Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Penance

‘How do I look in this dress?’, Zaara threw a quick question at Rehaan while giving the finishing touch to her eyeliner.

‘You look ugly. Why would you even buy something that looks like a banana for a dress? What were you thinking?’, Rehaan smirked.

‘Why am I dating you? Why? Why can I not date a normal guy who compliments me like normal boyfriends do and makes me feel good about myself?’

‘Love is blind, darling. If only, you could choose.’

‘First of all, this is not love. We’re just having fun with each other. Secondly, you felt that I looked like some model from Victoria Secrets when you had to woo me. Suddenly, I look nothing better than potatoes and bananas to you.’

‘Darling, fifteen kilograms can do that to you. They are capable of transforming you from a Victoria Secrets model to a potato. Moreover, for God’s sake, I never felt that you look like a Victoria Secrets model. ‘Pretty’ is the best compliment that I have ever given you.’

Zaara flung her bag at Rehaan, picked up her car keys and cussed him all the way to the lift.  ‘All you men, all of you are the same. You will keep chasing a girl as long she doesn’t pay any heed to you. However, the moment she gets interested in you; suddenly she is a banana.’

‘You’re a pretty banana, darling. In fact, you always looked like a banana to me. I thought you might take offence to it if I tell you about it even when you didn’t pay any heed to me. So, I kept the feelings to myself and decided to reveal them once the attention is reciprocated’, Rehaan laughed as he rushed towards the parked car.

Zaara managed to mask her blushing cheeks with her long hair as she got into the car. She could never come to terms with the reason behind getting flattered at her boyfriend’s demeaning comments. Love has mysterious ways of turning us into people we can seldom fathom.

She sat at the driver’s seat, plugged in her pen-drive with the updated playlist and turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared transitorily and then stopped. The monsoon had taken its toll on the engine. After four to five unsuccessful attempts, Zaara finally managed to get the car started.

‘The heart wants what it wants’, was the first track that started playing.

‘Can you please change that stupid song? I don’t like it.’

‘I care a lot about your likes and dislikes Rehaan, just the way you care about mine. Can you tell me the exact songs you would like to hear? I will happily oblige.’

‘Zaara, will you stop being sarcastic? Just change the damn song.’

‘Will you stop throwing around your whims? I will play whichever song I feel like playing. Bananas do not like taking orders.’

‘Yeah, just because I don’t have a car, you’re going to look down upon me and dominate me. You preach feminism, but in reality you have the patriarchal mindset which will never let go of an opportunity to humiliate a man who makes lesser money than his lady.’

‘Rehaan, good trick to garner some sympathy; but it is not going to work. So, just shut up. However, now that you mentioned it; I wonder why I date you- you’re ugly, mean and poor. What is wrong with me!’

‘Honey, if only you had a choice. You know I am the best deal for you out there.’ They both laughed heartily as they waited at the traffic signal. The lights turned green and they moved ahead. Thick grey clouds started to fill the sky. It looked like it was going to rain. Another few minutes in the traffic and it started drizzling. There was something about light drizzles that Zaara loved. Tiny water droplets that settled on the windshield mesmerized her. She loved drizzles, not heavy rains, just the drizzles.

The traffic cleared as they moved ahead of the crossing and started driving on the Park Street. ‘That baby now, Take me into your loving arms, Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars, Place your head on my beating heart, Thinking out loud, Maybe we found love right where we are...’, was now playing in the background and both of them were smiling to themselves. Rehaan suddenly muted the song and looked at Zaara, ‘Zaara, please drive onto that driveway by the hills. I really want to go there. Please!’

‘Rehaan, are you out of your mind? We’re getting late for Rajiv’s wedding and going to that driveway will add some eight more kilometers to the route.’

‘There’s no traffic on that route. We will save time. Please, just do this for me. I haven’t said please three times in a row to you in the past three years.’

‘I can never understand you, Rehaan’, Zaara exclaimed as she unmuted the song and took a left turn to route to that driveway. The road was laid with yellowed leaves which added more beauty to the monsoon. Zaara’s annoyance of being forced to the change the route was immediately replaced by rapture and her frown transformed into a lovely smile.

‘Do you remember the day we came here for the first time, Zaara? You were wearing a yellow dress and I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to wear a dress that would make them look four times fatter than they are. You still managed to look pretty; in a strange way but pretty, nonetheless.’

‘I don’t remember meeting you but I remember that dress. I love that dress. You have strange ways of complimenting Rehaan, but at least you managed to use the word pretty this time.’

‘Zaara, I love you! I mean…I don’t know how to say this in a better manner and make you feel special. I am bad at it. I don’t know how to compliment you. In fact, I never compliment you. I never even asked you out because I never felt that I have to ever do that. Whatever we share is just so natural and beautiful that I don’t feel like tarnishing it with the slightest bit of pretense. I wish I could do this in a better manner, at a better time and a better place. But, I really want to say this to you right now. Zaara, you are a part of me and I can never let this part go. I want you to be there in my life, forever, not to complete me but to ensure that I continue living. You’re my favorite part of myself, Zaara. I don’t have a ring right now and I am probably the worst boyfriend in this world but I have to say it right now,” Will you please marry me, Zaara?”’

Zaara’s eyes welled up and tears rolled down her cheeks before she could to terms with the fact that Rehaan proposed to her. She pulled out the pendrive and threw it at Rehaan. ‘Why on earth would you propose to me in the middle of road when we’re getting late for a friend’s wedding. I hate you for it. This had to be my special moment. This is the moment that I had to share with my children. I want the goddamn ring. Rehaan Malik, I hate you!’

‘I am sorry. I just had to say it right now. Yes, or no, Zaara.’

‘Of course, yes. You, asshole!’, she exclaimed and in that moment she felt ecstatic, surprised, elated, passionate, vulnerable and loved; all at the same time. She was crying and laughing; all at once. It felt like those beautiful romantic movies which she privately loves but hates to admit in public. This was her moment. It was raw, unplanned, impulsive, real and in the middle of a yellowed leaf strewn driveway on a rainy evening. She couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful proposal. This was her special moment and she made a mental note to tell her children about it. She was smiling one of her widest smiles as she was driving.

It had started to grow dark and the drive way narrowed as they drove ahead. Suddenly, she saw an old lady crossing the road. The car was at a reasonably high speed. She honked, applied brakes immediately and deflected the car to avoid hitting the lady. However, the road was too narrow for the lady to escape and the car hit her; throwing her onto the ground head first.

Zaara started hyperventilating and could not come to terms with the accident that took place. She was unable to move. Rehaan rushed out of the car and addressed the old lady. She had got a head injury and was bleeding profusely. He lifted her up and got her into an upright position. Then he tore Zaara’s saree and tied it across her head to control the bleeding.

He called the police and narrated the incident to them. He then, called the ambulance which reached the location within five minutes. Zaara accompanied the lady in the ambulance and was checking her pulse, throughout. Time refused to budge. With each passing second, she contemplated about how the accident could have been avoided. ‘If only, Rehaan had not proposed to her and she wouldn’t have been so excited’, ‘If only she was driving slowly’, ‘If only the road was better lit’, ‘If only they had not changed the route’, ’If only the lady moved to the side on hearing the incessant honking’. She kept thinking about these possibilities all along the way to the hospital.

They got down at the City Hospital and with trembling hands Zaara helped the lady out of the ambulance. She finished the formalities as the doctors rushed her to the emergency ward. She called up the last dialed numbers on the lady’s phone.

The first person who picked up was apparently the son. ‘Hi, I am speaking from City Hospital. This lady...may I know how you are related to her?’

‘She is my mother. What happened to her?’

‘She met with an accident. Please come to the hospital as soon as I can. I was driving the car which crashed into her. I have signed all the forms. She had to be operated immediately. Please come here as soon as you can.’

‘What? How did she meet with an accident? Who are you? Are you sure about it being my mother? What is she wearing?’

‘She is wearing a brown saree. The name on her Aadhar card says Uma Lakshmi.’

‘Yes, that’s my mother. Is she all right?’

‘No, she is not all right. Please come to the City Hospital.’

I will ruin you, woman. If anything happens to my mother, I will ruin you.’

Zaara disconnected the phone. She wanted to cry but could not bring herself to cry. She was numb. It seemed like a nightmare which will pass when she wakes up in the morning. It was too terrible to be true. She went down on her knees and for the first time since the crash, she wept uncontrollably. She wept and asked for forgiveness, for another chance and traded everything for the lady’s life.

Funny thing about being an atheist is that in the times of crisis, you don’t even know with whom you are having these conversations. You don’t even know who you are asking for another chance. However, you ask, nonetheless; converse, nonetheless and hope for a miracle, nonetheless.

Rehaan found Zaara weeping at the corner of the hospital. He hugged her as he fought back tears. ‘I don’t want her to die, Rehaan. Please do something. Please save her, Rehaan. Please! ‘. He kept hugging her and controlled his emotions. He was as broken as Zaara but he had to be strong for her. He had to comfort her and tell her that it will become all right.

I felt sorry for Rehaan. I pitied him for not being allowed to break down and tell Zaara that he is as scared and broken as she is. I pitied him for not being able cry and expose his vulnerabilities. I pitied him for having to crush his pain and put up a brave face for Zaara. I pitied him for being a man.

The doctor came out of the operation theatre. He looked content. The nurses made a casual joke as they walked out. The scene gave a ray of hope to Zaara and Rehaan. ‘She must be fine’, Zaara told herself as she breathed a sigh of relief. ‘How is the lady, doctor?’, Rehaan managed to utter.

‘I am sorry; we could not save her. There was way too much blood loss and her body was too weak to survive the operation. Please complete the formalities with the police before checking out.’

Sometimes time just seems frozen. You force yourself to stay in that moment as long as you can because any moment after that will only be worse. It was happening for real. ‘I am not a murderer, Rehaan. I am not a murderer’, Zaara kept repeating in a loop as she fell on the floor, weeping. She was broken, shattered into pieces which seemed too many to ever be put back together, again. 


Sitting at her rocking chair and braiding her granddaughter’s hair she exclaimed, ’Penance is important, my child. It is very important and so is forgiveness. We should all learn to forgive ourselves. Forgiveness after penance.’

That night, she wrote into her diary, ‘I forgive myself. It was a mistake.’