disclaimer – This is a TBR Creative Writing Workshop piece. To retain the author’s voice and theme, and at her specific request, no changes have been made to the plot and development of the story.
Ruby, a colleague of mine in her late forties, winked at me when I told her that I wouldn’t accompany her in the evening that day. We share a cab every day after work. Sometimes, we walk up to the shopping mall nearby to pick up trinkets or to treat ourselves to our favourite ice creams. We watch a Bengali play in the office club every now and then.
My elderly friend would have pulled my leg with saucy queries if my mobile phone had not intervened on time with its shrill ringtone.
“Hello,” I said nervously.
“Hi! I am Rahul,” greeted a male voice.
Rahul Majumder: 33 years, 5ft.11inches, MBA, Finance Analyst in a multinational company.
Two months ago, my father had marked his profile in the matrimonial column of a newspaper. His parents visited us a couple of times and they appreciated our home-made cookies and very soon, considered me a perfect match for their son. Today, Papa informed me at the breakfast table that Rahul had taken my number from him. My father was pleased that the boy wished to meet me, in a cafeteria near my office.
Although Café Coffee was just a ten minutes walk from my office, Ruby gestured to me and said, “Say thirty minutes.”
I responded, “Yes, Rahul, I’ll see you in thirty minutes, I mean half an hour.”
She hushed me when I enquired, “Why thirty minutes, Ruby?”She pushed me to the ladies’ restroom before I could enquire further.
She smiled at me and said, “You should meet your fiancé as the prettiest woman in the town.”
“What do you mean Ruby? You think I am ugly?”
“Of course not, I’ll probably break the head of anybody who says so.”
“You should rearrange the pleats of your saree, dear. Look! You have messed them up.”
Since I joined office, I have seen her in high-neck, full sleeve salwar kameez. The only makeup she wore was her peach lipstick which suited her radiant complexion quite well. “Why don’t you wear a saree, Ruby?” I asked her.
“I don’t like to wear them,” she replied bluntly,busying herself with my hair.
“Why?” I insisted. Paying no attention to my curiosity, she ransacked her vanity bag and concentrated on accessories that would match my peacock blue silk.
“Aren’t you the same person, who is treated as the odd woman by most of our colleagues?” I mused. I have seen them sneering at her, and her old fashioned dressing style. One of them often mocks me by saying, “How do you get on with that boring bouncer?”
Ruby squatted on the floor to scrutinise the pleats of my saree. The hemline of her cotton kameez brushed on the dusty tiles below as she arranged the pleats with care and precision. I was awestruck at her skill in draping a saree.
Holding a safety pin between her teeth, she grumbled, “Doesn’t know to drape a saree…What will this girl do at her in-laws house?” A sort of motherly affection dripped from her rebuke. She giggled and mock-wept at the same time.
The grooming session ended, with them booking a cab to reach the cafeteria on time. Rahul came forward to receive me with a bouquet of roses.
He asked, “Were the roads jammed?” I nodded and reflected on the hullabaloo in the ladies’ restroom.
We talked casually, and then with interest. He seemed to be a sensible person with a sound sense of humour. He praised my smile and appreciated the complementary cup cakes that were served along with cappuccino. We discussed food and cuisines, and admired one another’s preferences in books, music and movies. Two-three rounds of coffee later, we poured out more details from our hearts, of our school days.
“So how long could you pursue the Parsi boy to do your Maths homework?” I asked slyly.
“As long as I wrote love letters on his behalf…but, just before the final term exams, Fenny broke up with my friend and it felt like the sky fell upon me,” he replied. I couldn’t help giggling when he said that every year, on the day of the Parents-Teacher meeting, he got a good thrashing from his father.
As we drove home, we shared other smaller tales of our trifling affairs. When we paused from all the stories, there was a brief silence. He stopped the car beside a park.
Looking into my eyes, he said, “These were the smaller, unimportant stories…Can we not write a bigger one together?”
“I think we can,” I said softly.
He held me in his arms and I gave in to rest my fatigued body against the warmth of his soft linen shirt. The crickets chirped from the dew-laden grass.
“Yes, pretty woman, we can,” he said, “but one thing is missing.”
He nudged me towards the car and opened the door. We got inside the car. A gentle breeze of newly-confessed love followed us.
“What?” I asked as he gestured his hands in the air.
Like Aladdin, he fished into his pocket and produced a diamond ring. He looked at me and said, “I had picked out the ring for my wife-to-be months ago. It has been in my pocket for a long time, I never took it out when I met others. I want to today. Won’t this look nice? They seem to be a perfect match to your earrings too. I think the two look great together! He slipped it into my cold finger.
Instantly, I remembered that I had put on Ruby’s diamond earrings. The phrase “perfect match” rang in my ears like a whistling siren. The deafening sound in my head transported me back to the ladies’ restroom.
“Why didn’t you get married, Ruby?” I asked hesitatingly.
Her face became glum, a shadow passed it. She said, “I couldn’t be a perfect match for him.”
“Why was that, dear? Please tell me everything, what happened, and why.”
A gentle smile kindled the corners of her lips. She repeated, “beautiful” in a mocking-the-world tone.
“One year and five months, that’s how long I was confined to the burns ward. The days passed slowly, in painful sessions of dressing, the half a dozen surgeries and anxiety.” She said, quietly. The crackers of Diwali had set ablaze my scarf on fire and in the wink of a moment, I was caught in a net of tall flames,” She shuddered as she narrated the darkest episode of her life.
“Twenty-six days were left for my wedding… Invitation cards were sent out…The marriage hall was booked, the caterers were paid in advance…the jewelry had been ordered,” she remembered.
“Did they not turn up?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes, they did. Suneel’s parents wept bitterly when they learnt that my chest was so severely burnt. That one of the breasts was disfigured beyond recovery.”
“And, what did your would-be husband say?”
“My parents told me that he was devastated too, there was talk that he wept for the ‘loss’.”
“Loss? What was that?” I looked at her.
“The loss our children would have faced due to their one-breasted mother.”
“Did he visit you in the hospital?”
“Maybe, he did. I don’t remember, my eyes were always heavy…When I came home from the hospital, my elder sister informed me that my younger sister was married to him and that they had moved to Delhi.”
“How could your parents…” Before, I could finish, Ruby interrupted me and said, “What else would have they done? Their meager savings were spent on my medical treatment, especially for the plastic surgery of my face. My elder brother-in-law helped us financially and it was on his suggestion that Bini, my sixteen-year old sister, was married to Suneel.”
Ruby’s eyes were dry but mine weren’t. “What do you feel when you meet him?”
“I don’t know, I don’t feel anything I guess,” she said firmly.“Because we never met in coffee shops.” Pushing a bobby pin into my hair, she said smiling, “His rejection cleared my way to become a Chartered Accountant. Otherwise, I would have been married off after my Intermediate exam, like my sisters and cousins.”
“Suneel is not the only man of excellence in this world” I observed.
“That’s true,” she agreed.
“Didn’t your parents look for other matches?” I enquired.
“As far as I remember, six suitors had responded to my father’s ads,” she said as she tightened the screws of her diamond studs on my earlobes.
“Couldn’t you choose a better-half from the lot of that half dozen?”
“A widower with a toddler, a divorced lawyer, an aged moneylender, a bankrupt shopkeeper and a school teacher with polio affected limbs. I could read their minds when their eyes hovered on my body to examine the lacerated skin underneath my clothes.”
She recollected that her father was a tall man in his youth. Over the years, he looked diminutive. The guilt of fathering four daughters worsened the aching droop of his shoulders. Her accident made him hunchbacked. He could not sleep due to his hunch, which eventually became cankerous. Under the sleepless sky, he counted the stars and talked with the moon. When he died it seemed to Ruby that even death could not lull him to sleep. His unblinking eyes stared at her like the drought-stricken fields in May.
“Papa! My darling Papa,” she sighed. I tearfully repeated her words. She comforted me. Ruby and I stood like two vertically drawn parallel lines in front of the large mirror. The walls of the restroom became foggy. The mirror faded into dark waves of music. Seated on a large lotus, Ruby played the flute. The sublime melody of her music filled my mind with resilience and tranquility. I walked through the cave of night towards an aura of unfathomable light.
“I thought, you’ll like this nocturnal raga,” said Rahul. His words woke me up from my trance.
“It reminds me of a very special friend of mine,” I replied.
Rahul raised his brows, curiously. I smiled at him and rested my head on his shoulder. The harmonious notes of Kalavati * flowed in all directions from the stereo in the car.
*kalavati is a midnight/late night raga in Indian classical music
Shyamasri Maji lives in Durgapur, West Bengal. She teaches English literature at Durgapur Women’s College. She has been writing stories and poems in English since 2016. Her short stories have been published in Muse India (“The Nettle Leaves”), Six Seasons Review (“Maya’s Apartment”) and Story Mirror (“The Birthday Party”). Her poems have been published in Setu, Indian Periodical, Kolkata Fusion (a blog) and Teesta Review