A Good Woman (Excerpts from a novel in progress): Ratika Kapur
I was walking towards the ticket window to buy my Metro pass when a man stopped me.
Where are you going? he said.
Can’t you see where I am going? I said.
There is a line here, he said.
I am in the ladies’ line, I said.
I can’t see any ladies’ line, he said.
Just as I was about to tell him to mind his own business, a younger man in a blue and grey striped tie interrupted us.
Bhaisahib, he said in a gentle kind of way, let madam go ahead.
That was how I first met Vineet.
Three days later we were both standing on the platform at Hauz Khas waiting for the train to arrive. He didn’t see me, but I could see him at some distance from where I stood. I thought that if I fixed my eyes on him he would, in time, look at me. And he did.
Thank you for that day, I said.
He walked up to me with some hesitation in his step. I am sorry, I didn’t hear you, he said.
Thank you for that day in the line, I said.
The train pulled in. He smiled, turned and walked towards the far end of the train. I stepped into the ladies’ compartment.
For several weeks after that I saw him at the station on my way to the clinic. I didn’t see him every day, but at least two or three mornings in a week I would find him on the platform at the Hauz Khas Metro station, standing straight and still and smart, jacket, shirt, trousers, tie, waiting for the HUDA City Centre train to arrive. While other men played with their phones or peered down the train tunnel or walked up and down the platform or stared at women, he stood still, statue-still, waiting for the train to arrive. I liked that. I also liked how he dressed, and from the clothes he wore I thought that he worked in an office, an air-conditioned office with carpeted floors and cubicles in one of Gurgaon’s new steel and glass buildings. His trousers always had sharp creases that disappeared only where the pleats began, and his creaseless shirts made it clear that not only were they sent to a neighbourhood ironing stand, but also that they were returned on hangers, not folded.
One morning I was standing behind him at the x-ray machine waiting for my purse, when something came over me and from over his shoulder I said, Are you going to work?
He turned around abruptly and looked at me, first at my face, then at my feet. Then he nodded and smiled. He was wearing the same tie. Broad blue and grey stripes. He told me later that he had bought it from Shoppers Stop for nine hundred rupees. The brand was Zodiac.
I will say that I am not that kind of woman. I come from a good family, a well-educated family, and I don’t talk to men without reason. Men come up to me all the time. Some will offer me a smile, some will try to talk and some, I have seen, will allow their eyes to roam over my body. But I simply walk away every time. I will also say that I have no doubt that he, too, isn’t that kind of man, the kind of man who makes passes at women. No. Like me, he is from a good family, and I knew this from the first moment I saw him. And that is why when we met again at the station a few days later and he asked if I would like to meet him at Barista in SDA the following Sunday, I said yes. I waited for a few moments, of course, but then I accepted his invitation.
We met at eleven in the morning, I remember, and there was a lot of noise all around. Still, it was a nice kind of noise, it was happy noise. There were a group of girls playing a board game, three old women wearing blouses and trousers, who were chatting loudly and drinking coffee, and a boy strumming a guitar. It was the first time I had been to Barista.
Our table was mostly quiet. Neither of us asked many questions, neither of us said much. We watched the young and old seated nearby, we looked up at the TV, and once or twice we looked at each other. We talked a little about the cold and a little about the news. That was all, and as it should have been.
After that day, after that outing to Barista, we have met a few times for short periods, for samosas at Shefali Sweets, for momos outside the station. And then there are the rides together on the Metro when we go to work, which happen, unplanned, two or three times in a week. We never say much on the train and I like it like that. Actually, there is nothing that I want to say to him, nothing that I want to hear from him, and I am happy to just stand quietly by his side and look out at the shops and the trees that go by. I don’t want anything else. You may think that this is odd, but the truth is that it isn’t actually the person that he is as much as it is the presence that he has that I want to be near. When I am around him I feel calm. I feel like I do when I see photographs of snow.
And, as it should be, we have got to know each other slowly. We have got to know each other as friends. In the time since we first met he has told me some small and big things about himself. He always has a cold bath, even in January. He likes eating uncooked paneer from Quality Dairy in Aurobindo Place Market and the smell of petrol makes him vomit. Otherwise, Vineet Sehgal is thirty years old and has lived in Delhi all his life. He has a BA in hotel management, he works as a manager in a hotel in Gurgaon, and one day he is going to start his own catering business. His father died six years ago and he lives with his mother in Shivalik. His shirts are not sent to an ironing stand. His mother irons them. I saw a photograph of her on the wallpaper of his mobile, a fair lady in a pale yellow chiffon sari posing in front of Akshardham Temple. He is an only child.
There are, of course, many things that he hasn’t told me. I don’t know why at thirty years of age he is still not married. I don’t know if he sleeps well at night, or if his mother opens the door with a smile when he returns home from work, or if he likes walking around in the mall. And I don’t know if he cries. Still, some things I have come to know on my own. I know that he is an ambitious man. From time to time he has talked about saving up enough money to buy a flat in Ghaziabad or Greater Noida, a nice new flat that has 24-hour electricity back-up and water supply, a lobby, and a children’s park with swings and a slide. He says that by selling the flat that he lives in he will have enough money for the down payment, and if he gets a second job at a call centre, the income from that, along with his mother’s schoolteacher salary, could cover the monthly instalments. I also know from the way he carries himself, from how he is always so still, so calmly still, whether he is standing and waiting for the train or he is sitting across a table from me, I know that he is a man of confidence, of quiet confidence, the kind of confidence that usually comes with age, the kind that I have only seen in my father or Doctor Sahib. Maybe Vineet has an old heart.
Then last evening happened. We went to India Gate for ice cream. He had come up to me at the station on Wednesday and asked if I would go with him on a short outing on his motorbike, which had just come back from the workshop. Now, I wasn’t born yesterday. I know what it can mean, I know what it can feel like, to ride behind a man on a two-wheeler. I know that as the journey progresses the man may gradually lean back towards the woman until his body is pressing against her chest, while the woman’s hands could move from the handlebar behind her to the man’s waist and then finally rest on his thighs as she leans forward against him. But I also know that this can only happen if a woman allows it to happen, which, of course, I would never do. And I know that he is a good man who would never play such games with a woman. That is why I agreed to go out with him. I agreed to go out with him and I don’t think that it was wrong.
I actually thought that Vineet would want to ask me some questions. For all that I know about him, there is so little that he knows about me apart from my first name and the fact that I work at a doctor’s clinic in Gurgaon. But even yesterday he asked me nothing specific about my life, my home, my family. It is a little odd, but maybe he is just shy, maybe he doesn’t like to interfere in the lives of others. Or maybe he is just afraid to know.
We reached India Gate at around seven. The lawns on both sides of Rajpath were filled with people. Everywhere there were children, children with their families, and there were lovers and hawkers and policemen. We parked somewhere near the middle of Rajpath, where all the ice-cream carts were lined up. I stayed seated on the bike, he got off. The left leg of his trousers had hitched up a little. I looked up the road, at the dark shapes of the buildings on Raisina Hill set against a lighter evening sky, then I looked down the road at India Gate. Both ends of Rajpath were quiet, unlit. Both ends were like paintings that I have seen in Doctor Sahib’s house. It was quite beautiful.
A little later we walked down towards India Gate, without words. To our left and right, balloons, toy helicopters, flashing lights, hundreds of happy voices crowded the air over the lawns. When we got to the police barrier we stopped. As I looked up at the monument I tried to count the number of times I had been here. My rough calculation was one hundred and sixty, about ten times a year for sixteen years. I remembered how in the early days Bobby always had to be bought an orange bar or a balloon. There were no police barriers in those days. You could park your scooter anywhere you wanted. And then I remembered the last time I was there, standing just there in front of India Gate, a year and a half ago in November 2009. That was when the trip to the mountains, to Manali, was planned. It was planned for this summer, actually. We should have been there right now.
What are you thinking? Vineet said to me.
Nothing, I said.
No, tell me, he said.
I want to touch snow, I said.
I can’t make you touch snow, he said, but I can buy you an ice cream.
I asked for a Vadilal Chocobar, but he bought me a Feast from Kwality Walls. It was for twenty-five rupees.
Do you like it? he said.
Yes, I said.
As good as snow? he said.
I don’t know, I said. I haven’t tasted snow.
I got him to drop me at the vegetable seller in the market, I said that I needed to buy some onions, and then I walked home. It was almost nine o’clock when I entered the house, and Papaji and Mummyji were lying on their beds in the hall watching TV. I had told them that I was going to Sarojini Nagar with my friend Rosie, a very sweet nurse from the clinic, to help her shop for her daughter’s wedding. They would not have understood if I had said that I was going out with a man. So, I greeted them both, picked up the dry clothes from the balcony and went into the bedroom.
Bobby was lying down with his headphones on, listening to music on his mobile, his feet hanging off his folding bed and his eyes closed. All six feet of him were still. Bobby is a big, strong boy. I have only ever given him Mother Dairy token milk because the cream in packet milk isn’t evenly distributed. I give him two glasses every day and when he was younger I would give him three. I poked him in the stomach. His eyes opened, then shut again. He is a little sulky these days. My feeling is that he has girl problems. Or maybe he was a little upset that I had gone out without him, although he wouldn’t have come along even if I had asked him to. What can I say? Bobby is a good boy, but sometimes he is just a little more sensitive than other boys his age, which I suspect is because of the kinds of books he reads. Reading is a very good habit, I know, but one must read the correct kinds of books. When I was young, I read newspapers and encyclopaedias and almanacs, not mindless novels and comics. So, I was folding the clothes and trying to talk to Bobby, trying to make him smile, when my mobile suddenly beeped. I took it out of my purse and saw that it was an SMS from Vineet asking me to call. I deleted it, finished folding the clothes, then went into the bathroom and called him.
Like me, he was whispering too. His mother must have been nearby. He asked me if I had had a good time, he worried that I might have been bored. I told him that I had had a lot of fun. I told him that I hadn’t had so much fun in a long time. That was the truth.
And then suddenly he said, I like talking to you.
What did you say? I said, although I had heard him.
I like talking to you, he said.
Thank you, I said. There was nothing else I could say.
It is the truth, he said.
Then I laughed.
It is cute how you laugh, he said. You laugh like a schoolgirl.
But I am not a schoolgirl. He knows that. I am a wife and a mother of a fourteen-year-old boy. That he doesn’t know. And he doesn’t need to. Who is he to me? He is just some man whom I saw on the Metro and somehow we got talking, somehow we have got to be something like friends, and that is all. We go on little outings together. That is all. And he hasn’t even bothered to ask me anything about myself. If he does, which is unlikely, because he seems like the kind of person for whom such facts as your father’s name, your husband’s name, your address, your work, don’t actually matter, but if a time comes when he does ask me, I will tell him. What do I have to hide?
Still, I know that I must be careful not to take a wrong step. That is why I constantly say to Bobby, Watch your step. Watch your every step. People will tell you to walk with your head held high, but I say, Look down to the ground and watch where you place your foot. We hear it on the train every day, Mind the gap. When you get on to the train, Mind the gap. When you get off the train, Mind the gap. Sometimes wisdom is found in odd places.
My name is Mrs Renuka Sharma. I am a thirty-six-year-old married lady. I am a respectable married lady from a good family, and I have a child and a respectable job and in-laws to look after. I am not a schoolgirl, and even when I was one, when I was Miss Renuka Mishra, I never indulged in the kind of foolish things that other girls my age would indulge in. There was no sneaking out of school to meet a boy, there were no notes or love letters exchanged, or phone calls in the dark when the adults were asleep. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t catch the attention of the boys around me. I was a pretty girl, a clever, pretty girl, and it isn’t my habit to boast, but the truth is that I broke some hearts in the boys’ school across the road. Still, I think that I knew then, as I know well now, that such foolishness is a waste of time.