[a fiction short story]
The moment I saw the telephone booth I decided to ring up my wife in Pune. I wish I hadn’t. But then you wouldn’t be reading this story. At that precise point of time I should have been just out of Mumbai harbour, sailing on the high seas, but my ship’s departure was suddenly postponed by a day as some cargo documents were not in order and whilst the ship-chandlers and agents were on the job, obtaining the necessary clearances, I decided to see a movie at the Regal cinema and then kill time window-shopping on Colaba Causeway.
Having enjoyed the afternoon show, I was lazily strolling down Colaba Causeway when I saw the telephone booth. I wasn’t carrying my cell-phone – never do when sailing. I looked at my watch: 6.45PM.
Priya, my wife, should be home in Pune by now. I dialed our home number. The phone at the other end started ringing. Five rings. No one picked up. Ten rings. Twenty. And suddenly it cut-off. I tried again. No one picked up. I tried her cell-phone – ten rings, cut-off, she didn’t answer.
Walking towards Marine Drive, I wondered why Priya was late coming home. Her office finished at five, and it was just half-an-hour’s scooter drive to our home. Priya was always home by 6 PM. 6.15 at the most!
I looked at my watch: 7.15PM. Suddenly I spotted another phone booth. There was a proliferation of these nowadays. I went in and dialed. No reply. I dialed again and again. Our home landline number, her mobile number. I must have dialed both numbers at least ten times and every time the story was the same – ten rings and cut off.
As I walked by the sea in the enveloping darkness, strange thoughts began entering my brain. Maybe Priya had an accident. I wished I had never bought her that scooter. It was so dangerous driving a two-wheeler in the chaotic evening traffic of Pune. And Priya’s driving was so rash. I had warned her so many times about her reckless driving. But she just wouldn’t listen. Stubborn! That’s what she was. Like she insisted on buying the latest two-wheeler model with powerful pick-up, so she could zip around town. I’d suggested she use the car, but she said it was impossible for her to drive a car in the frenzied traffic on the narrow roads of Pune. And, of course, she was tired of traveling by bus. Besides it was below her dignity.
At first I was angry with her; then gradually my anger turned to anxiety. An accident? A distinct possibility. Maybe I was imagining things. Getting worried for nothing. Priya must be home by now!
“Please can I use your mobile phone?” I asked a stranger sitting on the parapet on the sea face.
“Sure,” he said, “tell me the number. I’ll try.”
I told him. He dialed. Once, twice! Then with a knowledgeable look on his face he told me what I already knew, “No one is picking up.”
I looked at my watch: 7.45PM. I felt a tremor of trepidation. Instinctively I knew that something was wrong. I tried to calm myself and think rationally.
“Anything wrong?” the stranger asked looking intently at me.
“No,” I said trying to wipe out the anxiety on my face, smoothening my worried look into a grin. “I’m trying to get my wife.”
“Why don’t you try some other number? Her friend, her office?” he said holding out his cell-phone.
Yes. Her office. Priya’s office. How come I didn’t think of it before?
I dialed Priya’s office number.
“Hello,” said a male voice.
“I want to speak to Priya Ranade,” I said. “I’m her husband speaking from Mumbai.”
“Oh,” the voice said,” Just a minute.”
There was long pause. The silence was killing. Then suddenly the sound of someone picking up the phone.
“Hello, Mr. Ranade, Godbole here.” Godbole was Priya’s boss. “Your wife left at five, as usual,” he said. “In fact even we are winding up now. It’s almost eight.” I could her some conversation in the background. “Just hold the line please,” Godbole said. After a few seconds Godbole spoke, “You’re speaking from Mumbai, are you? Anything wrong? Any problem?”
“No one is picking up the phone at my house,” I said.” Even her mobile.”
“I see,” Godbole said. “Why don’t you check up with Ashok Pandit. They left office together. Maybe your wife is at his place.”
“Yes.” The word escaped my mouth.
“Just a second,” Godbole said. “I’ll give you Ashok Pandit’s residence number.”
“Thanks, sir. I’ve got it,” I said, switched off and looked beseechingly at the stranger.
“Go ahead,” he said, got up and walked away to give me privacy.
Almost immediately I dialed Ashok’s number. I knew it by heart. After all, Ashok was one of my best friends, besides being Priya’s colleague at office.
Anjali, Ashok’s wife, came on the line.
“Hi, Anjali. Vinay here.”
“From the ship?”
“No. From Mumbai.”
“No. Is Ashok there?”
“No. He’s not come back from office.”
“But it’s eight o’clock,” I said.
“Ashok told me he’d be late,” Anjali said. “Some important business meeting. Dinner with a client or something. He told me not to wait for dinner. Why don’t you try his mobile?” She sounded so nonchalant that I decided not to delve any further.
“I just rang up to say goodbye,” I said and hung up.
So this was what going on the moment my back was turned. Under the garb of platonic friendship. And to think I had left Pune only yesterday, and they were having a good time already.
It was only yesterday morning that Ashok had come to see me off on the Deccan Queen. I’d asked him to take care of Priya while I was away at sea. And do you know what he said? “Don’t worry. Vinay. I’ll take good care of Priya. I’ll look after her so well that she won’t even miss you.”
Sure! She wasn’t missing me! I should have known. The familiar way they talked to each other; their ‘harmless’ jokes. Platonic friendship my foot! I had been a fool blinded by trust. Deep down I felt terribly betrayed. I was so angry, so full of hate, that I could feel the venom rising within me. I cannot begin to describe the intense emotions I experienced, but a strange force took charge of me impelling me to act, propelling me toward the nearest taxi. “Dadar,” I told the taxi driver, “Poona Taxi Stand.”
Something vibrated in my hands. Shit! I had forgotten to return the stranger’s cell-phone. I should have turned back, returned the mobile, but I do not know what bizarre force overwhelmed me that I just switched it off.
Soon I was on my way to Pune, having hired an entire taxi to myself owing to the urgency of my mission. Also I did not want any company. As I closed my eyes in self-commiseration, I saw both halves of my life, my marriage and my career, side by side, as I had never seen them before, and I tried to fathom how I could be so stupid in one and so capable in the other.
The voice of the taxi-driver shook me out of my thoughts, “Sir, we’ll stop at the Food-Court before climbing the ghats. You can have a cup of tea or eat something.”
I decided to give Priya her last chance. I dialed her cell number. Our home number. It was the same story. Ten rings. No one picked up. I looked at my watch. 10 PM. I dialed Ashok Pandit’s home number. A few rings.
“Hello,” It was Ashok’s wife Anjali again.
“I want to speak to Ashok Pandit,” I said curtly.
“He’s not home,” Anjali said. I could sense the irritation in her voice. “Who’s speaking? Vinay? Why don’t you try his mobile?”
I tried Ashok’s mobile. ‘Out of coverage area’: a recorded message said. Must have gone to his farmhouse in Panshet.
There was no doubt about it now. Too much of a coincidence. Unfaithful Wife and Devious Friend! Making a cuckold of me. Having a good time at the farmhouse on the very night of my departure! As if they were waiting for me to go. Just imagine what they would be up to during my six month absence away at sea. I felt tormented by the torrent of anger flowing within me. There was no going back now. I had to get the bottom of this.
The taxi took two hours to reach Pune - the longest two hours of my life. As I entered my apartment block I noticed that Priya’s scooter was parked at the usual place.
So there had been no accident. My suspicions were true! I ran up the steps to my second floor flat.
There was no lock on the door. So she had come back. I rang the bell. Once. Twice. Priya opened the door. She was looking at me as if she had seen a ghost. I stepped inside and quickly went to the bedroom. There was no one there.
“What’s wrong?” Priya exclaimed. “Why have you suddenly come back?”
“Where were you?” I asked ignoring her question. “I’ve been ringing up all evening.”
“You were supposed to be sailing.”
“The sailing got postponed,” I said irritably. “Answer my question. Where were you? I rang up at least five times.”
“I was right here,” Priya said.
We stood facing each other. I saw a flicker in her eyes. I knew she was hiding something. Then she spoke, trying to keep her voice calm, “There is something wrong with our phone. Even Ashok said he couldn’t get me.”
“When?” I snapped.
“He came to check in the evening. I told him to make a complaint.”
“He came here? Why? You could have rung up on your mobile.”
“I lost my cell-phone.”
“I don’t know. Maybe in the office. Or on the way, the market.”
“You expect me to believe that! Lost cell-phone! Phone dead! And Ashok’s mobile out of coverage.”
“Ashok? You rung up Ashok? Are you mad?”
“You think I am dumb. You liar, you cheat…..” I screamed incoherently in furious rage.
“What’s wrong with you?” Priya shouted. “You suddenly land up at midnight and….”
Before she could complete her sentence the telephone started ringing. I rushed and picked it up.
“Priya, what’s wrong with Vinay?” It was Ashok’s voice. “He’s been ringing Anjali from Mumbai. There is a missed call on my mobile too.”
“It’s me!” I said angrily to Ashok and put the phone down. And then I looked at Priya squarely in the eye and said, “And now what do you have to say? This phone suddenly comes to life. With Ashok at the other end. Ringing you at midnight! Wow! What coincidence?”
She had no answer. Adulterous cheat! Deep down I felt terribly betrayed.
I did not return to my ship. Just couldn’t. Everyone tried to convince me that I was imagining things. But I am not convinced. They took me to the telephone exchange. But tell me, do they repair faults at midnight? And next day Ashok turned up with Priya’s cell-phone claiming that it was found lying in the office conference room. And expected me to believe it!
Ashok swore that he was innocent in the presence of his wife. Priya did likewise. But deep down within me is sown the seed of mistrust, growing day by day. Proliferating. Burgeoning into a massive tree of suspicion.
I have to make a decision. Soon. Once and for all. Clear everything. This way or that way!
I’ve read somewhere. The underlying principle of decision-making in uncertainty: “Suspend judgment till all possibilities are considered.”
So till this very day I am living in a state of suspension, considering all possibilities. And the more I think, the more the possibilities grow. Oh yes! The possibilities are endless!
I’ve got the sack for deserting my ship. And risk being blacklisted even by other companies if don’t return to the sea fast. And worse – they’ve tracked down the stranger’s mobile cell-phone and have filed a theft case against me and I am out on bail.
But I’m still waiting. Doing nothing. My judgment suspended. While I consider all possibilities. Till I reach a conclusion. Get to the bottom of it.
My wife wants me to consult a therapist – get some counseling. She thinks I’ve gone crazy. Everyone thinks I’ve gone crazy. Do you?
copyright 2006 Vikram Karve