This is not my story.
Any similarity between any of the characters and me is purely coincidental. Now look away from me and look at them.
For the convenience of telling this story, we’ll name them Ajay and Sangita. Let’s move on.
Move on, dammit.
Sangita lives in an apartment, the place where the story begins – the story actually begins way back; like everything else, it has a past and buildup and history, but for the sake of focus, let us assume it begins one rainy afternoon in her apartment. Things would have turned out so differently if she had not opened her door at the precise moment when her neighbour Mr Das was passing by. But she did, and he saw her agitated face and disheveled dress and, more importantly, he saw Ajay behind her, looking every bit guilty as he was, buttoning up his shirt.
Mr Das would have passed by without even a smile, but the tell-tale faces stopped him on his tracks.
“Sangita,” he blurted out. “Is everything all right?”
Now, Mr Das is not normally a person who would ask that kind of a question to anyone. In fact, given a chance, he would not even raise his eyes to look at anyone. He was not the kind who had a high opinion of social niceties like smiling and saying ‘Hello’. He was a sleepy, timid man who was in love with the boredom of his life and who would steer clear of anything that had a hint of life to it. If he saw a movement one kilometre away, he would take another route so as to avoid confrontation with anyone or anything. When Sangita opened the door, he was startled and the words had spilled out unintentionally. If he had been his normal self, things would have remained calm and perhaps the story would have ended elsewhere. It is unnerving to think that the fate of an entire group of people depended on the glance of a man and his unexpected verbal outburst.
So, the question coming from him shocked Sangita, and she burst into tears. The question, coming from him, shocked himself, and he was suddenly urged to do better. He pointed his index finger at Ajay and shouted: “You! What are you doing here?”
Ajay straightened his shirt and his jeans and, sweating profusely but refusing to utter a word, walked out.
“Did he-?” Mr Das asked Sangita.
She dropped her eyes and nodded.
Mr Das was determined to outdo himself. He grabbed Ajay by the scruff of his neck and led him to the security’s room at the gate. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. The point to note here is that Ajay did not resist, and went along willingly. Soon, a crowd gathered and Mr Das found himself where he would never have expected himself to be; he was surprised that he actually enjoyed being the centre of attention.
Everyone was excited and at a loss, and talking all at once. Some wanted to take the law into their own hands and bash Ajay up, others wanted to hand him over to the police, and some others demanded to know what was going on. A few men and women did manage to deliver slaps across his face and head. His shirt buttons tore. Sangita stood a few feet away, distraught, watching the proceedings. A few women of the apartment had gathered around her, offering kind words.
That the electrician of the apartment would do this was astounding. But, as some women whispered among themselves, no one could be trusted these days. These people – the electrician and the plumber and the carpenter – had the right to walk around the house at all hours. They were the bosses. We had to be careful and that was that.
Finally, the president of the apartment association took out his mobile phone and announced that he was calling the police station. The SI was his pal. Ajay stiffened at this. The security guard, his good friend, tightened his grip on his arm. Friendship was different, job was different, a case of molestation was entirely different.
“Sir,” The president heard a small voice near him. He turned around; it was Sangita, her eyes pleading. “Please don’t. I may have made a mistake.”
Everyone turned to her.
“I don’t know what his intentions were.”
She said that she had been sick and disoriented. He had come to check on an electrical issue. Probably she had reacted too soon. She was worried that an innocent man would be punished. He was already beaten up by the residents, she didn’t think he would ever dream of approaching another woman.
“But I saw him!” said Mr Das.
“I panicked,” she said. “I was confused.”
“Call the police anyway. Let them decide.”
Sangita said she was worried about what this would do to her. Her life would be ruined. This name would follow her everywhere. There was no way she could hush it up. The whole neighbourhood would know. She would be shunned and ignored.
Some of the neighbours nodded in understanding. She would be almost as severely punished as the accused himself.
The president was disappointed and expressed his opinion in the loudest way possible. “This is why the guilty get away free in this country!” he said. “Because victims are afraid to speak.” He stamped his foot and asked her to reconsider. “We will stand by and support and protect you,” he said.
“I am sorry,” she said. “It’s my life and there isn’t much you can do.”
Someone suggested that they report Ajay to the police anyway, without divulging Sangita’s name. He had to be punished. “But,” Sangita said in a low voice, “if they ask me, I will deny that it happened. Someone else will have to pretend that she is the victim.”
She turned to go.
Mrs Das asked in a loud whisper to her husband, “What were you doing here at this time of the day?” Everyone knew he was at work until late at night, even on Sundays. He didn’t reply.
“Wait,” said another of the residents gently to Sangita. “Did he… touch you?”
She hesitated and glanced at Ajay. His hair in disarray, a hand grabbing the back of his neck, another clutching his arm, raindrops dripping from his hair, he stared ahead, his face frozen and emotionless as usual.
She dropped her gaze. “No,” she said.
Ajay was fired from the job. Sangita’s silence did not protect her; people soon heard and they treated her as though she had a contagious disease. A few months later, she moved to another part of the town, where she hoped her reputation would not follow her.
Mr Das continued to perform in his newfound burst of energy. Soon he found himself attending association meetings and being selected to roles where he had to make speeches and face people and be at the forefront of confrontations.
Rumour had it that the showdown with his wife after the incident made him brave enough to face any other catastrophe in life. He had lost his job a few days prior to the Sangita case – as it came to be known – and he had not informed her. Neighbours had an earful of their verbal battle that night at home.
It must be said in his defense that he emerged stronger and bolder from it.
Truth does not go away just because you refuse to acknowledge its existence. It stays out of sight and bides its time.
They all refused to see Truth sitting on their noses and making faces at them. They flicked it away as though it were an annoying fly.
The president was disgruntled and made it clear every chance he got; the story about a criminal getting away before their eyes because the victim was afraid to raise her voice travelled far and wide. The president had already had a bad experience with his clouded judgment. He had been the president of the apartment since forever. He was like one of those dictators you heard of, who were part of the past, the present, and were very likely to be around long into the future as well – the ones who featured in your history book, and when you opened the newspaper in the morning, you would be astounded to find that he was still the ruler of that country, still ruling as he always did. It was possible that the other residents found it easier to plop the job on his shoulders and allow him to happily whine about his many responsibilities, daily.
Anyway, many years ago, there was a theft in the apartment. One of the men heard noises in the night and saw that one of the houses was broken into. The owners were on vacation. He called the security guard and they sneaked into the house and caught the thief. The president and prominent decision-makers of the apartment were roused from sleep, and the thief was brought before them to be questioned. They found that he did not have anything on him, and in a collective lapse of judgment led by the president himself – that they could later attribute only to the lateness of the hour – they warned the thief sternly and let him go. When the owner rushed home the next day, he found several valuables missing. He could not believe that the thief was not handed over to the police. The president had no answer. The owner cursed the intelligentsia of the apartment to his heart’s content, picked up the rest of his things and moved to another apartment.
The president did not want another culprit to slip through his fingers. And yet, history was repeating, right under his large nose and thick mustache and powerful glasses, and there was nothing he could do to alter its path. He stepped down as president in a vehement show of protest, and Mr Das was quickly installed in his place.
No one saw Ajay after that. Even the security guard, who was his friend, refrained from contacting him for he was a man with high morals and in his eyes, this was unforgivable.
Everything has to return to its former state before evolving to something new; everyone has to confront their past at least once before moving on.
Ajay vanished… until a year later, when Sangita came face to face with him in the supermarket on the other side of the town. Both of them were startled and froze for a long instant. Then she whirled around, and dashed out of the shop, abandoning her purchases. She heard him say “wait!” but she didn’t.
She knew he would find her, sooner or later; her house was too close to the supermarket. In the next few days, whenever she went out, her eyes darted in all directions to see if he would materialise from somewhere. He appeared a week later, near her house, when she was returning from her job.
“Please don’t run,” he said, raising both hands. “I only want to talk to you.”
She took a deep breath. She thought he looked thinner than she remembered. “That’s my house,” she said. “Come on in.”
He shook his head, his eyes widening at the memory of the last time he had stepped into her house.
“Oh just come on,” she said and walked forward.
He cursed himself for being a fool and making the same mistake again, and followed her.
She went in to the kitchen as he made himself uncomfortably comfortable on her couch. “Relax,” she said. “My old apartment-mates aren’t going to see you here. I will make you some tea.”
“I only came to apologise,” he said. “I had to find you. When I went away, I wasn’t thinking straight. I had just wanted to escape. I came to my senses much later and by then, you had moved out from there.”
“What are you talking about? I should be the one apologising.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, accepting tea from her. “You had to do it. And I can understand why. At that moment I was confused but I did figure out that you had to protect your name.”
“I wasn’t thinking either. I was terrified and didn’t know what to do. I dared not confess the truth. I am the guilty one.”
“Look Ajay, there is no need to be gallant about it. I had called you in because I was lonely and desperate and frustrated and beaten and I don’t know what else. I saw you and I wanted to do something gross. I wanted to do something to break the monotony of my life. I just wanted to do something. And when you came in, when I saw in your eyes that you wanted it too, I felt better, I felt good. I felt so much better than I had in months. I felt as though I had won. I don’t regret it for one moment.”
“But then – and I wondered so many times – why did you stop? Why did you push me away? Why did you ask me to leave?”
She shrugged. It was a mere memory now, and had long stopped tormenting her.
“At the crucial moment, I panicked. I was terrified and I don’t know where that feeling of guilt popped up from, all of a sudden. All the elation vanished for an instant. Unnecessary thoughts about right and wrong burst in. I wasn’t sure any more if I wanted to go through with it. I am sorry I stopped you. If I hadn’t, that old man wouldn’t have found us. Everything would have been different.”
Ajay remained silent, his eyes not leaving her face for an instant.
“And yet, that’s what happened, and everything turned out the way it did. You don’t have to apologise. It’s over. We don’t have to see each other again. As for me, the change did me good. I found a better, more satisfying job. No one here knows my story. It’s as though I have put my past behind me, finally. What about you? Where do you work now?”
He said that he had started his own business, and was doing okay.
“See?” she said. “Whatever happened had happened for the best.”
He put down the cup and rose. “Are you sure?”
They did not run into each other again. He returned to his business, and she to her life. Her old neighbours remained mercifully oblivious of this meeting of the victim and the accused. Generations of apartment residents continued to hear the dreadful story of the woman who was molested by the electrician. The Sangita case taught them to be wary of everyone who knocked at their door.
Don’t ask me how I know this story to be True. Just trust me on this. However, any similarity between any of the characters and me is purely and utterly coincidental.
But if you catch me sitting on your nose, mocking you, you better not flick me away.
Now let’s move on.