A death now and then

© Batul Mukhtiar, read at Caferati Read-Meet 18 February 2017

“Dhiren’s father died a few days ago. He was ill for many years. Last 2 months, he was completely bed-ridden. Dhiren could not step out of the house.”

No one said anything. Sabiha thought, “Does Kartik expect me to say something? Is Vipin waiting to see how I will respond?”

She could feel Vipin’s eyes on her, in the rear-view mirror. She kept looking out of the window, as if she had not heard Kartik. She felt Vipin’s eyes turn away from her.

It was no use hoping that Kartik and Vipin did not know of her affair with Dhiren. Even though Dhiren had been two years senior to them in college, their town was too small. When they were growing up, what girls did, was something everyone knew, whether they were studying with you or not, whether they lived in the same neighborhood as you or not. And then it seemed that Kartik was in touch with Dhiren even now. In all these years, they must have shared their life stories, certainly.

She wished she could roll down the window. The car felt stuffy to her, despite the air-conditioning. She bent forward and asked Kartik, “Any news of Rohini? Isn’t she living in Singapore? Have you met her, ever?”

Kartik laughed, “Arre, I have met both of you after 17 years. And we all live here. Rohini, I haven’t been able to find her even on FaceBook.”

Vipin said, “It’s as if we all live in different worlds, isn’t it?”

Kartik said, “We must meet up more often now. I have more time now that I am a VP.”

Vipin laughed, “Abbe, how many times will you let that little fact slip into the conversation?” Kartik protested, “I am just saying, yaar.”

Sabiha let the chatter move away to other friends. She hoped that Kartik would not bring up Dhiren or his father again.

She thought, “If I had still been with Dhiren, I would have had to look after that old man. I would be the one stuck at home for more than 2 months.”

She felt the relief she always did, when she thought of Dhiren. Relief, that she was no longer with him.

She had bumped into Dhiren thrice in 17 years. Once at a bus stop. She had been with Rashid. Once in a mall. She had been with Cyrus. Once at a theatre. She had been with Nikhil. Each time, Dhiren had looked older than the man she was with, much older than he should be. Each time he had smelt faintly of drink.

Each time, he had looked faintly disapproving of her.

Each time, she had felt happy that she had left him when she had. It was his faint disapproval of her that she had not been able to stand.

“I don’t like your friend, she giggles so much.” “Don’t talk when we are watching a movie.” “I am sure you are the type of girl who won’t want to breast-feed her baby, the one who watches her figure.” “Don’t hold my hand on the road, why do you want everyone to see?” “You have too many friends. People who have too many friends don’t have real ones.”

Sabiha had met Dhiren’s father only once. Dhiren’s parents were going to be out, so he had invited her home. They had kissed; she had removed her shirt. They were fondling each other, when there had been the knock. Flabbergasted, Dhiren opened the door to his parents, after a few long incriminating moments. His parents had come in with cold, hard faces. Everyone had been silent until she left.

But in that silence, Sabiha had heard where Dhiren’s complaints came from.

“I don’t like your friend, he does not study.” “Don’t talk when we are eating.” “I am sure you are the type of boy who will waste his life, too lazy to achieve anything.” “Don’t think I don’t know you smoke, people have eyes, you know.” “You have too many friends. People who have too many friends don’t know what’s right and wrong.”

And then, there had been the communal angle.

A few days later after the locked door incident, Sabiha’s father had said, “Do you know someone called Dhiren? His father had come to meet me. He said he would never allow his son to marry a Muslim girl. I was surprised. I said, ‘has my daughter agreed to marry someone finally?’ He did not find it funny. He threatened to send his local party goons to teach you a lesson, if you did not stop seeing his son.”

Sabiha had looked at her father. He was cooking an omelette. She waited. But he did not ask her about the locked door. There were things her father would discuss with her, and things he would not.

Sabiha had said, “I am not going to marry Dhiren.” They had both gone back to their books, eating their omelettes silently.

Dhiren had moved into a small room, a little away from town.

“I am fed up of his interference,” he had said, about his father. “And his communal views are embarrassing.”

Dhiren was proud of his political liberalism. But he did not know how to laugh. Like his father, he did not find many things funny. Not too long after he left home, Sabiha had left him.

Dhiren had been too much of a whiner.

“Would I have ever liked the old man?” Sabiha thought now, edging closer to the car window. “I am sure he remained insufferable to the end. Would he have changed his communal opinions if Dhiren and I had married, if he had got to know me better?”

The trouble was she didn’t care. She was sad at how indifferent she felt, about someone she was once so close to. Even if it was only for a few months.

The most that she was worried about right now was that she had been silent for too long.

“I should have said something,” she thought. “What will these guys think? I am sure they will chat up later and say, ‘what a cold-hearted bitch, she didn’t have a word to say about Dhiren’s father’s death. As if we didn’t know they were going around’.”

A small giggle escaped her. What would they say if she did begin to reminisce about Dhiren and his father, if she told them about the locked door and the knock, the silence and the threats? What if she said, “I broke up with Dhiren because he was a crybaby. He did not laugh, he did not make me laugh.”

But she was meeting Kartik and Vipin after too many years. She no longer knew what they found funny, what they really thought about her, what they approved and disapproved of. What did it matter anyway? Who really wanted to know why someone had broken up?

Maybe she would message Dhiren a condolence. That should be enough, she thought. “I am sorry to hear about your father.”

But then she thought, “Is he sorry? Or happy? Or relieved? Did he ever get over his resentment of his father? Did they ever make up, talk, laugh together? Or were there only colder and colder, mustier and mustier silences? Did they ever paint that small, untidy house? Did they move out from there?” Could she ask Dhiren all those things?

“No,” she thought, “I’ll just write – I am sorry to hear about your father.”