By Suneet Paul
It was Sonali’s fortieth birthday today. Her angular face still had that seductive charm of the yester-years, although the hair had started showing signs of grey at the temples and the back of the head. Faint wrinkles were making their appearance on the skin. She smiled. The smile brought a dimple on the cheeks and significantly pronounced her facial lines. Her visitor reciprocated the warm smile. Yet there was something missing in that smile.
Sonali was meeting her after a long time, and whenever they had met, their exchanges had been short. Like her, the woman in front of her also reflected a change in her appearance. She was trying to communicate with Sonali through the black of her eyes-balls, which twinkled occasionally, probably expressing her anxiety. Though tense, Sonali settled her eyes on the familiar face before her, and experienced a mild sense of kinship. The familiar face responded to her attention with a smirk that hinted sadness and remoteness.
Sonali pulled the stool closer and stared at her, as if mystified. Perceiving the nearness, a warm spirit engulfed her. The feeling kindled an assurance she had not experienced for a long time. After all, this acknowledgement of each other, was taking place after a long span of time. The dumbness of the lady opposite was steadily getting charged with communicativeness. Moved by the melancholic expression on her face, Sonali nervously nodded at her.
All these years, Sonali had driven her away from the mind. “How foolish of me,” she mused to herself. “She is the only one I can regard as my own. And I shunned her.” Tears accumulated in her eyes and she wiped them with the tissue on the dresser. It was difficult to hold back the rolling emotion in her voice, “I am so glad you have come to wish me today. I feel great.”
A fond response emerged on the face of the visitor.
Sonali continued, her words slipping in the rush, “I don’t know how, when and why we lost each other. But today I feel a strong pull towards you, a very passionate one- like a child’s.”
Her friend looked back at her with a sympathetic understanding. Sonali’s admiring stare surprised her and she wondered, “Why is she being so nice today?
Sonali cut through her thoughts,” You know, being with you today, makes me to introspect and, brings back so many memories.” There was a baby-like innocence on her face. “Why don’t you visit me more frequently? We have so much to share.” She closed her eyes with a vision of warmly hugging her companion. “Yes, I know that our personalities have always been like opposite poles. You the kind hearted, silent, understanding and compromising types. Yes, you always abided by the said rules laid out by society.”
She opened her eyes and seeing the intenseness with which she was being listened, continued, “Was it I who ignored you or was it you who on purpose drifted away? Look at our relationship in the recent years–. We have always been- if I may be blunt, rather superficial with each other. Do you realise that now we hardly know each other?”
Without waiting for a reaction, she continued almost in a whisper, “But first, let me compliment you on your lovely appearance. Elegant, glowing face, toned figure- and oozing with womanly sensual appeal. Not much change in you. And look me at me-. I have put on weight, have wrinkles coming up, am against all odds, with an uncertain and insecure tomorrow. And fighting middle age!”
Seeing her friend bursting into laughter, Sonali asked inquisitively, “But why are you laughing? Because, I have never spoken to you so intimately? Laugh, laugh to your heart’s content. Someone else’s story is always meant to be laughed at, isn’t it?” She also joined in the laughter.
Getting up impulsively, Sonali started pacing around. Her friend continued staring at her in inquiring silence. Sonali stopped walking, and addressed her directly, “And do you know why I haven’t got married? No, you don’t, because I have never told you.” The misty expression vanished as she proceeded, “Marriage is regarded as an example of a loving bond between man and woman, isn’t it?” It was as if she was now enjoying the disgust she felt. “The pinnacle of a sacred relationship indeed! And do you know how my parents lived? Oh, if I can put it mildly- a joyless, mundane life, just performing rituals. There- there was no spark, just compromises and constant bickering. My poor mother! She suffered all the pangs of having an indifferent, selfish and often drunken father. My poor darling mother! She had breathed her last only wishing me a happy marriage!”
Sonali was in tears. They rolled down freely. She pulled herself together and glancing at her friend, asked falteringly, “You do understand me, don’t you? I was only seventeen then. My mother at times used to cry on my shoulder at her fate.”
Cold wind blowing outside found its way through the gap between the window shutters. The noise from the window vaguely sounded like a knock. Both of them, engrossed in themselves, anxiously turned to the window. Sonali went to it and opening it, checked if anybody was there. No, she found nothing untoward.
The chill of the outside directed her to the wardrobe. Picking up a deep blue shawl from there and wrapping it around her smart top and skirt, she sat down on the stool. There was a frown on her face as she spoke, “Being so exposed throughout the day to the world, I like to be well covered when I come home… Home?” she repeated. “I mean, home or whatever. Anyway, I am glad that you are so well clothed- top to bottom. It’s sensible to guard oneself against foul stares.”
Sonali shook her head while continuing the conversation with her silent visitor. “But how silly of me! I haven’t even offered you a drink. I’ll just get it,” so saying she went into the adjoining room. From the dimly lit cabinet, she poured the gin and tonic and hurriedly came back. “I hope the drink is okay.”
They sipped from their glasses and just stared at each other. It was Sonali who broke the ice after downing a major portion of the drink. “You are so peaceful and cool about everything. I- I really envy you. Or are you just insensitive to your surroundings? Or you just don’t think!”
She took another sip from the glass. “But let’s forget you. Today it’s my day. You know, it’s my fortieth birthday. Yes, I’m proud of having fought on.” There was an uneasy pause. “Forty years to live in this world and undergoing all types of experiences! It’s like Alexander’s conquest of the world,” she laughed and looked at her friend, who was also laughing.
Though silent, her friend was keenly observing Sonali and appeared to relish the knack to make the other person open up.
Sonali continued thoughtfully, “It’s sure been a long journey! I have come across many men, but, believe me, they are all the same. Nobody really bothers about anything or anyone but himself.” She twitched her eyebrows. “! They will do anything- everything- to satiate their lust and desires. Totally heartless.” She paused to gulp the rest of the drink in the glass. “I must tell you- now that we are talking. Yes, why not? A secret that I have kept hidden with me all along-. My father was having an affair with our next-door lady. I caught him red-handed once. He emotionally bought my silence with the promise that he would be kind to my mother and never abuse me for anything. I was very naive then to understand much, and for the sake of my mother, and to avoid social embarrassment, I did not talk to anybody about it. God! It sickens me to think of it.”
Finding the glass empty, she went for a refill and soon came back.
“But of course, I am a fool to think about all this. I guess these are accepted norms of the world today, aren’t they? Come, let’s drink to my fortieth birthday. Cheers to me! Ha! Ha! Ha!” Sonali drained away half of the glass at one go, laughing heartily.
Her friend was silently enjoying herself while Sonali was staring blankly at the ceiling fan. The clock with its tick-tick-tick- suddenly caught her attention. “Yes, yes. I know you exist. Time is the only one who cannot be won over.”
With a mock bow to the clock, she added, “Time is great- everybody’s benefactor. Time gives confidence, courage and is cool. Let’s drink to the wisdom of our master- Time.”
It was a large drink she had poured this time and had nearly emptied the glass. Raising it to the clock, she spoke gustily, “You are one of the few who understand me. It is not for nothing that they attribute wisdom- or shall I say cleverness to you. Your tick-tick-tick no doubt is a constant reminder of the power you wield on us mortals. Cheers to you, my Master! I shall follow the path you pave for me!”
Sonali’s face was rather flushed. She steadied her gaze at the image she saw in the oval mirror in front of her. She steadfastly went on staring at it and raising the pitch of her voice, spoke with a touch of menace, “But why are you so serene? Remove that mask from your face. Come on! Shake it off!”
She got up and still staring at the mirror, almost growled, “I say remove that mask. Get rid of the pretense you have been carrying all these years. Thank God, I did not take your earlier advice and follow your footsteps of being a coward- accepting all that comes without even a whimper. Yes, I have struggled a lot for my existence, but have lived on my own terms and beliefs. And, seeing your docile and complacent attitude, increases my resolve to fight and brave it out further. And also, I must tell you, that seeing your meek, wishy-washy and spiritless display all these years, has today driven out my middle-age fears. No, on second thoughts, we can never be friends-.”
The next moment she had splashed the left-over whiskey on the mirror. And with that splash, vanished the image of her visitor in the mirror. Sonali, wrapping the shawl tightly around her, proudly walked away towards the main door of the house, to go and celebrate her fortieth with her four close friends waiting in a restaurant.