Monday, November 30, 2015

Fiction - Seize the Day

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a good boyfriend must be constantly reminded of her loveliness. Shefali Ahuja is no different. At various stages of our courtship, whenever my love for her had seemed to falter, she would stare at me with her doe-shaped eyes.

“Don’t you love me?” she would ask with pupils dilated, nostrils flaring and her eyelashes pointed like a battalion of fiery archers ready to shoot if I happened to give the wrong response. Which was never.

In such a situation, and believe me I’ve had lots of practice, I usually grasp her hand and press my fingertips to her lips. It helps if I seem to be in low spirits.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I say. “Darling, even life isn’t worth living if I can’t be with you.”
Nine times out of ten, my declarations of love would assuage her doubts and set her mind to rest. Her facial muscles would relax, and a hint of a smile would play around her lips as the dimple on her right cheek put in a welcome appearance.

But something was wrong today. She sat unsmiling, nervously kneading her hands as she cast her eyes at the summer blooms of jasmine around us. We were relaxing under the famous virgin tree, the one that students of Delhi’s Hindu College adorn each Valentine’s Day with water-filled condoms and heart-shaped balloons. There are no such decorations on the tree today and the final exams are almost upon us, although the eternal optimist in me always dreams of the day the spare condom in my wallet would come in handy. Shefali and I had kissed often, but it would take a lot of convincing for her to go the whole hog.

It’s unnerving. She is looking at me again. I know what that stare means. And it’s not good. When this happens, she usually wants me to prove my love to her. And today I’m not in the mood for one of her weird challenges. One time, she made me run shirtless down the main college corridor - which wasn’t so bad, since I’ve been spending hours at the gym and am always on the lookout for an opportunity to show off my abs.

And then she made me cram her hostel room with enough red roses to render me bankrupt for two months. Shefali was pleased with the roses; my dad wasn’t. I was subjected to an hour-long lecture on how he had juggled two part-time jobs to get through college, and now his no-good son was frittering away his inheritance.

Once Shefali fell out with her friend Urvashi and thanks to my background in English literature, I was asked to come up with 24 lines of rhyming poetry that cast aspersions on her character. A WhatsApp-fuelled chain of ridicule ensured Urvashi bunked classes for the next two weeks.

Call it my sixth sense. Each time George R.R. Martin is about to kill off a central character in his medieval fantasy novels, I’m afflicted with an impending sense of doom. On this breezy March morning, I shudder to think what lies ahead.

Shefali is gently caressing my forehead. I recognize the signs and brace myself for the words about to fall from her lips.
“Prove that you love me,” she says.
“Of course, darling”
“This one is tough”
“You know I will do anything for you, Shefali”
“And if you do it, I’ll give you what you’ve been waiting for”
“Just tell me. What do I have to do?”
“Well, Venkat was mean to me today.”

It is crystal clear now. Venkat is Shefali’s classmate in their second-year History honours course. I’ve to teach Venkat a lesson, beat him up and avenge my lady love. It won’t be easy. Venkat goes to the gym too, and there is a slight chance I may suffer a black eye or two. But the promised reward would make it all worthwhile. And my wallet would carry one less condom.

“Do not worry, Shefali. He’ll fall at your feet and beg for mercy.”
“But you should not beat him up”
I must look confused, for Shefali smiles and whispers in my ear. These were not sweet nothings.
“Are you mad? I can’t do that”
“But you said you will do anything for me”
“Yes, but this is crazy”
“Really? Is that how much you love me?”
“No buts. He should be in the canteen. You have five minutes”
“I’ve to do this now?”
“And now you have four minutes and 58 seconds”

I look at my watch and hesitate. For no apparent reason, I’m reminded of Professor Gupta’s class on Metaphysical poetry last week. We were reading Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poet as he pleaded with his lover to yield to his passion. Life is short. Don’t put things off. Carpe diem. That’s Latin for ‘seize the day’. Of course.

I set off running across the college grounds, scrambling through hedges and taking the shortcut through the administration building. Outside the library, I nearly crash into a pony-tailed woman - her arms piled high with books - but I swerve at the last minute and arrive unscathed at the canteen. I scan the crowd for any sign of my target. Plenty of students tucking into greasy bread pakoras and cups of milky tea. But no Venkat.

I look back to see Shefali entering the canteen. She is breathless and weary. Must have been running after me. Our eyes meet. She taps her watch and frowns before collapsing into the chair next to mine.
“You have less than 30 seconds left”
“But he’s not here”
“He has to be”
I’m about to retort when I spot Venkat outside the canteen. It’s the hardest decision I’ve had to make in my life. It’s now or never. Shefali had noticed Venkat too, and I probably had just a few seconds to do it.

I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven...”

As Venkat entered the canteen, I grabbed his arm to get his attention and pulled him in for a kiss. I had aimed for a quick in-and-out movement that would yoke my lips and his lips together for a fleeting second. But my counterpart had other ideas. Venkat grabbed my neck and kissed me again, trapping me in a lip lock as I flailed about, my pumped-up biceps proving ineffective against his shock-and-awe guerrilla tactics. This is not how one should adhere to the bro code.

When I’m finally set free, I am suddenly aware of hooting and whistling in the canteen. The rumpus is punctuated at regular intervals by the thump of something sharp digging into my right shoulder. I look up to see Shefali hitting me with one of her high heels. This is not turning out well.

“What are you doing?”
“You cheater!”
“You kissed Venkat”
“But you asked me to”
“Would you jump out of the window if I asked you to?”
“But I did this for you”
“Ya, right!”
“I don’t understand”
“Venkat told me you had a crush on him”
“I didn’t believe it and here you are kissing him”
“We are done. We are over. Don’t you dare speak to me again.”

Shefali turns and storms off. Her white T-shirt is stained with the remnants of a stray bread pakora let loose by an overexcited student. I want to warn her, but this doesn’t seem like the right time. I have bigger fish to fry.

I turn towards Venkat. He is smirking. And not looking sorry at all.
“What’s your problem?”
“Revenge, my friend”
“What did I ever do to you?”
“To Urvashi. You made her miserable.”
“So what?”
“She was my girlfriend, you nitwit”

I put two and two together. The universe had conspired against me and Shefali.  The funny thing was I wasn’t even angry with Venkat, Urvashi or the bread pakoras. I push my way past the throng of curious  students in the canteen. Photos of the impromptu lip lock have made it to WhatsApp already, and as I make my way back to the virgin tree, I find students giving me supercilious looks. Great. I’ll have to lie low and go off social networks for a while.

At the virgin tree, I got through my wallet and prise out the spare condom hidden behind the 10-rupee notes. It doesn’t look like I’ll get a chance to use it this year. Damn you, Shefali. I place the condom carefully on the trunk and walk away.

Seconds later, I’m back. And the condom is stowed in my wallet. I should probably hold on to it for a while. Forget Shefali, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
(This short story was originally written for the TOI Write India: Ashwin Sanghi contest)Creative Commons License
"Seize The Day" by Tony Tharakan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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