Vikram is having a tough time dealing with his disheartening disability when he comes across someone who changes his mind
Vikram sat looking at the woman on the opposite seat in the local train. He briefly shifted his gaze when a strapping six feet tall transgender dressed in a sari asked the boy sitting next to the woman for some change. The boy smiled meekly and shrugged his shoulders. The transgender smiled in return, pulled the boy’s cheek softly, and walked on. Barring this brief distraction, Vikram kept his eyes fixed on the woman.
She kept staring out the window looking at nothing in particular. It was a skill Vikram had often marvelled at, for he had always found it impossible to stare out the window of a moving vehicle like that. It was partly because of that, partly because she was quite attractive, but mostly because she was completely unaware of his presence that he remained looking at her.
It was her dungaree that had first caught his eye. He could tell just by looking at her that she was in her thirties. The absence of jewellery and makeup told him she wasn’t married. Her bright and seemingly untouched skin made it difficult to determine her age with precision, but Vikram could tell she was in her thirties. Her dungaree and white sneakers wouldn’t generally suit someone her age, but she filled those clothes as if they were made just for her. Her jet black hair were tied in a neat bun. Not a single strand of hair escaped the clutches of her hairband. The only beauty item she wore were a pair of large, silver earrings, but like everything else about her, including the small mole on her right cheek, they seemed just right. She had the most beautiful pair of hands that Vikram had ever seen.
Her face, though, was sombre, as if she were thinking back to the tough times she had experienced or was going through.
“Are you Vikram Chauhan?”
Vikram turned towards the young boy who had asked the question. He had smiled and nodded in response. He wondered how the boy recognized him. He had never associated writers with stardom and had never let his picture appear in his books.
“Sir, I’m a huge fan of your work! Would you mind signing my copy of your book? It would mean so much!” said the youngster. Vikram had nodded but regretted doing so when he saw the boy thrust his arm in his bag to produce the book. He had forgotten that it’d be quite impossible to sign the book properly.
“Why don’t I take a picture from your phone? You can always get autographs at book signings. Since this is a different meeting, we should do things differently,” said Vikram in as humble and friendly a tone as possible. The youngster stood astonished for a second but quickly fished for his phone. Vikram stole a glance at the woman. Her face wore the slightest of smiles, but she still looked out the window. He wasn’t even sure what she was smiling about. He sighed and posed for the picture.
When Vikram turned into the street he lived he heard someone humming. It was from a song he knew too well but just couldn’t remember. He shut his eyes tight and tried remembering it. The humming became louder as the person neared him. Vikram grimaced and opened his eyes, hoping that he would recall the song’s name soon. He knew it would bother him for the rest of the night, and he wanted a good night’s sleep after having spent recent nights without much sleep. He decided to ask the person and turned around.
There were only a couple of street lights on the road and one of them flickered irritatingly, but Vikram saw the dungaree from afar. The chances of running into two people wearing a dungaree on the same night were quite small, he thought.
He waited as the woman walked towards him with slow but measured steps, all the while humming just that particular portion of the song, as if teasing him. Vikram kept looking at her, hoping to catch her eye and ask her about it. But the woman paid no attention and walked right past him. She didn’t so much as avert her gaze the entire time. She only stopped humming when Vikram spoke.
“That tune, what song is it?” he asked politely. The woman turned swiftly towards him, but the movement was gracious rather than startling. She looked alarmed that someone was standing behind her.
“Oh. It’s a song by Lata Mangeshkar, Lag Ja Gale,” she said, adorning her words with a smile. Her voice didn’t have the fragility and charm that one associates with women of her kind of beauty. It was crisp, and she spoke in a professional manner, as if reading out a legal document. There was an energy in it that stemmed not from exuberance but precision and boldness.
“Ah, yes. Now I remember it. Thank you! It would have bugged me the entire night had I not asked.”
“That voice, you’re the writer who was sitting across me in the train,” she said. Her eyebrows tensed and her smile widened as she said this.
“Yes, I am.”
“Vikram Chauhan,” she said as if she were thinking out loud.
“Correct. I recognized you as well. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone wearing a dungaree.”
Her face became a bit clouded and her smile almost vanished as she nodded.
“Don’t get me wrong! It’s just that I’ve never seen anyone wearing that outfit. I had wanted one when I was small, but my mother brushed it away as a joke.”
The woman nodded and smiled again. She never looked at Vikram, though. He felt he had upset her.
“I didn’t mean to be rude. I can see you were in a better mood than before, and I apologize for upsetting you again.”
“Why did you think I was in a bad mood earlier?” she said abruptly.
Vikram shrugged. “Well, you seemed out of sorts. You had the sort of look one has when they are hurting on the inside. I recognized that look of yours.”
“Was it because you have that look on your face from time to time?” she asked. Vikram opened his mouth but didn’t know what to say. He simply smiled and nodded. “I don’t know how facial expressions work, you know, so I don’t know what kind of a face I was making back then. I was born blind, you see,” she said, giving her head a small nod and her face a slight smile. Vikram could only raise his eyebrows. He hadn’t expected that. After a couple of seconds had passed, the woman’s smile widened.
“It’s me who has done the upsetting this time!” she said, chuckling.
“No, not at all! It’s just that…”
“Just that you’ve never talked to a blind person and didn’t think I was blind, right?” she said. Vikram cast his eyes to the ground and nodded. Realizing that she couldn’t see him nod, he looked up and said yes. It made him feel a lot worse than nodding.
“It’s alright, don’t beat yourself over it,” she said, smiling again. Vikram shook his head and smiled to himself.
“It’s a shame you can’t see what a lovely smile you have. It’s rare to see an adult smile like that these days.” Vikram’s words stretched her lips further, much to his delight. “Do you live around here?” he asked. She nodded. “Is it fine if I walk you home?”
“You don’t have to. I can make find my way.”
“I didn’t say that out of obligation or courtesy. I know that would be rude. It’s just that I would like to,” he said. She remained silent for a few seconds before smiling and nodding again.
Vikram matched her pace as they walked down the deserted street. It was a particularly quiet night. Not a single dog barked, much to Vikram’s surprise.
“How did you know I recognized the look on your face because I wear it myself from time to time?”
“People recognize things like sadness and hurt only if they’ve experienced it themselves. It draws their attention. Some come to help, some maybe not.”
“Yeah. ‘When the fox hears the rabbit scream he comes a runnin’, but not to help’,” said Vikram. The woman brightened up.
“Hannibal Lector! I mean, Thomas Harris, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Vikram, surprised. “How did you—“
“My sister read it to me. She’s been living with me ever since she divorced her husband a few years ago. I should rather say I live with her! She loves reading and quite often reads to me. She never misses reading anything to me that has a blind character. One of Thomas Harris’s books had such a character, and I liked it, so I asked her to read me the rest of them as well. My eyes don’t work, but my ears do,” she said. Vikram grimaced and kicked himself for asking the question.
“Why do you ask her to read you books with blind characters?” asked Vikram after a few seconds.
“It’s amusing at times to see how flawed people’s perceptions can be. When they get it right, it’s refreshing to see that people can understand others and depict things correctly. I like keeping a track of both those things. It’s not always refreshing, I can tell you that!”
“I can imagine,” said Vikram, still shaking his head over his previous comments. “So, what do you do?” he asked.
“There aren’t many lines of work I can get involved in,” she said. Vikram shut his eyes and frowned again, cursing himself for being so careless and inconsiderate. The woman’s eyes widened as she said so. “I don’t mean because of my handicap! It’s just that I’m not much good at most things. I can’t even cook, though it’s pretty easy. That’s one of the reasons why my sister lives with me. She hates it when I order food,” she said, frowning like a little girl. Her innocence and pristineness swept Vikram off his feet. “As for your question, I teach music.”
Vikram lifted his face to look at her. “What do you teach?”
“Wind instruments mostly. I have a keyboard and a guitar as well, but I don’t give lessons for them. I play the flute most often, and that’s what I teach.”
Vikram only nodded and kept looking at her. She smiled after a few seconds. She knew that he was looking at her, and it surprised as well as delighted Vikram that he could make a woman of her beauty blush. She stopped after taking a few more steps.
“That’s me,” she said, pointing to the house beside her. It wasn’t huge but large enough to house a family of four. The sodium lamp on the street illuminated the small garden and patio with its dull luminescence. The brown brick wall and the stone floor looked cosy under the light.
“Do you live around here?” she asked.
“Yes. I live on the street we met. I’ve lived there for years, though not consistently for any length of time.”
“That might be why I’ve never heard of you. You seem to be famous, and since you were walking there at this time of the day I thought you must live around here as well. I was wondering how come I never heard of you.”
“Yeah. I don’t have any relatives here and never talked to anyone in the locality. My family has been abroad for two generations now, but I bought this property long ago. I like it here.”
“Ah, so you did the opposite,” she said. Vikram wrinkled his eyebrows.
“How do you mean?”
“People in India usually go abroad to get away from their relatives. You did the opposite,” she said. It made Vikram laugh. “I’ll ask my sister if she has anything you’ve written.”
“No, they’re not that good,” said Vikram.
“I think they would be. Not all good writers are good people, but all good people are good writers if they make it their profession.”
Vikram chuckled. “I wouldn’t know about that!”
“Alright. If she doesn’t have anything you’ve written so far, and you think they’re not that good, then I’ll leave it be. I’ll just ask her to get me the next thing you write.”
The words stung Vikram more viciously than a steaming hot dagger piercing through his skin. He could only sigh.
“No, you don’t have to.”
“It’s not out of obligation or courtesy. It’s just that I would like to,” she said. Her words drove away the dark clouds that had suddenly emerged on Vikram’s face. He thanked her silently.
“It was lovely meeting you, Miss….?”
“Malini,” she said with a nod.
“It was lovely meeting you, Malini,” he said. He smiled at her and walked away. She lifted the door latch noiselessly. The only sound he could hear was the soft rustling of her earrings as she walked. Vikram knew he was in for another sleepless night.