The aroma of but­ter­scotch

An er­ro­neous tragedy was pre­vented from happening by sym­pa­thy and pru­dence of a woman.

Alive - - Contents - by Satish Pend­harkar

As she bid good­bye to her mother af­ter re­leas­ing her­self from the cus­tom­ary tight hug she gave her ev­ery morn­ing when leav­ing for of­fice, Mrunaal could see tears well up in her mother’s tiny, ex­pres­sive hazel-coloured eyes. “Take Care,” her mother whis­pered, adding, “Try to come back early.” Mrunaal nod­ded rush­ing out of their ground-floor flat and onto the street and com­menced her ten-minute brisk walk to the Matunga Rail­way Sta­tion.

She en­tered the sta­tion and within five min­utes, plonked her­self on the cho­co­late-brown wooden seat of a lo­cal train that would take her to Mira Road. She then be­gan think­ing about the task on hand: Call on Pra­teek and in the event of him not be­ing at home, slip through the door of his flat the let­ter she had writ­ten to him.

She had lied to her par­ents that she had to go to work on a Sun­day in con­nec­tion with prepa­ra­tion of the year-end ac­counts of the bank. How easy it was to lie to one’s par­ents!

As the train en­tered Ban­dra Sta­tion, Mrunaal was sud­denly trans­ported back in time.

Ban­dra Sta­tion. This is where it had all be­gun fif­teen months back. When she had to give an in­ter­view for a post in a bank whose re­gional of­fice was lo­cated in the Ban­dra-Kurla Com­plex. She had planned to take a taxi. How­ever, when she had stepped out of her house she had dis­cov­ered to her hor­ror that no taxis were ply­ing. The taxi-driv­ers had re­sorted to a flash strike.

No amount of ex­plain­ing, plead­ing or be­seech­ing cut any ice with them. Mrunaal had to run all the way to Matunga Sta­tion to catch a lo­cal train to Ban­dra. Sweat­ing pro­fusely as she emerged from Ban­dra Sta­tion, she started hunt­ing for a taxi there. The sit­u­a­tion in Ban­dra was no dif­fer­ent and the taxi-driv­ers no less stub­born. She be­gan to panic.

ud­denly from nowhere, an empty taxi ap­peared. She lit­er­ally fell onto its bon­net and be­gan talk­ing rapidly to the driver. At the same time, a young man ap­peared near the driver’s win­dow and be­gan

plead­ing with the driver.

“I stopped him,” shouted Mrunaal.

“No, I did,” the young man replied.

“Don’t lie!” she told him in an ad­mon­i­tory tone and asked the driver, “Brother, did you not see me first?”

The driver, thor­oughly con­fused, sug­gested they share the taxi. They fi­nally did so al­beit reluc­tantly as both were headed for the Ban­dra-Kurla Com­plex. How­ever, through­out the jour­ney they stared an­grily out of their re­spec­tive win­dows.

A cou­ple of weeks later, they bumped into each other one even­ing at the Church­gate sta­tion. Mrunaal was re­spon­si­ble for the col­li­sion as she had been look­ing at the gi­gan­tic elec­tronic board dis­play­ing the tim­ings and des­ti­na­tions of trains while walk­ing back­wards to­wards the stall sell­ing frankies.

“I’m sorry”, she blurted out apolo­get­i­cally.

“Oh, it’s you,” he ex­claimed in sur­prise adding, “My name’s Pra­teek”.

“I’m Mrunaal”.

“What will you have, Mrunaal?”

“Don’t bother, I’ll pay for mine,” she said curtly and or­dered a Chicken Frankie.

He shrugged his shoul­ders and or­dered an Egg Frankie for him­self.

“How was the in­ter­view?” he asked her. “I got the job…“

“But I didn’t.”

“You didn’t?” she asked, as­ton­ished.

“I reached late.”

They both met not to stare dream­ily into each other’s eyes while hold­ing hands but rather to eat to­gether once ev­ery four or five days dur­ing the lunch-hour. Mrunaal car­ried lunch that her mother would pre­pare, the dry va­ri­ety like me­thiparathas or pu­ran-po­lis. Pra­teek, who was stay­ing alone in the city (his par­ents had set­tled down in Be­naras) ate out­side and brought along cheese-sand­wiches or chicken cut­lets.

“But so did I”, she said ac­cept­ing her Frankie from the plas­tic-sheathed hand of the at­ten­dant.

“You may have got away with it. They did not ex­cuse me.”

“But why?” she won­dered, be­gin­ning to eat.

“They were not con­vinced. They did not even field me any ques­tions.”

“I ‘m sorry.”

“You need not be”, replied Pra­teek tak­ing his Frankie. “I’ve got a job else­where. I’m a copy­writer with At­las Advertising”.

“That’s great. I’m a Re­la­tion­ship Man­ager with...here’s my card”.

They ex­changed busi­ness cards, mo­bile mem­bers and promised to meet again.

Ini­tially, their in­ter­ac­tion was con­fined to mo­bile calls and the ex­change of mes­sages. The only meet­ings that took place were at Church­gate sta­tion. Meet­ings that were hur­ried and wherein one had to shout to be heard. Soon, they found a more con­ge­nial place to meet: The Horn­i­man Cir­cle Gar­den.

It was here that they both met not to stare dream­ily into each other’s eyes while hold­ing hands but rather to eat to­gether once ev­ery four or five days dur­ing the lunch-hour. Mrunaal car­ried lunch that her mother would pre­pare, the dry va­ri­ety like me­thiparathas or pu­ran-po­lis. Pra­teek, who was stay­ing alone in the city (his par­ents had set­tled down in Be­naras) ate out­side and brought along cheese sand­wiches or chicken cut­lets.

hey sat on a bench or on the grass un­der the shade of a frangi­pani or palm tree and ate sur­rep­ti­tiously. The prom­e­nade of the Ma­rine Drive Seafront be­came an­other haunt of theirs which they fre­quented af­ter of­fice hours, sit­ting on the para­pet to view the even­ing sky of var­ie­gated colours or hear the sound of the waves crash­ing onto the ce­ment tripods.

Some­times, their an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion would take them un­con­sciously and ef­fort­lessly to Chow­patty beach. They would then gorge them­selves on pav– bhaji or dahi–batata- sevpuri while they watched peo­ple scream­ing dur­ing their de­scent on a Fer­riswheel ride.

Mrunaal no­ticed that she laughed more now and even at lit­tle things that she would ear­lier dis­miss as be­ing silly. On one oc­ca­sion, when she was gig­gling away at some­thing, Pra­teek kissed her for the first time. She was taken aback yet did not protest but licked off her lips the but­ter­scotch ice-cream that had got trans­ferred from Pra­teek’s lips.

t was not long there­after that Mrunaal’s par­ents got to hear that she was see­ing some­one. Her fa­ther broached the topic one day ask­ing her to make a clean breast of ev­ery­thing. Mrunaal was fu­ri­ous.

“I want to ad­vise you to be care­ful and re­frain from do­ing any­thing that would com­pro­mise us”, was how her fa­ther had put it.

“I prom­ise not to bring dis­hon­our upon you both,” she had replied.

“Don’t for­get,” her fa­ther re­sponded, “We have to marry you off... Any in­dis­cre­tion on your part will cost us dearly.”

“You can trust me, fa­ther,” she stated, eat­ing the rest of the meal feel­ing like a con­vict be­ing served food in a jail.

A few months later, Pra­teek sur­prised Mrunaal on her birth­day by pre­sent­ing her with a sil­ver brooch. Could she refuse his of­fer of go­ing to Aksa beach for a swim that Satur­day? She lied to her par­ents that there was an of­fice pic­nic that day. They swam a lot and feasted on prawn-

A can­dle-lit din­ner they had, not by de­sign but by de­fault as there was a sud­den power break­down in that area and the restau­rant’s gen­er­a­tor failed to work. When they had al­most fin­ished, the lights came on. Pra­teek then asked her, “Mrunaal, have you be­come closer to me now be­cause you know that I’m now fairly well off?”

biriyani drowned with chilled beer.

Pra­teek broke the news that he had just been pro­moted, had bought a sec­ond-hand Alto and had pur­chased a flat in Mira Road which he would take pos­ses­sion of the day af­ter to­mor­row. He gave her the ad­dress and in­vited her to come. She hes­i­tated. He took that to be her re­fusal.

Just be­fore they parted ways at Malad, Pra­teek, putting his arm next to hers ob­served, “Hey, Mrunaal, you’re darker than me.”

he felt slighted but be­fore she could re­act, her train had ar­rived and she got in. Dur­ing the jour­ney home, she pon­dered as to why he had made such a com­ment. She con­cluded that per­haps it was a ca­sual re­mark from some­one who had been deliri­ously happy and slightly drunk.

Dur­ing their sub­se­quent meet­ings, Pra­teek would fer­vently ask Mrunaal to have a look at his flat as also to have din­ner with him only to be turned down on each oc­ca­sion. The op­por­tu­nity of hav­ing din­ner to­gether how­ever pre­sented it­self quite un­ex­pect­edly. Her fa­ther left for Pune for a cou­ple of days to visit a rel­a­tive who had sud­denly taken ill. Mrunaal told her mother that she would eat din­ner out that night.

A can­dle-lit din­ner they had, not by de­sign but by de­fault as there was a sud­den power break­down in that area and the restau­rant’s gen­er­a­tor failed to work. When they had al­most fin­ished, the lights came on. Pra­teek then asked her, “Mrunaal, have you be­come closer to me now be­cause you know that I’m now fairly well off?”

He im­me­di­ately re­gret­ted hav­ing asked the ques­tion as he saw her face con­tort with pain and her eyes as­sume a fiery look as though ig­nited from within.

“What the hell do you mean?” she de­manded of him, “That I am grad­u­ally se­duc­ing you and be­fore the cli­max is reached I’d have re­lieved you of all your money?”

With those words she stormed out of the place. Pra­teek ran be­hind her to try to catch her but she had al­ready en­tered a taxi which had started mov­ing.

Curs­ing him­self for his in­dis­cre­tion, he im­me­di­ately tried to call her up but she had switched off her mo­bile.

Over the next few days he faced her wrath: She re­jected his calls, shouted at him on the tele­phone and sent him mes­sages not to con­tact her. He vis­ited her of­fice twice but she was not there on both oc­ca­sions. Weeks went by and so did months. He even vis­ited her home one day but on gath­er­ing that only her par­ents were there, left.

Af­ter a few months, he threw up his hands. There was a lull for many, many months there­after. Af­ter that, it was the turn of Mrunaal to feel guilty about what she con­sid­ered in ret­ro­spect to be her churl­ish be­hav­iour. She tried to con­tact Pra­teek but now he be­gan play­ing tit for tat.

The train had reached Mira Road sta­tion. Mrunaal got out of the sta­tion and took an au­torick­shaw to go to Pra­teek’s flat. In the let­ter she car­ried with her, she had of­fered an apol­ogy for her be­hav­iour.

As she rang the bell of his flat, she felt sweat break out in her armpits. Af­ter a while, Pra­teek opened the door. Mrunaal was shocked to see how he looked. He had grown a beard which was un­kempt and his hair was di­shev­elled. He looked hag­gard. His face ap­peared grey­ish and his eyes were sunken.

They didn’t ex­change a word but em­braced each other. Tears stream­ing down his face, he told her ev­ery­thing: He had been fired from his job sev­eral months back as a re­sult of a right–siz­ing ex­er­cise. Since then he had been knock­ing the doors of sev­eral ad agen­cies, post­ing his re­sume on web­sites of re­cruit­ment agen­cies and had even at­tempted free­lanc­ing – all to no avail. He had sold off his car and had advertised his flat for sale as the EMI of the home loan was stran­gu­lat­ing him.

“But why didn’t you tell me?” she asked in an ac­cusatory tone. He did not re­ply.

“Have you told your par­ents?”

“I’ve not. They’ll not be able to ab­sorb the shock hav­ing seen me in bet­ter days.”

“But you need them, don’t you?”

er re­mark trig­gered off a fresh bout of sob­bing. She es­corted him to the sofa and sat down be­side him.

“Look Pra­teek,” she be­gan softly, “You have to get your­self out of this mess. And I’m ready to help. We’ll have to dis­cuss this at length as also in­volve your par­ents… And don’t be in a hurry to sell this lovely flat. I can lend you some money. We’ll have to plan things out. I’ll take some leave from the of­fice… Don’t lose heart. Things will work out.”

He gave her a scep­ti­cal look but the charm­ing ra­di­ance on her face em­bold­ened him to whis­per, “Are you… Are you sure, Mrunaal?”

“Of course I am, Pra­teek”, Mrunaal replied em­phat­i­cally.

He started to gig­gle and then be­gan to laugh and laughed out loudly as he had not done in months.

She smiled, for she un­der­stood.

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