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After a few days, SK introduced Toots to Sumana and the three started going on casual outings together.
SK and his two friends were sitting by the Madivala Lake. They could see egrets perched on trees; from a distance they looked the snow concerned peaks in fall. SK made a mental note to bring his camera along next time. As an association the form changing bete-noir of the eye came to his mind. He put photography out of his head and forced himself into the present. Sumana was eating popcorn. Toots was staring at the ripping waters. SK shifted restlessly. Why wasn’t anybody speaking, Goddammit. If vulnerable silence wasn’t protected by amour of words, the monster eye would start assaulting him again. As if sensing his uneasiness, Toots initiated a conversation. So what do you do, Su, apart from studying I mean?’
‘I am into theatre’, Sumana said with gravity and pushed her glasses higher up her beauteous nose.
‘That’s great!’ ‘What do you do- lighting, sound , costumes, script-writing or ….
‘Why acting of course’, said Sumana offended. ‘Oh ok’, Toots said. Her tone was mollifying. ‘Which was last play you did?’ She sounded genuinely interested.
‘Final Solutions’ by Mahesh Dattani. The judges applauded me …. I had the role of a very old woman…..
‘Oh, you know!’, Sumana’s glasses nearly fell off her nose.
‘Yeah, I do a little bit of reading’ , Toots looked down at her hands. Sumana regarded her with some respect after this.
Sumana, according to SK behaved in the most abominable manner sometimes. She would argue unreasonably, behave pompously and sometimes pick faults with Toots’ sartorial sense and even natural endowments (Your nose is too huge for beauty, Toots. Maybe you’ve taken after your dad. Gents can carry it off, perhaps, not ladies). Toots responded to all this with a benign smile. SK was irked. ‘What are you trying to prove by playing Ms. Goody Two Shoes?’ he would demand. ‘She’s younger than you and me’, Toots would respond placidly.
Summer had set in. Toots spent all her time with her muses, inspirations, ideas, impressions, perceptions. She painted hours at a stretch working on the on canvas to be displayed at an exhibition that was due in a month and half. During this period of self-imposed quarantine, she refused to meet anyone (and that included SK). He imagined her creating tints in her grand palette; confident strokes… as the time stretched he could see the beads of sweat on her upper lip and could swear that he smelled turpentine just out of the blue.
The other young lady’s annual examinations were approaching. She spent late nights sweating and cramming. She was painfully conscious of the ticking hands of the clock, became addicted to caffeine and the image of her favorite rival Preeti studying, and took to obsessively glancing at unfinished portions.
There were times she experienced thrills when she visualized success and chills when there were nightmares of failure. She was enthralled that her brain seemed rich with blood and O2 supply but disgusted at her blatant neglect of personal hygiene.
When SK called at her house occasionally; she would sit like zombie unable to come out of her world of lettered learning. She reminded him of Toots these days; staring into blank space and all.
Exhibition and exams finished; with the aims of his two friends having reached conclusion, SK was a happy man. He noticed dark circles under Toots’s eyes. Sumana’s braid had grown thinner. Both of them had strained themselves, it was obvious, and he went all out to compensate for their hard work. He took them to amusement parks, the cinemas and malls. All this did burn a bit of hole in his pocket but he didn’t mind.
Toots would go off once in a while to some examination center. When he visited her house her father told him that Toots was nowadays acting as a scribe to visually impaired students. He asked Mr. Tarun Rao if he minded his sitting in Toots’s studio for a while ‘Not at all’ the foot loose and fancy free man replied, handed him the house keys and cheerily went off somewhere in his colorful Bermudas . It seemed to SK that Mr. T thought he was in the Caribbean itself.
SK couldn’t stand the sultriness of late April; spring in Western countries. But the Tropics know only summers, winters and monsoons . ‘Spring’ he pronounced that word (a new beginning) and suddenly felt a flush of happiness.
He went to switch the fan on beside the switchboard he half noticed a sticker with an eye. ‘I am an eye donor, are you one ?’ the line beneath it read’. SK soon forgot about it.
He couldn’t see much of Toots. When did he see her he was off with Sumana to an SPCA meeting that the college authorities had encouraged staff and students to attend , even through college was officially closed for summer. He thought of giving a little (sanctimonious?) lecture to Toots on the benefits of social work…. And lo and behold the versatile eye’s spherical shape started taking form. He abruptly remembered Toots activities as a scribe. She had probably pledged her eyes even. He shut his mouth hypothetically. The phantom of the eye obscured, then disappeared.
He was at Sumana’s house. Some unspoken commitment was replete in the air. Sumana, her younger brother, her parents and SK exchanged knowing glances. Not a word passed anyone’s lips through.
Tootsie waffled into his room like a fragrance. Her auburn hair, silky and scented was incarcerated by a pink satin ribbon. She looked achingly young. SK set her tresses free and started weaving something out of them. A book- the book of SK’s life. He noticed a grey strand …before he knew it, the entire book he had woven had turned grey. And he was worked into hag’s face. ‘Get out, you witch’ he woke up shouting.
He tried to block out Toots- somehow he feared something (may be he was afraid Toots expecting something- something like commitment example) really he should have never made friends with this woman.
He spent all his time with Sumana. Sumana was all grown up. ‘Toots is extremely gifted; her works speak volumes’ she said without any apparent malice. She seemed to be dressing well there days but a little too ‘trad’ for SK’s liking- ungainly necklaces, bangles, bindi and all that like the women in soaps. The ‘intellectual’ in her seemed to have toned down.
Toots violated his dreams again this time her nose grew and grew so large and bulbous that SK found at different to breathe. He woke up gasping for breath.
‘Damn this women’ he cursed aloud. She was a succubus for sure. Or a witch. A witch who was doing black magic on him. She was not a young girl she seemed to be but the ugly old hag he had seen in his dreams. SK convinced himself that even the nuisance of the eye which harassed him nowadays had been her undoing.
He was sitting on the swing at Su’s house. Su was sitting by his side. She was dressed in a dark purple kanjeevaram saree with traditional jewelry. Carnatic music played in the background, as usual. SK experienced the same plastic happiness he had earlier felt during times with Sumana. He looked around and took in the scent of jasmine and incense sticks emanating from in front of the pedestal on which God’s idol was mounted. He sucked in deep breaths and looked content. Su’s mother who was a more filmy mother than his own, brought him coffee , filtered and served in Udupi hotel style. He smiled and accepted it. Su didn’t want coffee. She had enough of it during exams. ‘Hmm’ he stretched again and started to say something like, ‘That Toots female…’ He experienced a series of buzzes. Buzz. A reverberating buzz buzz buzz buzz. A bombinating buzz. He fell off the swing . The eye appeared – this time a female’s- beautiful honey brown, lilting at the ends and long lashed with raven black arched eyebrows.- Toots’s eye flashed crimson light until he felt he had been photosensitive all his life. It morphed into Toots’ rosebud mouth and pronounced in her husky voice-
“Try and run away from truth shall follow you. Many signals you’ve had but refuse to take the cue”
“What truth are you talking about?” he cried out like one possessed.
The lips gave sweet secret smile “Aren’t you ashamed, you naughty boy? You are all set to marry Su but you love Toots”.
“Who said either fact is true …” he was left saying this to himself. When Su and his family had encircled him concerned , he was found nodding his head and admitting, “ Yes what you say is true”. Su’s family with short attention span and memory had forgot SK’s unusual behavior quickly. Soon, the brother was throwing a ruckus because he couldn’t find his bat. Amma was reprimanding him affectionately and Appa continued listening to his Carnatic music.
‘You never complimented me, Su said petulantly.
‘Complimented?’ he squinted confused.
‘How do I look’?
‘Like an aunty’ Su went off inside, hurt. SK left.
The next day she wore a white gown and kept accessories to a minimum. She picked white lilies at the florists and waited in the park.
‘Why did you call me? What do you want? SK spoke to her as though speaking to a stranger. ‘Actually’, Su said coyly ‘I wanted to give you these’ She handed him the flowers.
‘Whatever for? Ok I’ll ask in your language’ what is the implication of this rubbish? What are you wearing anyway- a wedding gown? – oh! Spare me’
‘No ….no SK nothing like that’, Su said stung. She felt the ignominy of having her feelings (which she had thought were reciprocated) laid bare thus only to be rebuffed. ‘A friendly gesture that’s all’ she stammered.
‘Friendly gesture indeed, SK spat ‘Stay away from me you bookish idiot and keep your meddlesome family out of this’
Su was incensed. ‘Don’t bring my family into this SK…’, she threatened.
‘1 will!- the brazen match makers . Go away. I am going to marry Toots’ he said.
Sumana came home crying. Her heart was really and truly broken. She flung the lilies out of the window. His stinging words echoed in her ears and she tortured her self further replaying them for a week.
Her results were out. She had done well. But nothing could offer solace now, not even the fact that she had beaten Preeti by two marks. For all her phoniness and pedantism, her acerbic words, jealousies and other faults, Su had really loved Santosh Kumar. That had been very honest. Su would over a period of six or seven years go through process of soul searching and become one of the finest thinkers of the century , even find a soul-mate eventually. But as of now the young girl’s heart was broken.
It was only 9 AM. Lots of time to seize the day. SK rubbed his palms together gleefully. At Cherry’s at 11 O’clock he left on IM in her inbox just like old times.
He bought her a huge bouquet of red roses. He imagined the joy on her face when he would tell her. They’d probably be a few moments of sheer disbelief (at her luck), then tears. His Toots looked so pretty when she was moved.
He felt proud of his decision. He hoped other people would follow his example and accept people with physical limitations as he had (unconditionally) accepted Toots. His self – esteem soared.
Toots was standing next to the cherry blossom tree next to Cherry’s’. At the ripe of spring, the tree was in full blossom. Toots was hugging it. The strappy pink dress sat pretty on her well sculpted shoulders. Her hair lush and rich as usual, bounced around her shoulders.
What happened next had a sense of unreality about at us if you were looking at the entire scene through a piece of glass.
SK advanced smiling .Toots was smiling; her eyes with lit with some understanding. She, as usual was looking into a distance.
She crossed the road and was advancing. SK cocked his head to a side, gave a shrug that he thought irresistibly attractive and flashed a brilliant smile.
Suddenly he became the onlooker in the play instead of lead actor. Toots had barely registered his presence. She walked straight into the arms of a youth with a child in arms. It looked picturesque- two flaxen heads and one auburn- together. SK’s mind’s eye showed him an idyllic scene on a farm, Toots’s bucolic paintings, the threesome riding tractors in a distant land. A brood of more children with flaxen, auburn and combination hair.
He barely noticed that the roses that had fallen off his hand and crushed to death by a passing lorry. They lay bleeding on the ground.
The versatile eye stayed with him every moment after this.
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