Creative Writing, Fiction, Stories by Vikram Karve

A literary and creative writing weblog by Vikram Karve of Pune India

Friday, June 30, 2006

My Valentine

(a fiction short story)

(This happened quite a few years ago. Long back enough for me to tell it to you now! And I will write here exactly as I jotted it down soon after it happened).

Vandana dragged me to the New Year’s Eve party at the Gymkhana Club. “I’d feel good,” she said. I’d been wallowing in my grief too long and it was high time I forgot the tragic events of my past and got on with my life. Besides, she couldn’t go alone. Would I be good enough to escort her?

The moment we entered, Vandana was whisked away to the dance-floor. By one of those young desperate bachelors, who are present in every such party. I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, I felt relieved. For I was in no mood to dance. Though time had passed since fate had cruelly snatched away Rajashree from my life.

I picked up a glass of whisky from the bar and took up a strong tactical position with my back to the wall from where I could watch the entrance, the dance-floor and all the happenings at the ball in a discreet manner without being observed.

I saw her almost at once. Her snow-white dress, unusual and eye-catching in the sea of sober blacks and grays. Skin-tight. Hip-hugging. She was only about ten feet away, but had her back to me, and I did no more than register general approval.

Then she turned, and I saw her face. And the impact was so overwhelming that I heard myself gasp!

She turned further, and looked at me. Straight at me. And for just a fraction of a second I thought that it was all a bad dream, for there was my very own Rajashree herself! The same big eyes, set in the same way, in the same rather small face. The same high cheekbones. The same habit of lifting the chin with the head slightly thrown back.

It was only for a fraction of a second, of course. Then I began to see the difference. She was slightly taller than Rajashree. The big eyes had no gray in them. Not even a hint of the greenish gray. They were pure brown. And her complexion. The texture or her hair. Wavy. Almost identical. But just that slight difference.

I was staring brazenly. With undisguised directness. Maybe, even rudely.

At first she realized that I was looking at her. Then, she accepted the fact of being looked at. And finally, she began to look at me in return.

I must have been so engrossed that I hadn’t sensed Vandana come by my side silently observing the goings on with interest.

Embarrassed, I tried to change my focus.

“Dance over?” I asked.

“That Pongo! Thought he was on a parade ground! Stepped on my toes. I walked out.” Vandana paused, and asked, “What were you up to?”

“Nothing. Just having a drink.”
“Vivek,” Vandana said.” You’ve got this delightful habit.”
“What habit?”
“Of looking at a woman in an insistent, suggestive sort of way which is worth a hundred compliments.”

“No,” I protested, blushing terribly.
“Come on, Vivek,” Vandana said taking my arm. “I’ve even seen you looking at me. Eyeing me blatantly, almost hungrily. So many times. Giving me those canny looks when you thought I wasn’t noticing.”

I felt ashamed. Of having eyed Vandana. Of having eyed that woman in the snow-white dress. So openly. Staring. As if in a trance. She was still standing there.

“Why don’t you ask her for a dance?” Vandana said.
“Who?” I asked, trying to sound innocent.
“You know who!” Vandana said. “The object of your attention. The woman in white.”

“No,” I said.
“Why not?” Vandana persisted.
“I’m very sentimental, Vandana. I cry easily.” I paused for a moment, and then said, “If she refuses me, I’ll be shattered.”

“But why should she refuse you, Vivek? It’s New Year’s Eve. And she has come here to dance.” Vandana asked.

“I don’t know. I’m scared. I don’t have the guts to go and ask her.”

“I think you’re really cute, Vivek. And handsome. Let’s dance. Forget her. Think of me instead!”

But I couldn’t forget her. The woman in white. And Rajashree. My late wife. The striking similarity. I cannot begin to describe my emotion as I danced with Vandana, with the woman in white mesmerizing me in my mind’s eye. But as we danced, I must have pulled Vandana close, my mind elsewhere. For when the lights went out to ring in the New Year, I found Vandana tightly embracing me. And kissing me passionately. I kissed her back. For who can resist a full-blooded embrace of a passionate woman in the prime of her life.

On New Year’s day, I got up early in the morning, put on my track suit for my customary jog down to Sims Park. The air was so pure that I smelt a whiff of perfume even at a distance. It was her! The woman of my dreams! The woman in white! Now wearing jeans, jacket and black leather gloves. Walking briskly in the direction of Coonoor. I followed her. All the way down to the railway station. The morning passenger train to Ooty was already standing on the platform. She sat right in front, facing forward in the first car. I sat diagonally opposite, but way behind, in order to get a good view.

She got down at Lovedale, the station just before Ooty. And as she walked across the platform I noticed several things which had not struck me the New Year’s Eve party. The resemblance to Rajashree was still startling. But she was younger than I had thought – may be 25, at the most 27 – whereas Rajashree had been 33. One year ago. When the cruel hand of fate snatched her away. Now this woman who had come into my life so suddenly was also going away.

I felt an instant urge to jump off the train and rush towards her, but I restrained myself. And suddenly the train started moving towards Ooty.

When I returned home to Coonoor in the evening, I found Vandana waiting for me. She seemed livid.

“Happy New Year!” I said.

“I thought you wished me quite eloquently at the stroke of midnight!” Vandana said full of sarcasm. “Have you gone crazy? Gallivanting around whole day like a zombie. In your track suit?”

I flushed in embarrassment.
“It’s good she didn’t notice you,” Vandana said. “You almost jeopardized our mission.”

“Our mission?” I said incredulously.
“I’ll explain,” Vandana said.
“Have you put me under surveillance?” I asked angrily.
“You better pull up your socks, Vivek Mathur,” Vandana said patronizingly. “You didn’t even notice me sitting right behind you.”

I was dumbfounded. Vandana had followed me in the train all the way to Ooty and I hadn’t even noticed.

“And many mercies,” she added as an after thought, “For not getting down at Lovedale and making an ass yourself.”

“She looks like my wife,” I said sheepishly.
“I know. That’s why we’ve chosen you for the assignment,” Vandana said matter-of-factly.

“Assignment?” I asked dumbfounded.

“It’s time to return where you really belong, Vivek. Into the wilderness of mirrors,” Vandana said, softly taking my hand. “One year is long time to be in mourning.”

My profession is a solitary one, whose sine qua non is the power of anonymity. It was the 6th of January 5.00 pm. And I stood on MG Road in Bangalore watching her entering Gangaram’s – a three storeyed bookshop. One of my favorites.

It was the crucial test of anonymity. If I passed, I got the assignment. Suppose she recognized me, it was curtains as far as this career was concerned. And I would have no choice but to return to my teaching job.

I entered, walked briskly up the steps, and stepped into the bookstore. There she was. Browsing. I went across and picked up a book. She looked up. Our eyes met. I felt a tremor of trepidation. For a moment I was anxious, lest she recognize me. But she nonchalantly put the book she was holding, back on the shelf. And casually walked away. No trace of recognition! I felt relieved. Or did I? Maybe my anxiety had, in reality, been hope. Hope that somehow she would recognize me and my assignment would be revoked by circumstance.

I followed her into the stationery and greeting cards section on the third floor.

“I want a Valentine’s Day card.” I heard her ask. “I want something very special. Exclusive. Custom-made.”

“Yes, madam,” the sales girl said. “I’ll take you to the manager.”
A windfall. What luck. A custom-made Valentine’s Day Card. I knew I had the case all wrapped up.

The case? The mission. The assignment. Oh yes! Le me tell you all about it. Plainly but precisely. The way a good soldier recalls a battle. Not to win. Not to lose. But the facts. The truth.

It started as a simple inquiry – a pre-matrimonial investigation. That’s what Vandana had told me. Rita Rao. The girl in white. Who looks like Rajashree. She was clean. They gave her a clean chit. So, our client went to her father with a marriage proposal. Rita Rao’s father was delighted. Both were only children – I mean the only child of their respective parents. Scions of flourishing business families. An ideal marriage. Made business-sense too.

But Rita Rao refuses. Says she won’t go in for an arranged marriage with client Jayant. That’s his name. She’ll marry the man she loves.

“Who?” asks her father.

“I don’t know,” she tells her father. There are at least two, maybe three prospective candidates she has in mind. But she can’t decide. Needs time.

“Okay,” says Mr. Rao Decide by Valentine’s Day. Or else I’ll announce your engagement to Mr. Jayant on the 15th of February. Rita Rao agrees. It’s amazing. But true. The ways of the rich.

Our client Mr. Jayant is furious with Vandana. “You told me she’s clean. I want you to find out everything about her. I want his name. The man she intends marrying. Fast. At any cost. Don’t worry about expenses.”

“You’ll get the name, Mr. Jayant. By the 14th February,” Vandana assures our client.

So I shave off my beard and begin by trailing Rita Rao.

“I knew she won’t recognize you,” Vandana said, as we ordered a late evening ‘tiffin’ in our favorite restaurant on MG Road.. “You know the amount Jayant is going to pay for this assignment, its enough to last a lifetime.”

“And then?” I ventured.

“And then we go to Seychelles for a holiday. The two of us, just you and me. The cool breeze, the pristine blue waters, the silver beaches and just the both of us,” she smiled, with a far-away look in her eyes.

“I didn’t mean us,” I said softly. “Suppose we tell our client the name of Rita Rao’s ‘Valentine’, what will he do? I don’t understand why is he paying so much money just to know a name?”

“Don’t delve too deeply,” Vandana’s voice trailed off, as I noticed Rita Rao entering the restaurant. A man got up and walked toward her. The sight of Rita Rao clearly gave him great joy, for he was beaming with pleasure. So was I.

“It’s not him,” Vandana said.
“Why not?”
“Can’t you see? They love each other, but they are not in love with each other.”

“Like us?”

“No, Vivek. There’s slight difference. You love me. But it is me who is truly in love with you.”

I took Vandana’s hand, slipping my five fingers in between hers. “I’ll try,” I said. And try I did, as we cuddled very close that evening watching a romantic movie sitting in the corner seats of the movie theatre.

For the next few days we did everything possible: surveillance, bugging, but there was no clue.

Except one.

On the 31st of January, Rita Rao collected her custom-made valentine card and headed straight back to her bungalow on her Tea Estate near Ooty. And holed up there incommunicado.

Finally, on the 12th of February, Vandana’s ‘Greetings Telegram’ arrived. ( Those days there was no e-mail, no internet e-cards, no cell-phones for SMS – only greeting cards and telegrams). The handwriting on the telegram was barely legible, “Happy Birthday. See you on 14th at the Flower Show. Love. Valentine.”

I smiled to myself. Vandana had signed as ‘Valentine’ – her codeword for this mission. I realized how much Vandana loved me. I’d made her wait long enough. Now I’d seal it. On Valentine’s Day.

The fourteenth of February. The Ooty Flower Show at the Botanical gardens. Celebrating the festival of lovers. The mating season of birds. The magnificent display of roses. Vandana beside me.

I had waited for this moment and now that it had come I did not know what to do with it!

I put my hand inside my overcoat and nervously gripped the diamond necklace wrapped around a bouquet of a dozen red roses. And while taking it out I mumbled, “Vandana, thanks for the birthday greetings telegram.”

“What telegram?” Vandana asked, with genuine surprise in her eyes.
I froze. My mind went blank. I stood flummoxed, holding the necklace in my hand, frozen, not knowing what to do.

Someone was tapping my back. I turned around. And what I saw made me shell-shocked, mesmerized. It was Rita Rao. Holding out a beautifully engraved Valentine Card in her hand.

Instinctively, I gave her the diamond necklace wrapped around the bouquet of red roses and I could see the glow of love in her eyes.

Then, I turned towards Vandana. She quickly plucked out a yellow rose and gave it to me. There were tears in her eyes as she said, “Take my car. The tickets are in the dashboard. Coimbatore to Mumbai and Mumbai to Seychelles!” and she held out the keys.

The Customs Officer at Mumbai Airport opened the passport, saw the photo inside, and then had a good look at Rita. Thumbing through the pages of the passport, he asked, “Rajashree Mathur?”

“Yes,” Rita answered boldly. He stamped our passports, gave them back to us and said, “Have a nice holiday Mr. & Mrs. Mathur. Seychelles is wonderful place.”

(a story of love and romance)


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