by Swati Moheet Agrawal
She pretends to be sanguine, but she is beset with anxiety; she pretends to be self-assured, but she spends her days wondering what people think of her; she pretends to be feisty, but she’s really very fragile.
As the day begins to wane, Barkha feels afraid of everything: life, death, love or the lack of it. Sometimes she gets so frightened, she snaps wide awake in the middle of the night, her heart somersaulting in her chest. She saunters into the kitchen, guzzles down a glass of chilled water, snuggles back into bed, shuts her eyes, visualizes the swastika and wills her mind to sleep.
A strange lassitude weighs upon her all day. She is overcome with melancholy, ironically, on rainy days.
Barkha was groped in the dark on a rainy July evening at a house party. As a matter of fact, she hated parties where people feigned interest in the same conversations, same foods, same discussions. Everyone tried to fill a void in their lives, everyone tried to prove life was still interesting. To Barkha, all that claptrap was a massive waste of time.
She was sixteen then. The place was swarming with people, she retreated to a corner and began reading Matilda. She always carried a book under her arm. The soft drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. The lights went out. She dog-eared the thirteenth page of the book. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her thigh, it found its way between her legs, and then the dirty fingers followed inside the seam of her denim shorts. She squealed in terror but could not summon the courage to look at the man the hand belonged to. She ran away.
Barkha is a single woman in her late twenties, five-feet four inches, 58 kgs, and wears the best clothes that money can buy. Thanks to her rich father who is the owner of a large investment fund in upmarket Mumbai.
She arouses desire in men and envy in women. And yet, every morning when Barkha opens her eyes to this coveted life that everyone dreams of but very few enjoy, she knows the day will be a disaster.
She wakes up and performs the customary rituals: brushes her teeth, dawdles about in her silk nightgown, eats no more than thirteen pieces of papaya, one moong dal pancake and black coffee for breakfast, gets dressed, smiles and says how beautiful life is. She clings to this routine like a person in a storm desperately clutches a lamppost.
Events occurring in the outside world are inconsequential to her. She does not waver an inch outside her sphere of interest – music and literature. She has a penchant for classical music – Schubert’s symphonies, Bach’s cantatas. Otherwise reticent, a conversation about literature lights her up, and the words cascade out of her like a soothing waterfall.
She always carries a dog-eared copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She loves Holly Golightly. She marks her favorite lines using a green highlighter and even commits it to memory as if it were a sacred mantra: The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling? Well, when I get the mean reds, the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it. Nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then… then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!
Like Holly, Barkha jumps into her Audi and rides to Kitab Khana, it calms her down right away! If she could find a home that made her feel like Kitab Khana, she would learn to cook, settle down and raise children.
Though she is considerably beautiful, she hates having her photo taken. Most people who pass her on the street turn around for a second look, but it seems as though she is embarrassed of her beauty, she hates drawing attention to herself.
It is Barkha’s 30th birthday. But it doesn’t matter. She has long withdrawn from the rambunctious world outside. Sometimes, she conjures up an alternate reality where nobody gropes her. A reality in which she carries herself with dignity and that dignity is reflected in the eyes of everyone around her.
Truth be told, she remembers that incident as if it happened yesterday, when, in fact, more than a decade has passed since. But it took a lot from Barkha that rainy evening.
The feelings. They remain. They always remain. Her heart is restless as ever, tempestuous.
Barkha is hunched near the window, lost in thought. It is raining cats and dogs.
Her father’s childhood friend, uncle Narain, walks in with a parcel wrapped in a glittery red paper. He hugs her tight, plants a kiss on her forehead, and says, “happy birthday mera bacha”. She touches his feet to pay obeisance just like every other year.
She gingerly unwraps the gift. She finds a book freckled yellowed with time.
Bewildered and numb, Barkha resumes reading page 13, Matilda.
About the Author:
Swati Moheet Agrawal lives in Mumbai, India. Her work has appeared in Café Dissensus, Friday Flash Fiction, ActiveMuse, Setu, Kitaab, Storizen, Twist & Twain, Indian Economy & Market Magazine, Life Positive and elsewhere. When not buried between the pages of a book, she likes to dabble in decoupage art. Follow her on Instagram @ swatiwhowrites