A Love Story by Arpita Bhawal
The scheduled holidays were getting tiresome for Amaya when all she got from Hridhaan were thoughtfully purchased souvenirs from wherever he went with his family. She didn’t want to burst the bubble of gratitude or remembrance, which made these tiny pieces of metal or plaster or porcelain and at times large pieces of silk materialize in her life. The relationship, after all, was not without conditions.
Hridhaan was married, which was the biggest of all unstated conditions; so she had to be patient. His wife was a hard-nosed bitch and she had no beauty to boast of, so Amaya could never question Hridhaan’s suspect surrender to the coital routine. The third and final condition which was by far the most difficult to live with was Hridhaan’s daughter. She, Trina, always appeared to be the navigator of all such fantastic holidays that Hridhaan, according to his clarifications to Amaya, was forced to take. Amaya was curious at first about the sleeping arrangements among other things. It would be downright illogical for a couple to book two rooms during a family holiday, of course. Did his wife covertly express her wish to visit those places so that she could post them on Facebook?
How would Trina, who was just about ten, know of all those places on the map – Cambodia, Egypt, China, and Bali – that Amaya desperately wanted to visit someday with Hridhaan? Could she ever dismiss Trina’s sneaky roster of her favourite holiday destinations as a miraculous coincidence? Or was Hridhaan working too hard to portray the holidays as compulsory and life-changing to his office staff (of which she was a part) and his wife’s best friends from the Super Wives’ Club of Woodstock Villas where they lived?
Amaya didn’t remember the day or the month when she started to date Hridhaan. She also didn’t care to ask about the details or extent of his voluntary and somewhat energetic involvement in his married life with his wife. She knew all about the brown-eyed Trina who floated in and out of the office on an occasional school holiday. But the horror, the wife…she was always missing. Amaya hadn’t ever laid eyes on the elusive Latika, Hridhaan’s wife.
At the time, when she started dating Hridhaan, it appeared so insignificant, this little girl in a pink polka dress called Trina, who appeared to be as cute as a Barbie. There were no reservations in Amaya’s mind about the love Hridhaan had for his plastic daughter, because fathers loved their daughters, no matter how plain or boring they turned out to be. But Latika was rumoured to be manly, with a moustache and un-waxed arms. It annoyed her to imagine Hridhaan would continue to prolong his own agony despite living in a sham of a marriage, just to be a good man. It was ironical that he had spent a larger part of his life in France, mainly Paris, where he was surrounded by beautiful women.
Hridhaan never offered any explanations for anything during the first year of their affair. He didn’t exactly promise a life-long relationship or a love marriage, but nor did he dismiss Amaya’s day dreams of setting up their home together. Amaya’s restlessness grew bit by bit, soon after Trina’s ninth birthday, and then his subsequent, infamous, holiday to Angor Vat in Cambodia with his family broke the reservoirs of patience that she had solemnly held to her chest. Amaya outburst crackled with rage and humiliation. The practiced calm and courage flew out of the window and for the first time since her affair, she felt naked, used, abused and cheapened by her own hands, for not having given the whole married life routine of her man any attention or importance until now. She kept saying, “How could he do this to me?” over and over again to herself, her reflection in the mirror an alien image of humiliation and disbelief.
After two years, she was certain that her relationship with Hridhaan could never be without conditions, until and unless he found the courage or the will to walk out on Latika and ask for joint custody of Trina. Her illusions shattered like frail glass, dashed on a black marble floor, invisible yet crunching below her feet, mocking her mercilessly and reminding her that the fine education and high position she held in a top job didn’t compare with plain old common sense, like her grandmother’s, which she clearly lacked.
Amaya would have let the matters remain as they were until that fateful day when she walked into Hridhaan’s living room and found an electronic photo frame, shuffling happy pictures of his wife and daughter. There was a pan-faced hussy from work whom Amaya detested with good reason. She had accompanied them, no doubt! That was the Cambodia holiday that Hridhaan had painted as a stress-relieving act of a hardworking man, who was trying to keep his sanity intact in the face of his tyrant wife.
In his living room which was full of people, in the thick of Trina’s tenth birthday party, it was a horrific discovery. If she had been on the Titanic, she wouldn’t have been more alarmed or afraid. Hridhaan, in distinct contrast to her, looked blissed out in his party, flanked by fawning colleagues and their bored wives, cracking jokes which everyone laughed at; Amaya started to feel like a traitor, a disguised whore dressed to play house. She felt betrayed and foolish in her act of bravery; bravery at having been tolerant of all the three conditions that ruled her relationship, which could for societal and decent reasons, not be given an acceptable ever. Certainly, she didn’t dare call it Love. For Hridhaan’s sake.
The meltdown that followed Trina’s affluent birthday bash came fast and furiously with accusations hurled by her at a meek and self-suffering Hridhaan. He apologized, expressed anguish more than shame she thought, at having been caught red-handed. Amaya believed that it would now get fixed for good, because she threatened to walk out on him. But that impression which was as comforting as her old nightdress, lasted only until the next holiday that Hridhaan took with his family.
This time, the reason was different. It started out as a working trip to Hong Kong which Hridhaan was scheduled to make, but ended up being Trina’s desire to see Disneyland. Not until Hridhaan had left her to wallow in a sea of pity that would eventually turn into her peril, did Amaya have the courage to look at all the souvenirs that adorned her glass display cupboard in the living room. Then there was that beautiful Georgette scarf that Hridhaan had brought for her from Thailand, which now hung from a hanger in her wardrobe.
Amaya imagined the scarf around her neck. She was repulsed by the beauty of the gift, the thoughtfulness with which he may have selected the colour, admired the artistic motifs of landscape and exotic women on it, and worse, tried to imagine her wearing it. She felt guilty about hating Hridhaan for filling her home with such proclamations of admiration and Love; she forced herself to believe that these were nothing, but mere elements from those carefully planned and scheduled family holidays that stole her sanity. And yet, a small inner voice screamed in the hollow shell of her heart…wouldn’t it be deemed insane to condone a lover’s indiscretions with his legally wedded wife?
How was one to react to such remembrances of a lover that were born of deceit for one and appreciation of another? Amaya was so angry after Hridhaan’s Hong Kong trip that for a long while, she stashed away the scarf from obvious view in the wardrobe drawer and hoped it would crumble to dust and vanish someday.
Amaya’s confusion was reaching its penultimate peak in her daily life. On most days, she forgave herself for being amoral and coveting another woman’s husband. Then there were days when she was seething with discontent at having been dealt an unfair hand by God.
The unspoken conditions had always been there in the topography of their affair – infallible conditions nurtured by the living truth of a marriage. Each of those three conditions had manifested into incidents and events that she feared were designed to take Hridhaan farther away from her than he already was, ensconced in his villa at Woodstock with all those ever-changing pictures of his real life in that electronic frame, and all of which were acknowledged and viewed by the sea of people who visited them. Endorsement of what really exists?
It seemed, the more Amaya tried to put the pictures and the holidays out of her mind in an effort to remain loving and centred towards Hridhaan, the worse her disgust became towards those souvenirs he had given her.
A row of spoons with logos, motifs and names from a variety of countries stood upright; golden, silver, shining and bold, against the teak back of the cupboard. Hridhaan’s quiet observance of her likes and dislikes annoyed her now. The way he had gone about selecting such appropriate gifts for Amaya made her now suspect his motives about their love affair. She lay awake on those nights of Hridhaan’s family holidays thinking of what they were doing – Latika with her prickly, sunburned, hairy, skin and cunning eyes, and Trina with her shrill voice and short legs. Were Hridhaan and Latika making up the wide chasm that he insisted they had between them with wine and sex? Or were they using Trina as a cushion to soften the verbose blows between dinners and shopping sprees?
Amaya imagined Trina was the primary culprit, twisting her father around her little brown finger like cute children always manage to do – first instill pity, then deep love into the parent’s unsuspecting heart as a penance for creating them without Love or Desire. Amaya couldn’t understand the need for the fake family routine as everything that she knew about Hridhaan’s celluloid marriage appeared to be the exact opposite of satisfaction or happiness. Yet, there he was, off again on another ‘sudden’ jaunt with Trina to Egypt.
“Is your wife going with you?” she asked.
He turned on her with burning eyes. “What kind of a question is that? Who would care for Trina? I can’t look after her.”
Amaya wasn’t one to back down so she replied, “You, of course, especially since your daughter doesn’t care much about her mother. That’s what you told me.”
“How can you say such things?” Hridhaan could have burst a blood vessel right then if his cell phone hadn’t rung.
Amaya was stunned with the simplicity of it all in Hridhaan’s view. Her Love now was clearly nothing more elaborate than an affair of the heart that Hridhaan enjoyed, but didn’t want to give any more to it than he already had, a momentary nod from time to time, limited naturally by the short spans of availability between multitudinous commitments. Amaya prided herself in unconditional Love and the practice of following her heart, but lately it was beginning to turn into a chaotic series of misguided self-beliefs that she believed would never pass the test of loyalty and commitment. Latika would win. That thought filled her with an all-consuming hate.
Amaya was also terrified of the future, where there would be more unscheduled vacations, coinciding with Trina’s whims and fancies and regular school holidays, and someday, Hridhaan would get tired of trying to keep up and drop that whole ‘I miss you’ routine starting with the visits. Those lovely notes he mailed her from exotic locales would definitely become scarce. The emails with long proclamations of Love, typed hastily on his Blackberry from airports, would also eventually stop one day, and the virtual link to dream destinations would naturally cease. Amaya recalled the previous year, December, when Hridhaan had gone on that historic, annual, whole-family-holiday with twenty members (his wife’s parents, sister’s family, his parents, cousins, aunts and uncles).
Hridhaan had said that in the continuous act of coming together perennially: boarding together, checking in together, sightseeing together, dining together and shopping together (with ten adults and ten children), he hadn’t had a moment’s solitude to write to her, but he had missed her. Amaya was muted by the truth of his statement, watching the scene unfold in her mind’s eye as he spoke earnestly. Proof of his dedication lay in front of her on the coffee-table: several souvenirs bearing first-hand testimony of his constant Love. A silk purse, a fake gold key chain and a sheer wrap…all again so perfect and personal to her taste.
Often Amaya wondered what would happen if those three conditions vanished from her life. She didn’t imagine that they would overnight, but without warning, what if they did one day? And one day, it did.
When Hridhaan said, ‘I can’t do it anymore’ and walked out of the door, Amaya’s world crashed at her feet. She had stood where he left her for a long while before she started to cry. By then she had no doubt that he had chosen others over her. Latika and Trina. She had planned for every contingency with Hridhaan, but not this one. The abrupt closure from his side left her with a vacuum so great that she could hear her heart thumping with fear for days. That was the only proof of her life. The other was the elaborate body of souvenirs that she dusted and rearranged regularly with unchanging attention.
The first year got spent on tears: angry tears, hopeful tears and then resigned tears. By the end of the excruciating period of loss, the term where there wasn’t any hope left in her life except the natural one (which dictated that she had to live, and thus move on with her life), she noticed the cupboard full of souvenirs one more. The first thought was to sell them online at a used-goods auction site. For that a list had to be compiled and put up with adequate pricing. But, if she really wanted that to happen, she had to see what she could sell.
At first it was hard to look at the souvenirs. They were reminiscent of the conditions that had kept her from liking them or observing them closely earlier. Amaya began to feel bereft at the thought of an empty cupboard in the future. There were more vacant spaces, which could have been filled with more souvenirs. She hadn’t realized the significance of any of those items until then. They had filled the large hole of anonymity in her relationship. They showed that she had existed for Hridhaan at all times.
For the first time, Amaya felt a strange connection to them – as if they had been created to embark on this magical journey of self-discovery with her. The souvenirs glowed with pride and touched her with gratitude for having embraced them under the adverse conditions she had lived through.
Amaya’s eyes filled with tears as she began to mentally make a note of the description she would put for each one of them on the online auction site. She began to touch them tenderly, afraid to destroy the Love energy they possessed. They had arrived to teach her about Love, an unconditional, unselfish Love that Hridhaan said she possessed for him. Gifting her souvenirs was perhaps his only way of expressing his guilt and helplessness, but even much more than that, his Love for her.
Then it struck her like a ray of heavenly light: For the sake of her lost love, she would have to keep these souvenirs forever. Hridhaan was a stranger now, but not these souvenirs. They were still standing strong as symbols of their eternal Love that was so easily swept away in the face of a togetherness, a convenience called marriage.
Amaya knew she had to honor the souvenirs. And for once, there were no conditions attached.