08 September 2013

The Armchair Soldier

It is possible that Satish Gupta did not think of ‘The Armchair Soldier’ that evening, as his Chevrolet Cruze purred up the driveway of the plush hotel. After all, it was a story his communist-hating grandfather had told him several decades earlier. Besides, the lady in the passenger seat had his full attention. 
The Hyatt Hotel had over the years swung open its electronic glass doors to countless couples, but none might have matched the beauty that Esha Gupta radiated that evening. Dressed in the royal blue salwar that her aunt had hand-picked for this occasion, the 24 year old nursing graduate knew her husband had been floored. But he was charming enough to not show it too blatantly. 
After a week of touring the houses of relatives and family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Gupta finally had the evening to themselves. And being the considerate and meticulous man that he was, Satish had planned for an elegant dinner. Which would be followed by them retiring to their luxury suite on the seventh floor. Mr. Gupta smiled, realizing he didn’t have worry about whether he’d get lucky tonight. 
The usher at the door greeted them cordially, but his warm smile wasn’t shared by the manager of the restaurant, who took a quick glance at the register and announced that they’d have to wait for a few minutes in the lobby. Satish opened his mouth to protest, but his wife of four days gently slipped her arm around his, and replied, “We’ll wait. It’ll only improve our appetites.” 
They sat in the comfortable lobby sofas, and as Esha surveyed the environment, Satish, through pure force of habit, reached out for the nearest newspaper. He regretted the decision almost immediately. Splattered across the headlines were the words: Photojournalist raped in Mumbai. 
He grimaced, and showed his wife the headline. She frowned and shook her head sadly. 
“This country is going to the dogs,” Satish muttered. 
Thankfully a waiter provided a quick change of topic by asking them if they’d prefer to order their dinner so as to speed up things. They gladly accepted the offer, and began perusing the menu cards. 
“You know, I’m happy you’re taking up that job in London,” Esha said as she scanned the menu. 
Her words were supposed to be an endorsement, a gentle reassurance from the wife to the husband, but it had the opposite effect. Like stepping into a familiar room by mistake, Satish felt enveloped by familiar sounds, smells and sights. 
He could almost see the stubble faces partly illuminated by the glow of cigarette tips. He could smell the omelets being cooked nearby. He heard the honks of cars and buses as they swept by, oblivious to the plan that these young men were hatching. 
It had been a dangerous plan. 
“Would you like to take your seat, sir?” 
Satish nodded his head, once again grateful to the young fellow for helping him snap out of his reverie. He must remember to tip him, he thought. 
They took their seats, and almost immediately received their starters. Satish was aware that he’d not replied to his wife’s comment. He didn’t want to. 
“Do you think India will ever change?” 
She pushed the fries onto her spoon, and thought as she chewed. “Nope. Now the media keeps harping about these crimes, and the young fellows seem to think this is just a bad wave that’ll pass. I know otherwise. It’s been happening for a long time.” 
She looked smart, articulate, and Satish suddenly felt proud of his choice. Sure, the broker had harped on about her, pointing towards her photo as though she was Aishwarya Rai. But ultimately it was him who took the decision. He couldn’t help but feel proud. 
“Yeah, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of such outcry. Remember the Janini case?” 
How could they forget? Esha was just two years younger than Satish. And they’d both been studying in college when it happened. 
“God, I’ll never forget those horrible few months,” Esha said, rolling her eyes. “Media people everywhere, rallies and protests. It was a mess.” 
Satish looked sheepish. “I’m partly to blame for that I guess. I organized one of the rallies.” 
The statement surprised his wife. She placed her cutlery on the plate, and looked at his quizzically. He had a light, aesthetically pleasing stubble, medium sized hair, a short stout nose and strong jaw line. She’d known all along that he was the one she’d want to marry. Of course, the broker didn’t promise anything, though he gladly accepted the extra fee. Her mom had been so nervous, praying and hoping that the alliance would be accepted. Satish came from a good family. A reputed family. One that was above question. 
“Seriously? Which one? And where?” 
“The one outside St. Mary’s College.” The memory shamed him, but not for reasons that his wife would have guessed. Satish suddenly realized that he’d be with her for the rest of his life. They’d have to share their secrets, sooner or later. 
“St. Mary’s College!” Esha cried, putting a hand over her mouth. “That’s my college! You were rallying outside my college!” 
She felt giddy with news. To think that she could have been in her classroom, peering out at her future husband as he cried slogans. She wasn’t in class then, but still… 
“Yeah, it was a fiasco though,” he muttered, taking a bite of his pizza slice. “The cops came and beat all of us pretty bad.” 
Esha pouted her lips sympathetically, and Satish couldn’t help but smile. He was thankful that they’d never met during their school days. He would have been heartbroken if they’d broken up. 
“So, you were active in rallies and stuff? Political things?” Esha asked casually, and he was powerless to stop his mind from remembering those nights. Those nights when he’d planned it all out with his buddies. They’d been young then, too foolish, too arrogant. Full of hot blood coursing at the injustice. 
“Not really, but I was really upset about the Janani case,” Satish said, making sure that he chose his words carefully. “I mean, that poor girl was brutally raped by what – four men?” 
“Five,” Esha corrected him. She’d read the newspaper reports, and flinched as they described the gory details of the episode. Journalists had no right to be so graphic. But then again, they had to sell their papers. 
“It shook me badly,” Satish said. “I couldn’t believe that they’d let the culprits walk because they were juveniles.” 
Esha wondered whether her friends would raise their eye brows if she told them that she fell for Satish in the middle of his eloquent speech about the injustice of the rape case. She realized that most women would be appropriately appalled or angered, but the way he talked about it, with so much passion and commitment, made her feel safe. It was what every girl would want, she argued with herself as they finished their dinner with a glass of champagne. A man who could protect them. One who was so outspoken in his belief. 
Esha made a mental note to gift the broker something expensive. She smiled in satisfaction as she finished her glass. 
The man sitting across from her, though, had a more pressing thought on his mind. He wondered how his wife would react if she knew the whole truth about his college days. Of all that he’d been involved in. Of just how angry he’d been at those laughing, carefree juveniles. 
They concluded their dinner, and with her arm around his, they slowly walked towards the lobby, man and wife looking slightly tipsy, yet almost content. 
Once they were settled in their room, the two individuals stared at each other for a moment longer than required. Esha was struggling to control her anxiousness. She’d both waited and somewhat dreaded this moment. The moment when they would be man and wife in flesh, and not just in name. 
The man looking at her too had his own pangs of anxiousness. Perhaps it was the alcohol, perhaps it was just the headline he’d read, but the past had been let out of its cage, and now pranced around in his mind, demanding exit through his tongue. 
For both of them, the decision to order a bottle of wine to the room was a welcome one. 
As they finished their second glass, Satish began to search for the words he’d require to articulate his thought. He’d been enraged that those filthy youths were able to gangrape a helpless young woman, and then escape jail sentence. So were his friends. Their rage gave way to cunning and malice, and a dangerous but exciting idea had taken root in their minds. Revenge. Justice. 
Esha was getting visibly drunk now, and as Satish muttered the story of how he and his friends planned to hurt the juveniles, she stared at him with glassy eyes. He wondered if she understood his words, the gravity of the situation that was being narrated. 
As though to counterbalance the gruesomeness of his words, his fingers began moving up Esha’s body, gently freeing her from her lovely salwar. She responded, unbuttoning his shirt and slowly, sluggishly pushing away his pants. 
Just as he was about to tell her how he and his friends cornered the juveniles one night, he caught sight of a few tears in her eyes. They were large, solitary drops, like glaciers pushing their way down her creamy cheeks. 
He wondered if his story disturbed her, and as though to compensate, he began to kiss her, gently at first, then more passionately. Just as he was beginning to get aroused, she pulled her face away from his, and blurted out. 
“I’m not a virgin, Satish.” 
The words felt like a slap across his face, but the liquor in his blood cushioned the blood greatly. Numbly, he stared into her eyes as tears now began drop down in pairs. Secretly, he felt relieved. He shouldn’t have, but he did. 
For even as his brain submitted itself completely to intoxication, he did not want his wife to know what he’d done. Grateful for her show of remorse, he played along. 
“It’s okay, we’re in the 21st century now, it’s nothing to feel ashamed about.” 
The tears didn’t stop. Satish realized the alcohol was the culprit. She seemed poised, calm and elegant. But as the alcohol flowed to her brain, her emotions began to scatter. 
“I – I never had a proper boyfriend.” She managed to whisper in between sobs. 
Satish felt sorry for the poor girl, getting herself worked up over so small a matter. He began kissing her gently, first on her face, then on her neck. And for some reason, he wanted to tell her the truth. He felt he owed it to her, since she had been so pained and honest to him. 
“I assaulted the juveniles,” he said in between kisses, “I attacked them with an iron rod. Me and five others. We hit them until they began bleeding from all over. They couldn’t see, there was that much of blood over their eyes. I wanted to kill them, but my friends held me back. I – I think I would have killed them, if I wasn’t held back. I almost became a killer, Esha.” 
There was silence, and Satish realized that the sobs had stopped. Completely. He felt his heart pounding as he wondered whether he’d made a mistake. Maybe he should have waited till they were married for far too long for any truth to matter… 
“I bribed the broker.” 
The words were slightly garbled, and in his stupor he almost didn’t understand it. He continued kissing her, and realized that he suddenly felt extremely aroused. 
“I paid him just so that he’d introduce me to your family. Then I waited and prayed that you would accept. I hoped you would accept. I – I knew who you were. I knew about your rally. My friends told me that you were the most committed to the cause. I even found out about your assault on the juveniles from your friend. That’s when I knew I wanted to marry you.” 
She was completely naked now, and his hands went all over her. Suddenly they stopped, just as they reached her back. His eyes flicked open instinctively, and he pulled his lips away from her skin. 
She was crying softly again. 
“I worried for so many years, Satish. Worried whether I’d ever find someone who would accept me. But you, I knew you would. I loved your passion, your rage at the injustice. Just looking at the videos of you chanting slogans, I felt protected.” 
His fingers began moving slowly, hesitantly, as the grogginess in his mind seemed to clear. The skin beneath the fingers was rough, coarse, unlike the skin on her breasts and belly. 
As though sensing his hesitation, Esha got up, and looked at him solemnly, her front bare. “I hope you will accept me Satish. I hope I can love you with the same passion you had for me.” 
She turned around, and as his eyes fell upon her mutilated back, he remembered a small line buried in a newspaper report printed several years earlier. 
Janani (name changed), a 19 year old first year college student… 
Suddenly, he recoiled in horror, as more pictures and reports and news anchor voices flooded into his mind. He remembered reading the details of how five men had ravaged that college girl’s body, defiling it in the worst manner, abusing her body parts till she bled all over. 
He recoiled, and fell off the bed. She looked into his eyes, and his eyes could see no beauty, no charm in her face. Like looking at a face resting on a slab in the mortuary. He shook his head in shock, and rushed to the toilet, slamming the door behind him. 
He slumped to the floor, and realized he’d lost his erection completely. He shook as he saw those scars in his mind, and from a corner of his brain his grandfather’s voice sailed over. 
He remembered the story his grandfather had told him. About Armchair soldiers. Men who ranted and raved about the country and its enemies from the safety of the living room, as they nestled in their armchairs. His grandfather had told him how those men would squirm if they were ever called up to the frontlines to fulfill the pledges that they yelled over the noise of the television. How they would turn inside out, and quiver, and run into the nearest hole, and bury themselves there, too afraid to face the truth. 
Satish Gupta realized he was nothing but an Armchair Soldier. 
Since this is the second short story I've written that touches on the topic of Rape, let me explain lest you think I have an unhealthy fixation on the topic. I read the gut wrenching details of the rape of the photojournalist in Mumbai. Then I read a report in which her mother was quoted as asking the media to give them privacy and peace of mind so that they could overcome this tragedy. That is what triggered this story.
This story, I hope, asks that fundamental question - what happens to the victim? It seems there is a victim every one hour in India. That adds up to thousands of women who have to face an uncertain future. Will they be accepted as wives? Can they be? Should they be? Shouldnt they be?
I have too much to say on this topic, which is why I've chosen the metaphor of The Armchair Soldier.
Feel free to involve those in this discussion who you think will have something worthwhile to say.

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