Guard yourself against the secret enemy, for in the moment of embarrassment he will cut you down like the potter’s steel. Thiruvalluvar, The Kural
Shalini Mishra was on her last lap. She barreled down the track of the Lokhandwalla Complex Joggers Park, arms moving jerkily, pink and white Reeboks flashing in the early morning light, breasts shaking inside the kameez. Even though the air was cool, dark patches of sweat bloomed under her arms and her fleshy face was flushed. Her doctor had recommended walking to control her weight. She had taken it up with her usual enthusiasm. Every morning she jotted down on a magnetic pad stuck to the fridge the number of laps she had done and her timing. She boasted to Ashok that when she started she couldn’t complete a single lap; now she could do six.
As she came around the final bend she saw Mrs Luthra, about 25 meters in front, hobbling determinedly towards the finish line. Shalini’s eyes narrowed; she picked up her pace. Her curiously shaped lips, their protuberance so reminiscent of an ancient Roman Senator they bordered on the ludicrous, curled in contempt. She began to gain on the old lady. But Mrs Luthra surprised Shalini. Perhaps it was the sight of the finish line that galvanized the old lady. Whatever it was, with 15 meters to go, she suddenly increased her pace. And Shalini’s lips uncurled — in surprise. The certain victory suddenly looked uncertain. Eyes widening, she increased her pace. To her relief, she began, once again to gain on the target. But having been surprised once, she was taking no chances. She increased her pace again, and, with only five meters to go, yet again. Gasping now, arms pumping like pistons, she bore down on her prey, her eyes burning holes into Mrs Luthra’s old-woman’s back, round, shapeless. If Shalini had seen herself right then she would have been astonished. She looked positively hateful, possessed; the Roman Senator lips locked in a horrible sneer.
A second later, with less than half a meter to go, Shalini brushed past Mrs Luthra — and came back to herself. That’s how Shalini always thought of it when Darkness left — as coming back to herself. After Mrs Luthra had surprised her with that unexpected turn of pace, she had felt the jolt which was Darkness pushing her aside. It never took over completely. She was just as cognizant of the savage satisfaction that flooded through her as she bore down on Mrs Luthra as Darkness had been. Furthermore, it was she, Shalini, who ordered her arms and legs to move. Darkness never interfered in these matters. Darkness was a specialist — It knew what It did best and stuck to it. It stayed in the background, only occasionally permitting Itself to appear in Shalini’s eyes. But sometimes, It added something of its own. Like just now, just when they had been about to overtake Mrs Luthra, it was Darkness that had made her brush Mrs Luthra. Shalini had had no intention of doing that. The slight lowering of the right shoulder, the upward hooking lift, that was Darkness’ doing. But Darkness knew Shalini. It knew she would enjoy it as much as It did.
After crossing the “finish line,” Darkness had left and Shalini had ‘come to herself’. It was Its way — come suddenly and leave — just as suddenly. She looked at Mrs Luthra who was bent over, gripping her side, trying to recover from her exertions.
“Hello Aunty,” she said gaily.
Mrs Luthra looked up. “Oh Shalini beti (my girl), it’s you.”
“Are you alright Aunty?” asked Shalini mentally giving herself a brownie point for being kind to the elderly.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said Mrs Luthra. “Just a catch. But beti, you walk so fast!”
“Not really Aunty,” said Shalini, awarding herself another point for modesty. They walked over to a nearby bench, Mrs Luthra still holding her side and wincing.
Shalini couldn’t remember a time when Darkness hadn’t been with her. When she was five, Shalini won the Egg And Spoon Race at school. As she lined up to get her prize from the Chief Guest, she had stuck her tongue out at her classmates and jeered. The Chief Guest had looked bewildered; her KG teacher had pulled her up; later, in the car, her mortified parents had chided her.
Shalini had listened, first in puzzlement, and later, as understanding dawned, patronizingly. It was the first inkling she had that not everyone had a thing like Darkness inside them. At that point she hadn’t named It. Why name something that had always been with her, that felt as natural as an arm or a leg! She couldn’t remember now whether the name had been her idea or Darkness’. It had happened a long time ago. But she learned a valuable lesson that day— Darkness had to be hidden. Now, at 30, she was a master at it. She could look at people she and Darkness detested and warm up their unsuspecting insides with the loveliest of smiles. (It was a happy accident of fate that the Roman Senator lips, that expressed scorn so well, were equally effective at delivering a devastatingly charming smile.)
She directed one at Mrs Luthra now. It had the desired effect. Mrs Luthra smiled back. “I haven’t seen you for a long time,” she said.
Shalini had been hoping Mrs Luthra would say just this. She had just returned from a holiday in Thailand and was bursting to tell people about it. But she held herself in check waiting for people to give her a suitable opening. She didn’t want to look like she was boasting.
“That’s because we weren’t in Bombay Aunty!” she said gaily. “We went abroad.”
“Thailand! Wah!” said Mrs Luthra appreciatively. “You must have enjoyed.”
“Yes! I made Ashok take two weeks leave from the bank. His boss didn’t want to let him go.” This was a lie. Ashok’s boss had sanctioned his leave application immediately.
“What to say Aunty! He is so important to the bank. They can’t do anything without him. But I told Ashok, I insisted, this time you must put your foot down.”
“You did right beti.” Mrs Luthra dabbed at her face with a handkerchief. She had one of those broad worn faces that put people at ease. “Ashok beta is too nice. People need to rest too. Nowadays, with you young people, it’s all work-work. It was not like that in our time. Prakashji, my hubby, when he was working with Railways, he used to take all leaves: privilege, casual, sick — all!”
Shalini who had no desire to hear about the wonderful doings of the recently departed Mr Luthra briskly brought the conversation back on track. “The second his leave was sanctioned, we bought tickets and left.”
“Must have cost a lot.”
Shalini smiled in a pained way as if the mention of money embarrassed her. Actually it did nothing of the sort. Nothing delighted her more than people acknowledging how rich she was.
Wanting to leave on this high note, Shalini took her leave.
“Working today?” asked Mrs Luthra who belonged to a generation that had expected women to stay at home. But she admired women who worked. She thought Shalini was a firm, no nonsense, independent woman.
“Yes! First day after summer holidays.” Shalini taught at Poppatlal Manekchand International School in Bandra.
She hurried away. She couldn’t wait to tell the teachers about her trip.
When Shalini drove out of Galaxy Heights an hour later, the roads were chok-a-blok with traffic. Employing her usual winner-takes-all style of driving, changing lanes at will, cutting people off, and squeezing her car into the smallest of gaps, she arrived at the school in 35 minutes flat. She didn’t park at the Pay-N-Park opposite the school. She was opposed on principal to paying for anything that could be had for free. She parked the car some distance away and walked back. Outside the main gate she ran into Mrs Shenoy getting out of a large BMW. She was wearing an exquisite grey Jamdani that Shalini estimated couldn’t have cost less than Rs 25,000. Her husband was the Chairman of the largest private sector bank in the country.
“Hello Shalini,” said Mrs Shenoy as the BMW pulled away, its powerful engine sounding like a bag of coins being shaken.
“Hello ma’am,” said Shalini. There was a fawning note to her voice that would have surprised Mrs Luthra. Three years ago, when Shalini joined the school, Mrs Shenoy had invited her and Ashok to her home, an opulent 5BHK in Bella Havana on Pali Hill. Standing on a Persian silk carpet the size of a badminton court and gazing at Jatin Das and Souza originals on the walls, Shalini had been dazzled. Anxious to curry favor with her hostess, all through lunch, while Ashok and Mr Shenoy had talked about the latest banking scandal, she had raved about the flat and complimented Mrs Shenoy on her exquisite taste.
Returning home, Ashok had mildly suggested that Shalini had overdone it. “It sounded like you were flattering her.”
Shalini had flared up. “I don’t know what you mean. I was only complimenting her.”
“Yes, but you went on and on — even when she tried to change the subject.”
“Nonsense.” Shalini’s Roman Senator lips took on a stubborn droop that made her look like Nero having a bad day.
Shalini had been furious with Ashok. She’d done it all for him. It was important to cultivate people like the Shenoys. They could be useful for his career. Really! He could be so ungrateful. To punish him, she had not spoken to him until he apologized — twice! But it couldn’t be denied that there had been no more invitations from Mrs Shenoy.
Shalini decided this fortuitous meeting could be used to mend fences. If Mrs Shenoy were to bring up the subject of holidays she would mention Thailand, which could result in a long, satisfying conversation that would let Mrs Shenoy know that Shalini was like herself, someone affluent who could afford to travel abroad for leisure.
But Mrs Shenoy didn’t bring up the subject of holidays. The assembly hall where they would have to go their separate ways was coming up. Shalini decided she couldn’t possibly waste this opportunity — she would have to bring it up herself. So as they walked through the gates, she duly asked, “How were your holidays ma’am?”
“Oh, alright,” said Mrs Shenoy. “What about you?”
“Fantastic! Wonderful! Grand!”
“Oh?” said Mrs Shenoy somewhat taken aback at such unbridled enthusiasm to what was a perfectly ordinary question.
“Yes! I went to Thailand!” Was it because Shalini had rehearsed the words so often in her mind that when she finally said them out aloud, they came out sounding false and jarring — even to her?
The falseness registered with the older woman. “That’s nice,” said Mrs Shenoy, her eyelids flickering.
“Oh, it was much more than nice!”
“How wonderful for you,” said Mrs Shenoy sharply. She was gracious and kindly as a rule but she could only be pushed so far.
Others would have faltered. But there was a quality in Shalini, a kind of cussed doggedness, that made her press on. It was the same quality that made her persist with the walking regimen even though she had yet to shed a single pound. She began talking about the wonders of Bangkok. As they drew closer to the main school building, she began to talk faster, wanting to compress as much information as possible in the time left. Unfortunately for Shalini, she had one of those faces that is at its most unattractive when it was excited. Mrs Shenoy began to look increasingly grim.
There was an interruption.
“Priya!” called someone. A matronly, bespectacled woman in a shabby salwaar-kameez and fraying sandals came bustling up, a big grin on her face. It was Mrs Phansalkar.
“Aditi!” cried Mrs Shenoy with obvious relief. The women hugged.
“Hi Shalini!” said Mrs Phansalkar touching Shalini on the shoulder. She was a jovial, kindly woman. 25 years ago her husband had died leaving her with two small children. With great courage and optimism, on the modest salary of a teacher, she had brought them up and successfully launched them.
Mrs Phansalkar’s sterling qualities however carried no weight with Shalini who bitterly resented the interruption. She nodded tersely and resumed her monologue. The trio reached the main building. Shalini reached the door first. She pushed it open, stepped in, turned, and held it open for Mrs Shenoy who was next in line.
“Thank you,” said Mrs Shenoy stepping in.
Intent on completing what she was saying (she was narrating an amusing incident at the Grand Palace in Bangkok,) Shalini let go the door to follow her. The door was one of those heavy glass and steel affairs controlled by a spring loaded closer. It swung shut with great force, hitting Mrs Phansalkar, who had been following behind Mrs Shenoy, squarely in the face.
There followed one of those awful moments where everything stops. Shalini and Mrs Shenoy looked at Mrs Phansalkar who was looking at them through the glass like a small wounded animal. No one said anything because there was nothing to say because everything had been said.
Shalini was the first to move. She pulled the door open.
“Sorry! Sorry! So sorry!” she yelped.
Mrs Phansalkar entered unsteadily. “That’s alright,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Are you hurt Aditi?” asked Mrs Shenoy.
“I don’t think so.”
“So idiotic of me! I wasn’t thinking!” babbled Shalini. But even as she spoke, she felt Darkness stir. It had sensed prey.
Mrs. Phansalkar raised her hand to stem the flow of apologies. “It’s quite alright, really.”
“You’re hurt!” exclaimed Shalini. It was true. A large bruise had appeared on Mrs Phansalkar’s forehead. Shalini stared avidly at it. So did Darkness.
“Am I?” Mrs Phansalkar raised her hand tremulously and touched the swelling.
“Oh, my God! I feel terrible!” cried Shalini. But Darkness — It had taken over now — wasn’t sorry at all. On the contrary It was drinking it all in: the bruise, the dazed woman. Mrs Phansalkar looked at Shalini, perhaps to reassure her that really she was quite alright and there was no need for a fuss. But the words died in her throat. She looked away quickly but not before Shalini saw the horror in her face.
“I think I had better sit down,” Mrs Phansalkar said tremulously. “I’m feeling dizzy.”
Darkness exulted. “She saw me!”
“Watchman!” shouted Mrs Shenoy, waving her arm. “Bring a chair.”
A chair was brought. Mrs Phansalkar sat down. Someone brought a glass of water.
“Are you feeling better?” asked Darkness in Shalini’s voice.
“Yes, I think so,” said Mrs Phansalkar.
“Oh, I’m so relieved.”
Darkness made Shalini reach out and pat Mrs Phansalkar’s hand. “I feel terrible, just terrible,” said Darkness toying with her.
Tentatively, very tentatively, Mrs Phansalkar looked up. She looked into Shalini’s eyes and all she saw was concern. Relieved, she began to look away then stopped. Her spine jolted in shock. There it was again, no doubt about it this time, something, that thing, peeping at her from behind Shalini’s eyes.
As a rationalist, Mrs Phansalkar was familiar with all the arguments that favored materialism and ridiculed non-materialistic concepts such as ghosts. Now, not with her mind but with her muscles and her nerves, she knew those arguments were wrong. Ghosts existed. The soul — something else she was inclined to disparage — existed too and it mattered, oh, how it mattered! She knew this now, and no argument would ever convince her otherwise because, though she had no proof of the soul’s existence, she had seen what the absence of soul looked like, and felt like, and smelled like, and tasted like, in Shalini’s eyes.
Mrs Shenoy of course had seen none of this. But she had fine instincts. She could see her friend was upset and she sensed it had something to do with Shalini. So now she turned to her. “Thank you Shalini,” she said briskly. “We can manage. You should go; you’ll be late for class.”
But Darkness wanted to stay. It wasn’t done. It had got its hook into Mrs Phansalkar; now It wanted to twist it. Darkness made Shalini protest. “How can I go? This is all my fault. I should do something. Let me — .”
“No!” said Mrs Shenoy firmly.
And Darkness retreated. Instantly. It recognized strength as quickly as It sensed weakness. And It knew — instinctively — that It had to hide from strength.
“ You’re right,” said Shalini. “My class is waiting; I should go. Once again, I’m so sorry, so — .”
“Goodbye!” said Mrs Shenoy.
“See you later,” mumbled Shalini but Mrs Shenoy had already turned her back. From the ‘set’ of it, Shalini knew that she could kiss her hopes of another invitation to Bella Havana good bye.
Shalini had three classes, non-stop, after assembly. It was almost one when she entered the staff room with a gay hello. She hoped someone would ask about her holidays. But no one did. Mrs Bhargav, whose cubicle was next to hers, smiled and waved. The others merely nodded. Disappointed, Shalini sat down and booted up the computer.
At one, the bell rang and everyone pulled out their tiffin carriers. They left their cubicles and gathered around the common table.
Shalini waited. Surely someone would bring up the subject of holidays now!
“What did you get?” Mrs Peerbhoy asked Mrs Kumar who was unstacking the bowls of her tiffin carrier.
“Simla mirch (Bell pepper) stuffed with potato,” said Mrs Kumar. “Try some.”
Mrs Peerbhoy, a well-preserved Parsee, with hair cut daringly short, hoicked a simla mirch out and bit into it. “Marvelous!” she pronounced.
“My daughter-in-law made it. What did you bring?
“I love dhansaak.”
“Then have some no! Why are you waiting?”
“Yes, why are you waiting Meera?” said Mrs Guha reaching across the table and helping herself to some.
Mrs Kumar shook her head. “You’re quite shameless Jasmine.”
Shalini lifted the lid off her carrier. She made a face. “My maid made bhendi. Would anyone like some?”
Shalini’s offer hung awkwardly in the air.
“I’ll have some,” said Mrs Bhargav. “I love bhendi.”
Soon the staff room was filled with the sound of clinking cutlery and conversation. Shalini kept hoping someone would mention the holidays, but the discussion, having landed on the juicy topic of the new reports and procedures, became stuck there.
“It’s almost like a conspiracy to stop me from talking about my trip,” she thought resentfully.
“I’ll tell you what it all boils down to,” said Mrs Peerbhoy. “More work but no increment.”
Mrs Guha guffawed. “Why do you need more money?” Mrs Peerbhoy’s husband was a wealthy industrialist.
“Arre pori, it’s the principle of the thing! More work, more money. Correct no Meera?”
“It’s all this accreditation nonsense,” said Mrs Kumar. The school had recently switched to the UK’s matriculation system.
“As if we need a stamp of approval from the British,” said Mrs Guha. “We fought for Independence for this?”
‘Hear, hear,” said Mrs Peerbhoy.
Shalini bit her lips in frustration. Then, with five minutes left for the bell, Mrs Guha asked Mr Uppal about his holidays. Had he gone to Mahabaleshwar as he’d planned?
“At last!” thought Shalini brightening.
“Yes, yes,” said Mr Uppal, the lone man in the staff room. As a result of this severe gender imbalance, he was frequently the target of much good-natured bullying.
“How was it?”
Mr Uppal opened his mouth to reply but Mrs Peerbhoy was quicker. “Mahabaleshwar? You went there?” Mr Uppal nodded and opened his mouth but, again, Mrs Peerbhoy was quicker. “Marvelous place. A cousin of mine owns a hotel there. Where did you stay?”
“No, that’s not it. My cousin’s hotel’s name is not that.” Mrs Peerbhoy snapped her fingers, trying to remember.
Shalini, conscious of time slipping away and the impending end of lunch hour, thought to herself, “Oh God! I wish she would let him finish.”
Mrs Peerbhoy stopped snapping her fingers. “I can’t recollect the name. It’s an old bungalow converted into a hotel. Did you see a hotel like that?”
“Evershine is a converted bungalow,” said Mr Uppal.
“Yes, but my cousin would never name his hotel Evershine. What kind of name is that! Only a Gujju would name a hotel Evershine.”
“I don’t think the management of our hotel was Gujarati,” said Mr Uppal doubtfully. “They served non-veg.”
“Then it couldn’t have been Gujju,” said Mrs Kumar. “Gujju hotels serve only veg.”
“My cousin’s bungalow is on a steep hill,” said Mrs Peerbhoy. “With a tree in the front yard.”
“Really Gulnar!” said Mrs Guha. “You and your cousin’s bungalow. For your information, every bungalow in Mahabaleshwar is on a hill. Leave the poor man alone.” She patted Mr Uppal on the arm. “Go ahead Mr Uppal. Tell us about your holiday.”
Mrs Peerbhoy gave a wonderful, throaty chuckle. “Sorry, sorry!”
Mr Uppal launched into a meandering description of his holiday. As Shalini waited despairingly for him to finish, he talked ploddingly about a Chinese restaurant that he “would have no hesitation recommending.”
“Really! So good? What was the name again?”
Mr Uppal opened his mouth. Shalini could bear it no longer. There was only one minute left on the clock. “I went to Thailand,” she said.
Everyone thought she had tried to show up Mr Uppal.
Shalini, who could read this in their faces, pressed on regardless, forcing herself to talk gaily about the Floating Market, and after that, the Canal Cruise. But the effort of making conversation to a room full of faces with deadpan expressions, without the occasional interjection, head nod, or smile, was too much, even for Shalini, and, midway through a description of Wat Phra Kaew, she lost the thread of her thoughts and ground to a halt.
The worst of it was that no one said anything. Mrs Peerbhoy touched her hair; Mr Uppal rubbed his knuckles; Mrs stared at the swirly Formica veneer on the table. There’s no telling how long the silence would have lasted but thankfully, the electric bell in the corridor came to their rescue, clattering, announcing the end of lunch hour.
Everyone stirred as if they had been released from a spell.
“Well anyway,” said Shalini laughing nervously, “Ashok and I had a great time. Really, that’s all I wanted to say.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Mrs Kumar dryly and began to stack her bowls.
“I must be going,” murmured Mrs Guha getting up. “I have have three classes, non-stop.”
“Me too,” said Mrs Peerbhoy jumping up as if she feared being left behind.
They stowed their tiffin carriers under their tables, picked up their books, and left.
Fighting tears, Shalini began stacking her bowls. “They’re just jealous,” she thought resentfully. “They didn’t go anywhere and I did.”
But she knew this was nonsense.
Mrs Bhargav, who did not have a class, was still in the room. “I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand,” she said quietly. She liked Shalini. She saw her faults and surmised the insecurities they sprang from. “You’re so lucky that you can afford to go.”
Though this was precisely the response Shalini had yearned for, it did not satisfy her because it was Mrs Bhargav expressing it and not one of the others. Shalini despised Mrs Bhargav for the same reason she despised Mrs Phansalkar: they were both poor. They worked because they needed the money. What Shalini wanted most was to be admitted into the charmed circles inhabited by the Peerbhoys, Guhas, Kumars, and Shenoys of this world, women with rich husbands, women who didn’t need to work but did it anyway because they were bored at home or because they liked teaching.
At four, everyone was back. They visited the toilet at the back of the room to freshen up. Now they were waiting for the bell to ring so they could leave. Mrs Bhargav poked her head over the partition between the cubicles. “Shalini! Can you drop me at Meherwans? I have to pick up some patties for tea.” Meherwans was the old Irani bakery near Andheri Station. Shalini used to shop there too but after Ashok’s promotion she had stopped because she felt it was below her dignity.
“She would shop there,” she thought contemptuously looking up at Mrs Bhargav’s mild, mousy face. But all she said was “Sure.”
“Oh, thank you. What a relief! I wouldn’t have asked. It’s just that I sprained my knee the other day and getting on and off the bus is difficult.”
Shalini smiled gaily as if all was right with the world and she only wished Mrs Bhargav the best.
The bell rang. They went down together and walked out the gate. Mrs Bhargav started to cross the road to the Pay-N-Park.
“Where are you going?” asked Shalini.
Mrs Bhargav pointed to the Pay-N-Park. “Isn’t your car parked there?”
“I never park there. Why should I pay 50 rupees for parking!” Shalini pointed down the road. “I parked around the corner.”
Mrs Bhargav blanched. Her knee was hurting and it was at least 200 hundred meters to the corner. For a moment she considered telling Shalini that she had changed her mind and she would take the bus after all. But she didn’t; she didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
They began walking. Shalini set a brisk pace. Mrs Bhargav quickly fell back. Shalini, brooding over the events of the day, did not notice until Mrs Bhargav had fallen 10 or 15 meters behind. Then she stopped and waited impatiently for her to catch up. “We should hurry,” she said. “I don’t want to get caught in the traffic.”
‘Yes, yes,” said Mrs Bhargav, her face flushed. “So sorry!”
They resumed walking. Shalini watched Mrs Bhargav out of the corner of her eye. While waiting for her to catch up Shalini had noticed the limp. She vaguely recalled that Mrs Bhargav had said something about her knee…something about spraining it. However she seemed to be keeping up now. And she wasn’t limping. Shalini increased her pace slightly. Mrs Bhargav increased her pace too, but, after a few steps, she began limping. Imperceptible at first, it quickly became pronounced.
Shalini’s eyes narrowed; the Roman Senator lips curled; Darkness woke up. She felt the familiar jolt that as It took over.
After a few steps, Darkness increased the pace. Just a little. It knew that if It went too fast too quickly, the prey would give up and all the fun would be taken out. It wanted the prey to keep trying. That would maximize its pain. Pain was what Darkness craved.
Mrs Bhargav hesitated. Darkness held its breath. Had It made a mistake? Then Mrs Bhargav increased her pace! Darkness felt the satisfaction of the hunter who sees the hesitant prey step into the snare. The game was on! Darkness let itself into Shalini’s eyes. There was no risk of detection. Mrs Bhargav was looking down, focusing on keeping up with Shalini.
Darkness maintained the same pace for a 50 meters then increased it again. Would the prey keep up? To It’s gratification, the prey increased its pace too, though, by now, the limp had become a desperate, staggering lurch.
“I’m parked around the corner,” murmured Darkness encouragingly.
“Oh, good,” gasped Mrs Bhargav, her face grey with pain.
But Darkness had lied. The car wasn’t around the corner but another 50 meters away from it. ‘There it is,” Darkness said gaily.
It was too much for Mrs Bhargav. Darkness watched her give up. Her shoulders slumped. Darkness drank in her pain. It was like a drug. The last time Darkness had been forced to retreat just as It was beginning to enjoy itself. But here, now, there was no Mrs Shenoy to stop It. It could drink its fill.
Darkness and Shalini were one now. It happened only rarely, this union. There was always someone or something that got in the way. But now it was just the prey and them. In the final meters, Shalini opened up her shoulders and charged. She opened the door and got in. Together she and Darkness watched Mrs Bhargav. She was walking very slowly now, her face cadaverous with pain.
When she was just a meter or two from the car, Mrs Bhargav looked up. Through the obscuring chiaroscuro of sky and trees reflected off the windshield, she thought she saw Shalini leering malevolently — like a wild animal. Then she thought it was someone else. Except it wasn’t. It was Shalini but it also wasn’t. Her face looked blurred…like someone else’s face was superimposed on Shalini’s. But superimposition implies a second image applied from above. This wasn’t at all like that. The new face appeared to be “boiling up” from below, like Shalini’s face was the surface of a lake, and the new face, rising up, almost breaking through before sinking back, was like a terrible fish that lived in the depths.
Shalini stretched to unlock the passenger side door. Mrs Bhargav was seized with an irresistible urge to run. She almost did, but then, as Shalini leaned forward a little more, her face came into view, from behind the reflections off the windshield, and…there was only the familiar round face.
Feeling foolish, Mrs Bhargav got in. She did it slowly, easing herself into the seat, trying not to bend the bad leg. Shalini waited for her to settle herself in then gunned the engine and took off. Mrs Bhargav was still uneasy but all the way to Meherwans, Shalini talked so gaily, jumping from topic to topic with a kind of giddy abandon as if she were pleasantly drunk that Mrs Bhargav forgot what she thought she’d seen.
When they got to Meherwans, there was an empty space in front of the bakery. “Oh good,” said Shalini pulling into it. “You won’t have to walk.” But the damage had been done. Shalini and Darkness (It had not gone away; It was still there, hiding in the corners of her eyes) made this out from the labored way Mrs Bhargav got out, wincing as she bent her bad leg to swing it out of the car, then the way she stood on the pavement, swaying slightly, unable to twist, having to awkwardly turn her whole body to swing the door shut.
“Bye,” said Shalini leaning towards the passenger window and looking up. Darkness played with the idea of showing Itself again —but decided against it. It was sated. Besides, it would not do to frighten this new prey away completely. It wanted to keep it for another day. Before It retreated, It made Shalini wave.
Mrs Bhargav waved back.
Shalini pulled away. As she eased the car into the traffic, she peeked into her side mirror. Mrs Bhargav was hobbling across the pavement, lurching from side to side like…exactly like Charlie Chaplin after he’d been bunged on the head. She looked comical. Shalini smiled and sped away musing on the day’s events. It was too bad about Mrs Shenoy, and what happened later in the staff room but really, she couldn’t complain. Fate had served up a delicious recompense for her tribulations. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and began humming a tune.