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All That Could Have Been

By Mahesh Bhatt

All That Could Have BeenClick here to buy All That Could Have Been.

The airhostess woke her up, not too gently, and asked her to set her chair upright and raise her window shades, preparatory for landing. The tensions of the night before returned in a rush. But in the next few minutes, she realised that there was nothing she had to do except to follow the crowd of Indians getting off the aircraft. She followed a group of young Malayali girls who were chattering to each other almost as if coming to Dubai was like taking a bus in Allapuzha. She envied their insouciance and effortless cosmopolitanism.

The unfamiliar sounds of an airport caught her again by surprise. It made her feel the airplane was a safe space in which she had been cocooned for a while. And as she hurried along, her steps taking on the urgency of the other people walking, she found herself wondering, ‘What am I doing here? What was I thinking? How will this work?…What if I can’t do the work I’m supposed to?…’

But then she was at the carousel and her old battered suitcase, the same one she had carried from her father’s house to Hari’s home, was coming around. Oddly, it reassured her. It had come through intact. And she would too.

Outside, the day was warm and someone came up and tapped her on the shoulder.

‘Vasudha?’

She turned around and was greeted by a pair of sparkling eyes.

‘Naila Sarwar?’

‘At your service,’ said Naila. ‘And by that I mean, anything you need or want, you just let me know and I’ll make it happen.’

‘At this point in time, I need a SIM card,’ said Vasudha. ‘An international SIM card.’

‘Khul ja SIM-SIM,’ said Naila. ‘Your wish is my command.’

And her phone started to ring. It was a Hindi film song.

‘My jaanu is remembering me,’ she said switching to English and began to dig in her capacious handbag. ‘Hello chweechie,’ she said. ‘Mwah-Mwah-Mwah.’

Vasudha stepped away, out of earshot. The rest of the conversation seemed to consist of words that had been mauled out of shape to make them sound sweeter to the ear or sounds that were supposed to represent kisses of various kinds. But eventually it did get over and Naila came back, her eyes triumphant and defiant at the same time.

‘Your husband?’ Vasudha asked politely.

‘Husband? He toh is sitting in Lahore, eating kababs on my money and doing aish. No, this is my chaahanewaala,’ Naila said. ‘His name is George. He’s from Goa. So we’re doing our bit for Indo-Pak friendship.’

Vasudha did not know what to say to this.

‘He’s also married. And he loves his begum, as I love my Lahore-wala, in case you’re thinking I don’t. And maybe his begum is also eating kababs on his money and watching TV all day! No, but I don’t think she’s like that. She seems like Mother India. He showed me her photoo. She looked very strick.’

Vasudha wondered whether Naila needed to confess all these things or whether she was simply the kind of person who told you about her life on the first encounter. Looking at the pretty and disingenuous face, she decided it was probably a little of both.

‘I work in the housekeeping department of the Hotel Noor-e Dubai,’ Naila continued. ‘And I am your lie-zone.’

‘Sorry?’ Vasudha was genuinely puzzled by this.

‘Lie-zone yaar, these English words are too bore. Am I saying it all wrong then?’

‘Liaison?’ suggested Vasudha.

‘Ajeeb thing this Angrezi. Spelling is going Tokyo pronounciation is looking London. But what to do na—whether in Lahore or in Dilli or in Dubai we have to bark in this zaleel language. Nahi toh no good pay, no rich lovers. I’m third-class fail, but at least I can speak ten-twelve words. Only pronounciation is a fat-bum-size problem.’

‘Pronunciation,’ Vasudha corrected her gently.

‘Haan, you correct my English-Vinglish and I will show you how to do Dubai. Best shopping? Ask Naila. Best shawarma? Ask Naila. Best of the rest, ask Naila.’

And she gave Vasudha a nudge and a wink that left nothing to the imagination.

‘Naila,’ said Vasudha gently. ‘I think we can be friends, but only if we get one thing straight.’

‘Haan. Bolo. I am toh all for straight.’

‘I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t eat non-vegetarian.’

‘Beda garak! Toh what fun you are having in life?’

‘I manage, thank you. I have my son and my work.’

‘And Aarav.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Arrey full Dubai knows the story of how he is fidaa over you.’

‘Full Dubai is wrong then. Mr Ruparel does not hire people because he is fidaa over them.’

‘Don’t get me wrong, jaanu. I don’t care,’ said Naila. ‘But see it this way. Here you are, without hi-fi degree. I think you’re twelfth standard pass, maximum BA-Shee-A, right? Not even MBA type, I think. Not even from some dantmanjan college, na? And here you are, a member of Mr Aarav Ruparel’s team! If that is not called being fidaa then I don’t know what is.’

She caught sight of Vasudha’s face, which was a study in conflicting emotions.

‘Uff! I toh am too mooh-phat. My mother used to say to me, “One day, Naila, you will open your mouth and swallow full Lahore.” And she’s right. Don’t listen to me, haan? And this is where you can get your SIM card.’

As Vasudha dealt with the matter of the SIM card, she thought about what Naila had said. She had never thought of her hiring as anything but a matter of…of what? She knew she was not equipped to handle much more than flowers and yet here she was in Dubai. She had taken the job only to get away from it all, from Patil and Anil and Samson and yes, from Hari too. She tried to enumerate to herself again the reasons that Aarav had given her for hiring here. He had been serious. He had seen something in her, perhaps something she had not seen in herself. Yes, she told herself firmly, she had earned her place here and she would work hard, with the Devi by her side and her mother’s blessings at her back and her son’s future front and centre of her mind.

So why did she feel this tiny warm trickle of delight at the thought that Aarav had chosen her because he was, in Naila’s words, fidaa over her?

* * *

Aarav was asking himself the same questions. He had invented a series of plausible reasons to do what he wanted to do, which was to be in the same country, in the same city, in the same room with Vasudha. No, he wanted more than that, he had to admit. He wanted her.

And oddly, he wanted her in a strange way that went beyond the carnal. He wanted to be inside her, yes, but not just inside her body. He wanted to prowl the byways of her mind. He wanted to know what went on in her heart. He wanted to understand her spirit, what made her apologise to flowers and want to turn hotel rooms into homes. He wanted to drag her from behind her mask; he wanted to break the reins with which she held her senses in check. He wanted her to be available to him at all times and wondered whether that would rid him of the sensual thrall he felt he was in when he saw her.

It did not help that he sensed, without even having to ask, that she was not on sale. This was a woman who would not be bought for a few diamonds or the latest car or a flat in Knightsbridge. Or even all three. Up to this point, Aarav Ruparel had never slept with a woman he had loved because he did not think he could love a woman, not after that moment when he had seen his mother offering love on the cheap in a sordid hotel, dancing for fat businessmen on dream-trips away from their wives and children. And so as soon as he was able he had turned the women in his life into another commodity. He bought them by offering them much more than they imagined they could ask. He tossed them away when he was done with them but he never turned one down without setting her up in some way: a business to play with, a shop to destroy, a home to rent out, a piece of land to sell. Then it was up to them. Some of his women had turned out to be smart enough to parley their talents into careers. Others had returned to the world of the busy businessman who turned them into a rest stop and had begun the slow march into degradation. Aarav had watched both happen with total detachment.

Once Apoorva had pointed out a once-beautiful red-haired girl from Alsace on the streets of Amsterdam. She had represented a weekend in Paris for Aarav and had got herself a lovely Cartier bracelet out of it. The bracelet was long gone, they both realised, as they saw her trying to beg for money for her next dose of heroin.

‘What a state to come to,’ Apoorva had said.

Aarav had looked away and shrugged.

‘I hate it when you shrug like that,’ Apoorva said.

‘Why?’ Aarav asked.

‘Because it makes you look like you don’t care.’

‘But I don’t.’

‘That’s not a very nice thing to say.’

‘Is it nice to pretend to care? Is a lie ever better? For anyone?’

‘It may be kinder.’

‘I don’t want to be kind. I want to be who I am. No, let me put it this way—I want to travel light. And each time you lie, you add something to your baggage. You add something you have to remember. And then you have to add other lies to cover those. Lisette was a lovely moment. She satisfied a need in me and I think I left her happy when I flew out of Charles de Gaulle airport. It was no grande passion, not for her and not for me. So do I feel sorry for her now? Yes, I suppose, as much as I feel for anyone who has no control over themselves. No more than I feel for any other woman who is an addict and homeless.’

Apoorva had left well enough alone. He did not know all of what his friend had been through but there were ghosts in those eyes. They were held in control but there were times when they looked out from Aarav’s eyes and none of them was pretty.

Aarav stood now at the window of his suite and looked down as a car drew up. Naila got out. He could see she was still talking nineteen to the dozen. And then Vasudha. For a moment, she stood there, and as he looked at her, Aarav made a decision. He picked up the house phone and made a short call.

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