Tuesday, 23 July 2013

My short story 'Love, virtually' published by Writers Asylum (23 July 2013)


Love, virtually

The Zenana burst into a riot of sequins and brocade. Women in elegant ghararas flooded the room. They sat around chatting with each other or admiring the bride’s finery. There were many who were busy getting themselves clicked: with the bride, with those around, and several solo shots posed here and there. Those pictures were immediately shared through mobile phone applications to all those who couldn’t make it to the wedding; as well as with all those unconnected to the wedding. Then there were a few who planted themselves by the window stealing glances at lovers or would-be lovers. Zuveria was also there but only for “eye candy”, as she claimed, while giving company to her cousin trying to catch a glimpse of her fiancé in the courtyard below. That was when she saw him, dashing in an off-white sherwani, sharing a laugh with the groom. A lingering desire welled up as she fought hard to tear her eyes off him. She quickly fished out her mobile phone and sent him a blank message, after almost four months.
Shaukat looked at the unknown number displayed on his phone. He hated taking calls he didn’t recognize, especially in the middle of the night. He glanced at his wife sleeping by his side, unaffected by the shrill of the ring-tone. This might be an emergency, he thought, and spoke in a hushed voice into the receiver, “Halo?”
“Shaukat Sir?”
“I love you.” And the phone went dead. He was nonplussed. He was staring into the phone when a message came from that number.
“I alwyz c u at the univ. I am ur biggest fan. I luv u so much dat it hurts!”
Shaukat sent a very timid, “Who is this?” to which the reply came, “You’ll know 2morrow, in class. I’ll be wearing yellow suit and green dupatta.”
The next day in college, the young lecturer looked out for anyone in that description. He had joined two months ago and was already attracting more than the attention he had anticipated. It was when taking attendance for his first class of the day that she stepped in, gorgeous in her dress, long hair bouncing with every step, eyes smiling at him. Suddenly he felt shy. Not bad, he thought.
For the next few days this is just what happened. They saw each other in class and then a torrent of text exchanges followed in the night. She declaring her desire for him; Shaukat counseling her on her state of mind! “Listen dear, you are young and at a very impressionable age. It is normal to have crushes on teachers at this stage.”
“Don’t humiliate me, this is no mere crush.”
“Concentrate on your studies not me.”
“U do ur work. I’ll do mine. When in class, I can see nothing but u.”
“At this rate, you’ll see not much in your result sheet too!”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll do well in studies!”
“See, I am married. You are wasting your time.”
“I don’t care.”
Such exchanges went on every night for a month. During that time, Shaukat had coffee with the girl and a few of her classmates a few times. There was nothing unusual about those meetings. A group of students with a teacher having some coffee and conversation! But they made him realize what a charmer this girl was. She was well-read, made good company, had a spell over her friends and was giving him all the attention when there were many who pined for it. He began to slowly give in to her charms without even realizing it. He stopped going to bed at the same time with his wife. He would be on the phone in the bathroom, out in the balcony or in some other room for long hours. Not that he was confessing any love for her yet. Their conversation still bordered on her declarations and his sympathetic counseling.
“I love you.”
“Listen, you are a bright girl. You have the potential to excel. Concentrate on your work and I am always there to guide you.”
“Don’t preach. Be romantic!”
“Zuby, I am married for God’s sake! Don’t talk like that. I know I like talking to you. But can’t we just talk like friends.”
“I am not interested in being your friend.”
“Ok then, good night for now.”
“Yes! See you in class tomorrow.”
“And for coffee after that!”
“Ok then. I am not keeping the phone down.”
“Alright. Coffee. But get a couple of your friends along. I don’t want to be seen alone with you.”
“Hmm. So that’s the courage you have!”
“Get married once and I’ll see how much of courage you have. Good night!”
“Here’s a parting gift for you!” saying that she sent him a loud kiss and quickly disconnected the phone.
Smiling to himself, Shaukat entered the bedroom to find his wife up and looking hard at him. “So, who was it?” It knocked him off his feet for a while. “What are you talking about honey?”
“Who is this muse who keeps you busy on the phone at nights?”
“Oh! Some student going through a bad time! I was just counseling.”
The wife tossed herself on her side and slept off after saying, “Ask him or her to call up during the day or to meet you in college. Why lose your sleep over it?”
That night, Shaukat spent a long time mulling over what was going on. He knew he was not cheating on his wife, the woman whom he met eight years ago at a common friend’s party and fell in love with immediately. A student of Art History at the Pennsylvania State University, Shruti and Shaukat sat in a corner that whole night and talked about Mughal paintings, politics in the expression of the arts, paintings of the Himalayan belt, flora and fauna in Delhi, etc. The next day, Shruti took Shaukat to Lodhi Garden and introduced him to nature in Delhi. Four years in Delhi, yet he never thought that the city could be so beautiful. And that is how their romance began. They visited every garden and park in the city, went to all the archaeological sites and spent time marveling at the architectural wonders nestled amidst the splendor of nature. They also spent a lot of time at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where Shaukat was pursuing a degree in Political Science, on its winding roads guarded by a variety of trees and shrubs, at some bend behind a hostel, or atop the huge stone at PSR where they watched airplanes, huge from close quarters, fly past over them. After she left for Pennsylvania, Facebook and Skype kept their romance alive. They were in touch and in love every single day till they got married. And then, the vagaries of married life took over.
Now that they stayed in the same house, Shruti and Shaukat required no technology to keep them connected. They slowly slipped out of each other’s Facebook memory. And smses like “When you reaching?” “Get some fruits.” “Take out some money before coming home.” “Guests coming for dinner today don’t be late” etc. replaced the hugs and kisses and sweet-nothings of earlier times. They were not going to the parks or gardens anymore. Office and social engagements left no time for that. Their lives were falling into a routine when that fateful day, Zuveria called up Shaukat in the middle of the night. What started on the phone quickly moved on to Facebook the night Shruti confronted Shaukat.
Zuveria refreshed Shaukat. She was not talking about groceries and family get-togethers and flushing the toilet and putting the cap of the toothpaste back on. There was too much of a risk in continuing his telephonic rendezvous with her in the nights, so they came to an arrangement. He would kiss Shruti good night, go to the Study with his laptop in the pretext of work and send a blank sms to Zuveria. If she responded with a blank message too, then he would log on to Facebook and chat through the night with ‘Earthy Zuby’. Earthy Zuby had no other friends on Facebook. This profile was just for her sweetheart.
Those chats with Earthy Zuby opened him to the world of a small town girl, her aspirations and boundaries. He learnt that twenty year old Zuby was from a feudal family in western Uttar Pradesh. She had never spoken to any boy outside her family, leave alone romance him. Not that she moved around the town much either. There were strict restrictions as to whom she could meet and where she could go. And whenever she went out she had to wear the naqab. It was good fortune that she was good in studies and with a good deal of support from her grandfather, she made it to Delhi University. No hostels for her, declared her father, as that could throw up chances of spoiling her. She was put up with relatives at Okhla in South Delhi.
Shaukat was not the only distraction in her life. She had been attracted to a few boys before in her hometown but those were merely cases of stolen glances. With Shaukat, it was different. He reminded her of her grandfather, his warmth and sensitivity. And when she fell for him, she just couldn’t pick herself up. It was like drowning in a sea of madness. All sense of ego dissolved and she didn’t know what she was doing anymore. And when she heard that he was married, she cried for one whole week. Yet, her heart longed for him and she decided that it wouldn’t be jeopardizing his married life if she continued loving him without asking him to forgo his marriage. She would love him for life.
It is this unconditional love that sent Shaukat into a dizzy. They talked about poetry, of Sufism, biryani, korma and kebabs, mango orchards and every other thing that brought him memories of his childhood. Zuby touched a part of him that could never be grasped by Shruti. And that brought him closer to Zuby in such a way that they would begin their virtual romance with her enquiring, “And how is the family life going?”
Him replying, “Alhamdulillah, all well!”
Then one day, Shruti chanced upon her husband’s virtual romance like all wives do by some stroke of fate when their husbands are on a parallel path. Teary-eyed, this is what she told him, “Go live with her in the same house for one month. Please, for my sake. And then if she doesn’t turn out like me trying to run a house, come and tell me!”
Since that day, Zuby stopped calling him or texting him. He asked her not to. Earthy Zuby disappeared from Facebook too after several failed attempts at trying to draw his attention. And then, that day, she saw him at the wedding laughing with the groom. Her heart lurched and the old madness forcibly buried somewhere surfaced. She sent him a blank text. Shaukat looked at his phone, held it a wee bit longer than he should and smiled at it before putting it back in his pocket. She sent him another text, but this time with a message, “I am seeing someone.” When she looked out of the window, he was gone. A few seconds later, a response came, “Congratulations! Stay blessed!”

Zenana: The inner apartments of a house meant only for the women
Gharara: Traditional attire worn by Muslim women of north India
Sherwani: Traditional attire worn by Muslim men in north India
Naqab: Veil

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