He was our neighbour, just two rooms away at a Chawl in Dongri, Mumbai.
Mumbai — the city of dreams; out of those dreams how many were realised and how many broke every hour nobody cared to ask, nobody cared to tell. A deliberate omission to keep the romance alive perhaps.
Forgive me for meandering, it’s a stubborn habit, one of my many flaws.
Anyway, so he and I were neighbours, we went to school together. Soon before I turned 12 my soiled panties alerted Aai and Baba against sending me to school and just like that I shifted my focus from sharpening pencils in classrooms to chopping vegetables in the kitchen. I was prepared for this change and maybe that’s why it did not hurt too much - the transition, the loss. Our mind works in strange ways- it can endure it all if trained, it’s the shock of deception perhaps that it cannot endure. More than the tragedy, the abruptness of its occurrence shatters us.
Though the frailties of my sex pushed me into domestication, I still wanted to learn and He knew that. Every afternoon after school he would come over to our room for lunch, and over a meal of Dal and rice would tell me about all the lessons I missed and all the friends I did not see anymore.
Just like that years passed and He and I became inseparable. From just being my neighbour, he became my best friend. I could speak to him about my dreams of having children and a loving family while he told me he wanted to become a Superstar. “You wait and watch, just like Hrithik Roshan I’ll set the silver screen on fire!”, he would gloat with a twinkle in his eyes. We spent some of our evenings watching Hindi movies that played loud and clear at Raju Bhaiya’s ration shop round the corner and on some we played gully cricket where I always shocked everyone with my dexterity. Growing up, he teased me saying that no one would ever want to marry a silly girl like me and that eventually he would have no other option but to make me his “pity wife”. I would slap his shoulder in mock anger that almost always turned into uncontrollable laughter, his stupid jokes made me giggle inconsolably. Little did I know, that slowly as we grew up He stopped finding those words funny.
One Valentine’s Day he got me a stuffed teddy bear.
“What is this now?”, I asked in exaggerated amusement.
“It’s a teddy bear, I saved up for months to get you this, did you like it?”, he asked, his eyes brimming with anticipation.
“It’s alright, I would have liked chocolates better.” I teased.
I saw a hint of hurt in his eyes but he quickly hid it by pulling my pig tails.
Our friendship was dotted with such incidents, laced with hints of an awkward tension that almost immediately dissolved in friendly banter. I always thought that’s how friendships are but now as I look back, I wonder if things would have been different had I paid more attention. Had I noticed that he always approached, while I always dismissed. I often wonder if my benign gestures led him on. Was I selfish in wanting the company of a male friend, or worse was I coveting a bond that is impossible to even exist.
Was it my fault, my fate — did I bring it upon myself?
For me he was my friend, my trust in him let caution slip, and so it did.
I was all of nineteen, and my parents began to spread the word that they wanted to get me married off. From where I came, expectations from a partner were not too much, anything that gave the woman a slight upgrade would suffice for a blessing. My expectations from my future husband were not much either, I just wanted someone who kept me happy and earned enough for me to put a decent meal on the table.
Those months, He began to keep his distance from my family and kept me closer than ever. He stopped coming for meals and excused himself from entertaining the suitors who came to see me, saying the movie auditions took all his time. Yet, at night he would come to me too seek confidence for his auditions and I comforted him, encouraged him, like a good friend would do, a good friend.
Soon, they found a suitable boy for me, Ravi. Our families were pleased with the arrangement and we were engaged to get married. I was extremely relieved that they approved of me. Ravi was a nice man, an honest one. He had a stable salary coming and owned a one-bedroom flat. He did not smoke, and was willing to share his life with me, a humble Chawl girl, what more could I ask for?
Later that evening I went looking to convey the good news to Him, my best friend in the whole world. I surprised him from the back by jingling my green bangles around him and he clutched my hand, breaking two of them against my skin. I quickly retracted my wrist from his aggressive grip.
“Ouch, what is wrong with you? It’s bleeding, you’ve hurt me!” I shrieked with anger.
He turned around, his eyes swollen and unfocused. I wondered if he had cried.
“What’s the matter, did something happen at the audition?” I lay my hand on his drooping shoulders that stiffened under my touch.
He glanced at my hands and then my face and as his eyes met mine, he whimpered, “How could you do this? I thought you loved me.”
Love? It did not hit me, his words.
“What do you mean?” I asked him, buying sometime to process my bewilderment.
“We promised, we would marry each other, how can you leave me like this then?”, he came closer, his lips trembling.
“What rubbish!” I stepped away. “Are you drunk? Do you know what you are saying?” I turned to leave but he held my arm.
“I love you Sapna. Don’t leave me” and then he loosened his grip and I, overcome by shock, ran.
We stopped talking after that night. I was still in shock, caught unawares by his confession. How did I never see through this, how was I so stupid to not understand? These riddles tugged at my heart keeping me up all night. I had too much at stake to risk a confrontation and so I let it pass hoping that time would take care of this bizarre turn our friendship swerved into.
Soon, the wedding dates came closer and I dived into all the preparations and duties. I saw him fleetingly, almost in shadows that I had no grip over.
One afternoon, a week before my wedding, Baba and I were riding to the jewellery shop on a scooter he borrowed. He wanted to gift me gold bangles from a chunk of his life’s savings and the jeweller wanted to measure the size of my wrists, faintly scarred from those green glass bangles.
I reminded myself to rub some coconut oil on it later so it fades soon before my wedding day.
We were just a turn away when two men with their faces masked in chequered napkins zoomed past us and in one swift motion splashed a viscous liquid all over me.
I did not know what had struck me. Within seconds my Baba and I lay wriggling on the road like fish out of water.
My body felt as if it were in flames. I felt my clothes melting from my body or was it my skin? I did not know. People surrounded us and doused me in water. There were some who clicked pictures, the flash blinding my eyes and walked away. I know I was screeching but I could not hear myself. The skies, the roads were melting in front of me until it was blinding dark.
The next thing I knew; I woke up somewhere else.
I was attacked with acid.
Who did it the authorities could never find out, but those eyes, those eyes were familiar, I knew them all my life. It was Him.
Faint words swam in my dizzying head.
“I loved you and I will not let anyone else take you away from me.”
And he was right, the joke that he cracked so often became the ugly truth of my life. No surgery could ever heal the scars of disfiguration on my face. I lost an eye to the accident, and my face was left wounded, scarred, unrecognisable.
My wedding stood cancelled. The gold bangles too big for the wrists I did not recognise as my own anymore.
Often as I sit rubbing coconut oil on gnarled, leathery flesh on my arms, my cheeks, my present yanks me back to wonder exactly when our friendship changed into something more.
Was it so foolish of me to believe that a man and a woman could be friends, just friends?
I do not know, but for the boy who was my dearest friend, I had become his love, his obsession.
He was never my friend. He was never my friend.
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here: https://issuu.com/beetlemag/docs/june2020
Illustration by Prashasti Shreshtha