Many-Splendoured Love/Pretty Baby

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Pretty Baby

“There is no need to worry yet,” Salome had been trying to convince herself from the morning, but as hours passed, her mind was beset by all sorts of worries. Once again it was Thursday. The whole week had passed – without meeting Shrenik. “Almost without meeting him”, she noted gingerly. Difficult were those days, and tough it had been to be patient, but today felt worse to her. Again her brain forced herself to recall the details of past seven days. On last Thursday Shrenik had spent leisurely time with her. Like always, he had come straight from work, and had stayed for the night. Salome had made tandoori chicken. Bringing an Indian cook-book from the library she had taught herself how to make it. Shrenik loved real spicy food, and in the beginning he would not eat much of whatever she had made. He would say, “I am not hungry”, or he would bring a pizza. The tradition of eating at home on Thursdays really started after Salome learnt to make tandoori chicken. So many times Shrenik told her, “I start waiting for Thursday right from Monday itself. One can eat anything in a restaurant, but Baby, the chicken made by your hands is something else.” Shrenik lived at his Aunt’s, and there non-veg food could not be even mentioned. On Fridays both of them went out to eat. Mostly in small, simple Mexican restaurants. Salome would feel like going to a fancy place, but Shrenik “did not believe in throwing money away.” To any Indian restaurant also they had gone just once. “We might run into someone”, Shrenik would say. Salome did not understand what the problem was in that. Shrenik would never explain, and then Salome stopped asking about it. Last Friday it had not been possible to go out. Even meeting him had not been possible. After going to the office he had called to say that he had to go to the International Airport. “Sorry, Baby. The daughter of my Aunt’s best friend is arriving from Mumbai. Can you guess for what? To look for a hubby! Can you believe it? In America who is going to go for a “Desi pootli”?, saying this he had laughed in ridicule. Salome was disappointed that she would not see him that night. But “It is all right. After all, it is just one night”, she had consoled herself. Then she had also laughed on Shrenik’s words. He always joked about Indian girls, calling them “Desi Dolls”. As she put the phone down, she remembered the occasion when she had met him the first time. It was at an outdoor Indian programme arranged in her town. She had happened to go there. She generally did not go out on Sunday afternoons. Being a nurse in a hospital she had to work most Saturday nights, which meant that she would be sleeping till late afternoons on Sundays. But as the programme was nearby, she had sauntered over there out of mild curiosity. The crowd gathered in the open ground had really surprised her. She had never seen so many Indians all at once. Turning the pages of the programme brochure she had read that it was the Annual Diwali Function. She had concluded that it must be some special occasion. All the Indian women were dressed in bright and colourful clothes. She herself was in every-day garb – blue jeans and a black cotton, high-necked t-shirt. She had sat down on one of the empty chairs in the rear. At first there were dances. That was all right, but then when the songs started the music seemed too loud. How could she be interested in them, when she did not know the language? She was just about to get up, when Shrenik came up to her. Asking if anyone was with her, he had taken the chair next to her, and had started conversing. Looking at the brochure he had said, “Most pages are just filled with advertisements.” Then he had explained about Diwali a little. Continuing to talk, he had commented, “ And look at these Indian ladies. Do they look like they live in America? In the whole crowd you are so different.” alome could not help laughing. “But of course I will appear different here.” Shrenik did quiet down for a moment or two, but shuffling in his seat a little he turned his words around. “Yes, You are not Indian, I agree. But what I meant was that among Americans – meaning among the Whites - meaning among your people as well - you are different. What I am saying is – you are noticeable. And very pretty.” “Thank you”, Salome said indifferently. Not giving up, Shrenik walked with her, boldly asking her out to dinner. She had declined at first, but as he kept pressing she had finally relented. After that, almost automatically, the days and nights of their getting together had been fixed. In that sequence Saturday was kept free. Salome worked nights, and Shrenik would always had some party or the other to go to. She certainly could take some Saturday nights off, and she was keen to go to parties with him, but he would dissuade her. “ Not now, Baby. There will be time for it. Everyone will be speechless to see such a sexy `pootli’ like you with me.” He would distract her with flattery. The first time Salome had asked, “ What is `pootli’? And who is “everyone”? “Arre,’ everyone’ means – what I mean is, all people who know me”, Shrenik had generalized. “ And `pootli’ means `doll’. Lovely – very beautiful doll.” Among his friends that term was used in some kind of ugly joke, but that he had not mentioned. Saturday evenings they would not meet, but before she went out to work, he would call her. Then he would talk nice and long also. He did call last Saturday, but had no time to chat. He was in “a great hurry”. Salome had said, ‘ I hope there was not too much traffic on the way to the airport.” Before he hung up, saying a formal “Bye now”, she had tried to prolong the call, and had inquired about the `Deshi pootli’ that had materialized from Mumbai. In reply he had said, “ She is smart. And very modern. I had no idea that she was educated here in America.” “But she got the visa to come here? You have always told me that visas are not granted to unmarried people.” “Arre, what visa? She has got the Green Card. As it turns out, her family lived here for many years. They went back only two years or so ago. Now to get married, this Rina has come back here. She will have no problem getting a husband. Well. So long, Baby, we will talk later.” For the first time Salome regretted never insisting on getting his phone numbers. She did not have the luxury to sit around at home nursing her own emotional ailments. But deep inside, she was sure that Shrenik would not miss Sunday. And really, later in the afternoon he did come by. She brightened up as soon as she saw him, and clung to him. “At least make the tea first”, Shrenik said, disentangling himself. “Oh, yes, sure”, she said, not noticing his indifference, and started making the milk-tea that he liked. Her own habit of drinking coffee was long forgotten. Now she also enjoyed the milk-tea while seating and chatting with Shrenik. But on this Sunday his heart was not in chatting. Again he was in a hurry. Finishing the tea quickly, “ Where is that blazer of mine?”, he asked, and went to the closet. Salome loved that blazer. In it he seemed very handsome to her. “ Oh, my Nik is such a handsome devil”, she would say hugging him lovingly. For last four and a half months it had been hanging in her closet. Every Friday, going out to eat, she would coax him to wear it. That Sunday, it hurt her to see Shrenik wearing the blazer to go out alone. “ Where do you have to go? Why don’t you wear something else? Better still, come, I will also go with you.” And with tears she had pleaded, “ Take me with you today. Please, Nik.” “Come on, Baby. You know that there is nothing like that.”, he had given an ambiguous answer. “ The thing is that, -- see, I have to escort Rina to a party. What am I to do, tell me. It is the Aunt’s order, so I have to obey it. Besides, she is from our cast too. That’s why.” She could not follow that explanation. “So what if she is from your cast?”, in a very soft tone she had asked. In reply, just brushing his lips lightly on her cheek, and only saying, “Bye, Baby”, Shrenik – looking handsome in the dark blue blazer – had gone out of the door. On Monday, when Salome came home from the Bank and the Library, there was a short message on the answering machine from Shrenik. “How are you, Salome? Fine? That’s all. Nothing special. Just called to say `hello’. Good Bye.” With a hand on her heart she had just stood there. “ Alas, he called when I was not home?”. She felt choked. Playing the tape back and forth, she kept listening to Shrenik’s voice, his words. After all these months, instead of calling her “Baby”, he had addressed her by name. Her own name sounded strange to her. As if that message was for someone else altogether. The person recording it was also someone else, not Shrenik. It was a voice that had come from some far away place. And good bye? But what does good bye mean? Why did he say good bye? Not just “Bye”, but “Good Bye”. But why “Good Bye”? The question went on hammering her mind every conscious moment. At the same time, she kept waiting. Tuesday came and went. No phone call from Shrenik, not even a message. Salome had not been able to attend to her work, nor had she been able to eat anything the whole day. On Wednesday the phone rang. All hurt was suddenly forgotten, and the smile of conviction came stretching on her lips. She went running, and picking up the phone, exclaimed, “Oh, Nik.” “Arre, this is not Nik. But Chet. This is Chet. How are you, `phootli’?” The caller had laughed grotesquely. He knew what the word `pootli” sounded like on Salome’s tongue. “Who is this? Who are you?”, Salome had started trembling. “Arre, I am Chet. Shrenik’s friend Chetan. You forgot me?” Then she did remember him. He was the only acquaintance of Shrenik’s that she had ever met, and that too by accident, and just for two minutes. They had gone to some Indian grocery store to buy Tandoori spice. Someone had called out to Shrenik as they came out of the store. That was Chetan. He was with two Indian girls, who, standing at a distance, had kept jeering, and from there they had shouted at Shrenik, “Hello Handsome”. Chetan had come too close, and had said, “Yaar, At least introduce me. You are a lucky dog to go around with such a pretty baby.” Reluctantly when Shrenik introduced him, he had said, “Yes, my name is Chetan all right, but it is Chet for you. Just remember that, o.k.?. That will be easy for you.” And he had pressed Salome’s hand as she politely extended it for a hand-shake. She had not liked his manners and behaviour from that very encounter. “How can you have any friendship with such a person?”, she had questioned Shrenik. “And who were those girls? They did not seem very nice to me either.” “See, that is why I try to keep you away from such people. Now you understand, right?”, He had again evaded the answer. With Chetan’s phone call that incident did come to Salome’s mind. She did not like the tone of his voice even now. Chetan continued to talk, “ So? Can’t you remember? Such a clever `phootli’, and forgot the Charming Chet?” Worried about Shrenik, she controlled the feeling of being insulted, and inquired, “Nik is well, right?” “Arre, not just well, he is very well. Why, hasn’t he told you anything? See, his purpose is over. Expect him to get the Green Card-holder easy.” She had not grasped any of it. “What?”, she almost screamed. “Arre, `phootli’, I am telling you that Nik is gone. Forget Nik-Bik. But I am available, and I am prepared to give you company. Tell me, when should I come over?.” Unable to bear it any more Salome banged the phone down. The implication of his words was like lashes of insult on her heart. She could not believe that Shrenik would not come any more, and the reason for it she could not quite comprehend. She thought that she would have to tell Shrenik about this offensive call, and would have to insist that Shrenik kept no contact with such a person. During the six or seven months of their relationship, it was always Salome who relented, and agreed to whatever he wished; but in this matter Shrenik would have to listen to her, and she was sure that he would. The week had passed in this way, and it was once again Thursday. She had kept telling herself that Shrenik would definitely come by before dinner-time. She started preparing for dinner. Caeser salad, garlic bread and tandoori chicken – this was his favoured dinner for Thursday nights. She took out the salad material from the refrigerator. The packet of chicken was stored in the drawer. Pulling the drawer out she picked up the packet. That was when she saw a key taped on the plastic wrap. At first it shocked her. “Whose key could this be? How did it get taped on this? Could it be someone’s from the store?” But she recognized it when she stripped it clear of the tape. The key was for her apartment, but it was not hers. It was Shrenik’s. About four months ago, Shrenik had given her “a small gift”. It was a golden key-chain, with a heart-shaped letter “B” hanging at the end. “B for Baby. Aren’t you my Baby?”, Shrenik had said fondly. Instantly, Salome had transferred her own keys into the golden ring, and had given her own simple key-chain to Shrenik, with a duplicate key for the apartment. “Now this place is yours also. You are free to come in whenever you like”, she had said. This was that extra key. Without that simple key-chain. Shrenik had returned it – surreptitiously. Like a guilty person, like a coward. Her eyes could not believe this, nor did her heart. And yet, the key was certainly there. When did he put it there? On Sunday, when he came to get the blazer? During the three days since, when she went to work? Sneaking in like a thief? Then, all this time did he just take advantage of her? Was there never any feeling of love in his heart? He did not see it necessary to say something before leaving? Salome felt more insulted than she had from Chetan’s words. All the months spent with Shrenik broke up into pieces, like useless debris. Leaning on the fridge, she collapsed, and stayed there on the floor for a long while. Then suddenly she got startled – as if something had shaken her awake. It took her a few moments to realize what had happened. Her curled up legs had cramps, her bent neck had started hurting, but she was still clutching the key. As consciousness returned, it felt like burning coal in her fisted hand. Crying “no, no, no”, she let it drop. She stared at it, where it had fallen, as if it was going to start a fire. Then slowly, with effort she stood up. Some decision had formed within her unconscious mind. She started following that mental edict wordlessly. First she brought out a plastic garbage bag, and stretched it open. And then she started bringing things to throw in it – from the bedroom Shrenik’s T-shirts, socks, pajamas; from the bathroom his razor, shaving cream, toothbrush; from the kitchen-counter the tin of loose tea, and the packet of chicken also. Lastly, she bent and picked up the key from the floor, only to drop it on the top of the heap. Finally, with unsteady hands, she started twisting the keys out from the golden key-chain that Shrenik had so fondly given her. There were so many keys - for the apartment, mailbox, car, car’s boot, hospital locker, medicine cabinet. Her shaking fingers could not hold them all, and they began to fall all around her, making sharp metallic sounds. Only the golden key-chain was left in her hand. Throwing that in the garbage bag with vehement force, Salome burst out laughing hysterically – very loudly, non-stop, holding on to her stomach, resting her hand on the table, covering her face, shaking her head, breathing deeply, getting breathless, breaking down in exhaustion. A long time later, slowly, silently, after her delirium ended, tears kept slipping down her cheeks, for even longer. Much longer.