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“Can I hug you?” I whispered. She nodded, and I held her. Burying her face in my shoulder, she wept. When she looked up again, I slipped her a brand new tube of red lipstick.
The third winner of our October 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
The first time I saw her was in the 8:15 local, moments before the train pulled into Churchgate station. Even on that dreary, dark monsoon morning, she was radiant. Her eyes danced with more joy than the chandelier earrings that played hide and seek among her curls. And she pulled off a bold red lipstick the way few women can.
I sound smitten, I know. Perhaps I was. At the time, I only hoped that I could see her again. And maybe come up with some non-creepy way to say hi, if I did. For now, just that glimpse of her had put me in a buoyant mood, and I waltzed into office.
The fact that it was my last week working there might also have had something to do with my great mood. It was a toxic work environment, and marketing cars, I had discovered, was not something I enjoyed. So, I had applied to study journalism in New York.
I had another reason for going to New York. I was a lesbian who hadn’t come out. Every day that I denied my true self, I felt more and more suffocated. I figured living in New York for a few years would give me some breathing space.
“Richa, Karan wants to see you. Your replacement is here, I think. She is with him in his office,” Xavier said as I plonked my bag on my seat.
“Thanks, Xav,” I replied, and walked over to Karan’s office. And there she was –my woman with the red lipstick!
That’s how I met Sakshi for the first time.
Over that week, I got to know her better. It was the month end –a busy time in my line of work, so we ended up staying back in office late. The more time I spent with her, the more I fell for her. And something about the way she looked at me, the way our fingers met and lingered sometimes as we passed each other cups of coffee, made me wonder –did she feel the way I did? Swamped with work however, I didn’t have the time to process or do anything about it.
She was intelligent and a quick learner, and within the first few days she had learnt everything I could teach her. She was sincere and conscientious, with a work ethic that I thought was more than Karan deserved. He was a hard taskmaster, with a complete lack of empathy. We cribbed behind his back, but we did what he told us to. Not Sakshi though.
Arriving at work on my last day, I saw her furiously reapply her lipstick and walk into Karan’s office. I sensed something was wrong, and when I got to our desk I saw what it was. Karan had sent one of his trademark abusive emails, attacking Sakshi and me for a ‘mistake’ that we hadn’t actually made.
We usually ignored those mails, because we knew from experience that pointing out his error would only anger him further. The realization that Sakshi was going to confront him chilled me to the core, and I rushed into his room, only to find a duly chastised Karan and a glowering Sakshi.
As I found out a little while later, she had got a good read on Karan on her first day here. So, she been talking to other team members and documenting all of Karan’s questionable behaviours and emails. She had put together, within the week, a folder of his worst offences and had threatened to take it to HR, and other relevant higher ups.
Why it had never occurred to us, I don’t know, but the “new girl” had well and truly tamed him. She was that fierce.
After my farewell party that evening, we found ourselves loitering on Marine Drive.
“How did you get the courage to confront Karan?” I asked.
She shrugged. “My magic lipstick, I guess. It was my mom’s colour –Jungle Red. She passed away last year. She taught me never to let someone walk all over me, and whenever I wear her lipstick, it makes me feel invincible, you know. By the way, did you rush in trying to save me from him? You didn’t need to do that. I can take care of myself.”
“Hmm,” I sighed. That response –it just made me admire her even more. Should I tell her how I felt? We weren’t co-workers anymore, and I was leaving, so if she said no, there would be no awkwardness the next day. I took a deep breath and decided to risk it.
“Listen, Sakshi. There I something I want to tell you. Ask you, actually. I’ve fallen for you. I like you a lot, and I think you like me too, romantically. I’m sorry, if I’m wrong and have imagined you having feelings that you don’t. But if I haven’t, would you be open to trying to have a relationship? I mean, I know I’m leaving, so it will have to be a long distance relationship, but I will be coming back occasionally, and…”
I was still talking when she spoke. “Richa, I’m engaged. I’m getting married in two months. His name is Vaibhav.”
“Oh,” I said. “Congratulations. And sorry…I shouldn’t have.”
She said nothing. We walked to the station in silence.
A month later, when I was in New York, she emailed me an invitation to her wedding. I moved it, unread, into the Trash folder.
Years passed. I had a few relationships, but none that stuck. I came out to family and some close friends. It had the unfortunate side effect of my father saying that he wanted nothing to do with me anymore. So when I returned to Mumbai after three years, I didn’t really have a home to come to.
I had to rent an apartment. A particularly hard achievement when one is a single woman with no family ties. I found one eventually, and sniggered to myself when the home owner, Mr Surve, warned me, “No boys coming and going all the time. I know how you modern girls are…all that won’t work here. If I get any complaints from the society people, out you go.”
Ah, poor Mr Surve. If only he knew!
I almost didn’t recognize her when I saw her in the elevator. Worn down, painfully thin, devoid of jewellery or makeup, and head lowered.
“Sakshi?” I gasped.
“Richa! What are you doing here?”
“Just moved in here a couple of days ago. Flat 1001. You live here?”
“Yes. Flat 4004.”
I smiled. “Nice to know I have a friend here already. Are you free now? Come home for tea?”
A moment later she replied, “Shall I come over in another 15 minutes? I’ll just drop these groceries at home.”
Over tea I found out that her husband had passed away recently. He’d had cancer and they had found out too late. They didn’t have any children. Her in laws didn’t speak to her either.
I sensed that there was more to the story, but I didn’t push for information. She would tell me if she felt like it, I figured. I assumed that caregiving and grief had taken a toll on her. It had only been a year since her husband passed, and with time, she would recover.
Thankfully, she seemed open to our friendship and we would spend our evenings taking walks or having dinner together on a regular basis. I noticed that none of the other residents interacted with her, but didn’t give it much thought, until I was cornered one day by Mr Bose.
“Your article yesterday was so insulting to India,” he complained. “India is dangerous for women and all that. US and UK also have rape. Write about that.”
“They have their own journalists to report on that, uncle. I will talk about my country’s problems. Why worry about other countries?” I countered.
“Hmph. You young people! You think you are right about everything. Like that woman you keep roaming about with. I will tell you that she is a bad woman, stay away from her. But will you listen? No!”
“Bad woman? Why?”
“She killed her husband, no. And after his death also…she was acting like she didn’t care. All dressed up. Good thing Mrs Nair put an end to that.”
“Her husband died from cancer. And what is wrong with a woman dressing up after her husband’s death?”
“This is what I meant. You will not understand. His cancer was caused by heartbreak. She had an affair, I am sure. Otherwise what good woman will want to wear makeup and seduce other men after her husband’s death…” He walked off muttering.
I had to know what Sakshi wasn’t telling me.
“So, I had a bit of an argument with Mr Bose today. He had some nasty stuff to say about you,” I said as casually as I could over dinner.
“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me” she snapped, her face a hard mask.
“Sakshi, please! I know you are no victim who needs defending, but at the same time, I can’t listen to people badmouthing you.” My heart constricted as I saw her face fall. “You don’t have to wear this ‘strong woman’ mask. At least not with me. You are allowed to feel grief, or anger, or whatever it is that you feel. It won’t make you weak. You will still be that bold, confident woman I know.”
“If only I were that confident,” she cried, “then I would have been able to tell you that day that I did love you back. But I was already engaged to Vaibhav, and I was confused. I’d only known you a week. I’d had feelings for women before, but, I thought after marriage, I would learn to love my husband. It didn’t happen. Vaibhav and I realized that we couldn’t have the usual husband-wife relationship. There was no love between us, just friendship.
We decided to divorce, but before we could go through with that, the cancer diagnosis happened. And then I couldn’t leave him, could I? I stood by him though the chemo and the radiation, telling myself that once he was okay, I would live my truth. But he died. And then my mother in law found out that we had been planning to divorce, and she got it into her head that it was that which caused his cancer.
Soon, everyone knew. People here figured that since I was brazen enough to divorce my husband, and seem unaffected by his passing, I must be the kind of woman who has affairs. One of them, Mr Nair, sent me unwanted messages over Whatsapp. Fool that I am, I assumed that when his wife found out, she would tell him to back off. Instead she accused me of seducing her husband. So obviously everyone has avoided me since then.
I’ve been so alone! I don’t feel like myself anymore. I don’t feel like getting out of bed, or dressing up or doing anything. I drag myself though the day, Richa. You coming back into my life has been the one bright spot. I have wondered every single day what would have happened if I had said yes to you that day.”
She broke down, covering her face with her hands.
I stepped up to her. “Can I hug you?” I whispered. She nodded, and I held her. Burying her face in my shoulder, she wept. When she looked up again, I slipped her a brand new tube of red lipstick.
“Let us find you again together, shall we?” I asked.
She smiled, and it was as if the sun had broken through a dark cloud. We had a long way to go, but I knew my woman with the red lipstick would make it.
Editor’s note: In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month got bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for October 2019 is this quote from the poem Mascara by Indian poet and author, Meena Kandasamy, known for her writing on feminism and caste annihilation, often reaping from her own life.
once. . .
She awaits their resurrection.”
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
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