Benign Flame: Saga of Love - 5
Continued from “Turn at the Tether”
Sathyam, on a tip-off from a friend, contacted Kantha Rao, the owner of a corner house of a by- lane in Domalaguda.
“Are you,” enquired Kantha Rao on the wrong side of the fifties, “a vegetarian?”
As Sathyam answered in the affirmative, the interrogation continued.
“Are you married or not?”
“See, we don’t let out to bachelors, forced or otherwise,” chimed in Lalitha, the childless woman of the house.
As Sathyam certified his marital status, he was shown the place by the couple, however, only after getting convinced about his credentials. That first floor penthouse, thought Sathyam, would interest Roopa no end. Moreover, he didn’t find it wanting for privacy either.
“The rent would be a thousand rupees, while the electricity is to your account, metered by the sub-meter. Water bill is to be shared pro-rata,” Kantha Rao went about acquainting his prospect, as if he were delivering his maiden budget speech in the parliament.
“Why,” protested Sathyam earnestly, “‘it’s very much on the higher side for a hall and a room!”
“You don’t seem to count the kitchen and the storeroom with a loft large enough to hide an elephant, if you please. Besides, you can’t fail to take into account the excellent amenities, the western toilet, cupboards all over, the wash-basins and all others that lend comfort. Moreover, know it’s a penthouse that provides privacy,’ smiled Kantha Rao meaningfully. No soul would ever get an inkling of the twining inside.”
A bargain ensued, and to the discomfiture of the landlord, Sathyam appeared adept at it.
As both didn’t want to lose the other, they compromised for a rent of eight-fifty. Sathyam was excited that he could so easily fix an appropriate accommodation, while Kantha Rao was pleased that the couple, without an entourage, wouldn’t strain the water-bed during the summers.
Post-haste, Sathyam reached Kakinada to fetch Roopa, and Pathrudu picked up the Pedda Purnaiah’s almanac for the auspicious date for the journey. Meanwhile, arrangements were made on a war footing to transport the household goods through SRMT.
That evening, accompanied by their kith and kin, the newlyweds arrived at the Town Railway Station to the announcement that the link train to Godavari Express was expected shortly. When the train did arrive from the Port Station, there was pell-mell at that Town Platform.
While the Sathyams were taking leave of those present, Pathrudu helped the porter posit the luggage beneath the lower berth in a first class coupe even as Sathyam made it to the bogie, followed by Roopa and Sandhya. Standing by the entrance, as Sandhya and Roopa were seen whispering to each other mirthfully, staring at them, Sathyam thought, ‘After all, she doesn’t seem to be serious by nature. But why she’s always morose with me?’
When its readiness for departure was announced, Roopa got into the train only to grab Sandhya’s hand greedily, as if it were a treasure.
Soon the guard gave the green signal that triggered a new phase in Roopa’s life, and as if hanging on to her memory, Roopa stood rooted near the gate and waved to Sandhya until she was out of her sight. Meanwhile, the train, for its part, curved to its right, seemingly enabling the driver to greet the guard at the rear.
“Come in Roopa,” she heard Sathyam and followed him.
As if to preempt a conversation, Roopa took the window seat and picked up ‘The Reader’s Digest’. Sitting by her side, Sathyam couldn’t help but admire her beauty in her profile.
“What a fascinating beauty!” he wondered. “But why is she so reticent?”
“What should’ve gone wrong!” he went into contemplation. “Was she forced into the marriage against her will? How it can be. After all, the matchmaker swore they were keen on our match. Oh, didn’t he maintain that if it ever came to missing our match they were ready to pull her out of the college and perform her marriage ahead of her elder sister’s. How pleased they were all at the gesture of accommodation. Was it no more than a mere white lie to hasten her marriage? But then, why it was so? Was she carrying on with someone? Oh, was she pulled out mid-course as it were to thwart her elopement? Or worse still, she might have got pregnant, prompting all that unseemly haste. Oh God, what’s all this!”
Whatever it was, he thought he should probe her forthwith. As he was about to open, she closed her eyes as though to stall his attempt. ‘How lovely she looks even as she closes her eyes!’ he thought endearingly, and espied her devotedly. As if compelled by curiosity, the wind surged through the window to have a glimpse of her wondrous demeanor. In turn, her luxuriant hair unsheathed itself from the plait to veil her face as though to foil that bid. Undaunted by the nature of the camouflage, the surging wind tried to disperse the guards on duty to get a proper view for itself, only to find them regroup every time. The unfolding tussle amused Sathyam.
‘When she’s so enchanting in her reluctance, won’t she be as devastating in her eagerness?’ he surmised. ‘Is she upset that I didn’t concede to her request?’
“Roopa,” he called her tenderly.
“Hahn,” she was nearly inaudible.
“Why, did you marry me,” he asked hesitantly, “‘against your wish?”
“Who gave you that impression?” she said in embarrassment, though she didn’t appear surprised. Her manner even suggested that she expected him to say that.
“I can see that you’re just going through the motions,” he said dryly.
“I’m a little moody, that’s all,” she tried to be evasive, but seemed to be on the defensive.
“But not so with Sandhya, I suppose,” he sounded argumentative. “I could see that you’re quite lively with her.”
‘Oh, isn’t she the only joy of my life?’ she thought but didn’t reply.
“Are you not angry with me for refusing?”
“Maybe, you have your reasons, don’t you?” she said nonchalantly, and opened her eyes as if to grasp his feelings.
“Don’t say that, it hurts,” he said, and went into a winding explanation of his helplessness.
“I would never disappoint you all my life, I swear upon my love,” he tried to make her reconcile to the situation. He bared his heart to let her feel the love he bore for her. As she didn’t hold him high in her esteem any way, his love too didn’t mean much to her. Nevertheless, she was pleased at being adored.
Shortly thereafter, the train reached Samalkot to be shunted to the Godavari Express, expected from Visakhapatnam, and finding her still morose, Sathyam kept wondering what was amiss in their marriage.
“Are you in love with someone?” he asked her as the train moved out of the station at length.
“You should’ve enquired all about me before marriage,” she said curtly and added. “Even now, you could do all your spying and clear your doubts.”
“I’m sorry,” he sounded apologetic. “Not that I suspect any but you seem so disinterested.”
“Thanks,” she sounded uncharacteristically sarcastic.
He then withdrew into a shell in the manner of a person who commits an indiscretion. Seeing him sulk, she felt sorry for him. ‘Am I not being rude to him?’ she thought. When her conscience confirmed in the affirmative, her heart was filled with pity for him.
‘After all, it’s not his fault that he isn’t smart,’ she reasoned. ‘Didn’t I sense his shortcomings in the first meeting itself? Well, I knew from the beginning what was in the offing for me. Yet, I married him out of my own compulsions, didn’t I? Oh, why should I be cut up with him for no fault of his?’
‘I’m at fault for being cool towards him,’ she thought in time. ‘Moreover, he might have his own expectations from his wife and married life. Didn’t I nurse my own dreams though they turned sour in the end? Do I have the right to mar his life as his wife? Had I declined, who knows, he would have got a wife who could have adored him and made him happy all his life!’
When she realized that she was being unfair to him as wife yet she bemoaned, ‘But I can’t bring myself to love him. Am I not the worse for that?’ Then she thought that if only she could love him, her life would be lively as well and that very idea for the attendant impracticality made her feel bitter about her fate, ‘Oh, loveless life is no better than a lifeless corpse.’
‘But he loves me,’ she contemplated in the same vein. ‘Isn’t it said that it’s better to marry someone who loves you than the one whom you might love. Why, hasn’t it turned out to be true in his case? Well, for all his love, an unresponsive body for a mate is what he gets from me. How wasteful is misplaced love, for the one who loves and the loved one as well!’ As she was overcome with pity for him, she looked at him instinctively, and found him staring at her adoringly.
‘Why am I not being rude to him? Maybe cruel even!’ she thought as she felt guilty. ‘Since I’m not enthused about him, do I have the right to dampen him? Oh, I should accommodate him though I may not love him. Maybe, sense of fairness demands that.’
“I’m sorry,” she said, extending her hand to him, “for hurting you.”
Overwhelmed by her gesture, he was at a loss for words. As his eyes welled, he soaked her hand with kisses. Feeling gratified by the gratification she had caused, she found herself seeing life in a new light.
“How long does it take us,” she asked so as to start a dialogue, “to reach home from the railway station?”
“Just under half an hour,” he said as though her gesture relaxed his nerves. “My friend Ramu would be receiving us at the Secunderabad railway station. I had sent him the Lorry Receipt and he would have shifted the luggage to our house by now.”
“Did he attend our wedding?” she continued just to keep it going.
“He couldn’t make it,” he said with apparent disappointment. “It’s a different story though and you’ll get to know of it, by and by.”
“Tell me now,” she asked more to please him than driven by any curiosity.
“Ramu is in love with Meera, his colleague where he worked earlier. Though she agreed to his proposal, the hitch is, she is a Tamilian and he, an Andhra like us. They got around her parents in due course and anyway his father too is too broad-minded to mind the match. But it was thought ideal to postpone their wedding till his younger sister got married so as not to spoil her chances in our prejudicial times and since her wedding coincided with ours, Ramu couldn’t come to our marriage. When the dust settles down, Ramu would marry Meera. But, for the present it’s courtship for them.”
Roopa was startled, only to be relieved.
“Don’t you think they’re smart?” he asked her, throwing her into a dilemma whether to sound him about Chandrika or let events unfold for themselves.
“Is anything wrong with that?” he said before she could make up her mind.
“It’s not a bad idea,” she merely said.
“Sandhya seems to be very close to you,” he changed the topic to interest her.
“We’re childhood pals turned adult mates,” she said mystically, and he didn’t fail to notice the glow in her face.
“No friends like childhood friends,” he said nostalgically.
“Tell me about your childhood days,” she asked.
Then he went on narrating his childhood life and times at Guntur for long and added, “If not for my father’s transfer to Kakinada last year, perhaps, we wouldn’t have come across your match at all. That’s destiny at work, I suppose.”
As he became engrossed with his childhood escapades, she tried to be an enthusiastic listener, and having heard him speak highly of his friend, she asked him, “Are you in touch with your Prasad now?”
“Sadly we’re out of touch,” he said with a sense of loss. “But I’ve heard that he’s in Delhi, married to a millionaire’s daughter. Some industrialist seems to have lured him for his plain daughter by dangling a stake in the business empire. Surely he would have turned into a really handsome man. I have no doubt about that.”
“Was he ambitious?” she enquired as though she were comparing notes.
“Don’t you think it’s difficult to know one’s nature so early on in life?” he said like someone who didn’t apply his mind from that angle. “But one of our schoolteachers used to say that the character of a person would be known only after marriage. For all I know, he wasn’t good at studies. It’s I who used to help him with his lessons, maths in particular. However, he was the handsomest in the class and boisterous as well.”
When she proposed dinner, he changed into his lungi.
“I may end up being obese in due course,” he said as he helped himself liberally with the food she served him.
“It’s my mother’s preparation,” she said with a morsel in her mouth.
“You would find me doing justice to your recipes too.”
“Let’s see what’s in store for you,” she said, managing a smile.
‘If not Sauvé, he’s by no means naive,’ she reviewed her situation as she went to wash the plates. ‘Above all else, he seems to love me genuinely.’ The conviction that he loved her gave her some consolation. She instinctively knew that life wouldn’t be problematic with him, and the thought satisfied her.
“Looks like you’re a voracious reader,” he said as she took the Digest again on her return.
“I do read a little here and there.”
“I think you’re being modest.”
“What about you?” she enquired.
“My reading is more of a time-pass,” he said. “Maybe I can have the pleasure of hearing you read.”
When he downed the shutter of that coupe-for-two, and switched on the blue lamp, she found herself culled in his eager embrace, and as the receptivity she inculcated in her mind imparted a sense of reciprocity to her body, her motions in his mount seemed to synchronize with the vibrations of the carriage. While their nocturnal journey progressed, she felt that in due course she could be on course on the beaten track of married bliss.
As day broke out, Roopa awoke to reach for her purse in which she kept the silver anklets that Sathyam goaded her to remove during the night. Not finding the pair therein, she raised an alarm that awoke him.
“See if they fell down,” he said drowsily.
“I’m sure I’ve kept them here,” she said, unfolding her purse nervously. “Oh, Sandhya presented them at our wedding.”
They uncovered their air-pillows and upturned the basket of eatables to no avail but in the end, to her immense relief, he found them underneath the berth.
“You could have left them on the berth,” he said, handing the pair to her.
“No way,’ she said as she wore them on her wondrous legs, ‘I know I’ve put them in my purse. Wonder how they landed on the floor!”
Looking down again, he found part of the baggage protruding from underneath the berth. Realizing that he pushed back the luggage as he picked up the anklets, he recalled that during the night he pushed in the luggage a couple of times only to find it protrude in time. Preoccupied as he was then, he thought amusedly, ‘The jolts and jerks are at work on the luggage as well.’
Now, seized by curiosity, he crouched on the floor and pulled out a suitcase only to be unnerved at finding a grown-up lad lying behind the rest of the baggage. Though he quickly regained his wits, as the import of the trespass on their privacy began to sink into him fully, he remained speechless.
“Hey come out,” he shouted, as he recovered at length.
The sight of a well-built lad of around twenty, crawling out from below the berth stunned Roopa out of her wits even before the echoes of Sathyam’s shout could die down in her ears.
“When did you get in?” Sathyam questioned him.
“Before you came in,” said the lad embarrassedly.
“So you’re here all through!” Roopa couldn’t help but exclaim.
As he bowed his head in confirmation, her embarrassment insensibly turned into an acute awkwardness.
“Why the hell did you come in?” Sathyam questioned the lad angrily.
“I’m ticket-less,” he replied by way of an explanation.
“When did you remove them from the purse?” Sathyam asked in enquiry.
“I found them lying on the floor,” he pleaded with folded hands. “I swear I didn’t touch them even.”
“You want us to believe that they dropped down from my purse just like that,” said Roopa still feeling embarrassed. “You can explain all about that to the police at the next station.”
“Please spare me,” frightened, the lad begged for mercy. “I took them from your handbag after you slept off. I thought you would look for them only after going home. When I realized that you found them missing, I kept them in your view so that you won’t be searching behind the luggage. Please let me go.”
“Let’s leave him,” she said overwhelmed by pity for him. “After all, he hasn’t harmed us. Moreover, he might fail at the hands of the police. These days, isn’t the air thick with the news of lock-up deaths?”
As the chap went out of the coupe relieved, the couple looked at each other embarrassed. However, the very thought that they were at lovemaking when that lad lay below embarrassed Roopa no end.
‘What would have happened had he strangled Sathyam and raped me as well?’ she thought at length and found the very idea spine-chilling. ‘Of course, the lad is well built and would have got into mood for that, what with our doings around him. Why, he even came out of his hiding to steal the anklets! God knows, in what shape he might have seen me, and for how long!’
She couldn’t believe that she passed through that ordeal unscathed, unknown to her but soon the embarrassment and the horror the moment embodied combined to produce even a feeling of adventure in her mind-set. Slowly the whole episode appeared exciting to her with the aura of a queer romantic adventure.
However, Sathyam was upset about the whole thing, ‘Could it be a bad omen for my married life? In a way, hasn’t Padmavathi prophesied just that?’ Thus he was nagged for long by many a doubt about his married life in the offing.
“Let’s forget about it,” he said at length as though to ward off the impediment by dismissing the incident itself.
“You handled it well,” she complimented him.
When the train approached the signal post, off the Secunderabad Railway Station, Roopa seemed to be in the right spirits to head towards his sweet home.
Continued to “World Within the World”