Intimate Secrets – A Decalogue

Meera Srikant

Life has given me a window to relish every moment. It offers not just interesting sights, but opportunities to participate in meaningful ways that excite me.  I am a content developer, I write books and edit manuscripts for the publisher, a dancer, a mother of two children and a loving wife, I await, in all humility, for more surprises that life has to offer.

Sometimes it is an anecdote casually told over tea; sometimes it is the headlines screaming in every newspaper, taking social media by storm; sometimes it is an incident that unravels in front of my eyes; sometimes it is a quiet image that seeps into the mind and refuses to go…

The short stories have had different conceptions, different births. There is not formula, no format. Each triggered an emotion – of anger, of sadness, of nostalgia, of laughter, of wonder, of contemplation. And each clamoured to meet the world and tell the story, quickly, crisply, effectively. That’s all. That’s why there are here. To meet the people who may want to hear these tales and think and feel the way I did. I am just a medium, plucking the words from the air, creating a scene that has happened, is happening, will happen.

The names are different, the sequence not quite the same. But they are there, refusing to be ignored anymore. I present my stories. Any resemblance to real life is not accidental.” – Meera

When I Say No…

She came to the balcony and noticed the new boy who had moved into the neighbouring house standing in his balcony, facing hers. She pulled up the wicker chair and leaned back, her books in hand. She tried to focus on her studies, but was also aware of him. She pretended though to be completely engrossed in a problem she was trying to solve, and soon, it did draw her in. When she looked up after half an hour, the boy was not there. She smiled to herself – he must have got bored staring at her bent head. Then it turned to a giggle – how foolish of her to flatter herself! As if he couldn’t have been standing in the balcony just to enjoy the view!

But a few days later, she couldn’t ignore the coincidence. He was definitely there in the mornings and evenings whenever she went to study. She enjoyed the cool breeze, which was the main reason for her being there. His presence also brought a thrill, but with time, it discomfited her. She changed her timings – going 15 minutes earlier in the mornings and 15 minutes later in the evenings.

Were his timings also changing? When she mentioned it to her friends, they laughed and teased her. It was flattering. But she had ambitions, and being hooked up to a boy who did nothing other than stand and stare – a great poet’s urging us to do just that didn’t seem aimed at this purpose – was not part of it. Hold on, she told herself. You are jumping the gun. He is just passing time idly… She forced herself not to cringe and hide.

When the blank call came on her landline, she instinctively knew that it was him. It made her nervous. The next stage was when he managed to get her mobile number and started messaging her. She oscillated between replying asking him not to contact her and not responding at all. Neither seemed to work. His messages ranged in intensity – from a simple hello to professions of love.

Ignoring was her only option. She did not find being teased by her friends amusing anymore, and she became withdrawn because she saw him almost every day. Not in the balcony, at least, not like before. For she had stopped stepping out. Now she studied in her room. But balcony was part of her house and she needed to go there to dry clothes, to pick up the dried clothes, to water the two saplings she had planted, on a thousand mundane chores.

So, yes, she saw him still but that was rarer – as there was no set timing. She checked his balcony before she stepped out and scooted back in if she saw him come out. She was getting nervous. She chided herself for being a paranoiac.

She had to go to school, to tuition classes, she had to return. And at all those specific times, he would be there, in his balcony or somewhere near the entrance to his block, or at the very gate of her complex.

Then he started following her – not obviously, of course. But she found him outside her school once, buying something from the hawker. Seeing her, he offered the toffee but she refused and doubled her pace, tears welling up. She was scared to tell her family or friends, and scared to walk around alone. Increasingly, she stepped out only when she could not avoid it. Changing her timings to the extent possible, trying to mingle with the crowd.

If she saw him, her glance bounced off him and she felt herself go rigid. On such days, he would message around the same theme: “Why do you ignore me? I know you are pretending, that you are thinking of me… I know your no means yes, so why are you teasing me? I can wait forever… but make it quick. :)”

Sometimes she would want to scream at him, and instead she would reply: “My no means no… Stop hassling me.”

“See, you reply to my message. You are interested.”

You are damned if you do it; you are damned if you don’t!

She felt guilty. Was she somehow encouraging him when she looked at him involuntarily? She always looked to see if he was in his balcony. Did he think it was because she sought him?

She avoided trips to the balcony – for that’s what it had become, a journey to be planned.

And then she got a letter from him. He thrust it on her and she was too startled to reject it outright. She read it in the secrecy of her room and started shivering. A suicide threat if she refused to accept his love.

That night, she collapsed from a nervous breakdown. Doctors recognised it as stress.

“I have told you several times, don’t be cooped up in your room,” her mother told her gently. Study in the balcony, take walks, don’t be in a rush all the time.

She looked at her mother beseechingly. Take me away from here, her eyes pleaded, but her mother could not hear her. The answer did not lie in running away, she thought.

She wished she knew where the answer lay.

.

The Hero

“Your dad looks so handsome!” whispered Niharika in her friend Sangeeta’s ears. The two giggled.

Sangeeta felt justifiable pride. Even young men paled in front of her middle-aged father. He was tall, trim, smart, his salt and pepper hair kept short. But what made him most attractive was the confidence he oozed. People hung on his words, seeking his views on economic trends; they watched him for fashion trends; they imitated his high-profile lifestyle.

Niharika grinned and said, “I know where I am going to apply for work,” and rushed towards her friend’s father. “Uncle!”

Sangeeta shook her head, laughing. The two had just completed MBA in finance from a reputed institution. Even she did not think of seeking her father’s help for a job – but then, she also had to prove her mettle to him, that she could keep her head over water without his help. Niharika had no such compulsions.

“Is Niharika good?” her father asked her at dinner.

“You mean in her subjects? Yes, she is a rank holder.”

“That does not mean much,” Shekhar said dismissively. “Anyway, she asked me for a job and I have asked her to apply. I will ask the HR to test her before committing anything.”

Sangeeta’s heart swelled. Yes, she expected no less; definitely no sentimental nonsense about Niharika being his daughter’s friend. She nodded noncommittally. And so, when her friend was selected, she was even more thrilled, glad that her friend had proved herself worthy of it. Now her father need never be ashamed of recommending Niharika for a job.

As a management trainee, Niharika seemed to shine. But she seemed too busy for Sangeeta, who was still hanging around, waiting for an opportunity. And then, she ran into her friend unexpectedly in a restaurant one evening, her face belying her quick growth at work, from trainee to assistant manager in a matter of months.

“Congrats! I called you, but you never returned my call!” she said accusingly. Niharika smiled but seemed uncomfortable. She got up abruptly and said, “You are meeting someone here? How sad I can’t stop to chat! I am in a rush,” she excused herself. Sangeeta found it strange, and even felt resentful. After all, Niharika’s busy-ness was thanks to her dad!

She sat in a corner and was surprised to see her father walk in through the doors, his eyes scanning the restaurant. He didn’t notice her and stared intently at the mobile. Sangeeta called out to him.

He turned, with something akin to shock, but quickly recovered. He walked up to her and after the briefest of conversations, excused himself and left. Sangeeta shrugged. Maybe she was poor company.

She asked her dad that evening how Niharika was. “Your friend?” he asked, sipping whiskey and soda. “How would I know?”

She laughed. “Isn’t she still working in your company? Don’t act so hoity-toity, dad!” she rebuked him affectionately.

His eyes twinkled. “My managers keep the young girls hidden from me.”

But Niharika had a different story to tell. She called Sangeeta early next morning, asking to meet urgently. She wanted to meet in her house. No one else was there.

Sangeeta was stunned to find her friend in tears. “I am sorry!” Niharika sobbed.

“It’s okay… Is it about last evening?” Sangeeta asked.

“About last evening, about all the evenings…”

“Hey, no issues! I know you have been busy at work.”

“Not so much at work,” Niharika said after a brief pause. “But other things.”

“Other things?” Sangeeta asked, surprised.

Niharika avoided looking at her. Sangeeta wished she had avoided telling her too.

Initially, it all seemed like fun – being favoured, getting special treatment, even the light flirtation; then it gave her a sense of power, that she was privileged; and then it scared her, the price she had to pay. All the growth and trust came at a cost that she had missed reading in fine print. Flirting had been with the intention of baiting, not the harmless time pass she had imagined it to be. The most powerful man in the organisation did not dole out favours lightly. And when he did, pay up time followed soon after, relentlessly.

What killed her was not the betrayal of trust, but the hurt she would cause in revealing it to her friend. She had delayed, agonised over it and even decided to slink out of her friend’s life forever, till they happened to meet in the very restaurant where she had a rendezvous with the father. It was a moment of truth – of knowing the truth would come out one day as sleaze.

There was no gentle way of pulling the mask off the most admired man, of telling his daughter that he could not be trusted within a mile of a pretty girl but to be direct…

Sangeeta slapped her friend and ran from her house. What a bitch! It was Niharika who had admired her father and probably thrown herself on him shamelessly. And now, when her father must have dissuaded her and put her in place, it was all coming out as venom, maligning a respectable man.

She ran into her mother’s arms and sobbed. With great difficulty, fearing hurting her mother, she narrated what Niharika had told her, expecting her mother to pooh-pooh it all. She watched her mother’s bright eyes dimming and then the glow dying altogether. Her mother pulled Sangeeta to her bosom and held her tightly. “I wished to protect you from this!” Then, moving her back and looking into Sangeeta’s eyes, her mother said, “It will be hard at first, but you will learn to live with it.”

Sangeeta stared at her mother in disbelief. She felt something die within her.

.

The Wail

“Sorry, I just couldn’t get away earlier,” Suparna apologised as she entered Radha’s home, sighing and breathless.

“I don’t know why you kill yourself like this!” Radha replied smugly. She handed her two-year-old boy to the nanny.

Suparna eyed the neat-looking woman and felt a pang of jealousy. “Where did you find her?”

“A friend referred. She has been here a week now, and what a relief!” Radha exaggerated dramatically.

Suparna reclined on the diva watching Sameer resist being carried in. “Mama,” he said plaintively, but Radha just rolled her eyes and faced Suparna, blocking her son off. “He has to get used to her, of course… But I think he will in a few days.” Suparna looked sceptical. Radha looked at her pityingly. “Who is taking care of your girl?”

“Manoj… He finally managed to find the time. Of course, he cribbed. He wanted us to spend time together, but our evening-out had been so long pending… Don’t you think you should check on Sameer?” she asked, unable to bear the wail from the other room.

Radha got up and picked up her hand bag. “Let’s move. Teething trouble, but I am sure he will settle more easily if I am not around.”

Suparna frowned uncertainly, hesitant to follow her friend out. “Are you sure? Maybe you should wait for him to settle down, sleep or something?”

“You know what your problem is?” Radha affectionately put an arm around her friend and dragged her out. “You fret too much and your hubby puts too many ideas into your head! What’s wrong with employing a nanny if it makes your life easier? You don’t have to kill yourself just because you are a mother, you know? Get a life man! We have been planning this for weeks!”

“Well,” Suparna’s eyes glittered with resentment. “It is not as if you were free either! If I remember right, you found the previous one stealing money!”

“Well, there are bound to be risks! You walk on the road, you may die. But you don’t stop walking, do you?”

Suparna shrugged. “It is a matter of another year and a half at the most…”

“18 months! I would die if all I had to do was watch my baby, much as I love him!”

“Sigh! Yes, sometimes I do lose my cool. But I am also quite apprehensive. What if the woman is not trustworthy? Girl children are so vulnerable, aren’t they?”

Radha burst out laughing as she started the car. “I am so relieved I don’t have to worry about that, though I don’t know what you are worried about! You are after all going to employ a female… So…?” She raised an eyebrow.

Suparna shrugged, wondering why she tended to nod her head when Manoj pointed out the drawbacks of a nanny. Maybe, deep within, she really didn’t want someone else playing with her child’s life. She looked at Radha and admired her cool. What an obsessive mother she herself was! Even when leaving her daughter with Manoj, she had started writing so many instructions and then given up, hoping Manoj would know what to do.

The wailing, though far behind, bothered her. She really must stop obsessing.

***
“Hi Suparna! Want to go out for lunch? My mom is here and I can do with an afternoon off…” Radha called Suparna a month later, sounding very light hearted.

“Oh! I didn’t know your mother was coming!” Suparna replied, genuinely surprised.

“Sameer has been acting strangely. He refuses to use the toilet, and you know he was potty trained. He is giving the nanny hell, poor woman, and oh, he is giving me hell! I haven’t slept in a week. He clings to me, won’t go to her, just refuses to settle. She has been such an angle through it all, but I think I am losing my head. Had to call my mom. She came a couple of days ago, and what a relief! She is helping me settle Sameer again.”

Suparna remembered the same dramatic tone she had heard from Radha a month ago. She remembered the wailing child and her own misgivings. But before she could say anything, she heard someone call Radha urgently. Must be her mother. “One sec,” Radha told her and holding the received away, called back to her mom. “What ma?”

“Come here! Look at this!” her mother sounded very scared.

“Suparna, will call you in a minute,” Radha said, worried and scared at her mother’s expression.

She followed her mother quickly to where Sameer was whimpering. “Come baby,” the granny crouched and opened her arms. The boy toddled up to her slowly. Radha frowned. “Has he polio?” she whispered in fear.

Her mother did not reply but just hugged the boy to her. “You are hurt?” she asked gently. “Show mama…”

The boy lay down obediently and the grandmother gently parted his legs. Radha was shocked to see a weal screaming at her in red. “How did it happen?”

The boy’s eyes looked at her in panic. The grandmother raised a hand to silence her daughter and said softly to the child. “How did this happen, baba?”

“Aunty…” the boy said and covered his organ with his fist.

Radha sat down devastated. How had she not known. The wail, the wail… it had become so part of routine, every time the damn woman changed his dress. She frowned – she changed his dress almost five to six times a day. He refused to let that woman take him to the toilet! He fought hard every time that woman carried the boy in her arms. He wailed in his dreams, in fact, almost throughout the day.

And she, Radha, the mother, had gritted the teeth and riled at the wailing. Where had she been? What had she been doing?

She had trusted another woman, a mother of two, to bring up her child too. While she sat back to get some ‘me’ time.

She dissolved in tears when her mother’s sharp voice pulled her short. “Get hold of yourself. Wash your face, smile and pick up that child. He needs you more than anyone else right now.”

.

Always a Child

Kajal got off her friend’s car and saw her daughter Keya getting off from a bike and the bike zoom away. She frowned. “Who was that? Do I know him?”

“Yes, of course,” Keya said patronisingly. “That was Amrit.”

“What are you wearing?” Kajal eyed her daughter.

“My friend’s clothes? Aren’t they cool?”

Kajal didn’t think so. “What happened to yours?”

Keya waved the bag she had in her hand. “Here. We went out for lunch impromptu, and my t-shirt and jeans seemed woefully unsuitable. Ritu gave me this to wear.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that you were going out, or…changing? Didn’t you tell me you will be back home for lunch?”

Keya rolled her eyes, shrugged and walked into the house without a word, leaving Kajal fuming.

As soon as Kajal entered the house, her mother Geetha came out looking displeased.

“I thought you were going to be back home for lunch…” Geetha complained, looking at the clock pointedly.

“We got delayed and had lunch outside, don’t worry. Did you eat?” Kajal replied.

“Thank god you thought of asking at least now!” her mother was at her sarcastic best. “What did you buy?”

Hesitantly, Kajal placed the clothes on display and saw the disapproving look on her mother’s face, waiting for the inevitable comment.

“Are these for you or Keya?” Geetha asked. “It will not suit you,” she passed judgement on the capri, leggings and kurtis that Kajal had bought.

Kajal just chuckled and said, “That’s what you will say! Nowadays women your age are wearing stylish clothes, looking smart and trim. This is how women my age dress, so stop complaining.”

Geetha snorted in an unladylike way, adjusting her sari pallu. “Yes, and they look obscene. Many have their tummies spilling out and they look more like ducks than women!” As Kajal laughed, Geetha continued bitingly, “Don’t think you look any better!”

“Oh stop taking off like that!” Kajal snapped, hurt to the quick. She placed her stylish leather bag on the table and heard her mother quip, “No doubt you spent a bomb on that one?”

Kajal threw her hands up in frustration, not deigning a reply. And then she heard her daughter’s tinkling laughter. Keya had been watching the scene unfold and running up to her granny, hugged her. “I know where mom gets her training from!”

Kajal pursed her lips tightly. At 45, she did not need to be pulled up like a teenager by her 70 year old mother.

.

The Backhand

Suchi stepped into the manager’s cabin. She was the manager now! She would sit on the manager’s seat.

A small smile lit up her face. It had been a tough year, but she had worked – oh how she had worked to reach here.

She sat down and swivelled gently. In the heart of her hearts, she knew that all her hard work could have been bypassed if it hadn’t been for Priya. She sighed – Priya! She closed her eyes for a minute and thanked lord. He had tested her and she had proved her worth, thanks to Priya. If it hadn’t been for Priya, her work would have gone unnoticed. Priya, her classmate from college, her junior at work, the woman who hated her, the woman because of whom Suchi had been made the manager with a good hike…

Suchi remembered the day she had entered the office to get her offer letter and had found Priya already there, an offer letter in hand. On seeing Suchi, Priya had hung on. That day had set the tone for their relationship at work.

***
“Hey, nice to see you here!” Priya greeted her. “I am joining here as the executive assistant. You too?”

Suchi was dismayed to see Priya here. Even during their college days, they had not shared a great rapport, each preferring her own group. It was an intrinsic dislike not founded on any strong basis but strengthened by the events over the next three years. Minor things, nothing much to write home about…but things that rankled.

“How come you are here?” Suchi sidestepped Priya’s question.

“Oh, I did company secretaryship. But I am not keen on a career in that so when I saw this advertisement, I thought I will give it a shot. What about you?”

“I did my post grad in marketing and worked with a product marketing company for three years,” Suchi said, hoping that this would indicate to Priya her seniority at work.

“So you are joining as EA here?” Priya demanded again. The smile did not soften the question in any way.

Suchi shook her head. “As Assistant Manager.” She didn’t want to add that Priya would be reporting to her.

Priya’s eyes indicated her displeasure though the lips continued to smile. Suchi made good her escape. She joined a week later and found Priya working furiously. She stepped in to meet her manager who welcomed her warmly. As she was leaving after the formality, he paused and said, “I would have preferred if you hadn’t discussed your role and salary with Priya.”

Suchi looked at him in surprise. “She cornered me… Any problem?”

“Yes, she didn’t take it well because you both are the same age. But you have experience, and we expect that to be of value. Please don’t discuss your salary or role with anyone unnecessarily.” The hunted look in his face suggested that Priya was giving him a tough time. Suchi could guess, from past experience, that it wouldn’t be easy for him to handle her. She wondered if she was prepared for it either.

She discovered, as the months progressed, that she wasn’t. Priya was an untiring source of venom, poured out within the hearing of all colleagues. Suchi hesitated to put her foot down. When Priya was slack, she stepped in to complete the tasks.

Her manager called her one day, clearly tired. Suchi could smell Priya’s perfume in the room and guessed that she had here just before Suchi was called. The hunted look on his face – she recognised it as a symptom of having been grilled. Why did he put up with it! “Suchi… I know you are an efficient worker. But Priya feels you are upstaging her. Why don’t you give her space to finish her tasks?”

Suchi’s eyebrows shot up in shock. “But, if I do that, then I end up working late, wrapping up after her! She believes in waiting till the last minute to finish what can be done earlier.”

“Yes, yes!” he replied hastily. “But she feels she is not getting the exposure.”

Suchi shrugged and left. She tried playing it Priya’s way. But Priya’s tendency to take every break and stretch them was really getting on her nerves. Not getting her boss’s support was depressing. She withdrew into herself and focused on getting her tasks done quickly, so that she was able to look beyond her work and take on other things. She tried to ignore the dead weight on her feet. But every crisis that Priya faced, she had to find a solution. She became good at anticipating them. She was surprised when a colleague named her “Smart Solution Suchi”! She glowed at the compliment.

A small reward was when her seniors – especially the Senior Manager – from the head office called her specifically when they needed a job done – sometimes even bypassing her manager, who didn’t seem to mind.

This, of course, didn’t go down well with Priya. When Suchi made a trip to the HO for a meeting and returned, rumours about how – specifically how – Suchi had the senior manager in her pocket. Suchi was shocked. She had an uphill task reestablishing her reputation. She was viewed as fire now… Yes, that is what she became. Not easy to approach. Whatever the view others had about her and the senior manager, she saw respect for her work and for her as a person.

That was all she could do. She could do nothing more about speculation.

***
And here she was, unexpectedly the manager of the branch office. She realised that it was because Priya complained so much about her – Suchi – taking all the initiatives, unwittingly advertising Suchi’s work that the management had decided on this move instead of bringing a person from the HO. Her manager had as good as told her that. Otherwise, at 26, how could she hope to handle so much responsibility!

Yes, now she knew why it was said – forgive thy enemy. She made sure she included Priya in her prayers, for without her, she would never have been able to talk of her achievements. Priya had done it for her when complaining to others. After Priya left in a huff because of Suchi’s promotion, Suchi could forgive her, and enjoy the relief of finally finding the peace she sought at work.

.

The Parking Ticket

She was late to pick up her children. She rushed out with just her wallet and her car keys.

On reaching the school, she found the road clogged with vehicles and people. She circled the school and parked in the first spot that was available.

She was fuming – at herself and the state of the roads. Her meeting at “Clean India” office had stretched beyond the scheduled time, and she had left behind the team discussing an article on how to avoid paying the traffic policemen the bribe.

“Madam,” one boy had said softly. “One option is to go pay in the court. But when someone is rushing to work, late for an appointment or an equally valid reason…”

She had shaken her head vehemently. “That’s no reason why! The process can be automated and the details noted down. The license number is there, and the registration plate. So the person can be let off then, but can pay later. If he does not within a day or two, the vehicle can be confiscated.”

The idea found some supporters while others demurred on the cost of administration. She had had to leave then.

She walked into the school and saw her tiny tots near the gate, sulking. “All our friends left,” they complained.

“Sorry babies,” she hugged them and walked them to the car. The big lock in the front wheel infuriated her. She saw the traffic policeman talking to another owner whose car had been locked too. She walked up, her children in tow. She managed to swallow her anger and said, “My car…”

The man turned. “One minute.”

He finished with the previous owner. As the two walked towards her car, she complained, “There is no No Parking sign here.”

“There madam,” he showed her one a few feet ahead, “and there,” he pointed one behind.

She blushed. “But where is the parking space?”

He shrugged. “With minimum two cars per family, where can we find so much parking space?”

She stood uncertainly.

“License madam?” he asked politely.

She peeped into her car and remembered that it was in her handbag. And her handbag was in the office. One of her tiny tots started crying. She looked at the man, unable to meet his eyes. “It is in my bag at work.”

He turned away. “I need it to punch it for receipt,” he said, pointing to an POS billing device. She stood silently. “Ok, pay 150,” he said.

She looked at him shocked and was about to protest. But the man was already on to the next defaulter, handing him the receipt. She reluctantly pulled out the money. “I can show the license in the police station later,” she tried bargaining, her mind protesting against paying the man and encouraging bribery.

He shook his head. She knew he had no way to trust her. She handed it and wondered how “clean” she was.

.

The Scholarship

The Panchayat president stood up. Everybody clapped.

“It is a proud moment for us,” he said, “that a daughter of this village should have scored such high marks in the X board exams. She has been given scholarship by the government for further studies.”

The girl got up and the entire village applauded thunderously.

“Daughters are Lakshmi, their birth augurs well for the family. Today, this girl, by studying further will bring laurels not only for her parents, but the entire village.” He turned towards the girl. “Amma, our hopes are pinned on you. As the first girl to have brought this village so much honour, I proudly hand over not only the letter of scholarship, but a token present from the office of the Panchayat.” His eyes welled up at his own sentiments. The girl came blushing and teary eyed to receive it.

“Ayya, it is with the blessings of you elders that I have achieved this,” she replied modestly, touched his feet and went back to hide in the crowd.

With a wave, the president stepped down from the dais, waving to the still cheering crowd.

***
His wife hid in the shadows and watched his performance. Resentment and sorrow blinded her as she thought of a fateful night several years ago .

“A girl! Is that all you can give me, woman!” he had raged. He wasn’t the president back then, but his family had been well respected. “The village will laugh at me that my wife cannot beget a son.”

She had cried out. “This is god’s will.”

He had turned on her angrily. “Don’t blame god for your sins.” Straightening himself, he had ordered in a cool, level voice. “Send for the midwife. I am going to inform the village that our son died at birth. The midwife will know what to do.”

The woman looked at him shocked. “Don’t! Don’t please!”

He looked down at her with steely eyes. “You have a better plan.”

She shrank back, shaking her head.

He turned and went away.

***
That had been 15 years back. Luckily, another child had died that night – she never inquired if the girl had been killed or died naturally.

But the babies were exchanged, and today, her daughter stood next to her foster parents, proudly smiling at the scholarship letter. The girl’s foster mother looked in her direction and silently thanked her.

Acknowledging it with a slight nod, she turned away to walk in her husband’s shadow.

.

The Prized Collection

Paloma glanced at the room, making sure it was spic and span, every object in its place. Her eyes then ran over the various mementos she had collected over the years during her travels. The large African tribal dolls, the Mexican hat on the wall, the miniatures from Thailand, the ivory table – again, from Africa… Juggling, shuffling, remodelling her rooms sometimes to fit in her acquisitions.

When her husband and she divorced a few years ago, she had negotiated hard to get this house with the artefacts. They hadn’t fought so hard about the custody of the children even! Building on what she had – how she loved it! She had managed to find a job that helped her maintain her lifestyle. She travelled, collected, displayed them and invited people for parties so that her displays could be admired and envied. Once her children flew the nest, she felt all constraints breaking. To the world and her friends, it looked as if she were filling the emptiness in her life with travel. But to her, the children had finally vacated the space she needed to explore the world more. Of course she loved them, they were her children, after all! But she could not hang them on walls. Their achievements were modest and sometimes a good excuse to entertain. Now…

The phone rang. “Hi baby!” she said, excited to hear from her daughter.

“How was your trip?” Tapasi asked.

“Great! I got a rare miniature painting that I just hung up near the staircase. You know the space…”

“Yea, yea… I know. I just called to say I may be coming down next week for a couple of days.”

“Oh how wonderful! You haven’t seen the ivory box or the sandalwood…”

But her daughter impatiently ended the call. Paloma sighed sadly. Her daughter strangely did not share her excitement for beauty. She hoped at least her daughter-in-law would. After all, after her, it would all pass down to them and she hoped it was to someone who knew the worth of the things she had collected painstakingly.

But that was not to be. The young bride of her son was an outdoors person who travelled light and liked her house furnished simply. Paloma turned to her daughter, trying to get her excited, telling her of the money she spent on each piece, where she bought them, how she knew it was authentic stuff… Paloma hoped Tapasi was able to appreciate the time and effort each piece cost her.

When she breathed her last, her thoughts were for her possessions. Would they be taken good care of?

“This is like a museum!” Nethra, the daughter-in-law said as Paloma’s children and their spouses sat around to discuss the next move. “Selling it is the only way out.”

“But who will buy? Are they really worth it?” Veer, Paloma’s son asked.

“How many times I told mom not to just keep getting things! I told her we have our own stuff to worry about, but she insisted it was for us! Let’s just divide them and then do the best that we can!” Her voice broke as she remembered her mother’s pride in her purchases, but frustration at being burdened with all this contorted her face.

The discussion continued long into the night, and Paloma’s spirit, which lingered awhile, screamed in agony unheard as her callous children treated the artefacts with scant respect. How she wished she could take them with her to her new home! How she wished she could mark this address and be reborn. But already, she was dissolving into nothingness and her memory fading. Only the desire to cling to her acquisitions remained strong.

.

The Tough Decision

Madan sat staring at the two reports lying on his table – he hadn’t intended placing them like that, but subconsciously he had placed them on either side, as if weighing them. One was not a surprise, but delightful still.

Nikesh, his marketing manager, had pulled off the impossible – what was impossible for others but nothing to him. He had single-handedly signed up four major clients for the products they manufactured. It was a coup, four coups in fact, of sorts. But that was expected of Nikesh – he was a brilliant communicator, a great marketing guy who had risen up the hierarchy very fast and a great charmer who could charm the poison off a snake.

The revenues as a result of bagging these contracts would take the company to the next level. The down the line sales people would be challenged and motivated to achieve more. The production would go up and it was a win-win for all.

Madan had known Nikesh for long, and he knew his Sr. MM was brilliant. He had been planning on rewarding this high achiever when the other report – or rather, the note – had been brought in.

In one moment, he felt as if the rug had been pulled from under him. Since then, he had been unable to focus on anything, shuffling the two reports. Placing one on top of the other and then pushing them both away.

The success story tasted bitter. For along with it came an accusation that he could not ignore. One of the marketing executives who had helped Nikesh in signing up one of the clients accused Nikesh of not just taking all the credit, but also of gender discrimination and sexual exploitation.

She had clipped together the interactions with the senior management in the client company to prove that she was already pursuing that deal. For the other two, it was only her word against his.

Madan’s head reeled. Unable to decide on a course of action, he quietly left for the day and avoided taking any calls. Finally, at night, he called Nikesh – to congratulate him on the sales and then gradually bring up the matter of the complaint.

“Shit!” Nikesh blurted. Madan’s heart sank. He was left in no doubt of Nikesh’s guilt. Nikesh was pleading, blaming the drinks, the high of achieving the deal closure, the ambiance and all other irrelevant reasons for his unforgivable behaviour.

Suddenly Nikesh stopped speaking. “Madan… I am sorry yaar. I even apologised to that girl and told her not to bring it up to you. I promised to make good…”

“Please, will you stop it?” Madan snapped.

There was a brief silence before Nikesh said, “By the way, remember the multinational you wanted to tap for the niche product we are developing?”

Madan’s interest was piqued. “Yes?”

“I am in touch with the Indian head. His boss from the HO is coming next month and he promised to get me a meeting. Of course, that was before…”

Madan sighed. “We will talk about it tomorrow.”

As he ended the call, he started seeing dollars and how Nikesh would be able to pull this one too. In less than six months, his company would be a global company.

Next morning, there was only one report on his table. The other one had been shredded and the writer promoted to head her own sales office in a city of her choice.

.

Down Memory Lane

It was just another boring day. She was feeling frustrated, and yet, there was nothing big that had happened to trigger that frustration. Just a petty quarrel at home in the morning; a small payment pending at work; a new friend acting funny; an old friend missing on Facebook… and deadlines piling up.

Her cell rang and her eyebrows shot up. The call was brief, unexpected and sent her down memory lane. Anil, her senior from college – a man she could never define her feelings for clearly. Did she love him, or was it the respect and affection you feel for a mentor, or just the joy of hearing a friendly voice? He was always pleasant, cool, encouraging, the wind beneath her wings…

The invitation for the alumni meet that weekend was just the shot in the arm she needed. And yet, she hesitated. The mood she was in, she was not even sure if she wanted to meet Anil with those mixed feelings he managed to arouse in her every time. And just now, she felt very vulnerable, very much in need of assurance.

She stepped out for lunch and the music player in the restaurant blared out an old Lata song – Chand phir nikla, magar tum na aye. It was like a punch in her stomach. Unexpectedly, tears sprang up and her eyes hurt. She blinked quickly and sat in the first available table, ordering a very boring roti and dal tadka. It was a day for memories, she realised, for this song was just how she felt when Akash left for the US for further studies. No letters, no phone calls. So typical. It did not surprise her, but it hurt her very deep. True, they had seen it coming, this parting that could be final. But to so easily distance himself from her… Was she so forgettable, really?

And now, though they were friends on Facebook, it was rare for them to even post anything on each other’s timelines. What was the point? He seemed not to care. And she still cared too much.

She quickly finished her lunch and returned to work. Her colleague Tejas was pacing up and down. Handsome and fierce, there was an intensity that roused strong feelings in her, and many women in the office. Sometimes she wondered if he felt the same way about her. But since it stopped with that devouring look, she satisfied herself with sighing about him in private. Face to face, they were professionals.

Today, though, she feared something of her longing for those strong arms to wrap her in their comfort showed. “Anything bothering you?” she asked, throwing the question at him.

“I was waiting for you,” he said, his deep voice immediately sending a thrill up her spine. But it was an anti-climax when he asked her to mail him some financial details. That’s all? Sigh, of course. That’s all. She consoled herself and went to her seat, focusing on getting the task out of her hands.

6! Where did time fly! She sat back, remembering her fight with Varun in the morning. Did she have to face him? She closed her eyes. And suddenly, the distance bothered her. She wanted to fly to him, tell him all was forgotten. Today, of all days, she couldn’t bear sulking.

She would surprise him… get him something nice, for being there for her. But where would he be? She decided to take a chance and walk to his office. She hoped he wouldn’t snub her.

Just the thought of meeting him rejuvenated her, her blue mood dissipating. She realised that Varun and she could celebrate their three years of togetherness today.

Yes, there were others, there would be others. They would have their quirks. Varun had his. And she hers… But with him she could slip into the old routine without a fuss.

She picked up a bouquet on the way.

One thought on “Intimate Secrets – A Decalogue

  1. Pingback: Content and Contributors – July 2014 | aainanagar

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