He stood staring at the single bright stone that sparkled at the girl’s throat. On his way to Abids, he had stopped to pick up the money promised to him by the Patel’s. They were sticky and cunning customers and he had to pull the wad from fingers that refused let go. As he stepped down the staircase that opened into the street, he froze before his foot touched the ground. She was looking at books at WordWorld window, oblivious to the outside world.
He brushed against her back and deftly the chain and stone were in his pocket. She turned around in surprise and looked straight into his eyes. For a second he saw a flash of anger in those large black eyes but they turned back to scanning the books. Twisting on his heels in practiced casualness, he went down the street. He was so good at it that he didn’t need to look back to check for reactions. He was sure she wouldn’t know till later.
Pallavi worked as a copywriter in Ogilvy and Mather at Basheer Bagh but every Friday she would wake up half an hour early for a 15 minute walk to her window to the world. Words were her life. Her childhood, she felt, was not an ordinary one. Forced to be with herself with no one to talk to, she dived into books very early in life. By the age of 6, she was reading chapter books for children. She hid herself between pages all through a painful adolescence. Books were her soul mate and the thirty odd notebooks she had filled up with stories, poems and random nothings’ were the windows to her soul. She wished she had the money and an enormous bookcase to proudly display her possessions.
She sighed deeply as she turned away from the window. Her day would now be the same as every other day of the 8 years of her working life. Catching a packed bus to her office, eating a lunch of yesterdays’ chapattis with a potato curry that she made for herself in the morning, writing senseless captions for advertisements, catching a packed bus back home and waiting for her mother to come home with dinner, was her life. Though the office had a microwave, she rarely used it, knowing though how wonderful this machine was, it couldn’t make the leathery incarnation that she packed for herself every morning, any more edible. Her mother would be horrified if she made fresh ones for herself. Every night she brought home from the Chibbar’s ten of them, just enough for their dinner, her breakfast and lunch. Pallavi ate because her stomach rumbled and because she wasn’t prepared to allow ulcers into her life.
Lakshmi, Pallavi’s mother, worked in a Punjabi household as a housekeeper. A huge mansion with a beautiful garden was home to a joint family of the Chibbars, father, mother and two sons along with their wives and a total of six children. Four daughters, all in their teens were a busy lot, fussy about food and superfluously interested in their looks. Lakshmi, her hands full of their clothing gathered from their four bedrooms, seemed to be always busy folding them or hanging them in their closets. Shoes, hairclips, jewelry, lipsticks and so many countless girly things had to be put in their places before the girls screamed for them.
Guests were a permanent entity of the house and the three guest rooms were always bustling with activity. Lakshmi was indeed very glad to get the job at the Chibbar’s. In the confusion that preceded and followed the arrivals and departures of guests, and the umpteen parties in the main hall and in the gardens, Lakshmi found fancy trinkets and bits and pieces of designer gold jewelry that she nonchalantly took home safely tucked into her brassiere. No one suspected her for she had been with them for over 20 years and had become a part of the unseen wheel that made the Chibbar household work. Remorse was not something she ever felt, for she blamed God for her predicament. He had dealt her only sorrow at every turn of her life. No one knew, not Pallavi, not her drunk husband, not her friends, no one was privy to this closely guarded secret. She always kept the spoils in a pickle jar in the remote corner of her kitchen attic. She got a tidy sum for them at the pawn shop in the other end of the city, to which she went once every month.
Krish, short for the extra long name Sivakasi Sivaramakrishna Iyer given to him by his parents, was in a hurry. He reached Abids in fifteen minutes and was happy to be able to meet the deadline. In his line of work, deadlines were really that. Death hit without batting an eyelid. He had never been late in his life and he didn’t want today to be any different. He ran the rest of the way and it felt good. He was a tall man, just under 6’, with a crop of straight black hair that kept falling over his eyes, and he had developed a charming habit of flicking them back into place with a quick jerk of his head. His broad shoulders maneuvered through the steady stream of human bodies and as he did that, not a thought bounced about his head.
At forty, he was fit as a bull. He dressed well, loved shoes and was proud of his shoe collection. In fact that was the only thing he spent on lavishly. There are times when he has come out of a shoe shop and collapsed on the sidewalk laughing for he couldn’t see which way he was headed, dropping in the process six to seven boxes of shoes. The Man was ready to enter the car when Krish turned the corner. He handed the envelope to Him who patted him on the shoulder before speeding away. Back home, plonked down on a beanbag in front of the TV, his fingers absentmindedly played with the simple platinum chain and the stone. He remembered the bewitching eyes he had stared into. They kept popping up before his eyes.
Everyday of the next week Krish waited at WordWorld, waiting to catch a glimpse of those eyes that had become a permanent fixture of his dreams and his usually uncluttered mind. Today was Friday. He walked towards the bookstore mentally prepared to be disappointed. His steps quickened as saw a figure peering at the books. His heart, which could stay unmoved in complex operations of the mind and body, beat like that of a sixteen year old. He had to prevent himself from grabbing her and crushing her to his chest. Such was his joy on seeing her. But today those beautiful eyes had dark circles under them and seemed not to really see the books at the window. Her fingers were fidgety and feet uncertain. An ache, the magnitude of which scared him, spread in his chest as he wondered if he was the reason. He decided to bump into her again, hard enough to catch her as she fell. Within minutes she was in his arms. He cradled her till she found her senses. She stood there dusting herself, arranging her clothes and mouthing a million apologies.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Krish asked her politely as he waited for her to recover, ‘There is a coffee shop down this lane. I would like to buy you a coffee now.”
“Dear me!” she exclaimed looking at her watch, gave a little shrug and replied “Might as well have coffee. We owe each other one, I guess. Looks like I have to give office a miss today. I have missed the bus!
‘Do you come here every day?’ he asked with measured gaiety knowing only too well now that Friday was her window book shopping day. “Only on Fridays” was her reply.
They met every evening in a small eatery near her office at 6:30 and had their customary mint sandwich and Cheeku milk shake. The conversation ran to and fro between them with ease. She told him about the jewel she had borrowed for a day from her mother’s things, how she realized only much later about its loss and the unfruitful desperate search late into the evening. She also told him about her father, who in the past came home once a month, seemingly only to beat her mother up.
“What about your mother?” He prompted her gently one day. Pallavi was silent for a long time.
“I have never been able to understand why she hates me so much.” She said in a calm voice which reflected the hours of thought she had put into trying to understand the reason. She had asked her mother one time too many in her twelfth year, only to be beaten so hard that she had found it difficult to drag herself to bed that night. She had lain at the front door, crying herself to sleep.
Lakshmi came from a middle class family that lived in a rented flat in a quiet suburb of Hyderabad. Being a bright student, she was sent to RBVR, in distant Narayanguda, to get the best education the city could offer. Vivacious and friendly, she soon had friends in high circles who would invite her to parties of the rich and famous. Her friends never thought much about driving down to her remote house to pick her up for late night dos’. Her parents had expected her to make friends with rich girls in her class. They trusted her and never questioned her sojourns. At one of these parties, she met a man who changed her life forever. Vikram had that charm and elegance that reduced any no to a yes. Very soon they were a talk of the season. Her friends lent her their clothes and accessories, and were there every time she needed them. She would do up her curly long hair into hairstyles that would soon be copied by the other girls. They were a striking couple, he, fair and tall, and she, petite and skin that reminded one of smooth chocolate. Swept off her feet and flushed with the newfound free ways, she blossomed into a beauty of grace and boldness, the boldness that comes with the coziness of a safe future. She basked in his reflected glory and made him happy with all the attention directed at him by her and society in general. But fate had something else in store for her.
Unaware of the happenings in her life, her parents gave their word to a local family. They agreed for Lakshmi to be married to Rammohan, a government civil engineer working in Hyderabad. A close friend of the family had brought the alliance and in good faith they pounced at it. They dreamt of a life of comfort in plenty for her. Since the family was in a hurry, the wedding was to take place exactly one month from that day. Lakshmi stood wordless, dumbstruck with the swiftness of the decision. Her world crumbled all around her. With the house full of relatives and with a whirlwind of shopping and preparation, she was unable to contact anyone from her other world, the other world now as if on the other side of the earth. Numbly she went about the house as all its inmates arranged her life.
The day before the wedding, the family left her at the beauty salon, and rushed out to make use of the six hours she would need there, to complete some last minute arrangements. Lakshmi, in the middle of the waxing, put on her clothes and rushed out, promising to be back in an hour. She went to Vikram’s apartment two blocks away. She was greeted by the guard and ushered into the lift that would take her directly to his penthouse. The beauty and extravagance of the place never ceased to amaze her. The carpeted corridor was lined with rare plants with flowers she had seen only in magazines. He was rich and it showed. She had come here once for a party thrown by Vikram and had fallen in love with the place. She rang the bell and waited. The door took a long time opening and to her shock Vikram opened the door in the nude. He pulled her indoors and kissed her. She stammered but managed to tell him that her wedding was to take place the next day. The change she saw in him left her breathless, for he was like a man-eater that had caught a scent after a whole year. His face was beet red, angry veins jutted out on his forehead and he seemed to enlarge as if he had pumped some iron. He pushed her continuously till she was on his bed and reached down to snap her churidhar string with a yank at the waist.
She walked back to the salon in a state of confusion and waited for her chair and for the lady to continue, in stunned silence. She was a zombie on her wedding night and remained one, for many days to follow. She found herself alone in the house most days and nights and saw her husband only four times in three months. Her parents understood and wanted her to get a divorce, but Lakshmi was adamant that she stayed with the man they chose for her. In her third month of marriage, when nausea overtook her, she knew she could never go back home. She needed this husband to legitimize her pregnancy. When she learnt that he was already married with two children, her determination only increased a notch higher. She decided that her life was hers to make or break, and she chose to make it livable.
The first look at her baby girl plunged her into another bout of hopelessness, for Vikram stared at her from the fair and handsome face of her daughter. Every minute with her reminded her of the violation. Vikram’s elegance and charm were reserved only for the good times and she wondered why a rejected man became an animal. She hated her daughter more and more as she grew up into a tall, fair and beautiful girl with silky hair that fell to her knees. The beating started after Pallavi was born. Drunk and blinded with hate, Rammohan would beat her mother blue and purple, asking her as he thrashed her why she had married him. Till the age of six, Pallavi was witness to many such episodes, till one day her father stopped coming. She was thankful for that. But he did come again one night while her mother was still at work and had asked her in a sweetened tone to let him in. She watched him through the peephole till he disappeared and then ran to the window to check if he had really left. She was determined to have nothing to do with him and in her heart she knew that this short bald man was not her father.
“But why don’t you just leave?” asked Krish one day as they sat sipping tall glasses of chilled Cheeku Shake, “Don’t you think you are being unfair to yourself? You deserve better, Pallavi! How long are you going to stay on with your mother and that too with a mother who hates you so much?”
“Funny, the way you put it! I am not staying for my mother. OK, I do feel sorry for her, after all she is my mother! But the real reason, I guess, is that life has yet to present me with a better offer. My mother has never looked for a partner for me. I bet she doesn’t believe in it any more. Marriage has not been kind to her. Maybe she really cares for me and is protecting me,” replied Pallavi a little defensively
As they walked down the road, happy and carefree in each other company, content to be able to talk and relieved to share thoughts they had never shared with another soul, they both wondered to themselves in the privacy of their minds if at last they had found their soul mates. Life had indeed dished out harsh portions to them and both wondered if they had found peace at last. Comfortable silence reigned between them, interrupted only by the harsh sounds of the traffic that blared and rushed about them. But even that was music to their ears. Both of them suddenly realized that they were holding hands and stopped on the sidewalk, savouring the moment of closeness they felt. They came together till their bodies touched and stood there motionless as the teeming millions pushed them closer. As if prompted by a voice from backstage, they delivered their dialogue in unison. “I love you,” they said very softly but to their ears, nothing was ever said so loud and clear. The words echoed in their hearts and minds and seemed to be the music of the traffic and the voice of the crowd. Then came the plans, frantic and without order, as if the only thing that mattered was that they were together. They yapped nineteen to a dozen almost not listening to what the other spoke. Krish had never felt like this before. He had had many relationships in the past but had soon got tired of the monotony. There was no dearth of willing girls in a city like Hyderabad and he was a handsome man, mature and single. This woman was special and he was eager to make her his.
His life had been a struggle, a life of self belief and grit but on the wrong side of the law. He was born into a high caste Brahmin family which followed rituals and traditions by the book. He soon became fed up, and by the age of eleven was so bored, he decided to run away. He ran away to distant Hyderabad. Luckily he met Karim, a petty thief, as soon as he landed on the platform. He guessed men like Karim roamed about busy places searching for boys and girls. He knew that for certain since many kids were brought to their hut only to disappear in a day or two. Krish was not allowed to talk to them and he obeyed, fearful of a similar fate. Karim had developed unexplainable love for him. He was fed, clothed and sent to school no different from other children in the city, the only invisible difference being that he trained at night to acquire a skill of dexterousness. Picking pockets and acting casual were taught to him till it became an integral part of his physical and mental processes. He liked the things taught to him, it helped him in school with the boys and better still, with the girls. His actual daylight act gave him the shivers the first time he did it at the age of fifteen. He returned home to be chided by as many as ten veterans for his reaction, for a good two hours. It was actually this dose of unadulterated cursing that made him a smart and able thief. He had become a cultured and elegant thief who fitted well into the middle class as well as the rich. He had an apartment in the city from where he operated, contacted on his mobile phone only by Karim. He had no record in the city. He was an unseen and unknown figure to the outside world but know for his adroitness and crackerjack image in the underbelly of the city.
He asked Pallavi to move in with him. He took her to his apartment. She knew only what he told her about himself, and for her he was a photographer who sold his creations for very large sums of money. The walls of his home were covered with photos, all taken during his waits for pockets to pick. It was in his opinion a wonderful hobby that he thoroughly enjoyed and a very safe front helping him to easily merge into any location. He looked like a man on a mission, eager to capture life for keeps into his safe camera. Pallavi was impressed with what she saw. She loved the idea of living there with him, especially since he had no parents. She loved the thought of never being alone again. As minutes ticked away, she felt as secure as in a cocoon, wanting to delay the butterfly, delay the decision. She looked so lovely standing there, hugging herself and pivoting lazily on her heels, he fell deeper and deeper into the love for her. He felt the need to protect her so much that he went to stand in front of her dreamy eyes, as if to force her into making a decision.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” she cried and fell into his arms weeping. He held her tight, scared to let go lest she changed her mind. Again planning overtook emotions and they decided to shift her things the very next day. They had to do it in one day, he decided, since he didn’t want her mother to know where he lived. It would be risky to be a part of a family drama that might unfold as a result. He agreed to be at her house by seven with a pickup van and a few men. He was not very surprised to see that her possessions did not take even a quarter of the van, and that most of it was books. Pallavi was given a bedroom of her own and he ordered a huge book shelf for her that would cover the western wall entirely. She was busy the next few days, arranging and rearranging her things.
Life went on merrily. They were together in the early hours of mornings, preparing the day’s breakfast and lunch together, and in the evenings they would eagerly wait for their time together. He maintained very odd hours and would rush off, dropping whatever he was doing as soon as his phone rang. She had no complains, he was attentive and overly demonstrative, very organized and meticulous in everything he did. He loved to hear her talk and they would sit for hours in the balcony as she recounted her life story. She had not cleaned up his room and decided to have a go at it that Sunday. It was fun going through his stuff but she noticed instantly that though she learnt a lot about his tastes, there was no past in his closet. Strangely, she found no photographs of friends, neither notes nor letters that gave her a peep into his life, not that she was probing and poking through his things with an aim, but just that she was interested in anything that was his. As she rummaged through his things, setting in better order and line his shirts and pants, her fingers touched something that in a reflex she pulled out. It oscillated gently as it hung from her fingers, her chain and locket! The stone shined at her, winking and flashing evilly, as if it held her future in its hard interiors. Her head swam and she leaned against the wall for support. Questions and answers, both fearful and confusing, rapid fired in her brain. The ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘why’ of it, just as quizzical to her as was two hours ago. She sat there in a daze wondering if her fanciful happy days were in fact a fantasy, vapourizing before her eyes.
Mentally she went back to her old life, picturing it vividly from all angles, dissecting and reshuffling it. She never talked to anybody about her mother and father. In fact she made no friends for the simple reason that there were too many secrets, too many casual questions that she could not answer, too many comments that left her too puzzled to respond. She never went on school trips. They didn’t have the money. Father’s day and Mother’s day were days when the whole school celebrated the joy of a secure carefree childhood with parents and children, proud of each other, exchanging gifts and cards, but for her, they were inescapable days, filled with regret and jealousy. No, she did not want it back as her life. She had experienced life in all its beauty with Krish. But she had to know. Her life was lived around secrets. She couldn’t live with a secret again. Not with Krish.
He walked in through the door at 10, calling out her name. He stopped dead when he saw her sitting against the wall with the jewel dangling from her fingers. He wondered what she was thinking and it pained him to think of the agony he had caused her. He sat down cross-legged in front of her, not attempting to touch her. Today, the silence shrieked.
“Pallavi,” he said gently, “I am a thief.”
She looked at him with eyes that knew. She remembered the Friday. She had been so engrossed in the books- “No, it was not that,” she thought to herself, “he was an expert.” Then when she had sat in her office library for hours after she realized it was missing, but she hadn’t suspected this handsome man who sat dejected on the floor before her. In fact, she didn’t register having seen him at all, though remembered now of being bumped into. She recollected her anger at the interruption in her much awaited half hour. Again, she realized he was a seasoned criminal.
“What did you see in me when you chose me as your victim? Is my vulnerability written on my face?” she asked softly, looking directly into his eyes.
“Your eyes haunted me. I waited for a week at that very spot. I had to find you,” he said urgently, his voice cracking with emotion. “You are not a victim; you are the target of my affection.”
He held his head in his hands and tore at his hair, and looked up with eyes brimming with tears, “Oh Pallavi, I can’t imagine life without you. Please try to forgive me for not telling you. How could I tell you I was a thief? Do you think you would have had me if you knew? But I didn’t want you to find it out like this! I wanted to tell you, no…emm, explain to you, beg you….to understand…” He continued after a pause, hurrying through his words, “Today, I finally have all the information you need about your mother. I got it from your… em… father, Mr. Rammohan. You mother was raped the day before her wedding by her boyfriend. You are his child. And the jewel in your hand is worth a lot more than 25 lakhs, and was bought by the Chibbars.”
She remained silent for a long, long time. Her thoughts pounded her head. She understood her mother’s hatred. They were both Destiny’s Children. And so was Krish.
She stood up and held out her hands to Krish, pulled him up from the floor and led him to the table. She opened the cupboard and selected the La Opela dinner plates they had bought yesterday. She laid the table, and served Krish and herself some Mutton Biriyani from the casserole. The aroma of spices filled the air.