Andy Paula is a corporate trainer, an avid reader, a near-passionate blogger, and now, a writer. Her favourite hat though, remains the Thinker’s. Her debut novella, Love’s Labor was published by Indireads this June and her short story Anjum (An Anthology of Short Stories) created waves both sides of the border between India & Pakistan. Her short stories and articles have appeared in eFiction India, LifeBeyondNumbers, Spark, Morsels & Juices and other online portals. Andy lives in Ghaziabad, India, with her husband and their mango trees. www.andypaula.in.
The Stepping Stone
She liked the anonymity, the complete lack of communication that diminished neighbours to strangers and friends to acquaintances. Nobody ever asked if she was married or when she would; no one was interested in where she lived or how far she travelled; all that mattered were numbers and if she met the client SLA, Service Level Agreement. It took her three months to master the mysterious corporate dictionary – KRA, CRM, MBR and numerous others. Key Result Areas determined her performance bonus and had to be submitted at the end of every month; Customer Relationship Management was not a body of humans but a system that managed a company’s interactions with its customers; Monthly Business Reviews were held with characteristic regularity to assure the company that all was under control and cost-cutting a myth. Cost-cutting, another hackneyed term – no, verbiage – that made Lavanya wonder if the decision to start afresh in a metropolis would not reduce her to a robot in due course.
The office cab picked and dropped her from home. Home – what a misnomer! There was nobody there for whom she wanted to come back early. It was a one-bedroom flat in an upmarket locality in South Delhi. The flat’s owners lived in London and they did not bother her with questions. She slept through the day after her graveyard shift, minimising the possibility of any interaction with the neighbours. Not that regular work hours would have made her more social. If company was what she craved, Lavanya wouldn’t have chosen the cold, concrete metro to start afresh. The indifference of the city was an oasis after the scathing questions of her small-town folks. They wanted to know what was so bad with her groom that she had to break the sanctimonious bond. Did she have a secret lover who gave her the gumption to take such a drastic step, did she know how difficult it was to get hitched a second time and many such questions, some direct and some implied, which strengthened her resolve to head towards urban India.
The corporate sector dazzled Lavanya at first. It took her the next three months, after the first three that she spent in decoding acronyms, to study that it caramelized people into honey-dripping Beings. Everybody was well-groomed, cultured, cultivated. The saccharine-laced talks that helped clinch business deals were vicious in their sweetness; they could enamour and entrap both at once. If an incompatible marriage had made her grow up, manoeuvring through the corporate maze gave her wisdom. So when the dentist diagnosed her excruciating pain as a difficult wisdom tooth, Lavanya smiled sardonically at the painful allegory.
Luna had seen her through other painful situations. The nose piercing that hurt her more than the tooth-extraction and an elaborate Shiva tattoo on the back that would make the Lord proud. The two girls – old maids, the grapevine whispered – worked in the same multinational and had their cubicles next to each other. It did not matter that they worked in different departments. Their travel route was the same and they belonged to neighbouring states far away from the metropolis. The great binding thread though, was their single status. Neither had anyone to return home to and while none of them confessed to feeling helplessly alone in the big city, their unspoken understanding bound the two in sisterhood. Luna was in her early forties though her petite frame belied her age. She wore the independent-woman cape with aplomb and inspired Lavanya to come to terms with her new status. Lavanya never pried into Luna’s personal life and she was grateful for the same respect accorded to her by the experienced professional.
“Why do you have to take out your house keys in the cab?” Lavanya said as the cab approached Luna’s apartment one midnight.
“Just keeping things ready,” said Luna.
“You don’t have to let the cabbie know that you’ll let yourself in. Better to give the impression that there’s a house full of people, no?”
Luna nodded thoughtfully. “Thanks, Lavs. Yes, makes sense. You know how the apartment security guys refer to me? The madam who lives alone.”
Lavanya travelled the rest of the distance with tears pricking her eyes. Was that how she was known too? The snooty madam who lives alone? She bit her lower lip as a lump rose in her throat. She murmured thanks to the driver and walked towards her building, her mind a minefield. The madam who goes to work at night. The madam who comes home in the morning. The madam who wears lipstick and high heels. The madam who does not talk to anyone here. The madam who…
She opened the flat’s door and let herself into the deafening quiet. Anonymity over warmth, was it worth it? She missed her family and pined for home. She questioned her own decision about walking out of an impotent marriage. Could she have given it more time? Would it have worked out if she had? The madam who travels with young men. The madam who lives alone.
Lavanya flopped across her single bed and howled.
She had escaped the prying eyes of her relatives only to stand stripped under the devouring eyes of a metropolis. Its lascivious smile and lecherous gaze shattered her illusion of respectability. Its unobtrusive ways were more menacing than the blatant queries of her extended family. With them she at least knew what they were thinking. Here, she could only suspect the worst.
Or was it not the world? Was it she – her own worst critic – that travelled with her wherever she went? Did that make escape impossible, futile? Were her neighbours merely echoing what was ingrained so securely in her own conscience? She would never know.
“We’re going to Siri Fort to watch Karna, Lavs. Just the two of us,” said Luna. “It’s a young, maverick director, Rudradeep.” There was mischief in her voice.
Lavanya laughed at the hint. “Where are we meeting?”
“At the auto stand.”
Lavanya could hear her heart thump against her ribs. Dressing up and walking to the auto-stand alone? She took care to look dowdy. A long loose kurta over regular jeans, hair pulled back in a ponytail, no make-up, old- fashioned sandals, a sling bag that made her look like an artist or a media person. The latter must be safer in this ruthless city?
She spotted Luna from a distance. She looked stylish in a long slit skirt that revealed her bronzed, waxed calf. The chiffon white top clung to her frame and she walked tall on her silver stilettos. Her bright lipstick was inviting as was the custom jewellery she wore. She spotted Lavanya, waved to her and started walking towards her smilingly.
They hugged as they met and Luna burst out laughing.
“Which era does that kurta belong to?”
Lavanya blushed and clung to her friend’s arm as they walked to the pre-paid auto ticket counter. “The way these people look at girls, I didn’t want to take chances,” she murmured.
There was a large puddle in front of the ticket counter, left behind from the morning shower. People were wading through the slush to buy tickets and the ladies were stranded. Suddenly, Luna’s attire seemed inadequate for her surroundings and Lavanya’s flat sandals failed her. They stood looking at the mucky water when two auto drivers, watching them, placed bricks across the pool for the ladies to cross over.