Shine The Light

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A Sign of Diamonds

I was in my rooms at the Institute campus, sitting at my laptop, winding up after a long day. It was one a.m. and there was complete silence in the Institute campus outside. It was the dead of the night, everybody and everything was asleep. I had finished a report on a long and complicated assignment and my body cried out for rest. I could feel the sleep crawling wearily through my bones and my mind pulling down its shutters. I shut the machine down. As I pushed out my arms and legs in a long, muscle-unwinding stretch, my chair tilted back and rested precariously against the wall behind me.

The loud jangling of the land-line startled me, almost sending me toppling from my chair. I grabbed the handset and was about to yell angrily when I heard her voice come tinkling down the wire. It was Varsha and her voice lifted my mood as it always did, no matter what time of the day or night it was.

“Chats, you old rogue, still alive at one o’clock in the morning? Is there a girl with you in the room?” she asked with a laugh.

“Lady, I’ll have you know that there are some who have to work against stiff deadlines,” I began, and quickly rushed on to pre-empt the usual jibe people made about post-doctoral researchers in India – “even in the hallowed portals of academia. And who don’t get to party into the morning in the middle of a working week. It must be what, three-thirty am out in Singapore?”

She giggled. “Oh, Chats, you’ll never change! Always so envious! Yup, I just got back from a party. But it’s work, Chats, you know how it is in the sales line. Tonight was a big time scene with a lot of VIP’s around.

“But I’m dying to tell you what happened after the party, so don’t keep butting in. Rashmi and Chandra had a big fight in the car on the way back.”

I had been about to protest indignantly that I wasn’t keeping on butting in, but ditched it when she said those two names.

“Who won?” I asked.

“Don’t be funny, this is serious,” she snapped back. “I’m not telling you this to gossip. For that kind of thing I never call a guy. From you I want your advice and I want it fast.”

“Pardon the digression, old sweets. Shoot.”

Varsha Rangaswamy used me as a kind of alter-ego and close confidante though I was from the opposite gender. We had been class-mates at BITS, Pilani. She had been far and away the best looking chick Pilani had seen for many years. The guys had told me many times that she had a crush on me and that I was a nut-case not to see it. Fact was though, that I had seen it well enough. And I had also seen, thanks to a fortunately active survival instinct, that Varsha was not the kind of girl to play second fiddle to anyone in a relationship – not even when it was she who wanted it in the first place. And me – I didn’t want some damn fool of a woman coming into my life telling me what to do and what not to. Most certainly not starting right from college. So I had played dumb. I could see how it infuriated her that, when every male college student this side of the Suez Canal would probably kill just to buy her coffee in the canteen, here I was, not getting her message through my thick skull, completely oblivious to the privilege I had been granted. By and by, she got the message that I had got the message and wasn’t buying and decided to lay off. We’d then gone on to become good friends – and by that I mean really good soul-mates – who could read each other’s minds with companionable intimacy without getting physical. I had gotten to call her “Old Sweets” only years later, when we could look back on those days and laugh at ourselves. I had a feeling that I was the only male this side of the Suez she would take that from.

Time passed. In the ten years since we had graduated, she had somehow stayed single. Nowadays she was a fast-track marketing executive – she was country head for India for a French designer label in luggage and travel accessories. Though she operated out of Bombay and I was based in Bangalore, we chatted regularly on the phone and the internet or met up whenever we were in the same town. She was very good at her job, and the job was very good for her. She had a flair for reading people and connecting with them as well as an intuitive feel for good public relations. Her company’s exclusive, fashionable product line suited her style – and with her great looks, single status and hard partying, she was on page three all the time. That was exactly what her company needed – it worked much better than any high-decibel advertising could have done. Everyone could see that a global career was opening up its vista for her.

So, back to the phone call. We talked for a long time. She was in Singapore, to attend the Asia launch of her company’s latest and most exclusive line in women’s luggage. She was staying with her friend Rashmi, an old time school-mate of hers.

And she was right – the matter was serious.

Apparently Rashmi had invited her – in fact, she had been quite insistent – to stay with them. Something in her voice had told Varsha that this was not mere friendly hospitality or hankering over plain old Indian company and that her friend needed her close at hand just then. So Varsha had decided against checking into the Raffles Plaza Hotel, her usual stopping place in Singapore. Rashmi and her husband Chandra had at first been the regular conventional south Indian ‘Tam-Bram’ couple before he was sent to Singapore. Now he was an up-and-coming financial star at one of the big American consultancy powerhouses. That is why it had not been difficult for Varsha to arrange invitations to the launch party for them so that they could all three ride back home together afterwards.

Chandra had shown his financial acumen back in India. His quick mind and innate sense of timing had won him several big deals. The accolades had followed. But it was only when he got to Singapore that his eyes were opened to the breadth of opportunity that the world offered. It was only outside India that he could feel the throbbing pulsation of billions of dollars flowing across the world’s financial markets. Within a few weeks he had decided that this posting would be but a stepping stone towards a job at the company’s world headquarters in New York City. From then on, Chandra’s one and only focus was on getting to Wall Street as soon as was humanly possible. He was eager to shake the dust of India from his heels and get on to the big time.

He had felt in his bones that the road to New York would open shortly for him. But there was one small hindrance. His wife just didn’t measure up as partner to a jet-setting global executive. He knew there was a glass ceiling that had stopped many a promising career for this seemingly irrelevant little detail. And it was intensely frustrating to him that, try as he might to school and coach her, Rashmi showed no signs of raising her standards. She was shy and withdrawn by nature – brought up in sheltered prosperity in her father’s home in Vellore, a small one-horse town in Tamil Nadu. She had been an ‘accomplished’ bride, well educated, good at Bharatnatyam and proficient in all the arts of managing a home. Her sweet-tempered, shy smile had captivated Chandra in the days when his horizon was limited to making enough money to buy a three bedroom house in Bangalore and fit it with all the comforts and conveniences that a south Indian middle class upbringing had exposed him to. With Rashmi and their children ensconced in a warm glow of matrimonial harmony in the midst of all this.

Even though they had been married for four short years, all that seemed to them like so long ago. Now, two years after their move to Singapore, his world view had changed beyond recognition. He wanted to soar high, like the great bald-headed eagle that symbolised the most powerful nation the world had ever seen. Even his parents couldn’t help being slightly intimidated by the aggression they saw in their son when they came visiting. It was with relief they saw that Rashmi had remained unchanged, a charming small-town Brahmin girl with comfortably small-town values.

The glittering Saturday night launch party had infused Chandra with boundless energy. The room was full of people who could speed him onwards up the fabulous road of high finance. So he was here, there and everywhere, shaking hands and rubbing shoulders with Singapore’s rich and famous. He cut a dashing figure in an immaculately cut Ermenegildo Zegna suit and delicately clipped beard. His intense smile and keen brown eyes gave him a magnetic aura, and there were few people in the room who felt untouched by his almost electric energy.

In Varsha he saw the enormous contrast with his wife – it had never been as clear as it was that night. Slipping with ease into the role of hostess, she had moved around the room with natural poise, meeting tycoon and veteran diplomat alike with practiced ease. Her languid curves melded gracefully with the flowing scarlet chiffon Dolce & Gabbana creation she wore. Her neckline was set deep, showing off the resplendent diamond choker at her throat, companion to the sparkling stone in her ring. She wore less jewelry than most of the women present, but it seemed to shine more brilliantly due to the elegance of its wearer. Her grace was enough to mesmerise every power baron in that room and Chandra watched with rapt attention as she danced with each one in turn.

As for Rashmi – his disappointment with her diffident air was complete – she had been content to stay in the sidelines most of the evening, watching. She wore a shimmering sari of crepe Mysore silk with the heavy gold jewelry that bore the stamp of her traditional south Indian roots. She had a petite figure, large black eyes ringed with kohl and long, black hair that was held in a thick plait. She knew that she looked fetching in that particular sari and had selected it after a careful survey of her well-stocked wardrobe. But in Chandra’s eyes her costume was totally unfit for the occasion. To make matters worse, she had been drawn inevitably to the few other sari-clad women in the room and this lot had stayed in a corner, not joining in with the drinking or dancing – lost instead in self-conscious murmurings, half hidden behind a screen of potted palms. On one occasion Chandra had beckoned her to introduce some of his clients to her. Steeling herself, she had been courteous and had forced herself to respond to polite conversation, but it was plain that she did not belong. After a perfunctory dance or two performed dutifully and in silence, she had excused herself as soon as she could and fled back behind the screen of potted palms.

‘Well, thank God that’s over,’ Rashmi said blissfully, kicking her shoes off as Chandra pulled their BMW out of the hotel’s gates. ‘My feet are killing me. And it’s such a bore sitting around with old Mrs Bhavnani and her clique. How all the ladies suck up to her!’

That was just the opening Chandra needed. Retribution had been merciless.

‘What do you know about feet killing anyone,’ he shot back with a sneer. ’You spent the whole evening sitting on your backside, hidden behind those palms! And if you feel Mrs Bhavnani is a bore, why didn’t you take my cue when I introduced Mr Chiang to you? You know he’s the head honcho of Singapore‘s third largest export house. You know how much it means to me to build a relationship with him. And yet, before I knew it, you were back with your mother hen.’

Varsha, sitting in the back seat, caught his look in the rear-view mirror. There was an ominous glint in it, as if a volcanic outburst was imminent. She was right and it was not long in coming. Rashmi’s next words in a plaintive wail set the explosion off.

‘But I danced with him, Chandra, really I did! I danced with Luke Thompson too, didn’t you see?’

’Oh, yes you did and thank you so very much. It was quite clear that madame had deigned to favour us with a brief appearance before she got bored and went back behind her screen. Sure, you gave them each a dance. But did you make any conversation? No time for that, madame was in a great rush to get back! Poor Mr Chiang asked me later if you were always so cold and distant, do you know that? Even if you detest their company the least you can do is to play it down for one bally evening, for crying out loud! Here I am, slogging my butt off day in and day out for you. The least you can do is to treat my contacts politely! Don’t you want me to move on from this city and get transferred to USA? How do you think these things happen? Definitely not by having you spurn their company in public!′

‘No, Chandra, please don’t say that!’ Rashmi’s voice was trembling and she was close to tears. She had not expected such a lashing, that too when she thought that the ordeal of the evening was finally over. Varsha was getting quite embarrassed, though Chandra seemed to be oblivious of her presence. ‘Chandra, please – you know I’m not good at parties. It’s not that I’m distant. It’s just that I don’t know what to talk about. You know that very well, how can you say I’m distant and haughty!’

‘I’ll not get any important posting at all if you continue like this, dammit!’ he snapped, banging the steering wheel with his palm. A vein in his neck was standing out. His wife cringed and shrank away from him.

That was when he caught sight of Varsha, staring wide-eyed at his reflection in the rear-view mirror. His eyes were blazing and his face was darkened in rage. He gritted his teeth, clamping down on the conversation. All three stared away at the lights as they flashed by during the half hour that remained of the ride home.

Sunday, April 11. 10:00 pm. Four months later.

The next time Varsha called, almost four months had gone by. She became a regular visitor to Singapore, flying down half-a-dozen times, called in by her company to help strategise for marketing the brand across the entire Asia-Pacific region. It was quite clear that her position in the company was rising and that she was being considered for higher assignments. Teams from her company’s international division had visited India too and the past few months must have been hectic for her, which was probably why she didn’t call me for a while.

Of course there was no question of her staying in a hotel in Singapore. Rashmi needed her ever more badly each time. Though she had a few friends in neighbouring localities, invariably Indian, the shy small-town girl found herself shut out from their happy lives. How could she talk about the torture inflicted by an increasingly cold, indifferent husband? To whom could she explain what it was like living within the same four walls with a monster whose violent temper was so unpredictable, who every day – morning and night – taunted her with reminders of her shortcomings in a hundred small ways? Torture it was, but purely mental. What could she show as evidence if she were to mention it to anyone? Who would understand? And who indeed would remark upon it as being in any way extraordinary – wasn’t that the lot of any Indian housewife anyway? Wasn’t it a small price to pay for landing such a catch as Chandra?

Because paradoxically, to other wives in the Indian community, she was the object of envy – a small-town girl whose husband maintained her in the lap of luxury. Everybody whispered with awe the facts – how he had bought their plush tenth floor apartment off Orchard Road cash down so soon after arriving in Singapore; even the BMW – they whispered that he touched only mega deals for his company and that his bonuses were legendary. But for Rashmi it was as if every beautifully crafted chair, vase and painting in their plush home was like a branding-iron, burning into her soul another symbol of a world that remained totally alien to her, a world where she could never feel a sense of belonging. It was as if she was living in a glass-walled prison, suspended up in the sky for all to see. She couldn’t keep her balance without Varsha’s shoulder to cry on every now and then.

And now Varsha told Chats about the latest twist in the tale.

That morning Rashmi had shown her little bits of feminine articles that had somehow found their way into Chandra’s jacket pockets over the last one year – a little eyebrow pencil that didn’t belong to her, a perfumed handkerchief, even a button from a dress. He was getting quite careless. And then, a bare fortnight ago, she had found the latest, most distressing addition to the collection – a key, single, without a key-chain. She was familiar with all the keys he carried – office, car and home, and they were always fixed to their chains. This one seemed like the latchkey to an apartment – it had been all the more repulsive to her because of that. She had put it away in a little hiding place among the tins in the kitchen along with the other bits she had found and had watched, heart in her mouth, as he searched frantically among his pockets before leaving for work the next day. Had he missed the key? He had looked sidelong at her several times during breakfast that day and it had been almost too much effort for her to keep her face from giving her away.

The strain of going through each day, fear of being discovered hanging constantly over her head, was becoming almost too much to bear.

What made it worse was that she had crossed the point of no return.

She had been collecting and hiding these telltale things for too many months, and now it was too late to confess about any of them. She was frightened to think of what would happen should he find out about the key. That would surely lead on to her sad little hoard. He would not be satisfied with only the key, he would somehow drag the truth about the rest of the things from her. She did not know how he would do that – she was just sure that he would. And she was just as sure that he would not spare her or show her the least bit of mercy when he found her hiding place.

It never struck her that in fact it was he who was guilty and that she was well within her rights to be the aggrieved party. It never struck her to confront him with the evidence of his philandering. She just knew that he would turn it into an unpardonable breach of his privacy and then make life a living hell for her ever after. She was mortally scared of his temper.

And it seemed as if that key had a special significance to Chandra more than any of the other articles she had found over the months. Or maybe he had made it into some dark little game – she wasn’t sure. Every morning for two weeks he had gone through the motions of checking through his jacket pockets as if searching for something he missed. Not once did he look at her or ask her for whatever it was he sought. Not once did she summon the courage to ask him what it was that he sought. And every day the dread fear of discovery clutched at her heart, as she tore herself away into the kitchen to fix his breakfast and to escape his questioning eyes.

Fourteen mornings when the world seemed to stand still, when her chest seemed to struggle to draw every breath. Fourteen mornings when he would on countless occasions seem to be about to say something and she would start like a schoolgirl caught in the act.

No word would be spoken about the key, but she knew that she had been found out. As each day passed her certainty grew. She knew that it was now a matter of time before her spirit would crack and she would confess to him and then it would all be over. She had thanked her stars that Varsha was visiting them soon and had prayed constantly that she could hold out until then without blurting it all out to him.

It was a Saturday morning when the two friends sat in her room looking at the collection. Chandra was out for his usual round of golf. He was rarely back before late afternoon so Rashmi had plenty of time to tell her friend everything before he returned. Varsha could not conceal her indignation when she saw the little collection spread out on the bed. Her anger boiled over when the key was placed on top of the pile, last of the lot.

‘Why, the bloody bastard, he’s got another flat!’ she exclaimed. ‘This is the last straw! Why don’t you confront him? This could be the chance to get him to change his ways once and for all, Rashmi!’

Rashmi’s hands fluttered to her cheeks in horrified panic. ‘No, no, he’ll not be able to bear the shame, Varsha! I have to find some other way!’

He’ll not be able to bear it? What about thinking of yourself? Why, the monster, he’s the cause of your suffering! He doesn’t deserve you, Rashmi. He has been cheating on you and all you can think of is his well-being! He must be punished for treating you so cruelly.′

’No, Varsha, he’s not a cruel man at all. He has been very helpful to me, to my sister in India, too. He paid all her medical college fees. He has never turned me down when I or anyone from my family has asked for help. Remember when he got my nephew an admission into engineering college? We couldn’t have managed without him. He has such useful contacts everywhere, even in India. For his relatives too and his friends – he has always shown a golden heart.′ Rashmi looked anxiously at Varsha, willing her to understand her husband, twisting some unknown girl’s handkerchief with her fingers, caught in a desperate swirl of confusion. ‘It’s just that he’s so … so misguided, you know ... I mean he’s such a child sometimes, you know,’ she looked pleadingly at Varsha, searching for the right words. ’He’s so passionate! Yes, that’s it, he’s terribly, terribly passionate about everything. And spontaneous! Like a child, that’s what I said! His job, his car, his golf, his friends, everything. And I mean, you know, everything. He can’t help himself, Varsha, he’s like that, can’t you see?′

Varsha could see one thing very clearly. In Rashmi’s present state of mind, it would be futile to try to convince her to confront the man and have a showdown. She may be very well educated but after all, she thought, she was from a small south Indian town and all her upbringing had trained her to place husband above all else in this world, to live in his shadow, overlook any weakness – no matter how repulsive or humiliating. She boiled inwardly at Indian social norms, which made women lay sacrifice after sacrifice at their husbands’ feet, for them to enjoy or throw aside as whim dictated.

But here and now, in twenty-first century Singapore, all Rashmi’s sacrifices were in vain. Chandra did not even notice any of them. Varsha knew that he had been aware of them, when he had been kind and considerate, in distant India. Once upon a time, that was. Now his horizons were broader and he no longer needed – no longer wanted – just a housewife. Now, he craved for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, to be seen with the beautiful people of the world. In a flash, Varsha saw how he must visualise Rashmi in New York society, growing old into another Mrs Bhavnani amongst a flock of dowdy, sari-clad, heavily jewelled matrons. Now he saw Rashmi only as a liability, a hindrance to his career, a mill-stone around his neck. He craved the company of the glitteratti. And spread out on the bed before them was evidence that he had probably allowed his cravings to get the better of his discretion.

All of a sudden, a chilling question popped itself into Varsha’s mind – did these things belong to the same girl? Were these signs of mere one-night stands or was he seeking another life-partner? If it was the latter, then what was to happen to Rashmi? Had this question occurred to her too? Varsha knew from friends that divorce laws in Singapore were not as convoluted as in India. Did Rashmi? Did she know that to qualify for applying to Singapore courts, three months residence was enough – Chandra and Rashmi had been here for two whole years. The whole thing could be wrapped up in a matter of two months. No need to approach the Indian authorities. No need to go there and face up to scandal in the family. Was that on Chandra’s mind? It dawned on Varsha that she must find out for her friend’s sake – and who knew how much time there was before chaos broke?

Rashmi’s next words wrenched her heart. So typical of the dutiful Indian wife to look inside herself for answers, to accept blame for anything that went wrong in her marriage, to seek on her own ways to redeem the situation.

“Will you find out from him where I went wrong, Varsha? For me? I am afraid to talk to him. You – you have a different relationship with him. Like you could discus things with him in a way I can’t.” She said this guilelessly, without showing any embarrassment. “He never bothers to tell me anything important. He will open up to you. And then you know, you can gradually find out his inner thoughts. But please be careful! Gradually, casually, don’t talk directly! Because you shouldn’t say anything about all this,” indicating with a nervous little flutter of her hands the stuff lying on the bed, “or else he’ll lose his temper and God knows what he will do then. I mean, there’s no hurry but I want to know what he really feels. Will you do that for me, Varsha, please?”

Such was the mental state of the young wife, forlorn and forsaken by her husband for no fault of hers – in fact, despite all that she did to keep him happy. Poor, dear Rashmi, how was she to learn the qualities that Chandra sought? How was she to avert the disaster that awaited? It now seemed inevitable that this marriage would end on the rocks and it was best that she was prepared for the worst.

Varsha had no choice. She felt that her friend’s future was in her hands and her peace of mind, even her very sanity, depended on her ability to connect with Chandra. She would have to cultivate him – worm her way into his confidence and at the same time prepare her friend well in advance and help her plan her moves so that she came out of this with all that was due to her.

Varsha did not doubt that it was going to be a difficult game. Chandra was nobody’s fool and his passionate temper was always lurking just below the surface. So far he had not descended into physical violence – but who was to say? Even if it did not come to that, the moment he got wind of the game, he would move fast, ruthlessly cutting Rashmi off without a penny to her name, leaving her to make her own way back to India, to her parents and to everlasting shame. That would surely shatter the poor girl. She was like a delicate flower – would she be able to withstand the acrimony that would dog the drama?

As we spoke, Varsha said that a plan had begun forming itself in her head. I was instantly curious for the details but she refused to give me a clue. All she said was that she would have to step very carefully. I became quite nervous and tried my best to get it out of her but she rang off all of a sudden, leaving me hanging

Sure enough, one evening at about ten thirty a month or so later, Varsha called. Her voice was shaking badly and I knew at once that she was deep in trouble.

“Chats, something terrible has happened!” she whispered in a desperate tone.

“Where are you?” I asked, sensing her panic. “I can come to Bombay right away. Tonight, if you want.”

“No, no, I’m in Sing,” she replied. “It’s really sweet of you to say that.”

“Oh, okay. Well then, tell me all. And not to worry, it’ll be alright in the end.”

But I wasn’t prepared for the story that came out. Not one bit.

That fateful Sunday evening they had planned to go out to dinner at a continental restaurant in the Four Seasons Park Hotel. The place had good live music and a dance floor and Chandra had persuaded Varsha to agree for a few dances before dinner.

‘You know Rashmi can’t dance and she’s uncomfortable in anything but a sari. I feel like shaking a leg today. Don’t disappoint me.’

Rashmi had assented with a timid smile. ‘Yes, Varsha, do that. I’ll enjoy just as much watching you both from the table.’

Chandra clapped his hands briskly and made the bookings. The two ladies got busy figuring out what to wear. It was getting on to seven-thirty when they emerged, Rashmi looking fetching in a Benares sari. Varsha had on a figure-hugging gown in deep blue silk with a slit reaching up well above her knees. He proposed a round of drinks before they left the flat, to set the mood. He kept up a lively chatter as he mixed the drinks. When he was in one of his ebullient moods Chandra could be brilliantly charming and both girls laughed out loud at his jokes. It was only long afterwards, after everything had happened, that Varsha realised what he had done to Rashmi’s drink. She hadn’t been able to spot the quick movement of his hand at that time.

‘I’m training Rashmi to hold her drink,’ he had said, handing over a scotch and soda. ‘Isn’t it sporting of her to learn this at home? Soon she will be her charming best even if it’s a late-night party, eh, Rashmi? You’ll be the life and soul, just watch!’

His wife giggled and took the glass from him. Varsha couldn’t stop herself feeling apprehensive – everybody she knew who had started out drinking late in life and had ended up making themselves miserable in the long run. They clinked their glasses together and he put some music on. After a few sips he pulled Rashmi out of her chair for a step around the coffee table. But she gave up after a couple of turns. ‘It’s OK, you two dance and I’ll watch and learn,’ she said, returning to her seat. So they danced while they finished the drink and then it was time to go.

Suddenly Rashmi reeled and grabbed out at a table as she passed by it. She put her hand to her head and said that she was feeling dizzy and disoriented. ‘I still have to learn,’ she said with a sheepish smile. And then she passed out.

He looked apologetically at Varsha and shrugged his shoulders. Carrying her gently he put her to bed as she was. Returning to the drawing room, he said, ‘Well, that looks like curtains for our evening plans. We can’t go out and leave her like this. I better cancel the booking. What do you want to do for dinner, then?’

There was no option but to have something delivered from a pizza joint nearby. He poured out another round and suggested a dance while they waited. She saw no reason to refuse – in fact she thought that this might be just the opportunity to probe his mind while his guard was down. So she played along cheerfully and before long they were having fun. When the CD had run through, he cleared away the furniture, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and put on some snappier numbers.

They had lots to drink that night. His conversation was great, his tongue witty and his mood more euphoric than she had ever seen before. The pizza-boy came and went, his parcels lay untouched, long after they had gone quite cold. Chandra was really great on his feet and Varsha matched his steps jive for jive. He danced with passion, sending her whirling in and out of his strong, muscular arms. With each drink they felt themselves dancing with greater abandon. He put on some samba – really loud – and she felt the beat of the music thrill her body. She found herself swept off her feet time and again, each time landing in his arms, his face up close to hers. For a fleeting moment sometime after the fourth – or was it the fifth – drink she wondered why the music didn’t wake Rashmi. Was she so drunk that she didn’t hear them in the next room? Then she was whirling around again – ending up with his arms around her – his sweat glistening on his chest, his hair falling in thick locks down his forhead. He was down on one knee and she found herself perched on his thigh, her breasts heaving against his chin.

The CD ran out. He let her roll off his knee and on to the thick carpeting, cushioning her impact with his other arm. And then she was flat on her back, her arms around his neck, his hot lips seeking hers. They kissed.

She felt as if molten lava was coursing through her bloodstream. They pressed their bodies together and she felt his hands moving, strong fingers seeking the clasps that held her gown at the shoulders.

She felt herself sinking. A voice of warning sounded as if from far away. With a sudden gasp she came to her senses and tried to push him away. But he was too far gone and too strong for her. He was undoing her dress right there on the carpet and she was too weak to fend his hands off. She struggled harder but that only helped bring her bra-straps down around her arms and both her breasts sprang out free, her inflamed nipples pointing straight up into his face.

‘No, Chandra, no!’ she whispered, not wanting to wake her friend. Or at least thought she mouthed those words – was that her voice coming out in breathless gasps? She squirmed and wriggled under his straining body, but her dress rode high around her waist, he had her panties off and then he was inside her, thrusting and panting. Her hands still resisted but her mind was a confused mess. Her fists beat against his chest but he went on and on until finally it was over.

When at last she opened her eyes she was looking up into a face darkened with rage. ‘Damn you,’ he growled and grabbed hold of her shoulders, shaking her hard.

Wasn’t he done yet? She found that she was terror-stricken, her hands and legs seemed as if they were made of some quaking jelly.

’Did you have to actually make me do this? Don’t you people ever let go? Why do you Indian females hold back so much, damn you, damn you, damn you!′ He hoisted and flung her with such force that she was thrown backwards, landing half on to the sofa, cringing with physical fear, clutching her rumpled dress around herself, her legs too weak to get her on to her feet. He was kneeling on the carpet before her, the muscles of his powerful arms and shoulders tensed as if ready to strike. He was panting hard, half from spent passion and half from rage. His dark eyes bored into her and she felt her throat go dry.

Then, suddenly, he was contrite and full of repentance. He touched her shoulder gently, then cupped her chin with both hands. “I’m sorry babe, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I want to make it up to you, honey, please let me make it up to you.” He took her into his arms and she closed her eyes, resting her head on his shoulder. Then she began weeping silently, helplessly, the tears flowing down her face and on to his chest. “Shh, shh, take it easy,” he whispered gently. He held her tight and she felt a warm glow all over.

She felt herself drawn inexorably back into that guilt-ridden pool but the tears had stopped. He ran his palms caressingly over her neck, her breasts, her waist, her hips – she was nude and so was he. The sheer pleasure of his touch was psychedelic. Every nerve in her body was afire.

The second time she lost herself utterly, shamelessly, hopelessly.

The months went by. I was caught up with admin and teaching work in my department and hadn’t realized the passage of time before Varsha’s next call. As usual, it was close to two am one Sunday night.

“What, Chats, still awake?” she asked because I had picked the phone up on the second ring.

“Hey, old sweets, the one and only love that I’m glad I missed – what’s up?” I responded, because I was in a mellow mood after a few rounds with the gang at the local bar outside our campus. “Early to rise, honey, or is it late to bed? It must be well past four am for you,” I finished, glancing at the wall-clock.

“Hee, hee,” she gurgled, obviously full of the good stuff herself. It looked like she was in one of her cheerful, garrulous, let’s-have-a-good-chat moods.

I sighed and shut down the report I was working on. She had been traveling heavily on work all across the Far East and once or twice to her company’s head office in Paris – that much I had known from her constant stream of e-mails. Sales of the new range of luggage had taken off and exclusive stores were being opened every week in one city or another. That had kept her on the wing practically all the time. We had spoken a couple of times on the phone but it had always been rushed and hadn’t really had a good heart-to-heart. Tonight she wanted to beat around the bush and that meant this would be a really long chat. And I could tell that she wanted to work around to the real stuff in her own way.

And of course, I had better pay full attention. Or else.

“So you’re in Sing this week again. Your company had better post you there sometime soon and save itself humungous travel bills. And you had better get ready to take a crack at the top job, baby!”

“Tere muh mein ghee-shakkar, honey! This city is so cool! Last night we went pub-hopping.”

I sat up, antennae going full blast. All sleep was wiped out from my brain. Now, who would be included in that we? I asked myself.

And then she herself let me know in due course. Not in her usual direct way but as I pieced the picture together I was quite speechless. She pattered on at the other end, little realizing the apprehension her words were causing in me. Good thing we were chatting on the phone and not face to face. I’m rarely left speechless by female tricks but this one took the cake. More importantly, my reaction if she could have seen it at close quarters would have embarrassed her no end and she was too dear a friend for me to want to hurt her.

Apparently, whenever she went to Singapore nowadays, it was all about just the two of them – Chandra and Varsha. She would retain her booking at the Raffles Plaza, citing a hectic working day and very late nights, what with the increasing success of her product line, as her excuse for not staying with Rashmi. After hours, it was as if the streets of Singapore were paved with roses, the air hung with flowers just for the two of them. Almost every evening they would step out after returning from work – Rashmi wouldn’t even know that they were meeting – and the two would stop at her hotel room for passionate love-making before he eventually made his way back home, in the wee hours of the morning.

It had taken time to get here, though. In the weeks after that first night, Varsha had played her role as the mediator between husband and wife. In part it was to salve her own guilt-ridden conscience. But she knew it was hopeless. Then gradually, they began to look forward to evenings together for the fun they could have. After all, it was Rashmi who had egged her on to get into Chandra’s confidence and seek to understand his mind. The only time that would be possible was in the evenings. It was Rashmi who had said that she should not be present so that Chandra could talk to Varsha freely. It followed that Rashmi should back out of these occasions and stay at home.

I felt a prickly feeling in my spine. Varsha was losing her head – or maybe she had already lost it. Something had to give. I could see that the situation was fast reaching a flash-point. But she was plunging headlong into this relationship, oblivious to the imminent danger. I told her so, of course.

“Chats, you fool, you’re talking like an old woman. You didn’t even ask what we were celebrating last night!”

“Well then tell me, old sweets,” I said, “Not that a charming piece of dynamite like you needs a reason to blow a town up,” though I felt sure she should have sensed the lack of curiosity in my voice.

“Bull-ll sh-hhit!” she roared. “Anyway, I’ll tell you. Chan’s got a transfer to NY! He’s going to the company HO!”

“Well, that’s good for him, then. That’s what he was looking for all these years. And it will be good for Rashmi too. They can both turn a new leaf in their lives together out there. Good for both you girls, I think.”

That was followed by a long silence. The prickly sensation returned.

“Hey old sweets, are you there? Cat got your tongue? Say something!”

“Yeah, I’m here.” Then after a long pause, she continued, “Look Chats, I need to tell you something.”

Sure enough, what I suspected was true. They were planning to get hitched as soon as he could free himself from his marriage. There was nothing much for me to say in response. I rang off as diplomatically as I could, though I was cold inside my heart.

It was barely a few days later that it happened.

I read about it in the newspapers – it led off the front page with full details amplified in the inside pages because Chandra had become something of a celebrity even in India. The headline had drooled over the incident in the hope of juicing the story for maximum value: “Poison payload for Indian corporate wiz-kid in Singapore". He had died one evening at his Singapore flat, killed by a fatal dose of arsenic in his whisky. It was an accident because the wrong victim had died – an open and shut case for the police – even the rawest recruit could have pieced the situation together.

It had been a suicide attempt by his shy, soft-spoken wife that had gone horribly wrong – he had drunk the contents instead of her when their glasses had somehow got switched. Death had occurred within minutes. In her suicide plan Rashmi had wanted him to be with her when she died and had penned a note explaining her reason. This was simple – repeated instances of adultery committed over the years. Despite her confronting him with clear evidence and pleading for a change in his behaviour, Chandra had not repented and thus had driven her to this final act of desperation. Arrayed carefully around the note, which had been placed on her bedside table to be found after her death, were those very pieces of evidence – jewelry, buttons from feminine clothing that didn’t belong to her – there was even the key to a flat allegedly used by the unintended victim to meet his lovers. All the items had been traced by the Singapore police to their respective owners who had, to a girl, confessed when confronted with incontrovertible evidence. A case of accidental death had been registered – it was the only logical conclusion.

I saw that there was no mention of Varsha anywhere. At least she had been spared the scandal.

One morning the next week, I got a frantic phone call from Varsha. She had booked herself on a flight into Bangalore that evening from Bombay and wanted me to meet her at the airport. She had just received a letter from Singapore. The strident urgency in her voice was unmistakable, the sudden flight plan to Bangalore showed that maybe she was in deep trouble, and I cancelled my programme for the evening so that I could pick her up at the airport. When she emerged from the arrivals building she was still looking quite shaken. She was carrying only a small overnighter and must have packed barely more than a toothbrush. It was very unlike her to travel without a full complement of clothing and accessories, usually filling several large suitcases. Something had obviously rattled her very badly indeed. She looked about in a distracted way and grabbed my wrist with desperate strength and whispered in a rasping undertone, “Where’s your car? Let’s go there and talk now!”

My car was parked in the middle of the large parking lot, but nobody would be interested in a couple sitting inside a car having a quiet chat. When I had put her bag in the back and we were seated inside, she looked at me for a long moment before breaking down and sobbing, burying her hands in her face. This was not the Varsha I knew – cool, composed, confident. The girl beside me was crying like a small, disconsolate child who has lost everything in life. The breakdown was complete and uncontrollable. I racked my brain for the possible reasons. Had Chandra’s death affected her so badly? Not so, I thought to myself, since we’d spoken a couple of times afterwards and she had shown signs of getting over the loss. It was something else that had happened, then. Was it that after Chandra’s death Rashmi had tried to kill herself again, successfully this time? And maybe left Varsha torn between grief and self-recrimination? Or had the letter brought news of some suddenly discovered evidence implicating her in the police case? I placed my arm around her heaving shoulders and waited. It was a full five minutes before she calmed down enough to tell the story in coherent words.

It wasn’t her friend, Varsha told me. Rather, it wasn’t that Rashmi had done anything drastic – in fact she was going about re-constructing her life after Chandra. It looked as if she was winding up the house in preparation for a new beginning. What surprised me was that this small town brahmin widow looked set to carry on living in alien Singapore. From what Varsha told me, she seemed to be conducting herself with unexpected poise and dignity.

And then, the chilling details of the events of that fateful evening slowly unraveled.

The letter from Singapore that had sparked of this sudden dash to Bangalore was from her friend and it told all. It was definitely foolish on her part to have written it but she had probably reckoned that Varsha wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. It spoke of how she had set up the attempt.

By now, Rashmi and Chandra had gotten into the habit of having a drink together before dinner. A business acquaintance of Chandra’s had earlier called and she had told him when he could catch her husband at home that day. So she knew in advance what time the call would come and was ready. Chandra normally took such calls in his study. She was depending on it being long enough to give her time. Rashmi, feeling her resolve weakening, the enormity of what she was about to do weighing on her mind like a huge black monster, had gone to the bathroom during the phone call to steel herself. She must go through with it now. It was either him or her, of that she was sure. But would she give in and make one last sacrifice? No, she had told her reflection in the bathroom mirror resolutely, she had done with sacrificing. From now on it would go her way.

When she came back to the drawing room, he was still in the study and she had quickly slipped the stuff into his glass. She took her drink out on to the balcony and waited until he came back and sipped from his. And then she remained outside for a while longer, lingering in the cool evening breeze. When she came back in, he was lying on the carpet, already going before her eyes. She had wondered at his supreme arrogance even in that last moment because he continued staring at her with both comprehension and puzzlement as the life ebbed from his body. He knew he was going. He knew she was the cause. But he couldn’t understand how she had got the better of him or indeed why she wanted to do away with her lord and master. He had asked her both questions with what little strength had remained in him during those last few minutes. She had remained looking at him with loathing, and he had gone waiting for the answers as she had stood over him.

Then Varsha showed me the little jewel – a solitary earring – slim and flat, that had been enclosed with her friend’s letter.

“Th-this belongs to me, Chats,” Varsha said in a hollow voice. Her face had gone ashen again when she held it out for me. “I – we – that is Chandra and me, had noticed its loss three months ago. But I had lost both earrings together. I had even lodged a report at the Raffles Plaza, asking the management to see if they could trace them. They knew me well, you know that, and they really co-operated. They called the police for me at once.”

“And now it’s inside Rashmi’s letter to you. But only one.”

“Chats! Oh my God,” she cried out pitifully, her voice trembling, her fingertips against trembling lips, “Oh my God, oh my God. I can’t make out what this means, Chats! Can you?”

I looked thoughtfully at the little jewel as it sat in my palm, sparkling in the lamplight of the parking lot. The design was European, the jewel elegant in its lines, the solitary diamond in it pure, hard and unyielding.

The questions rose in my mind as they must have done in hers. There was just no point in asking them – the answers, if they came, might only open old wounds and maybe even create new ones. In any case, who would those answers benefit?

Finally I made my decision. It was a hard truth to tell. “Yes, Varsha,” I said as gently as I could, “I know what this means. It’s a sign. A sign to tell you that she wants to burn her bridges. All of them. That she doesn’t want any more to do with the past.”

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