by Prateek Nigam
The wind had blown a sock astray into an unreachable cranny of the ledge, and all her attempts at rescue had failed. The sock fell to the ground. She looked at me as I helped unloading our truck. I picked up the sock. “It’s dirty,” I said holding it up. “Leave it then,” she said throwing the other sock down. “But thanks,” she said. That’s how I met Arundhati Suresh.
I was busy unpacking when she came to our apartment. “Bhaiya, that wall needs one more coat,” she said to the man who was busy scraping dried paint off the floor. She looked at Vineet, my flat mate, and pushed her oversized Prada sunglasses above her head to introduce herself.
“Hello, I am Arundhati.”
“Hi. I am Vineet. This is Sudeep.” Vineet replied.
“You must have talked to Sushma, right?”
“Sushma Madam? The owner?” Vineet asked.
“Yes. I am friends with her. I live right next door. Sushma has asked me to make sure that you guys are okay. Let me know if you need anything.” She smiled and gave a few more instructions to the workers. She walked through the main door and soon we could see her standing in the lift lobby, fiddling with her phone.
“Maal hai. Do you like her?” Vineet asked. “I bet she is here to spy on us and tell the owner everything. I would be cautious,” he said and went on to arrange his action figures on the nightstand.
The door to the terrace of our tower was never locked, but the Resident’s Welfare Association discouraged people from visiting. With most of the apartments rented out to bachelors like us, there were neither any residents in the association nor any intent of welfare in its actions. Despite the warning, I started going to the rooftop frequently to smoke up, without Vineet though, I would never share the good stuff with that bugger. The building was twelve-story high and the world often seemed to disappear in the chilly breeze rising from Bellandur lake. The orange glow from the sun bounced off toxic froth on the lake’s surface which often caught on fire; it would have made for a beautiful painting.
A few days later as I stood smoking a little earlier than usual, Arundhati walked in on me. I barely managed to stub my joint out.
“Oh! Hi,” Arundhati said in a voice that gave her surprise away.
“Hello,” I smiled while I tried to conceal the stubbed-out cigarette, still warm, in my fist.
“Someone keeps moving the antenna around,” she said as she fiddled with the dish closest to her. I could see a pack of Marlboros that quite didn’t fit in her palms. “I guess it will work now,” she announced after slapping the metal a few times and turning back.
“Wouldn’t you smoke that?” I pointed at her hand. I could feel the blood rushing to my ears. I knew I had crossed some line. To my advantage, she looked even more flustered. “Is that dish antenna even yours?” I asked her as I offered her my lighter.
“No,” she said with a sheepish grin taking a cigarette out.
“This,” she held the cigarette up showing it to me, “didn’t happen,” she said. I pretended to read on my kindle though I could hardly read anything while she was there.
The office cab dropped me home at four thirty, and every evening at five I could be found reading a book in the receding sunlight, quietly enjoying a cigarette, also eagerly hoping for her to show up. And she did, mostly. Though I had been smoking Blacks in front of her, I still carried my joints in a box just in case she didn’t show up.
“Black is for girls,” she said one evening, “with the goodness of clove.”
“I find tobacco a bit harsh,” I said.
“You should smoke weed then.”
I pulled out a joint from my back pocket.
“Drugs? People like you have no place in Naraina Heights, Sudeep,” She stubbed her cigarette and lit the joint up. She took a drag and passed it to me.
Through our conversations, I learnt that Arundhati loved the Simpsons. She realised that I loved Game of Thrones. We both loved Friends. She told me that she used to work in the same firm as her husband, but she didn’t anymore. I told her that I was a software engineer.
“We can probably see my office from up here,” I said pointing to an array of high rises.
“Which one?” she asked.
“That one,” I said pulling her closer. She held my hand that pointed towards a glass building at a distance. The myriad of lit windows that seemed like pixels from a distance spelled secret messages to me and her. My hands were shivering. She held my face and pulled me closer. We started to kiss.
What was happening? I was not sure. Suresh, her husband, was a decent-looking guy, a jet-setting financial analyst, always sharply dressed. I ran into him a couple of times in the elevator. He was always dressed in business formals, with that crew cut hair of his, talking sweet nothings on his Bluetooth headset. They drove a BMW. It was a happy marriage. It had to be. It seemed to be. Yet here we were, kissing on the terrace.
I think I had started to like her. I even told her once to which she just blew smoke rings on my face. We enjoyed each other’s company. I was ten years younger and she would call me ‘Kiddo’ in jest. “Sudeep, it honestly feels like babysitting,” she said one day. I dared to call her mommy only to be smacked in the face.
She had been married for about four years and things had hit a rough patch. They had been trying, she said. When Arundhati had first been expecting, about a year ago, she took a leave of absence but things did not work out as expected.
“I thought I would take a break and join back but that never happened.”
“You can look for a job now?
“He thinks that staying at home will fix my uterus,” she said.
“What do you think?” I asked.
She turned away and kept staring at a plane taking off at a distance.
After about two months, I had to travel to Mumbai for a wedding. When I came back, I headed straight to the terrace, but I was disappointed to not find Arundhati there.
“I heard her screaming, man. They fight so much,” Vineet told me about the fight in 602 the night before. “That dude was piss drunk and it went on for hours. No wonder she owns those big sunglasses. She has to hide that black-eye!”
I decided to confront her the next day. “Fucking pathetic wife-beating kind? You should leave him.” I said, “Bloody cave man of yours. Divorce his ass off. Chutiya will have to pay alimony for rest of his life.”
“Accha? Divorce him? And you are going to marry me?” she asked. Her question sentenced me into utter silence.
I woke Vineet up when I heard a lot of noise that night. “Chal, get up.” I said.
“Leave it, man,” Vineet replied. I stepped out and rang the doorbell. Everything went quiet before Suresh opened the door.
“Is everything alright?” I asked.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked.
“What’s going on here?”
“What’s going on here? You bastard! I know what’s going on in your house. Bloody drug addicts. Just fuck off,” he slammed the door in my face.
“Abey, problem ho jayegi. Just leave it,” Vineet said trying to pull me back into the apartment. But I heard a loud thud and decided to ring the doorbell again.
“Get lost!” Suresh said clenching his teeth.
“Where is Arundhati?”
“Oh, your prince charming?” He turned around looking at Arundhati who sat on the floor leaning against a wall.
“I will call the police,” I said.
“Got the balls to do that?” he punched me in the face. The sight of blood from the cut on my lip startled all of us. I rammed my knee straight into his groin and he fell on the floor. He was quivering in pain. With his eyes shut tight, he turned around and retched.
“Abey, run!” Vineet screamed running back to the apartment. I retreated in panic as Arundhati got up and shut the door.
The police came next day. They raided our house. Apparently Vineet had been smoking up in the lift lobby and Suresh had ratted us out. They found both our stashes of weed and arrested us. We were yelled at, hit, threatened and even kept overnight in the lockup. The policeman agreed to hush up the matter for fifty thousand. When we came back to the apartment, we found a notice from the RWA. They didn’t want “shady characters” disrupting peace and harmony by indulging in any illegal activities. Naraina Heights did not house anti-social elements. Sushma, our landlady, had been informed and we were promptly asked to vacate.
I saw Arundhati at the mall today, almost after two years of moving out of Naraina Heights. She was tending to a baby in a stroller while a man leaned over with a feeder in his hand. She got up and saw me. She smiled and looked away.
“That woman with the baby stroller totally checked you out,” Kirti said to me.
“My milkshake brings all gals to the yard.”
Kirti pinched my arms and hit me in the stomach.