21 May 2013

Mr. & Mrs. Sampath

Ram Sampath folded the day’s copy of the Times of India, sighing deeply as he did so. The stream of sun light flooding into the living room through the open window illuminated his creased face, revealing the pensiveness he felt. He sighed once again.

Nirbhaya had just died.

It made him feel angry, reading the reports over and over again. The media had done all they could to milk the story, that was for sure. But the fact remained – the girl had died a miserable death at the hands of scoundrels.

Mr. Sampath finally shook the thought from his mind when his wife entered the hall and placed two plates on the dining table. “Breakfast is ready,” she said softly. He watched as she walked back into the kitchen. Dressed in a light, red saree with its end casually tied around her waist, she looked beautiful, even seven years after marriage. With his eyes lingering on her pale, soft cheeks, Ram Sampath secretly thanked God for blessing him with such a beautiful wife.

He had no idea then, but a week later, Mrs. Sampath would be at a police station, weeping as the sympathetic inspector registered a case of attempted rape…

“Do you want anything from the supermarket?”

Shweta Sampath lay still, hoping that he’d close the door and leave. He lingered instead, calling out once again. “Shweta, do you want me to get you anything?”

Better to pretend to be sleeping, she told herself as she held her breath. Eventually Ram closed the door and left for the supermarket. After she’d heard the car leave the garage, Shweta slowly got up and walked towards the mirror. She stared at her disheveled self in the mirror, and shook her head sadly. She felt guilty every time she avoided her husband. But over the past few years, it’d grown to become a part of their lives. Whenever she felt detached or moody, she’d pretend as though Ram never existed. The once enterprising computer engineer learnt to accept her actions without much protest. Which only served to anger Shweta more. If only he could stand up for himself, or assert himself better, she thought ruefully. Instead, here she was, combing her hair while her husband probably sought comfort food to distract him from the lack of activity in the bedroom. It was pitiful indeed.

On the other hand, she thought optimistically, tomorrow was the beginning of the week, which meant she would be back at office. A content smile formed on her face…

Ram Sampath sat behind the counter of his computer repair shop, idling away his time as he waited for new customers. Sunil Mehta, a longtime friend and owner of the neighboring Xerox shop, stopped by for a chat.

“What’s the matter, Ram? You look a little worried?” He asked immediately. The fellow always had a knack for reading Ram’s emotions.

Ram shook his head dismissively. “Nothing,” he said vaguely, “just thinking about my wedding anniversary.”

Sunil smiled. They’d talked about it the previous few times he’d come by. Ram was hoping to come up with something dazzling for his and Shweta’s eight wedding anniversary.

“Something that’ll fix everything that’s wrong,” he muttered when Sunil pressed for more information. The trusted friend and confidant nodded his head understandingly. Even the delivery guy from Dominoes who presented them with a pizza every other week could have spotted it – the spark in the Sampaths’ marriage was lost. And Ram was desperate to revive it.

They currently discussed several possible surprises. Sunil suggested baking a cake, but Ram was never good in the kitchen. “How about the photo mosaic idea I told you about?” Sunil asked. Ram shook his head reluctantly. “Anything else?”

Sunil pondered. “You could take her somewhere fancy. Like, you know, Paris,” he said mischievously. “As soon as you sell this shop and your house, that is,” he added.

Just then the front door was pushed open and a man dressed like an office goer entered. He headed straight for Ram. “The photos you asked me,” he said, placing an envelope on the counter. Ram looked slightly embarrassed, and quickly dismissed the man after paying him.

“Photos?” Sunil asked, eying the envelope. He was about to grab it when Ram snatched it away. “I decided the photo mosaic is the best,” he confessed sheepishly. “But I can’t show them to you. Because, erm…” his face turned a deep shade of red. Sunil chuckled and nodded his head understandingly.

“Do whatever you have to do to make it the best anniversary, Ram!” he called out as he walked away.

Six days later, on the eve of their wedding anniversary, Ram Sampath was overcome with a deep sense of despair. He tried his best to shake off the feeling, but by 4 in the evening, he felt restless and anxious. Finally, he decided to call his former college mate and lifelong friend, Aravind Raj. After a curt phone call, they decided to meet up outside Aravind’s office in Ascendas, Thiruvanmiyur.

Upon seeing his old friend, Aravind realized there was something deeply wrong. “What’s the matter?” he asked, without waiting to exchange pleasantries. Ram decided it was best not to beat around the bush as well. “Tomorrow is my wedding anniversary, Aravind,” he said hoarsely as they walked towards the nearby railway station. “And can you believe it….I’m thinking of getting a divorce.”

Aravind closed his eyes, wishing he hadn’t heard those words. “Why?” he asked.

“It’s not working between me and Shweta. We – we don’t have the chemistry that we used to.”

“Is she –”, Aravind hesitated, wondering how to word the question properly. He was saved by Ram. “She’s a faithful wife, that I know. But I don’t think she is a happy one, Aravind. And if she isn’t happy with me, what’s the use of continuing like this?”

Aravind paused for a moment, framing the next question in his mind. “Why do you think she is unhappy with you?”

Ram remained silent, perhaps wondering whether to begin the answer. Aravind decided to rephrase his statement. “Whatever it is that is making her unhappy, change it. If it’s your job, or your love life, or your routine, change it. Whatever the problem is, change it Ram! Don’t give up on your marriage so easily.”

Ram looked up, searching Aravind’s eyes to measure the earnestness is his voice. “It won’t be easy,” he said softly, as though he was fitting back tears.

“It never is. But you have to fight for the ones you love, Ram. Don’t give up.”

Ram was about to say something, when something caught his eye. “Hey,” he remarked, his face lighting up slightly. “Isn’t that Shweta?”

Aravind looked up and exclaimed. “I think you’re right, that is her! Let’s go say hi.”

The two of them strode forward, forgetting the intense talk they had moments earlier. Shweta, dressed in smart office wear, was walking quickly towards the railway station.

“She’s walking really fast,” Aravind remarked as he began to pant slightly.

“She’s in a hurry to get back home,” Ram reminded him.

They were a few hundred meters away from the station now. Aravind suddenly noticed something odd. “You see that guy in the blue shirt?” he asked suspiciously.

Ram hissed the answer. “Yes.”

Immediately the two of them broke into a jog. But the guy in the blue shirt was way ahead of them, and closing in on Shweta quickly. They spotted the young woman turning back to take a quick glance before speeding up.

“Something’s wrong,” Ram muttered, and Aravind could sense the panic in his voice. Perhaps it was just their over protective imagination, he thought. Just then Shweta disappeared behind the railway station. And a moment later, the blue shirt disappeared too.

Ram swore loudly and broke into a full sprint. Aravind, who wasn’t as physically well endowed, tried his best to catch up. The two of them swung around the corner of the station, and an image confirmed their worst fear.

Shweta was pinned to the wall. Ram yelled in rage and leapt towards the man, pulling him off his wife. The fellow tumbled to the floor, but immediately sprung up, wildly kicking Aravind. By the time Aravind managed to get to his feet, Ram and the man in the blue shirt were caught in a duel, circling each other, waiting to land the first blow. Aravind glanced towards Shweta. She was crying profusely, unable to bear what was happening.

Their loud screams and scuffles slowly attracted a crowd. Aravind had a brain wave and ran to alert the policeman stationed at the nearby junction. He and the khaki uniformed officer ran back and stopped dead in their tracks. For sitting on the pavement in front of them, with his blood soaked hands on his head, was Ram Sampath. Next to him, distraught and traumatized, was Shweta Sampath. And behind them, lying in the mud, was the man in the blue shirt. With a blade stuck into his chest.

“Ram! Ram! What happened?” Aravind asked, shaking his friend’s shoulders. Ram barely managed to utter the words. “He – he took a knife –”

The rest of the testimonial was offered by the onlookers, who narrated how the man in the blue shirt, in the middle of the scuffle, had produced a knife. Ram managed to avoid the man’s attacks, and finally twisted his arm and stabbed the knife into his chest.

The policeman shook his head at the mess that had been created. “Why were they fighting?” he asked one of the onlookers.

All of them stared back at him. “Sir!” they cried in unison. “The madam was almost raped by the man.”

This time, the policeman didn’t look so morose. Without saying anything, he suppressed a smile, happy that in such tough times, rapes could still be foiled. If the police can’t stop them, thank god the common man can, he mused.

However, the Indian legal system offered little reprieve to a distraught victim of an attempted rape, or even a murder in self-defense. Mr. & Mrs. Sampath were promptly taken to the nearby police station, where two detailed cases were filed. The police inspector, thankfully, was a mild mannered, middle aged man who could sympathize with Shweta Sampath’s frame of mind. He allowed her time to compose herself, and after offering a cup of tea, took down the statements.

Next followed Ram Sampath. The man was still in too much of a shock to answer the inspector’s questions properly, and it was only after repeated reminders that he managed to contact his lawyer. After a half hour delay, the lawyer arrived at the police station, and did what he was paid to do.

“Don’t worry,” he reassured Ram, “it’s a murder in self-defense. You won’t be charged with anything.”

Ram gave a wry smile and replied, “That takes care of the legal issues. What about the moral ones?”

The Sampaths were offered a ride home by one of the constables’. As they stepped into the hall, Ram spotted the calendar hung on the wall, and shook his head sadly. It was 12:10 A.M. The day of their wedding anniversary.

“Happy wedding anniversary,” he whispered to his wife, before he turned to his side of the bed. For the next two hours, he could hear her crying herself to sleep…

Even Sunil Mehta wasn’t crass enough to say it. But two weeks later, he couldn’t help but think how the worst situations can come with unexpected blessings. He saw it in the way Ram carried himself. In fact, after getting himself invited to a dinner at the Sampaths’, Sunil observed it first-hand. There was a difference in the demeanor of the husband and wife. As though they’d both just escaped a painful car crash. Whenever she handed him a bowl of salad, or passed the jug of water along, there was a momentary pause, a lull in which her eyes would travel up until they met his. Then there would be an unspoken exchange between them. As though she was telling him, ‘Thank you’, and he was replying, ‘Don’t mention it’.

Perhaps that was just Sunil’s imagination. But the moment they sat down for dinner, he knew his assumptions were right. Shweta spent more time listening to her husband, and it almost felt as though Sunil was in the presence of newlyweds. By the time he departed Sampath’s house, Sunil barely managed to stop himself from saying, ‘Everything happens for the best.’

But there was something Sunil didn’t notice. It was in the way Shweta reacted to long spells of silence. Whether it was while chopping vegetables for lunch, or ironing her husband’s shirts, whenever there was an extended period of silence, Shweta’s mind would linger to the events that had unfolded earlier.

Within the pitch silent confines of her house, she could hear those footsteps. How they increased their pace gradually, until Shweta was certain he was right behind her. As she pressed the iron box over the shirt, she could almost feel his hands grabbing her wrists.

That’s when Shweta would stop in a shudder, and stand silently for a long while, her body slowly shaking as tears streamed down her cheeks. Thankfully, she thought, her husband wasn’t around to notice her in her moments of frailty.

Finally, two weeks after the fateful incident, she decided to face her fears. After packing her husband’s lunch and seeing him to the door, Shweta purposefully walked into her room, and dug out the suitcase that she’d kept hidden for several months now. Without hesitating, she grabbed a plastic bag, opened the suitcase, and began taking out letters and photographs.

They would all have to go, she said to herself forcefully. All of it.

Her actions became increasingly erratic, as she willed herself to fling everything out of the suitcase. Soon, her arms were exhausted from the constant movement and she collapsed onto the floor, bursting into a fresh round of tears.

She could hear the steps again. Getting louder. Ever louder as she hurried towards the backside of the railway station. A quiet spot. Which was why the steps would always excite her. Every Monday, it had been the same. The steps. The momentary pause. And then the arms grabbing her wrist violently as an indulgent smile formed on her face. Yet this time it had been different. This time…it had gone wrong.

She could still picture his face as he drew his last breath, shocked that the weak willed, timid husband of hers could have fought back. She couldn’t believe it herself. Neither could she believe that he would brandish a knife.

Enough, Shweta told herself. It’s done now. Fate took its own course. She should be thankful and continue her life as best as she could.

She nodded her head, and emptied the suitcase of all memorabilia from her lover of seven months.

Meanwhile, the man dressed like an office goer met Ram Sampath outside his computer shop.

“So, saw the photos, didn’t you?” he asked, grinning shamelessly. “What are you going to do about it?”

Ram took out the bundle of photographs he’d been given two weeks earlier. He flipped through them, and reread the note that was attached at the back. They meet every Monday, behind Thiruvanmiyur Railway Station. 6:30 P.M.

“Don’t worry,” he said with a smile. “I took care of it. I changed the problem…”

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