Benign Flame: Saga of Love - 5
Continued from “Turn at the Tether”
On a tip-off from a friend, Sathyam contacted Kantha Rao, the owner of a house situated at the dead end of a by- lane in Domalaguda.
“Are you a vegetarian?” enquired Kantha Rao, on the wrong side of the fifties.
As Sathyam answered in the affirmative, the interrogation continued.
“Are you married?” he asked.
As Sathyam certified his marital status, chimed in Lalitha, the childless woman of the house,
“See, we don’t let out to bachelors, forced or otherwise.”
Thereafter, he was shown the place by the couple, however, only after getting convinced about his other credentials. That first floor penthouse, thought Sathyam, would immensely interest Roopa. Moreover, he didn’t find it wanting for privacy either.
“The rent would be a thousand rupees; the electricity is to your account, metered by the sub-meter and the 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.
“Sir, it’s very much on the higher side for a hall and a room!” protested Sathyam earnestly.
“Boy, 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. Above all, it’s a penthouse that provides privacy as soul would ever get an inkling of the twining inside,” smiled Kantha Rao meaningfully.
A bargain ensued, and to the discomfiture of the couple, Sathyam appeared adept at it.
As both didn’t want to lose the other, they compromised for a rent of eight-fifty. At the end while Sathyam was excited that he could so easily fix an appropriate accommodation, Kantha Rao was pleased that the couple, without an entourage, wouldn’t strain the scarce water-bed during the summers.
So, 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 reached the Town Railway Station to the announcement that the link train to Godavari Express was expected shortly. And as the train did indeed arrive shortly thereafter 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.
“Roopa,” she heard Sathyam call her, 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!’ But why is she so reticent?’ he wondered.
‘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? Well, 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 with closed 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? Is she upset that I didn’t accede to her request?’ he surmised.
“Roopa,” he alerted her tenderly.
“Hahn,” she was nearly inaudible.
“Have you married me against your will?” he asked hesitantly.
“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’ve seen how lively you’re with her,” he sounded rather argumentative.
‘She’s the only joy of my life,’ she thought but didn’t reply.
“Are you angry with me for refusing?” he said.
“You’ve your excuses,” she said nonchalantly, and opened her eyes as if to grasp his feelings.
“Don’t talk like that, it hurts,” he said, and went into a winding explanation of his helplessness.
“I swear upon my love that I won’t disappoint you again,” he tried to make her reconcile to the situation.
He has 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 tried to find out before and better late than never, you can do all your spying on me now,” she said nonchalantly.
“Your manner made me say so but I’m sorry for hurting you,” he sounded apologetic.
“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 and as 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? So 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? What right I have 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!’
Even though she realized that she was being unfair to him as his 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.’
‘Yet 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.
‘Am I not being cruel to him, though I’m not enthused about him, I’ve no right to dampen him. So, I should accommodate him even if I cannot love him. Surely, a sense of fairness demands that,’ she thought as she felt guilty.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” she said, extending her hand to him.
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 to reach our home from the railway station?” she asked so as to start a dialogue.
“Just under half an hour; my friend Ramu will receive 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,” he said as her gesture relaxed his nerves.
“I don’t think he attend our wedding,” she continued just to keep it going.
“He couldn’t make it; it’s a different story,” he said with apparent disappointment.
“What is it?” 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,” thus he narrated the story.
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 said,
“If not for my father’s transfer to Kakinada last year, maybe, we wouldn’t have come across your match at all, and that’s destiny.”
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 that Prasad now?”
“Sadly we lost touch 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,” he said with a sense of loss.
“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? 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,” he said like someone who didn’t apply his mind from that angle.
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,” he said relishing the food.
“Let’s see what’s in store for you,” she said, managing a smile.
‘If not suave, he’s by no means naive, and what’s more, he’s deeply in love with me,’ she reviewed her situation as she went to wash the plates.
The conviction that he’s in love with her gave her some consolation. So, she instinctively knew that life wouldn’t be problematic with him, and the thought satisfied her.
“Are you a voracious reader?” he said as she took the Digest again on her return.
“I do read a little here and there,” she said without lifting her head.
“I think you’re being modest,” he said sitting by her side.
“What about you?” she enquired.
“My reading is more of a time-pass, maybe you can read aloud for me,” he said.
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 by any chance,” he said drowsily.
“No, I’m sure I’ve kept them here, oh, its Sandhya’s present,” she said, unfolding her purse anxiously.
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’ve dropped them without realizing that,” he said, handing the pair to her.
“I’m sure; I’ve put them in my purse. Wonder how they landed on the floor!” she said as she wore them on her wondrous legs.
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.
“Why are you here?” Sathyam questioned him.
“I’m ticket-less,” he replied by way of justification.
“When did you get in?” Roopa asked him in apprehension.
“Before you came in,” said the lad embarrassedly.
“So, you’re here all night!” Roopa couldn’t help but exclaim.
As he bowed his head in confirmation, her embarrassment insensibly turned into an acute awkwardness.
“When did you remove them from her purse?” Sathyam asked in enquiry.
“I found them lying on the floor,” he pleaded with folded hands.
“You want us to believe that they dropped down from my purse just like that. You can explain all about that to the police at the next station,” said Roopa still feeling embarrassed.
“Spare me ma’am; 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,” frightened, the lad begged for mercy.
“Let’s leave 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?” she said overwhelmed by pity for him.
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. ‘The guy is well built and would’ve 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’ve seen me, and for how long!’
She couldn’t believe that unknown to her, she passed through that ordeal unscathed, but soon the horror and the embarrassment of the moment have combined to embody her mind with a sense of adventure. And slowly, the queer episode came to appeal to her with an associated aura of romance attached to it.
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?’
It’s 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”