This story is a Winner of the Odd-Even short story contest
It had been about four weeks since they had started going to work together. Arjun would drop Jaya off at her workplace and then go to his own. Jaya had slid into her new lifestyle with a determined air. She clearly remembered how she had opposed the match the first time it had been proposed by her mother.
“I am not going to marry this man!” she had declared.
“And why, pray tell us?” her mother had countered.
“He laughs way too much. And unnecessarily. He is much too gregarious.” Jaya complained.
“Oh good Lord! Your father didn’t so much as smile at the best of jokes! Your father didn’t have any sense of conversation. Did I just reject him then?” her mother shouted. “Here you have a well-to-do man, who is amiable and friendly, looks great and you have a problem with his smile?”
“If she doesn’t want to marry, why are you forcing her?” her father had said in her support.
“It is not about marriage, it is about her high-brow attitude! Who does she think she is? Queen Victoria?” her mother had reached her temper. “She has rejected men outright without even meeting them once! And I wouldn’t have cared had she brought a man of her own. But no! This girl lives in a world of her own! She wants to die an old maid!”
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT? IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KEEP ME, THEN I WILL GO AND LIVE ON MY OWN, GET IT?” Jaya had screamed.
Her mother’s face had gone red. Her voice was dangerously quiet now, “You do it for their benefit and they shout back at you. This is what today’s children repay their parents.” Then her eyes suddenly shone as she came up with a new argument, “Mark my words!” she looked at her husband. “This girl cannot live with anyone! She is a loner! A stuck-up old fool! A complete fool to reject a perfect man like Arjun! I don’t think she even deserves him!”
That touched a nerve in Jaya. Before her father could handle the situation, Jaya blurted out, “You think I don’t deserve him? You think I can’t live with a man? Let me give him a chance as you say. I will marry him. If he is able to win me over in three months, then great. Else the burden of a failed marriage would lie on you.”
And that’s how Arjun and Jaya had been married two months ago.
Today, however their travel routine had had to change. There was some new scheme about ‘odd-even’ doing the rounds. Apparently, odd numbered vehicles could ply on odd days and even-numbered on even. However, women had been exempted from this rule.
And so the second weekday of the year saw her at the wheel. Arjun stood outside, his smiling face framed against the window of the passenger seat.
“See you in the evening,” he waved and began to walk away.
Jaya started the engine and put the car into gear. Very soon, she had crossed the street and the bus-stop. She saw Arjun standing there. Arjun waved. She smiled back curtly.
Should she ask him to take a cab or something? No need. He was a grown man. He knew what to do. And it was no fault of hers that he had to take the public transport. Blame the government. She had no business feeling sympathetic for him.
Tuesday promised to be a normal day. Arjun was at the wheel again and Jaya sat beside him. Despite herself, she felt a little less guilty today. After all, yesterday the poor guy had to be jostled to and fro in the buses. Today, he could go as usual.
“What are you thinking?” Arjun asked her, noticing her creased brow.
“Nothing,” she said, putting on her polite mask again.
A week passed and Arjun saw Jaya off at the car again.
“Drive safe. Take care.”
His words seemed to have unseated her. She felt a little uncomfortable.
“Ye—es,” she said.
He started walking away and she quickly blurted out, “You take care too! And tell me when you reach.”
Arjun looked at her, pleasantly surprised. “Yes, yes, I sure will,” he said and waved to her.
On Friday, Arjun left a little early since he wanted to try a new route.
When Jaya got to office, she wondered whether Arjun had reached. He had taken the Metro that day.
As if Arjun had read her thoughts, her phone rang.
“Hello!” she queried into the phone, her heart beating strangely.
“When did you reach?” Arjun’s voice filled her ears.
“A while ago,” she replied.
“You?” she was quick to ask.
“Just. I thought of calling you because there wasn’t much petrol in the car. Did you stop at a gas station?”
“I think you should get the tank filled on your way back. Just in case.”
Arjun had a habit of taking her out every Sunday to a new restaurant. When they went this time, Jaya decided to wear the black suit she had worn on Friday. Arjun hadn’t seen this one. He had left for office early that day and she had reached home before him.
They were at the traffic signal, waiting for it to turn green. It turned green thrice and went back to red.
“Phew! Are we never going to get there?” Arjun wondered aloud.
Jaya looked around them. The cars were kissing each other's sides and whatever space was left had been claimed by bikes.
"I think you should plan outings on weekdays now," she said.
"Would you like to have this?" Arjun pointed towards the golgappa stall.
Much to her own surprise, Jaya giggled at the inanity of the suggestion.
“You know it would be felo de se for me to have (a) stuff whipped up from the street grime (b) something that would directly hit our throats in the chilly winter.”
“A felo de se! Hmm I see…You dying for my sake? I must be the luckiest man on earth!” Arjun grinned.
Something in his smile caught at her heart. She was surprised to feel a thrill run down her spine and more so, when she gladly acquiesced to Arjun’s outrageous suggestion.
“All right! Let’s go your way this time, you nutter!” she said in a tone lighter than Arjun had ever heard her use. It brought warmth to his heart and made him jump, pop-eyed at Jaya’s cordial demeanour.
“Are you sure?” he asked, a trifle doubtful.
“Well, do I really have a choice with this hopeless traffic?” she said.
A few minutes later, when they plopped the crunchy balls full of masala-laced stuffing and spicy water into their mouths, Jaya wincing at the spice spreading its effects all over her throat and Arjun looking adoringly at her, Arjun knew that finally, something had struck home.
“You know, we could let the car be and actually help the cause of reducing pollution.” Jaya said one night before the fourteenth.
“Don’t be idealistic. I don’t want you to face the dust and grime. Not another felo de se! Thank you very much!” he joked.
Looking at her face, framed by tendrils of black hair falling over her forehead, he had an irresistible urge to take her in his arms and express all he felt for her since the time he had seen her at her house. It had been love at first sight. He was just relieved that she had accepted him. But however much he felt for her, he knew she was different. She did not like him as much. Something separated them. But now it had started to come loose. Things had finally started to fall into place. It was just very recently that she had started being herself and he could see chinks of her true self shine forth from her armour of pride. He had promised to wait as long as it would take for her to get comfortable, to feel at home with him.
Jaya had a feeling that Arjun wouldn’t let her take the Metro when there was a car and she was even more astonished to realize that she wanted to accompany him at least on the last day of this bizarre scheme that had wrought such changes in her and made her feel things she had not felt before.
The next morning, when she had dressed and was getting ready to leave, she made sure the keys were safely in her drawer. When they reached the car park, Arjun turned to wave her off.
“Oh! I forgot the keys!” Jaya said dramatically, half smiling to herself.
Arjun looked at her, a twinkle in his eyes, “You know you are a bad actor. Don’t even try. Why are you suddenly all ‘Bhartiya naari’ types? Wanting to partake of your husband’s joys and sorrows?” he asked, a laugh in his voice.
“I want to test you, mister. Whether you are capable of taking care of me or not. Whether you are fulfilling your vows or not.”
Something gripped Arjun and he couldn’t help pulling Jaya to himself.
“Testing me, are you?” he quizzed her, his hands around her waist.
“We are at the society car park, dear husband. Aren’t you forgetting your place?” she asked, her open voice giggling and pleasantly inviting.
“You are such a temptress! Forgive me madame! Your charms have made me forget my place!” he said.
At the Metro, they stood like college lovers, leaning against the barrier separating the women’s coach from the general one, talking to each other over the bobbing heads of chattering boys and girls.
The disembodied voice announced the approaching Metro station.
“Goodbye for now,” Jaya said to Arjun with a smile. The train halted and there was a commotion. But Arjun didn’t move.
“What?” Jaya asked incredulously.
“Let me drop you off first,” he said.
“Don’t be silly.”
But he didn’t move.
“You are such a total nut,” Jaya said, laughing.
“You know what, don’t go,” Arjun suddenly said.
The next station had arrived.
“Have you been to The Garden of Five Senses?” he asked her as the train began moving again.
“Umm no,” Jaya said, wondering what he was getting at.
“Then let’s go see it.”
“You are out of your mind,” Jaya said, staring at him.
“Oh! Come on! A single day won’t wreck your career! Let’s go, seriously, it will be great.”
Half of him knew that she wasn’t one of those who took on-the-spot decisions or was game for anything and everything, throwing caution to the winds. But the other half wanted to try his luck. Especially when she had opened up and was willing to extend her hand for friendship.
“And what will you say at work?” Jaya asked softly.
“I will say it’s Cupid calling. Sorry no can do!” he winked.
A spark that had been flickering within Jaya since the past few weeks had now grown into a full-fledged fire. When she allowed Arjun to take her arm and they made their way out of the Metro together, she knew something had changed within her. She knew things would never be the same again.
That weekend, they visited many other places that Arjun had wanted her to see, places she always delegated as ‘couple’ places.
“I really can’t believe I am one of those people,” she told Arjun while snuggling into him. “Those mawkishly sentimental people who go to mushy places and put up icky selfies.”
But as the weekend drew to a close, she found herself updating her profile picture- a snap of the two of them sharing a chocolate.
So soppy. So sugary. But weirdly she found she loved it. Whether the odd-even trial had worked or not, she couldn’t say but the trial she had put Arjun on had stood the test of time.