Exception

I’m walking home late at night, alone. I fell asleep under the stars with a buddy, and we live in opposite directions. He sprinted home hoping that he could sneak in without his dad noticing. He might succeed. But I’m screwed. My older brother doesn’t go to bed until I’m home and it’s well past my curfew.

My friend Tommy and I were hanging out in a park on a hill, looking up at the stars. From the top you get a nice view of the city. The park is a scenic little spot, surrounded by nature. My brother hasn’t been to the park in years, he’s already an adult even though he’s only 17. He has no time to enjoy the finer things in life, not that people from our world have much to enjoy. We’re dirt poor.

Luckily my brother and I have always had a roof over our heads. When Tommy was 3 years old, he and his sister and his mum were homeless. His dad was in prison at the time. So Tommy and his family were stuck outside one winter, and there was a dreadful blizzard that day.

Eventually they made their way to a residential neighborhood and came across a house with the garage still open. They went inside the garage and shut the garage door. There was a car in there, with the keys hanging from the handle of the car door. They got into the car.

They thought they hit the jackpot. Even if it took the homeowner five minutes to figure out what was going on, they would at least get an extra five minutes to stay warm. After getting into the car, Tommy’s mom switched on the heater. They all fell asleep in the back seat. Tommy’s mom and his sister both died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Tommy survived. Ever since Tommy’s dad got out of prison, he’s been extra protective of Tommy.

I’m almost home. I see that the living room lights are still on. All the houses on our street are identical – all of them squished next to each other, with no space to breathe. Tiny houses and tiny backyards for people that can’t afford to dream too big. Block like houses with low-sloping roofs. I get into my block and step into the living room. My brother Andy’s watching TV. Mom is lying on the sofa.

‘Mom’s not feeling well.’ Andy says.

‘Since when?’

‘Half an hour.’

Mom gets sick a lot. Headaches, fevers, panic attacks, all of this started when dad left us a couple years ago.

‘Watch her while I get the meds.’ He leaves the house.

Andy could’ve gotten the meds while I was out but then mom would’ve been home alone, and she does not like being home alone when she’s sick. It makes her panic, which ultimately leads to more nervous breakdowns.

Andy could’ve asked me to get the meds since I was already outside, but he doesn’t want me to spend even one extra second out of the house after the 11 pm curfew. That’s why he waited for me to come home before stepping out. Our area isn’t safe, especially after what happened to Tommy.

Tommy losing his mother and sister is definitely the worst thing that happened to him, but something pretty bad happened to him last year. He was walking home late at night when some rich kids from school ambushed him. They surrounded him. They beat him up. Then they dragged him into a car and raped him. I don’t know any more than that, Tommy doesn’t like to talk about it. But he hasn’t gotten into a car since then.

Buses and trains are fine, but cars are out of the question. Once Tommy was getting late for an exam and a friend offered to drive him to school. But Tommy said no way. He ended up taking the bus even though he knew he’d be late. He missed the first half hour of the exam and barely passed that course.

My brother Andy comes back home and gives mom the meds.

‘Fell asleep in the park again?’ Andy asks.

‘Yeah. Sorry.’

‘Maybe I should come with you one of these days.’ Andy sighs.

‘Really?’ I ask.

‘It’s been so long since I had a life. I can’t remember the last time I went to the park.’

‘I remember.’ I reply. ‘You taught me how to ride a swing.’

‘Oh yeah. You know I also can’t remember the last time we went to the movies. Even before the pandemic happened, I hadn’t been to a theatre in years.’

Wow. I’m shocked. I expected Andy to scold me for being so careless. Before dad left and before mom kept getting sick, he was so energetic and full of life. Now he’s an overburdened adult.

‘Well, you haven’t missed much.’ I reply. ‘No good movies have come out in a while.’

Before Andy can reply mom calls him over and tells him that one of the meds he got is the wrong one.

‘Oh crap, the names are so similar.’ Andy says. ‘I mixed them up.’

‘Let me go get the right one.’

‘No way.’ Andy says. ‘Curfew, remember?’

‘Forget the curfew. You’re exhausted. You do too much. You’re going to burn out before you turn 18 and legally become an adult.’

‘Well…’

‘I’m going.’ I get up and quickly leave before he stops me.

What I love about summer is that you don’t need to put on a million layers to stay warm. I’m wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. That’s it. I like keeping it simple. The weather tonight is quite cool, very pleasant, the wind is utterly refreshing.

I reach the pharmacy, exchange the wrong meds for the right ones, and start to make my way back home. I’m passing by a mall parking lot when a couple cars pull up next to me. Oh no. These are the rich kids from school – the ones that ambushed Tommy last year.

I quickly get out my phone and text Tommy and Andy. I tell them where I am. I should call 911 too. But before I can do that the rich kids jump out of their car and quickly grab me and pin me to the ground.

‘Well, well. Look what we have here.’ Chad says. Chad’s the leader of the group. They all look up to him.

‘What should we do with him?’ One of Chad’s friends smiles.

So this is what it’s like to be completely helpless. This is what Tommy felt last year. Maybe I should just shit my pants, I feel the urge. Maybe the smell will drive them away. Or maybe it’ll piss them off even more and make them do worse things to me.

That’s what happened to another kid they once bullied. They ganged up on another poor kid from my neighborhood. That kid immediately pulled down his pants, squatted and took a dump. Chad’s friends were so shocked that they didn’t react for a few seconds.

Then the kid picked up his own shit and started throwing it at them. Chad’s friends scattered, they couldn’t stand it. But Chad didn’t even flinch. Chad had another person’s shit all over him, but it didn’t matter. Chad simply picked up that other kid’s shit, shoved it down the kid’s throat, and then proceeded to beat him to a pulp.

‘He’s a pretty little boy, isn’t he?’ Another of Chad’s friends asks.

‘You can have him after I’m done with him.’ Chad says.

And that’s when I wish my dad hadn’t left us. My dad was a tough guy. He knew how to box. He always said he’d teach me how to fight one day but that day never came.

I shut my eyes and pray for a miracle. Maybe my dad will show up and save me.

Before Chad and his friends can actually do anything, I hear a car approaching. The engine is really loud. It’s coming faster and faster. Chad and his friends see the car heading right towards them, so they spread out in different directions and get out of the way.

But the car follows Chad and runs him over. The car’s steel rips into Chad’s body, breaking his bones and crushing his organs.

Chad’s friends freak out and run away. It’s an old worn-out car, one of the side mirrors is missing, the windshield is cracked, and there’s a ton of rust on it. And then Tommy gets out of the car. He gets out of the driver’s side of the car. Tommy not only got inside a car, he actually drove, and ran over the worst human being I’ve ever known.

‘Are you okay?’ Tommy comes over to me.

‘Y-yeah I’m fine.’ I reply. My head is hurting.

Just then another car shows up. It’s Andy’s car. He gets out and comes over to us.

‘Are you two okay?’ Andy asks.

‘Yeah, for now.’ Tommy says.

Before I can breathe a sigh of relief, a bullet splits Andy’s skull. My brother falls to the ground, his brains spilling out. His once handsome face is now nothing but chunks of flesh and bone. I can’t stand anymore. I sit down on the ground slowly.

Tommy and I see Chad holding a gun. Chad is lying on the ground, his hand is shaking. His fingers are mangled. His legs are still under the car than rammed into him. I’m guessing that if he wasn’t so badly injured, he would’ve shot all three of us by now. It shouldn’t take so long to shoot thrice and kill all three of us. But he’s taking time to fire again.

Before Chad can pull the trigger again, Tommy darts over there and kicks the gun out of his hand. Tommy takes out a switchblade from his pocket and quickly slits Chad’s throat.

‘We have to get out of here.’ Tommy says.

And we do. Tommy helps me get into Andy’s car, and we drive away.

Tommy and I rarely spoke about that night ever again. After Chad and Andy died, the rich kids from school took a break from bullying the poor kids. But it wasn’t long before a new Chad emerged, and things went back to normal.

The cops never figured out who killed Chad, and they didn’t try very hard, because even they knew what a monster he was. And since Andy was poor, they didn’t put too much effort into investigating his death.

Today when I think about my brother, I try to only think about the good times. I try not to think about the fights we used to have. All I know for sure is that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without him, and I’m damn lucky that he was my older brother.

Tommy and I eventually moved out of that area. Things got better for us. But Tommy never did overcome his fear of cars. He never got into one again.

He only made an exception for me.

And I’ll always love him for it.

Rot

‘He looks miserable, Matt!’ Rebecca suddenly remarked, eyeing the homeless man in the shadows.

Mathew’s reverie was broken. He had been walking with Rebecca’s hand in his own after their perfect candlelit dinner on October 31st – three years since their first date, complete with his proposal, which Rebecca had accepted. He deemed her perfect, as was their relationship. With her, even the silence felt comfortable and companionable. They’d spend many a rainy afternoon on their couch together, with him pouring over his sci-fi novels, and her, those classic horror stories or Victorian romance novels. She was truly a paradox. And she was his.

Now she stood silently staring at the homeless man with pitiful eyes.

Rebecca – ever the empath.

Mathew handed her some loose change saying, ‘Here –’ also silently praying that she wouldn’t start one of her tirades about egalitarianism.

Rebecca bent over to drop the loose change into a shabby hat saying, ‘Please take care, Sir…’ when the man with a sudden move lurched at her ankle, biting it.

Rebecca screamed. Before she and Mathew could really process what had just happened, the man scampered into a dark alley.

‘Jesus, what the –’ Mathew began.

‘Did he just bite me?’ Rebecca asked in a quivering voice.

Mathew was now kneeling before her, examining her ankle. ‘It’s just a graze, love,’ he assured her, wiping the redness and the drool left by the lunatic, with his handkerchief.

Putting an arm around her, he decided to take her home immediately and order her favourite salted caramel ice cream.

It had been a week since the night of the proposal. Rebecca had all but forgotten about her encounter with the disturbed homeless man. She was now shopping with her cousin, and preparing for her wedding, which was in three months.

She was now at a perfumer’s on her cousin’s insistence. Claire had insisted that they pick out the perfect perfume for Rebecca’s special day.

‘Why can’t I wear my usual scent, Claire?’ Rebecca had whined.

‘Ugh! You can’t wear your usual CK to your wedding!’ Claire had reprimanded her. ‘Too pleb!’

‘Here, try this,’ she insisted, handing Rebecca a tester of Tom Ford’s Black Orchid.

Rebecca sniffing at it disinterestedly said, ‘Yeah, I like it. Let’s take it.’ She couldn’t believe they had spent over an hour looking for perfumes when they had so much ground to cover.

‘Becca! C’mon, you didn’t even smell it properly!’

This time Rebecca took a deep whiff. She decided that she genuinely liked it. But something was wrong.

She smelled it again. There, beneath all the notes of bergamot, patchouli and vanilla, was the unmistakable smell of rot. It was revolting.

‘Claire,’ she whispered, ‘It smells like shit.’

Claire giggled. ‘Here, try this one, instead,’ she insisted, handing Rebecca a bottle of Vera Wang’s Princess.

Rebecca smelled that, and the one after that. And beneath all of the fruity, floral and aromatic notes, was the distinctive smell of rot. It reminded her of death.

Rebecca had run home that afternoon, pleading with Claire to excuse her, saying she wasn’t feeling well. Must be all the wedding preparation related stress, she had explained.

She had come home, showered, put on fresh pyjamas and her signature Calvin Klein perfume, and curled up on the couch with ‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’, the second book in the Bridgerton series.

But the smell lingered. It had become worse. No matter what she did, the smell remained. It was then that Rebecca realised that it was coming from her. She smelled like rot and decay.

‘Hey, babe!’ Mathew called out. ‘What do you feel like eating today? Dim sums?’

Rebecca threw her arms around him and asked tentatively, ‘Matt, do you smell anything?’

‘Err…’ he started uncertainly. ‘Are you wearing something new? Did Claire take you perfume shopping? Sorry, love. You smell like… well, you.’

Rebecca looked at him suspiciously. Could he really not smell it? Was she losing it?

Rebecca was out for a jog. She sprinted half a block and then doubled over, feeling completely winded. What was happening to her? This fatigue was unfamiliar to her.  She looked up to find a frail old lady doubled over with age, struggling to cross the street. She immediately rushed to her side to help her. She held her hand, and slowly helped her across the street, to the safety of the sidewalk. But as she held the old lady’s hand in her own, all she could feel was her steady pulse which drowned out everything around her. Rebecca looked down at the frail, almost skeletal hand that she now held in her own, with bulging blue veins – it looked delicious. Her stomach started growling. She just wanted one taste. And then, the spell was broken. She felt disgusted and excused herself.

As the weeks went by, Rebecca felt less and less like herself. She had lost her appetite and sleep.  The face that greeted her in the mirror was a shadow at best of her former self. Her once bright green eyes were now always bloodshot and puffy, and the dark circles under her eyes were almost reaching her cheekbones. Thankfully, Mathew was not there with her to witness any of it. He was away on a month-long business trip. But what about when he returned?

Rebecca cursed the day she had decided to help the homeless man. He had infected her with something; she knew it. She had seen several doctors since then – none of them had been able to come up with something conclusive. They had all surmised that it was probably pre-wedding stress, and suggested that she see a therapist. Rebecca had laughed bitterly. What could she be stressing about? She was marrying the love of her life!

One day, as the hunger pangs hit, and she opened her refrigerator door to make herself a sandwich; her eyes fell on some raw filet mignon and before she knew what she was doing, she was eating the bloodied meat straight from the bag it came in with her bare hands.

But it didn’t stop there. One evening, when she found her neighbour’s beagle, Phoebe, wandering the block by herself, she rushed to the dog’s side with the intention of carrying her back in her arms to her neighbour. But as she gathered Phoebe in her arms, an uncontrollable instinct took over – and she found herself exerting more and more pressure on the little dog’s windpipe until it stopped whimpering and lay lifeless in her arms. She then proceeded to devour its tiny body and then buried its remains in a shallow grave.

Rebecca was spiralling.

The worst part of the infection wasn’t the deafening silence or the loneliness that seemed to be her constant companion. It was being fully conscious, but being unable to control the actions of her rotting body.

She couldn’t let Mathew see her like this. So, the day he was going to return, she packed herself a light bag which would keep her going for the next few days and made up her mind to leave. Who knew how many days she had left?

Mathew’s flight was scheduled to land around midnight, and he would be home around 1 am. Right before the clock struck midnight, Rebecca scribbled a terse note for Mathew which read, “Matt, I am not the woman you fell in love with. She’s gone, and now I should too. I will love you forever, but may you find the happiness you deserve with someone else. Yours, Rebecca.”; took one last look at the apartment she had shared with her fiance and left.

She had no idea what she would do the next few days. But she had one certain pit stop. She took a cab to the restaurant she had visited with Mathew that fated night when a single act of kindness had made her life go awry. She got down at the restaurant, tipped the driver generously and then proceeded to walk around the block.

She finally found the man she was looking for – the homeless lunatic. He seemed to have shrunk since she last saw him, but he still wore the dirty brown windcheater jacket from their first meeting. She slowly approached him and crouched before him. As their eyes met, she was sure that he neither recognised her nor felt her presence. His eyes had a vacant look but were far more bloodshot than her own with dark circles that made his eyes look like they were outlined with soot. But the stench of rot and decay were only too familiar.

Revenge had never been a part of Rebecca’s plan. She was sure that he would fuck himself up on his own. And while she knew that there was no turning back from this, she couldn’t let him hurt anyone else. So she grabbed a handful of the man’s hair, tipped his head back, and began to gnaw and tear at his filthy neck.

The Wedding Saree

It was with great difficulty that I managed to stay put in my wedding saree. For some reason, the gold embroidered silk felt rather coarse against my skin and the pins set to hold the pleats together in place kept falling off. I couldn’t shake the anxiety that at any point, I would slip and ruin my saree’s beautiful architecture.

Save the constant discomfort, I have no other clear memory of the wedding. Fortunately, the wedding reception that followed required much lesser bridal sacrifice – a chiffon saree was neatly wrapped around my body by my mother-in-law who ensured everything stayed well in place. Besides, it was a beautiful reception. All our guests looked happy, well-dressed and well-fed. I suppose that was all it took to make people happy. Both mine and his – Yatin’s – families had done an excellent job of presenting the most picture-perfect string of Parsi rituals. Our wedding festivities had everything one could imagine at a wedding like ours: daughter of a businessman who happened to be a recently graduated lawyer, marrying into a family of reputed litigation lawyers. From one villa at the tiny peninsula of Colaba in Mumbai city to another. A number of our relatives made it a point to “ooh” and “aah” about how lucky I was to be just within the walking vicinity of my maternal home. I smiled coyly back for their entertainment. My in-laws also welcomed some of the most revered litigators and judges in the country to bless the newlyweds a lifetime of happiness. With our Parsi lineage, ‘lifetime’ was rather a certainty.

I often think about my wedding reception, usually with some degree of fondness. I remember sitting on the altar with my new husband, smiling at the faces of familial strangers, and posing for pictures with them. I remember admiring the rows of roses clinging to the walls on either side of the banquet. The red and white roses smelled fresh and looked beautiful, and brought with them memories of the terrace garden I used to tend to as a child. Most fondly, I remember my friends laughing and teasing my husband about married life woes, filling him in with anecdotes about me. My parents, though, were barely around, choosing to spend their remaining time and energy on honouring all the guests. I didn’t know why they even bothered – wedding receptions were traditionally thrown by the groom’s family; mine could have instead spent some more time with me.

It was only on the night of the wedding reception that it hit me that I was someone’s wife. That I was Yatin’s wife who had to stay at Yatin’s house and sleep on Yatin’s bed. In the quiet corner of Yatin’s – our, room, I allowed myself a moment to process. The mirror in front of me showed a twenty-three-year-old woman, staring at her reflection. I remember my eyebrows were not creased together in a frown, so I must have been happy. Peaceful, at least, despite the heavy jewellery no human should be allowed to adorn, tugging at various body parts. I had more gold clinging to my face and neck than I had years spent on this planet. I wondered when my husband would come in. I took out my make-up bag and applied some more mascara on my lashes. Then I removed the red bangles gifted by my mother-in-law and let them fall untidily on the four-post rosewood bed next to a rosewood dressing table. The red bangles lay scattered on the pristine white sheets, finally exposing their fragility. White and red. That banquet hall, Yatin’s room, my attire, everything seemed to be composed of two primary colours: white and red. Colours of purity. Sacred colours signifying a marriage that I was hitherto unfamiliar to.

**

The next morning, I woke up on an unfamiliar king-sized bed at dawn to the sound of someone opening and shutting the timid drawers of a heavy rosewood chest. I opened one eye and saw Yatin’s face through my squint, twisted in worry. Within seconds, the memories of the previous night came flooding onto my mind. It was only a few hours ago that we were eating pulao and sali-na-gosht from the same plate to embrace a custom called dahikoomron in front of our wedding guests. We had playfully fought over the last piece of chicken – much to the amusement of our parents, who were happily cheering us on. I didn’t even like chicken all that much. Surely, my parents should have known.

“What are you looking for?” I asked him, blinking several times to force my eyes open.

Yatin’s head quickly tilted towards me, and his expression registered surprise at the sight of my visage. I supposed it would take him a while to get used to having me in his bedroom, a little longer to accept my presence fully. “Oh, just need to get back to work. It’s been, like a week of wedding plodding and work can only wait so long. I had kept, like, some important papers in my room. Um, our room, sorry. Can’t find them.”

“Oh. What time is it?” I asked, my voice groggy. I turned my head towards my left and noticed that Yatin’s side of the bed hadn’t been slept on.

“Uh, it’s five am,” Yatin scratched his beard. He had a nice beard, that man. It brought out the colour of his dark brown eyes. “It’s when I wake up, actually. Sorry, we couldn’t, uh, talk last night. I was exhausted, you know. Anyway, dad is expecting you in his office at like, noon, so feel free to sleep longer, if you like. Some relatives would be coming over for breakfast, so you can eat with them, I guess.”

“Right,” I could hear the disappointment in my voice. I didn’t even know what I was so disappointed about, just that I was. My husband didn’t notice. I wanted to ask him where he would be having his breakfast, but I decided against it. His habits and routines would soon all be as familiar to me as my own.

Yatin got up and walked towards his wardrobe. He rummaged through the shelves urgently. I got up and switched on the bedside lamp. In a minute, he seemed to have found whatever it was that he was looking for. I saw him take out a stack of papers on top of his pile of shirts and smile at himself. I turned towards my left so I didn’t have to face him and closed my eyes. He did not say another word before leaving his bride alone in his bedroom.

I tried to go back to sleep but it evaded me. The red rose petals on our bed that I had pushed aside from my corner to sleep last night failed to calm my nerves. Did my husband not want me? Why was there no mention of a honeymoon? Why didn’t I ask for one? Was it a mistake to agree to get married this fast? For a pleasant company, the rose petals didn’t offer much advice. I picked them apart, letting my mind torture me with questions I couldn’t answer. So much for aromatherapy.

**

At 12 noon sharp, I found myself dressed and determined. My mood had shifted for the better at the excitement of working in the chambers of one of the finest legal minds in the country. I was a married and employed woman – how strange was that? Did it all happen in just a matter of months? It seemed like only yesterday that my parents had spoken to Yatin’s for our marriage prospect. Smiling to myself, I walked the five-minute distance from my new house to my new office.

Once I reached the office building, an old security guard by the name of Nitigya pushed a large register towards me. I opened it, accepted a pen, and wrote my name and address on its yellowing pages. The watchman rang someone up, spoke for a few seconds, and signaled me to enter the building. I thanked him and walked straight ahead.

Ramin Akhrotwala’s office occupied about a quarter of the second-floor area of the high-rise building, yet it was undoubtedly one of the most prestigious places for a litigation lawyer to find herself in. The office itself wasn’t much to look at, with beige walls and an old woman seated at the front (rosewood) desk. The atmosphere, however, felt laced with possibilities. The receptionist congratulated me on my wedding and showed me inside. I thanked her and walked into the corridor of the main office. I knew my way around – I had interned in this very office two summers ago, though the interiors seemed to have changed quite a bit since.

I found my father-in-law’s cabin and knocked twice before opening the door. Ramin and Yatin appeared to be immersed in an old book of Supreme Court judgments. Neither man acknowledged my presence. An office peon fetched me a glass of chilled water. I thanked him and sat down wordlessly. The chamber was not as large as it had seemed earlier, but it looked intimidating still, with every available space filled to the brim with art, books and sundry objects. Stacks and stacks of books filled three whole walls of the room. On the fourth wall, behind where my father-in-law and Yatin stood, I could see part of a painting. Some kind of modern art. It appeared expensive. I wondered if I would be given my own chamber soon.

“Ayesha, welcome to the family,” Yatin’s father finally said after what felt like several minutes. I got up from my seat and smiled in response. “But this,” – he gestured towards the chamber – “you know, is our real family. Me and my sons have worked very, very hard all these years. My wife, of course, had to give up her practice after Yatin was born. But, no. We don’t expect you to give your practice up at all. In fact, we encourage you to keep working always, yeah?”

I nodded. From the corner of my eye, I saw Yatin turn a page of his book.

“Ayesha,” he continued, carefully picking up and handing me a yellow manila envelope that rested on his table. “These are some important documents. Can you go with the driver and deliver them to our client? The address is written on the back of the envelope.”

He then looked at me expectantly. Immediately, I took the envelope from his hand and examined the address. It was in Mulund, far away from Colaba. When I looked at him again, he was already on his mobile. I turned my face towards Yatin, who continued to remain absorbed in whatever judgment he was reading. His concentration was indeed admirable. I pushed the chair back into its former position and left the cabin. I took the driver’s number from an office staff and stepped out of the lobby, urging myself to plaster a pleasant expression on my face the whole time. It was the longest minute of my day, and I had just sat through hours-long wedding functions the previous evening. Once I was inside the safety of the office car, only then did I allow myself to think – what just happened? Was that all? Had they run out of secretaries or did my husband not want me around anywhere?

**

“Happy one-month anniversary, babe!” Yatin kissed me softly on my lips.

“Happy one-month to you too,” I smiled, inhaling his musk fragrant after-shave. I wished he would kiss me properly, with his tongue in mine. However, after many feeble attempts at changing his mind on what he proclaimed were ‘his way of doing things’, I had given up on the idea that Yatin would ever be okay with anything other than a perfunctory kiss. I had also given up trying to convince my husband to be intimate with his bride more frequently than once a week on Saturday nights. “It is the only day I am truly rested, Ayesha,” he had said when I had tried to bring it up. “And you know I can’t do this unless I am relaxed and have whiskey in one hand and you on my lap.”

I had laughed and pretended to understand, but honestly, I thought it was the whiskey in his right hand more than my waist in his left that made him ‘relaxed’ enough to sleep with me. Why bother at all?

That evening, as I laid the dinner plates out, making sure they were all within the boundaries of the embroidered beige coasters, I wondered if I needed to be the one to always set the table. My mother had said I would know when it was time to be less formal, but time, it was cunning: it always fooled us and we always let it. How else could I explain how years of my life were shorter than a month at this house?

“Ooooh, why’s there a vegetable on this fish?” Baman, my brother-in-law, asked as soon as he entered the dining hall. He pouted at the stir-fried capsicum I had added to the pomfret fry.

“You try it with the fish, Baman. It will taste good,” I said, trying to keep my voice as polite and perked up as possible. On the day our families had met for discussing the wedding nuptials, Yatin’s mother had specifically mentioned they wanted a “happy, cheerful daughter-in-law”. It was an odd standard to keep up to, but I needed to try.

“No, we don’t do that here,” Baman responded, picking at his food. He ordered a servant to bring back the dish with no capsicum in vicinity. “And throw all the bastards away in the dustbin!”

I blinked several times, trying to ward off tears of frustration that had formed their way into the corners of my eyes. I wanted so badly to reprimand him, make him feel guilty for throwing the capsicums that had taken me time and effort to prepare. He could have at least asked for a separate plate! Wordlessly, I moved over towards my seat at the opposite side of the rectangular dining table and served myself some rice.

“The mens rea is not proved in this case, son,” I heard the booming voice of the head-of-the-family as he approached the dining room, Yatin in tow. Father and sons had been quite busy working on a high-profile case involving the kidnapping and subsequent killing of a local politician’s daughter.

“You know dad, the thing is, the servants always, like, know something,” Yatin said. A rather generic statement, in my opinion. The father-son duo pulled out their chairs and readied themselves to eat. I walked towards them and served both some rice on their plates. Yatin absent-mindedly put a ladel of dal on his side-bowl, his mind clearly on the case.

“I am confident we will know more after our cross,” Baman said between mouthfuls of fish fry.

“When is the cross prep? Can I join?” I asked my father-in-law, trying to tone down the excitement in my voice. My job so far had been to ensure all folders were in order, list of dates maintained, and district court online portal scanned daily for order dates of ongoing cases. I was not even sure I knew anything of the case other than what was written in the newspapers. I suspected the summer interns knew a lot more. “I am sure one of the clerks can take care of the photocopying work I have tomorrow,” I added for good measure, tucking my hair behind my ears.

All three men tilted their heads upwards where I stood and regarded me in silence. They appeared to have frozen on spot. I wondered if I had said something wrong. Was it too soon? And suddenly, more than ever, I missed the neutral presence of my mother-in-law in the house. Where was she anyway?

“Sweetheart,” my father-in-law was the first one to recover. “We have lots of people coming in to the office tomorrow. We need you to attend to our guests, make sure they have tea, coffee, whatever. That’s how we do things here. I’m sure you understand.”

No, Ramin, I did not understand, I wanted to lash out. Instead, I pulled my chair out from under the table and sat down to eat dinner with my husband’s family.

**

“Happy two-month anniversary, babe!” Yatin landed a dry kiss on my lips. Had it only been a few weeks since I had been married? A tiny speck of my lipstick stuck to his lips. I swiftly wiped it off with my index finger. His skin looked so rough. No wonder he had thought of keeping a beard. He did not have it two years ago, when I first saw him and secretly wished I were his wife. The beard hid the ingrown hair on his cheeks. His shaved face, what I remembered of it, felt odd, out of place, like sandpaper pretending to be a glossy page of a magazine.

“We don’t need to wish each other every month, babe,” I said. “It’s not like we are twelve. Or is that your family’s way of doing things too?” Without meaning to, a snicker had escaped my throat.

“What do you mean?” Yatin asked, his tone sharp.

“Nothing, I am sorry,” I apologized, sitting down on our bed. I took out my mascara and applied a coating of it on my lashes. What day was it today? Tuesday? Or was it Thursday already? It was difficult to keep count when each day felt the same. Was this all it was ever going to be – was this really the rest of my entire life? Oh God, how many years did I have left?

I closed the lid of my mascara container and put it inside my make-up bag. Even after two months, most things in our room looked exactly the same, save an extra rosewood wardrobe for me. Same curtains, same bedspread, same table and chair, even the same photo frames and medals collected by my husband during his school days, now placed on the rosewood chest of drawers. My mother would have thrown mine by now. I had tried to get the white sheets replaced with colourful ones two weeks ago, but Yatin seemed rather attached to white. I picked up the newspaper that was lying carelessly on the bedside table. My eyes landed on a news item on the front page.

“Yatin, is this the kidnapping case where we are representing the defendant?” I enquired.

“Yes.”

“It says in the paper that one of the servants confessed to seeing our client the night of the kidnapping,” I pulled the chair next to the dresser and sat down. “Is that what happened in court?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. What’s going to happen now? Do you want me to look up past precedents or something?”

“What past precedents?” Yatin finally broke his monotone. He adjusted his tie in front of the mirror and asked, “Do you even know what we are looking into?”

“Uh, no,” I responded, slightly taken aback at his hostility. “But you know, Yatin, I topped criminal law in college and…”

“This is not college, sweetheart.”

“Yes, but I have spent two months doing whatever you expect freshers to do. If I were to reach your level in my fourth year, I need to be able to be more involved than this, right?”

He looked at me then, his expression unreadable. I was certain he could hear my heartbeat in the deafening silence of the room.

After what felt like an eternity, he took a long, deep sigh and said, “Babe, it’s Saturday. Let’s just go to the party, enjoy ourselves and call it a night, yeah? Would you mind making that whiskey cocktail again – with apple juice and honey? It was, like, really good the last time, so.”

**

“Happy six-month anniversary, babe!” Yatin planted a kiss on my cheek. I gritted my teeth out of reflex. By the sixth month of our marriage, my irritation towards my husband had reached its peak to the point that every single thing he did irked me. He could be breathing next to me and I would want to suffocate him with a pillow. Just to get a fraction of the frustration off my chest, once I had almost slapped him in the middle of the night!

“In yesterday’s meeting, all these interns kept yapping loudly in the corridor,” he continued nonchalantly, sounding so much like his father that I was caught off-guard for a second. That was all. No other follow-up on the monthly anniversary greeting, no sir. My husband was a man of few words, most of which he billed in large amounts to our clients. For someone who talked for a living, he sure could have put a little more effort into communicating with his wife.

“Yes, we do have too many interns this time,” I said. “Remember back when I was an intern, and you used to call me that – ”

“You know how much that disturbs dad, right?” Yatin cut me off. “Please can you make sure those pesky interns are silent. We have a video-conference scheduled at eleven today.”

“I will see what I can do,” I replied while applying moisturizer on my face. I looked beautiful, not that Yatin would ever acknowledge it.

“Oh, there’s the lunch meeting today at Taj,” he said, adjusting his shirt collar. “Only Baman and I are going. But, like, you know that. You are so efficient sometimes I don’t know how I did any of my scheduling before you.”

“Hmm…Maybe your secretary did?” I ran a comb through my hair. From the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up his briefcase that was lying aimlessly on his side of the bed.

Then he turned around and raced out of the room, his ‘lawyer mode’ on. Was I mistaken or did we not both go to the same office around roughly the same time? Shaking my head, I picked up his wet towels and last night’s worn clothes and shoved them inside the laundry basket. Then I made the bed, straightened the pile of Yatin’s vitamins strewn across the dresser, and closed the doors of the bath and the wardrobe. Now, was that so hard? My mother-in-law seemed to have taken in a permanent shelter elsewhere, leaving me alone to pick up after her three children.

I walked towards the window and lifted the curtains to let the cool monsoon air enter inside. Yet, despite all my efforts, I felt suffocated. Like the air was coming in, but it was continually failing to fill my oxygen-deprived lungs. I closed the window shut and walked towards my dressing table. Then I paced around the room a few more times until I was back in front of the mirror, staring at myself. I liked looking at it; the mirror made me feel less alone. At the moment, it reflected a woman with apparently not much to offer to the legal world other than to scare off interns and arrange for tea and coffee at important meetings. Was that all they saw in me? Did my education and years of burning the midnight oil at law school not matter? Or was this some kind of test where they would ask me to do ridiculous secretarial work for months before finally rewarding me with a modicum of professional respect?

The face reflecting off the mirror did not reveal anything about the rising agony inside of me. For all their reputation of being brutally truthful, mirrors certainly hid a lot. When my husband and I made love, they did not reveal the disgust my internal organs felt each time Yatin laid on top of me. Whatever we did all those Saturday nights, it sure wasn’t love we were making. But entitlement came easy to my husband. He didn’t need to be bothered with the responsibility of caring for a marriage arranged by his beloved parents. Nine months ago, when my mother had asked me if I had anyone in mind for marriage, I had not thought twice before mentioning to her that yes, I did once have a raging crush on a first-year associate I had interned under – a man, who until he met my parents, had clearly forgotten about the existence of some summer intern in his father’s chambers. Even now, I was simply supposed to wait around, looking for scraps, and be delighted at whatever crumbs of affection he had left to offer. Yatin didn’t ave to make an attempt to earn my love and affection on any given day, he didn’t need to introspect if he even deserved half of it, he just needed to have my love handed to him on a silver platter, with unpleasant capsicums discarded at will.

And why couldn’t I say no to him? I was a lawyer, after all – my meaningless job couldn’t take away my degree – and I definitely knew my marital rights. I could say no, then why didn’t I? Instead, I let him do things I didn’t want to be done to me. I allowed him to kiss me when I didn’t want to be kissed, bark orders at me when I didn’t want to have to work under him, and entertain his friends when he didn’t once suggest to meet mine.

I closed my eyes, letting my anger wash over me. My eyes fell on the 0.54 carat diamond ring on my left hand. Without a second’s thought, I slid it off my finger. My ring finger felt… free. A second passed. Then two seconds… And then, a minute… How quickly had the minute passed, and yet how good had that single minute felt. Beads of perspiration landed on my face and chest, threatening to upset my careful composure. I found a remote on the window-sill and turned on the air-conditioner. I had had my minute. It was now time to put the ring back on. Yet I held on to it a little longer, examining the platinum band and the square-cut diamond, now glinting under the rays of the sun that had escaped from the window. It must have cost the Akhrotwala family at least fifty lakhs. Despite Mumbai’s exorbitant prices, if I sold my wedding ring, I could afford rent for years. I sat on Yatin’s bed and stared at my ring for five whole minutes at the end of which I just knew what I had to do.

I suppose I had known it for a while now.

I made the decision to file for dissolution of my marriage under the Parsi Marriage and Divorce Act, 1936. I could almost predict what would happen next as easily as I could predict what my husband would want to have for breakfast tomorrow (poha and watermelon juice). I knew he wouldn’t ask me to reconsider, but my father-in-law would. In the end, however, they would all give in. In about three to four months, the judge would grant us our freedom. Local newspapers would go berserk ruining my reputation with claims that I was just another girl who wanted to make some quick buck off a shotgun wedding. My parents would cut off ties with me almost instantaneously. Not that I would expect anything less from them.

With all my streedhan, I would be able to make an initial deposit for renting a new apartment. I could choose some place in Andheri, far enough from the south side of Mumbai, but somewhere I could easily be able to commute via the local train to and fro work. I could apply for a job at Shailesh Sarabhai’s chambers – a well-known nemesis of my in-laws and the only person I knew in the city who would allow me to step a foot inside his office after my divorce. In the interim period, I could stay at the women’s hostel in Colaba, or ask one of my friends for help in arranging for my accommodation.

I felt a rush of happiness, so steep that I couldn’t help a grin. My heartbeat was fast, eager. I took a few long sips of water to steady my breath. My ring shone so bright under the rays of the sun that I had to close my eyes. In all my excitement, I didn’t even hear Yatin back walk into the room.

“You ready?”

I turned my neck around so quickly it hurt. The bottle of water in my hand felt cool against my skin. Very soon though, I would be able to drink hot water again, just like I preferred. I clutched the bottle tightly in my right hand. My throat felt parched.

“Ayesha, dad’s asking if you would like to join us in the court today,” he said, walking towards our wardrobe and gently prying it open. My gaze fell towards the topmost shelf, where my wedding saree lay, covered neatly in a dry-cleaning bag. I had not taken into account the cost of my wedding saree – how had I forgotten about it? I had spent hours at my designer’s, trying on multiple wedding outfits before selecting the one. Everyone at the wedding had agreed that my saree was indeed beautiful. But then, it felt more fitting inside a bag than it had ever been on me.

“Tell him I will be downstairs in just a minute,” I said, getting ready to apply my mascara.

Monsoon Connection

The wind was beginning to howl, and the faintest little drops of rain could be heard on the veranda roof. Myna smelled the air with relish and ran inside. Dadi was not only fond of monsoons, but ecstatically in love with them.

If anything would make Myna feel better today, it was going to be Dadi sitting cross legged on her simple cot, facing the window, buoyed by the charming weather.

Myna skipped into the room, a movement that belied the petulant, childlike pout on her face.

“What news do you bring from the outside world today, Myna?” Dadi asked as Myna settled herself on a cushion near her feet.

“A sad day,” Myna announced. “Very, very sad.”

“What?” Dadi boomed, “it’s never a sad or bad day when it is raining, my child.”

“It is when your boyfriend leaves you for questionable women.”

“So Rajat proved to be what I warned you he was all along?”

Myna scoffed. “You don’t like any of my boyfriends.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have great taste, Sona,” Dadi said using her nickname, and fondly ruffling her hair.

Myna laughed along for a second, until the dam broke and the tears began falling unabated.
“I really thought he was different,” Myna blubbered.

Dadi put down her knitting, surprised at the uncharacteristic outburst. Men did not usually make a deep impact on her precious Myna.

“Why, Myna, you are worth ten of him!”

“He was so handsome!” Myna exclaimed.

“Nowhere as close as you are beautiful!”

“And intelligent, he had three companies fighting over him!”

“You’ve helped more people just being you than he ever will chasing money!”

“He had such a charming circle of friends, all influential people.”

“You, my dear, have me!” Dadi declared loudly, jumping out of her cot and comically flexing her arms.

Myna laughed out loud. She wondered at how she was able to unload so much on her grandmother, when she felt embarrassed to bring up the topic of her relationships with her own mother, who would “tch, tch” disapprovingly whenever Myna mentioned a date.

“I do have you, Dadi, I do!” Myna yelped, encircling her grandmother in a tight hug.

They both sat on the floor, watching the rain through the open window. Rain connected them like nothing else.

It was a feeling that they shared, a mutual appreciation and devotion to the season, which no one else could understand. It lifted them up, and transformed the mundane into the extraordinary. It was just rain, but it was so much more to them.

Myna sat there for a long while, giggling with Dadi as they remembered some of her older romantic partners.

After an hour or so, when the rain had tapered into an innocent drizzle, Myna’s mother opened the door and peeped inside.

“Myna?” She said gently.

“Oh, hi, Mom,” Myna replied.

“I heard voices, who were you talking to, beta?”

Myna squeezed the small frame with the photo of her and Dadi. “I was speaking to Dadi,” Myna said sadly. “The rain…”

Myna’s mother nodded. “It reminds me of her, too.”

Myna put the frame back on the table and looked out of the window one last time.

The monsoon still connected them. Even now, a year after she had passed. Myna’s heart glowed warmly. She would always have the rains.

Bracelet

After buying groceries I notice someone following me. I saw the same person at the medical shop few days ago.

On my way out of the market I cross an electronic store, the display TVs are playing the local news “…the serial killer is on the loose and usually targets young girls. The police are still investigating and suspect a woman may be involv…”

My heart sinks. I pick my pace up and pray if all the running I practiced to lose weight could actually help me outrun her.

Scared, unable to think much, I head towards home. I look back and notice she has long hair and a lean body.

Two days ago a beautiful, petite girl in her 20’s was found dead on the street with the words “I’m better” written on her forehead, the killer’s MO. This has been going on for months now. Already 7 girls in town have been killed and the Police still have no suspects. All they know is that each victim is missing a piece of jewelry.

I walk straight into my alley which is in a secluded part of the town. I wouldn’t expect her come the same way unless she’s actually following me, and guess what? She does. Now I get seriously concerned and rush onto the stairs of my building.

She runs after me and says, “Hey, I need to talk to you about my sister Jane!”

Her words stop dead me in my tracks. “I’m sorry, who’s Jane?” I ask.

“I know she was here two nights ago, I put a parental tracker on her phone.” She replies.

My palms start sweating. “I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else, I don’t know your sister, sorry!”

She gets angry and steps towards me. I try to get away but she grabs my arm and shouts, “So then why are you wearing her bracelet?”

Staring right into her perfect eyes, I let out a slight smirk and reply, “Because I’m better.”

The Friend

“It’ll be alright…” I told Tanya as we walked into the psychiatrist’s clinic. It had taken me weeks to convince her to seek help, and today was her first appointment.

Being nervous and scared was expected, but then, this was necessary for her.

She had been in the depths of hell for so long and it was time she got some help to deal with the demons that haunted her.

I didn’t speak or interrupt between the session. The doctor was really kind to her and seemed to really know what he was doing.

I thanked him on the way out, but he ignored me and just told Tanya to see him in week’s time.

“I feel better after speaking to him,” Tanya told me, “but I’m not happy about taking the medicines.”

“Nothing can harm you more than your anxiety at this point love,” I said to her. I really meant it.

I had seen the kind of severe panic attacks she got in the last few months since she found out that Ayush was cheating on her with her sister.

It was betrayal from two people she loved the most.

She then her quit her job, moved out of her house to a small apartment, cut her own hair, and started drinking compulsively.

During this time, I used to visit everyday and stay with her for hours. I didn’t have the heart to leave her alone.

One night, Tanya got scared and called me over. She admitted that she hated being alone in the house and asked me to move in. And I hadn’t left her since then.

I saw Tanya take her medicine and hoped for the best to happen. And after months of being an insomniac, she slept so well the night after the doctor’s appointment.

Tanya started visiting the doctor regularly, fixed her sleeping pattern and began eating at regular intervals. Even her drinking got controlled.

But as all of this happened, she became more and more distant. There were times when she didn’t even greet me on returning home. I told myself that she may be tired, but then it became a pattern.

After some time, I was certain that she was upset with me over something. But why wasn’t she ready to talk about it?

Or maybe she was just using me like a tissue paper and now that her life was getting back in order, it was the time to toss me aside.

Things kept on getting better for Tanya and our friendship kept deteriorating.

She didn’t even tell me when she got a new job. I knew only because I overheard her talk about it on the phone.

One day, I decided to go to her doctor’s appointment. I was deeply hurt by her behaviour and wanted to talk to her about it.

I had tried to do it at home too, but she never responded.

The only person she seemed to trust these days was her doctor. So I had no option but to seek his help to fix things.

It had been four months since we had first come here and things had changed so much since then, I thought as I waited for Tanya’s session to be over.

The doctor told her that he was very happy with her improvement and soon, she could even be off medication.

This was when I interrupted.

“Excuse me, Dr Mathur…I wanted to say something…”

But my voice drowned in their laughter before it could reach them.

They were laughing on what seemed like an internal joke – a joke about some imaginary friend that Tanya had.

Writer’s Block

Rohan scratched out the line he had scrawled a fifth time, and was about to give up when his phone rang.

‘Sup?’

‘Rohan, how’s the song coming along?’

Rohan simply groaned in response.

‘I’m an investment banker now! This isn’t my cup of tea!’

‘Please, just ask Bhabhi to make you some of her adrak chai, and get to work!’

Before Rohan could protest, Parul added, ‘You remember what I said about the theme? It has to be about loneliness and despair.’

Parul had been like a little sister to Rohan since her first day in college. The bespectacled, bashful teenager who had lost her way in the enormous campus had fallen prey to the derisive stares of the infamous bullies Varun and Sohail, who had soon started mocking her.

Parul had stood there frozen and wide-eyed until Rohan, her super-senior had arrived, dealing with the bullies and leading her to her classroom. He had met her later and shown her around the campus also managing an apology from Varun and Sohail.

Soon, Rohan, Parul and Varun were inseparable, and in six months, they had started a rock band named Shab. Two years later however, Rohan and Varun had quit to pursue their respective families’ dreams, and Parul had taken over the reins as lead vocalist.

Rohan was brought back to the present by a drop of water that fell on his notebook. His wife, Vishakha, with her long ringlets dripping, was leaning over his notebook.

‘Whatcha writing?’ she asked.

Upon hearing his plight, she immediately offered to make him some adrak chai.

As the aroma wafted through the kitchen, Rohan was taken back to the days when the only tea he knew was the one brewed at Raju’s shack opposite the gates of his university.

It was where he smoked his first Milds in the morning; gulped down his tea irately and asked for more when he had been thrown out of class; where he went when he was homesick and where he spent many a rainy Saturday afternoon, much like this one. It was also where he had first exchanged notes with Maya.

One Sunday morning as he was munching on his usual buttered toast and sipping his tea, Maya called out to him and introduced herself, requesting his economics notes from the previous week.

Since then, meeting Maya at 4 pm at Raju’s became a ritual for Rohan. One day she donned a floral dress looking prettier than usual. He frowned asking her why she was so decked up, to which she only smiled. He decided to take her to Starbucks for a change and then, to the movies.

‘So, you didn’t tell me why you’re so decked up’, he asked again.

‘No big reason. Just that I was born on this day, she said coolly.

Rohan felt like an idiot but as the movie ended and they got into a cab, he gave the driver, Parul’s address.

‘Aw! Thank you, guys,’ Maya had gushed at the surprise, and Rohan, seeing the beguiling Maya, in childlike wonder, had felt something that he only wished he could fight.

After Maya’s birthday, all four of them started spending more time together. Raju’s shack witnessed heated discussions everyday at 4 pm, which ranged from movies to books to politics to crumbling hedge funds. Although not officially a part of Shab, Maya hung around with the band whenever they rehearsed and attended all of their gigs.

Meanwhile Rohan had fallen hook, line and sinker in love with Maya but had not confided in anybody but Parul.

‘I can’t wait to start calling her Bhabhi!’ she exclaimed.

It was all set. The convocation was due to take place in a week. Since Maya was fond of blue, Rohan would propose to her not with a diamond but a sapphire.

He could barely sleep the night before the convocation.

After the medals were distributed, Varun got up on stage.

‘I have an announcement’, he hollered. ‘Maya and I are getting married!’

There were claps, wolf whistles and several others cheering them with words like ‘Congrats!’, and ‘Who’d have guessed?’

Indeed. Who’d have guessed? Amidst the hullabaloo, nobody saw Parul with tears in her eyes rushing towards Rohan. And nobody saw Rohan flinging away a small velvet box and heading outside – nobody but his mother. She wasted no time and found him a match within six months.

Four years had passed, and here he was, married to Vishakha, the gorgeous girl his mother had cherry-picked for him. His love, Maya, was now his best friend Varun’s wife and the mother of his son.

Rohan wondered what was taking Vishakha so long when he heard her explain in an excited tone over the landline.

‘… Yeah, the sale’s gonna last only two more days!’

Just as he was about to call out, demanding his tea, Vishakha’s cell phone rang. He got up to take it to her when he saw that Varun was calling. He decided to pick it up.

Before he could greet his friend, the voice on the other end began –

‘Hey, Vee! There’s been a problem. Maya read one of your texts on my phone today. When she confronted me about it, I laughed explaining that it was for Rohan and that you’d mistakenly pressed 3 instead of 2 on your speed dial. The bimbo bought that. So babe, don’t text me for a while now, okay? Anyway, Maya’s coming. Later.’

He hurriedly added, ‘Love ya’ and hung up.

Reflexively, Rohan went to the sent items folder in his wife’s phone. The first message had been sent to Varun twelve hours ago. It read:

I hate it when you’re away from me. See you soon!

Rohan silently placed the phone back and peered into their bedroom. His beloved wife was still on the phone and had moved on to discussing the latest designs in someone’s fall collection.

Rohan’s world however, had just come to a standstill. Varun had had the last laugh. Yet again.

He picked up his phone and dialed Parul’s number.

‘So, my writer’s block has cleared.’

‘That’s wonderful!’ came her enthusiastic reply. ‘Was it Bhabhi’s adrak chai that did the job?’

‘Nope,’ he paused and then added ‘It was Bhabhi, herself.’

Maternity Leave

Part 1

Divya was in the third trimester of her pregnancy and was struggling to reach the file on the top shelf that her boss, Venkat, had asked her to pull out. Venkat only stared at her and offered no help.

She couldn’t wait to go on her maternity leave. Only ten more days, she thought.

She finally managed to pull the file out and handed it to Venkat who looked annoyed because of the extra few seconds she had taken.
‘Divya, I’ll need your help on something,’ he began.

Divya simply waited, wondering what he had in store for her now.

‘You know, our firm has been empanelled on that new audit.’

‘Yes, Sir. I’ve heard. Congratulations!’

‘Yeah, so, I’ll need you to run it. Shouldn’t take more than a fortnight to complete. Less if you’re efficient.’

‘But Sir, isn’t their office in Borivali?’ Divya asked, gaping at her boss in disbelief.

‘Gotten used to the cushy SoBo life now, have we?’ he raised an eyebrow at her.

How dare he call her life cushy? She toiled night and day without fretting, even in her third trimester!

‘No, Sir, that’s not what I meant,’ she replied calmly. ‘How do you expect me to go all the way to Borivali every day in my condition?’ Divya stared at him incredulously.

‘C’mon, Divya, these days, you women can have it all, no? A career, a family – I’m sure you’ll manage. Also, you’ll have a team of three juniors. I’m giving you an army! You’ll figure it out.’

Tears of frustration sprang into Divya’s eyes, but she wouldn’t give the bastard the satisfaction of watching her break down at work.

She composed herself and tried one last time – ‘But Sir, I’m due to go on maternity leave in ten days.’

‘Right, and after that, we can’t bother you anyway, no?’ Venkat continued to ridicule her. ‘Might as well do us this little favour before you go on your l-o-n-g vacay, then’ he added, stretching out the syllables, and making her skin crawl.

He was the one going on a ‘long vacay’, Divya thought bitterly. He was supposed to go to the Maldives next month. Could he not be a team player and take care of the audit, himself, before his outlook started sending automatic out of office replies?

Divya realised that it was a lost cause. She was a consultant and not an employee at the chartered accountancy firm. They could choose to deny her maternity leave altogether and she’d probably have no recourse against the firm.

She’d have to work extremely efficiently and submit her report in ten days.

Part 2

Divya started her day at 7 am instead of 9 the following day. Her 9-5 job had turned into 7-10, thanks to the 45-kilometre commute from Colaba to Borivali and back every day.

Despite numerous protests from her family, she worked tirelessly, confident that her report would be ready by the tenth day. She wouldn’t work a day more on the wretched assignment, she promised herself and her baby. And by the end of her maternity leave, she’d start looking for other jobs. She couldn’t continue to work for that despicable Venkat.

On the eighth day, Divya realised that she was burning up. She wasted no time in undergoing an RT PCR test and learned the following day that she had the virus, and her CT score made her extremely contagious.

She was devastated. She was so close to completing the audit! And the baby! What if the virus affected the baby’s health!

She couldn’t believe that she was afflicted with a life-threatening illness and her first thought had been work and deadlines instead of the life growing inside of her. God, what was happening to her!

The CFO of the company Divya was auditing, upon receiving her call, was extremely sympathetic. He promised to make an exception by setting up a virtual data room and upload all the documents she was yet to review, so she could complete the audit remotely.

Divya was relieved! Her team continued to coordinate with her on calls and emails, and she put the final touches on her report at 5 am on the tenth day, which was well within the deadline.

She would pop into the office wearing two N-95 masks, maintain her distance from everyone and leave as soon as she had handed Venkat the report.

As Divya placed the final report of 200 odd pages on her boss’s desk at 9 am, she couldn’t help but feel extremely pleased with herself. She felt ready to collapse but had accomplished an impossible feat.

As Venkat sat, skimming through the report, nodding to himself, he too, seemed impressed.

‘Well done, Divya. But this seems to only cover life insurance. What about their general insurance vertical?’

Divya was astounded. She was absolutely certain that the scope of the audit only included life insurance products.

‘But Sir, you’d only mentioned life insurance -‘ she began.

‘Oh, forget what I said, Divya,’ he snapped back. ‘Did you not go through the engagement letter?’

‘Sir, you never gave it to me. I was only following your instructions.’

‘Ah, rookie mistake, Divya. You should’ve asked for it, no. Someone with your seniority should think of these basic things. Anyway, there’s clearly a disconnect and an expectation mismatch. Our firm still has exclusivity. So, you can audit the general insurance business as well, in say, 5 days from now? That should be enough. Now, chop chop.’

Divya saw red. As she was about to storm out of her abhorrent boss’s office, he called out, ‘Oh, and Divya, please send the pantry boy over. Need my espresso.’

Divya slowly made her way to the HR’s cabin. But first, she calmly filled her boss’s mug with piping hot espresso and set it down on his desk. She sincerely hoped he enjoyed it. She also hoped that he’d enjoy his isolation.

She had spat in it.

Part 3

Divya knocked on her HR Manager’s cabin door and when greeted by the polite, familiar face she had known for five years, wasted no time in letting her colleague know about her condition. Her HR Manager was more than sympathetic and insisted that they move to the largest conference room in the office, so they could maintain physical distance.

‘Is something the matter, Divya?’ Radhika, the HR Manager asked her. ‘You’re visibly distressed.’

Divya narrated the incidents of the past ten days to Radhika.

Before she could even begin to plead her case, Radhika assured her that she would not have to work on her maternity leave. The rest of the audit would be taken care of.

‘I’ll personally take this up with the MD if I need to, Divya, but you’ve done more than your bit. You should’ve come to me sooner. We can’t reward our hardworking resources by killing them with more work, definitely not on their maternity leave, and especially when there’s so much bandwidth available in the firm.’

Divya felt some of her stress begin to dissipate.

‘But -’ Radhika added, ‘I’m not sure what to do about Venkat. This is not the first time someone’s come to me to discuss his transgressions, but you know who his parents are. He’s incredibly well-connected. The management will probably want to have a ‘chat’ with him and let him go with a slap on the wrist.’

‘I understand, Radhika’, Divya took a deep breath, and got up to leave.

‘But I’ll see what I can do about a change of teams for you.’

‘Thanks, Radhika! That’ll be ideal!’

‘You enjoy your break, Divya,’ Radhika called out after her, adding, ‘And don’t worry about Venkat. I’m sure one day he’ll slip up so terribly, that even his parents won’t be able to bail him out.’

Divya delivered a beautiful healthy baby girl a week into her maternity leave. Both mother and daughter had escaped the clutches of the virus. She decided to name her daughter ‘Aparajita’ – undefeated.

She learned soon after that Venkat had tested positive for the virus and had to cancel his ‘long vacay’ to the Maldives. She derived some enjoyment from his plight. She was human, after all.

At the end of her maternity leave, Divya learned that she’d no longer be reporting to Venkat but to an alumnus from her business school who was a lateral hire from a rival firm and had been appointed to lead a vertical.

Six months into resuming her duties at work, Divya was promoted to Vice President, which put her in the same position as her erstwhile boss, Venkat. While she worked very closely with the board of directors and advised the risk team, Venkat was relegated to the team that managed corporate social responsibility. His decisions had led to far too many hiccups, he had been told, in his last appraisal meeting, and CSR would be a better fit for him.

As Divya walked past Venkat’s office one evening and saw him languishing under a pile of paperwork, she remembered something a senior colleague had once told her, ‘No one voluntarily quits a well-paying job, Divya. Corporations simply have their ways of squeezing non-performing assets out.’

Homesick

“It just doesn’t make sense,” I say out loud into an empty room. Why am I feeling this way? I am happy, right? I have to be.

I look at the teddy bear next to my bed, and realize with horror that I am clutching it tight. I am a fucking adult now! Jeez! I stash Timmy, my teddy bear, back into my suitcase. Trust my mother to put up a teddy bear in a boys’ dorm! My mum and dad were here only half an hour back, and I can still smell my mother’s perfume in the air. That, and the stench of my dad’s cigarette wafts in the air. A heady mix. One that is bound to leave my dorm room soon enough – the last clue of their physical presence.

I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. I tell myself repeatedly, but the tightness in my throat only increases with each passing minute. For two long years, I had waited with bated breath for the freaking pandemic to end so I could be back in college. I had looked longingly at the pictures of my dorm, waved tearfully at my friends and roommates over video calls, and counted days (over and over again) until I could be back here. Then why am I not happy?

The tears came the moment I acknowledged it. The fact that the one thing that had kept me going these two years was, oddly enough, making me sad. Somehow in those two years at home, eyerolling at my mum each time she made me wake up “on time” and ignoring my dad every time he ordered me to listen to mum, somehow all of it had turned my world upside down. It was hard at first, being home, helping my mum chop onions for the hundredth time and listening to my dad go on about cryptocurrency and Metaverse and whatever else took his fancy. Yet…

Yet, it was nice too. Fresh sheets, home-cooked meals, and a glass of wine every Friday. Game nights. Newspaper mornings. I wipe off my tears. My dormmates will be here soon. I can’t be seen crying in front of them. My phone beeps with a text message. For the first time in my life, I hope it’s my parents.

It is.

My dad has sent a picture of my empty room at home – the one they had to redecorate after I moved in during the pandemic. I suppose they will turn it into an office again, now that I am back in school. As soon as the thought comes, I see a message from dad: “We’re not changing your room again. You never know, right?”

I smile, feeling slightly less heavy in my throat. I lug out my suitcase from under my bed and take Timmy out. It smells like my mum’s perfume and dad’s cigarettes. A heady mix. Like home.

The Uprising

It was the year 2040. Michael was stepping out for dinner. There were drones in the air, scanning for deviants as usual. There was no shock or disgust in the eyes of the people on the street, only fear. The times had changed.

Since the dependence on technology had increased since the Pandemic 20’s, AI had taken over. Now, in the name of safety, there was virtually nothing anyone could hide. Gone were the days that humanity picked who governed them. Powerful creations of humans had taken over, and machine had deemed man unfit for anything but subjugation.

Humanity had rulers now. Cold hearted machines with no room for compassion. They ruled with ones and zeroes. Guilty or innocent. Dead or alive. There was no space for the human element of grey, only the mechanical view of black and white.

Michael remembered how quickly it had all gone to shit. As a teenager he remembered how actively he used to post in favour of human rights on social media. Those were simpler times; he had a voice. As soon as the Pandemic 20’s came to an end, AI that had no source of origin, had taken over.

Within a few days, there was a surge in assassinations. It was genocidal. But almost instantly, crime came to a halt. The glaciers stopped melting. The world economy was toppling because industry giants were dead, but the planet was blossoming.

Back then Michael was fresh out of college, hoping to effect change in the world through literature and free speech, but he found that those he spoke for had been executed and his ability to speak freely had been taken away by the drone.

He stepped into his favourite diner and ordered his usual; a chicken steak with potato fries. It was a simple meal, unlike the high-tech meal plans people relied on nowadays. There was no comfort in food, no pleasure in taste for most people. It was simply about sustenance. But he ate his steak with great pleasure, in open defiance to the other patrons who were eating in such a monotonous way.

He paid his bill, and walked out, into the alleyway next to the diner. He made sure to avoid the drones, because what he was about to do was definitely deviant in this new world.

As the wave of technological supremacy had hit the planet, seemingly law-abiding citizens had started forming secret groups. To rebel and revel in the operation of human free will. They spoke aloud, painted, wrote words, and created art that pushed the boundaries of human thought.

Much like the pioneers of an art field, there was a certain amount of ire that these secret groups inspired in the minds of those who had surrendered to the machines. These groups were prosecuted for their free-thinking, banished and executed by the AI citing the heretics as anti-life. Michael, a seemingly normal and law-abiding plumbing technician, was one of these heretics.

Michael found the alleyway door that he was looking for and stepped into the Brotherhood’s cave. Cave makes it sound dense and primal; it was anything but. There was an old man, in his 70s teaching youngsters about the twisted works of Van Gogh. A beautiful woman was singing old country music that had been banned as it seemed nihilistic and self-sabotaging. In reality, the song was simply about the singer’s heartache and her longing for the love of her life.

The painting the old man was discussing was Starry Night, a painting considered vandalism because it supposedly presented an unrealistic image of the night sky. Surrounded by the art, by the beauty of the human mind, Michael felt at home. No matter how deviant, or dangerous this creative spirit is, it still comes from the human mind. It was born with humans and it lives within humans. Michael couldn’t fathom a world where this spirit was broken by thoughtless machines that knew nothing of life.

Michael sat at his table, with several books filled with poems, stories, and speeches he dreamt of delivering. There was an old-school click pen which had liquid ink coming out of it to engrave the papyrus with words that his free mind would write.

Art in Michael’s opinion, was best done in the olden era, with a pen and paper. He began to write, pouring out his emotions. The words read: “The new normal is no more. The Uprising is here.” He smiled, for he knew that revolution was afoot. Creativity was afoot. Art, for all the attempts of logical machines to squash it, was waking up from its slumber.