Shine The Light

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Shattered Roses

The mellow lighting in the Mandarin Room restaurant played gently on Sunnidhi’s ponytail as it lay across her shoulder, giving it a faint golden tinge. She was pattering on about her newly rented apartment, her new job and how she had landed it through some very special contacts, her previous employer and how desperately hard they tried holding her back. I was half smiling to myself at her bubbly enthusiasm, as we finished our dessert of sugar-fried flat noodles doused liberally with honey. She had been vivacious all evening, gushing on almost incessantly about every aspect of her life since she had moved into Bangalore on a new job some six months back. She looked engagingly childlike tonight in spite of her age – she must have been well into her thirties – flitting from this topic to that, like an excited schoolgirl on her first date. It was almost a first date for her – leastways since she had moved into Bangalore.

We had met by accident that Sunday at a pub and had renewed an eight year old acquaintance. It transpired that she had made no friends yet that she could let her hair down with. “No time, Chats, I’ve got such-hh a busy schedule and my company is so-oo dependent on me that I have totally sacrificed my social life,” was how she put it.

The dinner had been an unqualified hit. I wondered what had set this vivacious mood going. It must have been that moment outside her apartment block when I had gone to pick her up. While we had waited for a cab I had retrieved a couple of week-old pups that were straying dangerously close to the traffic. Wobbling on their tiny paws, cringing at every passing vehicle, their new lives had been very close to being snuffed out. I had searched for the mother but she was nowhere to be seen, probably out foraging for food. Three others of the litter were peering over wet snub noses from inside a flimsy carton someone had placed near the gate. The two strays must somehow have clambered out of it. I picked them up by the scruffs of their necks and deposited them back into safety. They yelped angrily at the confinement but I was firm – they would be better there until the mother came back and figured out what to do with them.

“That shows you’re a true dog-lover,” she had said. “Not only because you put them in safety, Chats, but I saw the way you held them by the back of the neck. Not everyone knows how to do that.

“And you’re too modest, yaar,” she continued when I shrugged my shoulders and grinned. “Zaffy is like that, he’s so-oo unassuming but only people who know him well know what a tremendous pillar of strength he is. And he’s so knowledgeable, you won’t find anyone so well read.” That gushing torrent gave me a foretaste of her patter for the evening ahead, but I decided that, if she was a lonely soul in search of a friendly ear to pour her daily woes into, I would humour her. And find out who ‘Zaffy’ was.

I had last met Sunnidhi eight years back while I was studying at BITS, Pilani. She was assisting one of our more popular professors in some research projects. She could use her network of contacts resourcefully to ferret out more information through well-placed phone calls than other people could through weeks of analysis. We used to land up in his office every now and then and I got to know her slightly. I had thought of her then as a bit of a come on. She would always be saying how men, both young and old, would be chasing after her all the time, but she must have been at least ten years older than me so I kept my distance. Rumours were that more than one student had scored with her. But then a single girl in an engineering college located in a semi-desert back of beyond with a ninety five percent male enrolment invariably draws loose talk. And as for her own claims – what’s the harm in playing out a fantasy, I told myself – everybody likes to feel wanted.

Across the table I regarded her with speculation. She had preserved herself well and her figure, though a bit angular in places, was attractive in a vibrant sort of way. Tonight she was in a diaphanous polka dot sari and low-cut silk blouse. Her pointed breasts thrust out firmly and I could see the outlines of her navel on a flat stomach. We had had two rounds each of vodka and she got up a little unsteadily, managing her sari with more than a bit of struggle. She hooked her arm in mine and leaned against me as we walked out of the place, her hips swaying against mine. In the cab she sat very close to me and more than once her breasts touched my arms. I couldn’t help responding and the blood surging through my veins was beginning to heat up. She invited me in for a night-cap and I accepted.

“Do you ever think about how our generation has got so-oo cut off from our families, Chats?” she asked as we settled down with our drinks side by side on the sofa in her one bedroom flat in Indiranagar, a cosmopolitan upper-middle class section of Bangalore. “My Dad is in Delhi, my sister is so well-settled with a job, her husband and her children in London and here I am, wandering around from town to town all over India.”

“What’s this now, Sunnidhi, don’t tell me you’re getting homesick. A girl like you, who’s been independent for donkey’s years.”

“You know, I used to be Daddy’s pet,” she went on with a dreamy, faraway look, ignoring my remark. “I only wish he hadn’t wanted me to be as brilliant as my sister. I’m not. He never actually told me so, but you know how you can feel these things. I could feel it every single day. When I couldn’t stand it any more I left Delhi. I didn’t care where I went so long as it was someplace other than Delhi, that’s why I landed up all alone in Pilani.”

“Hmm. What did he think of you then?” I asked, stretching myself , throwing a casual arm over the back of the sofa.

She looked up at me forlornly and then far away. “He never once asked me about my work. It was always ‘Are you happy?’, ‘Are you well looked after?’ and that sort of thing. I was always a little girl to him.” She sank back on the cushions and her head rested on my arm. She didn’t move away. I could smell the fragrance in her hair. Glancing down I could see the deep swell of her cleavage and it kept diverting my attention from what she was saying.

“I’ve never had a man look up to me, Chats,” she said and I wondered if she had read my mind. “But you, you’re too nice a person. Always so kind and caring.”

I was startled at this sudden turn in her conversation – where she had gathered this impression I could not say.

I was about to reply when she went on. “Very few people would have bothered to care for those little puppies, Chats. Most men are so keen to show their macho side when they go out with a girl, but you’re so-oo different from them.”

Well, I told myself, looks like one good turn begets another. As for the new-born pups, I had done what I thought was the only natural thing to do. I wondered if it was the alcohol that had got her into this maudlin, mushy mood, trying to gauge the moment before making my move.

The hell with it, I thought, and dropped my arm comfortingly around her. She smiled and snuggled closer to me. Her eyes were glazing over and the pallu of her sari was slipping down towards her waist. I felt my desire mount as we finished our drinks. She leaned across me to place the glass on the side table. I found my hand cupping one soft breast and then our bodies got deeply entwined, her arousal matching mine. We kissed and I undid her blouse. Her lips were surprisingly soft under mine. We threw off our clothes as we staggered against the walls and bumped against one another on the way to the bedroom. She was giggling drunkenly all the time. She responded eagerly to my every touch, but her eyes were tightly shut and she was whispering dreamily to herself. In the frenzy I couldn’t hear the words – vaguely it seemed she was repeating them many times, but I wasn’t sure. Digging her long fingers into the muscles of my neck, she pulled me on top of her. She heaved and moaned under me as I entered. I sensed that she wanted it to last, and we rose together to a long, lingering climax.

As we lay back panting it came to me – she had been mumbling sweet nothings to Zaffy while I was making love to her.

I discovered who ‘Zaffy’ was soon enough. She was referring to Zafar Rao, a successful young architect from Bombay and a familiar face in the gossip columns, who these past few years was trying his luck in New York. He had landed a few assignments out there that got talked about a good deal in the Indian media but he was nowadays seen but seldom in India. I found out from other friends that he was happily married and with school-going kids to boot, so I wondered a bit at the intimate way in which Sunnidhi referred to him repeatedly. Must have been a short fling a long time ago that she was harking back to with nostalgia, I thought at first. But later I sensed that there was something deeper here that didn’t meet the eye. Maybe they were still in touch whenever he came to India, but I didn’t come by any gossip about any love interest that he had.

The next Saturday we went out again for dinner, to a steak joint down Brigade Road. It was tucked into a niche behind the Rex cinema, with six or seven neat gingham-covered tables under a spreading jacaranda tree. In my experience a pitcher of draught beer followed by steak and mom’s apple pie with dollops of whipped cream at The Only Place usually paved the path to nirvana. It couldn’t fail to set the right mood, is what I had figured. The best laid plans go awry and mine went that way as soon as we had ordered.

“Zaffy will never do that,” she said as the waiter walked away to fetch our beer.

“What?” I asked, nonplussed.

“Order something else. He is the perfect gentleman, sharing in everything we do. Even today, whenever he comes to India and we meet, he always asks what I want and tells the waiter to double the order. He’s always so kind and caring.”

Well now, wasn’t that exactly what I had been last week – kind and caring? And now Zaffy had muscled himself into the conversation without even being there and usurped my position.

“C’mon, Sunnidhi, don’t be silly. What does it matter if we eat different dishes? That has nothing to do with kindness or caring.”

“Of course it has,” she insisted, her voice rising a notch in shrillness. In a matter of moments, I found myself staring at an evening going quickly to pieces. I cast about in my mind for a way to salvage it.

“Okay, why don’t we do one thing, then?” I shot off brightly, “we’ll share both our sizzlers half and half, what say?”

“But I don’t like pepper steak, it’s too harsh on the taste-buds. How can you even think of saying such a thing without asking if I like pepper steak?” she pouted, putting paid to that attempt. I was wondering why her mood was going so quickly downhill. I was thankful of the chance to change the subject in the next moment, when the waiter mercifully brought our beer.

“Hey, do you want to go to the jazz show next Saturday?” I asked. “I know the organizers and our gang is going. Somebody called the Basin Street Bananas. Want to come?”

“Oh, those guys, they’re not a patch on Herbie Hancock. Nobody’s even heard of them. Zaffy and I only used to go to guys who had performed at Mardi Gras in St Louis.”

Zaffy again. This was getting kind of tiresome and it looked like I was not doing anything right today. I took a sip of beer and waited resignedly for another topic to pop up – one that she would like and one that did not involve Zaffy.

We got talking about the movie that was running in the cinema next door. We both had seen and liked it. Gratefully, I steered the conversation around the movie. We had another glass of beer from the pitcher. We talked some more about movies and music. The waiter brought our orders. We dug in and peace reigned for a while.

I thought I had staved off a crisis when suddenly she said, “Aren’t you using the carving knife? That’s the right way to have a steak. Zaffy would never have to be told.”

“Yeah but Zaffy’s not here with you when you’re lonesome in a new city, right?” I asked with an edge to my voice. She snapped her head up at that and I became immediately contrite. Wanting to pacify her I placed my hand over hers and was about to speak when she burst out in tears.

“What do you think of me?” she cried out in her shrill voice. “Do you think I’m drunk and you can take advantage of me like this?”

Flabbergasted, I stared at her wide-eyed. “Don’t you know I’m not that kind of girl?” her tone had risen even higher and people at nearby tables turned discreetly to look. “What do you take me for? You can’t take Zaffy’s place no matter how hard you try!”

“B-but I’m not even ---,” I started, when she rose abruptly and snatched up her handbag. Diners at other tables were eying me with barely concealed disgust and hostility. The situation was turning ugly and I didn’t even know what the hell it was that had brought this sudden change in her. I sat there spellbound, my mind trying to grapple with the turn of events. She gave me a glare and stalked out, leaving her dinner unfinished.

My eyes were feeling hot and my ears must have been red with embarrassment though thankfully no-one could make out in that dimly lit place. I beckoned and the waiter brought me the bill with a sullen air. When he brought my change he did not hang around to see if I left a tip, the bastard. Nor did I leave one. I stepped out and waited for an auto-rickshaw. She was of course long gone.

I vowed never to see her again. I had only tried to be friendly when she was alone in the city and this was how she repaid me. Her mood swings were ridiculous but that was nothing compared to the embarrassment she had just put me through.

Damn me if she didn’t call me up some days later as sweet and chirpy as can be. I wanted to hang up on her but some urgent, beseeching note in her voice stopped me from doing so. Acting cold and distant, I asked what she wanted. She absolutely floored me with her request.

“Chats, if you’re not too busy tomorrow – and it’s Saturday so don’t give me any excuses – if you’re not very, very busy, then please, please help me shop for a present for my niece. It’s going to be her sixth birthday and I so-o want to get her something nice and I don’t know any places in this city. I’ve been told that Bangalore is the best place to get clothes of all kinds and Mehak will be absolutely dejected if I don’t get her a complete wardrobe this time. I’ve promised her. You’re the only one who can help me. Remember, you only said that you’re so-o kind and caring,” clean forgetting that these were her words, not mine. And the last time we met, at the restaurant, I had been anything but that. “You can’t, just can’t let me down.”

What can a man do when faced with such a torrent? Twice while she had been going on I had tried to interject with coldly distant words but when I finally got a word in I said, “Like when do you want to go?” Just like that. So much for my vow never to see her again.

She had gotten pretty much under my skin.

We spent a good two hours in the Forum mall. It was the one place I knew of where any woman could find whatever she wanted to buy no matter how many times she changed her mind. She had put on a twill skirt and a soft knitted jersey that set her figure off quite neatly. She turned male eyes wherever we went and I could see that she was reveling in the attention. Her mood, ebullient to start with, kept improving as the day wore on. She allowed me to make suggestions and finally I found that it was I who finally did all the choosing. We bought a cute number for her niece with Disney characters done in a charming theme on the front and down the back.

“Zaffy couldn’t have chosen better, Chats!” she clapped her hands with pleasure when it was all laid out on the counter by the salesgirl. Then I chose a handbag and shoes to match and Sunnidhi was quite literally transported with joy. I couldn’t fathom why she was making such a big deal out of this. Even more puzzling was the pleasure she was taking from the fact that I had made the selections and not she.

The last item I chose almost sent her into hysterics, by which time I had given up trying to understand the significance of the occasion. I spotted the cutest cuddly brown dog with the largest, most entreating eyes you ever saw. It was one of those really endearing cuddlers and Sunnidhi was ecstatic. Because of its face she even gave it a name – she called it Ninja, after the turtles on the TV show. Her shopping basket was full and she was glowing.

“Very few men have an eye for colour and cut, Chats. You’re really such-hh a rare person. You’re so-oo good!” She gave my arm an affectionate squeeze as we stood at the cash counter.

In the next queue I spotted Anand Mathew, a classmate of mine from school. He was a psychiatrist at the leading institution of the city and one of the country’s finest young guns in that field. He had an easy-going personality and perpetually wore a genial smile – both so critical for a man in his profession. His patients confided easily in him and that was one of the pillars on which he was fast building a promising reputation.

I made the introductions and he smiled warmly at Sunnidhi. “It’s been quite a few months since Chats and I caught up. Why don’t we have a quick bite at the coffee shop – it’s not far from here.”

“Yes, I’m famished after all this shopping,” I answered. As we strolled along the corridor I began to sense something amiss. Mathew was talking about his work and out of the corner of my eye I saw Sunnidhi signal fiercely to me. We got to the coffee shop and were able to get a table. But I wondered what was bugging Sunnidhi – she seemed to have retreated into a shell and her eyebrows had arched considerably. She seemed like an angry cat about to start spitting any moment. What had I done now, I thought, with a sinking feeling in my stomach. After all the praise she had showered on me, after comparing me favourably to the ever-present Zaffy, had I managed somehow to ignite some deep nerve inside her?

I was beginning to feel that I just couldn’t win this game when she proceeded to tear into Mathew. She pointed out archly that the salad dressing he was using with his sandwich was sinfully full of calories. Mathew, gentle soul that he was, was quite taken aback. He examined her closely but accepted the criticism sportingly. But she wasn’t done. The soft drinks came – he had ordered a blue curacao. She began a long diatribe on the child labour in the estates that produced the fruit that gave the curacao flavour. Now Mathew was getting a bit more discomfited and he left his drink untouched. Not satisfied with even this, she began to get even more personal.

“Oh, you have a Swatch” she observed.

Happy to change the subject, the unsuspecting Mathew proffered his wrist. It was quite a good looking specimen with lots of sporty features – he was an avid mountain climber and white water rafter.

“You’re one of the few people left who still wear this kind of watch,” she added, sniffing at the offending piece dismissively. “That style went out of fashion so-oo many years ago it’s not funny.”

Mathew smiled, a little bravely, I thought. “It comes in handy, you know, Sunnidhi. I-uh, I do a fair bit of mountaineering and canoeing and that’s why I chose this model.”

“Where do you go? Do you do any white water rafting?”

“Oh, I try to go every season. To the Himalayas, they’re the only place in India.”

“Lots of my friends go rafting,” she said, looking down her nose. “But Himalayas is bo-oring yaar. They go to the Grand Canyon or to Yellowstone. Those are the best spots. And some places in South America.”

Was she deliberately trying to be nasty, I wondered. But I knew that Mathew wouldn’t get ruffled – many of his friends had been to these places too and I had met them myself them on trips with Mathew to the Himalayas. His skill and guts were respected in those circles and he had no reason at all to fall for Sunnidhi’s bait. He was thoughtful nevertheless, at this onslaught of hers. And coming to think of it, it had been an all round attack – his choice of food, his choice of watch and now this. It looked like Sunnidhi had taken an instinctive dislike to an immensely likeable guy and was sparing no efforts to flaunt it. I thanked the old man upstairs that it wasn’t me she was gunning for this time. There was nothing to it but to finish up as quickly as possible and scoot from there. I knew better than to admonish her on the way back and anyway, the moment we were on our own, she reverted to her earlier mood of joy and cheer. I stayed watchful all the way to her apartment, careful not to upset her.

I was surprised when she invited me in – she said she would allow me to carry the stuff up to her flat. It wasn’t too heavy, it was just that the bags were bulky and she might find them difficult to manage in the lift. Or so I told myself as we went up. But the fierce passion with which she threw herself on me once we were inside her flat was unmistakable. She wanted it bad and I obliged, not minding that I might just be standing in for someone else inside her complicated mind.

I was deep in a discussion with my colleagues at the Institute the next day when Mathew called.

“Hey Chats old man, can we talk for a minute? Is there anybody with you? If there is I’ll call later.”

“No, no hang on,” I replied, and shooed the others out of my room. I had been expecting the call – in fact I felt vaguely guilty that I hadn’t called him myself. “Okay, Mathew, I’m alone now. Hey man, I’m damn sorry about the way my friend carried on yesterday. I know you’re too cool to get hassled, but I’m really sorry. Hope you’ll forget all about it.”

“Hey Chats, chill buddy, I wasn’t in the least bit hassled. But it’s Sunnidhi I wanted to talk to you about. How well do you know her, Chats? I mean like, how close are you to her?”

“Well I knew her slightly eight years ago in Pilani and she re-surfaced a couple of months back when she changed jobs. And cities, actually.”

“Okay, is there anything on between the two of you? I don’t mean to pry, Chats, you know me long enough to know that, but I need to know.”

This was getting serious. “Don’t tell me she’s got you going, you old son-of-a-gun! After all she said yesterday, I was about to call you to apologise and now here you are, eh?”

I heard him chuckling at the end of the line. “I don’t blame you for thinking what you’re thinking. It’s been known to happen. Guy gets turned on by some smart-assed woman because she’s been sassy with him Thanks but no thanks, old boy, I’m not biting! I just wanted to be sure there’s nothing going on between you two before saying anything.

“So, is there?” He was waiting for an answer.

I told him that I was just helping her settle into a strange city and that we were just friends. I didn’t get into details. No need, I felt, to have people – even close friends who could keep their lips sealed like Mathew – getting the wrong idea about a woman.

He resumed, sounding re-assured, “Okay. I was watching her closely after she began tearing into me, Chats. The signs are all there. She may need a little, you know, professional advice. It may be a mild case, it could be more serious, one needs to examine her to be sure. I wasn’t sure how you would take it but she seems to trust you so I decided to tell you.

“Especially if you’re close to her, I didn’t want you to get hurt. I mean emotionally. Like even if there’s nothing happening between you two, even if you’re just friends, you could still get a bit hurt if you don’t know.”

Coming from Mathew, a professional psychiatrist, this was ominous. I sobered up and leaned forward, a bit apprehensive now. “What do you mean, Mathew? Surely you’re not saying that Sunnidhi has some kind of mental condition?” Even as I said this I began to feel that Mathew may be right.

I thought of the quick, inexplicable mood swings, the shrill voice when she was upset, using harsh words while at the same time being oblivious to where she was and who was watching. In contrast were the upbeat times, the girlish, gushing sweet nothings she had whispered into my ears those two nights, the intense passion with which she had thrown herself upon me. A voice in my head was sounding a warning, getting louder every second.

I had been silent, the voice was gathering strength and Mathew had waited. He broke into my thoughts now. “I can see that what I said is making sense to you, Chats. Have you noticed any mood swings?”

“Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. Very sharp swings. Yesterday was like major for that. She was really on a roll until you came along and then suddenly she became like a complete bitch. And then afterwards, on the way to her place, she was all sweet and sugary, all kitchy-coo again!”

The moment the words were out I knew I had said too much. Mathew was too much of a professional to miss it. “And if she ran true to type, Chats, these mood swings would have been extreme. Like last night if she got in a romantic mood, she would have tried to go all the way with you.”

I held my tongue but he pushed on. “Well, Chats, did she? Hey, I know you, buddy. Look, you know we’ve never pried unnecessarily about each other’s girls but this is different. I know what would have happened last night, I want you to have your eyes open when you meet her next. Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I replied softly. “Well yeah, we did go all the way,” I continued, thinking about all this. “Look Mathew, I think we need to help her out but I don’t know how she’ll take it. She’s kind of out on a limb when it comes to relationships – she doesn’t want to meet her Dad and she resents her sister’s success. Correction – she resents her Dad comparing her to her more successful sister.”

“Now that jells with observations about people with her condition. Multiple Personality Disorder is what she’s got. Like I said, maybe mild, maybe a bit stronger, hard to say without formal diagnosis. Most people tend to build fantasy worlds and live in them. Has she shown any of that?”

He had hit the nail on the head again. Zaffy, her ex-lover, was always present just below the surface. He had muscled into our conversations so many times already and I was quite sure it was his name she was whispering to herself on the two occasions we had had made out. I had thought she was just trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to get over him and that I was picking her off the rebound. And I had decided to play her along. Now Mathew was telling me that the consequences could be greater than I had bargained for.

I told him all about Zafar Rao. All, that is, that I knew about his relationship with Sunnidhi. Mathew heard me out and then delivered a knock-out blow. “I know Zaffy well, Chats. His family has been friends of ours for decades back in Bombay. My folks and his folks go like way back. Like he’s older than me – by twelve years – but his younger brother Hanif is much younger and damn keen on mountaineering.

“And there’s never been any Sunnidhi in Zaffy’s life. Trust me, I would know.”

He waited until the news sank into my brain before continuing. “That means that the fantasy she’s built around herself and Zaffy is a creation of her fertile imagination. One hundred percent.”

After he rang off, I sat thinking about Sunnidhi, well past her prime, heading for the terrible long loneliness of spinsterhood. She had created an escape hatch that let her lock herself into a fantasy world of her own. Sometimes reality would bring her down to earth, where she found herself living all alone in a strange city, deliberately having cut herself off from family – the only ones who would know her innermost secrets. She couldn’t go back to them except on the briefest of visits. If she lived with them she would have to answer for her single status because no Indian girl is allowed to remain single if her parents have any say at all in the matter. They would surely push her hard. And then, her carefully constructed fantasy world would unravel. Sooner or later events would force her to face up to the truth.

And when she did touch down into reality, she needed someone like Zaffy around to give her a soft landing. Someone who cared, or appeared to care, for her. That someone right now was me. Had there been other Zaffy-substitutes before she came to Bangalore? Had there been any in Pilani? What would happen when her body was no longer well-preserved and there were no more ‘Zaffys’ willing to come forward? Sunnidhi was one hell of a sad, mixed up woman and I decided that I would do what I could to make her brushes with reality less painful.

More troubling to me was another question – which world was indeed her reality? By what right could the world decide to answer the question for her? By what right could I decide to answer the question for her? Then again I was troubled by yet another question – could I decide to look the other way and leave her to face her demons alone? The questions came rushing but I groped in futility for an answer. There was nobody to show me the way – Anand Mathew’s solution was the only way I could see. I needed to win her confidence to a level where she would agree to consult professionals. That was going to take time. Unless her family took a hand. And for that I would need to meet her folks and maybe even her sister. All this was a remote possibility and I mulled things over for quite a while with no concrete results.

A few days later Sunnidhi called me and asked to be dropped off at the airport at five am the next morning. She said didn’t trust the cabbies in the city that early in the morning. There are long stretches of lonely road from the city to the airport and she felt it unwise to go alone. So I drove my Bullet in the biting cold at four am, parked it outside her apartment block and from there we took a cab to the airport. Bangalore airport presented its usual scene of brightly lit chaos when we reached it.

I paid the driver while Sunnidhi went to fetch a trolley. She returned with one, I loaded her bags on to it.

I glanced at the queue of passengers waiting to check in and froze. Not forty feet away, escorting his wife and two young kids into the check-in area, was Zafar Rao himself – I knew his face well enough by now from page three photographs. Sunnidhi was rummaging inside her handbag for her plane ticket but within moments she would look up and see him. What would she do?

She screamed. At the top of her voice. She dropped everything she was holding and ran towards him, screeching his name out, pushing right into the crowd of travelers.

She went completely unhinged. It took a while in that chaos for him to realize that his name was being called so stridently. His wife turned around too, as did the children. Pandemonium was total.

“Zaffy! Zaffy darling, I am here!” she screamed. He turned this way and that in confusion, trying to locate the source of the commotion, and she hopped about in her excitement. “Here! I am coming! Oh God, you are here!” I was grappling with her baggage on the trolley and momentarily lost sight of her in that crowd. I could see him, consternation on his face, hands raised to fend off her flailing arms. For a horrendously long minute there was utter confusion. I tried to break through the mass of bodies in the melee. When I got to them, Zaffy was spread-eagled on the ground, utter terror on his face. His wife was staring aghast at the scene, her children clutched to her side. The ring of people stood and stared. I tried to pull her off him but her strength was maniacal. Finally it took a sturdy cop to pin her down and free the poor chap from the terrible banshee-like creature that had attacked him. He staggered slowly to his knees and grabbed a trolley for support, sobbing in his fright. His face had gone completely white and I knew from the look on his face that he had never met Sunnidhi before and that this was a complete bolt from the blue. I stole a quick glance at his wife and saw from her hardening expression that Zaffy Rao would have one hell of a lot of explaining to do before he was entirely in the clear at home. Poor bloke, it was no fault of his.

Sunnidhi was still screeching and brawling on the floor. Somebody had gone to the local police outpost and gotten hold of lady constables, who hand-cuffed her and led her away, kicking and fighting. I knew she needed someone familiar by her side in those crucial moments but the cops would have none of my entreaties. They wanted order restored quickly and the airport was a high-security zone – any slacking here meant that a punishment posting was certain and none of the cops wanted to put his or her neck on the block. I was sure that now more than ever Sunnidhi needed a familiar face to turn to and I was totally helpless. Nobody wanted any of me – one cop told me kindly but firmly that if I didn’t clear off and leave, I would also get thrown in the lock-up and then what little chance I had of helping her would be gone. He told me that it would be better to get hold of a lawyer as soon as possible. Reluctantly, I left after finding out which cop station they would take her to.

Her father came rushing to town. It took several months for the paper-work to get done. It took another week after she was admitted before I could get off from my work to go visit her. Mathew was there, I had fixed that by prior appointment.

“She’s happy here, Chats,” he said and threw an arm around my shoulder. “She’s safe and secure in her new world. There’s no confusion now. Be gentle and agreeable whatever she says, okay? There’ll be plenty of time to set things right later.”

He kept by my side as I walked gingerly down several long corridors.

“I wish I had been able to comfort her when the cops nabbed her at the airport,” I murmured.

“No, Chats, my team here has discussed her case threadbare. She was a goner the moment she set eyes on Zafar Rao that day. Moreover it happened so completely without warning. She didn’t have a chance.

“She’ll get out of it in a year or two at most, a few months if she’s lucky. We need to see how far the damage has gone. Right now she needs to be humoured. Play along with her fantasy, Chats, that’s the best help you can be.”

The corridor widened and we stepped into a kind of common room. I spotted her immediately, wearing a plain white gown, a solitary figure sitting in a deep armchair. It was uncanny how much weight she had lost in one short week.

On her lap she had spread out the dress we had bought for her niece. In her hand she clutched the cuddly dog that was to have gone with it.

Seeing me approach her face lit up – but with excitement, not recognition. Her eyes showed absolutely no trace of recognition.

“See what I bought for our daughter Mehak!” she exclaimed, shaking the toy dog vigorously. Its head shook violently as she whipped it from side to side. “He’s called Ninja – isn’t he so-oo cute? Zaffy is going to bring her to me soon. I know she’ll be thrilled with all the presents I bought for her!”

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