A year is a long time, she mused. So much can happen in a year. And yet it felt just like yesterday. Like time had played some crooked sadistic game of hide and seek with her. With so much changing in her life she couldn’t even remember how things were before, she found it strange to believe that it was not longer. But true it was. Her two worlds were separated just by a year. In a weird way it was like one of those scenes in a movie where they show the heroine standing still with everything else around them moving super fast… where night would turn into day that would turn into night again all in a few seconds. Except that when the scene ended, she didn’t find herself in the same place she was.
The baby in her arms whimpered in her sleep for the third time and she tore her eyes away from the window she was staring out of. The tiny hands were closed into two tight fists while the eyebrows were wrinkled into a baby frown, and the thin pink lips were quivering . Ria almost chuckled out loud. It was amazing how this puny little thing always brought a smile to her face, no matter what. She wondered if it was a bad dream, or it was the blanket that Mo was bundled in. It was getting hot anyways. She hadn’t realized that it was almost nine in the morning, and Ria had been sitting on the easy chair by the window-side since almost six, after Mo had woken up with a piercing wail to announce that her nappies needed a change for what seemed like the umpteenth time. Ria being a light sleeper was finally proving to be more of a convenience than a nuisance. After doing the needful, she had picked Mo in her arms and had paced the drawing room, rocking the baby in her arms, crooning to her, till the baby had gone back to sleep. Months of experience had taught Ria better than to put the sleeping baby back in her crib, and so she had sat down on the easy chair, drifting in and out of sleep for the last three hours. And like most mornings off late, she found herself waking up to profound thoughts, not all of them very happy.
Ria gently tugged the blanket from beneath Mo, trying not to wake her up. She kept staring at the cherubic face, by now peacefully back to sleep, and couldn’t help wondering how this little thing was growing up in front of her very eyes. The wrinkled red face and the soft scalp she was scared to even touch the first time Ria had seen her, those tiny toes and fingers that Ria had kissed one at a time through tears, and the birthmark on her ankle Ria’s mother had discovered. And her favorite bit, the two dimples on either of her cheeks that became prominent in a month, and how everybody complimented that Mo took after Ria.
She touched Mo’s cheeks with her finger, moving on to that dip below her lower lip, and then the soft flesh of her neck. She then bent down to touch her cheek to Mo’s, and took a deep breath to take in her smell. That typical blend of milk, the whole Johnson and Johnson’s baby kit, and the special detergent that Ria’s sister washed Mo’s clothes in. And like it did always, Ria’s heart twisted and contorted out of love for this baby who changed her life. It was love she had never known before, never felt before. Her whole life centered around Mo, and for the first time in her life, Ria found herself putting someone else before herself. She would come in from work earlier, had even stopped bringing work home, and everyone around her, including those in the office knew that Ria wasn’t to be disturbed in the evening, for that was time only for Mo. She had even stopped using her otherwise indispensable perfume, to everybody’s amazement, because little Mo was allergic to it, and would keep sneezing for hours after Ria had left the room. And to think she had decided to give it all up. How she had thought she knew what she wanted from her life. How was she to know that she would fall in love like this? The same Ria, who had thought she was above being tied down by a mere baby?
Her heart ached now for a whole different reason. Raag. Her Raag. The one who was meant to be the one. Wasn’t it just yesterday that she had torn herself into pieces trying to choose between love and life? Or was it a year and a half ago? Wasn’t this the very room where he’d wept in front of her for the first, and last time? Begging, pleading, coaxing and then threatening? And how proud she had been….! She’d not even given his ego the balm of her tears. Years and years of loving him madly, passionately… and yet, she had been unyielding that day. And all because he had asked her to be forever his. She had laughed at him, mocked him by saying she was nobody’s anybody. And the next moment with her heart a molten mushy mass of pink, had held his hand and added that if it was love he wanted from her he would always have it. He had shaken his head, saying he wanted more. More love? She had asked. Come to me tomorrow, she had said, I love you more today than I did yesterday, and I will love you more tomorrow than I do today. He had given a nervous laugh at this corny line, and had held both her hands to lift her up so she was standing. And then had got down on one knee, with his right hand clumsily digging into his pocket for something. The ring, Ria sighed. She wondered what happened to the ring. If she knew Raag, and she did, he must have tossed it off carelessly somewhere, not to look at it a second time. The most beautiful ring she had ever seen… and then the realization that he was asking her to give him so much more than she was capable of. What had followed next Ria would always remember, for it was like a bad dream she was forced to see day in day out. The brick-solid wall of confidence that she had always seen Raag as, had crumpled in front of her eyes. He hadn’t been able to believe that she had refused. That she, after all the years of growing up with him together, didn’t want to grow old with him. It was marriage she didn’t want, Ria had stressed. But to Raag, it was the same thing. He’d wanted a wife, a baby, a family. And Ria had wanted her life to be her own. She had given a sad smile, hoping he would give up the idea of marriage and accept her love just the same, and they could someday laugh about it.
He was back, inspite of the fact that he had sworn it was the last place on earth he had wanted to be. And he was surprised to find that he had no sentiments for this place, this very place where he had grown up. He frowned as he looked at his room. He had always hated it when his mother would “fix” his room, which meant half the time dumping most of his stuff into the garage. He had always been such a sucker for order, and little did his mother know that even his mess was in order. He could exactly say which part of the room his discography of Jimi Hendrix was tossed in. Or which battered issue of which magazine had the incomplete song that he’d composed scribbled on its cover. And now all of it was gone. It was just a cold room which could have been anyone’s. Certainly not his. His mother had even stripped the walls bare, taken off all its embellishments. The tacky poster of bleeding guitars and skulls with roses growing out of them, the huge collage he’d painstakingly made out of pictures of the Beatles he had snipped out of magazines, the oblong plaque screaming out his name that a friend with taste which at best was weird had made for him… everything was gone. The walls were freshly painted, the windows weird had made for him… everything was gone. The walls were freshly painted, the windows had new frames and tinted glasses, even the floor now had a wooden covering while the new AC took the place of honor, happily humming from on the wall just above his headboard. Even though his mother and father had called him up in each enthusiastic step they’d taken, with each step he had recoiled further.
As Raag looked around the strange room, he waited for the familiar feeling to wash over him, like it always did. The one feeling he allowed himself. The hurt, the anger, the shock…they had all worn out, although it had taken him some time. And all that was left now was indifference. He had trained himself to feel indifferent, and it had cost him all of his patience and endurance to make himself who he was. But it had proved worthwhile, as he stood in his room, trying to find traces of his own self, and then deciding that it didn’t matter either way. He was used to letting go by now.
He walked to the window and pulled away the curtains. He could barely make out the street through those tinted glasses. He liked it that way. The less he saw of that street and the house that stood bang opposite his on the other side of the street, the better it was for him. As he stood there, staring at the dark window and the hazy outline of the house, his thoughts inevitably turned in one direction. Ria. He hoped she was happy, extremely happy. But then, did he really? He didn’t want to probe deeper in case he didn’t like the answers. But one thing he knew, that day when he had come out of her house, with his heart and ego both hurt beyond repair, he had decided to shut off that part of his mind that had always thought about her before he thought about himself.
Raag knew it was not something he could be proud of, but he considered himself a man incapable of emotions anymore. Even now, when his mother had asked him to come over so he could “check out” prospective wives. He wondered what it was that he was supposed to look for in a wife. He had never known anything, anyone, beyond Ria. Right from the day in third grade, when he had learnt the word wife, and had come home and proudly announced to Ria’s mother that someday Ria will be his wife, he had known that she had to be the one. Although at that age it was more about her letting him ride her bicycle without the trainers, without telling his parents about it, the seemingly unbreakable bond between them remained consistent over the years. And taking it to its logical conclusion had only seemed like the natural thing to do.
After that day, he had tried. Not that he hadn’t. He had tried dating other women, had even found a few who he knew would have said yes to marrying him at his one hint, but could never bring himself to imagine any of them in Ria’s place. That’s when he had realized that he was doomed, cursed to think of Ria each time he thought of marriage. Dammit, she was killing him. Correction, she had killed him. Killed all his emotions and attachments till all that remained was a cold stone heart that was above anger, jealousy, hurt, and worst of all, love. Raag let out a heavy sigh, and knew that he needed to get out. The previous night he had arrived late and had dropped off to sleep before he could even collect his thoughts, but since the time he had woken up that morning his mother had been going on and on about a visit to an aunt’s place, where he was sure he would be introduced to some “single, beautiful, educated, working, very modern” girl. Just to get away from all of that, he stepped out the house. Between the house and the street, he considered the latter the lesser of the two devils. At least the street was bereft of any whining mothers.
Ria sighed, and almost unconsciously, like it had become a habit of hers off late, started popping baby kisses on Mo’s forehead, with her eyes staring blankly out the window. She wondered why the dull ache in her heart was back today. She sometimes wondered what Raag would have to say to her if they ever met again. And that was a big if. Being neighbors hadn’t really helped either of them after that day, and the last she had seen of Raag was the day his father had driven off to the airport just a week later. Thinking of him always made the familiar reel start playing inside Ria’s head. The chain of events that totally altered her life after Raag had left home. It had started with the pregnancy, and her elder sister Jia moving in to their place because of Jia’s husband’s transfer to Boston. The long debates about the colour of the nursery; the classic battle of the pink and the blue. And then the compromise, two walls being painted blue and two pink. The drive to the doctor’s almost every other week only because of Ria being on the verge of hysteria. Unisex baby clothes being brought on every trip to the mall till Ria’s mother had intervened, worried that her daughter was slowly losing it. Ria making excuses in the office just so she could stay home more, during the later stages. And then, that blessed day when Ria had first held that blob of flesh in her arms and had wept out of happiness, seeing which new-born Mo had wailed louder with renewed vigour. The end of one ordeal, just so the new one could begin. The house perpetually littered with baby powder and soiled nappies. Ria, her mother and Jia, all of them having to schedule their clocks according to Mo’s sleep cycle. And then gradually getting used to it and loving it. Ria plunging herself into learning to take care of the baby, with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as she did in making proposals for her clients in office. The rest, as the whole family would say, was her-story.
Ria had wondered whether she ought to have called up Raag. Or even if he would want to talk to her. The Raag she had grown up with had never left his house to anywhere without dropping by theirs first. It was a granted. And that same Raag had flown off to far far land without once letting her know of his plans to go abroad. Without even saying bye. Raag’s mother had been furious. Even though Ria was sure Raag hadn’t told anything about what had happened between them, his mother must have gathered something had gone wrong, and had concluded rightly that it was Ria’s fault. Raag’s mother hadn’t even dropped by to see the baby. And Ria thanked her lucky stars every day for her family, who had been nothing but extremely understanding.
Ria felt a soft touch on her cheeks, and looked down to see Mo giving her a toothless grin, wide awake now, her hands waving in the air, as was her habit whenever she woke up from a good sleep.
“Momoshka… ” Ria whispered to her. Gibberish came to Ria almost without thought whenever she was near Mo. Mo gurgled as if she understood the joke.
“You happy, aren’t you? You love to wake up in my arms baby don’t you? Don’t you? ” Ria kept muttering to Mo, smiling at her, with Mo babbling baby talk in response.
“You want to see the morning? You want to see how beautiful the day is, Mo?” Ria laughed and lifted Mo so she could look out the window, and that very moment, her heart almost stopped beating, the laughter died halfway.
She couldn’t believe what she saw. The urge to rub her eyes and pinch herself at the same time was overpowering. She kept staring at the figure, almost waiting for it to fade out into the background. But the figure didn’t move. It was real. Raag was home.
He regretted stepping out the house the moment he closed the door shut behind him. He had forgotten that as a kid he would always find Ria waiting by the window whenever he would step out. And that habit hadn’t changed much as grown-ups. The window overlooking the street was Ria’s favorite spot in the house. So why had he thought otherwise that day? He cursed himself. He almost turned around to go back inside. But while his mind screamed to him to will his legs to move, his heart wailed for one more, just one more look at her, and he found himself transfixed.
She was beautiful, like he had always known her to be. She’d lost some weight though, making her high cheekbones even more prominent. Her hair was disheveled, and that was a first for him in all these years. And her laughter… He could hear her tinkling laughter from that far away, and how it had always sounded almost musical to him. For a moment he felt like he heard a crack in his stone heart, and then he saw it.
The baby. She was holding a baby in her arms, and she looked like the happiest woman on earth. Like a woman who was born to be a mother. A million questions tumbled one after another to his mind, and before he knew it, he was fuming, his hands rolled into tight fists on both his sides. After all this while of being indifferent, he felt anger he couldn’t control. His chest was heaving, and he was finding it difficult to breathe. What was the meaning of all this? He couldn’t even begin to think of a logical answer to that, except that she had brutally ruthlessly cheated him. Or maybe cheated on him. Was that the reason? Was there already someone else in her life when he had asked her to marry him? Maybe it was someone from work. It had to be. No wonder her office was the most important thing to her. I love my work, hadn’t she said? He should have known all the while she meant she loved her workplace.
And then he saw her look at him. With guilt written all over her face, the laughter gone in a flash. His senses stopped working, what with anger pulsating in every vein in his body. When the ability to think finally seeped in, his first thought was to walk away like nothing happened. He had to be indifferent to this as well. Maybe this was the final test. And he needed to pass it before he could move on. But the very next beat, his feelings washed over him, flooding his heart with bitterness. She had to goddamn provide him with the answers. He could not make this so easy on her. And with bold, determined steps, with his heart thumping so loud it drowned his ears he walked towards her place.
It hurt her to look at him. His eyes bored into her, and all that she could see in them was pure unadulterated hatred. She gulped twice, her throat had suddenly become parched, her lips dry. Ria felt like burying herself deep inside the earth, never to be seen again. Never to come face to Ria felt like burying herself deep inside the earth, never to be seen again. Never to come face to face with this stranger again. And yet she couldn’t help thinking how her heart bled out of love for him. She couldn’t let him see this. He wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t even try to.
Just as she was wondering how best to get up from her easy chair and run inside to the safety of her room, she saw him walking towards her.
Ria and Raag:
Ria tried rising from her seat when she heard the anticipated doorbell. Her feet were trembling, and it was only in the third try that she managed to get up and walk to the door. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door.
He wouldn’t look at her and kept looking at the baby, who was now looking at this stranger with equal, if not more, curiosity. Ria could not fathom the look in his eyes.
“Won’t you come in?” she managed to say, although her voice sounded distant to her own ears, like she was hearing it from some far away place.
Raag could not take his eyes away from the baby, who kept tugging at a strand of Ria’s hair with one hand while trying to touch his nose with the other.
“Is it a girl?” was the first thing he asked.
Ria gave a nervous smile and nodded.
“She takes after you”, he said, his voice ice cold and queer.
“So I’ve been told. Do come in.” Ria insisted.
Raag looked around the house without stepping inside and let out a deep breath.
“Where is the father?” he said at one go, and avoided looking at the perplexed Ria all the more. Revolted although he was at first, he put his little finger in the baby’s outstretched hand, and looked surprised at the tight grip with which the baby held on to his finger. Something inside him snapped when he looked up and saw the baby smiling at him. Oh sweet God, wasn’t she an angel. And she could have been his daughter. All the emotions he had buried inside rushed in as the floodgates broke open, and without waiting for her to answer, he looked straight into her eyes and asked her, “Why? Why did you marry him? Did I not love you enough?”
His voice grew louder, and just as he yanked his finger from Mo’s tight fists, Mo let out a loud wail. It took some time for things to make sense to Ria, what with Raag’s strange questions to her, and Mo crying out inconsolably without any reason that was quite out of her nature. Raag was panting, his ears red hot, and Ria found herself struggling for the right words. Before Raag could say anything more, they were interrupted by her sister, who called out from inside.
“Who is it, Ria? And why is Mo crying?”
Grateful for that interruption, Ria chose to reply to her sister first.
“It’s him. Could you please take Mo away?”
Raag didn’t know what to feel when he found himself being referred to by the familiar pronoun instead of his name, like he had always been at their place. He looked at Ria, who kept looking at him back with misty eyes, her lips pursed, her eyes hovering all over his face. He looked at little Mo, whose face had now turned a shade of crimson, with her fists punching the air. And then he saw Ria’s sister, who seemed to have hurried to the door, and was looking at Raag with surprise that bordered on shock.
“Come to Mamma, Mo” Jia muttered, and took an eager Mo in her arms back inside the house, away from yelling strangers, and oddly behaving aunts.
Raag witnessed this with increasingly deepening confusion. And it was Ria’s turn to disconcert him by continuously glaring at him.
“I thought…. ” he began, and gulped, and waited while he thought about what he had been thinking.
Ria didn’t help him. She was still trying to get over it.
“I thought she’s yours”, he managed, his face a picture of misery.
“I wish she was”, Ria replied with a sad smile.
Raag tried to smile back, but what came out was more of a half grimace. Ria noticed he was still trembling.
“I wish she was ours” Raag ventured. What the heck, he was crossing limits that day anyway.
Relief of an inexplicable kind swept over Ria, and she felt her heart bounce about her chest like a happy bubble. This time she gave a wide smile, her dimples digging deep into her cheeks, while tears rolled down them.
Raag waited with bated breath, although some part of him was already doing a jig inside his head. He almost instinctively knew what was going on in her mind. His thoughts were already flying off to that corner in his bedroom back in Canada, where he had last seen the box with the ring inside it. With the suspended question still in his eyes, he looked at Ria silently sobbing now, even as she kept nodding her head in a series of unsaid yes’s. Raag took both her hands in his, while in his overexcited imagination he saw a heavy grey cloud of indifference fly out the window that very moment.