Monday, June 05, 2006

Happenstance (a short story) by Vikram Karve

(a fiction short story)

“Excuse me, are you Urvashi Mukherjee by any chance?” a feminine voice said on my right.

I turned my face and looked at the smart young woman wearing a red top and dark blue jeans. Though not ‘fair and lovely’ in the conventional sense, she looked very desirable, in a sensual kind of way. Chic and sexy, flowing hair, just the right amount of make-up, she exuded confidence, and as she looked at me with those wonderfully radiant, large and expressive dancing eyes, I felt a strong attraction towards her, even though I myself was a woman.

“Yes. I’m Urvashi Mukherjee,” I said.

“Hi! I’m Babita. Babita Khanna,” she said.

“Sorry Ms. Khanna, but I don’t think we’ve met before.”

“Sad isn’t it? But I know everything about you Urvashi!” she gave a vivacious laugh and reached out to my arm displaying a rather impulsive and gratuitous intimacy and said, “I recognized you instantly, the moment I saw you. You look exactly like you do in your photograph!”

“My photograph?” I asked, pulling away my arm.

“Yes. You look lovely. Exactly as in the photo Milan keeps in wallet.”

Milan! I didn’t like the way she casually referred to my husband by his first name. She’d called me Urvashi too! I was truly flabbergasted. Who was this woman? Acting so intimate, talking on first name terms. And how had she seen my photo in Milan’s wallet?

“You know Milan?”

“Of course. We work in the same office. Hasn’t he told you about me?”

“No. I don’t think so. At least I don’t remember.”

“That’s surprising! I know everything about you but you know nothing about me!” she paused, and then said, “ Milan should have told you about me. He’s told me everything about you!”

“Milan’s told you everything about me?” I repeated. Bewildered I turned my face away from her and looked straight ahead at the painting in front of me.

“Hey, Milan didn’t tell me you were an art-buff! I never imagined I would run into you here - at the Jehangir Art Gallery.”

“I’m no aficionado,” I said, trying to sound sarcastic, “I’m just killing time here till it stops raining.”

“Aficionado! That’s a good one! I never imagined you’d speak such highbrow English considering you’ve studied in the vernacular.”

This was too much! Anger began to rise inside me, but the woman persisted, “You know Urvashi, Milan keeps telling me of your hilarious malapropisms when you were newly married!”

“I’m sure he’s told you about our honeymoon too?” I blurted out in anger instantly regretting the words the moment they left my mouth.

“Of course,” she said with a mischievous smile, “the way you got all sozzled on your first night on the beach in Goa when he mixed Feni in your juice trying to remove your inhibitions!”

Now I was really furious. I didn’t want to talk with this woman any longer, so I said, “Bye Ms. Khanna. It must have stopped raining. Time for me to go. I’d hate to come in between the beautiful paintings and a true connoisseur of art like you!”

“Hey! Come on! I’m no connoisseur of art. I too ran in here to take shelter from the heavy rain,” the woman laughed and said, “and listen – don’t call me Ms. Khanna, just call me Babita. I’m calling you Urvashi isn’t it?”

“Okay. Nice talking to you,” I said and walked out of the gallery to the foyer of Jehangir Art Gallery. It was still raining so I stood at the entrance looking out towards Kalaghoda waiting for the rain to stop.

To my horror I noticed that the woman had followed me and was standing next to me which made me feel quite uneasy and uncomfortable. She was a real mystery. How come Milan had never mentioned her? He always told me everything. At least that’s what I thought. Till now!

I had plans for the afternoon and didn’t want her clinging to me like a parasite.

“Let’s go shopping she said as if reading my mind through clairvoyance. What will you do all alone at home? So she knew! Milan had told her even that!”

“I’m really not keen on shopping right now,” I said. “Besides I have to get home early. We’re going out for a movie and dinner tonight.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“What do you mean we aren’t? He’s already bought the tickets.”

“Maybe, but he’s not going to turn up before midnight. You can take my word for it.”

“He promised me!” I said defiantly.

“Promises are meant to be broken! He won’t come. He’ll be busy doing my work since I’ve taken the day off. And then he has to go to a business dinner.”

“Business Dinner?”

“Don’t delve too much!”

“What nonsense! I’ll ring him up right now,” I said and took out my mobile.

“No point,” she said, “his mobile will be switched off right now. He’ll be in a meeting. But don’t worry. Milan will ring you up at around 6 to call off your movie and dinner programme. He’ll tell you he has to work late. He won’t mention the ‘business dinner’ part though.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I told you. Milan tells me everything. There are no secrets between true friends.”

Friends? This was getting murkier. First she was a colleague; now she’d become a friend! Oh yes! How bizarre? No secrets between friends; but plenty of secrets between husband and wife!

The rain was down to a drizzle and she said, “Come let’s go shopping. And then we’ll enjoy ourselves. We’ll go to all your favourite places. And do all the things you like.”

I wondered why she was doing this to me? What was her motive? Was this really a chance meeting, a coincidence, happenstance, serendipity, or was it a contrived coincidence? I had to get to the bottom of it all, so I said, “Okay Babita. Let’s go. I want to find out whether Milan has really told you everything about me!”


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