk into her cubicle and propose. Quite shameless! Did he think she’d grab at the proposal after the heartless way he had ditched her? What the hell does he think he is?

Shikha was furious by the time she reached her room. She sat down at the study table, removed her watch and chain and opened the drawer to put them inside.

Her eyes fell on the handkerchief and it rattled her. She stared down at it, her mind going back to the day it came into her possession. When we two parted, in silence and tears, half broken hearted, to sever for years, pale grew thy cheeks, and colder thy kiss - - . She couldn’t remember the rest. It was a poem she loved as a college going girl. Was long forgotten. She marveled at the way it surfaced. Shikha tried to recall the rest of the poem. She could recollect only a few lines here and there and they came in a jumble. In secret we met, In silence I grieve………… Long long shall I rue thee, too deeply to tell. ….

Long, long shall I rue thee, too deeply to tell, she repeated the last line to herself.

Then she heard the alert tone of a text message coming into her cell phone. That’s mama, she thought, reaching for her phone. She wants to know if I am free to talk now, I guess.

But the message was not from Rani. It was from a number that was not saved in her phone. She opened the text message which said: This is my number. Give me a call me 'when' my ice maiden thaws. Siddharth Cherian Padickalveedu.

The audacity of the man, thought Shikha with a smile, as she saved his number.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Chapter 20 - As the dust settles

Shikha knew she’d like the CDS the minute she stepped into the campus. The unplastered brick buildings seemed capable of delivering the change that she wanted after the traumatic existence of the past two years. She liked her work, her schedule, the ambience in the Centre . In fact, she felt she belonged to a community where she could be herself. She belonged. Her status of single blessedness too contributed to her sense of well- being. No one interfered with her life. Michael's and Rani's families shared a collective sense of guilt about their complicity with the fate that apportioned such catastrophic experiences for so young a girl. Uppermost in their thoughts was that desire to see her come out of it unscathed, and they felt that she should be left alone to find her way out.

Shikha couldn’t remember having felt so relaxed. Her mother called her regularly. So did her grandparents and other relatives, but all kept the conversation away from issues that were sensitive. Only Lavanya took the liberty of taking her mind back to the past.

“Think you can bury it forever and not think about it? It will resurrect itself at the most inopportune moments and knock you down”, warned Lavanya when Shikha called on reaching the CDS.

“What on earth do you want me to do, Lavanya?” asked Shikha, a little rattled.

“Get it out of your system. Talk to someone about it – not the way you talked to me - in clipped tones, unemotionally. Pour out your heart. Cry your heart out”.

She had a comfortable room which had a fairly big study table on which she kept her Bible, a crucifix and the laptop. It had two shallow drawers where she kept A4 papers and stationary, the small novena books, the Imitation of Christ, her watch and chain. Siddharth’s handkerchief somehow found a place for itself there. Every time she opened it, which was at least twice every day, she saw it. I need to be able to look at it without feeling bitter or hurt, she thought, feeling the need to justify to herself the place she chose to keep it. Even if I want to forget his existence, the Malayalam media will not let me, she thought. He was Kerala’s pride and was in the news often or featured in some magazine or the other or in newspaper supplements.

Less than a week after she joined the Centre as a research scholar, she got a pleasant surprise. She had just completed the formalities for the library membership, and was walking towards the stack room when she saw someone of her age looking intently at her. It was a light skinned girl with crew crop, dressed in an oversized T shirt and jeans. Sheikh knew she had seen her somewhere and had started walking towards her with a hesitant smile when, like a flash, came the recognition.

Rahkee!”, cried Shikha in high excitement, just as Rakhee called out her name. They appeared to have recognised each other at precisely the same moment. “Didn’t recognize you with your new hair styling, Rakhee!”

They came out of the library and, sitting under a tree, caught up with the details of what each was doing since Shikha left LSE.Shikha had had an email from Rakhee after her father’s death, and also another one in reply to the wedding invitation Shikha ad sent her.

“I read about your husband. I’m sorry Shikha. Life’s been tough on you”. Shikha gave her a forlorn smile and said with a mild shrug, “Will survive”

“Should” said Rakhee earnestly.

Rakhee too was a research scholar and had completed a year and a half at CDS. Her husband whom she'd met at LSE was on the faculty of CDS, and they lived in the quarters. “He’s a mallu – a Syrian Christian like you. Kurien”, she said grinning. “These mallus, they love with their heads and work with their hearts”, she added.

Siddharth flashed through her mind fleetingly, but she responded only to the second half of the observation.“The last part, outside Kerala, yes”, she said.

“Guess you are right” said Rakhee, and they laughed.

“Funny how we got out of touch, no?” said Rakhee. “You stopped replying to my emails. Not complaining, mind you. Guess you have your reasons”

Shikha said nothing and they left it at that.

“Tell you what, come home for lunch. Mom is at home”

“Oh. Is she with you?”

“No, no. She’s come down for a seminar”

So Shikha went to Rakhee’s house. A real spread awaited them, a sort of multi cuisine.

“Can’t get Kurien to get used to the Bengali fish curry. I have a maid who cooks Kerala food. I do the Bengali cooking”, Rakhee said by way of explanation.

Shikhas can say hi to each other. My mom”, Rakhee said introducing her mother as the latter emerged from her room. Rakhee’s mother was a stunningly beautiful lady. She must have been a ravishing beauty in her younger days, thought Shikha who took an instant liking to her. Light complexioned with white undyed hair parted in the center and bunned up neatly in the nape of her neck, she looked ethereal almost. She was soft spoken and effortlessly friendly. The three of them sat at the dining table long after they finished their lunch, talking about everything under the sun. From Trade unionism in Kerala to the Mallu’s fascination for gold to Obama’s health insurance legislations to Iran’s nuclear policy to Nandigram to the Malayalam film Twenty Twenty. Finally, they got up and cleared the table. When Rakhee went into the kitchen to make black tea, her mother and Shikha sat in the living room.

“I used to know you father, Shikha”, said Sihika aunty.

“Oh, really? I’d asked papa but he couldn’t place you. “

“He was doing his Ph D when I joined DSE for my masters. He’d have recognized me if he saw me”.

Rakhee came in with tea.

“I’m sorry about him. It was a terrible thing to happen”, said Shikha aunty.

Shikha nodded and said, “Three years now and I still miss him! He’d have been happy if he were alive now. He so wanted me to go for research.” And before she could stop herself, the entire story of her friction with her father over Siddharth tumbled out. Shikha had never ever spoken to anyone about this painful part of her life. Rakhee knew that they broken up because of protests from both families, but she had no inkling of the estrangement between Shikha and her parents on account of the break up. Shikha seemed unable to stop herself. It was as though she had to get it off her chest. Unburden herself. She told them all, and she became almost inaudible with sobs racking her body when she spoke of her father’s final good bye to her before he went to South America. Then she buried her face in her hands and wept her heart out. After a few minutes, Shikha aunty came to sit near her in the sofa, and put her arm around her shoulders. The sobs soon subsided.

“History repeats”, Shikha aunty said.

“What history?’ Shikha asked perplexed.

For a moment, Shikha aunty appeared to be at a loss to know what to say. Then “The story of the woman”, she said. “Her story and His story also, I guess. They never seem to change” she said with a slight smile.

And Shikha continued her story. Encouraged by Shikhaunty’s gentle expression which though sympathetic was without that patronizing look of pity, shikha told it all – about her unhappy marriage, her husband who was an enigma to her, his death. Tears flowed when she talked of Philips death, when she told her about her feelings at the thought of how frightened Philip might have been when the stabbing took place, how it must have hurt him, how terrible it must have been for him to die abandoned in the pool of blood.

She thought it strange that she found it so easy to unburden herself to this charming woman. After she finished her story, both of them sat silently for some time. Then with a wan smile, Shika got up and washed her face. She then came back to the living room and picked up the tea cup.

“What I said, please keep to yourself. I didn’t mean to tell you, but it just came out”.

“Your story shall die with us”, said Rakhee smiling.

“You’ll feel better now. And don’t worry about confiding in us. We won’t discuss it with anybody” Sikha aunty assured her.

After that, Rakhee never referred to Shikha’s outpour. Shikha aunty left for Calcutta after three days.

Shikha’s research was to be on NPAs in Kerala banks. She enjoyed her work and the academic activities of the Centre. She evolved a routine which gave her time for everything she wanted to do. She could read, listen to music, go for movies, go for the Mass three days a week, visit friends, eat out, go for concerts. She was at peace with herself and the world, a feeling she hadn’t ever experienced. Except for Philip’s death, the scenes that followed and the sessions with the police, she could look back at her life without cringing.

One day, as she was working in her cubicle, she heard someone ask permission to be allowed to enter. She instantly recognized the voice and whirled around.

It was Siddharth!

She jumped up and stared at him, her mouth hanging open. She was struck dumb by the shock of seeing him so unexpectedly.

“May I come in, Shikha?”, he was saying.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 19 - And having written, moves on - -

Shikha felt a strange calm after she reached her Chennai home. And she had this bizarre feeling that her father was in the house. She thought more about him in those days immediately following the seventh day function. She found herself carrying on silent conversations with him when alone in her room, which was a rare occurrence. Mama and Maria cheduthy were always around, talking to her about inconsequential things. Strangely enough, she welcomed their company. It was better than having to deal with that emptiness within. No. Not just emptiness. There was that nagging feeling of guilt too. Guilt that she had failed Philip as a wife. Worse still, a guilt at the vague feeling of relief that fate had intervened in her life to set her free from a life of emotional claustrophobia.

She kept away from the TV for fear that she might see either Philip’s handsome face smiling down at her, or his gory body from various angles. The media, obviously, didn’t believe in sanitizing!

She refrained from updating herself about the investigation. She did not want to know anything about Philip’s activities that led to his violent death. I can’t run away from it all, she told herself, but right now I can’t handle it. I have all the time in the world to deal with it, she thought wryly. Thankfully, when she was alone or when she lay awake waiting for sleep to descend upon her with that blissful oblivion, papa’s face would appear before her mind’s eye. She would talk to him and he would reply. Before the conversation progressed very far, she would drift off to sleep, and on waking up wonder if it was a dream or for real.

“I’m sorry Shikha. I should have done my homework better. My poor girl, you had to go through so much”, he seemed to say during one such dialogue with her.

“It’s ok, papa”, she replied.

She couldn’t recall the rest of the conversation as she slipped into the lethean world of slumber.

On another occasion, he said, “Whatever happened had to happen, Shikha. Nothing is an accident. God has his plans for you”. Shikha had fallen asleep and she jumped up with a start. No living person had so far dared to tell her this though her family, as a rule, always brought the divine will and plan into everything that happened. Perhaps they thought what happened to Shikha was too gruesome to explain away as the will of God.

Shikha sat up, switched on the bedside lamp and her eyes fell on the Bible. It opened on a page she had never read before. She was regular with the New Testament and the Psalms, and those books with narrative interest. That day the Holy Book opened at Sirrach 2. As Skikha read through the chapter, she was stunned at the message in it.

Accept whatever befalls you, in crushing misfortune be patient;

For in fire gold is tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation.

Trust God and he will help you

It appeared as though the lines were written for her. The agnipareeksha! The crucible of humiliation! Is she the gold being put through the process of supercritical extraction? The thought brought a smile to her face. It took her mind a scene in the IIT canteen where she and Siddharth were sharing a table with a group of chemistry students who were discussing some supercritical fluid extraction. Shikha had liked the expression ‘supercritical extraction’.

“Don’t use it till you understand it properly”, Siddharth had warned her when she told him of her fascination for the expression.

“It can be used loosely when not in a chemistry context”, she had replied.

“You are incorrigible”, Siddharth had said, shaking his head indulgently. “You’d lose the world for a word”.

She closed the Bible, switched off table lamp and lay there thinking. Was it really papa talking to her from wherever he is? Or is it God’s way of reaching out to her? Where is her father now? Is he somewhere where he can feel? “We have only your welfare in mind, Shikha, whatever else you might think”. Those were almost his last words to her before he took that fateful journey to South America. I know papa, I realize that now, she told him. Besides, marrying Philip was my choice. I did it despite my gut feeling that he was not my type and that he had a sense of discomfort with himself, which was dangerous in any relationship. The decision to marry him was mine, not yours, she told him emphatically. She suddenly felt a cold wetness on the cheek and realized that tears were streaming down her face and had wet the pillow. She let them flow. Mama was not here to see it. She need not be brave before God and her papa who was with Him. The thought gave her some comfort, though she cried heartbrokenly, burying her face in the pillow.

The next day was a Wednesday. “Mama, I’m going for the novena to Our Lady Of Perpetual Succour. Coming along?”

“Just a minute. Will be ready in a jiffy”, replied Rani. “Shall I take the wheel, Shikha?” asked Rani as they walked to the garage.

“No, ma. It’s OK. I’ll drive”.

After getting home from the novena, she called Lavanya. She had cut off all communications with her two or three month before Philip’s death. Her emails had gone unanswered and Shikha would not take her calls. After Philips death, she had called but Shikha did not speak to her. It was mama who handled all the telephone calls those days and would tell her the list of those who called when she thought Shikha’s was in the right frame of mind to listen.

Lavanya was happy to hear her voice. ”Time you got back to normal life”, she said. No one else had the courage to tell her such things, not even her mama. Shikha had withdrawn into a shell after Philips death and Rani was not sure how to handle her. Her siblings and relatives advised her to take Shikha to a counselor, but Rani thought Shikha should be given time to recover before she sought professional help. Rani was happy when Shikha decided to resume her weekly novena, and more so that she asked Rani to accompany her. Hearing her talk to Lavanya, Rani felt relieved. Time is doing its work, she thought. No great healer than Time.

Ruminating over sharp exchanges she had with her father, Shikha remembered papa’s suggestion that she do research, instead of picking up a job. It now appeared to be an excellent idea. She knew her own inclination to lose herself into the world of books and of her sense of belonging in the academia.

“I’m going to register for PhD”, she announced to her mother the next day at the dining table. Rani looked at her for a moment and her eyes filled with tears. Startled, Shikha asked, “What’s wrong mama?”

“Nothing”, she said wiping her eyes with a tissue. “It’s just that I’m so happy, relieved.”

Lavanya suggested that she join CDS in Trivandrum. “It’s a good center. Besides, you want to be away from Chennai, no?”

Rani too thought it was a good idea. Trivandrum was a quiet and sane place, with a good academic atmosphere. Shikha would be happy there.

Then one day, Lavanya called her and asked her in an excited voice to switch on the TV quickly and watch the Asianet News channel.

“What is it?” asked Shikha alarmed.

“Nothing to get scared about. Quick, switch it on”.

Shikha switched on the TV in her room. And she saw Siddharth! His face filled the screen and he was smiling at the reporter who had put a question to him. “I think India is a gold mine now.” He was saying. “That’s what made me decide to return and join the software company here”.

Siddharth, apparently, had become a celebrity! After being scooped up by a giant Multi national company in the USA and having worked for them for the contractual one year period, he returned to India to join as a partner in a software company which was in financial doldrums after the recession hit the US. In a matter of months, he turned things around, causing its ratings and the share value to skyrocket.

He appeared to be the same, judging from what she saw of him in the interview. Confident without being over confident, and no airs or pretensions. A low profile, confident young man who knows what he is talking about, and who knows what he wants from life and goes after it with a single minded energy, was how she would describe him, Shikha thought. Yes, a man driven by his cerebrum, she thought ruefully.

After that day when she saw him first on the TV, his became a very visible face in Malayalam channels. The Malayalam media went berserk over him and vied with each other to give coverage to his under thirty story of success. The national English channels too did stories on him and he was the guest in several primetime talk shows in those channels.

One day, Rani sprang a surprise question on her. “Are you in touch with Siddharth?” she asked.

Startled Shikha looked at her saying “No, most certainly not! What a question!” She was indignant. What does she expect me to do, she thought. Go after this man after he became a celebrity, this man who discarded her unceremoniously after his family was spurned like a dog by hers. And why should he take any interest in her, a widow, when he has a whole world of eligible and attractive young women out there to choose from? Mama is shameless if she wants me to reestablish contact with him with the hope that we can pick up from where we left off! . Besides, I’ve had enough of relationships in my life. First Siddharth, then her husband – both turned sour, she thought bitterly.

“Am better off on my own,” she told herself emphatically.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 18 - Till Death Do Us Apart

Mama was back in Chennai the same evening and they started immediately for Bangalore. Lucy and her husband Eapen also accompanied them. Papa’s and mama’s siblings were coming directly to Bangalore.

Shikha felt numb. After the initial hysterical reaction, she was quiet – deadly quiet. She did not utter a single word, nor did she doze off during the journey. An eerie silence hung heavily in the Inova car which sped as though with desperation to escape from the oppressive sound of silence.

They reached the Kottayil house in the small hours of the morning. As she alighted from the car, Shikha noticed that lights were switched on in all the rooms in the massive house. Many cars were parked outside the gate and inside the compound. People moved in and out of the house in silence. “The sound of death”, thought Shikha. From somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind, this expression seemed to edge its way into Shikha’s vacant mind.

With reluctant steps and a sinking feeling, Shikha walked slowly in the direction of the main door that stood wide open. When she reached the foot of the steps leading to the door, she stopped. Suddenly, her heart went haywire and pounded mercilessly against her ribs. Her legs felt like lead and panic gripped her.

“Let’s go back, mama!” pleaded Shikha with fear in her eyes and voice. Rani gripped her gently but firmly by the arm and helped her into the house.

Seeing Shikha, mummy burst out crying. Daddy threw his head back against the sofa and lay there immobile looking at the ceiling. Shikha walked slowly to the sofa and sat down, a glazed look in her eyes. Nothing seemed to make sense to her. She looked around the room at the rather large crowd there. She didn’t know who these people were.

And then she fainted.

When she woke up it was almost noon. She felt groggy from the sedative that was administered to her by Philip’s cousin who was a doctor. The happenings of the previous day rushed to her mind and she sat up. She felt a restraining hand. It was Ittichen uncle’s wife Sarammaunty.

“I want to go to the bathroom ”, said Shikha.

"Don't bolt the door', said Sarammaunty as Shikha entered the bathroom.

Like one in a trance, Shikha took a shower because she didn’t know what else to do and came back into the room.

“You better remain here”, Sarammaunty said. “The house is full of relatives. Also, the media is prowling around.”

Shikha shrank at the thought of meeting people, but the idea of meeting the media was terrifying.

“Less than a year since marriage and I’m already a widow”, Shikha said and burst out crying. The reality was only beginning to sink in. She buried her face in the pillow and sobbed her heart out. “Why is this happening to me, aunty?’ she asked. Sarammaunty did not know what to say, and kept stroking her hair. Shikha soon drifted off to sleep. When she woke up, she didn’t know what time of the day it was. What does it matter, she thought. She remained in bed. Who would have killed him, she wondered. It must have been painful, all those stabs. Poor Philip, she thought, suddenly conscious of a heavy weight on her chest. She felt her nose get clogged and breathing became difficult.

“Poor Philip, how terrified he must have been”, burst out Shika in a broken voice, and buried her face in the pillow, her body racked by uncontrolled sobs.

“Shikha please”, said Rani, shaking her by the shoulder. Hearing her mother’s voice, Shikha sat up and turned her tear-streaked face towards Rani. “Poor Philip, oh God, poor chap”, she sobbed broken-heartedly. “It must have hurt like hell, no mama, no mama?”

“Shikha please”, pleaded Rani holding her close. “Don’t cry child, please - -“

“Let her”, cut in Sarammaunty gently.” Let her be. Let her cry her fill. You stay here with her. I’ll get her something to eat”. Sarammaunty returned with coffee and sandwich. Shikha meekly accepted the cup from Sarammaunty and took a few sips. Rani held the sandwich to her mouth. Shikha took a bite and then pushed it away.

“You better eat that Shikha’, pleaded Sarammaunty.

“Later”, said Shikha listlessly. Her tears were spent and she felt drained. She lay down again and soon drifted off into a drugged slumber.

Philip’s body was released after postmortem just before noon. It was brought home in a mobile mortuary. What followed was a nightmare for Shikha. Dressed in a light coloured salwar suit, she sat beside his body. Looking at him lying inert was a traumatic and agonising experience. He looked peaceful, and even had a small smile on his face. Her husband of eleven months, who was a total mystery to her. With a sense of guilt, she regretted that she’d never made an effort to reach out to him or win his confidence. Could she have done anything to save him? Is that why Daddy asked her not to take up a job? Maybe they thought a marriage would set him right. But why didn’t they tell her that? Why didn’t they take her into confidence? She looked at them, sitting beside their only son, too shattered even to shed tears.

After the funeral, Shikha remained in Kottayil house till the seventh day function. Rani also stayed back with her. Shikha deliberately kept away from discussions of the police investigations and the theories flying about. She refused to watch the Malayalam and Tamil channels. After the seventh day function, they left for Chennai. Mummy hugged her before she left, and looked into her eyes and said quietly, for her ears alone, “I’m sorry, child. Forgive us”.

Shikha was taken aback. It then dawned on her that both daddy and mummy were aware that Philip had a problem with drugs and gambling. For some strange reason, she did not feel angry with them.

“What was mummy telling you when you said goodbye to her?” asked Rani. “You had a funny look on your face.” asked Rani.

“She asked me to take care”, replied Shikha in a flat voice. Rani looked at her face searchingly, and then fell silent.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chapter 17 - A Tale told by an Idiot

“I called up Ittichen as soon as you called me. He asked around and was shocked to hear that Philip was the talk of the town. It seems he had developed the drug problem after his MBA. He had no job and was living alone in an apartment in New York.” Rani explained the next day.

“Did his parents know that?” asked Shikha.

“They say they didn’t but they knew he was betting on horses”.

Shikha understood why Philip’s father did not give him free access to money.

“Didn’t you make enquiries about him mama?’ Shikha asked between sobs.

“We did, but no one told us. I guess no one knew. He was hardly in India. He left soon after school, so nobody seemed to know anything about him. Mebbe we didn’t ask the right people”, said mama sadly.

“Guess this is what one calls fate”, said Shikha.

Shikha appeared to have calmed down a little after sleeping it out but she still seemed to be in a state of daze. She had a bewildered look on her face which made Rani uncomfortable.

“What happens now?” asked Shikha. They were having breakfast. Rani noticed that Shikha hardly ate anything but was playing around listlessly with the Puttu in her plate.

“We’ll have to talk to papa’s and my siblings’, replied Rani. “I’m thinking of asking them to come over”

“Please don’t, mama”, exploded Shkiha hysterically. “You go to Kuttiparambil house. I don’t want to see anyone.”

“OK, OK, Shikha, as you say. But I can’t leave you alone here”, said Rani.

“Don’t worry mama. I’ll not kill myself”, said Shikha bitterly.

“Please Shikha, don’t talk like this”, said Rani and began to weep helplessly.

Sobbing like a child, Shikha got up and went to her mother and hugged her. It was Maria cheduthy who came in and pacified them. “What good is all this crying going to do? Ranimole, you go to Kochin and decide what is to be done. I’ll take care of Shikhakutty”.

“Yes, mama. You go. I’ll ask Lavanya to come and stay here till you come”.

Mama left for Kochin the next morning. Shikha lay on her bed, her mind wandering. She tried to see if she could, in hindsight, recognise any signs of Philip’s drug addiction. She couldn’t, probably because she was not familiar with the symptoms. He was never violent, she thought. Maybe all addicts don’t get aggressive. She hadn’t ever seen that telltale glassy expression in his eyes. Maybe that too happens only in films and novels. But she had noticed, after the early days of their marriage, that nothing she told him ever registered. He seemed to be abstracted all the time, avoided looking at her or being alone with her. All on a sudden, she got an eerie feeling, thinking of how, for eleven months, she had lain in the same bed with a man whose mind was fogged up by the fumes of narcotics. What if he got some hallucination and strangled me, she thought, a shiver running through her.

Mama ’ll call any minute now. Would have reached Kochin by now, she thought, distracting herself, and she switched on the TV to take her mind off gruesome thoughts.

She scrolled down the channel list listlessly and selected Asianetnews.

And what came on the screen jerked her out of her slovenly posture into a bolt upright position, and with terror written all over her face, she stared at the TV screen from where Philip’s handsome face smiled down at her. And even as she watched, his face was minimized to fit into the right hand corner at the bottom of the TV screen, while visuals of gory images of her disfigured husband filled the screen.

And the newsreader continued with the story which hit her like a thunderbolt!

The news reader’s voice repeated, in different words, the horrifying news that Philip Kottayil, the only son of the industrialist Varkey Kottayil, was murdered and his body was found with multiple stab wounds in the Country Club he frequented.

Shikha let out a piercing scream.

Maria cheduthy came running into her room to see Shikha staring at the TV. She jerked her head around to look at the TV screen.

‘Oh my God’, screamed Maria cheduthy and then clapped her hand over her mouth.

Just then the doorbell rang. It was Rani’s cousin Lucy who lived in Chennai. Veliiammachi had made an SOS call, asking her to rush to Shikha’s house and convey the news before Shikha heard it from the TV.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chapter 16 - And Jill came tumbling after

In the early days of marriage, Philip, though away from home most of the day, used to call her on the phone several times. Eventually, the calls became few and far between and finally stopped. She called him, and he her if there was a need to do it. With this chilling distance growing between her and her husband, Shikha soon found that she was shying away from keeping in touch with her friends, or even her mother. She seemed dazed and was aware that something was happening to her. She was becoming a recluse, who dreaded the company of even her husband. It was with a terrible shock that she discovered that thought of her husband coming home early made her panic, and she was immensely distressed to find that it was a matter of great relief to her that he came home after she fell asleep and left soon after breakfast.

And then, after a month, he asked her for money again. Shikha felt a queer sensation in the pit of her stomach. She wanted to know what the money was for this time.

“You know daddy gives me a salary which is wholly inadequate. I haven’t the powers to take money from the company”.

His explanation sounded strange. She told him she had to think about it before she gave him the money.

There was a plea in his eyes when he looked at her but he didn’t push the matter.

Shikha called her mother after he went out and confided in her. A couple of hours later, mama called up her mother-in law and said that she was visiting them the next day.

“Did you tell your mom about the money?” Philip sounded anxious when he heard that his mother in law was coming.

“No” she lied.

“Please don’t tell her. You can give me the money after she leaves”.

Rani came with her cousin Ittichen who lived in Bangalore. After lunch, she was in private conversation with Philip’s parents behind closed doors.

“What’s happening?” Philip asked her.

“No idea’, Shikha replied, counting the silver cutlery and stacking the crockery.

Rani and Philip’s parents emerged from the room, and daddy called Philip into the room. His mother told Shikha to go with Rani to Chennai to spend a few days with her.

“What’s wrong?” Shikha asked.

“Pack up, my dear. I’ll tell you once we reach home.” said Rani. Shikha stood her ground, looking back and forth from her mother to her mother in law. Both said nothing, but they both looked drained but wore wooden expressions on their faces. Something told Shikha that if she insisted on explanations, she would be creating a situation that might get out of hand.

She went to her room and packed up most of her clothes and other belongings, moving like a zombie. She had a feeling she would not come back to this house again.

“Don’t forget your certificates” told mama just as Shikha was reminding herself about them.

Before Shikha left she asked for Philip. He was nowhere to be seen. “It’s ok, my dear”, said daddy. He looked infinitely sad, she thought.

“Will someone tell me what’s happening?” she burst out, looking in turn at her mama and her in-laws and Ittichen uncle. The silence that greeted her outburst was deafening. And then her father-in –law looked her in the eyes and said, “Philip has got into wrong company. He has been betting and having a small drug problem too”.

Shikha felt as though someone had kicked her in the pit of her stomach. The room spun around her. She put her hand on her forehead and felt someone holding her and leading her to a chair. Somebody gave her water, which she drank and then threw up.

“Relax, Shikha”, said her mother. Rani’s voice was unsteady. “You’ve got to get a grip on yourself”.

Shikha looked at her mother with unseeing eyes. All on a sudden, she felt an intense fatigue gripping her, and began to slowly fall sideways out of the chair. Ittichan stretched out his hand and gripped her above the elbow and then, without wasting time, helped her into the car. They left soon after.

Shikha slept through the journey. Tension always put her to sleep. It was her defence mechanism. It was dark when they reached Chennai. She went straight to bed in her old room and went back to sleep.

Thank God papa is not here to see this day, she thought before drifting off to sleep.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Chapter 15 - Diamonds are forever?

Shikha found herself thinking about Siddharth often. And she missed her father desperately. But when mama came or she spoke to her over the phone, she revealed nothing about her intense loneliness or the uneasy feeling she had about Philip. Soon after their marriage, Philip and Shikha did spend a lot of time together, but it was not spent talking to each other. They went out for movies. Only English movies because he couldn’t relate to Malayalam. They did a lot of eating out, and went to horserace which Shikha did not enjoy one bit. She did it to only to oblige him.

Eventually, he started coming home late. The late became very late and Shikha stopped waiting up for him. In the morning, he got up late and on many days, he had breakfast sent up to the suite. But Shikha always had breakfast with her in-laws. She found that she was more comfortable with them than with her husband.

“When did he come in last night?’ daddy would ask on the days Philip did not join them for breakfast.

One day, daddy told her she should go out with him in the evenings, and not send him alone. He’s not a baby, is he, Shikha thought, annoyed.

“He goes to the club to play bridge. I don’t like clubs”. She said.

“You should learn to like what he likes, Shikha”, daddy said. There was no admonition in his voice, so Shikha spoke to him gently. “I wouldn’t know what to do there till midnight”.

There was a growing fear gnawing at Shikha that she had taken a wrong, unfamiliar route and did not know what awaited her around the corner. The man she married was a stranger to her. She did not know what went on in his mind. She did not know what he did during daytime when he was away, though she tried several times to talk to him about the business that was entrusted to him by his father. He always avoided giving her an answer. He hardly ever spoke to her. With a sinking feeling, she realized that he was avoiding her. Initially she thought she’ll talk to him about it, but she refrained when she realized, to her own distress, that she was more comfortable with him away.

The only time he was assertive was when he insisted on her buying a diamond set for the reception that was to be hosted for them by one of his father’s friends.

“The page three crowd will be there. Get yourself a designer outfit and see to the accessories. Make sure it’s diamonds.”

“I have beautiful jewellery. When am I going to use them if not for such occasions?”

“Listen, diamonds are classy”.

Shikha remembered the displeasure he had shown when she told him before their marriage that for the wedding she was wearing a rich Kerala kasavu sari with traditional jewellery’

“What is it?” he had asked looking dubious.

Adil and pathakkam with uncut ruby and a century old Kasi mala”

“For goodness sake, why don’t you wear something more elegant? Wear a gown and diamonds”

Shikha was furious. “It’s all decided. The sari has been ordered. The jewelry was bought from the royal house when they sold some family heirloom some fifty years back. No diamond can match them in class”, Shikha had said crossly.

Shikha decided not to argue this time, and allowed herself to be dolled up to suit the Kottayil family status. The saloon people came home to fit the lehenga and make up her face. Looking at the mirror after dressing up, she felt like someone else. A stranger whom she did not recognize looked back at her from the mirror. The first and the last time I do this to myself, she thought determinedly. But Philip seemed to be terribly pleased with her turnout and she hated him for it.

The guests looked as though they were straight out of a Hindi film. She went around greeting them, saying polite meaningless words as Philip introduced her to them. At the end of an hour or so, her face started aching around the lips. Smiling like a zany, she thought angrily.

“No more of these parties for me”, she told Philip later while undressing.

“I though you were enjoying it! You were a huge success, you know?” Philip said smiling.

“I hated it. Please spare me these in future.”

“We’ll cross the bridge when we come to it. Anyway, what did you think you were doing when you decided to get married into a business family?” Philip said curtly.

“I don’t know, but certainly not this”, she said rather sourly.

“What is this ‘This’, may I ask? And what’s wrong with this “This”? He flared.

Shikha said nothing. How do I explain to this man who had nothing in common with me, she thought miserably. Can’t he see that I’m not a party freak? Expertly made up face and sprayed or jelled hairdo, sequined halter necks or spheghetti sleeves sparkling and blinking in the brilliant party lights – No. That’s just not my cup of tea. If I’m obligated to go for these boring parties, I’ll go - but my way. And most certainly that’s not donning that plastic look, she thought resolutely.

Nothing in common with her husband! It was a scary thought. How long can she go on like this, living with a total stranger who avoids her and with whom she cannot not even carry on a casual conversation for long.

Without quite realizing it, Shikha began to withdraw more and more into herself. At home she was a polite and dutiful wife and daughter-in law. She helped mummy during parties with the Wedgwood crockery and silver cutlery. That seemed the only work she and her mother-in-law ever had to do in that house which employed a train of servants. Shikha often thought of how she enjoyed cooking along with her mama, and the dishes they tried out. She would look back at the happy days around the small round dining table in her Chennai house and was often overcome by an unbearable sense of longing and nostalgia. Immediately, in the wake of these memories would rush in a feeling of guilt at the way she had hurt her father. She could never think of the last dinner they had together without sobbing. Papa, forgive me, she would say.

And then one day, Philip asked her to close a few FDs worth twenty lakhs in all. Being the only daughter, she was the heiress to Michael’s huge wealth. At the time of her marriage, she was given a deposit of one crore with the unspoken understanding of the inheritance which would be hers someday. Within a month of marriage, Shikha had noticed that Philip never gave her any money or gifts. All her needs were taken care of. The bills were paid by his father. The petty cash she needed came from the rental income from the apartments that papa had bought for her.

The request for the money surprised her.

“Twenty Lakhs? What is it for? ‘

Have to pay for the diamonds”. She knew he was lying. She had overheard some conversation between her in-laws regarding the payment for the diamonds.

She said nothing but withdrew the amount and gave him. As he’d asked her, she told nobody, but kept wondering why the scion of the business house should ask his wife to give him money from her dowry.