Fiction

Shackles
- Natalia Suri

There are no windows in this room. The only link to the outside world is the door. The walls here are bright pink, unlike those in the corridor which are white.

It is a small room. Sitting on this chair in the centre of the room I feel as if the walls are standing on indiscernible feet, tottering, coming closer to each other. Gradually, they will swallow me.

I look around. Next to the chair I am sitting on stands a lamp throwing light on the pink walls. A rug lies on the floor. It has lost its bright blue colourunder a layer of dirt.

It seems as if the black lines on the white tiles are moving, pulling me towards them, asking, ‘What the hell are you doing here in the waiting room of this psychiatrist?’

I look down at my thigh, at my mobile. The black screen comes alive with the reflection of my face. I see two long strands of my hair that have escaped from the pony tail. I push them behind my ear.

 My legs feel uneasy; blood rushes in my toes. Suddenly, I hear the word, ‘No.’ At once I recognize the voice from the next room where I left Aman with the psychiatrist.

Aman Arora is the man I want to marry. I look at my watch. Five minutes have passed. There are still thirty-five minutes left before his session finishes. I close my eyes. I can feel the pressure grow in my legs.

I clutch the arms of the chair.  The darkness behind my eye lids melts, forming images.  I see two feet wearing black sandals. The sparkling crystals on the heels look like sugar icing on a cake.

‘Why the hell are you holding the banister to climb these stairs? Climb them on your own. You should not hold anything,’ Aman’s words replay in my ears.

I see the contours of his face, the parting of his hair from the right side, his freshly shaved fair skin, the lemony smell of his after shave, his black shoes and the grey jeans sticking to his thin calves.

‘If I don't hold the banister, I will fall down,’ I say. ‘Can't you see that I'm wearing heels?’  Looking down, I try to watch mystep.

I do not see his black shoes moving. They stop on a step, perhaps two, no, three above mine.

‘What is it?’ I ask, looking at Aman's face.

‘Leave the banister alone; you have to climb these stairs on your own, Anamika. Bloody hell. You are just too insecure. Look at me. I am your age and I don't need to hold anything for support. Anything at all.’

As my sandals touch the ground floor, my nose twitches.  I smell the fresh ginger and cardamom.

‘Now, don't have your black tea, Anamika, I will order masala tea for both of us.’

I feel my lips struggle to form the words, ‘I want to. I want to drink my black tea. Black tea.’

My eyes open. I see the pink walls again.  The grains on the walls appear bloated, as if something has gradually poured itself into each of them.

I hear the mobile tone, the unexpected noise causing my hands to tremble. I feel the heart beat, lungs sucking in the oxygen from the room.

I read the word, ‘Mother,’ on the mobile screen.

‘He-llo....’’Where are you?’  my mother asks. .

‘Hello, Anamika, are you there?’

‘Y-es, y-es’. Again the words break.

‘Where are you? ‘

‘I am out.’ I pause to think. ‘I came to deliver a cake to a client.’

‘What time will you be back?’

I look at my watch, ‘I have to meet Shweta today for lunch. It will take time.’

‘Listen, Anamika, come home on time. The boy's family is coming to see you. They will be here by 5.00 pm.’

‘ Boy?’ my lips curl, ‘ Which boy are you talking about ?’

‘Have you forgotten? How could you?’ My mother raises her voice. ‘What nonsense is this, Anamika? At thirty-eight you hardly get one proposal a year. In fact your chances of getting married are almost nil. Thank your stars you have got this proposal. I want you home by 4.00.’

‘Mum-my...,’

‘Listen, Anamika,’ She is frustrated now, ‘Over these years every boy has rejected you. You are neither professionally qualified, nor earn well. Everyone needs a well-educated working girl these days.’

‘But Mummy, he is fifty years old and has a son. How can I marry him?’

I wait for my mother to speak, but the screen goes blank. Fear crawls up my fingers.

My thumb caresses the screen. I open various applications and come to Whatsapp messages. I scroll down the page -- to Aman Arora.

I met Aman two months ago through a dating app. My first question to him was, ‘Are you looking for marriage or dating?’

‘Marriage,’ he replied.

What a relief it was.

Sometimes I wish  I were a man and there was no sword hanging over my head.

I tap on Aman's name.

The blue words in the yellow box seem alive to me. ‘I love you, Baby.’ With it in the same line there are two lips in red. These days emotions are so easy: press  a button, and your feelings travel through the mobile.

I am not married. Not married at thirty-eight.

I read what I wrote to Aman a month back. ‘You look very hot today.’

We were sitting in a car, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. A Maruti van stopped beside us. I watched the child inside crying. Aman studied my face without my noticing. Then he said expressionalessly,

 

‘This message was not for me, Anamika. You probably wanted to send it to someone else but sent it to me by mistake.’

 

I  turned to look at Aman. The red light changed to green. The car with the crying child drove away. I saw the traffic move. . My vision blurred with tears. His face was a ball of flesh. Only his lips moved.

‘You have someone else in your life, Anamkia? You were telling that man how hot he is.’

 

I couldn’t push a word  out of my mouth.  Finally i said, ‘ I was sending the message  to you. I swear. I swear to God, it was for you. Why don't you believe me, Aman?’

                                                                        *

In the waiting room I feel restless. I open the door to step out into the corridor.

At the other end a lady sits at the reception desk. I cannot  see what she is doing. There is a door on the opposite wall. It says, ‘Toilet’.

I enter the toilet. It is dark. I switch on the light. The white tiles are clean and it smells of phenyl. The smell travels through my nose, my veins. I take deep breaths. I want the smell to pervade my body. Perhaps the phenyl will wash out the flashes from the past.

 

I see my reflection in the mirror. I want to touch myself, my cheeks, my lips and my nose. I murmur,  ‘Everyone says your Prince Charming comes on a white horse and then you live happily ever after. There will be love and love.’

Aman is my Prince Charming.

I hear his voice again. The two of us sitting at the little cafe, sipping our cups of coffee.   ‘Why were you smiling at the waiter, Anamika? Why do you smile at and talk to everyone?’

‘I was not smiling, Aman, and even if I was, it  doesn't mean anything.’

‘Eat your pizza, Anamika.’

‘How do you expect me to eat after these comments, Aman?’

I look deep into his eyes.

Aman is quiet for a few seconds before he says, ‘You should leave me, Anamika.’

‘Would my leaving you solve what you are suffering from? You need help.’

‘You mean to say I'm mad.’

‘I mean, Aman, what is the harm in going to a psychiatrist?’

 

I hear the water squeezing through the pipes into the cistern. It startles me. I stand motionless, looking at the plastic that covers the water.

 

I hear my father's voice. Booming. ‘Who will marry her at this age? It is impossible to find her a match.’

 A woman's voice follows. It is my aunt. ‘Only a widower or a divorcee will marry her now. She has missed the boat. She is useless. Everyone wants a working girl earning well. ‘

My eyes are fixed on the cistern's plastic. The holes on it seem to multiply. They are countless eyes staring at me.  II come out of the toilet. My legs walk faster. I keep turning back to see if someone is following me. But I don't see anyone.

I stop in front of the lady at the reception desk. ‘Excuse me, Madam,’ she calls out to me.

I feel the heat in my ears. My eyes are fixed at the lady. I see her, but her presence does not make an impression on me. She wears a sari, but I cannot make out its colour.

‘Do you want tea or coffee?’ she asks me politely.

My tongue is stuck to my teeth.

                                                                        *

I climb the few steps behind the receptionist, open the door and walk out into the Doctor's garden. It is next to the main road.  I hear the car horns, the pedestrians talking in front. I look around and see the lush green  trees. Everything has come to life again.

I stare at the bed of roses. Petals overlap, as though trying to suppress each other, but still they are so beautiful together.

***

‘Anamika, these roses are for you.’ Aman brought them on Valentine ’s Day. He kept saying he loved you’

‘If he really did, he would never have doubted me, never suspected my actions.’

I am exhausted with Aman’s constant guard over me, his looking over my shoulder all the time, asking questions that feel more like an interrogation. Three days ago he returned a courier for me rudely since the sender’s name was male. Theyw ere my medical textbooks from Mumbai. A coupel of days ago he almost punched a young guy in the face because he bumped into me accidentally at the movie ticket counter. I had to drag him back by the collar to restrain him. Still, it was enough of a scene to make people turn and stare at us.

 Why do I put up with it?  Caressing the rose petals in the garden, I ask myself, ‘Do I really love Aman? Or is it just fear?’

 

My mobile rings again. It is my instructor from the gym. I press the cancel button.

‘Anamika?’

I turn and see Aman standing behind me.

‘Who  was it? You disconnected the phone at my arrival. You didn't want to talk to him in front of me, is it?’

‘It was my instructor from the gym.’

‘It couldn’t be. It is the man you are seeing. Show me your mobile.’

He takes my mobile and presses a button. Putting the phone to his ear he says, ‘Hello. Who is this?’

His eyes don’t leave me. A second later he disconnects and hands the phone back to me. ‘Anamika, drop me home,’ he commands.

There is a cut underneath his eyebrow. There is a white hair near his ear. He looks like a stranger to me, as if one of those pedestrians from the other side of the road has walked up to me.

‘Thank you for bringing me to the psychiatrist, I feel nice,’ he says once he has settled into the seat and we are on our way. ‘You are the woman I will marry.’

There is a long silence.

‘Are you seeing someone else?’ he asks when I don’t answer.

At the red light, I stop. I look in the rear view mirror – at the hollow eyes and the overgrowth around the eyebrows from long neglect.

They stare at me and ask, ‘Who needs a psychiatrist more?’

....................................................................................................