Friday, January 10, 2014

Mirror Image

He could not take his eyes off her exquisite profile. Her face reminded him of the moon, but minus all its flaws, radiant as it emerged from behind the clouds. She carried herself with unconscious grace, and he adored the ground she walked on. He recalled words from a classic Hindi movie, where the raspy voiced hero pleaded with his beautiful heroine, asking her not to place her dainty feet on the ground, lest they be soiled. He had laughed, with the rest of his generation, at the idea, but he could see himself adoring her blindly, willing to anything she asked him to.
Then one day, in the throes of twilight, when the breeze blew into his ear balmily, he could contain himself no more. In the shade of a tamarind tree, with all its little leaves twinkling and swaying, he went down on his knees. “Marry me, please! I cannot live without you!”
Her face paled, her lips trembled, as she shook her head gently, not wanting to tread upon his heart wantonly. “I cannot marry anyone at the moment. I have an older sister who is still unmarried and only after she marries...!” The words fell like a hammer on his ears. He did not think twice as he said desperately, “I will look for a boy for her! We can wait!”
She shook her head. “It is not that easy. She is in love with a man, who is also in love with her. But our family is against it as he is from a different caste.” She took out a crumpled photograph from within her bag. The same exquisite features and lustrous eyes stared out at him. As he stared at the aquiline nose and a complexion like dewdrops on a rose, he said impulsively, “She is beautiful! Anybody would fall in love with her! I didn’t know that you are a twin!”
She smiled ruefully as she said, “The man she loves is in hiding from his family as they are determined to get him married to a girl from an affluent family. Even we do not know where he is, as he does not want to put us in any danger.” She looked at him squarely. “I will marry you if you find him for us.  My sister’s happiness means everything to me!”
He agreed instantly! How difficult could this be? “In the meantime, I do not want you to meet me. This is a dangerous game and I do not want you to be hurt.” Much against his wishes he succumbed, confident that he would succeed in his task in a couple of months. He saw himself as a Knight from King Arthur’s table, riding in armour, to win his lady love. All those Literature classes which he had taken to impress his pretty young neighbour, came in handy now.
And so the hunt began, as he pretended to be the boy’s friend, and walked into the opulent house that took his breath away. The parents proved to be as close mouthed as clams, and he could get nothing out of any of the numerous cousins, aunts and servants, except suspicious sidelong glances. Then one day, he was ousted from the house unceremoniously, as the smiles had begun turning strained. He was dejected, but the thought of his beautiful bride to be, and the sorrow in her eyes as she spoke of her sister’s happiness being vital to her own well being, made him plod on.
One day he called her up. “Could I speak to your sister? Maybe she knows where I could find him! Some little clue... anything!”
“She is still in a state of shock. She will not be able to help you at all! She was always so full of life, but now she has forgotten to smile even!”
Months dragged on, with no news. He went everywhere, photo in hand, even though she had cautioned him to be careful. “They are rich, unscrupulous folks. They will not hesitate to kill you. Don’t let anyone know you are looking for him!”
She paused and went on. “The girl they want him to marry also comes from a family with a tendency to quarrel. So, pray, be very careful! I don’t want to lose you!”
At that moment, he could pluck stars from the sky, jump off the highest mountain for her [all those Literature classes again!]. And all she wanted was for him to find one measly man!
Every day he would scour around the town, even taking leave from his not-so-exciting job. His mother was livid. “Why are you doing all this for a girl you don’t even know that well, you besotted fool?”
Not know her? She is the love of my life, he wanted to proclaim to the world, stand below her balcony and spout classic lines to her. But it was all too premature. His parents would lift him up bodily and lock him in his room, to cure him of his ‘madness’. He had just got a job, and they did not want him to throw it away.
“Ma, give me just two weeks more? I promise to stop after that!”
The clock clicked on onerously, he began to lose weight, his heels became calloused and his hair grew frizzy, as he walked around the seamier side of the city, where the shadows shielded crime and criminals. He peeped into the red light areas where garishly made up women beckoned to him, and men with deep fathomless eyes stared at him. He had never been exposed to the underbelly of life and he had very little idea how to deal with it.
A knife rasped against his neck as his wallet was torn away, but he managed to escape. “All because of her prayers!” he breathed to himself.
Once, after a particularly exhausting day, he went to her room, even though he had promised not to see her. He lay down, his head on her lap, eyes red rimmed and watery. She stroked his forehead gently, almost maternally, as she said softly, “Maybe you should stop. You’ll kill yourself at this rate!” Her large eyes were filled with concern, and he could hear the regret in her tone.
“I will not rest till I hunt him down!” He sat up with a jerk. “You and I can rest after that!” She smiled at him, but there was a strange sorrow within her eyes that made him wonder. But he shrugged it off!
Then one day, he struck gold! He was getting off an auto rickshaw in front of a three star hotel, in a remote area of the city, when suddenly he saw him, walking down the lobby. It was him all right – the same lanky build, the grey eyes that looked around furtively, as though he was ready to duck at any sudden movement, almost like an animal that senses it is being preyed upon. He appeared to be a man in turmoil, a man on the run!
He recalled her words, “He will not come willingly because his father has sworn to break his legs if he is seen anywhere in public. He is petrified, and hence, you will have to bring him here under false pretences!”
He walked into the lobby, accidentally brushed against him, apologized profusely. The next day he went back, sat down in the mini restaurant and ordered coffee, and waited for him to come in. They smiled perfunctorily at each other. A week went by, before he made his first move. He introduced himself and offered him a drink, and another, and yet another. By the end of the evening they were best buddies.
This turned into a routine, and he sensed the other man had no suspicions about him. “Why don’t you come over home tomorrow and have a drink with me? This is getting a bit monotonous, isn’t it?”
“No!” came the spontaneous reply. “I cannot go anywhere! I am in deep trouble!”
“Can I help?” he asked with the right amount of concern.
But there was no getting anything out of him. His face turned into a blank wall and he clammed up completely. This was a wall that could not be breached. It was time for Plan B.
One balmy evening, as they sat drinking together, he managed to slip a drug into the other man’s glass. He watched as the liquid went down in deep draughts. They talked about life, love and longing. The evening grew darker till finally the drug took effect. He slumped over the table, with glazed eyes. It was now or never!
He hailed a taxi, hanging on to the drunken man, making inane excuses for him as they bumped into strangers. People looked at them, but not with suspicion. Just a couple of youngsters letting their hair down! As the taxi moved, he was filled with a strange sense of elation. He had done the seemingly impossible. She would be his finally! Maybe they could have a double wedding. She would look so lovely in her rich brocade sari, eyes a-lustre with adoration and hope. Sudden love filled his heart and he hugged the unconscious man, who was the key to their happiness.
She opened the door and her face paled as she looked at the two men, one holding up the other. As he made him sit on an armchair, she stared in disbelief as his head lolled against the cushion. There was a strange expression of triumph on her face, one that disconcerted him. Wasn’t it supposed to be relief and joy?
Suddenly she turned to him, arms outstretched, and burst out crying, “Thank you, thank you! You are wonderful!” and she collapsed into his arms. He smelt the fragrance of her hair as he clasped her closely, ecstatically.
The next moment, she turned business like, as she sat him down in a chair. “You need to hear the truth now!” Her eyes were deep pools of mystery and a sudden dread suffused his body. She appeared to be almost a stranger as the whole story tumbled out.
Later they wheeled the still unconscious man on a wheelchair, into a stark white building. She was pale as she looked at the young man who walked alongside her, still shell-shocked at the story she had told him.
Her sister had been the victim of a brutal attack by the very man who had claimed to love her. He had professed to love her, but had had no intention of marrying her. When his ambitious parents had found a rich girl for him to marry, he had readily fallen in with their plans, not wanting to forgo a life of wealth and comfort.
When he broke the news to her, she resisted violently. “You cannot leave me high and dry! I love you and cannot live without you!” She fell at his feet, tears adding more lustre to her beautiful eyes, but he shook her by her shoulders as he barked, “I am not going to marry you!”
“I am pregnant with your child!” She wept hysterically, clutching at the lapels of his shirt. He shoved her aside, but her next words transfixed him. “I will not let you dump me! I will tell your parents everything. Or go to the police!” Her voice had turned shrill, and she had turned into a virago, eyes distraught, hair all over her face. Never had she looked so beautiful, and never had he been more tempted. Her beauty haunted him, day and night, but he did not want to jeopardize his golden future. Cunningly he managed to quieten her down, as he promised to marry her.
“Give me time to tell my parents!” he said, as he left her.
Two days later, he went back to her house. In the dark of the night, as the stars hid their faces behind the clouds, he unlocked the door with his key and moved in quietly. He could see her sleeping on her bed, a silhouette that breathed delicately. He knew what he had to do!
And now they were going to see her at the hospital, where she had been ever since. The nurse opened the door for them, and waved them in. “Please do not excite her in any way! She has been through enough already!”
She lay in her bed, a slight form, her back towards them. She moved towards her sister softly, and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. He stood, not knowing what to expect, even as the man on the wheelchair groaned, maybe because the drug was finally wearing off.
The room was dimly lit, and the girl on the bed turned around, making a strange pleading sound. Her sister kept her hand on her shoulder, as she asked him to turn on the light. He did so, and as he looked at the prone figure in the bright light, his heart almost stopped, as he struggled to stay upright. For the face that looked up at him from the bed was nothing like the photo he had carried around. It had been marred beyond recognition.
“The louse threw acid on her beautiful face!” She burst out crying, as he stared at the shapeless mass that stared back at him blindly. The acid had eaten away at the flesh on her face, and what was left was a hideous travesty, a mutilated apology for a face. He felt as though he had been hit by a club on the pit of his stomach. How could any man be so bestial, so callous? He had half a mind of smashing his hand on the brute’s face, over and over again, till there were no bones left, no face left!
She sensed what he was going through, even as she crooned to the pitiful figure that lay on the bed. The man on the wheelchair opened his eyes blearily, trying to get his bearings. His eyes widened as he saw the figure on the bed, and his gaze changed as he looked around like a cornered rat. Two pairs of eyes stared back at him stonily, even as he realized that he was in real trouble.
“You have a last chance to apologize to her!” Her voice was steely, but there was a deep undercurrent of sorrow within it, as she faced him squarely. His eyes widened as he looked at her, and gasped, “How... how...?” She looked at him in loathing, and then turned her gaze towards her sister who lay so still.  “I will make it up to you, my dearest!”
They drugged him again, and took him back home. They sat in silence, as he tried to make sense of what he had just seen. She glanced at him from time to time, but said nothing.
The air was still and oppressive, as she had shut all the windows in the room. He sat there on a chair, hands pinned behind him, terror in his eyes. What he had done was even worse than he had imagined, and he saw it in her eyes... the eyes he had once loved!
She took a vial from her pocket, as she said softly, “What you did was unforgivable! Who gave you the power to make such a decision?”  She held up the vial which held the deadly acid. The next moment, her voice broke down, as she added, “Did you even realize that you had attacked the wrong twin?”


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