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Off With the Fetters
(Short Story - By Eva Bell)

In the stillness of the night, the incessant ringing of the telephone, sounded like the shrill cry of a banshee. Mina pulled the coverlet over her face.“To hell with the phone,” she muttered, then turned over and fell into a deep sleep.But the phone kept on ringing. It was persistent enough to wake up Vasanth, who could even sleep through a thunderstorm.“Blast you,” he swore, as he reluctantly got up and shuffled along to the drawing room. What would anyone want at this unearthly hour? He yelled a ‘Hello’ into the phone.

But as he listened, his hands felt cold and clammy. He began to tremble as though stricken with ague. Then he replaced the phone on its cradle, and moved towards the bedroom like a man in a trance.“ I’ll never be able to sleep again,” he thought, “My life is shattered forever.”

Towards the wee hours, Mina stretched out her hand to tousle the hair of her sleepy husband. But he was not there. Mina jumped out of bed with a start.“ Vasanth, where are you?” she called. But there was no answer.

She looked in the drawing room and the kitchen. He was not there. She came back to the bedroom.“ This is so unlike Vasanth. He never stirs out of bed till 8 O’clock. Has he taken ill and gone to see a doctor?”Then she saw the balcony door ajar. She found him there, curled up in an armchair. He was asleep but did not look peaceful. A veil of sadness indicated that he had cried himself to sleep. He looked so vulnerable. Mina wondered why he had deserted his bed.

Then she remembered. The telephone must have brought bad news. She had to know at once. She shook him awake“Vasanth, wake up. It’s late. Why are you sleeping on the balcony? Whose phone call was it last night? Was it bad news?”“Look darling, you needn’t get so excited. That was a wrong number. I couldn’t sleep after that, so I thought I’d take a breath of fresh air on the balcony. I must have dozed off.”

That seemed to satisfy Mina. “I’m too excitable,” she thought, “ Always jumping to the wrong conclusions.”

When Vasanth Paranjpye walked into his office five years ago as the new Managing Director of Lexicon Industries, he had created quite a flutter in the hearts of the young ladies working there. Impeccably dressed in a dark gray suit and a maroon tie, his bearing and mannerisms suggested that he was very much at ease in the corporate world.“ He’s too good to be true,” said one.“ He’s uppity. I can see that none of us stand a chance,” grumbled another.“He’s a man, isn’t he?” asked one mischievous girl, “ He’s not above temptation. If we throw ourselves at him, his resistance is sure to crumble.”

Mina was the only one who didn’t share their enthusiasm. She was angry, and anger made her sullen. After such a long stint as an assistant to the M.D, they had bypassed her, and given the job to a total stranger.“Male chauvinist pigs!” she swore, “Unfair, unsympathetic, and biased against women. I should actually resign and get out.”But the situation was the same in other offices too, she realised.“ Men just can’t get used to the idea of dealing with women as equals. Of what use are all my qualifications? I’m just as qualified as this new fellow and probably have more experience.”

But Vasanth’s charm broke down all her hostility. He treated her with extreme courtesy. There was never any indication of superiority.“ I’m new to the town and the job. So I need all the cooperation I can get,” he told her.“I’ll help as best as I can in the office,” she said bluntly, “But for your social needs, you’ll have to look elsewhere. There are any number of clubs in the city. You can take your pick.”She saw him wince.“I’m not the club going type,” he said, “In fact, I’m quite asocial. I like my own company.”“You have a family?”“Are you asking me whether I have a wife?”She blushed. That was exactly what she wanted to know.“No wife, no family,” he assured her. “I was busy working my butt off to reach the top. I couldn’t afford distractions, and I never seriously looked around for a wife. As for family, I’m an orphan. I grew up in an orphanage, and I hope I’ve repaid my mentors for the confidence they have reposed in me. And you, do you live with your family?”“My parents live in Delhi. My father is in the Army and my mother is a business woman. I live alone in this city, and I quite like it.”“So you’re one of those independent bra-burning types who can’t stand the proximity of a man?”“Far from it. I love male company and have a wide circle of friends. If you like I’ll introduce you around.”“But you told me on the very first day, that my social needs were my own business.”Mina found herself blushing again.“So I did. It’s the best way. I like to keep office work out of my personal life.”

The girls observed that Vasanth was very much his own man. He was an excellent administrator, and had many good ideas to boost the firm’s production. As a boss, he was polite and respectful to everyone. But there was an air of aloofness about him which did not brook familiarity. To the other male employees who tried to get close, he was unusually curt.

Yet with Mina, he felt a sense of camaraderie. She had a smart and alert brain which he admired. She was friendly, but not overly so, and kept her distance.

Vasanth was pleasantly surprised, when she invited him over to her flat, for a meal.“Will there be others?” he asked.“Yes, I’ve invited a few good friends, but none from the office,” she said.“Thank you. I’ll try to be there.”

It was Mina’s twenty eighth birthday. She had planned a simple menu, and her cook had done the rest. The table was tastefully decorated. The centre-spread was a golden yellow pulao, generously decorated with almonds and raisins. Chicken kebabs, fried prawns, and a thick creamy sauce with a variety of salads, were laid out.

Drinks had been served, and the canapés passed around. There was no sign of Vasanth, and Mina impatiently watched the door. She could not delay dinner any longer as the guests were becoming restive.“It’s time to cut the birthday cake,” someone said.“Yes, let’s get on with it,” chorused the others.They joined lustily in the “Happy Birthday” song.Mina smiled, but her thoughts were elsewhere. Her friends barely noticed. They were enjoying the meal while they chatted. The usual gossip filled the air. Mina could barely eat a morsel. Her disappointment was intense.

The party was over, and the flat was silent again. Mina put away the edibles, and cleaned up the place. She had just settled in bed with a book when the doorbell rang.“Perhaps another greetings telegram,” she thought, as she went to the door. She peeped through the keyhole.“Goodness me! At this late hour?” she grumbled, as she opened the door to Vasanth.“The party is over.” There was a sting in her voice.“I’m sorry. He was contrite. “If it’s late, I can push off. I told you I hated parties. I gave your guests sufficient time to leave.”“You spoilt my birthday party.” There were tears in her eyes.“I don’t matter at all. How can I spoil your party? Besides, I didn’t know it was your birthday. I have no gift for you unless…….”He kissed her. It felt strange and yet so pleasant. In all his adult life, he had never kissed a woman, and he was shocked at his own boldness.“All forgiven,” she said, not perturbed in the least. “I’ll bring you some food.”“No. Please don’t bother. I’d rather sit down and talk.”She gave him some coffee and cake. Words were suddenly difficult between them. Each felt tongue-tied. They were clearly embarrassed after that impulsive kiss.

This was the beginning of many evenings together. Mina’s maternal instinct yearned for expression. She wanted to wipe away that lost-boy look on Vasanth’s face. At work he was a wizard, but outside, he was shy and withdrawn.“It’s the orphanage upbringing,” Mina thought, “He has to snap out of it. People in our line of work can’t afford to be unsociable.”

They were married five months later. There was no accompanying fanfare. It took place at the Registrar’s office. Mina’s parents had specially flown down from Delhi, for the occasion. On Vasanth’s side, there was no one.

Mina had no regrets. He was a wonderful husband. He made himself useful at home in a thousand different ways. She was the centre of his life.“I couldn’t have chosen better,” Mina thought. “I am a lucky woman.”

But he still hated parties and reluctantly went along, only to those which could not be avoided. “You run along, Mina,” he would often say, “I’m not a person who can make small talk. It all sounds so false to my ears. I don’t like alcohol, and at parties they think you’re some kind of freak if you don’t indulge.”

Though this sometimes rankled, Mina was mature enough to understand and appreciate Vasanth’s obsession with privacy.

Of late, she had noticed a change in Vasanth. He seemed apathetic and indifferent to everything around him.“I feel you’re working too hard at the office,” Mina grumbled. “It’s sapping all your strength. You certainly don’t have to be so over-conscientious. It is not your personal company, and no one is going to give you a pat on the back.”“Mina, you worry too much. I’m fine. If I strike you as apathetic, perhaps I’m having some mental block and I don’t feel too bright. I need to relax.”“But you’re not relaxing. At work, you kill yourself with all those numerous files. And at home, you don’t even have the energy to talk to me.”“Don’t nag, darling. I’m fine and have plenty of energy to keep you happy.”

But Mina knew with the sixth sense of a doting wife, that Vasanth was hiding something from her.“I think he’s offended because I don’t want to start a family so soon. Having been an orphan, I can understand his longing to have children whom he can love and cuddle. Well, I’m not against having a child. But not yet.”

Mina was expecting a promotion any day. She would probably be transferred to another branch in the suburbs where she would be the boss. It would be good to move out of his shadow, and prove that she too was as capable as him.“It’s not competition,” she rationalized, “It’s just that I’ve worked so hard to reach the top, and I don’t want any distractions just as yet.”

Vasanth Paranjpye had transformed Lexicon Industries into a mega business, within a matter of five years. Though he was not garrulous by nature, he had a way with the employees, and had convinced them that an organization’s welfare depended on productivity. And productivity increased only when it was a joint venture of the management and the employees. He used corrective measures where necessary, and offered incentives when appropriate. He was able to achieve what the previous CEOs were unable to do – inculcate a sense of commitment, and enforce accountability. Lexicon Industries was growing from strength to strength, and its shares in the stock market were booming.

The company had released a write-up about Vasanth’s achievements, together with his photograph, to the magazine “Business Today.” Mina was proud of her husband. The whole of India would know what a wonder kid he was.

There were many more telephone calls at the dead of night. Mina was too sleepy to bother. It was always Vasanth who answered. Mina thought nothing of those calls. Vasanth was always being inundated with calls from clients and business associates.

One evening, Vasanth said, “Mina, I think I need a break. I’ll take a week off from work, and go to Darjeeling. The mountain air will do me good. Would you like to come along?”“I’d love to, Vasanth, but I’ve got heaps of work on my table. If you could extend your leave for a fortnight, I’ll join you later,” she promised.

The telephone rang at the dead of night. Vasanth had already left for Darjeeling. Cursing at being disturbed, Mina picked up the phone.“Vasanth, don’t hang up on me. I mean business. We’ve got to meet and talk.” The voice sounded angry.“I’m sorry. Vasanth isn’t here. I’m his wife. Perhaps you could talk to me,” Mina said.“This is between man and man. It has nothing to do with you.”“I’m his wife and we have no secrets from each other. You’ll talk to me.”“Very well then, you’ve asked for it. Where shall we meet and when?”

A few days later, they met at a restaurant in town.He was middle-aged, with distinguishing gray sideburns.“Must have been devilishly handsome when young,” Mina thought. But as he sat down opposite her and stared into her eyes, she detected an evil glimmer in them. Something told her that her little world would soon be shattered.“Where is Vasanth? I’ve been searching for him for the last six years. If I hadn’t seen his photograph and the article about his achievements in “Business Today,” I’d have still been searching.”“What is your business with him?”“He seems to be doing pretty well for himself. He has obviously forgotten his mentor.”“Is this some kind of blackmail?”“No. It is his betrayal that had made me determined to extract my pound of flesh.”He saw the worried look on Mina’s face.“Are you very much in love with him? Would you be desolate if he left you?”“I’d die if he left me.”“That’s exactly how I feel,” he said, “Lonely and jilted.”Mina held on to the edge of her table. Her head was spinning. She didn’t want to faint in his presence.“I’ll leave now,” he said, “But as soon as Vasanth gets back, he’ll have to see me. This time he’ll have to come to me. I can’t afford the air fare.”

Mina left for Darjeeling earlier than planned. After nearly six years of intimacy with a man, was it possible not to know that he was gay? She recalled the intimate times they shared together, his obvious pleasure at her nearness, his capacity to love. Their life together had been perfect. Perhaps the man was a liar. He probably wanted a large sum of money urgently.

The holiday had not done Vasanth much good. His handsome face looked gaunt and drawn. He had a grisly stubble on his chin.“Mina,” he said, “What a pleasant surprise! If I had known you were coming today, I’d have spruced up.”He held her close, and though her mind reeled with so many unanswered queries, his arms around her were comforting.

That evening as they sat close together holding hands, and looking down into the valley with its twinkling lights, Mina told Vasanth about the stranger and his threats.“Vasanth, don’t hide anything from me. I’ve got to know. I really wish his insinuations aren’t true.”“It’s a long story, Mina. The only reason I was silent, was the fear of losing you. You are the only woman in my life, and I love you as much as my heart is able to. I guess I’ll have to take the risk. You be the judge of my innocence or guilt.”

Vasanth had come to Bombay after his education, to find employment. His parents hailed from a small village near Ratnagiri, and were by no means affluent. They gave him whatever savings they had, and sent him to the city with their blessings.“But you told me you were an orphan,” exclaimed Mina, really surprised.“Yes, I became one because I could no longer call myself their son,” said Vasanth.

The money was over. And there was no job in sight. He was asked to vacate his bed in the dormitory of a lodging house. He spent his last few rupees on a cup of coffee and a plate of puris, as he had not eaten a square meal in two days.

...........continued here

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