Anurag woke up writhing – it was as if someone had plunged a knife and was twisting and turning it, slowly……
The images began closing in….dark, slimy shadows smothering him…..
He could see Him gazing into Her eyes and whispering something. He could see Her throwing back her head and laughing. The mellifluous sound of her laughter reaching him in jagged streaks, piercing his psyche…..
He looked at around. He was in his bed. And she, his Neha, was sleeping peacefully beside him. Her thick hair covered her beautiful face like a halo. She looked innocent and vulnerable, like a child.
He was pottering around in the backyard. Their bedroom window was open. She had gone to change. He always loved watching her change. But she hated it.
“Please, Anu I want to change at my own pace without you watching me. You know how much I sweat. After eight hours in the office I am virtually stinking. And when I start undressing you invariable grab me.”
“But baby I don’t mind at all. Everything about you turns me on – even your –“
“Shut up! You’re crazy. But please give me some space,” she said.
“Okay baba, okay. I don’t want to argue with you. Or else you won’t give me the precious little space I want at night,” he laughed and she punched him with mock anger, her cheeks growing pink with embarrassment.
Even after fifteen years of marriage he was as crazy about Neha as he had been when they were dating. In all these years she had given birth to a child, put on a lot of weight, her skin had lost some of its sheen – all these things she herself told him. But to him she was still the same gorgeous, enchanting, beautiful, sexy Neha he had wooed and wedded fifteen years ago. And he was till madly, insanely, obsessively in love with her.
A couple of months ago when they were driving back from the Power Plant where they both worked she asked him to stop the car in front of the vegetable market.
“I’ll just pick up a few vegetables,” Neha said.
“I’ll come with you.” He didn’t like her going alone because quite a few seedy characters frequented the vegetable market.
“Come on, Anu. I am not a kid anymore. I am nearing forty and I have a teenaged daughter, I can take care of myself.”
“But to me you are still a baby, sweetheart,” he said.
Neha went about picking vegetables from their favorite shop, while close by he got busy selecting green chillies. He was very fond of chillies and this was the only vegetable he could select. “I am a great connoisseur of green chillies,” he would claim.
“I want brinjals of bigger size. I am planning to make a curry of stuffed brinjals,” he could hear Neha tell Tulasi the vegetable vendor.
“Sweety, I have a brinjal which is much bigger than all these. Do you want to try it?” Anurag heard these words and froze. He turned. A tall, dark and well-built fellow was standing by her side a smirk on his face.
He felt blood rush to his head and the all too familiar pounding. It was as if a monster was inside his head trying to break out. He sprang forward. Before the lout could react Anurag had brought his knee up and slammed it into his groin with all his might. He fell down on the ground howling with pain, his hand on his crotch. Anurag kicked his face viciously. “You bastard. I’ll bloody kill you.”
Just then a couple of pairs of hands yanked Anurag back. Neha caught hold of his arm and dragged him to the car. As they drove home Anurag was still shaking. Neha’s face was set.
Back home after he had cooled down a bit Neha took him to the bedroom- out of ear shot of their maid Sarita and Akruti, their daughter, and confronted him.
“What is wrong with you Anurag? Are you mad or something?”
“Wrong with me? What do you mean Neha?”
“Why did you have to act like that – like a road side hoodlum.”
“Then what did you want me to do? Thank the fellow on bended knees for…for his obscene suggestion.”
“Come on Anurag, you know what I mean. These things happen. One can’t do anything about them.”
“What do you mean one can’t do anything. Any thug will insult you in public and I’ll just turn my face away pretending he was reciting the Gayatri mantra.”
“No, you and I will simply ignore the lout and his remarks and walk away.”
“I can’t…I wont’ do that.”
“No, no, you won’t do anything that is sensible. You will get into a street-fight with some hoodlum like a C-grade Hindi film hero. What if that fellow had a knife or if he had accomplices, you could have been very badly hurt.”
“Neha, at that moment I went berserk. I couldn’t think straight. I just had to cream him for his vulgar remark.”
“And in that process you created a scene which was far more embarrassing than that lout’s obscene comment,” Neha said and stomped out.
She didn’t talk to him the entire evening. At night when he reached for her she moved away.
“Please Anurag, I have a headache.”
He couldn’t sleep the whole night. It was really unfair he thought. Neha was still unable to understand his obsessive love for her.
He went to the window. The curtains were drawn. The tube light was on and through the gap between the curtains he could see her. She was wearing a white slip – his favorite one. It was sleeveless and had a plunging neckline. It showcased her voluptuous figure beautifully. He wanted to be a voyeur today and watch her change. She never stripped in front of him. And they always made love with only the night lamp on. Long time back he had once suggested that they keep the tube light on. “Why do you always turn love making into a performance ritual?” she had snapped.
She had a always been very conservative in bed. Missionary position and its slight variations were all that she agreed to. A couple of years after their marriage he had suggested ‘sixty nine’. She hadn’t understood. When he had explained she had turned red in the face and hadn’t talked to him for two full days and (more important) two full nights!
He watched her. She tied her hair into a knot and walked to the telephone and picked up the receiver. She dialed.
“Can we talk?”
Just then he heard footsteps and turned back. Akruti was coming towards him.
“Papa, come, your tea is getting cold.”
He went to the bedroom and knocked on the door. She opened it.
“You were talking to someone on the phone?”
“Yes, I rang Amma?”
“Why this time – it is full rate you know.”
“She had rung up in the office. She sounded a bit depressed. Her diabetes count has gone up again.”
Anurag and Akruti were having their evening tiffin. Neha was in the bedroom changing.
“Papa, why can’t mummy change later? And she takes so long that by the time she comes out our tiffin is over.”
“Beta, you know she sweats a lot. She likes to dry herself under the fan and change into something comfortable.”
Just then Neha emerged from the room. Looking as beautiful and as fresh as ever.
“Hey Neha, don’t take so long. We keep waiting for you and our tiffin is almost over by the time you come out.”
“Okay baba from tomorrow, I’ll hurry up.”
However, Neha continued to spend twenty odd minutes and Anurag too didn’t insist or else he knew they would end up fighting. And he knew every time they fought he was the loser. It was not only a question of sex – which of course was extremely important to him. He couldn’t sleep unless he held her close. This had been the case from the day one of their marriage.
Naresh had come to his office in connection with a file. He was a couple of years his senior. His son Manoj and Akruti were both in class eight. Anurag didn’t like Naresh too much. He considered him a nosey parker and a loud mouth.
“Anurag, I don’t want to sound meddlesome but I would like to share something with you regarding Akruti.”
“What’s it?” he almost snapped.
“You know this September Manoj and Akruti had gone on an excursion with their classmates and teachers.”
“Well apparently Akruti has got friendly with a few boys of class nine. She keeps ringing them up and they too call her up. And you know how these boys are - one of them has been boasting that Akruti is going steady with him.”
Anurag kept quiet.
That evening he asked Akruti.
“No, Papa, I only talk to my classmates. I never ring up class nine students.”
“But Sarita was telling me that the P&T telephone keeps ringing.
“Most of them are blank calls. Of course I talk to Rehana, Mahesh and Swati quite regularly and they too often ring me up – but they are my classmates, not my seniors.”
A few days later Manjit Singh came to thank him. He was a Junior Telecom Officer who was obliged to him for getting his son admitted to Kendriya Vidyalaya.
On an impulse he told him.
“Manjit, as you know both my wife and I are working. We have a maidservant at home who is quite smart. I am getting the impression that she is making a lot of local calls. Can you let me know to which numbers the calls are going?”
Manjit thought for a moment and said, “No, problem. I’ll get you the list tomorrow.”
Next day after getting the list for the last one year , Anurag studied it carefully. He found there was a sudden pattern. More than forty per cent of the local calls were to only one number. ‘Had Akruti lied to him. Was Naresh right? Was Akruti calling her seniors?’ He decided to check once again.
His eyes fell on the column to the extreme right which gave the time at which the calls were made. Most of the calls were made between 6 and 6.30 pm. B....but that was the time when Neha was changing. So how could Akruti be making the calls when Neha……His heart started pounding….that means it was not Akruti…..it was….it was Neha….but who…..why”
He felt a sudden tightening in the pit of his stomach. No it could not be. There was some mistake. He again looked at the list. There was no mistake…..
His mind raced back to that day when he had been outside the bedroom.
“Can we talk?”
“Whom was she talking to? He had to find out?”
That evening Akruti had gone to a birthday party in the campus along with Sarita.
Neha had finished her bath and was sitting propped up on the bed reading a Reader’s Digest.
He sat on the bed and casually said, “Neha, I was told Akruti has been making a lot of phone calls. I got a list of phone calls made in the last six months. Most of them are to one number and at a particular time.”
Neha looked up. Had her face turned pale or was he imagining it?
“Neha, all the calls have been made between six and six thirty and that is the time you are alone in the bed room changing,” he said very slowly looking intently at her.
“What are you trying to say?”
“I only want to know who you are making these calls to and why?”
Neha kept silent.
“Answer me Neha,” he said, his eyes still fixed on her face.
“It is a friend,” she said her face tense.
“Who is she?”
“It is a he?”
Anurag recoiled as if a viper had struck him.
“He. I…I can’t believe it? Who is he?”
“What is the point in knowing Anu?”
“What do you mean what is the point? I want to know the name of that fellow?” Anurag shouted his face turning red.
“Why so that you can pick up a fight with him and create a scene? I’ll tell you in due course. But not today.”
Anurag got up.
“For God’s sake Neha tell me his name. I can’t take this suspense. I want to know whom you have been talking to all these months stealthily, surreptitiously, and furtively. All along you told me you needed time to change and cool yourself under the fan. You didn’t need time for that. You needed privacy to chat with your boy friend.”
“Don’t be silly Anu. He is not my boy friend. He is just a good friend.”
“But what was the need for you to talk to him at all and that too in this secretive manner?”
“Anu, there are times when I too need some one to share my feelings.”
“Am I dead?”
“Don’t talk rot. There are some things which I can’t discuss with you?”
“Achha! So dearie what are the things which you can’t discuss with me but can share with this special friend?’
“Many times when we have our fights I am really puzzled. I don’t know who is at fault? It helps if I talk to him?”
“And what does he say? ‘My dear it is all your husband’s fault. You are an angel of mercy, a picture of perfection’?”
“On the contrary he counsels me. He keeps saying Anurag is an artist and artists are moody and sensitive.”
“Really. I am grateful to this noble soul. So he knows me. Now for heaven’s sake will you tell me his name? I promise I won’t act like a hoodlum.”
Neha hesitated and then after what seemed an eternity she very quietly said, “It’s Vikram, Vikram Rai.”
“Vikram!” Anurag sat down with a thud. Vikram had been her boss when he had been in Personnel Department. He had been transferred to Training three years ago. He was a tall, well-built guy who had an easy going style and a way with people. He had always been very fond of Anurag and he too respected him. His wife Preeti was a charming lady and his daughter Mayuri and Akruti were good friends. Four months ago when Preeti had suffered a nervous break down Anurag and Neha had done the maximum running around.
“Vikram! He is probably the only fellow in our organization I had a high regard for. In fact he was one guy who seemed so genuine, so transparent. How could he do this to me?”
“But what has he done, Anurag? He has just been an emotional anchor. Just the other day you had mentioned that in the last couple of years things have been going on very smoothly for us. We’ve had so few fights. Well, Vikram’s counselling has really helped me a lot. It has helped me to understand you better.”
“Oh! So whatever good that has happened in the recent past is all due the kind benediction of Sir Vikram,” Anurag was now dripping sarcasm.
Neha kept quiet.
“Why did you have to do this to me Neha?”
“I haven’t done anything?”
“You have betrayed my trust, you have betrayed me. For two years you were carrying on an emotional affair with this guy right in our bedroom, and I hadn’t the foggiest notion.”
“Come on Anurag, you are carrying things a bit too far. Emotional affair indeed! Is talking to a friend same as having an affair.”
“Yes, if it is done surreptitiously, stealthily.”
“Yes, I think talking to him secretively was a mistake. But what could I do? Would you have allowed it if I told you I wanted some emotional support from a friend.”
“But what was the need for emotional support. Wasn’t the support you are getting from me enough? What more did you want?”
“I…I thought it would help me understand my self better and it would help our marriage.”
“Bull shit. It is just that you have fallen for his charms?”
“Don’t talk rot, Anurag?” Neha’s face turned pink. “I told you he is just a friend.”
“If he was just a friend you wouldn’t have taken such a big risk. You must have jolly well known that one of these days I would come to know. And then I would be shattered. Yet you took the gamble. It proves that he is much more to you than a friend,” Anurag yelled.
“I don’t care what you think Mr. Anurag Gupta. I am not in love with Vikram. He is just a friend and yes I like him and I enjoy his company. If you can take it do so or just lump it,” Neha shouted and stomped out.
More than a month passed.
Anurag replayed all those moments of the last two years when Vikram had met them. That day in the Shopping Plaza, that evening in Mr. Sharma’s house, in Hotel Grand – were all these mere coincidences all trysts arranged by the two of them. When they had gone to see Preeti in the hospital Anurag had been standing outside the cabin with some of Vikram’s friends. Neha and Vikram were inside tending to Preeti. When they emerged ten minutes later, Neha’s eyes were fixed on Vikram. He was saying something and she was smiling. It was more like they were taking a walk in the park rather than coming out of a hospital cabin. Even they he had felt slightly uneasy. But because he trusted Neha completely and also respected Vikram he never gave it a second thought.
“Neha, we go to office together, come back together, have break fast lunch and dinner together. We even go for swimming, table tennis and evening walks together. When have you felt that I have not offered you emotional support? You have discussed all your office politics, your problems with your colleagues, with the union and so much more with me. Whenever you needed me I have always been there. Then why did you have to reach out to him?” Anurag asked her during one of their sessions.
“I told you Anu, he has been my boss. There are many things about my office which you will not be able to understand and appreciate as much as he can.”
“Really! That means in all those furtive conversations all that you were discussing was your blooming office?”
“No, we also discussed other things – the problems I face on the home front, his problems…..”
“So you feel that you had to reach out to him because I couldn’t satisfy your emotional need.”
“In a way yes.”
“So darling, you have not been able to satisfy my physical needs for so long. Suppose I had started to reach out to someone how would you have liked it?”
“Come on Anurag. Is speaking to someone and sleeping with someone the same thing?” Neha shouted.
And so on and on continued the arguments leading to bitter fights or sullen silences.
Anurag found himself getting drawn deeper and deeper into a vortex of rage, frustration and hate.
Neha had promised she would never speak to Vikram again and she had stuck to it. But for Anurag that wasn’t enough. In fact he himself did not know what he wanted. Anurag was convinced that there was nothing physical between Neha and Vikram. But that didn’t matter to him. To him an emotional betrayal was as sinful as a physical one.
He had always trusted Neha more than anyone else in the world. To him she was as pure and pristine as it was possible for anyone to be. His mother had eloped with a man much younger, his father he knew had, had an affair with his colleague. Only his Neha was perfect. And now even his sweet, innocent and vulnerable Neha had betrayed him and this betrayal had left him an emotional cripple.
A month after the revelation they were lying in bed. Neha snuggled up to him. “Kiss me,” she said. He turned towards her. She was wearing diaphanous nightie through which he could see her taut nipples. He kissed her and she responded hungrily. She moved on top and began kissing him all over. Normally he would have grabbed her there and then and made love to her. But he suddenly started finding her proximity stifling. She touched him. He was barely tumescent.
“What happened Anu? You don’t want me. It has been so long. Today for the first time after marriage I am desperate. Of course, earlier you never gave me a chance to be desperate. You were all over me nearly every day,” She laughed kissing his mouth and darting her tongue inside.
He still remained unresponsive. He looked at her – at her beautiful eyes. She returned his gaze. Were those lovely eyes seeing him or someone else? Was it he she was making love to or was it……..”
He pushed her away and got up and went to the bathroom. He opened the shower and stood under it. What was happening to him? This was the last straw. For so many years he had fantasized that she would take the lead and make love to him. In all these years he had never stayed away from her for so long except during Akruti’s time and during his tour to Malaysia. In all these years the major fights they had been mainly because of his insistence that they make love every day and her pleading to be given a respite. And now after such a long gap when Neha herself was eager why was he shunning her? It was because the Neha was lying on the bed was not his pure and pristine Neha but a worldly wise, woman who had indulged in stealth and subterfuge and betrayed him. His Neha was dead and with her gone what was he doing here. He too had to go…..
The next day he went around like a zombie. Neha tried her best to be normal, to strike a conversation but he responded in monosyllables.
That night he tried his best to sleep but he couldn’t. He kept tossing and turning and the slipped into a fitful sleep.
Anurag woke up writhing – it was as if someone had plunged a knife and was twisting and turning it, slowly……
He got up.
‘I can’t exist with her, I cant’ exist without her, so it is better I cease to exist,” he wrote in his diary.
He looked at her once again. She was sleeping peacefully.
He went to Akruti’s room. Her eyes were closed and there was an angelic smile on her pretty face. He kissed her on her forehead. “I am sorry, princess. I hope you’ll forgive me,” he whispered.
He came back to the bedroom. He was ready. Fifty tablets of calmpose ground to powder. He poured the powder in a glass of water and after stirring it drank it in one gulp.
He then walked to the bed and lay down beside her. She turned towards him and snuggled up, her head on his breast. She was still asleep. He began gently stroking her head and waited for oblivion……