I don’t sell my body. I only sell my time,’’ the sense of self-assuredness with which Malvika spoke bore no room for any argument.
“But why take money for something that’s worth your time?” Ratul always had the right questions rendering poetic justice to all the Socrates he read when his work and his siblings didn’t demand all his attention.
That’s what probably drew Malvika towards him back in her college days. He was one of those rare beings who could listen without judgment and enquire without the intention of passing any verdict. They’ve remained close friends even after college. Contrary to what both of their friends wouldn’t have shied away from betting all their money on, nothing more than a genuine friendship tied them together. Anything else would’ve complicated things beyond repair.
Although at one point Malvika did want a little more than the simple, close-ended friendship they shared. Not the fluffy-duffy romance her classmates couldn’t get enough of. She never had any inclination towards that. But something a little close to that. Almost that but not quite the same.
But things rarely turn out the way you want them to. Ratul didn’t want to compromise their friendship. Neither he had any desire to put it at stake for a “little, harmless exploration” as he’d termed it back when she dared to express her desires with a fearless candour. It’d not been a walk in some park for her. In fact, it took every ounce of her courage for her to approach him and vocalize her innermost desires to him despite the extra-ordinary level of comfort that they shared. It was one thing to discuss unconventional characters and their non-conforming life choices in movies and books with a rare kind of openness. But to actually convince your constant companion of 2 years to help you live one of such characters was something else entirely. Something she perceived along the lines of quirky and perhaps a little crazy. However, Ratul’s gentle yet uncaring dismissal made her feel like it was absolutely revolting and downright detestable.
How proficient men were at making women feel guilty and inconsolably worthless! First, her father and then Ratul. Their friendship never remained the same after that incident. Of course, they’d stayed in touch even after college. Often met at weekends over a cup of coffee or sometimes a pint of beer. But things had changed. Or probably, the way they interacted with one another. The frankness and the easy comfort had dissipated leaving behind calculated words and cautious statements. Ratul started handling her with kid gloves: constantly making amends and apologizing non-verbally. All these only served towards making her more guilt-ridden than she already was. It consumed her with rage at times when she succeeded in pushing the guilt at bay. She wanted to scream and shout at Ratul in those moments. Why could he not give in that cataclysmic night 7 years ago instead of being so goddamn upright!? The friendship that he was obsessively fixated on protecting had shattered into a tiny million pieces; pieces neither of them could retrieve and patch up despite repeated endeavours.
Malvika despised Ratul for making her life what it was. An endless circle of what-ifs. Each time her mind reverted back to that night, she couldn’t help but linger. And ponder over how different life could’ve been had Ratul said yes. Perhaps, they’d have fallen in love and created their happily ever-after. It didn’t have to be like what others around them had. If time was what Ratul wanted, she would’ve surely given him that. If he felt unsure at any step of the way, he could’ve taken by the hand guiding him, showing him how to love her the way she wanted to be loved. Just like how he’d taught her to be unapologetically bold. Speaking her mind is what she used to struggle with all her life until she met Ratul.
Ratul taught her it was perfectly okay to not fit in. In fact, it was a rare gift that she should cherish. It was something not everyone was capable of. Not following the “herd mentality” is what-Ratul never got tired of emphasizing- made her so very special.
Malvika shamelessly rejoiced in his sincere and heartfelt praises. Ratul abated a kind of hunger in her that she could never fill with all her academic achievements and endless trophies- trophies she’d won over the years for various competitions and debates. All those approvals and validations lacked a kind of intimacy that she pined for. An intimacy that only the acknowledgement of a loved one could bring.
Growing up all Malvika wanted was to give at least one reason to her father to feel a sense of pride in having birthed her. She didn’t want Capt. Vikramaditya Jaiswal to love her only because she was his daughter. She wanted him to love her, to take immense pride in her because she was a somebody. She wanted people to say, “Meet Mr. Jaiswal, everyone. He is the father of Malvika Jaiswal.” She knew the only way to do so was to earn the privilege to be adorned by the same shade of green that her father loved more than anyone else. Capt. Jaiswal put absolutely no one before his duty. He was a soldier first. Every other relation, every other role came afterwards.
As a single child, Malvika never had to compete with irksome siblings for her father’s love and attention. But this, in shape or form, made her feel lucky. His duty was always between them; an unseen wall she couldn’t climb. She had often despised it for what it took away from her. Capt. Jaiswal had never been negligent as a father. On the contrary, he’d devote most of the time he got to spend with his family to make up to his doting, little Malvi- taking her out on bike rides, watching her favorite shows with her and even singing that lullaby the charm of which even time couldn’t weaken-
Jadu ki nagri se ayi meri nanhi pari. Uski choti se do aakhon mein dikhe mujhe puri duniya meri.
But that was never enough for Malvika despite knowing how very lucky she was to be on the receiving end of such sincere emotions and heart-warming gestures. The men to women ratio in India was adequately indicative of that. Malvika was acutely aware of many would sacrifice much to be where she was. But the little greedy devil that dwelled inside her refused to live on those breadcrumbs that lasted as long as her father’s holidays. She wanted him to witness the excellence her daughter exhibited in recitations, debates and presentations alongside her mother. She wanted for him to be the first one to wish her on her birthdays. How she longed to hear his voice every year on that specific day! That was the only gift she cared for and looked forward to with eager anticipation only to get disappointed at times.
Unlike Rachita Jaiswal, Malvika could never make peace with her father’s first priority-his job. A job that put a nation of over a billion before a child that was carved out of his own flesh and blood. Sometimes, she wondered had life been a little easier if she were not her father’s daughter but any one of those nameless, faceless strangers her father always prioritized over her. Because that option didn’t carry even an iota of feasibility, she chose the route that seemed much more doable to a zealous 19 year old hell-bent on bridging the intangible gap between herself and her father. Little did she that route would end up taking her away from her darling Daddy; so much so that even the faintest memories of him singing in his signature comforting style would fail to reach her.
Although Malvika aced the written exams for NDA, she failed the physical round owing to a rare case of short-sightedness. Life had changed dastardly for Malvika following that rejection. What she’d intended to act as a mediator between herself and her father turned out to be that driving wedge which even time failed to iron out with its firm, unrelenting grip. Capt. Jaiswal had stopped being her Daddy after that. His words were always curt, his mind torn and his easy affections forever lost. He was reduced to a mere shell of the man Malvika had grown up adoring. In him, Malvika’s first of many rejections was forever immortalized.
The second came in the form of Ratul’s nonchalant dismissal of her earnest emotions. It was something she could never fully recover from. For in Ratul, she’d seen glimpses of the man who taught her what love really is-her father. She grew greedy, she lost power. She was relying heavily upon Ratul to patch and mend all that was ripped apart by her father’s unexpected betrayal. Alas! All Ratul was interested in was scarring her beyond recognition.