What could I possibly cook for dinner? That’s what I was thinking about when I ran into Sonal a few yards from my front gate. My heart sank. Unnecessary conversations always drained me. Especially when they were with neighbors. The burden of knowing that the same dull scripts would be replayed over and over again. Neighborly visits had become a lot more frequent after my wife left me for a man who wasn’t a distinguished, balding schoolteacher like myself. He was one of those abhorrent specimens who dye their moustaches and drop dead on dance floors while they try to exhibit their eternal youthfulness. I liked to think that his German-style hair weaving had done the trick. Not that I liked to think about it. I rarely did. Life goes on and so on so forth. But I sure as hell could do without all the sympathy I was attracting. Sonal, apart from being in my life as the result of real estate coincidence, was also a teacher in the History department of which I was the head.
I smiled at her widely and said a warm and affectionate ‘hello’ to compensate for my near sprint to the door. I wasn’t nearly fast enough. To my dismay, she grabbed my arm. I had no choice but to stop.
“Is anything the matter Sonal?” I asked, once I was close enough to notice how distraught she looked.
Her voice trembling, she said, “Yes something is the matter.”
A digression from the script then. At least she wasn’t talking about what the matter with me was. I cursed both her and myself as I put an avuncular arm around her shoulders. “Why don’t you come inside for a moment? Have a drink.”
She nodded feebly and to my horror twisted her body so that we were locked in a hug. I tried to disengage myself gently from the clammy arms around my neck.
I repeated, “Why don’t we go inside?” God help me, was she blowing her nose on my shirt? I didn’t dare look but it was a possibility since she had started to cry. I felt sorry for her and even sorrier for myself. I had been looking forward to a few solitary hours before I could finally go to sleep.
I led her in. I am not what you could call a Good Samaritan, but I wasn’t a bad Samaritan either. I can drive past accidents without the slightest twinge of guilt, but when it came to sweaty weeping women at my doorstep, I was, as I discovered that night, a tea-making paragon of crisis counselorship. I led her into my sitting room and told her to make herself comfortable.
She sniffled with discomfiting gratitude, “Thank you, Mr. Mehrotra.”
The way she said it made it clear that it was, as they say, from the heart. I felt almost guilty about my own half-heartedness about the whole thing. “No problem, Sonal. Now will you tell me how I can help you?”
She gazed at me adoringly through her bloodshot bleary eyes. “You’re a good man. You’re a kind man….” She covered her face, but I could hear the howl of anguish that she was trying to muffle with her hands. This was decidedly alarming.
I asked. “Some tea? Coffee?”
She looked up at me with her red-rimmed eyes. “Do you have anything stronger?”
I rarely drink, but I recalled that my jovial and drunken friend, Hari had recently left behind a bottle of hooch in a well-meaning bid to acquaint me with the joys of alcohol. I said, “Yes, I think I do have something stronger.”
I went to the kitchen cabinet to fetch the promised drink and when I returned bearing the reeking glasses of cheap gin, she seemed to have regained some of her composure. I asked her for what seemed like the umpteenth time. “What’s the matter?”
She looked up at me with a ridiculous brave smile that she must have picked up from movies about wronged women. Her voice soft, she said, “It’s my husband.”
Isn’t it always? I didn’t say that though. “Hmm.” That’s what I did say to keep her talking. The psychoanalytic ruse worked and her words gushed out in a torrent of tears and mucus.
Sonal looked adequately attractive at her best. She was about 25 years old, so how could she not? But the way she looked now gave me a fair idea of what she’d look like five years down the line. Old. I tried to calculate her age in dog years. About 7 years for every human year. I am not a cold and unsympathetic person, but my ears had been conditioned, first by mother and then by my wife, to retreat into deafness at the very hint of a hysterical female voice in the vicinity. I had already heard enough about the tragedy of Sonal’s marital life in the staff room. Ad nauseam. Sonal victimized by the womanizing Ravi. Sonal and her psychiatrist, and the cross she had to bear. All this information revealed by boringly contented colleagues. Secret.
My reverie was interrupted by sudden silence from her. I looked at her. She stared back at me and said, “So what should I do? Should I just go ahead and end all of it? End my life?”
What should she do? What should I do? Her question was far from rhetorical, if the slightly deranged glint in her eyes was anything to go by. Why me, why me goddamnit? I knew that she had to be kept alive. Like most mortals, I knew little about death. I did know what it meant to breathe though. After a pause, I said hesitantly, “That’s a choice you’ll have to make.”
She shook her head. “But how many choices do I have?”
I felt hunted. The unwilling Swami. The man who knows too little. But I have a daughter. I know something about responsibility. So I presented her with a random, senseless thought that would no doubt lead to some conclusion since I had dared to complete the sentence. Cluedo time. “Aren’t all choices eventually dead-ends?”
She looked bemused. “What do you mean by that?”
I found myself stammering as I tried to answer her. I didn’t know what I meant by that either. But I carried on. “What I meant is that even when you think there isn’t a choice, there’s always death. That’s one of the choices.”
She interrupted shrilly, “Are you trying to tell me that I should commit suicide just because my husband is having an affair?”
I smiled. “Exactly. Listen to yourself.” I emphasized, “Should I commit suicide just because my husband is having an affair? Hear this Sonal: just because.” I continued, “The other choice is life.” I was surprised and a bit annoyed at the ease with which these homilies emerged from the ™ plastic pop psychology part of my brain.
She slugged back her gin quietly for a while and then produced two vials of tranquilizers from her purse. “My doctor gave me those to make me feel better. I’ve been collecting them for three months. Ever since Samir told me that he wants a divorce.” That brave smile again. “I was so sure I wanted to kill myself. But I don’t know why I wanted to meet you, of all people, before doing it.” She realized the tactlessness of her honest remark and fumbled. “That didn’t sound the way I meant it to… you know what…”
I cut her off mid-sentence. It was the only polite thing to do. “I know what you mean.”
She smiled gratefully. “It’s just that I couldn’t talk to my husband and my friends would have reacted… emotionally. My doctor would have done his job… so…”
I nodded empathetically. “You needed to talk to someone who’s detached but not someone who’s an utter stranger to this scenario.”
She vigorously agreed. “Yes, that’s it. I know that we don’t know each other so well, but I get really good vibes from you.”
I wished fervently that the topic of conversation would veer towards Feng Shui or auras or suchlike. Though under normal circumstances I would have wished for quite the opposite. If wishes were horses and so on because she continued.
“And there’s also the matter of what you had to go through… er… I hope you don’t mind me saying this?”
I said, “Not at all.”
She barely waited to acknowledge my permission and rattled on, “When I learned that your wife had … gone away…”
I decided to put an end to her awkwardness by speaking matter of factly. “Yes. Our divorce will be coming through soon.”
She lightened up a little. “Yes, well… I heard about that. And though we never spoke about it, I used to feel this connection between us. Of going through the same pain and everything.”
For God’s sake! I wondered what it would take to get her out my house. I shrugged, “Yes, well.” I added a sigh of resignation to complete the image of the battle- weary survivor she clearly expected me to be.
“Oh, Mr. Mehrotra. You know something? You’re truly an inspiration to me. You’re so much stronger than I could ever hope to be…”
I smiled modestly while kicking myself for the legacy of inspiration I’d leave Sonal with.
“Tell me how you did it, Mr. Mehrotra? How did you remain so calm, so peaceful? Working everyday. Even though the other man…” She clamped her mouth shut with her hand and looked at me slyly, shyly. Hoping for another ‘go ahead’ no doubt. Enough was enough.
“That’s OK. Like I said, there are always choices.”
She took this in while she finished her drink. She glanced at her watch. “Gosh! It’s late! I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time, Mr. Mehrotra. Burdening you with my problems… but you’ve made me feel so much lighter. So much more hopeful.” She got up and with a triumphant flourish knocked the contents of her suicide vials into my wastepaper basket. This, I felt, was done more for my benefit than for hers. She was demonstrating her saved ‘state of being’ to pay the savior his due. I humored her by smiling broadly with satisfaction. In her mind, now, we were even.
I followed her to the door and shook her hand. I said, “So you’ll be OK?”
She replied, “Yes I will. I’ll survive.” A Gloria Gaynor moment. She squeezed my hand and said again, “I’ll live, thank you.”
I closed the door behind her. Alone at last in my sanctuary. I sat on my chair. I thought about Sonal. She’d been married for less than five years. My wife had stayed with me for decades more. From where I sat I could see right into the wicker dustbin. I picked up a pill. Swallowed some gin. Then another pill. Some more gin. Who could have ever imagined that Sonal could be so immaculately reasonable? I swallowed another pill. Then another. And then I thought of silliness.