It was at the beginning of the 11th year of her marriage that Suman disappeared. She did not remember that evening as clearly as she thought she ought to have. It was an evening much like any other. Sudhir left for the office on his scooter at 8.45. It took over an hour to get to his office on Mathura Road from their small flat in the DDA complex in Shalimar Bagh. Sudhir had worked the night shift at the call centre almost continuously, since they were married. It brought in extra money.
Suman was a tired looking woman, and looked much older than her thirty-one years. In her younger days she was known for the zest she showed for life and how she lived every day with passion. Her father was indulgent to the point of spoiling her. She sustained her love for life for at least a year into her marriage. After that it went downhill.
Sudhir dutifully telephoned when he reached the office. That was the last time she spoke to him.
After she had cleaned her small flat, and washed and dried the dishes and put them away, Suman spent an hour bathing and dressing, drying and arranging her hair, and put on the one set of clothes she had concealed at the back of her cupboard. Dressed in designer clothes, and looking like a totally different woman, the only danger Suman faced was the chance that a neighbor might see her and recognize her, in spite of her make over. Once she was totally ready, she opened the front door a crack to see if anyone was out there. Satisfied, she picked up her handbag, left the keys on a table by the door, and slipped out of her old life
Two years earlier
Suman was very close to her goal. She put down her bank statement, and stared into space. The target she had set herself almost five years earlier was now within grasp. She picked up her passport and looked at her picture. She looked positively pretty in it. She smiled slightly at the thought, but then memories of the last five years came rushing back. The price she had to pay to achieve her goal was high, but the alternative was too mind-numbing to contemplate. In obtaining her passport she had used her friend’s apartment as the mailing address. Her friend had arranged it that the address verification would not be a problem. They also had a telephone landline installed there in Suman’s name, so that the address proof required by the authorities would not be a problem.
Soon, she thought to herself. But it actually took almost two more years to put everything into place. Applying for and obtaining a visa, transferring money, gaining admission to an Arts program, and many other similar tasks had to be completed. The visa itself only took a couple of months.
Suman had passed her school and college exams with flying colors. She had always been a bright student and a voracious reader. Her reading habit came from her father who was also well read. Suman enjoyed every aspect of her life, be it school, reading, sports. She was an above average sports person, but she really shone in art. Her paintings had been exhibited as early as when she was in 8th grade. Against her father’s wishes, she sold many paintings and gave the money to her father. Her father was a dreamy, professorial man, who attempted many businesses, and failed in every one of them. The money came in handy, although her father protested vehemently every time she handed him money from a sale.
“Keep it for yourself, beta. This world is a cruel place, and you need all the help you can get.” Suman used to smile and walk away. He was right about one thing. The world was indeed cruel to her later in life. But Suman did not care. She loved her father, and she loved her life, which was made a little more bearable from the sales of her paintings.
On an impulse she had applied to art schools in the US, just before finishing her undergraduate degree, and was admitted to almost all of them. The one she had really wanted was in Rhode Island, although she did know inside her that the chances of her going were very minimal. Even with scholarships, the cost of going and living there was way beyond her father’s reach.
She came home one day to see her father sitting on an easy chair, staring into space, tears running down his cheeks. She went over to him, and asked him, “Papa, what’s the matter?”
He did not respond. She noticed that he had a piece of paper in his right hand, which hung down to the right of the chair, almost touching the ground. She reached over alarmed. She took it and read it. It was a congratulatory letter informing her that her application to the Rhode Island School of Design had been accepted, and that she would be given a scholarship for the first year equivalent to a large portion of her academic costs, as well as a small contribution towards residence costs.
“For the first time in my life, I feel like a complete failure, I am sorry beta, I have not been able to do many of the things a father should be able to do for his daughter. Here you are, brimming with talent, and I cannot even afford to send you to a decent college in the US. You deserve better.”
Suman bent down to hug her father and reassure him that she was happy with her lot in life. She had applied only for the fun of it, and she was not serious. Besides which, she was not going to go abroad and leave her father alone. Before could say anything her aunt spoke up.
“Why would you want to send her abroad?” Her aunt, Kalyani was a thin shrewish lady, who spent more time during the day at Suman’s house than her own. “When girls go to foreign, they get ruined. Then they cannot find a good boy to marry.” Suman rolled her eyes at her father who glanced at her.
“Ji Bua.” Suman responded dutifully.
Ever since Suman had lost her mother to a freak bus accident, just short of her tenth birthday, her aunt had taken it upon herself to be a part time lady of the house. She was aggressive, loud and overbearing. Suman’s father was too weak to stand up to Kalyani, and this basically meant that Kalyani had her own way in the house. Suman said nothing to upset her, mainly because, like her father she did not want to upset her Bua. Many years later she regretted not having taken a stand.
Suman continued to paint, and her paintings were doing reasonably well in the market, although, not as well as before. Galleries politely declined to display her paintings with greater frequency. There were just too many young artists on the scene, and the pool of talent available to them had grown. Unlike many other artists, Suman did not have a patron who could promote her. It turned out that, to break into the competitive world of art, one needed a patron. A patron was well connected, and his or her word meant a lot in the art world. Not being a serious professional painter, Suman had not bothered to cultivate anyone as a patron, and this was a handicap.
Seven Years Ago:
Suman’s opinion of men, after three years of marriage into a traditional family was not very flattering, although at heart she realized that she did not have the best specimen to judge from. Her married life could be described boring, at best.
A few days before her 3rd marriage anniversary, Suman decided to treat herself to a facial and hair treatment at one of the upmarket salons in the city. This visit changed her life forever.
She found herself seated next to a very smartly dressed pretty woman who appeared to be in her mid twenties. Later, Suman founded out that she was in her early thirties. They smiled at each other. Being at the salon involved extended periods of time when customers basically either read or talked.
“Hi, I am Ashima. The pretty woman extended her hand.
“Suman.” Suman replied shaking Ashima’s hand. Ashima’s hand was soft and well manicured. By contrast, Suman’s hand was a little rougher and her nails had only seen the business end of a nail clipper for the last couple of years. It was hard for Suman to blame her Bua, who had basically bull-dozed every one into the marriage, much against Suman’s wishes. The change in her lifestyle after the marriage came as a shock to Suman. It wasn’t that she had had a luxurious life before. What she did have was freedom. Freedom to come and go as she pleased, but most of all freedom of thought and expression, which she had used liberally.
Ashima asked about Suman and what she did. Suman was honest enough to tell her the truth, even though Ashima was a stranger. Within fifteen minute, Ashima knew almost all there was to know about Suman. Ashima told Suman that she was a model, and lived in one of the more luxurious districts of south Delhi. She had recently bought a floor in a redeveloped building, and lived by herself in a 4 bedroom flat, with just her dog and maid for company. She drove the latest model Japanese midsized car, and had money. Suman was taken aback by the intricate details, which Ashima shared with her. Little did she realize there was a motive behind this..
Once Ashima had Suman where she wanted her, eager, keen to know how Ashima had managed this, she struck. She pointed to Suman’s face, and said “You know with your looks, there is no reason you could not have been a successful model yourself.” With these words, she had Suman hooked. It was much later that Suman realized what kind of a model Ashima was, but by then she found, strangely enough, that it did not bother her. She was surprised at her own lack of reaction to the prospect of sleeping with strange, albeit rich men for money. It was then that Suman realized the extent of her own despair with her life.
What followed was the most difficult month of her life. She had to find ways in which to appear ordinary and plain in her day to day life, while finding ways in which to quickly transform herself into the well groomed, beautiful and well dressed woman that she became over that month. Ashima had introduced her to the owner of the modeling agency that ran the high priced call girl business under the cover of a legitimate modeling business. The owner, a shrewd woman in her fifties called Mohini, critically appraised Suman and in less than a minute muttered more to herself than anyone else…”yes I think we can do something with this…”
After about 2 weeks of grooming and treatments, the intimacy of some of which shocked Suman, Mohini pronounced herself satisfied. Within 3 days after that, Suman had her first ‘modeling’ assignment. It was obviously not Mohini’s most important client. The assignment was a disaster, in spite of all the coaching she had received from Mohini. The client did not seem to mind though. He appeared happy to have a beautiful woman with him when he took her for dinner. It was when they were alone in the hotel room later that Suman froze. But after several clumsy efforts on the part of her client, it did happen. But Suman was terrified that she would lose her new-found assignment. Surprisingly Mohini just laughed when she met Suman after hearing from the client.
“Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us. You should have seen me the first time. I wouldn’t come out of my room for two days. You actually didn’t do too badly considering it was your first time. Relax babes, you will do fine. What you need to do is to learn to turn that mental switch off. Once you do that, you will be okay.” Mohini was absolutely right. Suman was much better the second time around, and by the fourth and fifth time she was like a pro.
The next three years went by in a blur. She rose in her chosen profession to one of the most sought after call girls. The name by which her clients knew her was obviously not Suman. She was called Nishka, although the cheques she received for her modeling work were in her own maiden name. She had not changed her name officially after marriage as it was not important to Sudhir, and she saw no reason to go through the torture of changing it.
Suman did not hear her flight being called the first few times. Eventually, as she appeared to be the only person in the departure area, she felt a tap on her shoulder, and a concerned looking lady in a uniform asked her if she was okay. Suman hastily gathered her carryon baggage and walked to the boarding gate. This was her second flight ever, and she was nervous about it.
Before she knew it, she was on a flight to Melbourne, via Singapore. Before boarding she removed the Sim Card from her phone and damaged it, before dropping it in a trash basket. A week later she moved into her leased apartment in downtown Melbourne.
It took Suman the full two years to graduate with an arts degree. She had absolutely no problem getting a job in an advertising agency. Her natural talent and imagination made her one of the best students in the University Of Melbourne Arts School. In spite of her age, she was recruited at a salary, which made sure that her savings would grow rather than diminish.
Her real strength came to the fore in the advertising agency, where she could combine her talent with a feet firmly on the ground practical approach which she had acquire in her ten years of marriage. Suman had many fans of her work, from both clients as well as the management in her company, but developed an even greater collection of enemies who resented her rise in the company. But she did not care.
Her background had made Suman naturally cautious about saving money. She continued to do so, as much as possible. Very soon, she had enough so that even her natural insecurities were diminished somewhat. She invested wisely, and her money grew. Eventually she made a decision that she would quit and work part time as a freelancer, instead of being tied down to a regular job with long and tiring hours.
Her last assignment at the agency, ironically was for a subsidiary of a large Indian consumer goods company. She had received the brief from one of her managers, and worked hard on it, determined to go out in a blaze of glory. Her boss liked her work very much and arranged for a meeting with the client., where the initial sketches and concept would be presented. It was for an energy drink, which was popular in many parts of the world, which had been colonies of England.
She walked into the conference room staggering under the weight of the rolled up sheets she carried as well as her box of instruments and markers, besides trying to balance a cup of coffee in one hand. As she laid the paper on the conference table, and placed her cup, there was a sharp clatter on the client’s side of the table. She turned to see a man in his forties pick up his cell phone from the floor. He looked vaguely familiar. She smiled and continued with her settling down.
“Hello Nishka.” She froze.
“How was I to know?”
“No, no, it is not your fault, Mr. Kumar.” Suman took a sip of her coffee and looked around at the mid afternoon crowd at Hardware Society. The scene had a surreal feeling to it. Here she was thousands of miles from where she had last met Anand Kumar in an up-market bar in one of the nicer hotels in New Delhi.
“Anand, please. Mr Kumar sounds too formal.” Anand Kumar was a handsome man in his mid-forties, and showed tinges of grey in his hair at his temples. Suman had first encountered him in Delhi, during her days as Nishka, the ‘model’. They had had a very successful evening together, starting with dinner, and then in the pre-arranged hotel room. As was usual with first time clients with her, Anand had asked for her again. The second meeting had not gone well, and Suman had not seen him again.
“Truth to tell, I became a little obsessed with you, after our first….er…..meeting. I did not know about your unwritten rules and I apologize for breaking one of them.” Suman looked steadily at Anand, waiting for more. After another sip of decaf, Anand continued.
“I have thought of you often and wondered what became of you. The agency refused to tell me. I called many times, but they stonewalled me. Then one day they told me you had left the country, and they did not know where you were. It took me a few months to get over it. And I am over it, I swear to you.” He smiled.
Suman wondered why she had accepted his invitation to have coffee, when he had so nearly ruined it all for her at the advertising agency. When she had met him as Nishka some years ago, he was just a client, a face amongst many. Her mental switch did not allow her to feel any emotions when with a client. Even now she only remembered him vaguely because of the incident.
“Look Mr. Kumar….I am sorry, Anand” she said as he was about to protest. “I am not the same person whom you….knew in India. You knew nothing about me then, who I was, why I did what I did, and you know nothing about me now, except whether you would like my work or not at our agency. The person you met in India is dead, and long buried. What I am today is who I really am inside.” She wondered what had made her say this.
“Can you not just accept me as an employee of the agency you are thinking of working with? If this makes you uncomfortable, you can surely have your pick of agencies, many of whom would give their right arms to work with you. If you choose us, it should be because you like our work….okay, my work. Not for any other reason.” She stopped, seeing some steel in Anand’s eyes.
“Look Nish….sorry Suman, let me make one thing clear to you. There is no question of my giving your agency any work based on any personal reasons. I am not an emotional fool. My business decisions have always been based on merit. And they will remain so. I hope that is clear.” Anand was at once the hardnosed businessman, and Suman regretted her earlier comment.
“I am sorry, I…..” Anand held up a hand to stop her apology. “Let me finish, please.
“What I wanted to say was strictly from a personal point of view. If you can accept the fact that I can and will keep business and personal considerations apart, then yes, I would like to spend an evening with you. Not as a client….a client of any kind. Just as a friend. I genuinely would like to get to know you, and to be a friend. Without strings, expectations or complications of any kind.
“Is that too much to ask? Would you have dinner with me tonight? I have a meeting with another agency early tomorrow, before flying to Sydney, and then back to Mumbai. If we enjoy the evening together, neither of us lose anything. I promise I will have you back home at a very reasonable hour. No strings attached.
“What do you say?” Anand looked expectantly at Suman.
“I’d like that very much,” Suman said simply.
“Excellent. 7pm then? Give me your coordinates and I will pick you up. No, please relax, this is not a ruse to find out where you live. I will pick you up at the nearest street corner if you like.” He chuckled, and then looking at his watch….”I am getting late for my next meeting. Give me your cell number.”
It was six weeks after their dinner together when she heard from Anand again. During this interval, Suman spent a great deal of time thinking about him, wondering if she had put him off, because of what she had been in her earlier life. Or whether his desire to have dinner with her was to simply put some old ghosts to rest. She had spent very little time even thinking of her previous life, and had long since put it behind her. That life had made her less feeling and more practical. This life was different.
One Sunday night Anand sent her an SMS, telling her that he was arriving the following afternoon. It was a simple and terse message, which told her nothing. For some reason, she found herself looking forward to seeing him again. With the baggage of her past now starting to haunt her, Suman felt a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. Inside her she knew that her past would not let her go so easily. Yet, why would Anand actually want to see her? When he knew what she had been, was he not like any other man who would keep his sexual and amorous desires away from serious relationships? Thoughts like these kept her awake half the night. She felt run down and unwell the next morning, and called in sick.
She waited most of the morning for Anand’s call, and he did not call. By four o’clock she was frantic with worry. Had he changed his mind? Did he no longer wish to see her? Was she never going to see him again? She had bathed and dressed carefully in the morning, and was feeling run down and bedraggled again by late afternoon, and he still had not called. By this time she was convinced that she would never see him again. She ate a light dinner at eight and lay in bed and watched the news for a while.
Suddenly there he was. He was on TV, being interviewed by Karina Carvahlo the ABC1 news anchor, talking about relationships in his life. She watched fascinated as he extolled the values of truth in relationships and how important it was for women to be loyal and faithful to one man. He kept looking at the camera searchingly, and Suman felt like he was almost looking to see if she was watching. All of a sudden his phone started to ring. He pulled it out in embarrassment, and kept trying to silence it. It kept ringing. Karina Carvahlo looked bemused by the whole thing.
Suddenly Suman realized that the ring tone was just like hers, and she woke with a start. It was her phone that was ringing. As she reached out to pick it up, it stopped. She checked the phone and saw the missed call was from a local landline. It had a lot of zeroes at the end, so it must have been a switchboard call. She saw no point in returning the call, as it probably was a telemarketer. She put her phone down, and went to get a glass of water. Her phone started ringing again. She returned and saw the same number on the display. Hesitantly she answered it.
“Suman?” It was Anand.
“Mr Kum….sorry, Anand? I was waiting for your call?” Now why did I say that, she thought?
“I am so sorry, Suman. I missed my connection in Singapore, and my phone was acting up, so I couldn’t call you. I finally found a flight, and just got in. Are you ready to go to sleep?”
“No…I mean yes. I was sleeping. But I am awake now. You must be tired. Should we meet tomorrow instead?”
“Is there some way we can meet tonight? I mean if it is okay with you?” Suman was in a panic.
“Okay yes. Give me 20 minutes.” She looked at the kitchen clock, and it read 9.25pm.
“Okay, I will be there by 10. Do you have anything to eat at your apartment? I am really hungry. Even an omelette will do.” Suman smiled, and nodded to herself. This did not sound like someone who never wanted to see her again.
“Yes. I will make an omelette for you.”
Suman enjoyed watching Anand eat. He was a neat eater, and ate with an economy of motion, and did not make a mess on the plate. He finished his omelette and toast, along with the potato croquettes Suman had found in the freezer, and which she had fried and served along with the eggs.
He sat back in the sofa, looking contented, and sipped on his coffee. He looked at her with an expressionless face. Suman looked down at her hands.
“You said you wanted to meet me particularly tonight?” Suman asked tentatively.
“Yes.” He kept looking at her without any expression. She raised her hands outwards in a questioning gesture.
“What happened between you and Sudhir?” He abruptly asked.
Suman froze. For a long time she found no words to answer Anand. She wondered how he had found out so much about her, in such a short span of time. She felt her dreams of any kind of a relationship with him slipping out of her grasp. Everything seemed to go dark for her, and she lost track of how long she had remained silent.
“Sudhir,” she said in a half whisper. “Poor Sudhir. He did not deserve what I did to him. If there is one regret I have had in life…..”
Anand kept silent, and looked at her with a mixture of skepticism and puzzlement. He sipped his coffee, waiting for her to continue. Eventually she did.
“To really understand what happened with Sudhir, you will need to know much more than just about my marriage with him. Do you have the time? It is a very long story, and somewhat painful.” Anand spread his hands wide, as if to indicate that this is why I am here, this is what I flew all the way from Mumbai to hear. He gestured for her to continue.
“It begins from my childhood. My mother died when I was ten years old. Then things began to go wrong for my father and me. My bua……..” Suman spoke in a soft voice, and kept her voice flat, emotionless, although there were times during the narration when her voice cracked. Anand did not change his expression even once, except to once ask her if she wanted a glass of water, to which she nodded. He obliged, and after a sip, she placed the glass on the centre table and continued her story.
It was almost one in the morning when she finished. Anand had interrupted her just twice to fill gaps in her story, and made her go back a couple of times to repeat some of the narrative. After she finished, Suman rose and went to the bathroom, where she stood in front of the mirror, gripping the edge of the wash basin, and stared at herself. She was surprised that tears still would not come to her. She washed her hands, and dried them before going to back to where Anand was. She quietly picked up his empty cup, tidied up and took the dishes to the sink and rinsed them before putting them in the dishwasher. Anand had still not spoken.
After drying her hands, Suman went back to where she had been sitting and sat down.
“Look, Anand, I know you probably never would like to see me again after this, and I do not blame you for it. What I did to Sudhir was not forgivable, I know, and it still haunts me sometimes. But this much I can say. If our relationship had gone further than just our first dinner together, I would have told you the whole story myself. I was scared of losing what I thought I had with you. I know it was just one dinner, but somewhere I felt that we had some kind of a connection. I felt it, even if you did not. During our first evening together if I had burdened you with this story, I know I would never have seen you again. Too much baggage to carry.”
Anand’s face had a slightly mocking expression, and a small smile at the corners of his mouth. “I think Nishka is much better!”
“What?” Suman was confused.
“I mean what kind of name is Suman? It almost sounds like a man’s name. For a lady as sexy and sophisticated as you, Nishka is so much better.” Anand spread his hands in a gesture that indicated that his point was proven.
“What are you talking about Anand. Here we were discussing my past, and suddenly you switch gears on me? You have not said anything to me about my past, and suddenly you pounce on my name, as if it matters in the context of what I have told you. Or, are you saying that you liked me better as a call girl?”
Anand got up and walked rapidly over to Suman and grabbed her shoulders and lifted her off the chair. “Never ever say that. People do things under pressures or compulsions that other people may not want to, or would not want to understand. I have done many things in my life that I am ashamed of. Does that make me untouchable, or a lesser human? Maybe in some people’s eyes it may, but I cannot go back and change what is done. That is what I am trying to tell you babes.” Suman stiffened at the use of the word ‘babes’ as she had heard it so many times as Nishka, maybe even used it with her clients.
“The basic point I am trying to make is that I care for you deeply, and I want to get to know you better as a person. I do not care so much about what you did in your past, as I do about what kind of a person you are inside. I want to get to know that inner Nishka. I may be in love with you. I am not sure yet, but I do know I am kind of obsessed with you, and always have been ever since that night in Delhi. Yes you are beautiful and desirable to me. But what I need to know is, will I continue to like the inner you that I already know to some extent? The only way either of us can determine our compatibility is to spend some time with each other. Do you agree?”
“Compatibility? I do not understand, Anand. Compatibility for what?”
“To spend the rest of my life with you.” Anand said this softly and with an intensity that took Suman by surprise.
“But what about my past? What about Sudhir? And how did you find out about Sudhir by the way? I know it does not matter so much now, but I would still like to know.”
“Well I am a persistent bugger. When I got back to Mumbai, I pulled out all stops to find out more about you. It was not easy, but I have my ways and resources. Eventually I found a lady called Ashima. Remember her? I pumped her for information, using both charm and money. Eventually she relented and told me your story. At least, what she knew about you. I pieced the rest together. I found out a little bit about you and Sudhir, asking questions about you both, at his place of work, and in your neighborhood. But the real acid test had to be to meet you again. I did not know if you would tell me the truth, and wanted to try out some amateur psychology. I did not need to. You told me the whole truth, I am sure. So, now I am peace.”
Suman was quiet for a long time. Anand got up and stretched, and asked Suman to call him a taxi to get back to the hotel. She did not make a move. She looked up at him, and the first tears came. Very soon she was crying, and the tears she had waited for many years to come, now would not stop. Anand went to the kitchen and got her a box of tissues. She soaked several of them before her tears finally subsided. Anand waited patiently.
“I am sorry.” Suman managed to say once she had regained some semblance of composure. “These tears took many years to come. Come to think of it, I haven’t cried since about 2 years into my marriage. Sorry again. You wanted a taxi?”
Anand shrugged his shoulders. “Well, you haven’t offered me a bed for the night, so I thought you did not want me here.” He smiled mischievously.
Suman got up and walked up to Anand, put her head on his shoulder, and said, “Please stay the night.” He put his arms around her, and said, “Thank you.”