The Girl Who Died Next Door - 6

There was hell to pay with my friend. And also the inevitable suspicion when I mentioned that I had spent the   evening with my neighbour instead. As it is, the sexual connotations of attractive neighbours are legendary. So I hemmed and hawed my way through our murky conversation and heaved a sigh of relief when she finally let me off the hook. Niyati could be immensely dogged in her persistence of the truth, especially when it came to me. Later in the day, Suvarna made her ghostly presence felt in a disturbingly inescapable manner. I was at the terrace above our office, sipping on Irish coffee and watching the construction workers atop a building in the distance. What really is the difference between stunts, adventure sports and construction work, I wondered. Out of the three, the last is actually the most productive, and I imagined, equally life-threatening and exhilarating. Yet, the profession never got its due, instead being relegated to the ranks of mundane, menial labour. We have strange standards and even stranger definitions. "Lord knows how they even call that stuff Irish coffee," my boss rasped, his voice permanently hoarse thanks to the incalculable number of cigarettes he smoked. I sighed imperceptibly and turned to nod at my ever-blasé Editor. "It's better than the Cappuccino," I said mildly. He was an impressive-looking man, tall and broad-built with distinguished salt and pepper hair and chunky red and black spectacle frames that added a hint of the eccentric. Viewers loved watching Anant Narayan on screen because he was focussed and opinionated without being overtly passionate. He made you gauge the forcefulness of his points from his eyes and his gestures rather than the tone of his voice. But as my boss, I often wished he would exhibit more enthusiasm and less criticism for my ideas. "We've been mulling over a special episode for Realty Check on how tragedy affects the value of real estate," he said. Uh oh, I knew where this was leading. "And I recalled you mentioning something about a girl that committed suicide in your neighbouring flat. Think you could dig up the details and perhaps arrange for an interview with the family?" Oh, don't you think that's a little callous, I wanted to ask. But all I said was, "We could speak to the present occupant." Anant's eyebrows rose in surprise. "They found a new tenant so soon? This could be the one exception to the trend," he mused. "Actually the occupant didn't know about the history of the flat when he rented it. But he was not perturbed even when he found out," I said. "Interesting. Handle this part of the episode then. Coordinate with Taruni," the boss said brusquely and left me alone with my Irish coffee and the intrepid construction workers in the distance. The only silver lining I could see was that this would give me a legitimate reason to spend time with Shayan.

After lunch, I curled up in my car for my customary afternoon catnap. I was used to the surreal, disturbing dreams that usually kept me company in my sleep during this time but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that day. I saw that sweet, young face, heartbreakingly guileless and carefree and then I saw her eyes fly open in terror and nearly explode out of her face as the oily servant man snaked a rope around her neck and tightened it, the fibers fraying, her veins bulging, until those eyes fell shut, and that beautiful face slumped forward, inert, dead. I saw the satisfied, sadistic smirk snake across his leering face and I woke up, wanting to retch. The harsh afternoon sunlight streaming into my car helped me calm down as I marvelled at my twisted imagination. Of all the things to reconstruct, it had to be Suvarna's death. A girl who never even gave me the time of day. So why did I even care? I could feel the glimmer of a thought lurking right beneath my conscious mind but I couldn't quite grasp at it and the thought slipped away.

I wrapped up so late at work that day that my eyes were blurry, my bones weary and I had no idea what time it was when I finally headed home. All I was aware of was a burning desire to see Shayan. Common sense told me not to knock on his door so late in the night, yet again. But common sense be damned, said my hungry self. And I rang the bell.

"Well, if it isn't the subject of my portrait-to-be," smiled Shayan. He didn't look like he had been sleeping, I noted in vague relief. The smell of him made me want to sink into his arms and inhale deeply. "You look beat," he continued. I realised that it was time I said something. Instead, I stepped right into him, shut the door, and kissed the breath out of him.

I don't know where the bravado came from and I had no desire to question it. Perhaps it was my extreme tiredness which had blunted my inhibitions, rather like alcohol. But I wrapped my arms around his neck and I let my fingers rake his hair while I poured myself into his seductive lips, revelling in the feel of his body against mine and the uniquely intoxicating scent of his skin. In a matter of mere seconds, my body was wracked with intolerable desire, stoked further by his aggressive response to my kiss. I moaned when Shayan bit my lip, his hands moulding the flesh of my back near painfully. "So you do want me," I murmured when we finally paused, spent from consuming each other. He stroked my cheek gently, sending shivers rippling through my skin, denying me the satisfaction of a reply.

--To be continued--

Are we brave enough?

Travel. Be a food-blogger. Make a film. Write a book. Live in a faraway land. Be a popstar. Change the world. We have many dreams, big dreams, wonderful dreams. But for every second you spend thinking about your dream, there is someone out there actually living theirs. And it may not actually turn out to be all that dreamy, at least not in the beginning. But a dream lived through is better than one that is confined to a distant, never-occurring future.

Today, I read about Shruti Sharma, a woman who quit her 'cushy television job' to take up an undefined job at a neophyte cafe that grew to be Delhi's famous Kunzum Cafe, a one-of-a-kind establishment that combines the relaxing act of having coffee with rejuvenating discussions, jam sessions and exhibitions of art and photography. Shruti Sharma took the road less travelled and she is happier for it. What are you and me doing on these well-trodden paths with inevitable destinations? When will we muster the courage to go live the lives we write about and admire from afar? Everyone's a dreamer. But only the brave ones are livers.

Reaching for what you really want, regardless of what you might lose in the process is both frightening and exhilarating. And remember, there really is no guarantee that you will even get there. The only guarantee is that you will have an unforgettable journey, trying. So is it worth abandoning a secure job, a comforting routine and the solace of familiar faces, to find something new and beautiful? I know it is, else I wouldn't have my fictitious characters do just that.

Before you embark on this magical journey, the one we are all supposed to take, be certain that there is no other path you'd rather take. If I'm brutally honest with myself, what I really want is to conquer my fears. And I was on the right path not too long ago. I feared human interaction, going to new places on my own, confronting known faces for information, and so I chose a Bachelors in Mass Media instead of a Bachelor of Arts, where I knew I would have excelled at English Literature. I have never been happier for a radical, last-minute decision. In those three years, I grew confident, less shy and more capable. I also took up various jobs and honed my nascent socialising skills. However, somewhere along the way, I stopped challenging myself. I now find myself in the sort of cushy job that Shruti Sharma held and I find myself seeking solace in meaningless indulgences like alcohol and television shows.

For a long time, I thought my dream was to be a novelist. But now that I am, I realise that the dream was actually to write the ultimate novel, the one that would reflect that I had finally reached the place where life was supposed to take me. That's definitely not what I wrote. Also, travelling mentally is a poor substitute for physical travel, complete with dust, noise and people. Now, travelling at a level deeper than the mind, that's a different realm altogether.

I don't have much money. And unlike Shruti Sharma, I certainly can borrow none from my parents. But I do want to travel. I want to travel, get out of my shell like I did once before and transform those experiences into words worth reading and cherishing. I want to push my body to its limits by dancing, running, climbing, doing everything that it is humanly capable of, including sex. I want to delve deep into everything that remotely interests me and absorb it into my consciousness - be it music, language or art. I want to spend every waking moment doing something that I enjoy intensely, something that makes me feel alive with every fiber of my being. I want to stop wasting these precious moments away in useless emotions like guilt, jealousy, boredom and regret. I want instead to love, to wonder, to feel the deepest joy and the most lasting peace. I want, to reach the pinnacle of joy so I can finally surrender. 

The Girl Who Died Next Door - 5

I contemplate calling my parents. My cell phone lies on the sofa, inert, offering me not the slightest hope of sage advice. Outside, the streets stay cool and quiet, unhindered by the clatter of wheels and the unseemly chatter of passers-by. My mind is exactly the opposite. This morning, I woke up with a thousand voices in my head and all of them spoke of the same man - Shayan. Disbelief, mockery and dismissal - it was more than I could bear. Sub-consciously, I find myself moving to the veranda. I'm bare-foot and the stone floor beneath me is cold and alert. Furtively, I gaze to my right and what I see takes my breath away. The unyielding planes of his wide shoulders and lean, tanned torso are set aglow by the soft morning sunshine. Smoke rings billow idly from his mouth, as he paints rapturously. I strain to see the graceful movement of his fingers, the slight incline of his head as he attempts to perfect a stroke. Loose cotton pants, his garment of choice as I've learnt, compliment the ease with which he creates what I know will be a thing of beauty. I wonder what he smells like and I wish the wind would carry his fragrance to me. So great is his engrossment in the task before him that Shayan does not notice my desirous eyes. He turns slightly, obscuring his face but providing me a more fulfilling view of the rest of him. I feel unabashedly voyeuristic. I'm suddenly more aware of the wind lapping at my nightie, of the sunshine warming my skin. I hope that it's not Suvarna he's painting. Her spectre has been looming over my life uncomfortably close. I shut my eyes and imagine Shayan's arms around me, enveloping me with silken heat and tracing my curves with knowing fingers. A tiny breeze becomes my nightie's accomplice in teasing the sensitive backs of my knees. I open my eyes and the veranda  is empty but for the lone easel. I sigh, desolate and disappointed.
I bump into him while I'm rushing out to meet a friend, already late by half an hour and feverishly concocting plausible excuses in my head. "Is that just one perfume I smell?" he asks, putting both arms on my shoulders to stop me from colliding headlong into his leisurely stroll. The touch and the question, successfully throw me further off-balance and I gape at him like a startled fish. His hands are warm and for some reason, he smells of the sea. "Are you saying I've overdone it?" I smirk finally. "More like overpowered my senses," he says calmly, wiping the smirk of my face. He releases me, and thankfully, I don't fall. ", you just went for a walk?" I mumble, fidgeting with the lapel of my soft wool jacket. He nods, runs a few fingers through his longish, silky hair. "It's refreshingly quiet today. And I don't really like it at the house." I notice how he doesn't call it 'home'. Is Suvarna playing tricks on his mind? He does have dark circles under his eyes. I look up to see him regarding me, bemused. I blush furiously. Was I staring? Why does he unsettle me so? "Oh my god, I was already half an hour late and now you've made it even worse!" I blurt out, making a dash for my car. Shayan stops me with a hand on my arm. I pause but I don't look at him. "Don't go," he says softly. "You're anyway so late. There's no point." His words are hypnotic and they begin to make sense. I swallow. "Keep me company. I hate being alone in that house. It's more than depressing," Shayan continues. If I'm honest with myself, that sounds like the most appealing prospect in the entire world. "Yeah, I've anyway missed nearly half of the film," I say, trying to sound nonchalant. "Great, come on," Shayan says, putting a casual arm around my waist and embarrassing me with the resultant pooling of fire in my groin. With shaky fingers, I type an incoherent apology to my friend and switch the phone off. I'll explain later.
His house looks more orderly than it did the last time. I recall imagining it in shades of purple, coffee and cream. He has chosen mahogany and mauve instead. I can work with that, I think ridiculously. "Have you painted any new portraits?" I ask, following Shayan into the kitchen where he prepares coffee, oblivious to my eyes following every little movement of his incredibly graceful hands. The aroma of the Arabica beans mix he's using is rich and intoxicating. I wander back into the hall, wanting some distance from the man and the aroma. I can see books - tons of books, lining the walls, filling the shelves and crowding the couches. This is my own private wonderland. I run my fingers along the titles - quaint classics, modern literature, theses on art, music, poetry, dance. I'm mesmerised. And a violent shiver goes up my spine when I feel Shayan's hand on my shoulder. "I see you share my passion for books," he murmurs. I lick my lips and take a deep breath. I must not allow myself to be so affected by a man who doesn't even trust what I say. "Yes, books were my first love," I smile, accepting the mug of fragrant coffee. I take a sip and it's divine. "You make a mean cuppa coffee," I compliment him. "A skill I picked up from my Egyptian maid," he says. "You lived in Egypt?" "For a while. I had a job there doing commercial art for a local agency. It didn't pay much but I was in it for the adventure." I nod. I would love an opportunity like that. "So where do you keep your paintings?" I ask. "I haven't unpacked them yet," Shayan says. I wonder if he just doesn't want to show me. I do not ask the question I'm really dying to ask - whether he felt inclined to paint Suvarna again. "Somehow this house isn't quite what I thought it would be," he murmurs, almost talking to himself. "What do you mean? People would kill to live in this area of Bombay," I grin. Shayan stays impassive. "I'm very sensitive to the vibes of a place. And this place is heavy with something sad and dark." I can almost feel something hanging in the air as he speaks. The room dims visibly as the sun begins to bid goodbye and the long shadows cast across the hall where we sit, send nameless tingles up my nerves. "So you believe me about Suvarna?" I ask tentatively. After all, he is veritably admitting that the place is haunted by her presence. Shayan raises an eyebrow. "Not at all. I don't see the connection." Either he enjoys nettling me or he really is too thick to understand. "That's amazing, for someone so sensitive," I say with my trademark bite. "I told you - your portrait resembles Suvarna. And now you say you get negative vibes from the place. Doesn't it all add up?" I'm irrationally angry and I'm vaguely aware of blood pumping in my face. Shayan seems more fascinated by my lividness than what I'm trying to say. "So much passion in your anger," he murmurs, transfixed. "I may have to paint you after all." I try not to be pleased about that and fail monumentally. And then Shayan reaches out to caress my cheek ever so lightly with his thumb. "Warm, just like I thought." He's gazing at me not like I'm a woman he desires but like an interesting object he'd like to dissect. I have no idea how to feel about that. All I know is I want his eyes to drink in my face for as long as possible.
We sat like that in silence, observer and observed, until our coffees grew cold and the stars assumed reign of the sky. And when I left, it was only because I couldn't possibly sleep in the house where 16 year old Suvarna had snuffed out her life. 

The Girl Who Died Next Door - 4

"That's Suvarna!" I said, aware that Shayan had no idea I was merely stating the obvious. The only change in his expression was the lift of one eyebrow. "Suvarna? You mean the girl who..." The reluctance to talk about death and sex seems to define human communication in our society - an odd phenomenon, considering that the former is the most depressing thing to happen to our lives while the latter is arguably one of the best. And yet, words fail us when either of them come to mind. I nodded urgently, mentally urging Shayan to believe me. "Wow." was all he said. A single word couldn't possibly sum up the extent of my shock. "It's her. But she looks older - not 17," I said faintly, unable to take my eyes off the portrait where she appeared oddly serene. "Probably because it's not her," Shayan said, his tone infuriatingly matter-of-fact. "I can prove it to you," I said coldly, wondering how I had ever found this man even remotely like-able. Shayan shrugged. My trauma at witnessing Suvarna's countenance once again didn't even merit words it seemed. A shrug - a shrug was all I got. "Tomorrow I'll bring you Suvarna's picture and you can see for yourself," I said. Shayan looked faintly amused. But the gauntlet had been thrown down. And I would prove it to him.


Instead of focussing on the show I had to roll out, I spent precious minutes pouring over news articles and trying to find a picture of Suvarna. Intermittently, I typed my script on the software designed for the purpose and browsed through bytes to add structure to my stories. But by the end of it all, I still hadn't found Suvarna's photograph - not even a grainy two-tone one. As my shift came to an end, I felt weary to the core of my bones and I missed the exhilaration that overwhelmed me customarily at the end of a successful show. And then it struck me - journalists may not have been allowed to use Suvarna's picture but her parents would have released an obituary ad with her image. Feverishly, I started browsing through obituaries following the date of her death and at last, I struck gold. There she was - all delicate features and innocence. The woman in Shayan's portrait had been exactly that - a woman. And yet, I had no doubt that it was the same person. Shayan wouldn't either once he saw my evidence. I took a printout of the obituary, hoping that nobody would peek at my print in the few seconds I took reaching the machine. But people always do pick up your prints when they are personal or embarrassing. Like the time when I took a print-out of a mock cover for my mock novel and found my boss peering at it curiously. And there was no escaping the fact that it was mine. It had my name as the author, you see. Yet, this time, I was lucky. Suvarna was spared yet another pair of prying eyes. And I put my well-earned evidence carefully into my bag.


I came home late as I always do and I knew I ought to have waited for more decent hours before I sprung the photo on Shayan but I gave in to my impulse. That's how I found myself at Shayan's door, fatigued from work but pumped with adrenaline as I anticipated Shayan's reaction to my precious evidence. For a while, I thought he had dropped off to sleep even though it was just past eleven - early by city standards of slumber. And then the door opened and there he stood - half his body cast in darkness and the rest partially illuminated by shadows. If I were a filmmaker or a cinematographer, that is the very lighting I would choose to portray evil. "I'm sorry the light switches don't seem to be working," Shayan said, fiddling with the switchboard next to the door. I fiddled with my bag instead while I looked around and tried to hide my discomfiture. Why hadn't he invited me inside yet? As if on cue, Shayan gave up on the switchboard and said, "Sorry, come on in." He reached for my arm to guide me to the lone chair in the room and the touch sent a shock of electricity zipping through my veins. I let my bag slide to the floor while I sat on the edge on the chair and Shayan settled himself down on the ground as though he were my disciple.

"So, are you going to tell me a scary story?" he joked. I smiled. "No. I wanted to show you this." I couldn't look at him while he inspected the photo. "Wow she does look a lot like the woman in my portrait!" he exclaimed and I sighed in relief. But it lasted just for an instant. "But it's obviously just a coincidence. They aren't even the same age." I closed my eyes and waited for the frustration to subside. Then I leaned forward and put my arms on Shayan's shoulders. I looked earnestly into his eyes and I said, "Listen to me Shayan. It's not a coincidence. You are living in her house and you drew a portrait that looks exactly like her. Either this place is haunted or it's playing tricks on your mind. Whatever the case may be, I want you to sleep at my house tonight. And find a new house tomorrow." I prayed for him to believe me but when he didn't respond, our nearness became nearly as uncomfortable as it had been shuffling on his doorstep. I leaned back and stared stupidly at my lap. "We are not on the same page," he said finally and I felt my hope ebb away. "But even if it is true, I don't want to leave. I'd rather let this play itself out." I wanted to call him insane but I couldn't. Truth be told, in his place, I might have wanted the same thing. "Fine. I'll go then," I said shortly and picked up my bag, heavy with god alone knew what.

--To be continued--

The Girl Who Died Next Door - 3

Emotions are what make us human and inherently irrational and of all the myriad emotions we are capable of experiencing, the most illogical of all is happiness. Happiness is the sneakiest phenomenon I know of. The next time you find yourself feeling bubbly for no reason – make an attempt to pinpoint the exact moment when the feeling descended on you. I guarantee you that you will have no success. That’s just how happiness is. The end of it is as noticeable as a woman in a throng of men but the beginning? That’s a mystery as old as the origin of time. And so on that day after I told Shayan the story of Suvarna Ganguly, I found myself walking with a spring in my step and smiling so often I woke up to the fact only when I glanced in the mirror. Yes, it was a Sunday. But I’ve known so many Sundays when I woke up groggy and frustrated at 12 in the afternoon, already depressed at the fact that the weekend was coming to a close and I still had a long list of chores to complete. But this Sunday, I was done with my chores before I knew it and curled up on my verandah with a huge mug of coffee and utter contentment in my heart, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why I had ever felt otherwise! I glanced to my right and I saw him. Shayan. He stood silent and morose, his hair blowing in the light breeze. For some reason, my heart clenched. And simultaneously, that feeling of contentment dropped away from me like a cloak that didn’t quite fit perfectly.

“Shayan?” I called and watched him turn to my side. He attempted a smile but I could literally see the thousand other thoughts in his head flutter around him like ungainly companions. “Hey,” he said. He seemed to consider something and I thought I saw one of his thoughts reach out for me with menacing claws. “I just drew a portrait. You want to come and see?” he asked finally. I recalled how he wouldn’t draw mine and I didn’t want to. But I nodded, smiled and rose from my chair. I pulled on a shirt over my tank top and track pants and padded over to Shayan’s place, still in my indoor chappals. His door was wide open and the curtains in the hall shook lightly in the breeze. For an instant, the world froze. The colours were sucked out of the scene and in stark black and white, I recalled the day when I found out Suvarna was dead. The Ganguly’s door was wide open just like today when I returned from work one Wednesday night. I couldn’t hear a single sound from inside the house and my first thought was – burglars! I dialled the cops and then arming myself with a Durga statuette from the Ganguly’s mantelpiece, I tiptoed inside the house, my whole body prickling with unease. What if the burglars were still there? But what if they had left the Gangulys to die and I could save them if I found them right away? The thought emboldened me and I pushed open Suvarna’s bedroom door. The unworldly sight that met me is so deeply etched in my mind that I may even remember it in my next life. There stood Mr. and Mrs. Ganguly, absolutely still, reminding me of the statuette that hung limp from my arm. And in front of them Suvarna Ganguly dangled like a rag doll, her head nearly distended from her body as the rope around her neck seemed inclined to hang on, even when the last breath had left her being. I understood the true meaning of the word ‘shock’ then. I never knew when the Durga left my hand and fell to the ground, enlivening the air and our three frozen forms with its stupendous thud. The Gangulys turned and in their haunted eyes I saw disbelief, denial and horror. And then Mrs. Ganguly let out a heart-rending sob and the spell was broken.


The clean, vacant flat reminded me of the dozens of sample flats I’d seen when I was new in the city. “Not unpacked yet?” I asked Shayan as he led the way to his ‘drawing studio’. I tried imagining what the rooms would look like when Shayan had settled in completely. Purple walls, I thought for some reason. Set off by a mix of coffee and cream coloured furniture - heady yet calm and collected. “Well here we are,” Shayan said and the vision vanished. What replaced it was the bare remains of Suvarna’s room – the only decoration a hastily done portrait of her standing on an easel next to the large French windows. I simply stared at those huge, defenceless eyes and that long messy hair. “Is it that good?” Shayan asked teasingly, though it didn’t come out quite right because I could tell he was nervous. “She looks older,” I murmured. “This is what she’d look like at my age,” it struck me. “What? I don’t understand,” Shayan said, sounding confused. I snapped out of my daze and for the second time in my life, I confronted shock.

--To be continued—

The Girl Who Died Next Door - 2

Wikimedia Commons

Sunday afternoon is my favourite part of the week - a time when the indefatigable sunshine and the absolute cheer in every home obliterate the mere thought that shadows could exist. I considered it symbolic that Shayan made himself known to me during that time of the week. As I led the way to the couch, I felt the warmth of the sun straight on my skin through the casual white dress I wore. The rays set my nude curtains aglow and somehow, made the tiny hall appear just a little bigger. “Wow, your hall is bigger than mine,” Shayan remarked. “Well I’m sure yours has a bigger something else,” I replied, smiling. “I was just about to have brunch. Would you like to join me?” “Depends on how good a cook you are!” My jaw dropped open and I turned to look at him, arms on my hips, mock insult lifting my eyebrows. “Whoa! That was actually rude!” Shayan held up his hands, laughing. “I’m sorry, brunch sounds totally awesome, considering that I have a completely empty kitchen!” “There are some really good takeout places around here,” I remarked, piling food on a couple of plates so we could take them into the veranda. Oh yes, I had the luxury of a veranda – the only luxury if I may say so. In fact, I could see my neighbour’s veranda from mine and until now, it had been incredibly creepy catching a glimpse into that empty house, collecting dust and lying there, sad and neglected. But now, I found myself appreciating the architecture of the building and even sending a mental nod of approval to the designer, whoever he or she might be.

Shayan offered to carry the plates into the verandah while I got the jug of juice ready. I watched him stride out of the kitchen, admiring that easy gait that still seemed to hide a certain self-assurance. During the course of our sumptuous brunch, I learnt that Shayan was a commercial artist who liked to paint portraits in his spare time. "I'm sure everyone asks you this but do you think you could draw mine?" I asked teasingly. "I don't know yet," he replied cryptically. "What does that mean?" "Making portraits isn't just about replicating someone's features. There needs to be a story to tell. Look at all the famous portraits you know - Mona Lisa, Joan of Arc, Vincent Van Gogh or just visit any art gallery and you'll know. Those aren't just faces you see. Those are countless mysteries hidden behind the best veil known to mankind - one's face." "So are you saying I don't have a story to tell?" I challenged. "I'm saying I don't know yet," Shayan smiled. Human beings can never be completely rational. While the normal me would have asked to see his portrait collection, the emotional me whose ego hadn't liked hearing Shayan's logical yet negative reply chose not to. So I simply changed the subject. "I take it that you're not spooked at the thought of living in a house that played host to a teenage suicide?" Shayan's nonplussed expression confirmed what I had intuitively sensed all along. He had no idea about the history of flat number 13. If he had, he couldn't have possibly looked and sounded the way he did when he knocked on my door - happy, carefree and content. "Come on, don't you read the newspapers?" I asked, my tone holding an almost imperceptible hint of mockery. "Actually I don't," Shayan said, surprising me yet again. To be honest, I do know quite a few people who never read the newspapers. In fact, apart from people in the media fraternity and senior citizens who cannot do without the morning tea and newspaper ritual, I don't know who does anymore. "Her name was Suvarna," I began. My story continued well into the last rays of dusk and the onset of a balmy, rain-starved night. I'm guessing that you'd like to know as well so here goes:

Even though this story is about Suvarna, I'll have to begin with the day I moved into Sunview Apartments. The name was sadly in complete contrast to the dreary dark holes in the walls masquerading as premium dwelling places. I was new in the city and typically full of stars in my eyes - a glamorous new job at a leading television channel, a glamorous new city known for its intoxicating effect on unsuspecting new entrants and the prospect of new friends and perhaps even a new romance. What I hadn't expected was the near cruelty with which people fought for cabs, a tiny inch of space on a train or even the window of opportunity to be the first to cross a busy street. I also hadn't expected the squalor which people seemed to accept as some sort of cosmic punishment for being fortunate enough to have the sort of opportunities most of the country couldn't even hope for. And finally, the nearly intolerable levels of noise and suffocating malodorous air left me with a permanent headache, one that I couldn't shake off even with long warm showers and soft, rejuvenating music. The strange part in all of this was that I still ended up falling in love with the city. Mumbai left me emotional in a way that dear old Pune never had. Where Pune left you feeling content but vaguely bored, Mumbai made you insanely furious and insanely happy. Mumbai made you unbearably frustrated and unimaginably elated. Mumbai made you who you were meant to be - alive and passionate.

One Sunday evening I decided to explore the neighbourhood when I ran into a young girl who looked to be around 14. She was small for her age and her long dark hair didn't really befit her tiny, scared face. I attempted a smile but the girl nearly ran off, leaving me confused and a little insulted. Some of the joy I had experienced when the bright early evening sunshine touched my skin and made the green treetops glitter like emeralds receded. I glimpsed Suvarna several times after that and over time, I learnt to stop smiling the way a pet learns that bad behaviour means no rewards. Human beings aren't really that different from other animals. In fact, the similarity is almost overwhelming but we'd rather have our whole race in denial than admit that unsavoury truth. I spoke to Suvarna's parents sometimes when I ended up on their doorstep to collect a courier I had missed or Mrs. Ganguly turned up to borrow some pins. They seemed like nice people - one a doctor and the other an academician - a picture-perfect Indian couple. For me, the perfect balance of interaction with people I'm not really close to is an occasional friendly exchange with no obligation for long awkward conversations. And that's exactly what I had with the Gangulys. Well, all of them except Suvarna of course. The only exchange I ever had with her was the day she forgot her key.

It was one of those rare days when I had taken an off from work. I never took an off when I was truly unwell. I would drag myself to work and manage to accomplish the most essential tasks even in my sub-productive state. I only took holidays on those days when my moods played havoc and all I wanted was to curl up at home with my favourite television show reruns and a pile of unhealthy snacks that I otherwise avoided. I groaned in impatience when the doorbell rang. There she was - Suvarna. Looking absolutely discomfited and shifting from one foot to the other. I just stared at her, having long given up any hope of interaction. "I...uh," she began and gulped. Oh for god's sake! I thought inwardly. What was it about me that scared her so much?! "I forgot my key at home. So I need the spare," the girl finally managed. I nodded curtly and left her standing on my doorstep while I went in and looked for the key her parents had left with me for emergencies. I waited while Suvarna opened the door and then dropped the key back into my palm, careful not to make any contact. I heaved a sigh of relief when her door shut and this time, I switched my doorbell off before curling up back on my couch. And that was the sum total of my interaction with the late Suvarna Ganguly.

--To be continued--

The Girl Who Died Next Door

Courtesy: Dr_Zoidberg (Licensed under Creative Commons)
The apartment next to mine had been lying empty for months and I'd sub-consciously assumed that I would never have a neighbour again. Considering that I live in a prime area of Mumbai, this should come as a surprise but then, that was no ordinary flat. Not only was it flat number 13 (I've tried explaining the Roman origins of the 13 bias numerous times to no avail) but it had also played host to a particularly gruesome suicide. That's the reason the previous owners had moved out. Their 14 year old daughter had committed suicide after allegedly being harassed by the house servant for a long time. From news reports that I had vicariously devoured, I gathered that Suvarna had hung herself from the ceiling - arguably the preferred choice for suicide aspirants. Several times during the night, I would dream of Suvarna, playing the motion of the rope biting into her neck and severing her veins in vicious slow motion and experiencing every second of excruciating pain until I awoke, bathed in sweat and full of curses for the girl who died next door. This may seem a tad heartless to you but I had never really known Suvarna. All she represented for me was an irrational fear and a reminder that gory deeds, meant to be housed safely in the fragrant pages of newspapers and the colourful images of television had actually become a reality for me.

Fortunately, I lived alone and hence was spared reliving the dramatic events that followed Suvarna's death  with my co-dwellers everyday. My family lived far away in Chennai and I had told them nothing about the suicide next door. I told them nothing of the scores of visitors, pretending to be relatives but merely wanting to scan the site of a murder like vulturous sadists. I never breathed a word about the cops who questioned me repeatedly until I wanted to plunge a knife into their uniform-covered paunches. I said nothing of coworkers pumping me for details and reacting with indignant anger at my studied reticence. All I told them was that the apartment next to me was no longer occupied and I was spared those awkward neighbourly smiles and stilted conversations that we are forced to have whenever we bump into those people who live a few feet away from us and yet mean nothing in our lives.

The worst part about apartment number 13 was the incessant ringing of the telephone. For some reason, their telephone was still active. Considering the blaring inefficiencies with which literally every system in this country operates, I shouldnt have been surprised. The bills kept piling up at the door but the phone stayed alive. Hadnt anyone informed the telephone company that there had been a death in that house and the tenants had moved out? Some days I would grow so frustrated listening to that persistent electronic sound from beyond the wall that I would contemplate marching up to the telephone office myself. I pictured myself looking at them with absolute disdain and the sarcastic tone in which I informed them that Apartment 13 had been vacated. But I never got around to doing it. I didn't have to because suddenly one rainy monsoon day, Apartment 13 was no longer empty.

Before you start thinking that ghosts had taken the tragedy-stricken family's place, let me assure you that they didn't. It was a lone stranger like myself that moved into the apartment next door. I was fast asleep since I went to work only around noon when the shrill ring of the doorbell had me walking groggily to the door. A tall, lanky man stood bearing a box of sweets and shuffling from one foot to the other awkwardly. "I'm told that this is what I'm supposed to do since I've just moved in here!" he declared. I chuckled croakily, taking in his rough, dark complexion and long hair in disarray. They were in complete contrast to the docile box of pedas he held out. "Don't you know by now that you should never do as 'they' say?" I said, making quotation marks in the air for 'they'. He merely looked confused. "Okay, come on in," I invited, surprising myself. You must have met my type. The kind that never lets a 'hi' turn into a real conversation or a neighbour turn into a friend. Yet, there I was, inviting this veritable stranger into my home. I didn't even have any proof that he really had moved in next door, though the casual kurta and trousers he wore sort of tipped me off. "Sure, thanks," he said and he smiled. That smile upon his rough-edged face nearly took my breath away. Like water on a smooth marble floor or a muslin cloth upon a table of wood, that smile stole across his face and transformed it to beauty.

--To be continued--