“Love at first sight?” She fumbles with the words like she is struggling with a foreign language. A tinge of pity creeps into her tone when she pegs me as the sort of fool who drowns in the quicksand of love without a second thought.
“Yes. It was love at first sight for us,” I smile.
“Naren proposed to me in three months. We met in April and he asked me to marry him when the monsoon drenched the city. Things happened so fast. Falling in love felt like a dream. I walked on air all summer…”
“Three months?” she stops pacing and turns around to face me. “Are you joking?”
I nod my head.
“Three fucking months!” She chokes on the number. “That’s nothing… that’s too soon. You can’t even begin to get to know a person that quickly.”
“My mother used to say it only takes a second,” I mumble. “Love strikes like lightning… You know it when you feel it in your heart”
“Bakwaas,” she says, banging on the table to make her point. “Your mother was wrong. Why make up your mind in a second? Love is not supposed to be a lightning flash. Anyway, lightning strikes you dead.”
“You have a point”
“So how long did the two of you wait before getting married?”
“Four months,” I say sheepishly. “Naren was in a hurry. So was my mother. She was sick, very sick. It felt like she was hanging on to life only to see my wedding day”
The cop stares at me for a while. “What did you want?” she chooses her words tactfully when she opens her mouth. “You wanted a quick wedding? Or would you have liked to wait?”
I don’t have an answer for her. When Naren proposed to me, he had assumed that I would quit my job because women who married into the Kapoor family didn’t hold day jobs. The daughters-in-law settled down in the family mansion and threw parties. They impressed the city’s celebrities and power mongers with their hospitality. The Kapoor bahus stayed in town and entertained their guests. When they were bored, they went shopping or vacationed at exotic destinations. They kept their husbands happy and groomed their children to inherit the Kapoor fortune. The script was written, the stage set. All they had to do was slip into their allotted roles. It wasn’t that simple for me. I had tried to convince Naren that I could run the household and go out to work. Why should juggling the two be a problem? I lost the argument because Naren refused to step into the ring and fight it out with me. He heard me out patiently from the sidelines, always gracious, always unflappable, indulging me like he would humor a child. I tired of the tug of war and let go. It didn’t help that Ma was very sick. The cancer had spread and the doctors were losing hope. They had no miracle cure to offer. No magic wand to wave as Ma slipped in and out of consciousness, her senses blunted by pain.
“What did you prefer?” The cop taps me on the shoulder and makes me jump. “Long courtship or quick wedding?”
“Don’t know,” I say, feeling the sting of tears in my eyes. “Can’t remember.”
We retreat into our own silences. The noisy air-conditioner has wound down. The room is so quiet I can hear the sound of the cop’s breathing — the steady inhalation and exhalation, the rhythm of another life.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Nayantara,” she says, her face softening into a smile. “Nayantara Sood.”
“I’m Priya,” I say, before I realise she is holding a file with my name and date of birth and address printed on it. I don’t know what other details the file lists.
“It’s nice to meet you Priya,” she says, reaching out across the table to shake my hand. I see her struggle. It must be hard for her to pretend for a moment that she has no inkling I have a history of walking into stores and pilfering bags and stoles and necklaces and perfumes I can afford to pay for. But she pulls it off. We shake hands as if we are strangers. A giant wave of sadness sweeps me under and I rest my head against the table and start to wail like a baby. Sobs well up from somewhere deep inside me. I mourn every loss, every misstep. I miss the person I used to be. I miss her terribly. The ring tone of Nayantara’s phone is louder than the ugly noise of my grief. I watch her hold the phone to her ear. After the first hello, her part of the conversation is limited to ‘yes sir’ and ‘will do, sir.’ It’s a terse call. It gets over in a heartbeat.
She drops her phone into her pocket and takes a look at me. “Time for you to leave,” she says dryly.
My sobs are an embarrassment. I bury my face in my shirtsleeve and tears seep through and leave a damp stain on the fabric.
“Have you thought about going back to hosting news shows?” Nayantara asks in a matter of fact tone. “My colleagues and I are tv news junkies,” she says. “If you are on air, let us know…we’ll watch out for your shows.”
“That was me in another lifetime,” I say. “That was years ago.” I brush off her suggestion but the possibility lingers in the air like a mirage. A part of me wants to reach out and grab it. A part of me suddenly rises from the dead. The sum total of my fears is flimsier than the weight of my hopes. I feel dizzy with excitement. Blood rushes to my head and I grip the table to steady myself.
“You are still the same person,” Nayantara says without a trace of condescension. “Wish you luck”
Her confidence is touching. I want to believe her even if my heart flutters in my chest like a panicky bird.
“Go,” she orders, pointing at the door and the bustling streets beyond. “No one’s stopping you.”
I thank her and she cuts me short with a wave. She has work to do. Cases to get back to. Calls to attend.
I step out into the bright haze of noon after we say goodbye. The street is a molten river of tar. The sky glints like a diamond overhead. I try to remember the last time I wasn’t driven up to the gates of the Kapoor bungalow in a chauffeured car. It’s been weeks, months, years. It’s been a lifetime since I walked down these streets on my own. The pavement is not an easy place to navigate. A huge crowd hems me in. The air crackles with noise, chaos, feverish haste. I freeze, then take a deep breath and march on. My heart misses a beat when the street leading to the Kapoor mansion looms ahead. The gulmohars lining the street cast long shadows. A dry, dusty wind brushes past me as I stare at the tree-lined avenue like a tourist. It only takes me a minute to turn around and take a different route. I don’t know where I’m headed or how far I’ll go. But I know I have to keep walking till I find my own road.
Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer currently based in New Delhi, India. Her stories have appeared in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, Ginosko Literary Journal, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, the Asia Writes Project and “Why We Don’t Talk’ — an anthology of contemporary Indian fiction. A collection of her short stories will be published by Harper Collins in December 2013. Her first novel is in the pipeline.