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.