“Listen, Sanjay. I have to tell you something.”
Dev’s handsome jaw twisted in discomfort as he said this, while he struggled to wrench something out from inside himself.
“Yes, tell me,” Sunny answered.
His best friend, Dev, had been uncharacteristically quiet since the day before. And now Dev had called Sunny by his real name instead of his usual nickname of ‘Sunny.’ What was going on?
Zohra, Dev’s girlfriend, stood next to him. Tap-tap-tap went her left foot, counting down the seconds.
Looking back, Sunny would remember this particular detail among the events that unfolded until the evening came to an agonizing end, but at the moment, he had no inkling of what was coming.
The surface of Dev’s honey-colored eyes swirled with anxiety as he spoke. “My elder brother is getting married. He—”
“That’s great news! It’s finally happening,” Sunny cut in.
Dev gave a ghost of a smile. Then his face turned serious again. “He’s marrying Neha.”
He paused and added, “Yes, that Neha.”
Sunny squeezed the empty cup of coffee that he clutched in his hands until his nails pierced through the Styrofoam. All that came out of his mouth was a flat “oh” sound, like that of air escaping a deflating balloon.
“I was shocked when he told me,” Dev said and dropped to his knees to tie up shoelaces that didn’t really look as if they were coming loose.
Zohra stopped shaking her foot. The evening crowd milled around them in the front courtyard of the shopping mall that was being touted as the first one of its kind in India. They were standing near a switched-off water fountain with blue and green mosaic tiles and a pool of water in its wide stone basin. Sunny’s eyes glazed while looking at the still liquid. Its glassy surface mirrored the darkening sky above, and as he went on staring at it, all his unblinking gaze could register was the sky that lay fallen in the water basin at his feet. The hustle and bustle in the plaza went mute. His head started to spin.
“Sunny.” Zohra’s voice echoed as if from far away.
She touched his elbow. Her voice was soothing for a change, different from her usual jovial loudness. Skin-tight jeans and a black t-shirt with a winking yellow smiley on it hugged her lithe figure. Her curly hair was swept over one shoulder, and the diamond stud in her nostril twinkled as it caught the fading sunlight.
“Are you okay?”
The question brought Sunny hurtling back to the present moment.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he lied.
Sweat began to gather under the collar of the t-shirt that he’d worn in spite of its scratchiness. He’d worn it because it made him look as though he belonged to the kind of young crowd in every Bollywood movie, music video, and glossy film magazine he had ever seen. He prayed that he had slathered on enough deodorant to mask any body odor.
Dev was still evading Sunny’s eyes while he worried a piece of rubbish on the ground with the tip of his red sports shoe.
“How could you let this happen?” Sunny wanted to scream at him, but he held back. Dev owed him an explanation without being asked to give it.
Dev had been Sunny’s first friend after Sunny had moved to one of the adjoining cities near Mumbai. He’d gone as far away as possible from the dump of a town that he grew up in—Sompur—a place not known for anything in particular, and one that could barely be found on the map. A place with garbage-littered street corners and cobwebs collecting in the minds of its residents.
Thinking about home, the only image that sprang up in Sunny’s mind was that of his father, a shrunken man sprawled in a dark corner of their house, reeking of alcohol and muttering incoherently. His mother, having given up on her wasted spouse and oblivious to the emotional needs of her moping son, had immersed herself in religious worship, choosing to live in a godly realm far removed from the supremely flawed one that she was part of in reality.
During the monsoon of the year 2003, Sunny had escaped to the city on an educational scholarship at a good college. Upon meeting Dev, he was overcome with the sensation of having arrived at a destination that he didn’t know he had been making a long journey toward. Dev was one of those boys who attract respect and goodwill simply by being born with a fixed set of the right attributes, be it good looks, intelligence, personality, or family background. The quick friendship between entities as disparate as Dev and Sunny surprised everyone. But the longer it developed, the better it looked, with each of their qualities rubbing off on the other, making both shine in a way that they hadn’t before.
Six months later, Zohra had transferred to their college and struck up a friendship with them. She, too, began to gravitate toward Dev’s magnetic pull. One afternoon, after Sunny had enjoyed listening to Dev and Zohra’s flirtatious banter all morning, he took Dev aside. Another boy from their class had made a pass at Zohra, and Sunny could remain quiet no longer.
“Dev, either you are blind or a fool not to realize what is happening between Zohra and you.”
When Dev and Zohra had finally declared that they were a “couple”, Sunny was ecstatic. The scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle around him were fitting into each other and creating a complete picture of a unit as close to a family as he had ever wished for. Until now.
“This must be a big shock for you,” Zohra said, breaking the silence. She sounded like a mother concerned about an injured child.
Sunny nodded and turned to Dev. He appreciated Zohra’s concern, but all he wanted was to have Dev open that mouth of his and say what he wanted to hear.
“How did Ravi meet Neha?” Sunny asked in a tone that gave nothing away. Ravi was Dev’s older brother.
“They met three months ago when Neha came to work as an intern at Ravi’s office as part of the college project,” Dev replied, looking up finally but fixing his gaze at a point somewhere to the side of Sunny’s head.
“When is the wedding?”
“Next year, in March.”
“Everyone in your family must be very happy.” The bite in Sunny’s voice was more than he’d intended it to be.
Dev flinched but he said, “Yes, they are.”
No one said anything. Sunny felt a rolling wave of anger rising against Dev’s apparent acceptance of the whole situation without a shred of apology. How could Dev let Neha slither into his family, knowing how she had hurt Sunny?
Finally, Zohra spoke. “It’s getting late. I have to go.”
She had a room in a women’s hostel nearby where the supervisor was known to be a vengeful woman with little mercy toward female students who were even a minute over the evening deadline.
“OK then,” Dev said, shifting the weight off his heels. He made as if to walk away but stopped when Zohra didn’t move.
“Are you still going to drop by the bookstore to exchange your book?” she asked Sunny.
Sunny didn’t answer at once. Earlier in the evening, before they had arrived there, he’d said that he would walk back with her to a bookstore on the way. Now he didn’t know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do next. He thought of returning to his own hostel and crashing. But something about Zohra’s voice made him look up. The earnestness on her face implored him to accompany her.
“Yes, I have to stop by Granth to exchange my book. I’ll walk with you and take the bus back to my hostel,” Sunny said.
Dev raised his hand in goodbye, but Sunny had already turned away, falling in step with Zohra, who had begun to walk briskly ahead.
‘The Three Musketeers,’ they called themselves. They were together everywhere—their classrooms, the cafeteria, the tea stall outside the campus, at movie theatres, at the new mall, at Dev’s house and even at the doctor’s clinic if one of them fell ill. Their close bond remained unwavering even after Neha entered the scene and jumped into their friendship pool. And when little by little she began swimming toward him in particular, Sunny could hardly believe his luck.
Neha and Sunny began to sit next to each other in class just as Dev and Zohra did, along with a handful of other students who were bold enough to sit with the opposite gender while the majority arranged themselves so that boys sat to one side and girls to the other.
One day, as the professor droned on during economics class, Neha had flipped open a page in her notebook to reveal to him a light-pink rose petal in the shape of a heart. The letter “S” was etched onto it with a blue-inked pen. She glanced up at him with a smile playing across her lips.
He nearly fell off the desk. Regaining his composure, he picked up his own black pen and added an “N” underneath the “S,” almost tearing the petal in half—but he didn’t care, he was already floating above the classroom, his heart about to burst and rain down in a shower of red rose petals on all the sleepy students underneath.
When exactly had things started to go downhill? Maybe it was on the night of Zohra’s birthday. They’d gone to a fancy restaurant with a few other friends where he’d wrestled with his knife and fork over a slice of pizza, accidentally flicking a piece onto the floor. Although no one had noticed, he was certain that the whole restaurant was staring at his unpolished, small-town face.
When the conversation turned to religious shows on cable TV, Neha reminded everyone of an anecdote that Sunny had once shared about his mother. His mother would fold her hands in prayer in the direction of the television set every time the actor playing Lord Rama from the Ramayana came on. And she would do this even when he was playing a villainous role in another show or movie!
Sunny laughed along with the others, but a rising wind of fury began to howl within him as Neha made further jokes around the story. His ears rang with the sound of the music from the Ramayana playing in their living room while his mother increased the volume and began to chant along to the words. The sounds helped drown out his howls while his father gave him a severe beating inside the bedroom over some trivial matter.
In the parking lot, as they waited for Dev and Zohra to bring out Dev’s car to drive them home, he accused Neha of taunting him. When she protested and made light of the matter, ignoring him, rummaging in her purse for something, he snatched her purse from her hands and hurled it into the thorny hedge lining the restaurant building.
The force of his action left bleeding scratch marks on her wrist and although he apologized to her, he couldn’t avoid seeing the scars on her delicate skin long afterward. She should have known better, he thought to himself, even as he said he was sorry. She was smart enough to know that he didn’t like anything from his past being brought up, much less made a joke of.
He plied her with cards and gifts even as his anger festered. Neha refused to drop the matter and began to find fault with him, as if she were poking a wild animal between the bars of its cage, daring it to lunge at her. One day, the situation exploded, with each of them ready to physically attack the other, were it not for Dev’s intervention.
How could Dev accept her into his family after all that he had seen and heard?
The question played over and over in Sunny’s mind as he walked on with Zohra. Maybe she would be able to answer him. She’d always understood him better than anyone else. It had a lot to do with where she came from, an emotionally broken world that he was no stranger to.
Zohra had grown up in a wealthy Muslim joint family ruled by the iron hand of a conservative matriarch who didn’t tolerate any kind of deviation from her rules. Sparks flew when Zohra reached college-going age. Family eyebrows were raised every time she stepped out of her house without covering her head. She even received lashings, and worse, a shady uncle tried to make advances toward her under the pretext of disciplining her.
When Zohra began to hear whispers about “settling her down in a good home,” she made a frantic dash away from it all with the support of her elder brother, who only agreed to help her move out of town for higher education if she promised to return home immediately after graduation.
Among all his friends, Sunny felt a special kinship to Zohra, the others having had a more or less “normal” past.
Night descended on them while they were making their way out of the gates of the shopping center onto the broken and dusty footpath outside. The road beside it was thick with vehicles spewing out black exhaust smoke. Crowds of people flowed past, and on one side of the footpath, vegetable and fruit vendors squeezed themselves against fences with mats and carts, the harsh lights from their electric lanterns throwing long shadows on the ground, making it seem as crowded as their surroundings.
Zohra’s head was bent over her cell phone, fingers furiously clicking its tiny buttons as they marched onward. Not many people owned one, but she possessed the latest model, a flip phone with sleek contours and a splash of orange at the top. Sunny couldn’t afford a mobile phone yet, but he was confident that he would be able to buy one of those devices when he got a job.
After passing a row of small shops, they turned left and plunged into a quiet street with respectable middle-class-type houses and apartments. After four blocks, they took a shortcut into a lane just wide enough for two or three people to walk together. To one side were clusters of thatched huts and makeshift shelters interspersed with brick kilns. A railway track ran on the other side of the narrow path that they were on.
Sandwiched between the train tracks on their left and the potter community settlement to their right, they plodded on between sections of shadow and dim light coming from the doors and windows of slum dwellings. The neighborhood was quieter here, away from the din of the main road, with only the clicking of Zohra’s scarlet nails on her device creating an accompanying rhythm as they moved on.
Finally, Zohra looked up, flipped shut the cover of her phone and tucked it into the back pocket of her jeans.
“Sunny, I want to know if you’re OK.”
At Zohra’s words, Sunny stopped in his tracks. He heaved himself up on a low brick barrier. The air smelled of wet clay and smoke from the kilns. Beyond the uneven wall that he was sitting on were the cramped living quarters of a potter family. A row of clay pots stood in a weed-filled corner nearby. Zohra hovered at his side, the train tracks right behind where she was standing.
“It’s funny how we don’t ask that one specific question because we know that the answer to it is going to hurt us the most,” Sunny said. “I think it’s our subconscious trying to protect us from our own selves.”
“I don’t understand. What question?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the question worth rupees one crore,” Sunny announced, spreading out his arms, mimicking a popular trivia game-show host on television.
He took a deep breath. “Did Dev attempt to change his brother’s mind about Neha, considering how she treated me?”
Zohra lifted and dropped her shoulders in a helpless shrug. Sunny buried his face in his hands and let out a deep groan. He sat like that, without taking his hands away while Zohra perched on the wall next to him.
For a while, all he could hear were her shallow breaths in the surrounding silence. When he finally looked up, she was staring intently at the night sky. She had taken her phone out of her pocket and was rolling it around absently between her palms.
“It is a strange universe, where random people cross paths,” she said as if to herself.
Sunny gave a snort. “Who would have thought that heartless girl would make her way into my best friend’s family? Dev is either fine with it or he doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I feel so betrayed.”
Zohra nodded. “Life is a big mess, but some of it can be cleaned up. You should talk to Dev.”
Sunny brightened up.
“Maybe you could speak to him about all this. It’ll be better if instead of me, you—”
“Sunny, Dev and I are no longer together,” Zohra said, cutting him off.
Sunny almost tumbled off the wall. He regained his balance and jumped down, knocking Zohra’s phone to the ground. A train blew its loud whistle not far off. He picked up the cell phone lying in the dust, its cover flipped open. Before he could hand it to her, his eyes landed on the open screen and he froze.
Drawing the phone closer, he clicked further, ignoring Zohra’s desperate “Sunny, give me the phone. Give it back now!” and dodging her frenzied attempts at snatching it.
He looked up, wide-eyed. “You’re still in touch with her.”
Zohra’s face turned red, guilt staining her striking features. She opened and closed her mouth before seeming to settle on what she wanted to say.
“Neha and I have always been good friends. I wanted to tell her about Dev and I ending our relationship.”
“OK, first of all, are you and Dev out of your minds?”
Zohra sighed. “I’m sorry to throw this news at you right now but I couldn’t wait any longer.”
“Why?” A quiver ran underneath Sunny’s voice.
“Delaying telling you about it was only going to make things awkward between the three of us. Plus, you were saying right now that you wanted me to talk to him for you. That’s not possible anymore. We’ve decided to break off all contact.”
“No, I mean, why are you breaking up?”
Zohra ran a hand through her hair and sighed, mentally gathering her thoughts.
“No. Don’t give me that!”
Blood thumped through a taut vein at the side of Sunny’s forehead. Or was that the noise from the approaching train?
“We want different things in life. He’s content with settling down early and taking it easy while I’m getting restless. I want to travel the world and start something of my own. You know how much I’ve fought to make it this far.”
“Sunny, here’s the real thing. The fire that ignited our relationship has long since burned out. We’ve been sleepwalking through it for some time now. It breaks my heart but what can be done?”
Sunny didn’t respond to her at once. He beat his fists on the side of his thighs in tune with the anger pulsing through him.
“I can’t believe you’re still in touch with Neha,” he said again.
Zohra wrung her hands. “Sunny, she’s not how you think she is. She’s worried about all of us, about you, in spite of your—” She stopped herself.
“In spite of my what?”
Zohra didn’t reply. She looked stunned, in disbelief over what she’d found herself in.
“In spite of my what?” Sunny barked again.
Zohra lowered her head and was barely audible when she spoke. “Your temper. It scared Neha. It frightens me sometimes, too.”
Sunny stared at Zohra. Behind him, the train hooted louder.
“Tell me something,” he said in a tone that had an ominous edge to it. “Did you ever talk to Dev about how Neha being part of his family would make me feel? Or were you and Dev engrossed in hacking down a relationship that you cannot appreciate and busy gossiping with Neha about me? How did you turn into such a traitor?”
“Sunny, it’s not like that.”
Zohra’s kohl-lined eyes shone with tears. She stood bent and swaying in front of him, like a weak sapling directly in the path of a brewing storm.
Sunny shut his eyes, but the rawness of all the past hurts refused to go away. The world was a stage, he a mere puppet on it, and the people he cared about—the audience—was jeering at him. He clenched his hands so tightly that the muscles in his entire body went rigid.
Opening his eyes, he propelled himself forward with unstoppable force just as the train thundered past. In the light of the carriages rushing by, he saw the helplessness on Zohra’s face turn into horror as he lunged toward her.
Was she afraid that he would push and throw her in the path of the oncoming train? The thought filled him with malice and a feeling of righteous power. Yes, he would do that. He would set all the wrongs right.
Before he reached her, Zohra bent down. In a flash, she picked up a rock lying on the ground.
Sunny blinked. Everything was occurring as though in slow motion. Her outstretched hand. The palm-sized rock flying out of it toward his head before continuing its journey further. Then the hollow sound of the clay pots being struck and pieces of them bursting outward. The loud crash, which might have sent the owners hurrying out of their huts were it not for the noise of the train hurtling beside them.
The last carriage sped by as Sunny stood there panting with spent rage. His forehead throbbed. Touching it, he winced as his fingers came away wet with blood. Zohra crouched in front of him, whimpering like a frightened puppy.
Sunny spat in disgust at the ground beside him and stomped off, Zohra’s sobs bouncing off an impenetrable barrier inside him.
“Sunny, wait. Please. You’re hurt.”
Her words emerged pitifully out of the darkness, but he ran away from her in a broken movement, like a limping animal, increasing the distance between himself and the damage wrought in his wake. The tears came freely then, like sudden rain. His left hand kept rubbing his upper torso in a circular motion, but try as he might, he couldn’t rid himself of a ghostly pain in his chest, as if a shard from one of the damaged clay pots had lodged itself in there forever.
One of Deepti Nalavade Mahule’s short stories was highly commended in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 1999 and others have appeared online as well as in print. Originally from India, she currently lives in California, where she spends her time developing software, reading to her four-year-old daughter, submitting short fiction and fretting about what to put in her author’s bio. Mahule’s website is at: https://deeptiwriting.wordpress.com/