The Wednesday man

SHORT STORY

The Wednesday man

Sonic Eye Case Sheet — Suranjan Mohanti has asked us to find out where his wife, Priya, goes every Wednesday afternoon between three and five. Jaideep Bose has been put on the case.

Priya put a hot paratta on Suranjan’s plate. It was his favourite breakfast. He pushed it away. “I will be working late in the office. Don’t wait for me for dinner.” He banged the door and left.

Priya gripped the chair. Suranjan had given her a searching look. Perhaps he knew. How could he? She had built a maze around her activities. Her own office staff rarely knew where she was on any day, certainly not on Wednesdays. She was the business development manager in a soft skills training company. Her work took her all over Bangalore. No one could trace her, unless she was being followed.

She suspected there was someone on her trail. Once, at the Strand bookstore she was going through a book on ornamental gardens. A man was watching her from behind a magazine, held upside down. Black spectacles landed near her feet. A fat man picked them up, and waddled away. Two days later, as she was getting out of an autorickshaw the one behind her stopped suddenly. She glimpsed a broad figure wearing glasses inside.

She ran ahead. Suranjan must never know about Chander. She went through the gates. Chander was on the verandah. His eyes lit up when he saw her. His thin, lithe figure came down the steps, two at a time. She knew she could never give him up.
Suranjan looked at the schedules on his desk. A bus excursion to the Golden Temple, Veil ore. Luxury cars to be hired for foreign tourists going to Belur, Halebid; plane tickets to be blocked for a group of senior citizens travelling to Srilanka. He stared at a poster on the wall opposite him. It was that of a houseboat on the backwaters of Kerala. He saw a thatched roof, open deck, dandelion clouds in a sleek blue sky. Palm trees along the banks. Every thing tranquil, and in response, as his life had been. Until that Wednesday.
Suranjan was the owner of a small travel agency. Priya had come to solicit business for her company. Under the guise of being interested in long term training programmes Suranjan met her frequently. They discussed cross cultural patterns of communication, consumer behaviour and techniques of performance appraisal, over business lunches. The lunches continued over the weekends. The training never took place as Suranjan had only a single employee. They got married instead.

Suranjan’s parents, both busy doctors, flew in from Asansol a day before the wedding. Priya’s parents gave their consent willingly. Too willingly, thought Suranjan as he stared glumly at the posters. Were they trying to hide something? A previous lover, perhaps. They were orthodox Nambudri brahmins. He was surprised that they had not objected to a North Indian son-in-iaw. He remembered the day that he first suspected Priya. Her cell phone was lying on the table. This was unusual, as she guarded it zealously. It rang. He picked it up. A male voice spoke, “I cannot meet you this Wednesday.” Priya snatched the phone from his hand. She spoke a few non-committal words. “A client cancelling a meeting.” She gave a nervous laugh. There was something about her laugh and her expression that made him uneasy.

He soon found out that her mobile was switched off every Wednesday between three and five. He rang her office. A colleague answered. “Priya is never in the office on Wednesday afternoons.” He questioned her about it. “Really! That is the day I visit important clients.”

“The same client every Wednesday?” He knew he had drawn blood. Priya shrank — as still as a mouse that knows the cat is near. Her angular body bent backwards. The veins stood out in her neck. Sweat collected in the hollow of her navel. Suranjan felt a rush of pity. He wanted to take her in his arms. Instead, he stepped back, his face impassive. He went to his study and turned the yellow pages of the telephone directory. He soon found what he was looking for. Sonic Eye Detective Agency. He met the owner, a sad faced man who looked at him mournfully as he took down the details. Two weeks later, he was given an envelope with a name and address. Also, a bill for Rs 20,000. He paid it without protest.

The next day Suranjan drove to Lingarajpuram, a suburb on the outskirts of Bangalore. He entered the gates of a low, white-washed building. He slowed down to look around. A young man was pruning a hedge near the wall. He looked up. Suranjan knew who he was. He also understood why he could never be dislodged from Priya’s heart.
What Priya feared most had happened. Suranjan had found out. Of that she was sure. He had stopped looking at her. He averted his eyes, as if in some deep thought. There was a room across the landing in their flat which was used to keep the travelling equipment which Suranjan sold as a side-line in his business. She saw that he was clearing it out. Was he planning to leave her? She had no doubt he was thinking of some drastic change.

The inevitable day came. Suranjan faced Priya across the dinner table. “I will be home tomorrow afternoon. Please be here. I need your help.”
“But...”
“Tomorrow is Wednesday! I know that. Be here.”
“I can’t.”

“Priya! You will be here.” His voice had a commanding tone. She dared not disobey. She did not know what to do. She was caught between two men she needed with needle point intensity. She flopped into a chair. Her wiry frame turned into fuzzy steel wool. Her bouncing curls became flat like carbon paper. She bent her head in assent.

Her feelings of foreboding seemed to be confirmed when Suranjan came home. After lunch, he took out some papers from his briefcase and put them on a side table. “These are for you to sign later.” She stared at them. They must be divorce papers. She knew he had been consulting his lawyer.

Suranjan looked at Priya. There was pain on his face. “Why didn’t you tell me before? You have deceived me.”
“I am sorry.” She began to cry.
“Priya, it was wrong of you to not have told me you have a brother with AIDS.”
“My family wanted to keep it a secret. They were afraid of the stigma.”
“I had a right to know. From now on I forbid your Wednesday visits.”
Priya looked as if a flat iron had been pressed over her face.
“You can’t do that. I have to go.”
Suranjan laughed. “Go. It won’t do you any good.”
He opened the front door. The young man, who was waiting outside came in. Two thin bodies, two heads of bouncing curls came together. “From now on Chander will be living with us. I have brought the papers for you to sign.”
Brother and sister sat on the sofa looking at each another. Priya spoke in a low voice.
“Suranjan! I can’t believe this.”
“You should have trusted me to stand by you. It was a sin on the part of your parents to put him away.”
Priya covered her face with her hands. “There was nothing I could do. They feared we would all be infected.”
“What nonsense! A common cold is far more infectious than AIDS, unless there is an exchange of body fluids. The HIV virus cannot be transferred from one person to another. Chander is an innocent victim of contaminated blood. Even if he were not, I would have helped him.”
“Chechi! Attimber has given me courage, I wish you had told him long ago.” Chander looked into Priya’s eyes. Priya looked at the ground.
“I was afraid he would not marry me.”
“I would have married you even if every person in your family had two heads. I am not afraid of the disease. My parents are doctors. They discuss their cases at home. They are angry with the media for creating a scare without starting a campaign for prevention. From now on, Chander is part of the family. I have prepared the extra room for him.” He opened the door. The travelling kit was gone. The room had been furnished with a cot, a cupboard and a table. It had a welcoming appearance.

“Thank you!” Priya ran to her husband and held on to him. She clutched at his belt and collar. Suranjan gently freed himself.

“Chander, let’s fix you up before your sister crushes me to death.” He patted his brother-in-law on the shoulder, as he led him across the landing.

Excerpts from ‘Open Doors’ by Chander Nambudripad:

One cannot imagine what it is like to enter the gates of a building and know that one has left the outside world, forever. That one will never meet friends or relatives, go through a familiar routine, make plans for the day, or do any of the things that people take for granted. I would never have a birthday celebration, go for bike rides with my friends, or wait for examination results. I was 21 years old. I was a virgin. I had AIDS.

I was in engineering college. One Sunday, my friends and I had planned to spend the morning jogging in Lal Bagh, and then go on to MTR. for lunch. I sped over the potholes and broken stones of Bangalore roads, dreaming of kesari bhat, vadais, chutneys and bisi bella, the spicy rice for which the restaurant was famous; and for which people stood in queues, eyes glued to the tables, as they waited for a vacancy. My bike toppled over, as a car hit me. I heard a voice say, “he has lost a lot of blood.” A needle pricked my arm. I blacked out. When I came to I was in hospital. My mother was bending over me. A timely blood transfusion had saved my life. I had multiple bruises which were black and painful, but no fractures. I recovered and became my normal self.

Shortly after that I caught a cold. In spite of my gulping down my mother’s decoctions, of boiled Tulsi leaves and other unpleasant ingredients, it refused to go. The cold turned into a fever. I could not attend college. My mother broke coconuts before every God she could think of. My father gave donations to charities. There was no improvement. After many tests I was diagnosed with AIDS, caused by an infected blood transfusion. My parents went into shock. They stumbled around like sleep walkers. I could imagine their minds going over the broken coconuts and generous donations as a waste of resources. The atmosphere was of anger, bitterness and shame. Nobody expressed any concern for me.

I was the cause of this crisis. My parents did not know how to deal with it. They were both extremely socially conscious. My mother of her family history, which went back to a diwan of Travancore, my father of his position as chief trustee in various prestigious endownments. It would never do for it to become known that their son had AIDS. My sister Priya carried on as usual, often coming to my room to laugh and chat, though her efforts were frowned on by my mother.

At last, they decided to send me to Rajgriha Ashram, an institute catering to well to do victims of AIDS. Its residents included a girl of 11, and an old man of 82. All of them had been abandoned by their families, as I had been. People were told I had gone abroad.
I entered the courtyard of death. In the beginning, I was stung by memories; of laughing with friends; fighting with Priya; Onam celebrations. Before me was a vista of what might have been. A successful career, trips abroad, a wife, a family. It stopped there. Never a family to whom I would pass on my affliction. Death reigned supreme. I trained myself into a state of non-thinking; non-feeling; I existed.
One of the staff, seeing that I had an eye for precision and colour, took me as his assistant in the garden. Working with earth and plants, amid the birdsong of crows and mynahs made that existence possible. Priya visited me in secret although I told her not to. She refused many proposals and was reluctant to marry Suranjan, although I could see that she was in love with him. I had to be stern and persuade her that my accident should not be the cause of living death for two people.

She showed me photographs of the wedding and filled me in on the events. I felt as if I had been there. Time and again I begged Priya to stop her visits. She would not listen. Finally, what I dreaded happened. Suranjan drove into the ashram and looked out from the window of his red Santro. I recognised him from the photographs. My mouth opened in fear. I did not know that I had found my best friend.

I am now the proud uncle of a two-year-old nephew, Naresh. Priya has given up her job to be a full time mother. She says that keeping the three of us in order takes up all her training skills. Suranjan’s business has done well and he employs a large staff. Even so, he has not made use of Priya’s talents as a trainer. He says he cannot afford her fees. I make a good living as a landscape artist. Designing roof gardens is my speciality. My book Open Doors has been recommended as a text book in many schools of social work.
For the past two years I have tested HIV negative. Suranjan thinks there may have been a mix up in the reports. He wants to sue the laboratory. I feel it does not matter. From a carefree youth I have changed into a man who cannot live in the world as he sees it. I have started a campaign to show that AIDS is not the dreaded disease people believe it to be. There is treatment to keep it under control. Many AIDS patients are likely to become old age pensioners. I am building a campus where people with AIDS can live together, perhaps get married to fellow sufferers. I am planning to move there as soon as my cottage is ready. That is my future. My past is insignificant. I live every day of the week. I no longer have to wait for Wednesdays.

Sonic Eye Report

This case had a happy ending. However, as a result Jaideep Bose left our services. He felt that his thick spectacles and broad frame made him too conspicuous to be a good operative. He is now running a guest house in Devanhalli near the new airport. I am told he is very prosperous and I fear, even more corpulent.
The case is closed.

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