18th July 1990. Meenakshi pressed her forefinger hard into the daily sheet calendar. As she did, she closed her eyes to recall how she had pressed the calling bell at the “Khushi Villa” exactly fifteen years ago. Fifteen years it was, since the day she had first touched down on this bungalow tucked away peacefully in a remote corner of Maharashtra. It was a rickety bus journey that had preceded her arrival.
Fifteen years ago, as a charming thirteen year old, Meenakshi had felt deeply thrilled at the prospect of spending her life in the villa. Back then, she had observed with wide eyes, the wild tuskers and stags that jutted out from the walls and the large paintings that accompanied them. She had wondered why the tuskers and stags had only heads and had found it quite weird. She had imagined the animals to wake up and walk around the house in the nights.
Totally fascinated, Meenakshi had felt her stay in the villa would be a launch pad to realize her dream – that of becoming a great Bharatnatyam dancer. Struggling hard to control her overwhelming joy, her eyes had fallen on Ramaa Chechi for the first time. Oh, what a treat it had been to watch her! Looking at her from behind the grilles of a window near the backyard, Meenakshi had thought she could fall at her feet. Draped in a crisply starched cotton sari, Ramaa Chechi was going around the Tulasi Maadam in small circles, with a lamp in her hand.
Rajan who had accompanied Meenakshi on her journey to the place had made a passing reference to a teacher, while sitting in the bus. May be this divine looking lady was that teacher, Meenakshi had pondered. Meanwhile, Rajan had beckoned her to the backyard.
“What is your name?” Ramaa Chechi had asked.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” she had questioned, patting Meenakshi’s cheek.
“I love to dance,” Meenakshi had replied and had stuck out her frail legs and hands, while also rolling her visibly, big eyes.
Ramaa Chechi had smiled, patted her again.
“Lovely, we will make you do that too.”
“Can I too look beautiful like you?” Meenakshi had asked eagerly.
“Of course, yes, why not?”
Standing before the calendar, Meenakshi recalled how much she had believed in that deceptively divine woman. Ramaa Chechi was a professional. She had pushed the little girl into her role so effortlessly. She had gently led the teenager into a room that presented an illusion of happiness, of a heaven free of all troubles – full of flowers and incense that choked her breath.
Meenakshi was reminded of how she had succumbed without protest, the first time. The surrender did not come out of acceptance of her doomed fate or as a move towards starting a new way of life. It was more a means of seeking solace and affection from a complete stranger for the grief that engulfed her broken heart; to blow away the misery and weariness of a young soul that was cheated by her own father.
And as far as she could think, the first time was the only instance she had exuded passion in her profession and never again after that. Meenakshi looked at the silver ring in her hand, thoughtfully. This was the ring that the first man had left behind for her, as a gesture of what Meenakshi imagined to be genuine love. He would have been in his early twenties then. She could say he had liked her. Loved her? She didn’t know. But she preferred to assume it that way. It at least gave her the comfort of having something substantial to dream and ponder about; something to make up for the void that so dominated her life.
Meenakshi looked dreamily at the withered rose that she had preserved in between the pages of her only notebook. Tears welled up in her eyes. Despite the many years of seeing the different men that she had seen, love was not a lost feeling as far as she was concerned. It was lost, yes, in a partial sense, but only deep within her. She had vainly searched for her first man in every man she had met after him. She had stayed hoping that he would come and take her away someday. The ring would be her only proof of identity then. She had imagined he would come while she played on the swing. He would then fall at her feet and tell her how much he needed her in his life.
Alas, but what did she know of him, except for a faint memory of his face and the wetness of his long parting kiss on her cheek years ago? For all she knew, he would be happily married off to some pretty woman who would have borne him his children. Worse still, would he even recognize her if she were to come face to face with him when walking down some street? Even so, she carried on, despite being fully aware of the futility of her dream.
What a life had she lived! She had seen all sorts of men. There were the nervous first timers. Then, there were those men who fed their egos with an air of nonchalance, a kind of despicable carelessness. Well then, animal behavior also found its place. She had dressed and undressed to please and impress them all; acts that defined the very essence of her existence. And after everything, Meenakshi felt the whole place stank of dumped feelings and a nauseating eeriness that sometimes drove her to the point of contemplating death as the soothing alternative. The only relief probably had remained her friends in the villa – Nupur, Selvi and Rekha. They would laugh and hoot together while discussing men – their subject of expertise, and remain thoughtful as they spoke about the fading memories of their lackluster childhood.
And now, after fifteen years of a life in skirts that paradoxically shouted happiness through large, bright flowers, she was waiting with her little box to leave. Meenakshi sighed, as she turned to face the villa for one last time. She was going back, back into the world that brought her into the villa. She had nothing particularly pleasant to take back and nothing particularly exciting to look forward to. As policemen swarmed around the place, Meenakshi walked towards the van with a blank look on her face.
Ironically, it was the deathly infection that had won her the prized ticket to her freedom.