The Red Sea Stain

If decades of steering the corporate wheel had taught her anything at all, it was to avoid being stuck in peak-hour traffic at all costs.

Sharvari had learned to force her brain cells to make peace with the dark 5 a.m. skies. She had learned to drag herself to the kitchen and brutally awaken the cold steel utensils from a deep state of rest. The unsynchronized and forced clanking of the vessels echoed the chaos in her mind. She had become habituated to packing her lunchbox or “dabba” as she loved to call it. Sharvari enjoyed the routine and rhythm of her life. She wanted to attribute her mundaneness to her age. After all, she had lived to be 45 this year! Her body had finally caught up with her mental age.

With clockwork precision, Sharvari picked up the car keys from the hook near the door, wrapped a beautiful Kashmiri stole around her neck, adjusted her comfortable cotton kurti, patted down her starched cotton pants, and marched to the car. Sitting in the car seat gave Sharvari a sense of superiority. She liked being in control. She flicked her jhumka like it was some part of the process of starting a car’s engine. She put on her sunglasses with such charm that the gears would have fallen from weak knees if they had legs at all!

Within seconds, Sharvari was on the road. Even the sun could not catch up in time with her, and the moon faded into oblivion. As she glided through the empty roads, Sharvari thought about her life’s journey. One of the reasons she liked hitting the road that early in the morning was that driving made her reflect on the journeys that had been travelled and the ones she would still encounter down the road.

She knew, but rarely admitted, that she was more stubborn than grease in a pan. She felt a pang of guilt when she thought about the hurt that she may have caused to her parents when she decided to stay alone. No marriage. No children. They had begged her to reconsider. But Sharvari, who defeated the sun and ignored the charms of the moon, always knew exactly what she wanted.

As the office road approached, she started to think about her workday. That’s what her car rides did to her, she could swing between the past, present, and the future each morning, when she was hoisted on four wheels and propped behind a fifth one!

She had arrived ridiculously early as always. The empty office aisle bore a look of anticipation that morning. A whole new bunch of interns were about to infiltrate the quiet corridors of Sharvari’s office. She placed her bag, bottle, and laptop on the table. She sank into her chair. The housekeeping staff was usually intimidated by her cold presence, and they stayed out of her way. In her presence, they worked alertly. Sharvari had that effect on people.

The clock raced towards an excited 9 a.m. and familiar faces started mushrooming across aisles and desks at the office. A bunch of four unfamiliar college-going students walked into her aisle. They were fidgety, flashily dressed, and seemed too happy! The interns, as always, seemed largely uninteresting to Sharvari. Every summer saw a fresh bunch of youngsters walk in and walk out of this place within six weeks.

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Each one seemed an overgrown child to Sharvari. She greeted them with a nod that looked more like a dismissal and took a deep dive into her laptop screen. Her junior teammates would take care of these interns. She hardly ever bothered with these trivialities. There was one boy from the bunch who was not intimated by Sharvari’s cold shoulder. He was a tall, plumpish boy with fresh stubble. He was barely 17 but he had the body of a man and the confidence of a lion, for he had walked right into the lair of this lioness!

He towered over Sharvari’s desk. His shadow fell upon her, and she was deeply irritated. She dramatically looked up at him, still seated. She winced her lips together and asked him rather indignantly- “Do you want anything from me?”

His face lit up. Sharvari wanted to barf.

He extended his right hand forward for a handshake. Sharvari found it cringe-worthy, overbearing, and very odd! The remaining interns were staring wide-mouthed, at their foolish friend.

“What is that fool Atif thinking?!” whispered Ira.
“He will create history. The shortest internship tenure on the planet!” whispered Chaitu. “We had specifically been warned by our new boss Amit, not to disturb the lady with the stole. She is a very senior resource. Atif has officially sacrificed his future.”

Sharvari was aware of the way she came across to people but this boy, brimming with his foolish overconfidence, was getting on her nerves. She refused to extend her hand and muttered her name in a barely audible tone “Good morning… my name is Sharvari.” She hoped this would calm down the overzealous boy and he would retreat to wherever he had emerged from. What a bother!

But to Sharvari’s chagrin, Atif continued to stand there. He said, “I wanted to compliment you on the pretty earrings.”

That’s a bold attempt at buttering up, by an intern no less, she rued.
She shot a glance at him, looking at his face properly for the first time. He had the face of a child. The beard looked misplaced on his face. She shot back at him, clearly irritated at his attempt to be her friend, “You talk shop around here or you don’t talk at all. Capiche?”
Atif hardly reacted the way she had expected him to. Usually, when Sharvari gave one of her “boss ultimatums” around, people were typically petrified. They would withdraw. Atif, on the other hand, casually walked away, still smiling.

After that first day, Sharvari hoped the interns would stay in their lane, especially that one boy. What was his name again?

Each morning though, Sharvari started to think for an extra second about which earring she would wear that day to work. In 16 years, she had rarely attracted a compliment for anything apart from her work. Atif continued to boldly walk up to her during lunch hours. He would offer her homemade food. He provided unnecessary information about himself to people, offered his food even when nobody asked, and said a whole bunch of theoretical stuff about sustainability, humanity, and the environment! Sharvari found herself listening in on his loud, attention-seeking lunchtime lectures even though she judged him for being a reckless youngster!

As time flew by, six noisy weeks filled with animated, and mostly clueless, teenagers were about to come to an end. When Sharvari drove to work that day, she felt queasy in her stomach. She thought her body was probably in knots over the heavenly silence and peace that would prevail once those cacophonic clowns went back to their classrooms! She laughed in her head.

Sharvari sat in her chair and got engrossed in her work. Suddenly she had a déjà vu moment. Atif was back at her desk, towering over her like he had done 6 weeks ago. She looked up at him. This time though, she was a little less disgusted. He was going away forever after this day. Good riddance, she thought!

Atif complimented her pashmina stole’s pattern and said that his sister always wanted one like this. Sharvari feigned massive disinterest in this useless one-sided monologue about Atif’s family’s buyer aspirations. She hoped he would leave her alone and he did, with a smile, as always. “What a pest Atif could be,” thought Sharvari.

That afternoon, Sharvari gathered her lunch bag and water bottle and proceeded to the cafeteria. Her loyal table and chair would be waiting for her. As she walked a few steps towards the door, she was ambushed by what seemed like a wild rabbit. It was that bumbling fool of a boy, Atif. Not again! thought Sharvari.

He screeched to an excited halt. Atif’s smile showed that he was trying too hard to break ice with her. He asked her a question.

“Ms Sharvari, I wanted to ask you something on behalf of my sister. You see, she studies in the eighth grade at school and recently started getting her periods.”

Sharvari was about to lose her temper. Why on earth was this foolish intern discussing his sister’s menstrual journey with the senior manager of his workplace?

Nonetheless, she suffered through the agonizing conversation. She had decided that at the end of this talk, this boy was being reported to Human Resources. She decided to play along and hear him out so that she could reach the depth of this filthy mind. It would make her complaint stronger.

Atif continued. “So, my sister freely discusses periods with her friends, her teachers, and even at home. I grew up being comfortable with period talk at my home, you see.”

Sharvari was seething with anger from within and she thought, “Yes, you creep, yes, I see. I see it all! Go on. Keep talking. Let me see how far you go with this.” She said nothing to Atif and faked an interest in listening further.

“One day, my sister told us about an incident that happened with a friend of hers-Simi. They were returning home on the school bus, and someone said a hilarious joke. Simi burst out laughing and suddenly she felt something happen. She got up slowly from her seat. There was a patch of fresh red blood on the blue cushioned chair of the bus. Simi’s uniform was stained. Simi, my sister, and her friends thought nothing of it and informed Lakshmi Tai, the bus attendant. Simi labelled this incident ‘The Red Sea’. Simi laughed the loudest that day. Everyone joined in. My sister and her friends are so cool about these things. My mom says periods were not openly discussed in her years of growing up. Girls had to be very secretive, and they were often shamed about their periods.”

Sharvari pretended to be interested in this utterly stupid conversation. She kept nodding her head with a grudging grin on her face. Where was Atif going with this conversation? She couldn’t wait to deviously hand over this fresh bait to the Human Resources team.

Atif told her that he always kept a sanitary napkin in his bag. He felt like it may help someone someday. One never knows.

He then looked directly into Sharvari’s eyes and waited for her to connect the dots. Sharvari felt giddy when she realized the blue cushioned chair on wheels was not in a bus! It was her office chair! She sat on a blue cushioned chair. School buses don’t usually have fancy blue cloth cushions. With terror in her eyes, she looked at Atif and asked,

“Red Sea on the trousers?”

“Yes,” he replied with an understanding glance.

Is the Red Sea on the chair?

Yes, he replied, with a calm smile.

Sharvari let out a smile, with moist eyes. She was embarrassed. She was exposed. She was vulnerable. “Time to put the shawl to some good use,” she sheepishly mumbled.

She took the shawl from around her neck, and let it cover the back of her trousers. She ran back to her desk to check out the “Red Sea” on her chair. Sure enough, it was there.

Atif had walked with her to her workstation. I have asked Jaya Aunty from housekeeping to take your chair for a wash and dry cleaning. Jaya Aunty is a bit scared of you, I think. Sharvari smiled. She knew this was true.

Atif continued, “I think Jaya Aunty believes I dropped curry on your chair. I offer her food from my lunchbox every day and she has seen my legendary clumsiness first-hand.” He broke out into a guffaw.

Sharvari was amused, confused, weak, and happy, all at once. She was about to proceed towards the washroom when he handed out a sanitary napkin to her. She refused. She had one in her bag. Atif could save this one. There was kindness in her eyes.

Sharvari emerged from the washroom, looking much less hassled. She seemed uncharacteristically cheerful. The rest of the team was still in the cafeteria having their lunch. Sharvari asked Atif to join her for a quick trip to the mall. She needed a new pair of pants.

As they drove to the mall nearby, Sharvari shared something that she was deeply uncomfortable talking about. Atif was a good listener. She told him that she was perimenopausal and that her cycles were likely to become unpredictable from now on. Today was probably the start of it all.

Atif, with his classic nonchalance, told her that his mom entered her menopausal phase a few years ago. She always spoke with him and his sister about her experiences. Sharvari couldn’t hide her smile. The conversation was unbelievably comfortable.

Sharvari zipped in and out of a few stores while Atif enjoyed a fully sponsored treat at the Food court. Just before they returned to the office, Sharvari handed over a bag to Atif. He looked at her and immediately knew it was a gift for him. But he was wrong. It was not just a gift for him. Atif removed the first gift from the bag. A packet of environment-friendly sanitary napkins. It had a note in Sharvari’s handwriting. This is for all the girls and women who you will safely navigate out of the Red Sea, in the future. The next gift was a stole. When Atif opened it, he noticed that it had the same pattern that he had complimented Sharvari for, that morning. Sharvari knew he wanted it for his sister. She had listened. Atif removed the last gift. It was a greeting card. It read—To Atif’s mom, thank you for bringing up a boy who feels like a son to so many.

Sharvari headed to the office, her face glowing with a new emotion-Joy! She felt different, free, fearless, wild. She felt like the Red Sea.


About the Author

Ilham Modi Bharmal

My passion in life lies in learning new things all the time. Emotional Intelligence is a way of life for me. I like to mix it with all my areas of interest that include - Psychology, read more...

9 Posts | 15,102 Views

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