A Euology to a Stoic
(A short story by Sidharth Vardhan,
first written on May 27, 2021)
I have always found novels about adultery such clichés. It would seem every novelist wants to write one. Even the greatest authors like Tolstoy and Flaubert were unable to resist the temptation to write one, of course, they managed to write great ones but, at the end of the day, most novels about adultery are just forgettable. More or less, same twists and turns – stories of stale marriages, jealous cuckolds, etc. Hopefully, you shall forgive me for writing a short story on the subject. After all, what are all my novels but clichés? Those college romances or fantasy or forgettable whodunnits – the two penny books you find coffee shops. This short story is, in fact, maybe my most original work, not that it is much of an argument.
Moreover, I don’t think the present narrative is so much a story of adultery, as a word-portrait of its protagonist – Vishal Singla, my best friend. In fact, it started as a sort of eulogy after his death a few months ago.
I met him about seven years before I cuckolded him. It was on the first day of our college freshman year when we discovered we were roommates. Our temperaments didn’t match at all and so, initially, it was just a bearable acquaintance and the friendship developed very slowly over months. I think it could be properly said to have started when I needed money a few months later and not able to find any friend who would lend me some, I asked him – though without much hope as he seemed too uptight to lend me money and we were merely tolerable acquaintances to each other at that time. He did. And he was a gentleman about it. I had promised to return the money within a week but was unable to do it in three months. He never mentioned it in all that time or asked what I had done with it.
It was of this gratitude that I started cultivating our friendship – the most effort was from my side but that is just as well because I was the only one gaining from the friendship. He didn’t seem to need friends much. In all the years I have known him, he never asked me for any favor. I don’t know what he got out of being friends with me except for a stab in his back. But still, from the very beginning, he showed repeatedly that he cared a lot for it – helped me with studies as well as money problems. Even after we completed our studies, when he discovered that I was planning on being a novelist and moving to Delhi, where he had posted from on-campus recruitment too, he invited me to live with him – rent-free till I found my feet. Perhaps he thought that would happen in a few months but months turned into years and in all that he never complained. It was that good a friend that I betrayed.
But the question arises – why did he keep up with me? Even by the end of our college years, I was already heavily in his debt both financially and emotionally and it had only increased in all those years. Why did he never complain? Why did he never throw me out? I don’t know. These questions bewilder me. However I look at it, I was always a needless burden for him that offered no possible benefit. So why did he not cast me off?
Maybe, you might guess, that he was just too polite, not assertive enough to do so but this just shows how little I have managed to describe him. You see he was a very good bargainer and perfectly capable of firm action. Lack of assertiveness had nothing to do with it.
Maybe I was just someone he had gotten used to. A sort of background noise. A useless decorative object one gets used to – a key ring, picture, mobile wallpaper, or some sort of charm. A habit. A bad habit. A vice. And oh Satan the sweet lord of satanic smiles! he could use one. He was a teetotaler, completely drug-free, virgin, not even a fan of movies, porn, or fast food – despite my constant efforts to interest him at least in drinks and women. His favorite and only hobby was exercising and watching documentaries on wildlife. I have never known anyone else who is so vice-free.
In my college years, there was only one thing I was better at than him – with girls and that was only because he wasn’t interested in dating yet. He was of the kind who are faithful to their would-be spouses proactively – and also perhaps would have stayed loyal retrospectively if the spouse, in question, was to die rather than be caught cheating him. Moreover, unless you were sure to marry, his ethics won’t allow you to date a girl.
He talked to everyone with a politeness that made him look distant. No one can ever claim he was rude, he never cursed or used swear words (his language was like that of a gentleman from Jane Austen’s books) but when he talked to one, one felt that he was indifferent to one’s existence and, as you know, most girls don’t like that.
But even with his indifference, he was able to make the hearts of at least a few girls beat. Like I said, he was much better than me at everything – he was richer, taller (quite tall actually, I was below average height), muscular ( I was the skinny one), better at studies (the only reason I was able to pass the exams was that I had his help), more hard-working and better dressed (always formally; I would dress emo). Also, despite his conservative values, he showed no judgment of my womanizing behavior.
In my freshman year, I was struck with depression for reasons, details of which would be an unnecessary diversion in this narrative. I was unable to focus on my studies and would stay unable for all four years of our graduation. It was as if I had lost all motivation to live. What was the point of life anyway? I looked for distractions, found fiction, loved it, and decided to become a writer – more so because it was a good camouflage for someone wanting to live a bohemian lifestyle as I did. The only reason I continued at college was that I liked staying away from my parents and because it was easy to find the company of the girls at college. Flirting was one of few things that still gave meaning to life. It was mostly to take them out on dates that I needed loans from Vishal.
As for my writing, it didn’t go any further than a few scraps of lines or occasional poems that I used to think were evocative and deeply wise and which I posted on Facebook. They did win a lot of likes though. From girls mostly who were as naive as me in thinking they were anything but superficial commonplace thoughts. Looking back I don’t know if women were the only reason I have stuck to my profession.
But all of them, these girls, were interchangeable and forgettable. Some of them were prettier than others, some were smarter than others – but something was missing. Always. I realized that the ‘something missing’ was lacking in me. Part of it was I didn’t want to commit – not even make false promises. Another part was that I was depressed but in that, I was hardly unique – the schools and colleges are full of depressed kids, though my own case may have been one of the more severe ones. To say that none of them understood me would seem girlish but would also be true. To say they didn’t show interest in my writings would be a lie. Mostly though … I just didn’t find a connection, an affinity, the concurrence of heartbeats that creates the illusion of things being just perfect.
That was what I found with her – Sapna Sharma.
It was three years after our graduation that he married her. In all the years, we had known each other – she is the only woman he ever brought to our place, whether it be our room in the college hostel or our apartment in Delhi. I won’t try to count the number of girls I brought to these places. Not boosting, all of them put together won’t match Sapna in my eyes.
He had been gone from the apartment for a month (having paid the rent and giving me some pocket money) – a vacation to spend time with his family. So you can imagine my surprise when he brought a girl back and introduced her as his wife. I don’t know why he didn’t invite me or tell me about it but then there is so much more I don’t understand about him. It is this that forces me to pen this narrative – a desire to understand him.
My narrative has seemed to come to halt for a week. I read what I have already written and discovered how inadequate and disorderly this all is. Novels pretend that they were written in one sitting from the first word to the last word in the same order as they are intended to be read. Yet it’s an open secret that what you read has been revised countless times by several eyes. Not this one. It’s too much to put this narrative into proper order. A greedy imp in me wonders how it will perhaps make a nice little love triangle of a novel but I must refuse him.
But no. I can’t wrestle with this story to drag a novel out of it. Even the thought of doing so – of months it would take just to get through the first draft exhaust me in so many ways. Over the years, I have learned the art of writing commercially successful novels – college romances, fantasy fiction with lots of love quotes, love affairs, sex, perfect looking people, violence, crime, and an occasional spur of idealism to keep my books from complete waste of time they really are – easy money makers in short, but it also means I no longer labor under intense influence of inspiration when I write. When this unignorable inspiration has now hit me from my lived experience, I have tried my best to run away from it and failed. Yet I intend to get rid of it by writing no more than a short story. My friend’s soul must make do with a rambling narrative for his Eulogy.
Since it is supposed to be a work of truth, it seems imperative to clarify that I don’t believe in souls. What I meant by this word when I used it in the last section was ‘the memory of a person, who may be dead or living, in the minds of others’. Whatever that means.
Speaking of love triangles, have you considered how most so-called love triangles are actually missing the third side of the triangle? At least two of people (often the ones of the same sex in heterosexual triangles) have at best a friendship between them. Not here. Here the two men had developed a love of brothers.
Even after all that happened between us, to his dying day, he considered me his best friend (how inadequate and commonplace such words like ‘best friend’ ‘lover’ can sound?) and I can say the same thing about myself.
I must be honest, I have been forestalling this part of the narrative with these sidenotes. The problem you see is that this is the part where she enters the story. Sapna. While I can somehow write about Vishal, despite losing him only recently; she escapes me like a beautiful dream. I don’t know how to write about this particular period.
One thing is for sure. I am not going to fall into the trap of describing how she looked – so unlike the heroines of my books who are always picture-perfect, she was, is, and will always be perfectly imperfect to my eyes.
A childhood trauma, a complete description of which would be too big a distraction from the subject of the story had made her furious – not doubtful regarding the existence of but furious with Hindu gods that she had till then been devoted to. Her anger with thirty-three crore Hindu gods and goddesses had made her Christian.
But she wasn’t a particularly devoted Christian. Religion, to her, was like insurance. You will probably never need it, but it’s good to have one. Hinduism had failed to pay the damages when due, so she decided to pay her premiums in churches instead of temples.
Similarly irrelevant was her profession. It was only in the last three years of her life that she worked, work, that is, which wasn’t housework. She served as a nurse at an old age home for free – though she was qualified enough to make a living out of it, she liked doing it as something of a social service. And the fact that she was a mere volunteer gave her some flexibility of hours. Also, perhaps she was just too full of liveliness to not want to share some of it with those who were running low of its reserves.
Why then am I talking about them? Perhaps because of their very irrelevance. A part of me still holds greedily onto my memories of her, refusing to share it with the paper.
Perhaps, for this reason, her religious beliefs also have little to do with this story except perhaps in so far as her conversion will answer in advance any doubts that may arise when you will learn about her daughter’s name ‘Sabrina’ and her Christian burial.
It may not appear so because I didn’t keep a record of dates but every section in this story has a day devoted entirely to itself in as far as my writing is concerned. And sometimes there are several days between successive entries. It is not so much that I don’t wish to write it down, but I am almost afraid of reliving even on paper the events that are to follow. Sometimes even the few words I do get through in a sitting exhaust me so much that I have little energy to do anything else.
Not that there is not much to do at my place. There are servants for everything at home and I might have just withered away now that Vishal and Sapna are both gone; if it was not for breakfast and lunch that I daily have with Sabrina. My daughter is all that still ties me to any resemblance of routine. I wonder what will happen to me when she will move away in a few years to pursue her higher studies.
I’m afraid I will have to fight against the instinct of becoming one of those psychotic singled (divorced or widowed) parents who start holding on to their children (or one of them) like leeches for fear of being left alone.
Enough time wasted. One and a half months have gone by since this story has made any progress but no more.
Did I try to seduce her from the beginning? No. I was genuinely happy for my friend. She was pretty but mere looks lose their attraction after you have been with a few pretty women in your life.
And she too was happy with the marriage. She looked after him, she cooked for us both but fed him occasionally a bite or two with her own hands. Often they would go out and have dinners at restaurants. He bought her dresses, flowers, etc. ‘Get a room’ I would say to tease them amidst their PDAs. She would blush and tell me to ‘shut up’; he would ignore my comment.
It was always difficult to talk with him but I sincerely believe he too was happy.
It is so wrong that though it’s a story about him, I can’t describe his mood during that period in as much detail as I can do for my own or her. But this is partly why I am writing this story. To figure him out. To understand him. My brain is a box full of puzzle pieces of memories and I pour them out on paper and try to create an image of him I can understand.
Nevertheless, I find myself only writing about myself and her. My womanizing never stopped in all this time but Sapna and I struck a friendship. We shared a love for literature and liked to discuss classics.
Then suddenly I stopped dating.
To be honest, all the dating I had done in college and years after had started seeming too much of a bother. I was asking myself if that was all life had to offer? I lived for art and feminine Beauty, I admired them, I worshiped them – and yet they seem so limited compared to what existed only in my imagination. As far as dating goes, it was like a sort of ritual, a sort of role-playing which was exhausting in itself but what was too much for me was the act of sex.
It was as if some invisible wall remained between us and that kept things from being its… most fun version – it is funny how little of our most basic instincts we understand. There are so few words – attraction, performance pressure, hard-on, etc. No word I do know explains what I felt. I was attracted toward them and they to me, and we both wanted to have sex – yet the whole thing was always like a chore that had to be done of some necessity, rather than an enjoyable experience. I felt a sort of repulsion toward the act itself, but this repulsion didn’t arise from some puritan value; no – just that when I looked forward to sex I was going to have been the woman with me or remember it afterward, the whole thing would be surrounded by clouds of unreality. Unreality! That is the word I want to use. Both in anticipation and afterward, this unreality of the whole thing bothered me. It would have during the act too if I was to stop to think about it.
And it bothered me enough to stop dating girls.
Perhaps that is what made what happened my fault. Perhaps I was too weak to stay away from women. Perhaps I should have known better – maybe if I had continued my dating, I wouldn’t have spent as much time with her and even if I did, I wouldn’t have fallen for her, or she wouldn’t have fallen for a womanizer.
But I don’t think so. At that moment, I only wanted to focus on books.
There were so many stories in my mind – I read somewhere, that one should write the story one wants to read or something of the sort, but those stories in my mind they refused to be told. I loved art, I loved literature, but my craft was pathetically inadequate to match the best stories in my mind. It was only bad stories that I attempted – perhaps luckily for they were vulgarity simple, and thus vulgarity relatable to their readers and thus, in turn, got vulgarly popular. My mediocrity soon ensured that I could make a living out of my writing.
Yet this popularity came in later. At that moment, when I made friends with her. I had given up on the world. There were so many books to read and I enjoyed the company of books more than that of people. By the time I had met her, I had decided to abandon all parties and to live amongst books only. To be involved with the plot of the world was too much, I was happy just being its spectator – like that narrator in ‘The Great Gatsby’.
But we did have those conversations over coffee discussing literature that were far more enjoyable than dating. The conversations would send us to ecstasies and in one such moment, we kissed.
More weeks of lethargy. This may be a short piece but it is taking forever to finish. How I wish I could skip to that fatal night!
I have written so many cheap romances, yet I dare not tell my own love story for the simple reason that I am not equal to it. Even between ourselves (me and Sapna), the words ‘I love you was all the expression I could ever give to my love for her. Though they were so little so powerless to contain that emotion. Yet, they were all that there was. All my own literary devices and writing powers were useless when it came to expressing what I felt toward her except for that simple three-word expression simply because it contained only three words… For words seemed to only contaminate the music of that emotion, limit by their own smallness that emotion which seemed to swallow me whole every moment I was with her.
Now that years have gone by since her death, sometimes I find myself talking to her in a sort of daydream, and ‘I love you the words escape me. I am not a believer or superstitious, yet there are occasions when my imagination refuses to be handicapped by my rationalism. And a part of me could suddenly start arguing that she still exists in some form and imagines a connection being established between us – just for a conversation. I ask her a lot of questions, I tell her about Jasmine, our daughter, and him, Vishal, but not myself. Instead, I only say one thing about myself, the only thing that matters, “I love you”.
But I am forced to write at least the beginnings of this love story. Perhaps at least on paper, I wish to be understood. Not to be excused though. There are no excuses for backstabbing a friend like him.
From the moment we kissed, we knew it wasn’t just a one-time thing. Though we lied to ourselves and made-believe it was. Until we did it again and this time we went further all the way. In a room filled with guilt afterward, we were honest about our feelings for the first time. We loved each other. There was no denying it but it doesn’t have to mean anything. She was married and that was that. Of course, we lied again and said to each other, it shouldn’t happen again. Of course, it did happen again as we both knew it would.
Yet, for all the ways we were hypocritical during those days, there was one thing we were honest about – he didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to be hurt and cheated upon. After my parents, it was to him I owed most. And she too couldn’t find a single fault with him. In every single way, he was the perfect husband to her. And she too still loved him – worried about him when he was late from work. We both agreed he deserved happiness more than either of us.
What then? What do I say in my defense? That I tried? That I tried to avoid it? That I tried even to move out of the apartment but was stopped by him? Truth was that even while attempting to do so, I was scared of losing her and of returning to my parents’ place that had grown more alien to me than Mars. And I would have to return to them because as yet my writings were going nowhere.
What excuse then do I have? What excuse did she have? That we tried our best to be good but couldn’t discipline ourselves?
Or that most cliched of all excuses? ‘As long as he doesn’t know, he won’t be hurt’. She was in fact extra sweet to him in the time we cheated on him – cooking his favorite meals, for example, every day even though it meant extra effort.
But we couldn’t lie to ourselves for too long. If it goes on long enough, eventually he must find out. Thus we told ourselves that the next cliche ‘it is just a temporary thing’. That ‘we will have just a few days of bliss and then separate; kick ourselves out of this undeserved paradise’.
But even as we told ourselves that it was just a short term thing, she and I were already busy in building those first-person plural pronouns ‘we’, ‘our’ ‘us’ – like one builds a shelter in a wildland with things one can find and must do with, only ours was not a place but rather an abstract feeling of being at home when alone with each other. Thus, soon there was an ‘our song’ which ‘we’ would both start singing together for no good reason at certain times in ‘our’ conversations, ‘our thing’ which is what we called the relationship between us, ‘our’ inside jokes – an accidental reference to which would make us laugh even when he was around, ‘our drink’ which was just coca-cola. There was also ‘our spot’ in ‘our park’ and ‘our restaurant’ – places that were not ours by property but by memories. ‘we, ‘ ‘our’ ‘us’ when used this way were no longer just pronouns for us anymore, they were heavy with a burden of dreams about the future we dare not admit to ourselves for the pain we would inflict on him.
It was so perfect, we were so meant to be with each other. The word ‘soulmates’ seemed inadequate, we were two parts of the same whole. To use the analogy from Plato’s ‘Symposium’, we had undone the action of Zeus, had found the other half of our eight-limbed being.
If only there was a way in which we could be ourselves and happy without having to hurt him! I for one was disgusting enough and caught myself more than once dreaming of his death leaving us free to pursue our happiness.
Needless to say, I was ashamed of these fantasies. I was cheating on a man who was giving me shelter and food and now I was fantasizing about his death. What possible excuse could I have? None.
Yet one struggles to find one. And in my weakness, I whisper the name of spiritual connection between me and Sapna. Our shared interests. With no other woman have I felt at home. She encouraged me to write. She disciplined me enough to finish the novels I would leave half-finished. She made me. It was her I first told about my first publishing offer. We celebrated that evening, all three of us – Vishal’s treat.
But was it all spiritual for me? Could it not have been for something unique in the shape of her breasts that I was conscious of taking pride in possessing through sex? Or that space below her navels and the valleys between her legs which is what gave Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’ its true meaning as far as I am concerned; and would have surely made that painter reconsider his choice of model for the masterpiece if he had seen it. She was definitely the origin, end, and be-all of my universe. Or that kissing her felt like tasting paradise? …. Or was it simply that when we had sex, it didn’t leave me feeling exhausted as it did with other women, but made me feel buoyant with new energies? That it didn’t feel unreal and repulsive but just the right thing, the only thing to do despite the guilt surrounding it? Will that last fact count toward spiritual or physical love? Who knows where one starts or the other ends? Or if they aren’t one and the same thing?
As for her, the only excuse was her inability to be sure of his love. Back then, I wasn’t sure if she hadn’t made this excuse; it was only much after our first time together that she came up with it. In her own words, he did a lot of romantic things and took good care of her, “but it’s as if he holds something back. He tells me he loves me with the same ease with which he orders food at restaurants. And I don’t know, I just can’t be sure he loves me. I love him but I just can’t be sure about his feelings toward me. The way you say it, I know it is true but I just don’t get that with him. I want to blame him, I feel it’s cruel of him, but I am not sure he is to be blamed. If only I could know for sure that he loved me I could ignore you… If only…”
This story has dragged on too long already. There is no point in going into more details about our love and hypocrisies. It’s about him that I wish to write about. Not me or her. So I will just skip ahead to when he discovered the truth.
Our ‘few days of bliss’ had dragged to three years by then. Our lives had changed significantly. I had become a commercially successful writer as my first two books had been best sellers. Praised by reviewers and publishers alike as ‘original’ just because they sell so well – my books were more commodities created by using the same formulas repeatedly, rather than art. But for the first time in my life, I could be completely and comfortably independent in terms of money.
Now that I was financially successful, there was no good reason to stay with them. Maybe that was the time we should have separated but we couldn’t. By then we knew that we just couldn’t. We both secretly understood that calling it a ‘temporary thing’ was just a lie we told to calm our guilty consciences. I did start paying my half of the rent though.
My getting published wasn’t the only reason to celebrate in those years. Vishal had been promoted twice in that time and Sapna had given birth to a little girl, ‘Sabrina’ he named her. She is his daughter, not mine – that is one injury that we didn’t do to him. Now that I think of it, we – the four of us (me, Vishal, Sapna, and Sabrina); had actually moved to a bigger apartment which was more reflective of our financial success. In some ways, we had become like a family.
If the details in the following episode will be found scarce, it’s intentional for obvious reasons. It is the episode that more than anything else made me write this narrative, yet it is beyond my skill to do it justice.
Our affair had lasted all these years only because he was predictable. He had a highly predictable routine. And he would always stick to it. He was also a naturally quiet person, almost sneakily so – he could open a lock, enter a room and sit next to you without you ever noticing him and since he had a key to our place, he wouldn’t have to knock on the door. Yet since he was predictable, we knew he wouldn’t be back till five.
That day though he came back. A rare fever. But the point is caught in an act.
He discovered us naked in his bed. His initial reaction of course was being stupid, which then turned into anger and while we were trying to hide our nakedness and standing up, mumbling excuses and apologies, he stepped forward and punched my nose. I fell backward, my nose bleeding (and as I later discovered, fractured). Sapana screamed and stood scared against the corner of the room. In the other room, Sabrina had started crying.
He stood there watching me for a few seconds lying on the floor naked and bleeding and then he turned to stare at Sapna who was doing her best to cover her body with the bedsheet.
And then he looked down at the ground for a couple of seconds before saying “I am sorry for the intrusion and the punch. You finish, I will wait outside.” The words were uttered in his usual polite manner and with no hint of sarcasm. In fact, his apology was coupled with a gesture of the hand that showed its genuineness. This even though he was obviously trying his best to contain his own anger within himself.
The moment when I saw him enter the room, I was filled with guilt, shame but above all horror. The punch managed to add hurt ego and a flavor of anger but horror still reigned supreme in that complex of emotions. Sapna was even more scared than I was.
It was impossible to wrap our minds about what had just happened. The fact that he had discovered our secret was of itself too much to possess and then there was his reaction – not the punch, but the polite manner in which he had said he would wait outside, which added to our humiliation. On the top of it all, we now had to face him. It is understandable that neither of us spared a thought about my broken nose and blood coming out of it. I put on my pajama, she wore her nightdress – looking away and hiding our naked bodies from each other as if ashamed of ourselves too. we both took our time and then we stood there trying to ready ourselves to face him. But there was just too much for our brains to process. In the end, my mind still dizzy and my nose still bleeding, I opened the door of the room intending to get it over with somehow. She followed me out in similar heavy steps.
He was sitting on the sofa in the living room. Sabrina was in his lap, he had managed to calm her down.
“I am sorry for my barbaric behavior earlier.” Once again the apology was genuinely meant. This man had every right to beat me to a pulp, to curse me, and yet he was apologizing to me. “Please do something to stop the bleeding.” Again the concern was genuine.
“Vishal…” Sapna started and then stopped. What was there to say? I myself won’t have been able to speak even if there was anything that could be said.
He was the one most in control of the situation. Though no one who had seen him on that day could ever doubt his love for Sapna (she agreed that anguish visible in his face destroyed all her doubts in that regard); that he had never suspected us before and that something inside him had broken, was collapsing down in those very moments. Yet, for all appearances, he was also strangely composed.
“I think it will be best for everyone here if I just leave for now.” He said and started leaving. Sapna tried to stop him with a “please” to which he replied simply “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.” The way one tells a guilt-struck child who has done something wrong that there won’t be a punishment.
That is the moment that has inspired this story. It is only now that she is long dead that I see his actions clearly – the amount of suffering he must have endured, the kind of courage it must have needed not to give expression to the sense of being betrayed and anger he must have felt. Back then and for years afterward, both me and Sapna were unable to ‘see’ his actions that day in clarity. As if by a secret code, we tried not to talk about it. Of course, we talked about how we worried about him and what best course of action for us should be and how sorry we were for doing this to him among a thousand other things but never did we talked about the actions themselves – his actions proved how far better a human being he was and also how far more deserving of happiness than either of us. So far greater that his reaction seemed so unreal, so out of place that it was impossible to focus on them on their own merit, one could only look at them when one instead looked at other related things (such as our concern for his well being) and then one was able to fleetingly glimpse his actions from the corner of the eye.
That day we had stayed stupefied after he had left. We had never considered what we would do if he was to discover the truth. And even if we had, I don’t think it could have helped.
At some point, bleeding must have stopped on its own. Then one after another, we must have got tired of standing like that and sat down. And we must have sat like that for a long time. It was only when Sabrina woke up again and started crying again that Sapna moved. She went and fed him. And returning asked me, if I was still hurting. I was but said no. “What will we do now?” she asked.
Will we apologize and try to save her marriage by my leaving their life forever? It just couldn’t be done and we both felt it. What then?
“Perhaps we must find him first,” I said for it was already getting dark. We tried calling his mobile but it kept on saying that the phone had been turned off. We tried calling his friends but no one knew where he was. The next day he didn’t report for work either, the only day in his career he was AWOL.
It was only in the evening the next day that he showed up. To this day I don’t know where or how he spent the night. Did he cry that night sitting alone at some railway station or bus stop as I sometimes imagine? Or was it something less picturesque?
The next day when he showed up, he was far more composed and so were we. “Vishal” Sapna had started once again, “I am sorry. I do love you …”
“I only wish to ask one question.” He said cutting her off with a slight hint of impatience, “and do please do me the courtesy of being honest. Was it the first time?” He was looking only at Sapna.
Sapna shook her head.
“I see, ” he said, nodding, “I will move out then. I shall send the divorce papers.” Again, there was no bitterness, only a matter-of-factness. He stood up and went to his room where he was packing when I finally found my voice, “If anyone should leave, it’s me”
“No. If anyone should stay it’s the child, Sabrina. And since she needs her mother, Sapna. And since Sapna has preferred you, you must stay too.”
“I… I’m sorry.”
He nodded, he wasn’t angry at me or if he was, managed to hide it well but he also just didn’t care if I was sorry or not.
How presumptuous it is to ‘apologize’! At least that is how I felt. Acknowledgment of guilt is alright but often it presumes to beg further, seeks a no-damage-done-certificate for all the hurt one has given; as if the apology by itself – the mere use of words will undo the damage, and thus seeks to whitewash oneself of the black guilt from which one has suffered far less than the amount of suffering one has caused. To apologize may be the hardest thing but to apologize for such a grave crime while ensuring that it won’t come out as a fresh injury is nearly impossible. By apologizing, we double the injury by giving the offended the burden of forgiving us even as he still suffers from our actions…
It had to be him I talked to when she passed away. I had no friend like him. And even though I could never see him without feeling overburdened by the shadows of guilt, it was only with him I could talk of her now that she was gone.
We (she and I) had long lost the habit of television. When we weren’t reading or working, we would spend our time away talking. Now that she was gone, it was with him I spent hours talking – mostly about her, our lives, Sabrina, etc but even this last subject was indirectly talking about her too. We (this new ‘we’ was me and him) talked essentially the same way only old couples talk – when one looked back, it was irrelevant who said what because we had grown so much alike now. “Sapana and Sabrina” we once mused, “those two are the names that enclose our lives like the dates on a gravestone.”
As if on an invisible rosary, we had to use their names in our conversations a certain number of times just to find the energy to go through another day. Our talk seemed to … I almost wrote ‘keep her alive’ but that would be an aggravation, and thus a lie, but it definitely filled the atmosphere of the house with the aroma of her presence, like one had sprayed her perfume everywhere and when one came from outside, one almost expected to find her ready to pour out the love of life that she never seemed to run out of, despite her years of nursing dying patients.
We both stopped dating now that she is gone. He was just too tired of life. And that part of me which craves love had died with her. All we cared about now was Sabrina.
Over a few months after he discovered his betrayal, he was strangely quiet whenever he visited us. Perhaps he probably would have moved entirely out of our life if it wasn’t for Sabrina but he couldn’t stay away from his daughter.
He never was entirely comfortable around us though. His behavior didn’t change, he was still his polite self but now that sense of familiarity and intimacy seemed to be gone forever. He dismissed our apologies with annoyance. Soon we learned that it was best to leave alone with Sabrina. That was the only way he could properly enjoy his time with her.
She always asked him to eat with us. We both felt guilty but Sapna’s seemed to be practically eating her. As is often the case, if love is a desperate desire for a sign of affection from the loved one, then she was still in love with him. She needed something from him – some sign of affection, even more than an apology.
I distinctly remember how radiant she became with happiness when one day, suddenly, he said “Yes, I should like some food.” Guess what she cooked that day!
Seven months have gone since I started this story. Perhaps if I had his systematic and patient ways, I would have finished it in one sitting. But enough.
I have decided that to finish this stupid story for once and all today only.
They were divorced within seven months after he discovered about us. He didn’t demand custody of the child believing that a child, especially a girl child should have her mother always on her side. He was also willing to pay for its education. Within another year, I and Sapna were married. He gave her away.
I had five years with her before she passed away – the most peaceful of all death. Went to sleep one night, didn’t wake up the next morning. She was only thirty-one years old. Vishal moved back in after her death but he too would only live for four more years. He died at the age of thirty-six.
In all these years he had felt close to at least two other single and available women but his faith in the institution of marriage was destroyed forever and unfortunately, both those women had had dreams of their marriage. Perhaps this is why people marry – to feel important, to feel the center of everyone’s attention for one day. He had changed a lot and paid more attention to the women he dated, unfortunately, he never found a woman who shared his belief that marriage had become an anarchic institution.
“I’m not the kind that gets married. Why do we proclaim the universality of marriage? Most people I know either don’t deserve to be married or don’t need to be married to have that sense of loyalty which is the only good reason for marrying.” He once told us. Did he realize that it would rekindle guilt in us for having created such a lack of trust in the institution of marriage? This is perhaps where his stoicism failed him. He was courageous and far better than likes of me when he discovered that his wife was cheating on him but when it came to living with this knowledge, day after day, hour after hour, minute after agonizing minute, and still being able to trust someone enough to marry them, he was no more equal to that challenge than rest of us.
Another truth was that he still loved Sapna just as Sapna loved him. It wasn’t something you could hide and I don’t think they tried. After he finally gave into Sapna’s persistent requests to have dinner with us, there were a lot of awkward interactions but he gradually grew more comfortable with us over the next few months until the time when he would have his dinner with us more often than not. He still didn’t talk too much unnecessarily but seemed to like it when we talked amongst ourselves around him while he would lose himself to his own reflections.
Sapna always cooked his favorites whenever he visited and looked after him when he fell sick and had no one to look after him. I don’t know how I would have reacted if they had cheated on me in turn but I never feared as much. He was far better than me and though he never stopped loving her, he knew his love shouldn’t find his expression in words or actions.
And it didn’t. Until she died. That is when he told me all about it.
I thought this narrative had ended with the last entry but on returning to it for one last time nearly three months after my last entry, I am discovering I still have some reflections to add without which his word portrait won’t be complete.
In retrospect, it was just like him to act so stoically. He had been like that all his life – so stoic that sometimes our friends at college thought he was emotionless. Of course, they were wrong – he was far more capable of being genuinely passionate – both towards people (friends, family, lovers, etc) as well as his work but he just wasn’t someone who would let himself be a slave to them – he could listen to his heart but didn’t follow its instructions of that slavish necessity under which I and Sapna labored.
I believe that he acted the way he did in everything simply of that instinct that always pushed him to do the right thing, ignoring the direction that his heart would desire him to follow. This idea has sprung from something he told me some time after her death that I have just remembered. He looked for love elsewhere after his divorce, he told me, not because he hoped to find it, but because it was the right thing to do even though his heart told him repeatedly how hopeless this search was.
Perhaps the only reason she couldn’t be sure of his love during their marriage was that she, like the rest of us, was used to looking for love in the mirror image of her own weaknesses. It is easy to believe that a passion not acted upon, not actively communicated should be considered non-existent by someone like her or me, those who didn’t know better. When one loves another, we the weaker ones want to think, one is vulnerable – and one seeks assurances of reciprocation, uttered under similar helplessness as one is feeling inside one’s own heart, at least that is the case with the slaves of passion like she and me. But he seemed to live by his own rules. And it just wasn’t like him to give expression to how helpless he felt when faced with the passionate love in his heart – exactly because he wasn’t helpless; rather he chose to give in to it every single moment he was with her but never accepting its tyranny. Just as afterward when they were divorced, he decided not to give into it.
After all its one thing to feel the passion and another thing to let it slave one – and we who had got enslaved only added misery and pain to our (and also his) life. To feel passion was to add immense beauty to one’s life, but to be enslaved by it was to be swept by it to the land of bitterness, envy, jealousy, hatred, and anger.
Except for the minute when he punched me, I have never seen him showing any of these follies. If he was in my place -falling in love with a married woman, he would surely have decided not to act on it, perhaps he would have moved away, perhaps he wouldn’t even have to. If he was a married person falling for someone like her, he would have tried to resist his feelings or would have perhaps filed a divorce. Surely he would have known better than backstabbing his friend or wife.
In my own final judgment, he was a much better man, friend, and lover and far more deserving of happiness than either of us. When I try to understand him, I always keep returning to that punch, and I have done it so many times that all the many emotions attached to the moment – guilt, hurt, anger, hurt pride, sadness have now dried off my memory of the moment. I return to that moment only because it provides a focal point for me to access his personality – if only by way of contrast. His weakest, lowest moment was the only time I could relate to him – he lived the rest of his life on an altitude far beyond my limited vision.
He was definitely better than us, like a saint sitting on top of some stoic mountain who had to look down to see us lesser mortals – for whom he had only love, kindness and gifts. That single moment when he gave me that well-deserved punch was perhaps like that saint, upon discovering that he was thus being cheated on, coming down from his heights to punish me before realizing the very moment after the blow, that it was below his dignity to do so.
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan