The Beginning of the End
“You're tired. You haven’t slept for a week, man. Go home. We have a flickering life left here. I will call you when she... I will call you when she dies.” There were tears in the man’s eyes.
“Slut! She is!” Ashutosh sat on a park bench beside Mr. Solanki. He used this word for the first time in front of someone for Aruna.
“Indeed she is, Mr. Sharma. And she is handing the torch of her disgusting identity to her daughter. Did you see her today going to the college? I’ve never seen a girl wear that short skirt in our locality. Aruna doesn’t say anything to her girl. Did anyone not tell her that she is sixteen now? Girls should start dressing decently at this age. And she is always after me. I don’t know what grudge she has with me.” Mr. Solanki sniffed. He settled the specs on his nose and eyed the teenage daughter of his neighbour Mr. Biswas ravenously. She flashed a smile and he beamed back with his paan stained teeth. With one look he scanned what, according to him, were the girl’s best areas. She is growing a bit of stuff! he thought.
“You are right. I see other girls also getting influenced. This kind of woman like Aruna should not be allowed to live in localities like ours,” Ashutosh said with an air of maturity and responsibility. He sat on the park bench there: a man in his fifties, with wrinkles on the sides of his blue eyes, thick specs, fair as snow and unmarried.
He'd come to live in the colony twenty-five years ago and brought his antipathy along. Life had felt so knotty at that time. He came to know that the girl he loved had never loved him. Friends told him he was handsome; he would find another girl. He never got over her, though. All these years passed in whimpering silently for her. The most jovial person became the man of few words. Silence became his speech and loneliness his second skin. He parted from all worldly pleasures and spent his days buried in his work. Time passed, and the wound in his heart ripened. He regretted every moment he had loved her, and so, regretted his youth.
“Sahib, shall I take off these curtains? They're full of dirt,” Urmila, the maid, asked him.
“As am I,” he muttered. “Hmmm, do as you think best. And don’t make any food. I am not hungry. I’ve kept your salary in the drawer of the table in the bedroom. Take it,” he said gloomily.
He walked to the balcony, sat on the rest chair and removed his glasses. Dusk was creeping in. Shades of red and orange coloured the endless sky. The blurred world was better. He saw small kids play below. He closed his eyes and his love pierced his senses. She smiled in his mind. And he died another death. Just then he heard some noises in the neighbourhood. Another fight between Mr. Solanki and Aruna. He stood and walked to Aruna’s house.
“You shameless man! How dare you touch my daughter? Don’t you ever think I am weak if my husband is not with me. I am enough for a filthy man like you. Just look at yourself. You are her father’s age, you pervert!” She was flushed with anger.
“Oh, wow. Now you speak. It’s you and your daughter who are messing this colony. You dirty woman. Thank god your husband died before seeing all this. He is certainly crying in heaven looking at what shame you are bringing to his name you dirty, dirty woman!” Mr. Solanki's voice quivered. The man breathed heavily and shook violently.
“He is going to have another attack of asthma,” Ashutosh mumbled. He hurried to Mr. Solanki and gripped the man's shoulders. Aruna had bloodshot eyes. People gathered around to enjoy the fight.
“Ashutosh, you have been friend with this man for so long. Tell everyone what a devil he is. Eyeing every girl and woman in this locality blatantly. And what he did today is shameful to say. He grabbed my girl! What a shameless man! Everyone knows the reason of his wife and daughter leaving him.” Aruna blazed red with rage.
Mr. Solanki shook. Ashutosh made him sit on the creaky wooden chair in front of Aruna’s flat. He turned and said calmly, “Why Aruna? You have something with him or what?”
People nodded in union, everyone glaring at Aruna and her daughter.
He looked at Aruna’s bewildered face. Her daughter stood next to her clutching the curtains and looking at the ground.
“Everyone can see what an example your daughter is making, flaunting her skin in the society and outside. The road's Romeos are teasing the other girls of our locality just because of her. And you are no good too. All those people who come to your flat every day make it clear like crystal. Everyone knows. So stop accusing people for your fault. You should feel lucky that you are allowed to live here. We are respected senior citizens and we want to live in peace. So just stop doing this again and again to Mr. Solanki, at least for your dead husband’s sake!” he said.
Tears rolled down Aruna’s cheeks. Ashutosh enjoyed the sight. These women were to be treated like this only. The conversation felt like an ointment for his twenty-five year old wound. With a sense of pride he walked back to Mr. Solanki and walked him to his flat. When he turned back to look at Aruna and her daughter, they stood motionless.
“You were my friend?” Aruna mouthed, looking at him with befuddled eyes.
Ashutosh turned away. People muttered invectives. He chuckled. He returned to his room feeling refreshed and sleepy after so many days of sleeplessness. He went to bed and at once fell asleep.
At 10 that night, someone banged on the door. Years of silence had made his sixth sense very strong, and he felt something breaking inside him. It was Aruna’s daughter. When he opened the door, he saw the girl all freaked out and helpless.
“Something has happened to maa, uncle. She is not speaking. She is not moving. Help me, uncle.” She broke into tears.
“Wa--it-- what?” He grabbed his shawl and ran to Aruna’s flat. She lay silent and motionless on the floor. Her forehead was bleeding. His heart was in his mouth, and he felt choked with culpability. People gathered around them, hearing the cries of Aruna’s daughter. People helped to lay Aruna on the sofa. Someone tied a cloth on her forehead to stop the bleeding. Ashutosh called the ambulance. People talked and talked. The daughter cried and cried.
The next person Ashutosh heard a doctor speak. “She needs surgery. Her heart rate is feeble. She got a major heart attack. We will first stabilize her. You are...her husband?”
“No, no, just a neighbour.” He hugged Aruna’s daughter. “Everything will be fine, girl. Don’t worry.”
A week passed, and Aruna remained unconscious. Her small face looked calm when the ward boy took the stretcher inside the operation room. The door closed. He heard some people cry, wailing for their dead relative. The red light of the operation theatre glimmered in his eyeballs. Restless, he stood there. Life was slipping silently. Seconds felt like years. He could only wait and watch. He waited, not knowing what he wanted exactly, to watch her bloom again with life or to see her dead.
The light of the operation theatre went off. He and the other people of society got to their feet. The doctor emerged and whispered to Ashutosh, “5% chances. The infarction has damaged her whole heart. I doubt she will survive the night.”
Ashutosh's heart drowned, and he went numb. Aruna’s daughter looked at him with a questioning gaze. She had her mother’s eyes. “She is alright,” he lied.
He could not speak anymore. Mr Biswas came to him, rested his hands on Ashutosh's shoulder, “I knew it from the first time I saw you looking at her, Ashutosh ji. I have seen the love for years.” He stopped for a moment before continuing. “You are tired. You haven’t slept from a week, man. Go home. We have a flickering life left here. I will call you when she...I will call you when she dies.” There were tears in the man’s eyes.
Ashutosh was swimming in his past. When he saw Aruna for the first time, it was neither her beauty nor her oomph that made him fall for her. It was the aura of tranquillity that he felt when he was around her. Everything was carefree with her. They became friends but he never told her. Days passed merrily until she married another man. He moved to this locality just to see her every day. He knew she could never be his again, but he wished for it every night with his seared heart. He watched her grow old. Her beauty wilted. But the peace around her remained untouched. Unblemished. She became a widow. He saw her in pain. He saw her strong at that moment too. But she broke when it came to her child. Yeah. He took his vengeance at the right time.
It took him an hour to reach his flat. The further he drove from Aruna, the more she lingered in his mind. He opened his flat door. The corridor was dark. Mr. Solanki hurried to him enquiringly, but Ashutosh slammed the door in his face. He opened his safe. All gold and money shined from inside. He took out the old bundle of letters he'd written to Aruna but never gave her. He switched the tape recorder on. “Mere naseeb mein ae dost tera pyaar nahi,” Kishore Kumar sang.
As he clutched his first love letter addressed to Aruna to his heart and as the cold air swept over his face making him feel serenity and bustle in unison, the phone rang.