Strangers In The Night – Vani Menon

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Illustration – Rashi Aggarwal

It was at a party just like this one that I met her. Last week. It was one of the usual gatherings, the fashionable soirees one is invited to in a city like this and which I was obliged to attend. When you are a world renowned photographer, it is difficult to escape these.

There was nothing extraordinary about her, nothing in her dusky skin, her stooped gait or her gummy smile that was worth attracting attention. There were plenty of far more attractive women in the room that evening.

Until I met her eyes. The ones that stared back at me as we stood in the queue for the food, the lovely spread that was the highlight of this otherwise boring, cumbersome party.

I had dropped a spoon and she turned to look at me. There was in her eyes a mix of wonder and disgust. Wonder maybe how is it that a man in an expensive well tailored suit and with such a self assured air could drop things so, the disgust for the clumsiness of it all. I could see it and understand, in those two seconds of exchanged looks.

Then it changed. The eyes assumed an air of disinterest mingled with politeness and I knew what had happened. She had started the game. That is when I began watching her.

She was trying to sing along to the old favourite ‘As time goes by’. She missed all the lines, except the chorus. She kept her eyes lowered to the floor, you could only see her lips moving and the centre parting of her hair. She had worn a bright pink saree, what is it called, fuchsia pink?

Her hair was tied into a bun, she had an orchid just behind her left ear. Her skin had a fair dusting of pimples, which were further accentuated by her pink lipstick. It was an ordinary face.

But I was drawn to it now.

It’s always been very fascinating to me, this way in which we mask everything, the way we expertly show the world what it wants to see. A few tears at the funeral, even if you do not feel the loss, a loud laughter when someone cracks a pathetic joke, a smile when you are breaking inside.

It is almost as if we have a shared secret now, this lady in pink and I.

She has come here alone tonight, I think. I walk up to her.

‘I suppose Casablanca is not your favourite?’, I ask.

She looks at me blankly at first, and then her cheeks turn the same shade as her saree.

She has lowered her eyes again. I want to see them.

‘But I take it you like this song?’ I continue.

She looks up, nods. Her chandelier earrings dance around her when she does.

I sit beside her on the sofa. ‘I am Shekhar. I don’t think we’ve met before.’

‘Madhumita’ she answers, taking my proffered hand.

‘Madhumita’ I repeat, trying the name on my tongue, swirling it in my mouth, as if tasting some vintage wine. How is it these sophisticated creatures have these exotic names?

I want to say something but words fail me. So I continue to look at her, at her beautiful long fingers which are now encircling the stem of the wine glass, her neatly trimmed nails with their French manicure.

‘Madhumita, are you enjoying the party?’

‘Yes’, she responds.

 I look around. So far there have only been monosyllabic answers from her. I am thinking of leaving.

So I am surprised when she suddenly looks at me, deep into my eyes and says ‘When was it?I know’.

I try to hide it, I fail.

How did she guess? I wonder.

‘How?’

‘The same way you did.’

Now she really has my interest.

‘It was this morning. A divorce.’

‘Oh. Was it painful? Did you love her?’

‘I thought I did. I do. I think I still do. What has love to do with it anyway? Is a marriage only about love?’

She doesn’t answer. She just looks directly at me.

‘She had an affair’ I reveal.

There is a spark in her eyes, ‘Would you like to walk with me? she asks.

‘The garden?’ She nods yes. I follow her into the warm quiet night. There are lights around some trees, they gleam like golden beads in a necklace. The smell of Pala Alstonia fills the air. It is indeed a devilish night. I grow confident.

‘Madhumita, you haven’t told me about you.’

‘What do you want to know?’

I smile.

Right then a waiter walks towards us, with a tray full of wine. I take a glass. She declines.

‘Well, I am based out of Atlanta ,doing my PhD there, I came here a couple of months ago. Debolina is my cousin, so I’m staying with her. I don’t have many friends in this city.’

‘And?’ I prompt.

‘I am single, if that is what you want to know’, she says.

Well ,that too. I want to know what is it you are hiding, I think to myself.

She looks at the pool. It is quite a pretty sight, lined by overflowing shrubs, with the lights reflecting from it.

‘I hate to watch movies in colour’, she says suddenly.

‘It is so much better in black and white. You don’t have to see the bright red of blood gushing from a wound and forming a puddle, nor the gross greenish yellow of the baby’s vomit, nor the depth of the sea in vivid colours, first dark bluish green then lighter then brownish. It’s so much better in black and white’, she repeats.

I agree. I would rather not face life or movies in vivid technicolour, where each flaw is highlighted, every hue enhanced. The love, the betrayal, the anger, the jealousy…all of it…Just me and my black and white world. That would be so perfect.

I turn her to face me. We are close, almost just a breath away from each other.

I pull her closer. There is a sadness in her eyes, a loneliness.

‘Who was it?’

‘My husband’, she says. I can hear her muffled sob.‘ I saw him drown. It was an accident’.

We dance in silence. Me,with my arms around her, leading. I can smell her fragrance now, it’s mysterious, just like her.

I think suddenly of the south of France and the woman I spent the evening with. I bury my face in her hair. She pulls away.

‘I pushed her into it’, I reveal. Madhumita looks at me quizzically.

‘Ishita, my wife. I pushed her into it. I wanted to know how desirable she was, still. I wanted to know I had something which was still coveted by others. I am growing old.’

She has that faraway look in her eyes now.

I know that one; it’s that of unfulfilled passion, of unanswered questions.

‘But why? Why does it happen?’ she asks. Tears spill over her beautiful eyes. I have no answer.

We turn and walk toward the house. The music is louder now, the guests are in that complacent mood that can be brought about by a few drinks.

She mouths thank you and drifts away. I mean to follow her, but just then Debolina walks in and spots her.

‘Madhu, where were you? Shovonik has been looking for you’.

Beside Debolina is this young man, well built  and handsome.

He hugs Madhumita and she smiles into his eyes.

She turns and sees me. A look of understanding passes between us. I nod..They walk away,hand in hand ,away from me.

The music is deafening, I remark to no one in particular.

Vani Menon is an engineer by profession and a writer by passion.She lives in Bangalore with her husband and daughter.In additon to writing,she loves visiting ruins and museums.
Vani was part of Anita Nair’s creating writing workshop.