(Published in The Punch Magazine)
Pappan gets out of the car and hands the keys to the valet, feeling privileged and satisfied in a way he has never before. For the first time ever, he has driven the Mercedes outside his uniform, as if the car was his own. It felt different to not have Muthalali sitting behind, with his over-powering, imperious aspect breathing down the neck.
Muthalali was a man of abundant abuses.
Pappan deeply resented Muthalali’s arrogant nature and he frequently entertained foolish ideas of bumping him off some way or the other, but he swallowed the recurring rancor thinking of his father who was Muthalali’s original driver for decades before he died, and Muthalali took Pappan in as his driver almost as if it was the only way to be employed, despite his graduation degree. As though Pappan’s family was pledged to Muthalali’s life forever. It wasn’t a thought he particularly relished, but today, he was a man on an important mission assigned by Muthalali. A task that he knew could have unimaginable consequences in their lives.
Pappan walks towards the lobby of the hotel with the confidence of a man who knew why exactly he was born and how to accomplish his goal. He nods at the usher at the door who has no suspicion of him what so ever. Inside, Pappan allows himself for a pat-down, something he isn’t used to, but knowing that big places demanded big practices, he lets himself go through the procedures.
He looks around, unsure of which way to proceed.
‘May I help you, Sir?” A honeyed voice behind queries.
Turning around, he sees a young woman’s face framed in brown curls, flashing a smile that he has seen only in tooth paste advertisements. What strikes him immediately are the pink lipstick and an extraordinary pair of eye-lashes. That a woman so beautiful would address him as ‘Sir’ is inconceivable to him, and in his dazed state, he holds the invitation card out to her. Vivek weds Sandhya.
“This way to the banquet hall, Sir,” she says, showing him the way. He looks down a long, carpeted corridor, and quickly appraises the people around. Their unerring haughtiness grates on his skin and he shudders with disdain.
It is all surreal. This task he is on, this setting, this woman, and this festering nervousness. He feels like a hit man on his first outing of contract killing, teetering between determination and doubt. With sweat threatening to break out from every pore in his body, he walks towards the banquet hall along with a waft of perfumes from people coasting down with him. He detests their affected presence and the feeling of meagerness they inadvertently leave in him as they pass by.
With stealth lining his eyes, he scans the area soaked in miscellaneous varieties of snobbery. He is looking for a girl, who does not know he exists, or the story that has brought him here. He has no reasons to be discreet but still he has to be careful. He is standing near the doorway and surveying the golden banquet hall, which is filled with refined bodies in saris and jackets, and beautiful young women with straight hair who never make facial expressions. But they will, soon. Any moment now.
He pulls out an envelope from his pocket, and walks towards a young woman with a tray of fried snack that had little sticks poked into them.
‘Sir, chicken lollipops?” she asks as he approaches her.
He picks one, surveying her face carefully. And before she moves away, he grabs her hand suddenly and the tray falls to the ground, scattering pieces of fried fowl on the carpet. All attention gather to where he stands, like iron dust to a magnet.
“I am sorry,’ he says, as the look of horror on the woman’s face freezes and she stands heaving. He is grateful to her for not raising an alarm.
“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to. I just wanted you to give this envelope to the bride,” he says in an attempt to calm her and defuse the tension.
“It’s… a gift cheque… from a friend who couldn’t make it to the wedding,” he stammers to the perplexed woman. “I am his driver.”
The woman doesn’t seem convinced, but she takes the envelope warily and turns to go towards the bride, who, unaware of what was happening at the other corner of the hall, stands gushing beside her tall groom, her hennaed hands locked in his.
No one in the hall knows that she is faking her feelings. She is far from being in love with the man she is hitched with. She has nothing new to give this man. Her love, in all its physical and spiritual dimensions, has already been spent for another man who dumped her for his family. But she can pretend love for a lifetime and her husband will not catch a wind. She knows it. But what she does not know is what happened to the other man after they split unceremoniously. Theirs was an unequal love. And such love often remains inconclusive.
In a moment of panic, Pappan turns to flee and vanish before someone gets suspicious, but stops upon remembering Muthalai’s stern words. “Don’t come without getting her.”
Wedding receptions are such tedious occasions, Sandhya thinks fretfully. She can’t wait for the evening to close and for the guests to leave. Not because she has anything to look forward to beyond it, but she is genuinely tired and all she wants is to plonk in the bed and sleep.
But life is on a cusp and the night will not end in a hurry.
Sandhya unlocks her hand with Vivek and moves towards a hostess for a soft drink. Pappan hopes that the woman with the envelope will use this opportunity for his errand, and much to his relief, she does, and Sandhya opens the envelope with a calm befitting a bride.
Laden with anxiety, Pappan scratches the invitation card with his thumb nail and the embossed gilt on ‘Vivek’ begins to wear. Anything could have gone wrong with the plan, actually. The woman whose hand Pappan grabbed could have created a scene and got Pappan caught red-handed, she could have chosen a wrong moment to hand the envelope, and Sandhya could have passed it to someone standing nearby without opening it. It takes nothing for the best laid plans to go awry. But Sandhya opens it as though she is programmed for it, and pulls the note nestling in it.
“Jaan, how can you get married when I am still waiting for you? Mahesh.”
With feet trembling under wobbly knees, Sandhya darts towards the woman who brought the message to her and together they look around as though trying to spot somebody. Her pounding heart threatens to tear her wedding finery and fall out in a lump. From the verge, it calls out a name it has never forgotten. MAHESH. The name could have clambered from the chamber of her heart to her mouth and spilled out any moment. She fights hard to not cry.
There is only a slender line that separates foolishness from naivety. And disaster strikes when that line blurs and sets one up on a path to self-ruin. It often happens unconsciously, the impulse driving the disaster materializing almost instantly. Then, nothing, not even the finest of destinies can stop tragedy from happening.
Sandhya finds Pappan lingering near the door, his uneasy but eager expression betraying his intention to sweep her out of the hall in a flash.
Pappan gears up for the moment. It is a moment that will settle a lot of things in his life too.
‘Where is he?” Sandhya asks, her eyes exploding into countless flickers, each one reflecting an urgent question from her past, present and future.
“Come with me. He is waiting for you.”
“Who are you? And why should I believe what you are saying?”
Pappan opens the invitation cover, pulls a photograph out and flashes it in front of her. A moment from the past says peek-a-boo and quickly returns to its place inside the cover.
“That’s you and him, isn’t it? He gave it to me to show you as evidence. Now come with me. Quietly. Before they notice your absence on the dais.”
Sandhya stands indecisively, unable to determine the veracity of Pappan’s words. Even if it is true, what obligation does she have to return to an old love that she was forced to forget after Mahesh succumbed to his father’s pressures like a spineless nincompoop? Yes, there were the undeniable differences between them. Of caste and class. She was the daughter of a low caste proletariat whose family had come into good money only after the land reforms. And he had aristocracy tagged to his name which couldn’t be rivalled by any newfangled fortune of hers. But didn’t he consider these factors before sending out his first missive of love for her in college? Didn’t he know? Wasn’t he man enough to stand up to his father when he threatened to disown him and leave nothing of his wealth for him in his will? If he chickened out then, why is he back crawling now? Is the man who threatened them with the words ‘I will shoot you both dead’ in front of her himself dead? Is Mahesh now free to take possession of her?
The lure of an old flame is irresistible, with the power to draw blinded night insects towards it and singe it in a seductive instant. It is hard to say if the insect is conscious of its folly and consigns itself to the flame as an act of supreme sacrifice in love or it is too guileless to think.
Then there is the guilt, of course, of having moved on with life when Mahesh was waiting all the while. But life gives a second chance, doesn’t it? To squander it will be foolishness. She will go, regardless of what the rest of the crowd in the hall will think of her. It isn’t their life. After all, they do not face the prospect of sleeping with a man they don’t love. She does. And now she has an opportunity to defy it. Sandhya feels an old pang arise and sting her mascara-fringed eyes.
“Wait somewhere between the entrance and the main gate till I get the car, and make sure no one spots you there. This wedding dress is dangerous,” Pappan hisses angrily, now emboldened by the fact that the plan was working like a charm. He now has a firm control, both over the girl and the situation that was getting incredible with each passing minute.
Reeling under the rush of blood to his head, he goes to fetch the Mercedes that he imagines is his for a day. The Mercedes that changed the fate of his family forever.
He thinks of his father with a dull ache before driving himself to the next task.
Pappan didn’t know Sandhya until Muthalali showed him her picture two days ago and said she was the girl who had ruined his son’s life and snatched him away from them all. And it was payback time for her now. The rest of the story was furnished by his mother, who by now has made it a habit to resign everything to fate.
Including the death of her husband in a tragic car accident involving the Mercedes that Pappan is driving now.
“That girl left for studies abroad after her affair with Mahesh was thwarted. Everything was considered to be settled for the time being. Muthalali, as the whole town knows, had made the son withdraw from it with threat of various kinds. But does love concede defeat so easily? The boy, refusing to forget her, one day jumped from the terrace.” Pappan’s mother narrated the love story dispassionately as if it was a movie.
“And what? He didn’t die. He became a vegetable. They moved him from home to the hospital where he lay. Neither dead, nor alive, until one day life left him,” she said with a sigh that she drew from an old memory. And then she added, as if to vent her own undisclosed woe, “Karma. It is the result of Muthalali’s karma. For the things he did to others.”
Pappan knew what she meant by ‘things he did to others’. The whole town knew. And like many truths that a society swallows hastily and pushes into its deep innards to escape scalding its tongue, this one too lay buried amidst deep rumblings. Now and then it belched up, rattling the lungs of those who were affected. Sandhya was only part of the first half of the whole story. The other half included Pappan and his mother.
“Where are you taking me?” Sandhya hollers angrily from behind as he turns the car towards Muthalali’s bungalow. “You were supposed to take me to Mahesh, not to his father’s house.”
For no particular reason, Pappan feels sorry for the girl whose only fault according to him was falling in love with an upper caste boy who had a heartless father. He is tempted to tell her what had happened to Mahesh after she left him. The fact that he lay oblivious to the goods and bads of life, to the fact that the death he had hoped to bring him solace following a heartbreak betrayed him and left him dangling in an unspecified realm of consciousness before it finally took pity on him. And the fact that Muthalali held her responsible for whatever had befallen his only son, and sought to get even with her. He is tempted to save the girl from an impending catastrophe.
But Pappan realizes in a snap that helping her escape will put his own life in jeopardy. Muthalali has no reputation for compassion and can be remarkably ruthless, especially in this instance involving Mahesh and Sandhya. No one knows it better than Pappan and his mother.
“Why are you bringing me here? You were supposed to take me to Mahesh,” Sandhya screams hysterically as Pappan parks the car, opens the door and drags her into the sprawling hall of Muthalali’s bungalow. He wonders if there is anyone other than Muthalali inside: his diminutive wife who shrunk to a shadow with time, or the servants, most of who pledged their loyalty to him more out of fear than good will. The silence and darkness in the adjoining rooms confirms that apart from the man waiting in a plush sofa, watching TV, with none of the villainy that he is fabled to have reflecting on his face, there is not a soul in the house.
“Come, come, my dear girl,” he says with a feigned sense of fondness to Sandhya. He notices the fearful steaks of tears flushing the bridal make up down her cheeks and asks Pappan. “What did you do to her that she is crying? I had asked you to be soft on her. She is, after all, my son’s girl.”
“Did he misbehave with you?” he turns to her and asks, in a voice most mellow. “What did he tell you? That he will take you to Mahesh?”
She nods her head, unable to decipher Muthalali’s demeanour.
“Which is true, of course. I will send you to Mahesh, because you are rightfully his girl. How can I let you be another man’s wife? I made a mistake once. But not again. This time you will unite with him. There is nothing more precious to me than him.”
Pappan feels a chill creep up his feet as Muthalali utters those words with a deliberate stress. He stands tentatively, waiting to be dismissed by Muthalali. Unable to inhale the ominous air that hung heavily in the room, he asks, “Can I leave, Muthalali?”
Muthalali looks briefly contemplative, and nodding his head gently as if conceding to Pappan’s wish reluctantly, says, “Alright, go. I will take her to Mahesh myself. Being his father, it is actually my duty to unite them. You go, you go.”
Pappan doesn’t miss the sinister tone as Muthalali dismisses him with a desultory flick. He heads out of the bungalow, scurrying like a mouse that has just escaped from a cat’s paws, and as soon as he crosses the gates, makes a call to the police station from his mobile phone. The caller ring on the phone is interrupted by the boom of a gunshot not very far behind him. And two more after a few frozen moments. It takes some effort for Pappan to furnish the policeman at the other end of the line with details.
He sprints across the road, hides behind a soda-beedi shop that has long since closed, and waits for the police jeep to wail into Muthalali’s compound. The darkness presses against him and the air is stifling still, but he feels a bizarre sense of relief sweeping over him. The sense of foreboding that held him captive since evening begins to wane, and an unusual calm prevails.
In an aching flashback, he thinks of his father and the last conversation they had the night before he died.
No, not died. Killed.
By Muthalali’s men at his behest. For aiding Mahesh’s affair with Sandhya. For carrying their letters to each other. For ferrying Sandhya from the hostel on the day the couple had planned to elope. For facilitating love.
He remembers his father’s words, dripping with dread. “Muthalali will not spare me for this. If I am killed, take care of your mother.”
A row of rotating strobe lights zips past him and stops in front of Muthalali’s massive teak doors. Police jeeps and ambulances. From a distance, he sees two human bodies being moved into the vehicles.
It all seems surreal again. These wailing moments. The story that brought him here. And its unexpected denouement.
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