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“He said he and Bhushanam had developed feelings for each other. Bhushanam swung both ways and while he remained attached to me, he continued his affair with Dev.”
“And she said, oh, yes, I knew, I always know when he’s here, and what-all you’re up to, but you must understand that you’re older now. Just like childhood ended, and school ended, and college ended, your childish ‘best-friendship’ with that boy also has to come to an end,” Sharmishtha said as she shifted on the hard witness chair.
“Did you?” asked Mr. Uttarvadi, her lawyer.
“Oh, no! We hid our friendship from Amma.”
“While living in a chawl, eh?”
“Life in a chawl is like living in a fish tank. Everything is open for judgement! Travel offers a break from the prying eyes as when you board a bus or a train, it’s difficult to track you, so we managed it.”
“How did your friendship with Dev start?”
“Our mothers were neighbours and delivered within a month of each other. My father, Hriday Anand, was a peon, whereas Dev’s father, Trilok Sharma, was a labourer. Dev and I were bosom buddies. We soon became inseparable, going to the same school and college. Dev had a protective nature, and he’d save me from the neighbourhood bullies, at the cost of getting bashed! We were inclined towards arts, and this common interest brought us closer. Despite opposition from my family, we maintained our friendship.”
“Why did they object?”
“My father considered us to be richer, and despite Trilokji’s vast knowledge of the vedas and shastra, he was still a labourer, lower than my father.”
“Did the economic divide bother you?”
“For children, friends are exempt from their ancestor’s baggage. They are purer, uncorrupted…”
The prosecutor interrupted, “What is the point of this dialogue, besides wasting the court’s time?”
The judge glanced over at Mr. Uttarvadi, who smilingly said. “We’re establishing the depth of their relationship.”
“How would you describe Dev?” continued Uttarvadi.
“Dev’s loving and giving, slow to anger, practical and affectionate, but very naïve. He’d fall prey to many looting tricksters. We took care of each other as Dev’s a muscular man with an imposing, scary personality and his presence kept unwanted people away. During our youth, his tremendous eye for design could turn any garment into a pièce de résistance. His talent, attention to detail, and execution were flawless. My wardrobe was the envy of many. Even when we moved towards interior designing, his innovative approach kept us afloat. He was the brains in our company.”
“What was your equation with him?”
“Dev isn’t forceful, he’s a gentle giant. In our relationship, I was the dominant one and because of his deep affection for me and aversion to confrontation, Dev followed everything I said. He was my rock, my support system. When everything would fall apart, he would gather me in his arms, and kiss the tears away.”
“So you had a relationship?”
“Everyone mistakenly believed that Dev and I were a couple, but it wasn’t the truth; we were platonic friends.”
Sharmishtha paused. “Our sexual orientation differed. While I was straight, Dev was a homosexual. A secret, hidden from everyone.”
Dev’s mother audibly gasped in the visitor’s gallery, “She’s a liar! She’s sullying my son’s name.”
At the outburst, Sharmishtha shook her head.
“Silence in the court!” the judge ordered quietening the room.
“As Dev’s confidante, how did you protect his secret?”
“Dev wasn’t the stereotypical homosexual. Nothing in his appearance or behaviour hinted at his orientation. He was a man’s man, and I was his cover. My presence led all to believe that we were a couple. I avoided marriage as I wanted to work and Dev needed a façade. Together we were each other’s smokescreens with our mutual respect and love forming the basis of our relationship.”
“So over your mother’s objections, you continued your childhood friendship with Dev?”
“Yes. We turned our relationship into a business partnership when we formed our interior designing company.”
“What was your parents’ reaction?”
“They went ballistic. Amma went ape-shit and tried every trick up her sleeve to prevent me from working with Dev. She felt his influence was corrupting me, shifting me away from our core values.”
“Was your company successful?”
“Our fame started slow but spread via word of mouth. Dev’s brilliance in his craft and honesty made us popular with our clients. Soon we were raking in the moolah. Everything was hunky-dory, till that fateful day.”
A tear eked out of Sharmishtha’s eye, making its lonely journey down her cheek.
“It was the beginning of the end. If we had seen the future, he would’ve been rejected as a client. When Bhushanam entered our offices, he set my heart aflutter. His good looks and humility touched us all. I had never fallen in love till I met Bhushanam.”
“Did he reciprocate your feelings?”
Sharmishtha lowered her eyes. “Yes. He led me to believe he was in love with me.”
“We began dating and fell in love. Bhushanam dominated over my life and emotions.”
“What was Dev’s reaction?”
“Dev is a cautious man, so he warned me against rushing towards something.”
“Was he jealous of Bhushanam?”
“No. He didn’t criticize Bhushanam or his intentions. He wanted me to slow down and be objective.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“My rational part felt it made sense, but I was too deep in love to listen to Dev and I fought over it.”
“Sharmishtha put him in a coma. My only son, Dev!” screamed Dev’s mother.
“Last warning! Keep silent or the bailiff will remove you from my court!” barked the judge.
Sharmishtha took a shaky breath. “Dev and I reached a compromise, deciding to test Bhushanam’s love for me. He’d strike a friendship with Bhushanam and involve himself in our lives. If he could see Bhushanam through my eyes, Dev would love him, too.”
“How did that plan go?”
“It was perfect. Dev would occasionally join us for dinner, or clubbing. Hikes, movies, bars, we did it all. Dev’s view about Bhushanam began to change. He realized what I saw in him.”
“What did your family think about Bhushanam?”
“They were pleased. Bhushanam was a suitable candidate who loosened Dev’s tight control over me in their eyes. Bhushanam and my relationship were tolerable as opposed to Dev and my friendship.”
“Bhushanam worked in an IT firm, a rising star were points in his favour. He was our social equal.”
“Relevance?” objected the prosecutor.
“We’re getting there, counsellor.”
“Get there fast,” ordered the judge.
Uttarvadi nodded at Sharmishtha.
“Bhushanam and Dev enjoyed cricket, a game I despised. When IPL rolled in, they planned to watch the matches live while I was out with my girlfriends. It started happening regularly, but wasn’t a cause for concern.”
“I was confident about our love for each other and Dev’s intense loyalty.”
“It was when I bumped into Dev and Bhushanam having dinner instead of attending an IPL match. My needle of suspicion flickered, but they assuaged it by saying the match ended early. I bought it and joined them for dinner.”
“Dev and Bhushanam often met without me, and I starting feeling like a third wheel around them. I became jealous of their friendship. It overshadowed my relationship with Bhushanam. Or even, Dev.”
“What happened that night?”
“Despite my suspicions, I believed their lies. They planned an overnight camping trip. Since, I was suffering from serious period cramps, I declined to join. Later on in the evening, I felt better and set out for the spot. At the campsite, what I saw shocked me.”
“What did you see?”
“Dev and Bhushanam were locked in each other’s arms. Kissing passionately!”
“You’re a bitch! My son was not gay. Don’t cover your sins by blackening his name,” yelled Dev’s mother.
“Bailiff, please escort the lady out.”
After a brief commotion, things settled down.
Sharmishtha broke down. She lay her head on the railing and cried out her feelings of grief and betrayal.
“My Lord! Can my witness take a few moments to compose herself? May I approach her?”
At the judge’s affirmative nod, Uttarvadi handed Sharmishtha a glass of water. Once composed, she spoke, her voice shaky.
“I believe humans are masochistic, driven on the path of self-destruction.”
“What makes you think that?”
“When they realized their game was up, Bhushanam fled with his tail in between his legs. Dev stayed back to explain. He said he and Bhushanam had developed feelings for each other. Bhushanam swung both ways and while he remained attached to me, he continued his affair with Dev.”
“What happened next?”
“I accused Dev of coveting what was mine. I was incensed and accused him of reaching beyond his station. As rage flowed through me, I lost all my sense. I reminded Dev of his father being a labourer and that he was beneath my father’s social ladder. Dev was taken aback! He… he…”
“What did he say?”
“He retorted he was the son of a Brahmin, a caste far superior to my caste, a Kshatriya. He said he may be financially lower, but intellectually his caste was superior to mine.”
“What did you do?”
“I pushed him. He shoved me back. Our verbal fight accelerated into the physical realm. At one point, while trying to strangle me, Dev…”
Sharmishtha took a cleansing breath.
“While strangling me, I fought back, trying to gain any advantage. I poked him in the eye with my finger and he recoiled with pain. He hit his head against the tree trunk and he… he bled out. I screamed for help as Dev bled profusely.”
Tears choked her throat. Mr. Uttarvadi requested the court for a break before the prosecution could interrogate her.
The prosecutor was in a quandary. If he pushed an emotional Sharmishtha too hard, he would appear unsympathetic, a beast. He kept the questions straightforward.
When it was his turn for closing statements, Mr. Uttarvadi spoke calmly but intently.
“A society, driven by caste and hierarchy, destroyed another relationship. While Dev and Sharmishtha were closer than siblings, their friendship was never one amongst equals. Somewhere in their hearts, they believed each was superior to the other. Their story mimics one in our mythology. One of Princess Sharmishtha and the friend of her father’s assistant, Devyani. Their friendship, too, ended on similar lines, driven apart by caste-ism.”
“What Dev did was wrong, but Sharmishtha’s reaction wasn’t correct either. I want to ask a question. Two friends, born under similar conditions, against all odds, nourish their friendship. Despite Sharmishtha’s familial objections, she stood with her friend, alienating her parents. Society poisons them, it plants within a seed, and little by little, it nurtures this seed of dissent. While it may be hidden from everyone, its roots reach deep. Deeper than expected. Waiting. Lurking in the shadows. When the time is right, it raises its head, breaking out. Spewing vitriol. As humans, we depend on our caste structure and the amount of money we make, try as we might, but we can’t hide the bias within our hearts. It lays there dormant till its day in the sun. I ask you, yes, my client accidentally harmed her best friend, while defending herself, but who’s really at fault here?”
Uttarvadi paused to sip water. “Is it our inbuilt prejudice we develop as we age, flowing from our parents, our surroundings? By osmosis, we absorb it. Keeping it safe within us, biding time. When the bough splits, it breaks bonds of love. Snapping ties of friendship. I ask you once again, who’s the villain? The feelings of financial superiority fed by Sharmishtha’s mother or the ones taught to Dev about this caste superiority?”
“The measure of how enigmatic their accusations against each other were felt and expressed when Dev, driven by caste supremacy, tried to kill his childhood friend. Showing how deep-reaching the prejudice lurks.”
“What helped drive Dev to his coma? His societal-driven bigotry? Or Sharmishtha’s monetary supremacy?”
Uneasy silence reigned in the courtroom. The uncomfortable question unsettling everyone.
This story was shortlisted for our April 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: a still from the film Masaan
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