It was a sultry afternoon when she called me for the first time. I was sitting on a wooden chair reading Othello again. The glass top of the table dazzled in the unrelenting sunlight. I felt drowsy and dreamed about Othello screaming at Desdemona. I woke up with a start at the ringing of the phone. I left Othello on the table and answered.
“Good morning, sir. Can I have five minutes of your time?” Those were her first words to me. I was taken aback upon hearing her voice. At first, I thought it to be one of those mechanical recorded messages. But there was nothing mechanical about this voice. It felt livelier than my entire being. Each syllable slipping out of her mouth made love to my ears. Five minutes? I thought. Only five?
I glanced towards Othello and said yes. She asked me if I had wireless internet at home and I told her that I didn’t. She seemed happy to hear that. Then she started listing all the internet plans which they had available for home users. She made mistakes with some figures and apologized copiously. I had no use for wireless internet yet I kept listening to her detailed descriptions like an attentive child. She spoke without a pause for almost five minutes. What a magnificent performance! I would stand up and applaud, except that I was already standing, and holding the phone in my hand made applauding a slight inconvenience. It was as if I could see her lips shaping her words, which in turn, broke into a choreographed dance of language and meaning. Ah! I was mesmerized. She breathed out a sigh of relief upon the completion of her performance.
I realised that she was waiting for me to speak but I didn’t know what to say. What could I say after witnessing that vocal dance of words? I was so lost in deciphering the shape and sound of her words that I had entirely forgotten to make sense of them. Asking her to do an encore, although a delectable notion for me, would have been too hard upon her.
“Are you there, sir?” She asked meekly.
“Yes,” I replied. “Are you new at your job?”
She was startled at my impropriety. There was a brief pause and then she said yes and asked me how I had known. I told her that it was an instinctive inference. She said nothing.
“So? Are you interested in any of our plans?” She finally broke the dreadful silence.
If I only I had listened well; I had listened too well, I suppose. “Which one do you recommend?” I asked her.
“Um…I think the silver plan would be best suited to your data usage.”
“My data usage?”
“Yes. For home users, this plan is the most adequate one.”
“Okay. I’m interested in the silver one then.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” I am getting wireless internet because a beautiful voice told me to do so. What the hell is wrong with me? I thought. At the same time, however, I was content with my decision because it was the only way I was going to hear from her again.
She took down my address and told me that it would be installed by Wednesday. And our conversation ended. I sat down and stared at Othello lying face down. It was Friday. Oh how I longed for Wednesday. I desperately hoped that she herself would come and install this internet she seemed so excited about. What a foolish proposition.
After dinner, I lay in my bed and contemplated the events of the day. I had talked to a young girl with an almost hypnotic voice and I had purchased wireless internet which, in all honesty, was an absurd decision. I played back the conversation in my head. Enacting my lines sincerely and listening to hers with my eyes shut. I slept during my third enactment of our conversation. Her description of data plans was my lullaby.
During the long weekend, my son visited me, along with my daughter-in-law and my two lovely grandchildren. There was a lot of commotion around the usually quiet house. I was served breakfast that was not eggs and toast for a change. My son and I tended to the garden during the evenings. My grandchildren, aged five and seven, stayed faithful to their colourful drawings which they presented to me every now and then. It felt good to have company again. On Sunday morning, they packed their luggage, along with my grandchildren, and drifted away in their hideously red car. I wouldn’t see them again for another month. I sat on a wicker chair in my garden as the sun set. I enjoyed the lack of noise, along with my reclaimed solitude.
On Wednesday, two technicians arrived and took over two hours to install the wireless internet. I sat at the dining table wondering what was the point of all this. I wanted to ask these gentlemen about the lady with the magical voice. Was she going to join them or not? However, common sense prevailed and I continued fiddling with my books as they drilled holes in my wall. I waited for her call upon their departure, but it was to no avail. After lunch, I called her but a man answered in a hopelessly optimistic voice. I hung up and chided myself.
It was late at evening when she called me again. She asked about the installation in a perfunctory tone. I told her that it went smoothly. But I did complain about the holes in my wall and all the thick cables. “For a wireless piece of technology, it sure had an abundance of wires.” These were the exact words which made her laugh for the first time.
“Thank you so much,” she said.
“It’s alright.” I feigned indifference.
“No, really. It means a lot to me. You’re the first person who actually listened to me and purchased this plan. You almost saved my job.”
That was unexpected. Suddenly, all the regret and chiding dissolved entirely and I commended myself for my practical decision-making.
“I am glad I could help,” I said.
“Alright then. Can I assist you with anything else?” she asked.
“Actually, yes, you can. What if I have any problem with the internet? Who would help me with that?”
“You can call this number anytime. Someone will definitely assist you.”
“No, you see, you are well acquainted with my plan and everything else. It would be much more efficient if I could get connected to you directly, in case of an issue of course.”
She waited for a moment and replied, “In that case, when you call here, ask for Sneha. That way, we can resolve the issue efficiently.” She stressed on efficiently, adding a flair of playfulness to it.
We did not talk for the next two days. I read more of Shakespeare and tended to my garden. I even called my son and talked to my grandchildren. Of course, I did not tell him about her. Her — she was still a pronoun to me. Her name seemed to bear too much weight for me to carry. I found myself practicing reciting her name. Sneha. I broke it down into syllables to savour it completely. Sne–ha. What magic those two syllables weaved inside me.
I tried to stay busy. But there’s not much to do in an empty house when you’re retired. I cleaned and then I re-cleaned, I cooked bare essentials for myself, read in the garden, and tried to get as much sleep as I could. I tried to come up with excuses for calling her. The internet must have been working properly. I had no idea, I wasn’t using it. I thought about sabotaging it as well, but decided against it.
However, I could not restrict myself for much longer. I called the number and, as anticipated, a man answered. I told him that I was facing some issues with the internet and asked if he could connect me to someone named Sneha. It was all carefully rehearsed. If he were to ask me to elaborate upon those issues, I’d have been left without any response. Thankfully, he did not. He asked me to hold and I held on. I gripped the phone firmly with my clammy hand.
“She’s not available right now. But I can assist you, if you’d like.” I hung up.
I called her again next morning. This time it was a woman who answered and told me that Sneha was unavailable. I felt anxious and restless. I tried again that evening and recited my piece like a child. The man who had answered listened calmly. After a long wait, instead of the man’s apology, I was greeted with her voice.
“Good evening.” It was her.
“Ah, I thought it would be you. Are you facing an issue already?”
“Um, yes.” I had to make something up. “I have forgotten my password.”
“Oh. That can be resolved quickly. Give me a minute.”
After a symphony of clicking and typing, I heard her voice again. “I can reset your password right now. What would you like it to be?”
“Desdemona,” I replied.
“Do you read Shakespeare?” I asked in amazement.
“She loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them,” she recited with pomp and flair. I was overwhelmed with joy.
“I’m studying comparative literature. I work here during the evenings only.” That explained her absence during the day.
Shakespeare became the common thread of our subsequent conversations. We discussed literature at length. She shared her contempt for early English novelists. I listened attentively. By then, I had learnt to hear the music in her voice and understand the meaning of her lyrical words. Gradually, we blossomed a friendship that was completely platonic. She shared her personal contact with me and we talked after dinner almost every night. We would talk about so many things — her lethargic teachers, the length of her hair, even the boys she crushed on at the university. Nothing was tabooed between us. Sometimes she would tell me a dirty joke and while she did that, she would hold the receiver close to her mouth and speak in a barely audible whisper. That subtle gesture, which was perhaps nothing to her, left my spine tingling. I would force the phone upon my ear, hoping that it would merge within and become an extended hearing aid. Upon finishing her jokes, which were often infested with profanities, she would erupt in a laughter that was more contagious than I cared to admit. I would smile and wipe the sweat off my brow. She had complete control over my senses. I was her slave and there was nothing I wished to do about it.
We kept talking for the next couple of weeks. Each day we would shed a layer of intimacy and propriety. I saw our friendship (relationship would be too presumptuous) as an onion. Every day, she and I would peel off a layer and feel the newfound contents, which would, in fact, be another layer. That was what our friendship was, an onion with an inexhaustible number of layers. I knew that I was never going to touch the core that lay deep inside. As we ventured deeper, I grew more apprehensive about that layer being my last. But we kept devouring that delectable onion.
One quiet evening, she asked me the question I dreaded the most.
“Tell me, how old are you?”
“Older than you are, I’m sure.” I wished to deflect it for as long as I could.
“No. I don’t want to talk in relative terms. I need a number.”
I kept quiet.
“More or less,” I replied.
“Well, even if you are fifty, it hardly matters to me. What we share transcends the figurative concept of age.”
I smiled. A sense of reassurance rose within me and I felt my muscles relax. We had a void of more than thirty years between us, and yet there was an ineffable understanding between us which, prior to her, I was unable to share with anybody else.
Two months had passed. Our lives were intertwined. We would talk for hours. Afterwards, I would lay awake in my bed thinking about the absurdity of it all. I found new virility and tried to be more proactive about my daily chores. I was more involved with my family than ever before. I smiled more often than I used to, more often than I expected. I found optimism and happiness in almost everything. The vermilion in the sky as the sun set, the smell of wet earth, that cool breeze after opening a window, the heaviness of the summer air — only spoke to me of hope, of happiness, of what could be.
But I was apprehensive too. I knew that I had made the ascent, I had reached the zenith; only the descent lay in wait now. Only fools can be truly happy, my dead wife used to say. My happiness and my hope were foolish, in every sense of the word.
One night she said that she wanted to meet me. She was moving to Bombay for higher studies. This was our last chance to meet, she had said. The pieces of my descent had begun to line up. I sincerely did not want to meet her. I was happy with what I had. I was not looking for a life partner in her, I was not that naïve. All I wanted was some companionship for as long as circumstances deemed fit. If she were to meet me, all that we had could be jeopardised. I was nervous. But I had to trust her. It was the only thing she had ever asked of me, except for that wireless internet, of course. Despite my concerns, I agreed to meet her. We decided upon a date and place.
“How will you recognise me?” she asked.
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“Okay. I will be wearing a bright yellow dress with a floral pattern. I think I’ll be easily discernible.”
“Alright. And how will you recognise me?”
“Ooh! How about you wear something floral as well?”
“I don’t have anything floral.”
“If you can’t wear something floral, wear a flower then. Adorn your breast pocket with a rose. Will you do it for me, kind sir?”
“You are mad,” I said sheepishly and stole a furtive glance at my garden blooming with dahlias, petunias, daisies, bougainvillea, and as fate would have it, damned roses.
I wore a blue flannel shirt and a pair of black trousers. I combed my thin, receding hair as best as I could. I trimmed the hair in my nose and my ears. Why the old had to be so disgusting, I wondered. I carefully selected a white rose whose petals were at the verge of decay. Two decaying beings, venturing out, taking a leap of faith. I placed the dying rose within my breast pocket and looked in the mirror. My reflection repulsed me more than it embarrassed me. I took the flower out with contempt and placed it my trousers’ pocket.
I arrived half an hour before the decided time just to survey the surroundings. I sat on a desolate wooden bench. At the other end of the park, children ran around in pursuit of an elusive ball, housewives of all shapes and sizes marched forth with sneakers on, and men of my age stood around in a circle and laughed at the top of their lungs. I hung my head in shame. There was another bench in the corner of the park which was obscured by a pair of guava trees. On it sat a young couple making the most of their obscurity.
I traced the outline of the rose in my pocket, just to be sure. There were still twenty more minutes to go. I wouldn’t be wearing the rose until the very last moment.
The air felt heavy enough to weigh me down. I constantly wiped my forehead with a white handkerchief, which by now had turned pewter in colour. I was careful enough not to place it back into the pocket which held the rose. I checked my watch again; it was time. I breathed heavily and constantly wiped my clammy hands on the sides of my pants. I looked to my left and my right, observing the kids and wives and men my age.
The young have no regard for punctuality, I thought. The old man within me was clawing out. She was fifteen minutes late. I felt like a fool sitting on that bench alone, sweating profusely with a white rose in my pocket. I decided that I would wait for five more minutes and then I would leave. I checked my phone and there was no message from her. I tapped my right foot three hundred times on the dusty ground and stood up with a start. I had had enough.
My eyes swept over the park for one last inspection. I did not want to look in the direction of the young lovers who were immersed within each other, but I eventually did. But they were not there. Instead, there was a young woman in a flowing yellow dress with white daisies painted on top of it. Her hair was short, but sharp. Her arms were brown and slender. She rested her chin on the back on her hand and stared off in the distance with total indifference. She seemed to be engaged in her thoughts. I felt as if I had caught her having a conversation with herself. Or perhaps she was imagining something. I couldn’t be sure.
I stared at her for quite some time but she did not move an inch. She was too engrossed with whatever was brewing inside her head. If only I could have known what it was; if only I could be a part of it.
I dabbed my forehead with the handkerchief again and in the process, I looked at my calloused, worn out, and hairy hand. It looked ugly, pitiable. I tried looking at hers. Her hands looked young and agile. Hers personified life and mine, impending death. I recalled my reflection in the mirror. I was a decaying man with a decaying flower. I had no right to meddle in the affairs of life, of youth. What had I gotten myself into? What had I gotten her into? The absurdity of it all screamed right at me. I hid my hands behind my back. I could not look at them anymore. I started at my feet; I was ashamed. The kids ran around indifferently, the housewives and the old men, even the ugly ones, laughed at my expense. What a fool!
What was I doing? What was I thinking? Was I even thinking? Did I not look at my dead hands as I answered her call for the first time? What was I hoping for? Companionship? Friendship? Love? None of it was possible.
I found within myself a flurry of ruthless questions. I looked at her again and saw her reaching for her phone. Something stirred within me and I turned and walked away. In one of my pockets, I felt my phone vibrate. I kept walking away from her, fighting a potent urge to look back for one last time, because I knew that it would be the last time. But I did not look back. I did not think about what could have been. I did not dwell on the fantastical possibilities weaving inside my mind. There was no hope. There was nothing. There was only me walking away from my delirium.
The phone did not cease to vibrate. I took it out with an urge to throw it away. And I almost did. But wisdom prevailed and I simply switched it off. I gathered that I would need it later to cancel the wireless internet. I was, after all, too old for something like that.
In my other pocket, I felt the trace of the dying rose. But then I realised that it had been dead all along, ever since it was plucked off the branch. Oh the wretched thing, I said to myself. I crushed it to pieces and threw it away. The descent was complete. Only fools can be truly happy. I heard my wife again and again. Only fools can be truly happy.
Satvik Gupta is currently studying for an M.A. in English. He has undertaken a Creative Writing course with the British Council and has also interned with Architectural Digest India. He lives with his family near the Himalayan foothills in India.