He wanted to warn her but he could not put it into words. He had never seen something as horrendous as that. Perversity was almost palpable in that translucent mist. The girl seemed helpless as the intangible force molested her. She didn’t even cry out. It was as if she had to succumb to it. And there he stood, a wimp witnessing the horrific pleasure of that unearthly entity. The girl looked at him with the eyes of an infested soul. The accusation in those eyes was unmistakable – this is your fetish! The punishment was also apparent – so you bear the burden of this infestation! And the girl vanished. But the apparition didn’t.
He had never known such fear in his life. Fear that clasps your heart in an iron grip and promises to never let you go. The despair that follows weighs you down till you fall prostrate to your fear and beg for your deliverance, all the while knowing that it is never going to be granted. The apparition seeped into the girl’s bed. He realized that this was an invitation, an invitation to take the girl’s place. The horror of the prospect and his cowardice drove him to insanity. He started punching the mattress. The phantasm rose. It was feigning fright to mock him. A face formed on the window pane, vaguely resembling the girl with her hair tousled. He heard her voice. She was not crying. These were soft groans.
He willed his fear to dissipate as the groans clogged his mind. They were getting louder. Then he saw a vision getting formed in the mist. It was the girl again. She was on all fours with her torso horizontal. Understanding smacked him. It maddened him to no end. He raised his fist and shattered the window pane in one shot. For a moment, the face and visions disappeared. The groaning and all other noises stopped. A moment of silence passed and the girl’s blood curdling shriek filled the room.
The sheer terror struck unknown chords in his heart. It spurred him into a feral stupor. He started chasing the apparition, overturning chairs, cluttering the floor, banging the door and just when it seemed that the apparition would leave, he woke up.
Sweat drops had formed along his hairline. His shirt was drenched. It gave him a creepy feeling. He should have been glad that he had woken up from the nightmare. But he wasn’t. He wanted a chance to chase away that apparition, a chance to exorcize all his ghosts. What was it that he had not been able to put into words in the dream? He pulled the notepad from the drawer in his bedside table and wrote – spectrophilia. An idea started taking shape inside his mind. He stifled it. No use. Nobody gives a damn. He threw the pen away and forced himself into the yoke of his routine.
The office of Phoenix Advert Pvt. Ltd. was plush. It faced the road unabashedly with its glass walls offering an unobstructed view for prying eyes. As Taarank walked into the office, he got a few ‘knowing’ grins. He was late again and yet they all knew that nobody was going to rebuke him for the same. He had an impish grin reserved for these times because he imagined it made him look cool when he flaunted rules without forfeit.
He was the creative director’s man. His indemnity was also a direct result of this. It was a general rumour that the creative director had taken him under her wing because she expected certain favours from Taarank. Personally, he wanted to believe that it was because he was the star performer in her team. However, he could not completely convince himself in this regard. And the rumours weren’t completely baseless. He had gone on official dates with her.
It was in the first month of his recruitment. After the meeting for some contraceptive pills ad, Nalini walked up to him and said, “Taarank, why were you so quiet today? You generally have a lot to offer on every subject. Was it because of the topic of discussion?”
He stuttered, “Um…well, not really. I…I just could not think of anything, you know.” She looked him in the eye, as if she were analyzing the dire consequences of such a statement. And yes, there were dire consequences – “I want you to think about it and meet me today in Barista, the one which is across the road. 10 pm. And there is a lot to talk about on this topic, for advertising purposes obviously. Imagine the… er… possibilities.” As she left, he imagined her winking at him.
Was he just asked on his first ever date? It was then that he started imagining the possibilities. How would he like seeing his grandmother in a frock or a split-to-the-thigh gown? Because Nalini was at least 55! Would she choose a halter neck bikini? Was he a gigolo?
Thankfully, she just wore jeans and t-shirt that day. But on a grimmer note, her advances were not so subtle. Would you like to discuss this in detail at my place? Would you encourage me to use these pills? Would you rather use other contraceptives?
From that day onwards he had always been pretty enthusiastic during the meetings. Naturally, that had not saved him. “You seem to have so many ideas for advertising this product. Why not discuss them at my place?”
Even today, as he prepared to leave his desk, Nalini was already marching towards him. “Taarank, I need to discuss something about this corn flour ad so –”
“Actually, I have to go on a dinner with a friend tonight.”
“And who is this friend?” Nalini enquired. Her tone was sharp.
He wanted to tell her that it was none of her business but thought the better of it. He said, “It’s my childhood friend, Riya. She is in the town so I asked her for a dinner.” It wasn’t a lie. And yes, he was quite eager to see her. She was one of those people who come back from your earliest memories to meet you.
Nalini’s voice showed disappointment, “Whatever. But I see that you are not so focused nowadays.”
Uh-oh. She was gauging his expressions. Before he could answer, she said, “And why were you late today?” Now, this was a first. If there was a layer of ice protecting him from harm’s way, it had thawed. He conjured up some excuses and left the office.
Soon he was too excited to mull over these vexations. He bathed for an hour, applied some gel to his hair, and donned his favourite Gucci shirt and a stylish pair of jeans. He did not want to seem dull. God! How did she look? He had seen Riya some ten years back. She had looked lovely then. But at that time, he didn’t deign to ‘look at’ her. How things change. Now he was desperate for her company. He had checked out a few photographs on Facebook. If she had looked lovely as a teenage girl, she was Aphrodite’s incarnation now.
Riya was already seated at the dinner table when he arrived. He had intentionally delayed his arrival even though he had finished dressing up half an hour ago. Riya greeted him cheerfully, “Hi Taarank. It’s been so long!” and with that she hugged him. He subdued the eagerness of his embrace. “Yes, it has. I am glad to meet you.” he replied.
“Why, you look handsome. I am impressed.”
Taarank suppressed a grin and allowed himself a polite smile and a polite remark, “You look beautiful too. Really good that you were in the town. I was so eager to see my oldest friend.”
Riya moved back a little to look at him as if she were staring at a museum exhibit. “What?” Taarank demanded.
“You haven’t changed Taarank. Why are you always so formal? Anyways, you are right. That silly job of mine has a few perks. You get to see places as a personal secretary of some big company’s boss. But this meeting is not my kind of meeting, you know. I like encounters, not rendezvous –”
“Ron-day–voo. Not ren-day-voo.”
“Shut up. This habit of yours is so irritating. You really haven’t changed.”
His plans for future manoeuvres got disrupted when she chided him thus. And from here on, his world started spinning on its head. Nothing went as planned. Had he known the immediate results, he wouldn’t have minded this one bit. But with a little more hindsight, he would have dreaded it.
“Yes that is what they all say.”
“Never mind. Shall we order starters?”
It was a perfectly normal statement but his tone had betrayed him. Riya tuned in to her placating voice, “Hey I didn’t mean it that way. I am sorry if that hurt you. Tell me what’s wrong.” He wasn’t about to start whining in front of her. He shrugged, “Nothing. Just some passing mood. And we must order something first.”
She allowed him to fulfil his wish. Taarank’s reply should have stanched the flow of enquiries. But he knew that she was more obstinate than that. In fact, the investigation continued throughout the dinner.
“You could always tell me if there is something troubling you. We used to share so many secrets, remember?”
“Nothing is wrong with me.”
She continued as if she hadn’t heard, “Of course, it has been a long time. You would think I am not to be trusted any more. Fair enough. Let us engage in small talk. How is your job?” There was no point arguing with her. He answered the direct question. “It’s good. It’s okay, I mean. Pretty boring but then you don’t have to slog out. And then I have this nosy and amorous boss.” She raised an eyebrow at that but didn’t interrupt. “Actually, it is not to my liking, the job I mean. I thought it would be really creative and fun but then you don’t always get what you want. And anyway, I shouldn’t complain. I can live off it quite well.”
She remained silent for a while. Whether that was because she was brooding over his words or because she was chewing, he couldn’t tell. But it looked like she was thinking in earnest. She had this quality. She could make anyone feel important; not by pretending to be obsequious but by showing genuine interest in one’s life. He liked this in her. How very considerate she had always been! Unfortunately, he had never been able to tell her that.
When she spoke thereafter, Taarank knew he would not be able to stop himself from telling her everything. “It appears strange to me that you should say such a thing. It was me who was always like that. Happy go lucky girl. You always had ambitions. Why would you abandon them? And you don’t even seem to be a happy go lucky kind of a guy. You are more like a sad-go-unlucky zombie!” He managed a smile at that. “You always wanted to write, didn’t you? You would be happier as a struggling writer than your amorous boss’ plaything. How come the fire got quenched?”
He was not offended. Yet, the word plaything stung him. He managed a response, “In this mood of yours, one would say you had a better chance at becoming a writer than me. Nobody would read my stuff. Most of them ended up saying, “I don’t understand what you write.” whenever I showed them my compositions. Honestly, even I think it was all nonsensical. I have a better chance at becoming a gigolo than a writer.”
One would think she would soften after that. Instead she was furious. Her arms flailed as she cut through a cohort of imaginary opponents with her words, “What was it that you used to tell me in those days? Yes, I recall. A phoenix has awesome magical powers but that is not why it’s incredible. It is admirable because it will resurrect from its ashes – something which is not magical at all. Why? Because all of us have this ability. I will tell you something. I understand each word of this. If people don’t understand you and tell you that you write shit, you have to try and drill that shit into their thick heads.”
He imagined residual fumes rising from her ebony hair but did not look up. Some etiquette you follow while being reprimanded. However, he had to break this rule when she asked him another question, this time in a subdued tone (he was glad for the fact that they were seated at a corner table because Riya had been quite vociferous, oblivious to the ambience). “Tell me about your boss.”
She seemed resolute. He had to tell her everything, embarrassing though it was. He even told her about Nalini disliking the dinner itself. As he neared the end of his description, even his voice started wavering in humiliation, “…I had never been thus. A few years back, I would have told her to get the hell out of my personal space. I am but a wimp now. I have become used to her favours. It’s disgraceful and …I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it, please…”
Riya regarded him. It was not the cold and objective kind of observation, something which he was wont to (courtesy Nalini). She was not going to push this matter, he realized. But her inquiry wasn’t done. She came up with a question that surprised him, “Have you dated anyone in the past few years? I am assuming that you don’t have a girl for now.”
Where was this going? And her assumption irked him, more so because it was true. He decided to tell the truth because already he was as mortified as he could be. “No. Not once.”
This didn’t surprise her. He would have liked to tell her that it was because he could not find a girl of his type. This was not the case. He would have tried to make do with any girl had that chance presented itself. Pangs of self-pity shot through him. He squeaked, “Are you done with the questions?” With that he looked down into his plate and gobbled up the last morsels of a flavourless dinner.
Riya called out to him once or twice in a pleading voice but he wouldn’t lift his eyes for fear of tears. They both finished their food in silence. After the dinner, as they were leaving the restaurant, Riya said, “Walk with me.” And so he did.
They chose deserted streets where there were only packs of dogs fighting their territorial feuds; no one to overhear. For a long time, there was no need to eavesdrop. Taarank broke the silence, “Tell me about you. A lot must have happened in these ten years.”
It seemed she was reluctant. However, she did speak up. “I have been doing all kinds of stuff. I was an insurance agent for a while, and then I started a firm in partnership with a friend, a bit of social service and now, I am a personal secretary. I like to move around. I guess I fancy teaching in a way. So perhaps next time, I would be a teacher. Who knows? I might stick to that in the end.”
She paused for a while as if meditating. She said, “I would never have thought that you would lose all hope in this manner. You were quite resilient. All those insults, burdens as a kid and yet you never stopped. For all these years, I have told your story to so many people because I admired you so much. What happened that made you thus?”
“Weathering. I think that’s the word. Nothing drastic but insidious all the same. For some time, you have hope of a better time, and then you start raising questions about your hope because you are doubtful and eventually, you also start answering those questions. The answers are obviously not affirmative. That’s when all initiative vanishes.” As he said this, he realized how very deep he had sunk in despair. Forlorn.
The word persisted in his mind as sadness washed over him. Forlorn. He turned to Riya and said, “Why did you leave me? Why did you ever…” His voice choked. And even he was surprised when he started crying. There was no snivelling but he cried like he had never known what crying was, like he was experiencing the feeling of catharsis for the first time. That is when she took him into her arms in the middle of that deserted street. The stray dogs watched in silence (or in open mouthed wonder), having secured their turf.
She didn’t shush him. Instead she said, “Taarank, take me to your place. I want to spend this night with you.” He got the shock of his life. He fumbled for words, “You mean…spending the night with me as in…”
Her voice was firm. “Yes, I want to sleep with you, if you allow me.”
* * *
He knew the feeling of being bullied. It is not the fear of physical injury alone. What eats you is the shame of being beaten by a fellow student; that feeling of being humiliated in front of all your classmates. You start to think that you would never earn their respect. Most of the times, they are mere spectators, not because all of them enjoy the scene, but because they would not want to be bullied in turn; albeit there are always some who encourage the bully.
He could see a skinny kid being bullied by a burly one. The skinny one was spirited though. He didn’t give up. He kept throwing a punch or two. The bully wanted the victim to accept subordination. “I am stronger than you. Yield or I will beat you.”
The persistence of the skinny kid exasperated the bully. He shoved him. The skinny kid fell in the dirt. Taarank wanted to tell him to save his skin first and then teach the bully a lesson. But he could not utter a word. The bully started stifling the boy with his hands and body. The boy wriggled like a fish but the bully was far too strong.
As time passed, the squirming became less vigorous. The kid was losing a lot more than this fight. Taarank wanted to help. He could have wrenched away the bully who was sprawled upon the boy. But he was powerless. His legs would not move. His voice would not break free. The boy’s hands had stopped moving. His legs were shaking weakly. The skin had gone from bright red to acquiring a deathly pallor. Still Taarank would not do anything. A wimp that he was…
When his conscious mind resumed control, he found his arms entwined with Riya’s. His breathing was heavy. As it gradually returned to normal, he became aware of the softness of her body and the warmth of her flawless skin. Strands of jet black hair fell across her face. Her dusky skin gleamed against the light of the night lamp. One of her arms covered his small of the back and the other was stuck in his ruffled hair. Her broad nose seemed as if it was slightly inflated and he imagined her scolding someone even in her dreams. He swept aside all thoughts of his nightmare and returned to the comfort of her arms and body. She would chase away all his ghosts now that she had returned to his life.
As Riya left his place in the morning, she informed him that she would be leaving in the afternoon next day. One more day, Taarank thought as he entered his office. For the first time in several months, he had reached the office on time. His colleagues were stunned. As he sat at his desk and turned on his laptop, he was greeted with a barrage of surprise emoticon (the one which seems to be gasping while saying OMG!). He had decided to change his ways. He would not tolerate breach of personal space, he would not engage in sycophancy and moreover, he would not accept undue favours from Nalini because they always came at a cost. That meant he had to start going to the office on time.
His demeanour towards Nalini changed drastically and even Nalini observed this. The return gift was also as expected. She became extremely professional in her dealings with him. All this was to his liking. He attributed all this to the return of Riya to his life. She was lady luck personified for him.
When he returned from work that day, he thought he was high on bliss, if that was even possible. Riya was really happy to see the transformation. He was the antithesis of the maudlin person that he had been a day ago. However, Riya became a little distraught when he told her that she was the sole reason for the change in his life. She said, “You must not think thus. I was only an agent to make you realize.”
There was extraordinary passion between them when they made love that night. It seemed as if two teenage lovers were terribly excited about their first escapade. As the night grew old, he still could not contain his passion, but his heart grew heavier. She was leaving the next day. Will they see each other often? Would the ghosts return in her absence?
When she was ready to leave the next morning, he said, “When will I see you again? I have grown extremely fond of you in these two days. What will I do without you?”
To his surprise, she laughed at this. “You are so very much a child, Taarank. Don’t worry. We’ll meet each other and let’s hope it’s quite soon. And then you will tell me about your plans to write.”
* * *
His ancestral house had harboured his childhood. Its chalky whitewashed walls had painted many a shirt when he had sat against them dreaming of worlds beyond cognizance. It was a place where his father’s labours had borne fruit and his aspirations had come true. His mother had delivered him in a small room near the backyard of that house. She had kept her watchful eyes as he grew up and played with his lonely toys in that backyard. When they wanted to send him to a school in the nearby town, he had climbed atop the water tank with the help of a ladder that stood vertically on the rooftop. He did not want to go. The world outside was a hostile place.
Now he was peering from his perch on that water tank. His vision was aligned with the right rail of the ladder. There were voices calling out but he didn’t heed them. Someone was caressing his nape. It felt good. In fact, he did not even want to move. He urged it to go on. Caress me. There was no need to see the face. He assumed it was someone who loved him deeply. Perhaps he already knew who it was. It did not matter. He closed his eyes. He wanted to memorize this cherished touch. After an eternity, he opened his eyes. The vision was blank. The void didn’t bother him. And suddenly, there was a vision of words. They flashed before him out of thin air, shimmered for a second and then he was bolt upright.
It was a beautiful dream, something that cannot be put into words. But he would try. He scribbled a few words on a piece of paper – ladder, caress, blank, vision of words. Above what he had written, there was one word – spectrophilia.
He had already packed his bags the night before. Riya had wanted him to come to her place. She wanted to talk about something but she would not do it on phone. It sounded weird because they had been talking about practically everything on phone from the day she had left. Some of his nights were spent entirely in texting. Still he managed to go to work on time and push ahead his writing plans. Probably she wanted to discuss some serious stuff now that they seemed to be in a relationship. Whatever be the case, he was looking forward to meeting her.
It was a four hour journey by bus. The address given to him was easy to find. Hotel Leprechaun, it said. He wondered why she wanted to meet him in a hotel. Perhaps she was a bit shy and didn’t want neighbours to find out. That was kind of cute.
He knocked on the door of room number 306. It immediately opened. Riya looked kind of messy. Her hair was dishevelled. Her t-shirt said – ‘Turn me on, At your own risk!’ Her jeans looked a bit worn out. Still she looked gorgeous. As soon as Taarank entered the room, she closed the door behind him. Taarank greeted her, “Hi! So good to see you.”
She looked distracted. Her response was late and strained, “Yeah. Thanks for coming.” He was perplexed. Whatever the matter was, it didn’t bode well. The secrecy of the meeting was because the news was grave. Quite a few thoughts started coming to him at once. Were her parents opposed to the relationship? Was she in some kind of danger? Was she pregnant?
Before he could ask her anything, she started speaking. “I haven’t lied to you but I also haven’t been completely honest. I wanted to tell you but you were in such a state that I did not have the heart to tell you the truth. Even now I don’t know how you will react to this news. But I have to tell you this because keeping you in dark is not right. Please do try and forgive me. I will do what you want me to do. I am really very sorry.”
“What are you rattling on about? I have no clue. Why should you want me to forgive you?”
She took some time to answer, as if she were preparing for an onslaught that was going to follow. “When we spent those nights together, I was already in a relationship. And even now I’m in that relationship.”
He felt numb. The first emotion was not anger. It was disbelief. But soon common sense told him that disbelief was not an acceptable emotion. So he allowed himself to go numb. If he couldn’t feel, it would not matter to him. But then did anything matter? Of course not. All of it was a farce. Yes, if his relationship with her was a delusion, all of it was a delusion. No, it was not a nightmare because in nightmares, you can still feel.
Let us analyze. You are a wannabe writer who is stuck in some advertising firm. You don’t have a girlfriend and you have very few people to talk to. Moreover, you are a self-proclaimed escort of your boss. Nobody gives a damn about what you write or think. And there is this girl who would offer some kind words to you and would also allow you to make love to her! Just think of it. Who would care that much for a wannabe wimp? And now she also apologizes for what she has done! You can’t ask for more.
He was still for so long that Riya had to start speaking again. “I didn’t want to hurt you at all. After what I saw in the restaurant that day, I desperately wanted to help you but I could not think of a way. That is when you told me that you have never had a girlfriend and that made me so sad. You needed to trust your own self. So I thought that if I could make you feel desired then it would help. I didn’t think about the future.”
He was devastated. Never had he thought himself more undesirable. She had done it out of pity, almost out of charity. He asked, “You thought of me as … as disposable?” He knew he would always despise himself for saying such a vile thing. The disturbing part was that he was not enraged by this prospect. He felt coldly calculative, as if analyzing the possibilities as an outsider.
She was appalled by the idea itself. And she started sobbing. She flung herself onto the bed in the room and buried her head in the sheets. In spite of himself, he could not see her weeping like that. He went to her and placed a hand upon her shoulders. “I am sorry. I didn’t think before saying.”
Then she turned all of a sudden and screamed, “You fool! I have always admired you. Why would I think of such a thing? It was because I thought of myself as … disposable. I thought you would never want to be in a relationship with a girl like me. I was supposed to be the disposable one!” And then she fell into his arms. He did not know how to comfort her. And above all, who needed to be soothed? This role play seemed absolutely ridiculous. He thought he could at least derive sadistic pleasure from her plight and so he asked her a difficult question, “Have you told your boyfriend?”
She raised her head in alarm. “No I haven’t. Please don’t tell him. I really like him and I have always been loyal to him…apart from this one occasion. Will you tell him? Please don’t. I will do anything you want…”
He had some awful power over her now. He could make her bend to his will. Then he looked at her. Her eyes were not pleading, they were begging. He should have been ecstatic. He began, “I won’t tell him. But –”, her eyes widened at that, “– I want you to be friends with me. The kind of friends that we always were. I thank you because despite everything, you made my life worth living. And I will never stop loving you for that.”
There was no pleasure, only pain of chastity and sacrifice. He had sacrificed what he never had. With those words, he got up and left. He did not even see her in the eye; he was so near to tears. She tried telling him something but he left before he could catch those words. Those words could wait till next time, that is, if he ever met her again.
* * *
How should he fight the limitations of his frail body and weak mind? Will someone lead him back to the precipice? It is always better than falling off.
The ladder was back in its place and so was that water tank. But he was not looking down. He wanted to see the hand that had caressed his nape. It should have been her hand. He was sure of it. Soon he would see the radiance of her aura. Her skin would glow and shame that sun with its shining countenance. Rather than the warmth of her aura, he sensed a coldness caressing his nape. The hand moved to his bare chest. It still seemed pleasant but queer. And then he saw the mist with its dull white glimmer. His body froze. He had accepted the invitation; he had taken the girl’s place a long time back. You can only succumb to it. This was your fetish!