The Call

By Baradwaj Rangan 0
Untitled

Even today, no one believed Bhagirathi when she said she was seventeen when she first did it. It just happened. She was there. Neil was there. They’d met at the freshman orientation at Kharagpur, because someone from her father’s office knew someone who knew someone related to Neil. Look the chap up, Appa had said. “Chap”: Appa liked to think he was very cool. It was easy to find Neil. He was the darkest boy of the bunch, something she’d been told, darker than dark brown, almost coffee-dark. And when he smiled, his teeth dazzled. He sat down next to her and Madhabi as various professors welcomed the new batch and droned on about how they were the citizens of tomorrow, and he made her giggle by drawing caricatures of the speakers on the pages of their rules-and-regulations booklet. (Madhabi, of course, was taking notes.) He smelled of smoke. There was a pack of twenties in his pocket. When they left, they made a plan to tour the surroundings.

 That didn’t take much time. It was a small industrial town. They took a long walk on the longest railway platform —“longest where?” Neil asked the station master. “In the whole ‘whorld’”—and after a hurried lunch at Dreamland, they ended up in a cinema hall named Aurora.

There were only five others. Still, they went all the way to a corner and sat down and began wincing at the inanities on screen, partners in the peculiar kind of hell only very bad movies can take you to. Then something happened—either his hand fell on hers or hers on his or it was something with the feet. Signals were accidentally given and received and she was as surprised as he was when she took his hand in hers and squeezed it tight.

He became the first male to run his hand over her dress. She looked around quickly and sat on his lap and hugged him tight. He held her for a while, hot and with a pounding heart, then disengaged himself gently and slipped out of his size-too-big kurta and spread it on the floor. As Govinda launched into a fight on screen, he kissed her and grabbed fistfuls of her long, long hair, and she tasted the tobacco on his tongue and, later, trembling, they held each other as if they were the last two people on earth. It wasn’t love at first sight. She felt this was why she’d left home, left Madras—so she could meet him. She could see them fifty years from now, smiling about their first time in a ramshackle movie hall.

*
Bhagirathi had lost count of the number of times this scene had played in her head, especially when she was inside a movie hall. She was in one this Monday afternoon. It was the new Tom Cruise movie, one of those bleak dystopian fantasies where he was one of the last people on earth.

“He’s still so hot!” she told Madhabi.

They were going to bunk work, catch up, do giggly girl things; things they couldn’t do with too many others because they hadn’t known those others as little girls. Friendships that came along later in life were different.
When Madhabi messaged and said she couldn’t make it (something about the inlaws), Bhagirathi went to the counter to ask if anyone wanted the extra ticket. But she looked at the kids standing in line, wearing T-shirts with quips from American TV shows, and quickly backed off.

It was a good decision. She enjoyed the film better with an empty seat beside her, where she kept her bag with the special shampoo the hairdresser had recommended. As she watched the film, her hand kept wandering to the silky bob. Her neck felt—there was no other word for it—naked. Around intermission, she felt queasy and attributed it to the popcorn. She thought the Sprite would make the feeling go away, but it became worse. When her stomach began to gurgle and cramp, she knew Tom Cruise would have to carry on without her. She headed to the loo, one of the only public toilets in Madras she could tolerate. That’s when the call came.

The phone sounded as if it had added a couple of kilos in the enclosed space. As she bent to look at the number on the tiny window, her hair made a little curtain over her cheeks. It would take some time getting used to the lightness. The number did not have a name attached to it, but she knew it wasn’t from someone offering a home loan or a better rate on an internet connection. She had learnt to recognise those numbers. As she answered, her voice sounded as if it had added a couple of kilos too.

The cheerful, nasal voice at the other end said, “Baggy, hi. This is Aunty.”

Even if the caller hadn’t identified herself, Bhagirathi would have known who it was. Few people in her office knew her as Baggy. It was a name from her college days, the Neil days. This was his mother.

“Hello Aunty,” Bhagirathi said. She was smiling. “Are you in town?”

Even as she asked the question, she knew the answer. Of course Aunty was in town. Aunty never called from Hyderabad, where she and Uncle now lived, with their younger son. But every time she came to Madras, which was not all that often any more, she was sure to call.

“Yes, child,” Aunty said. “Do you have time to talk now?”

Bhagirathi’s smile vanished. It exasperated her that people felt the need to ask this question. She wanted the people she liked to take liberties with her, tell her, “It’s okay if you look away from your computer for five minutes, the office won’t come crashing down.” But no one did. It exasperated her because it was a reminder of the barbwire fence she’d erected around herself over the years. It helped stave off trespassing from colleagues who wondered about her private life, which she never spoke about at work (not a single photo on her cubicle walls). But she must have sent out those signals to everyone. Even her parents hesitated before calling her at work.

Bhagirathi said, “Of course, Aunty. Do you have to ask?”

Aunty said (or it could be that she sang, so musical was her speech), “Wonderful. Wait. Neil’s here. I’ll put him on the line.”

*
They had been inseparable after that. The campus had its share of girlfriends and boyfriends, but Bhagirathi and Neil were like husband and wife. The girl’s hostel was guarded like a fortress, but he found ways to get her into his room and they spent long nights together. She never tired of marvelling at the sight of her skin next to his, and when they locked fingers it resembled the sticks of vanilla and dark chocolate in the “sundays” at Dreamland. She inhaled the smell of his damp armpit as he pulled her close. He bought her boxes of her favourite besan ki barfi, which they devoured in bed. He laughed every time she thought she found a mole. Through all the changes — the winters when her coconut oil froze; the spiciness of the jhalmuri when compared to the bhelpuri Amma used to make; the ease with which she got used to the smells of fish, which he polished off expertly, working his tongue around the tiny bones — he became her constant. She talked to him like she’d never talked to anyone, not even Madhabi. She talked about growing up as an only child in a house that was filled with people—parents, grandparents, a great-aunt who used to come and stay whenever her daughter-in-law made a cutting comment—and yet strangely empty. Appa was a temperamental workaholic. He was in the Railways, and even worked on Sundays. Amma was a scared mouse and something of a cold fish, whose only outlet for demonstrating affection was acquiescing to the family’s demands for different kinds of food. Her grandfather, trying to withdraw from the world, would go without speaking for days. Her grandmother kept herself occupied with her group of bridge-playing friends. (Neil raised an eyebrow. Women of that age, in that city, were not known to be card players.)

No one had had time for Bhagirathi, and when she left for Kharagpur—with Madhabi’s father, as Appa said he couldn’t take leave, even though this was her first time away—no tears were shed at the railway station, though everyone extracted a promise that she would write regularly. Truth be told, she didn’t care. Madhabi and she were still together. That was enough.

But now, there was Neil. For the first time, she felt she belonged to someone, that someone needed her, cared for her, loved her enough to invent a nickname for her (he couldn’t believe it when she said her parents called her using all four syllables of her name), and would put her first, above everyone else. One March, they exchanged fake-silver rings and told each other they were married.

*

“Hello?” It was Neil. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in ten years. It was a voice she heard every day.

For the second time that afternoon, Bhagirathi was annoyed. He’d Hello-d her, as if he did not know who was at the other end.

“I’ll call you in a minute,” she said, and hung up.

She couldn’t talk. All the resentment she thought she’d buried somewhere inside seemed to have risen in an instant , flicked on by the switch of his voice, by that “Hello”. Her rage needed space, at least the length and breadth of the corridor that led back to the movie hall. Her stomach felt no better, but she flushed and zipped and came out. She almost didn’t recognise herself in the mirror, this angry creature with the strange hair. She was not one of those women who frequently excused themselves to freshen up, but today, she felt her eyes could use some fresh lining, her lips a new coat. All this took longer than usual.

Outside, she called Neil.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she hissed, as if he owed her this information.

“I didn’t…” He paused, then said very slowly, measuring each word, “You said you didn’t want to be in touch anymore.”

She winced at the “r”, the result of all his time in America. They had built a bridge across years of silence by getting straight to the point.

“So Aunty still doesn’t know?”

She knew the answer even as she asked the question. He would never have told his mother.

“Just hang on a sec,” he said.

She heard the voices around him ebb away and figured he was now in another room.

“Is Melissa around?” She hated the contempt that coated her voice.

“No. She’s broken her leg. Skiing accident. She couldn’t come.”

“Oh,” Bhagirathi said. And then the words slipped out before she knew what they meant.

“So let’s meet.”

Neil hesitated. He said there was a family dinner and that would take a while.

She asked him to call her afterwards.

She kept staring at her phone long after he hung up, more worried than horrified. What had she done? And why? She clutched the instrument as if it were a contraption from the movie she’d been watching, that would whisk her away to Neil. He’d call in a few hours. He’d never call. He’d give her his room number (they were staying in a four-star hotel) and she’d go up and they’d look at each other for a startled second, registering the strands of grey and the forehead creases, then fall into each other’s arms. Or he’d ask her to meet him in the bar, and he’d have had two drinks by the time she got there, and they’d have a loud argument, and he’d blame her for not fighting for him, for asking him to make the choice, and he’d weep and she’d console him, and they’d call Melissa, poor Melissa with the broken leg, and tell her it was not her fault but the marriage was over. Or he’d be outside the hotel, smoking, as her car drew up, and she’d stop, and he’d get in, and they’d drive off somewhere for hours, slowly letting the poisons leak out of their bodies and find themselves in a beach resort in Mahabalipuram, watching the sun rise, a symbol of all their happier tomorrows.

She’d have to tell Madhabi about Neil’s call. She would know what to do.

*

The first time Bhagirathi met Uncle and Aunty, they were leaving for Velankanni. It was a sudden trip. Aunty had had a series of bad dreams that Uncle was dying, and she wanted to make an offering to the Virgin Mary. They were unable to get tickets so late, so Neil had asked Baggy to ask her father. That morning, she found herself in the Henriques’s home. His mother—the same dark skin, the same teeth—made the sign of the cross when she handed over the envelope with the tickets, and for the first time Bhagirathi felt fear. When Aunty went inside to scream at Uncle to finish packing his case, she asked Neil what he’d do if his parents wanted him to marry a Christian. He told her that she’d seen too many bad melodramas at Aurora. Before she could decide whether to grin or get angry, he pulled her close and she felt his heat. They heard Aunty and Uncle coming out and Neil went in to get the bags.

“Thank you, child,” Uncle said softly, when he saw Bhagirathi. “Such a lovely Indian name you have. Don’t let him call you Baggy.” He smiled in a way that made her wonder if he knew.

He was soon diagnosed with cancer. There were more trips to holy shrines, and each time Bhagirathi went over with tickets. Slowly, Aunty began to ask her to stay and told her stories about how she met Uncle and how they had run away and gotten married because she came from a very poor family. Sometimes they’d talk till evening, when the American TV shows on the new satellite channels would come on, and Aunty would grumble about the promiscuity on some of these shows. Sometimes, Neil’s brother would book tickets for a movie and, after it was over, Aunty would say how terrible these films were when compared to the films she grew up with like The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. Neil and his brother would break into a tuneless rendition of their own version of “My Favourite Things”: “Dog shit on roses and vomit on cushions…” Uncle would always burst out laughing.

Bhagirathi wondered if Aunty saw the rings on her finger and on Neil’s, but she never said anything. Appa and Amma, as always, noticed nothing. She’d just say she was off to visit a friend. No one asked her the name of this friend. Maybe they just assumed she was visiting Madhabi.

The relationship lasted seven years. When Madhabi asked her why they broke up, she had no answer. She mumbled something about maybe having gotten together too soon. But the real reason was that Neil couldn’t bring himself to tell his mother, whose plans for him included a master’s degree in the US, followed by a PhD. Only then would Neil be allowed to think of marriage. Neil’s father protested, but her mother did not want Neil to suffer like her husband, married early and with children before there was enough money. So Neil left. Bhagirathi did not follow. She had never considered a future anywhere else and, sometimes, when her mind was set, she stayed that way. Not even Neil could make her reconsider.

Bhagirathi wasn’t upset about his leaving. They were always together in her mind. But she was angry that he wouldn’t refuse his mother, when he’d said all along that he wanted to do an MBA and settle down in India. For the first time he became less of a man in her eyes. On the way home from their last movie before he left, she wept on his back, and he had to stop the bike because he was crying too. He said it was just for a while. “I’ll be back before you know it.” But it felt as though a book had come to an end.

*

The letters came frequently at first, with the occasional phone call when he could afford it. But Neil was not a letter writer, and she grew frustrated with his filling up space with the names of the courses he attended and what his roommate was cooking that evening and how cold or warm it was. It was like reading a report. The only reminder of what they meant to each other was the “I miss you” at the end. After a while, it wasn’t enough.

He made it back for a quick trip after the first year, but his mother told him that he should not be taking expensive flights when they still needed money for Uncle’s treatment. He couldn’t say no to that either. In a testy letter, Bhagirathi told him that he could book a room at a hotel and they could spend some time together, but Neil had many relatives in Madras. He was afraid someone would see them and tell his mother. He left soon. She didn’t write to him for three months. Then, his letters stopped coming too.

*

“I should have been strong,” Bhagirathi told Madhabi later, when they began working and became roommates. But when you’ve been with the same person for so long and when that person isn’t around anymore, for months, for years, he begins to slip away. Bhagirathi didn’t know love could change like this. She thought that the fullness in her heart whenever she thought of Neil would always remain. Instead, she now had days when she made excuses when he called—he now had a job—because she did not feel like talking to him.

It was in one of these waning phases that she got the news he had met this girl his mother had asked him to meet. “Just a friendly visit,” he said, a little too quickly. Some months later, he wrote to Bhagirathi that he liked this girl, Melissa, and asked what he should do. Another time, she may have screamed, fought, held on tight. But now, she told him he should do what he wanted. She was angry that he was even considering this, and angrier still that he was seeking her advice. “What should I do?” How pathetic. She wanted to scream, “Ask your Mama, like you always do.”

Still, she must have hoped he would come back to her. When he emailed her the news of his engagement a few months later, she broke down and rushed to the bathroom, where, gripping the sink, she tried to steady her body as it shook with sobs. When they subsided, she looked up, into the mirror, laughing at the black streaks on her cheeks. She washed her face and went out for ice creams with Madhabi, who had a fat-free yogurt and listened patiently to everything and told her it was all for the best. Madhabi was a good friend. She wasn’t one of those who’d tell her that her crappy little heartbreak meant nothing when compared to what the people in Sri Lanka or Bosnia were going through. Even if she thought it, she didn’t say it.

*

At first, Neil and Bhagirathi had tried to be civilised about it, much to Madhabi’s disapproval.

“Let’s be friends,” he wrote in an email that she read in green letters on a black screen. “I still care about you. I want  to know you’ll end up with someone.”

And so she told him about her half-hearted dates, one of which involved a road trip to Bangalore, when she knew, five minutes in, that it was going to be hell.

“Did the guy keep farting?” Neil asked.

“Grow up, Neil.”

“So did you guys end up doing it?” It was when he started talking about his life, about Melissa, that Bhagirathi realised she wasn’t going to be able to do this for long. She asked Neil once if Melissa knew about her, about what she had meant to him, about the things she had done on his body, to his body, about the blood-stippled handkerchief that she still had, a reminder of Neil’s foolishness, one drunken night, when he insisted on carving their initials on his leg. (Bhagirathi had wondered then, why not his chest, near his heart?) She asked him if Melissa knew that his every “first” had happened with her. Then he told her Melissa was pregnant.

Bhagirathi felt a jolt at being shown her place, that Melissa’s life with Neil would henceforth be a catalogue of other “firsts”. That’s when she told him she couldn’t talk to him anymore.

*
With the air of a tragic heroine, she sent him a birthday email every year, congratulating herself on remembering his birthday when he didn’t remember hers. (His reply was always, “Thank you Baggy.” Not a word more.) And it was with the same air that she continued to meet his parents. They still made trips to Velankanni (Uncle was better, though), and they never failed to call Bhagirathi when in Madras. The others had scattered. She was the only constant, an unmoving dot on the map beside Marina Beach. Sometimes, she’d consider telling them everything, and then Uncle would say something typically sweet and kind—he loved to compliment her about her long hair—and she’d hold her tongue.

Madhabi instantly saw it for what it was.
“You have to let them go as well.”

But Bhagirathi didn’t listen. In one corner of her mind, she was still leading a life with Neil, even when she was with the others who came after him. Even now, when the call came, she thought she’d chat for a while with Aunty, find out where they were staying—it was always with relatives, but they never stayed with the same people for more than a night— and then make a plan to visit them and talk about the old days, remembering this movie they all went to or the time she surprised them with her capacity for scarfing down sweets.

With some people, you keep building new memories. With others, there’s just a fixed supply, and you picked one out like a card from a deck and played it for what it was worth. Talking to Aunty and Uncle, she felt she was back in their fold, part of their lives again. She felt she belonged somewhere.

And now he was here, in her city, snatching away her time with his parents. When she called Madhabi and told her everything, Madhabi told her in-laws that there was an emergency and asked Bhagirathi to meet her at the coffee shop in the hotel where Neil was staying. That way, she said, they’d be close enough to rush over when he called. “Oh my God!” Madhabi said, when she saw Bhagirathi. After a minute, “I like it. But Amma is going to freak out.”

“If she notices,” Bhagirathi said. They giggled like little girls at the vision of Bhagirathi’s mother appraising her daughter’s first haircut ever.

“How are you?” Madhabi asked.
She didn’t wait for an answer. She emitted one of her exasperated noises when she noticed the sweat on Bhagirathi’s neck.

“If he calls, you cannot meet him like this.”
“What do you mean if he calls?” Both of them were taken aback by the hint of panic in Bhagirathi’s voice. Her hand went to her stomach.

“What’s wrong?”

Bhagirathi told her about the queasiness. Madhabi grabbed her arm and went up to the girl at the desk.

“Where’s the loo, please?”

Inside, she grabbed a bunch of napkins and wiped Bhagirathi’s face and neck.

“Do you need an Avomine?” Madhabi asked. She always carried medicines for things like headaches and the runs.

“No. I’m fine.”

“Oh my God, you aren’t pregnant, are you?”

“I have to do it with someone, no?”

They laughed hysterically.

She was still laughing when the phone rang. Neil apologised for calling so late. He asked why she was laughing, “Nothing,” she said, composing herself, wondering if this enclosed space was making her laughter sound especially ominous, as though she were laughing at him. He said his daughter had gone to bed and he couldn’t leave her alone.

Dawder.

Bhagirathi began to laugh again. She laughed at Madhabi, who was giggling as though they were still in the last bench at school. She laughed at the men who’d come after Neil. She laughed at Neil, wondering if he looked like Uncle now, the chest softer, saggier. Maybe he’d lost his hair too, like Uncle. Wiping away tears, Bhagirathi wondered, for the first time, what Melissa was like. She wondered what it would be like to go skiing.


This story was published in the April-June issue of The Indian Quarterly.


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