The staff-bus moved on through the beaten track. Outside her windowpane the traffic flowed. Lurid lights swallowed up the melancholy twilight. Images of half-nude girls on the big-screen hoardings whizzed past, very fast. Pressing her right cheek against the windowpane, Mimi gulped for air. Her dry throat itched as if she had swallowed nettle leaves. For a moment she felt like smashing her fist against the glass pane but she recoiled at the thought of what the people around might say. Tears ran down her cheeks silently. She recalled how embarrassed she had been last time when her low shriek was heard by almost everybody in the bus.
Mr Majumder, the HR Executive of CGS Global Ltd, was the first one to ask, “What happened?”
Getting up from her seat, Rohini, the receptionist of the house, had turned behind, to investigate the matter.
“What has happened, Madam?” the conductor had asked in Hindi.
Mr Dandwal, who was sitting two seats behind them had enquired, “Hurt yourself or what?”
Recuperating from pain and anguish, Mimi had replied, “Yes. I am sorry…um…got pinched while pulling down the pane.”
What else could have she said when everything was as usual as every evening. Abhay was sitting next to her. Everybody knew that they sat together in the staff-bus while going back from work. There had been a break in this routine since last Monday. With their brows raised in curiosity, the colleagues had noticed that Mimi had been sitting particularly with the introvert storekeeper. The gossipmongers, who had been dejected for almost a fortnight, were very pleased today to see her sitting next to her beau once again. However, nobody dared to ask them anything directly because both had been quite reticent about their relationship. It had been just a year that they had joined the company as assistant engineers in the department of Telecommunication. Mimi was a fresher having completed her Master’s degree in Electronics & Communication Engineering from the state’s Technical University last year. Abhay, a graduate in Information Technology, was five years older than her. Having finished college at a time when IT recession was at its peak, Abhay’s career graph hadn’t been as smooth as Mimi’s. Prior to his employment in CGS Global Ltd he had worked in several small-scale software firms, hopping frequently from one big city to another, either for a petty rise in remuneration or for a more secure job-contract. In this multinational corporate house, they had come to know each other while working on an assigned project. Very soon friend requests were sent and accepted on the social networking sites, phone numbers were exchanged and long hours were spent over the phone – formal queries fading into whispers of concern followed by phases of silence to be made eloquent in text messages.
He did not confess love in the conventional way by averring aloud phrases such as “Love you,” “Cannot live without you…,” and so on. Mimi had assumed that such inane outbursts of adoration could not be expected from a man whose wife had left him for some other guy. During an office tour to Vizag, he had narrated to her the tale of his unhappy marriage which had ended in divorce a few months before they had met. Mimi was both touched and amazed to see that he still carried Asmita’s passport sized photograph in his wallet. “How could a woman be unfaithful to such a devoted husband?” Mimi had wondered. The company’s guest house in Vizag was close to the beach. One evening, after dinner, they had gone for a stroll along the seaside. Under the starry, moonlit sky the waves were roaring rhythmically. They were discussing myriad things such as the assigned project, JAVA, Jelly Bean, the next day’s schedule, egg-chicken biriyani, Sunny Leone’s career in Bollywood and Asmita’s beautiful figure. Memories were splashing violently against the dark cliffs. Hours passed like moments. An interval of silence between them amplified the sound waves gushing out from Abhay’s FM radio: “I can be your hero, baby/ I can kiss away the pain/ I’ll stand by you forever/ You can take my breath away…” The mellifluous lyrics in Enrique’s voice engulfed the vast sky and the celestial bodies appeared to be more resplendent than before. The metallic moon dazzled his eyes and he shut them for a while. His arms longed to feel the feminine warmth in the contour sitting so close to him. He looked at her moonlit face and was puzzled to see the tempestuous waves raving the optical ocean therein. “Hey! What happened?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she replied.
“Then, what are these tears for?”
“Tuhin had sung these lines to me on our first Valentine’s Day and…,” she vented out the frustration she had locked up in her heart for the last three years.
They were classmates at the undergraduate level. Their friends had nicknamed them as lovebirds because they were never asunder. Even their rivals had never imagined that one fine morning she would catch him kissing and cuddling another girl behind a bookshelf in the library. Burying her face in her palms, she broke into sobs. Abhay put his arms around her shoulders and she rested meekly in his embrace considering it to be the ring of empathy engraved with a man’s signature of amour. Mimi closed her eyes being transported to those days when her head rested peacefully on Tuhin’s chest. Abhay wiped her tears. Softly, he touched her lips and they parted slightly. His thick lips glided down digging deep into the hollow of her collar bone. The ecstasy cast a spell on her senses. She couldn’t utter a word of protest when Abhay’s hands slipped under her Tee shirt and his fingers started drawing lines of love all over her torso. Hardly could she imagine then that very soon those tender, feather-like fingers would change into the claws of a vulture.
For the first time, her thoughts of romantic love were baffled beyond limit when Abhay berated her over the phone by saying, “Not for your brain, baby, but for your boobs.” Memory of that special day on which she had received the accolade of the most promising recruit of the year from the Managing Director, thereafter, reminded her of the rancour with which Abhay had hurled his chauvinistic invective at her.He had apologised the next day, entreating her to forget the mutterings of a boozer.After a few days she had forgiven him but he kept on abusing her in offensive language whenever he was drunk and a couple of times, he had done so even when he was sober.
He crossed all limits a month later, precisely on a Friday afternoon, when Mimi was taking rest in her work station by putting her head down on the table. As earphones were tugged into her ears, she hadn’t realised that one by one, all her colleagues had left for the canteen. Shockingly, a hand from behind clamped her mouth and another hand pinched her right breast as hard as it could. Before she could get up from her chair, Abhay’s face emerged – big and bestial. Mimi writhed in pain like a caterpillar trampled by a heavy boot.
“Why did you hurt me?” she moaned.
“If you love me you have to tolerate pain, darling,” he hissed.
There was an abnormal glint in his eyes. Leaving aside her belongings, she rushed desperately towards the door but he caught her from behind and tried to unbutton her shirt. He was paying no heed to her pleadings to let her go.In the unequal tussle that had continued for about ten minutes, the outcome could have been as heartrending as it is often described in the columns of newspapers if she hadn’t taken notice of the ballpoint pen on Sneha’s table. Her hands stretched and struggled to grab the pen. Having got that, she clicked it open and pricked its needle-like tip ruthlessly wherever she could on Abhay’s arms and hands. The moment the python’s grip loosened, Mimi pushed him down and ran as fast as she could, neither looking back nor stopping for breath, till she realised that the passers-by on the busiest road of the metropolis were staring at her anxiously. The blaring horns of the big and small vehicles connected her senses to the ground reality in which she was now plodding wearily. A cab could be insecure, she thought. What would she do if the driver turned out to be an incarnation of Abhay? An auto-rickshaw was approaching. Mimi ran across the road and hid herself behind a bus. She wasn’t sure but for a moment she felt that Abhay was sitting in the backseat of the auto-rickshaw. Her frail body was almost convulsing with the spasms of pain.
She beckoned to a cycle rickshaw and said, “Working Women’s Hostel.”
The rickshaw puller gazed at her from head to toe but, thank God, he did not make any irritating enquiry. When he was about to take the well-known shortcut through the lane adjacent to the biggest cemetery of the city, she ordered, “Not this way. Follow the main road till you reach the municipality office and then…”
“What!” he interrupted loudly.“Madam… that would take a long time… see the traffic,” he explained impatiently. When he saw that Mimi was implacable, he thundered, “Pay me twenty-five rupees more.”
Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, Mimi realised that she had run away from the office without taking her purse, mobile phone and even her shoes. Looking at her bare feet, she cringed in shame. She looked at her wrist watch. When her destination arrived, she stepped down from the rickshaw and handed over her favourite Sonata watch to the puller.She could not recollect later whether that man had accepted her watch with astonishment or with an air of indifference.
The corridors of the hostel are usually lonely in the afternoons. Second floor, left side. Shutting the door of her room from inside, she had stood petrified in front the mirror. Her hair was disheveled. The fabric of her ironed shirt was crumpled and soiled. The first button of her shirt was missing. The second one dangled loosely from the buttonhole. Her fingers felt the threadbare part of her skirt and she shuddered at the thought of what could have happened to her that day.If the mishap had taken place then life would have been miserable for her as well as for her parents who lived in a small colliery town on the banks of the river Damodar. She knew well that although the concern of relatives, friends and neighbours would have begun with sympathy, it would have ended in condemnation of the liberty enjoyed by working women. She thought about her shrewish aunts who had been ceremoniously critical of her fashionable outfits and office tours. They anticipated and to some extent felt elated when the so-called modern girls like Mimi became victims of men’s concupiscence. Would anybody believe her accusations of sexual violence against a person with whom she had been involved romantically for the last two months? How could she fall in love with a person showing symptoms of satyriasis? Would she be able to get rid of that monster or would she have to resign from her job? She stumbled on one question after another as she walked into the cold and dark alley of her future. Her hands turned on the sparkling steel knob on the dampened wall and the rusty shower rained noisily on her fatigued body. The bruises on her neck, breasts, back, belly, knees and shins burned for a few minutes. Teeth gashed on teeth, she stood under the cold water counting the welts on Asmita’s fair skin.
Thereafter, she avoided Abhay in every possible way. She rejected his calls on her phone and made herself busy with other colleagues when Abhay came to talk with her. She went to the canteen with Sneha and sat beside the storekeeper in the staff bus. She refused to go on outstation tours with male colleagues although she knew very well that her annual increment might be withheld due to such impetuousness. She was in a dilemma whether or not to share her anguish with someone.She had shown Udita, her room-mate, an SMS from Abhay’s number. Reading aloud the bawdy lines to the other girls in the hostel, Udita had rolled down in laughter and had looked at her insolently. Her laughter was so raucous that Mimi didn’t feel comfortable to confide in her.Yesterday, when her mother rang up she groped for pleasant words to describe the unpleasant experience she had in her workplace. While her mother went on with the details of the deteriorating condition of the student gang-raped in another metropolis, Mimi could not decide from where she should begin the story of her own plight.
Today evening, when Mimi got up in the staff bus, she found that all the seats were occupied except the window-one next to Abhay’s. She knew that if she did not sit there, then it would become a much-talked-about topic in the office. She sat down with a grim face and kept her legs in such a manner that there might not be any tactile contact with the monster. The loud odour of his cologne stirred a feeling of nausea in her stomach. After sometime, his elbow brushed against her bosom and his fingers tickled her left thigh. She cringed and shifted as much as she could towards the pane.
He whispered in her ear, “Won’t you take out your ballpoint knife and stab me? Come on… I’m dying to be stabbed by you, beautiful.”
Mimi was so much flustered by his proximity that droplets of sweat appeared on her forehead. She clenched her toes in exasperation. Abhay had threatened her twice that the worst was awaiting her. His fingers were all agog to inflict pain on her body. More than being sure, he was over-confident that Mimi would never have the courage to open up her mouth in public. To his utter dismay, Mimi screamed and stood up. In front of everybody, she slapped him on his face and spoke aloud of his misconduct. The co-passengers, who were startled at her outburst, now came up with fiery words of loathing against the accused. While some of them gestured to beat him up, others suggested taking the matter to the Managing Director the next day.
Amidst the hue and cry, suddenly, Mimi saw that the lines on his face had deepened and broadened. “Is he nervous, then?” she thought vaguely. He seemed to be longing for fresh air. He tried to loosen the knot of his tie. The paleness on his cheeks pacified the nettle leaves in her throat. Reclining her back against the cozy seat she pondered, “Was he the same macho man who had made her blood run cold?”