The sky was laden with a heavy brooding, its color the mottled purple of an ugly bruise. The plain below was parched and dry. In the distance there was a scraggly bush of some unidentifiable tree. It stood twisted into the shape of pain, brown and leafless. A cluster of black rocks lay some distance away from the tree. A broken cart lay on the other side of the tree with the bones of an animal scattered beside it. The wind blew hot and dusty while the sun beat down mercilessly. It was strange to see no vegetation, no trace of green. The vista looked arid, hostile and malevolent.
She wondered why her eyes were at ground-level breathing in the dust that swirled around her nose. She decided to stand up. It was then that she saw. She had no legs… nor body… nor arms. All she was, was a head standing upright in the middle of nowhere. She passed out.
The panic began to build up in her when she regained consciousness. She wanted to pinch herself to so that she would know it was a nightmare, but she couldn’t. She was horrified to see the rest of her dismembered body parts strewn about her carelessly. She didn’t know from where they had come, they weren’t there before. There were her arms… and her torso… and her legs. She stood looking at them with a horror too deep for her to admit into her mind. She passed out again.
This time when she came round, her limbs were closer to her. With the biggest effort of will she had ever exerted in her life, she inched her face closer to her torso. She stared at the severed neck with all her concentration. She passed out a third time.
This time when she came to, she found that her head and torso were joined. She was too horrified to wonder how it had happened, all she felt was relief. With her chin she dragged her arm closer and tried to attach it to her torso. To her utter horror it turned into a leg and then back again to an arm. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the tree morph into bones and the cart into rocks. The world was dissolving and switching shapes right in front of her eyes.
That’s when she began to scream and went on screaming. Suddenly she woke up, drenched with sweat.
* * * *
Mandira began her career as a systems analyst. During her post-grad in computer applications, she was the only one of her batch who actually enjoyed studying systems analysis and design- dubbed SAD. Her classmates were morosely unanimous in their opinion that the acronym was very appropriate for the feeling the subject evoked in them. Mandira was the only odd one out. But that single-minded passion paid off. Her career graph was dizzyingly precipitous. Within five years of her career she was a very coveted asset for any software development team. Her ability to see the big picture, her analytical skills in defining the scope of the proposed solution and her meticulous planning of every stage of the development process made her a project insurance tool of phenomenal proportions. To have her on the project team was like taking a short-cut to the moon enabling the team to cut-deliverables time to almost 30% of projected time AND to deliver a product which was as robust as it was bug free. In seven years, Mandira could write her own pay-check. It was then that she decided to go into business for herself.
In five more years, Mandira was well-established. Once she had one base secured, she decided to focus her attention on her personal life. Her eight year old marriage was anything but a marriage. Over the years, she and her husband had settled into a routine which could only be called an indifferent tolerance. The kind of routine that is too much trouble to do something about but the kind that irritates you constantly like a pebble in your shoe. They amicably agreed to a divorce by mutual consent. The nature of the relationship was eloquently defined by the fact that the divorce did not create anything but a mild momentary ripple. One moment he was there, and the next moment he had shifted to Ahmadabad. It was as if he had gone on an official tour and would be back next morning. Mandira and the kids’ life went on smoothly with no change.
Mandira had first met Kaushal almost three years after her divorce. Kaushal was the EDP manager for Mandira’s biggest client. The two worked well together. Over the next couple of years, they had learned to trust each other. Last year, out of the blue, Kaushal confessed to Mandira that his feelings for her were no longer merely of a colleague or even a friend. He was in love with her. Mandira was rather taken aback, for she had never expected such strong feelings behind an essentially placid and easy going exterior. After a couple of months of dithering, she finally accepted him. Although Kaushal wanted them to get married eventually, he wanted to wait until he could get his sister married off first. Mandira agreed to wait.
For the past year, Kaushal had become a part of her life and household. Both her children had taken to Kaushal very well and the three were thick as thieves. Mandira and he were a couple and that is how everyone- including Mandira’s employees- treated them. There was only one fly in the ointment though. Each time she expressed her concern regarding some aspect of his behaviour, he clammed up. He would shut down completely and it would take her weeks to get him to talk again. The issue would be never raised again, and things would remain the same… and sometimes get even worse than they were before. She began to feel cut off and alienated.
Barely six months into the relationship, Mandira felt as if Kaushal had cooled off towards her. She desperately tried to revive the relationship, but the more she tried the less he responded. Then came the time when they met maybe once a week. Next their phone calls were reduced to need based communication- mostly work related. Then came the day when Mandira realized that she hadn’t spoken to him for almost three weeks. Her only communication with him was the customary greetings they exchanged through text message in the morning. It was as if they had become casual friends.
She dared not confess this to her children, parents or colleagues not knowing how serious this was. He refused to answer any of her queries on the issue as always. There were times she really wanted to talk to him- nothing in particular- just to share her triumphs and disappointments of the day, the way couples do. Meanwhile she had to pretend, to her children and her parents, that things were hunky-dory between them. She could not bear to lose the respect of her children and knew that the foundations of her business rested solely on her impeccable character. One hint of gossip would undermine years of her work and plant seeds of doubt in the children’s minds. Both the possibilities were impossible for her to accept.
Things really became complicated when her classmate Manish was transferred back to her town after almost fifteen years. They had always been good friends in college although they were fiercely competitive with each other. But the contest between them was healthy because each had an accurate assessment of the other’s capability. The respect between them was strong- which in turn gave rise to a resilient bond between them. When Manish got in touch with her again, Mandira mentioned her broken marriage but was simply not able to say anything about Kaushal. Manish himself had never married because of one crisis in his life after another. Their easy camaraderie was more than welcome to Mandira. She was hurting badly because of Kaushal’s casual indifference and was terribly lonely at times. She had heard that people can handle bad news on their own but when there is cause for celebration and no one to share their joy with, is when they feel very lonely. She frequently felt as if she would drown in the bottomless depths of her loneliness.
It was not surprising at all that she became very close to Manish. She knew he was falling for her, she was strongly attracted too. Three days ago, while they were talking on the phone, she blew up at him when he tried to bring his feelings out into the open. She tried desperately to provoke an estrangement. It failed, because Manish understood her too well. He casually apologized to her and as simply confessed his feelings. She hung up on him in panic.
For the past three days she had been in a frenzy of agonized indecision. She knew very well that things will not work-out with Kaushal. But, at least for the present, she was not ready to terminate the relationship. She had never found herself so indecisive… never hesitated to be open and honest with what she was. She had never found the need to pretend to be something she was not. She accepted that she was forcing this prevarication on herself not because she cared for the opinion of the world, but to feel worthy when two pairs of trusting eyes looked at her with adoration. She hated herself for the seed of hope that would not die within her.
She, who prided herself on her fair dealing and honesty, had been sucked into a vortex of duplicity on two separate levels. On the one had she had to pretend that she was closer to Kaushal than she was, on the other she had to pretend to be farther from Manish than she was. This was not lying, but worse, it was counterfeiting. She also knew that the worst of the counterfeiting would be staged within her own heart. She felt divided into many parts and confused about the rapidly switching identities of people. Who was who..? Was Kaushal a lover or just a friend…? Was Manish a friend or a lover…?
* * * *
She held up her hands in front of her face… ran her hands all over her body. She switched on the lights and went to look at herself in the mirror. She gulped some water and wiped the sweat off her face. In a few moments she felt better though a part of her felt lacerated, raw and scarred. She went and checked up on her children. They were both sound asleep. It looked as if she hadn’t screamed very loud, though her throat ached horribly.
There was no way she could go back to sleep. It was nearly four in the morning. She knew she needed to talk to someone, to hear a human voice, to take a decision or she might go raving mad.
Once again, her loneliness slapped her in the face with a stinging blow across the mouth. It was then that the tears came. Who was there to talk to…? There was the whole world, yet no one. She tried to control her panic. She was shivering violently by now.
She waited until eight in the morning when she knew both of them would be awake. First she called Kaushal. As she expected, he didn’t answer the call. She then called Manish. He didn’t answer the call either. She waited for her cell to ring, her heart in her mouth.
Within five minutes the phone rang. She looked at the name flashing on the tiny screen.
“Manish, I have to talk to you about something important. Will you help me to turn my life into a lie..?”
She closed her eyes when he quietly and simply said, “Anything you want.”
She had decided that though she will pretend to be with Kaushal, she will actually be with Manish. She had decided not to counterfeit reality in her own mind… even though she will have to do so for the world at large. She decided she would take a final decision on this- one way or another- after six months.
She had to ask for Manish’s help in staging a lie like that, to apologize to him for the necessity of putting him in that position. In three simple words, he had taken a load off her.
She felt whole once again and was sure of the shape of her world. She slept.