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Prerna had not called me once in the last nine months. I had called her once three months earlier. She was polite and aloof, as one would be with a stranger.
“You are making me terrified.” Prerna looked at me wide-eyed.
We were in the food court below Prerna’s office. It was lunch hour. The place was packed, but the two of us were oblivious to the crowd.
I had taken an Uber from my office to spend some time with her. It had become a daily routine to either have lunch or the evening snack together. Somedays, when our schedules permitted, we had both.
We were gorging on a plate of Chole Bhature, my favourite.
“India will follow the world,” I said. “Look at Italy, Spain, and now France. After China, now Europe is headed for a lockdown. Some mobility restrictions in our country look inevitable. We all could be working from home pretty soon.”
Prerna made a face. The blush of her red dress brought more colour to her face. She played with her neckpiece’s pendant, as was her wont whenever anxious.
“What will happen to us?” she asked.
“What about us?” I could not see then what she could.
“In the case of WFH, you won’t stay at your one-room accommodation in Gurgaon but will go back to your family in Kolkata. So we won’t be able to talk much,” she said.
I almost choked on my bite. Prerna had run through the state of global affairs with a toothcomb to dig out its impact on our ordinary lives.
I stared at her. Prerna’s eyes were reflecting the love I felt in my heart.
I worked in a Big-4 MNC in Gurgaon. I was based in Kolkata five years ago when I had joined this company. Owing to limited career prospects, my manager had suggested that I transfer to Gurgaon if I am ambitious. So I was here for the last two years.
My family remained in Kolkata. My old parents had no interest to change their social circle. My wife wasn’t inclined to leave her job in Kolkata, and she wanted my year old son to grow up there.
I travelled there every alternate weekend. My life was a hectic schedule of calls, emails, clients, flights, outside food and alcoholic beverages till Prerna made an entry eight months earlier.
How we fell in love is a story for another time and place. Suffice to say that she was bright sunshine in my cloudy life, a torrent of rain in my arid land.
Prerna was also married and stayed with her husband and nine-year-old son in Gurgaon. Despite the hectic demands of her job and family, she invariably found time for me.
We had no plans to leave our families and start separate lives together. We also had no qualms with our relationship and dreamt of being always there for each other.
I leaned forward and squeezed her hand.
“Distance will not affect our relationship. Even if I have to be away for you for long, I will talk to you every day and not give you a chance to miss me.”
“Promise?” she asked.
“Promise, darling,” I said and added, “Besides, the lockdown, if any, will be for a short period. What’s a month or two of physical separation in a lifetime?”
Prerna visibly relaxed.
I had forgotten that while man can propose, God has the power to dispose.
“When will you return to Gurgaon?” My WhatsApp notification flashed.
I ignored it, having more pressing problems on hand.
I was in Kolkata for the last two months. Our two-bedroom apartment wasn’t made to accommodate me and my wife making Zoom calls, my parents watching TV and my infant son bawling at the same time. The sweltering May heat made things worse.
Who were those mortals claiming that WFH has increased their productivity? I, for sure, was not one of them. Worse, with no end to Covid-19 in sight, I didn’t know for how long I will be stuck with this arrangement.
I wasn’t able to speak much with Prerna. I had called her thrice the first day I landed here, a day before the nationwide lockdown. We had exchanged constant messages the day after. Later that evening, my wife threw a fit over my guarded reaction when she asked for my phone.
The same night, when everyone was asleep, I WhatsApped Prerna.
“We need to cut down on our texts,” I typed and promptly received an angry emoji.
“Please understand. I don’t want my wife or my parents to get suspicious of my behaviour. My wife nearly caught me reading one of your messages today.”
“Call me once a day then. I won’t message you.” Prerna responded.
“It will be a task to speak regularly from here. My home is too small for us to have our private conversations,” I reasoned.
“Speak to me daily, just like you would be doing with your colleagues. I need your time.” She was in no mood to give up.
“This phase is temporary, darling. We will see through this together. It’s late now, please sleep. Good Night.”
Unfortunately, the ‘temporary’ situation stretched for long. My workload increased manifold during the pandemic. I assisted my wife and mother with the household chores in the absence of daily help. Moreover, my son was growing more mischievous with each passing day.
Plus, I was getting tired of Prerna’s admonishments.
“I also have a family,” she fumed one day when I had tried, yet again, to explain my position. “But I still make time for you. You can always find time for people or things that are important for you.”
“I am not as good at time management as you.” My retort didn’t help.
I tried to ease the situation. “I love you. Our relationship will withstand this disruption. Life will return to normal someday. Then we will talk to our heart’s content.”
“Don’t paint a rosy picture of the future when I need you in the present. If you can’t talk to me from home, please come back here and stay in a hotel until your landlord allows you into the PG. Hotels have come out with attractive packages to improve occupancy during these times.” She was relentless.
“I will not stay in a damn hotel,” I had shouted and disconnected the phone.
That was five days back. We hadn’t spoken since. I had replied to a few of her messages, ignored the rest of them enquiring about my return, and deleted all incriminating texts.
“If you don’t call me now, I will keep on calling till you take my call.” Another notification flashed across my iPhone screen.
I ignored it. My phone dutifully rang after five minutes.
I sighed. Prerna could be very headstrong when she wanted.
“What is it? I am busy.”
“My salary has been slashed by 33 per cent, covid effect.” She sounded miserable.
“I am sorry. Is it permanent?”
“Applicable for the rest of this calendar year. The organisation will take a call early in 2021 whether to restore it or not.”
There was a pause.
“I thought that I would feel better after we speak,” she resumed.
“I have explained innumerable times that it is difficult for me to talk here.” I was impatient, with a zoom call scheduled ten minutes later.
“That is why I queried about your return.”
“I can’t return now.”
“You can’t, or you won’t?” she asked.
“I have no time for your tantrums. I will call you back.” I was brusque but saw no other way to end the conversation.
“When will you call me back?”
“I don’t know.”
“If I mean something to you, you won’t put the phone down now.”
“Don’t be a kid.”
“I am not a kid. What’s in a relationship when one doesn’t have time to share the ups and downs of life?”
“Bye, Prerna,” I said.
“Goodbye, Sahil. Forever.” The line went dead.
“Welcome to Indira Gandhi International Airport. The outside temperature is 25 degree Celsius.”
The announcement broke my afternoon siesta. It was March 2021. Almost a year since I had left.
It was the longest that I had stayed in Kolkata at a stretch since my graduation. Yet, it was more of a compulsion rather than a choice. Unfortunately, this compulsion had cost my relationship with Prerna.
Prerna had not called me once in the last nine months. I had called her once three months earlier. She was polite and aloof, as one would be with a stranger. I had lost my sleep since then and waited to leave home at the first opportunity.
Home. Where was my home? Gurgaon or Kolkata?
Home was perhaps just this body I inhabited, and this too was alien to me at times, its folds and creases, its pains and needs. Home was everywhere and nowhere. Home, I realised now, was anywhere the heart slept in peace. Home was where one unpacked one’s cares and settled them into the wardrobe with one’s clothes. It was where one was complete.
I was incomplete without Prerna, going through the motions of life without living it.
Speaking to Prerna from Kolkata was futile. I bided my time to get back to Delhi, confident that she will forgive me. All her fury will surely melt away when I stand in front of her. I will embrace her, and all will be well. We will go back to our previous life.
“Hi. I am back. On the way to my room,” I texted Prerna as soon as I got into an Uber.
I saw her come online and read my message. She didn’t respond.
“I am about to cross your office building in five minutes. I can drop in the food court and meet you before carrying on to the PG.” I typed.
The blue ticks didn’t appear next to my message until I reached my room and unpacked. Still no response.
“I will call you if you don’t reply to my chats. Say something, at least.”
I waited for five minutes before making a WhatsApp video call.
After three rings, her face appeared on my handheld. Her eyes were devoid of any emotion. A black cloth mask hid the rest of her face from me. I could see her passing her office’s reception desk and coming out of the front door to talk to me.
“I was in an important meeting. What was the urgency for a video call?” Prerna asked.
“I am seeing you after so long. Please remove your mask.” I wanted more of her.
“You know that it is not safe to remove masks in public places.”
“When can I meet you?” I asked.
“I am back, Prerna. It is time for the temporary freeze in our relationship to thaw now. Now that I am back, everything will be fine between us.”
“You are mistaken to think that you can walk in and out of my life as per your convenience. I am not going to meet you.”
“I had erred in thinking that love was the foundation of our relationship when it was built on the back of your loneliness here. When the cornerstone is hollow, the pillar falls. There is no ‘us’ now.” She spoke in a determined manner.
“Your anger is justified. Give me one more chance,” I pleaded.
“I am no longer angry. You do not mean anything to me now for me to get angry with you.”
She was piercing my heart with her words. I tried to say something, but the words didn’t come out.
“Go back to your wife and child. Go back to your home where you belong.”
I started saying something, but she interjected.
“I have to get back to work. I will block your number on WhatsApp and delete your contact details if you call or text again. Bye.”
Prerna’s face disappeared from the screen. She had switched herself off from my life.
Trrrng. The doorbell rang just then. I saw my landlord standing at the entrance of my room.
“Welcome back, beta,” he was saying heartily. “Make yourself at home.”
This story was shortlisted for our June 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest. Our juror for the month Kiran Manral says “An extramarital affair, a pandemic, and the upheaval in brings in a convenient relationship tritely portrayed in this story.”
Image source: a still from the film Luck By Chance
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