Breaking Norms24 mins 303 24 mins 303
Chapter 1: See Her Again
I drag Rajeev to the mall for shopping on a Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, he never cares to take me out. There is a shopping mall close to our apartment in New Jersey. But this is only the second time I have been to the mall in the eleven and a half months since we got married.
Rajeev is a workaholic geek. He can spend hours sitting in front of a computer talking to the screen and resolving his work problems, but he never likes to shop, especially with me. He is passionate about his work and tends to prioritize professional life over any other aspect of his life. He brings his laptop to bed almost every night. That upsets me. It doesn’t help nurture our already disjointed relationship. Since we got married, not even once have we watched a movie together. There is no sign of romance between us. They say for married couples, some of the most important, intimate conversations take place in their bedroom during the fading hours of the day. But this certainly is not true for us since Rajeev converses with his office software program during those hours. I have tried starting conversations many times, but he shuts it off by simply saying one sentence: “I need to finish this first. Can we talk later?” But later never comes. There are many other things I could report.
I enjoy being at the mall. The dry scent of perfumes screaming out loud from the counters of various shops, new clothes smell, and clean, shiny floors—all of it attracts me to shopping. It makes me feel good in a strange way.
I step into a few shops one after another, and he follows me silently. I browse through the clearance section of each of those shops to check if I like anything. I have been looking around for an hour to no avail. What I like is expensive and what is not expensive is not appealing. Frustrated, Rajeev steps out of Macy's store. I follow him out quietly. He insists to go to the food court instead of doing any more shopping. I see signs of a bad mood spiraling over him, especially since I could not buy anything in the last hour. His eyes are turning red. He won’t think twice before creating a scene even in a public place. I smother my urge to dig into more clearance racks. We make our way to the food court.
On our way there, I see many stores that grab my attention and tempt me to shop or at least look around. But I don’t stop because I am scared that he might get mad.
His loud shriek still echoes in my ears every time we go out for groceries. Unlike other times, once he accompanied me to a nearby supermarket for grocery shopping. I spotted frozen packets of palak paneer and dal makhani sitting next to piles of buffalo wings and chicken burrito packets. It was exciting to see this supermarket finally carrying some Indian food. I just stood there staring at those packets, with my eyes brimming with a yearning to buy it. I imagined my eyes looking at them the way a small kid looks at the ice cream that mom won’t buy him. When Rajeev realized that I was not following him, he turned back to look for me. He squealed loud enough to turn heads, “What the hell are you staring at? Can’t you just keep walking behind me without making any extra stop? Let’s go.” His scream left me startled. I was embarrassed and sad. All the people shopping around there staring at us. Few whispered something to their partners; I don’t know for sure but it felt like they were talking about us. After that, I kept strolling behind him as fast as I could with my eyes fixated on the ground to avoid eye contact with anyone in the crowd who heard his screaming.
I will never repeat that kind of episode. So I just follow him to the food court quietly. We are passing by a kids' play area when I see her.
I can’t believe what I see, as if I am dreaming. Never in my unconscious had I imagined that we would run into each other again in this life; that too at a place far from where we left our past. Unknowingly, my feet freeze there. My body feels too heavy to move forward. In the kids' play area, she is helping a cute little boy take his shoes off. She is tending this kid with her full attention. She doesn’t notice me at first. I stand still looking at her. Within seconds, she looks up after sending two kids off to play, a toddler boy and a girl—who seems around four years old. Suddenly, a flood of happiness runs through my heart. I didn’t see it coming. My eyes are brimming with joyful tears.
Esha is almost in tears too when she sees me. Her lips quiver as water jumps out of her eyes. I can barely smile. Neither of us hugs the other, nor does either of us speak. It is an awkward moment for both of us. We don’t know how to react. This very instance brings to life several questions that have long been dead for me. Questions, for a long time now, for which I wanted to claim an answer from her. Our eyes—imbued with pain, love, and a tiny hint of anger—meet. Those curious sets of eyeballs barely smile at each other, then query each other and immediately move on without even waiting for answers.
Quickly, I run behind Rajeev to catch up with him. Halfway through the food court, I turn around and look at Esha one more time. I feel dreadful about not being able to speak to her. I move forward swimming through the flood of emotions. She still looks as beautiful as she looked eight years ago except her big almond-shaped eyes appear vapid now.
This mall doesn’t offer that many food choices. We end up picking spinach Alfredo pizza. I sprinkle some crushed red chilies on it. When I am about to take the first bite of pizza, I notice Esha coming in my direction to the food court. This is the first time I am thankful for Rajeev’s resistance to shopping. His bad mood is keeping his eyes fixed on the pizza slice. He doesn’t see Esha coming; not that he knows her. With my mouth still open, my hand holding a piece of pizza, my eyes gaze at her. My heart skips a beat when she comes even closer to our table. Coming closer, she stares at me too. We are at a distance where I could hear what she is saying or she could overhear what I might say. Our eyes gawk at each other again, a little more intense this time as if we both are enticed to speak, but a little hesitant, too.
Her son is crying because Mom Esha is lost in her thoughts to pay attention to what the little one is saying. Her daughter is being a nice big sister, trying to calm him while shaking mommy to bring her back to this world. “Mom . . . Mom. What are you thinking?” she yells. Then she expresses in a cute way, “Big sister, Gauri, and little brother Harsh are right here, by you. Let’s go home.”
The way her daughter looks and talks is an exact copy of Esha. I still remember her childhood pictures I had seen in her room.
As much as I want to talk to her, I am too scared to exchange a word for Rajeev might come to know about us. I am also petrified by the thought of her leaving me one more time. In spite of all the thoughts and frights that are crowding my head, I stand up to move in her direction. I don’t want to lose a chance to yell at her, scream at her and get the answers to my questions. I want to tell her how mad I have been at her all this while. All of a sudden, I want everything to go back to normal between us. The invisible wall of hesitation that is standing strong separating us, I want to break that wall. But the next thought brings heaviness in my legs. I can’t take a single step further. The fact that she is married and has two kids stops me from questioning her.
Maybe I don’t care for her as much as before, I lie to myself to reduce my anger, to calm my anxiety. After all, why should I care for her now? She left me, I didn’t leave her. I try to blame her to hide my emotions. One more time I fail to stand up for myself. One more time I give in to circumstances instead of chasing what I want, what I wish in life. It is partly my submissiveness and partly the fear of losing her one more time and getting hurt to not heal ever again. I choose to be quiet. She grabs both of her kids’ hands and walks right out of the mall, maybe to go home.
After my encounter with Esha in the mall on Sunday, I leave the awkward moment behind. Cutting through the shoppers’ crowd, I walk out with Rajeev, as if, one more time, leaving behind all those questions I have for her. Maybe I have accepted that our paths are now different. But little did I understand then that, in the back of my mind, I was still thinking about her and about our best time together. Secretly, my mind is wishing to make a present and future of that wonderful past.
Monday morning, after Rajeev leaves for the office, I finish the everyday chores and sit on the sofa to watch TV. Lost in my own thoughts, I press TV remote buttons like crazy and stare at the screen blankly still thinking about Esha. I am unable to take her out of my thoughts. This upsets me even more than actually seeing her. While flipping through channels, the news on one catches my attention.
“Five people (including two teenagers, an immigrant Indian mother, and her two kids) were hospitalized after a three-vehicle accident yesterday evening on Highway I-78 near Center Point Mall, local officials said.”
Jitters run through me when I think, Could it be Esha? An immigrant Indian mother with two kids and near Center Point Mall? And that too, yesterday; this feels ominous.
I fix my eyes and ears on the TV.
“‘Two vehicles were trying to merge at the intersection. They both collided with a third vehicle causing all traffic to stand still.” the news continued.
“John A. Davis, the nineteen-year-old driver of one vehicle, and his sixteen-year-old passenger and his sister, April A. Davis, were injured and taken to a nearby hospital. Thirty-eight-year-old Indian mother Priya Pande and her two children were injured and taken to a nearby hospital as well. The fifty-year-old driver of the third car lost the battle for his life at the site of the accident.”
I am sad for the people who got into this brutal accident. But I also heave a sigh of relief knowing it is not Esha.
“Police said they're still investigating the crash.”
I tell myself I don’t care for her anymore. I am only angry at her. Perhaps, it seems, I have mastered the art of burying the past somewhere inside me till it finds its way up in the present.
“Hell yeah girl, I still care about you,” I speak out loud. Turning off the TV and angrily tossing the remote control on the sofa, I cry.
My crying goes from sobbing to loud crying. I feel helpless that I still care about her, but can’t be with her. I always thought sadness would fly away, riding on wings of time. But I was wrong. With time, sadness is bubbling up and up. I cry some more, crimping up in a corner of the sofa. Tears make my vision and thinking blurry. Once again, my heart is racing in fury to gain answers to all the questions I have for her. Why couldn’t she break the promise she gave to her dad? Why didn’t she try to fulfill the assurances she gave me? The care, the concern for Esha and the questions that are blooming afresh again in front of me, drive my mind back to the time when I dwelled in bountiful happiness, which was all blown away in the blink of an eye.
Chapter 2: First Warning
When you have just turned eighteen and you dream about the love of your life, hardly anyone takes you seriously. They think you are crazy and wild. On top of that, Girish drops a Human Anatomy book in my lap, lashes out, “Are you crazy or what? You seriously need to read this book. It will help you understand stuff, some differences between a man and a woman,” and walks away.
Girish—a tall, handsome Mona Punjabi guy— down to earth and sorted. My cousin brother, my uncle’s—my dad’s brother’s—son, my best buddy. His eyeglasses—rectangular plastic frames with black as the prominent color and a hint of red used to form a mosaic pattern—makes him look somber and serious. But that is totally deceiving of his lighthearted and cheerful personality.
Our families live in Neelam Nagar, Phase 2, Mulund East, Mumbai. Our parents believe in simple living, unlike the flamboyant lifestyle that most of our relatives prefer. Our flats are next to each other. We are always at his place studying, eating, gossiping, wrestling, and doing mischief. Girish is the only child of his parents, but not spoiled at all. My elder sister is more spoiled. We are a family of four: my mom, dad, and not to forget an elder sister—she used to live with us. Now she is married and lives with her husband. Girish and I call her Di—elder sister. Di and I are two opposite ends of the same pole that are never meant to get along well unless a miracle happens. As a result, I rarely stay home—when Di is around—as much as I stay at Girish’s place.
Di has always been jealous of a friendship Girish and I share. She doesn’t share that special relationship with any of our cousins. No one else but she herself is responsible for that. She always lives on cloud nine, in her own world. She is a self-obsessed girl whose world revolves around her own self. On the other hand, I have always been considerate, polite, submissive, and concerned about other people’s happiness. Even though my height of five feet three is above average for an Indian female, my plump body always makes me self-conscious. On top of that, the degree to which nosey relatives make a big deal about my few extra pounds doesn’t help at all. This is why I never dare to experiment with different dressing styles. I am always happy in my simple jeans and t-shirt, with my hair tied up in a high ponytail. Many people say I have a beautiful smile. So I always wear it with the canine teeth peeping gently out of my smile. Di, on the other hand, likes everything perfect from head to toe.
She never misses a chance to boss me around. I sometimes wonder how I have survived in the same room with her for these many years. Many times her annoying habits make me angry. A peace-loving person like me can’t even understand why she acts the way she does. The undeniable fact to be told, she oversteps every boundary around her. She tries to control and manipulate everyone surrounding her, either directly—as in my case or using tricks—as in our parents’ case.
I don’t have my own friends either. I always hang out with Girish’s friends. Maybe hanging out with those boys has contributed to my already existing unruffled attitude. But sometimes I wish I could have learned from them how to be emotionally stronger and not give in easily. Being docile breaks my heart many times in a million ways hurts me again and again. His friends are my friends. His friends were my friends till he went to medical college; I was in eleventh grade then. That dude is two years elder to me; he wants to be a cardiologist. It has been almost two years now since Girish and all our friends have graduated from high school. I am a lonely person in that school now without my hangout gang. Always being with Girish and his gang, I never made my own friends, I never made my own decisions, and I just tagged along with him for everything. At school, Girish protected me and at home Di always bossed me around. For so long in my life, I didn’t even think about what I like and what I don’t. I always did whatever made people around me happy. But now when once in a while I want to make my own choices, it’s hard to stick to those choices and make my loved ones happy too all at the same time.
Two months before my twelfth exams, I complain to Girish that he hardly has time for me. Ever since he joined a medical college, our schedules have been way different. He has been super busy. His typical day schedule is much busier than I could imagine. His alarm rings at seven every morning. After hitting snooze a few times, he gets out of bed at 7:15 AM. Breakfast, tea, squeeze in fifteen to twenty minutes of study time and then he leaves the house at eight to catch the local train to Nerul, where his college is. He builds in roughly twenty minutes of buffer time. A whole day of lectures, labs, and seminars during lunchtime. He hits the gym for one hour before coming home. Finally, he reaches home around 8:15 PM. 8:30 PM shower, 8:45 dinner, and then more studying. Sometimes he studies at home by himself. Then other times he is a group studying and comes home late. By the time he goes to bed, it is midnight. Besides, now he has new friends, a new purpose in life. We barely spend any time with each other. He has a holiday alternate Saturdays. At last, he promises to spend time with me one of these days.
The following Saturday, I wave bye to my classmates and trail out of school towards the exit gate to go home. I am surprised and happy at the same time to see Girish there. He is sitting on the school katta—concrete bench just outside the main gate. I run to him and sit next to him on the katta to chat unlimited. Pointing to a hawker who is standing just outside the school gate, I ask, “Do you remember how we used to eat mouthwatering panipuri, sour ber, and imbali together, right here?”
“Hellooo . . . I never ate ber and imbali, only you ate it,” his male ego interrupts me. But soon he gets excited and we laugh our heads off when he reminds me, “The sourness of ber and imbali made you wink a zillion times . . . like this, see . . . see like this,” he says, laced with the act of winking.
My instant reaction is to playfully smack him. But he is right. The first few times, doing that even gave wrong signals to the boys staring at me. But soon many were disappointed after understanding the real story about my winks.
He continues, “The best part of that time was sitting here to watch the beautiful girls of our school and talk about them.”
During recess, we used to eat our lunch and play with the whole gang. But as soon as school was dismissed, the two of us always met outside the school’s main gate. That was the unspoken protocol between us. We always sat on the katta and kept sharing the whole day of classes in fifteen minutes. He would always tease me, “Look at that girl, she looks zhakas—sexy.” I would always say, “Oh yeah, she sure does.” I miss those fun-filled days.
One of my batch mates, Esha, is gorgeous and the most popular girl in the school. The gleam in her eyes is uncommonly attractive. It has a unique and mysterious charm that casts a spell on me every passing day. Everybody would die to talk to her; at least I would. In her navy blue chudidar and tight-fitting white short kurti, she looks amazingly pretty. She passes by the katta with her friends. A strand of hair touches her soft and smooth face skin. She gently tucks that hair strand behind her ear with her long and beautiful fingers. She doesn’t notice us. She is not one of my acquaintances yet. But I would love to be friends with her.
I still remember when I saw her the first time—a tall and dusky girl with shoulder-length hair worn loose, laughing heartily with a sparkle in her almond-shaped brown eyes. She stood out amidst her group of friends. I had never seen such a vivacious person before. The vibrancy of her tone and her smile made my heart pound harder.
Girish, sitting next to me on my right-hand side, says, "Look at that girl, second from left; she is damn beautiful and sexy."
He makes me so angry that I want to hit him, right in his face. I can barely contain myself. I punch his right upper arm very hard.
“Ouch, that hurts,” he screams.
I don’t know where I got that much strength from. The passion for something can really make one strong.
He is surprised and raises his eyebrow. “What? Why are you mad?”
"Hey, you know how you always used to say to me . . . look at this girl, look at that girl . . . she is cute, she is sensuous. And I would reply, ‘Oh yeah, she sure is’?” I say passionately.
A more intense look dominates my face. “I never said it to please you. I really meant it. With other girls it was fine, but Esha . . . she is mine, I l-i-k-e her. Better stay away from her."
My words take him to a world of rage, in a way I have never seen him before.
His eyes and face turn red. He storms out of there. Before leaving, he wails at the top of his lungs, "Are you crazy or what? Think before you say anything.”
Completely scared, I follow him quietly. I avoid looking around because his shouting has set the eyes of the nearby street vendors on me. After walking a few steps he slows down and I stroll faster. Now we are walking side by side without uttering a single word.
After a few minutes of silence, I gather the courage to say, “Listen, I have thought about it a lot before saying it. I have been pondering about it for quite a while now.”
“You seriously need to read human anatomy books. That will help you understand some stuff,” he scowls but says it without screaming.
Maybe because we are in the middle of the road, he maintains low volume in his voice. But I have never seen him this livid before. The rest of the way home is filled with an uncomfortable silence between us.
That evening Girish comes home. This time he looks calmer compared to the afternoon. A thought touches my mind: We have been best buddies, so, maybe, he is trying to understand how I feel. A little happy cloud dances over me. That happiness doesn’t last long when he throws B. D. Chaurasia’s human anatomy book in my lap and says, “Soni, we are boys, we like girls, that is absolutely normal and totally fine. You always hang out with me and my friends. You hardly have any friends that are girls, but that doesn’t mean you should like—I mean love—girls like we boys do. Please—I am saying please—read this book and try to understand the anatomy of girls and boys. There is a difference.” Then he finishes by sternly looking into my eyes and saying with a stony voice, “You get me?”
His new avatar leaves me startled and scared to death.
Not that I need to read B. D. Chaurasia to understand the difference between a man and a woman. I know it. Over the last few years, I have felt an intense attraction toward girls. And, Esha, I absolutely love her. Every time I see her, my heart flutters like a butterfly who just came out of the chrysalis and whose wings are still not dry enough to fly. But it can’t control itself. The same way. The exact same way, my heart dances, flaps every single time I get a glimpse of her. I love Esha.
Many times, I have dreamt about her with open eyes. Not only that, a few months back, I also scribbled a few lines while daydreaming about her, something that I have never done before in my life:
Your bright smile creates havoc in me.
The liveliness of your laugh touches my heart to the deepest.
Appearing in my dreams, day and night,
The sweet, emotional pain that you have given me is beyond tolerance now.
I desire to spend life holding you in my arms.
I wish to relieve life being in your arms.
Only the feeling of love could bring those words out of me.
“But Girish . . .”
He doesn’t let me finish the statement. “I don’t want to hear any ifs or buts; please read the book. Remember, you are not a kid anymore. Better think ten times before you say anything.” And he walks away from there slamming the door behind, leaving me feeling guilty for loving someone dearly.
He is saying what I am feeling for her is not right. But I don’t see it as wrong. I don’t sleep a wink that night. The whole night I am thinking about what he said and how I feel. The whole night I contend with my own thoughts. My own mind turns into my clever foe, leaving me miserable and unhappy, dropping me at the corner of a bifurcated road, for me to decide one path over the other to walk on.
One week passes by. I can’t choose one track over the other. Both are equally important. Girish is my closest person. He has always been. But, my other side—my heart falling for a girl. That is who I am. Can anyone change this part of me? Maybe not. I can’t concentrate on studies even though final board exams are only months away. I am still struggling with my own thoughts. I even have doubted myself: Is something wrong with me?
Girish has not talked to me at all for this week. He has been avoiding me. Every time he ignores me, I regret the words I said to him that day in school. I want to slap myself for not keeping my mouth shut about her.
The way he is ignoring me is killing me. His silent treatment makes me sad and gloomy, reminding me of the hush of a country road at night. I always notice the dark pavement whenever I go for an overnight road travel with my parents. This situation is a bit scary too. His silence causes my mind to shrink into itself. My laugh ceases. Even though I consider nothing is wrong with me, I decide not to think about Esha again just because Girish means a world to me. I don’t want to lose my best buddy at any cost.
On Saturday evening, I go to his house. Instead of entering his room directly, as I used to do till a week before, I make a stop in the living room.
I greet his parents. “Namaste, uncle. Namaste, aunty.”
Aunty says, “Namaste, Beta—kiddo. What’s the matter? You didn’t enter Girish’s room directly. He too seems upset for the last few days. What’s going on? Did you guys fight again or what?”
“Nothing, aunty. I will go talk to him,” I reply, pretending to be fine.
“Now you guys are getting older. Stop arguing with each other. Once you get married and go to your husband’s house, you will remember these times you have spent with each other. That’s how siblings always are. Now go to his room and talk to him.” How could aunty not say that, such an aunty-ish thing to say. I was not in a mood to listen to any of it, but I guess I didn’t have a choice.
Then I go to his room. He is sitting on his bed, with a pillow in his lap and staring blankly, at nothing in particular, outside the window. He looks sad too. I sit on the chair facing him. The tick-tock of the clock, on the wall behind me, seems louder and faster than ever before. As if, its master has induced the effect of his own mood into the clock as well. He doesn’t speak and even doesn’t look at me.
“Hey, appease that anger now. You know how much I love you,” I say, and my tone sounds sad.
When I get no response from him, I continue, “I’ve decided to not to look at Esha again just because you mean more to me than anything else.” Saying this, I sit next to him on the bed.
He still chooses not to meet my eyes or utter a single word. The silence between us stretches a little more.
I am unable to tolerate his silent treatment any more.
“Hey, say something. Don’t just zip it,” I say, followed by a pause for him to retort. His muteness has the volume of his anger and the sound of his disappointment caused by me. I can stand his shriek, but quietness is not for me.
I plead, “Please say something.” Then I cry, looking down at my hands.
He smacks me on my head and says, “Stop that cry drama now, let’s go eat something.”
We eat together, but I still feel his uneasiness. I can see, in his actions, his peace of mind is stifled. The way he is breaking chapati for each bite, is way slower than I have seen him do that before.
I decide that I won’t look at Esha again. I do not for three months.
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