Gauri sat cross-legged on her queen sized bed, staring at her sixty five inch wide television screen, blankly changing channels after channels. On usual days, she liked to sink into her spotless white linens in nothing more than her bare essentials but today she did not even change out of her office wear. The awareness that she is going to turn twenty five in another few hours, in a new city, away from home, in an upscale yet unfamiliar hotel room- causing her this disquietness.
‘It’s just another day’ she repeated to herself but the realization that the past twenty four years have all been carefully preserved in well-organized folders by family and friends indicated otherwise. She remembered her birthday eve from last year, when she had made a reservation for ten at a local restaurant back at home in South Delhi and each one of her friends had politely declined the invitation at the last minute and had presented her with some feeble justification such as “we are stuck at work” except Gaurav, of course. When they returned to her apartment post dinner, she was only half surprised to be greeted by all her friends who had been hiding there for almost an hour, decorating the place and putting together a party. All through the dinner she could sense that something was fishy because Gaurav was checking his phone too often, which was unlike him and as it turned out, he had intricately planned all this for her. He ensured that everyone attends her birthday and those who couldn’t make it, leave a video message. How must he have managed all that? Has he moved on? Is he seeing someone else? Her mind wandered and she was in no mood for feelings that had started surfacing.
‘Could I be more melodramatic’ she thought after a while.
When her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell, Gauri was partly relieved, “Who could it be?” She looked through the keyhole and saw Naman standing.
“Hi! What’s happening?” she flashed an animated smile trying to conceal her dreadfulness.
“Hey hi. I had such a long day…” He spoke as he walked in and absently sat on the couch next to the television, his thoughts someplace else.
“Well… the client meeting was a disaster. I don’t think he’s going to buy honestly, no closings for me.”
When Naman told Gauri he was having a bad day, she believed him. Naman seldom failed to impress his clients. He had a certain way of talking around his words which made almost everyone believe in him. He painted a picture so lucrative that the deal seemed godsend, almost hard not to buy. He did his homework well and was always prepared to answer any questions. In the textbook language, he had complete knowledge about self, product, company and the customer. When Gauri joined the sales team of one of the leading advertising firms as a Young Leader, she was not sure if she was actually cut out for the job mainly because it required to ‘open up’ and Gauri wasn’t sure if she could do that. It was Naman, who had already been with the firm for almost a year, who taught her the art of appearing to ‘open up’ and yet being impersonal. Gauri knew he had been trying to set up this meeting for almost a month now and dejection was palpable.
“Anyways, did you have dinner already?
“Oh yes, I was just preparing for bed.”
“Oh come’on, we have been in Bangalore for a month now, we have got to explore some new places. Let’s check out this new place round the corner. Mayank told me the crowd is really good there” He grinned.
“I know what that means…”
“Well good! Quickly get ready. Let’s put today to a good use because we are back “on time”, you know.”
“Yea, I know” replied Gauri as she slouched on her bed. “Better than being depressed on a Friday night…”
“…which also happens to be your birthday…” She quietly added to herself. She changed into a pair of denims and a wine colored off shoulder top as she set out for the evening.
Gauri inhaled the smell of smoke and sweat as she and Namit walked inside the Pentagon Club. She observed that the interior was colossal with a circular bar at the center swarmed by a bubbling crowd. The earsplitting music was a mix of popular EDM, hip hop and tech-house. The lighting were a dim yellowish-just as she liked- bright enough to see others but not enough to reveal their exactness. The vibe was upbeat and the energy contagious. Naman looked around for a table but the waiter suggested that they wait by the bar as it may take a while.
“What are you smiling at?” asked Naman as they made their way through the pulsating crowd.
“Nothing, I am just glad we came here. The place is nice.”
“Yah, me too.”
“It’s my birthday today…no tomorrow, actually at midnight so…” Gauri smiled sheepishly.
“You are telling me now? This calls for a partayy! You should have told me earlier.”
Gauri couldn’t help but smile as Naman ordered shots of ‘Passed Out Naked on the Bathroom’.
“No way. I have to work tomorrow. I can’t get sloshed!”
“Come’on, it’s your birthday! This day onwards, you can legally get drunk in this country.” He said as he raised a toast.
Gauri was pretty sure that she heard the guy next to her say “Hear, hear”.
Next morning when Gauri woke up in her hotel room, she was relieved to be safely tucked inside her bed. She tried to concentrate for a minute in order to put together a series of events from last night but there were patches of nothingness between what seemed like mind games. There were flashes of images of people she did not recognize. Her head throbbed like a drum as she tried to think harder. She dialed reception and ordered an aspirin. She groggily checked her phone and there were seventeen missed calls from family and friends and her WhatsApp was flooded with messages. “Happy birthday to me” she sighed. She reluctantly got out of the bed to use the bathroom. She splashed her faced with cold water as she observed her reflection in the mirror. Her mascara was smudged and hair ruffled. She reached out for a hair band and tied her coral black hair in a bun just when something caught her attention. She leaned closer towards the mirror to examine what appeared like a discoloration on her upper shoulder. She tried to rub it off but it was then that she realized that it wasn’t a discoloration, it was a bruise. She took a step back and sat down at the edge of her bath tub, her head buried in her hands. “What did I do…”
She called Naman who instantly picked up her phone. “Hey birthday girl, how’s it going?” he chimed.
“What happened yesterday?? I can’t remember a thing after the shots.”
“You really wanna know?”
“Yes I do!!”
“Well, I don’t know. We were having drinks and then we started dancing. Your friendly neighbor joined us in a while with his friend and I don’t know, you seemed to like him so I didn’t say much.”
“Yea, I mean you were laughing at all his jokes. Anyways, my client called me in between and I had to step outside for almost twenty five minutes, I guess. The good news is he changed his mind and he’s on board! Can you believe that?”
“Yea, who dropped me to my room?”
“…This is not the time…”
“Of course, I did! I don’t know what’s happened to you. You seemed fine or maybe I was equally drunk. Anyways, any more questions? I am in middle of a report and I spoke to the boss, it’s okay if you want to take the day off. Thank me later.”
Gauri unlocked the glass door that led to her balcony and looked down at the traffic that appeared so tiny and quiet from the fifteenth floor. There was a sea of conflicting emotions surging within her but the city went on. Nobody seemed to pause. Nobody knew but her. She wondered when did she became this person who made out with strangers and forgot. What caused this?
She remembered the day when she was eighteen and was packing her bags to leave for the hostel. Mother had joined in to assist her with the packing. She told her about the time when she had moved to the hostel herself. She was just eleven and nanaji had decided to send her along with some other cousins, to the big school in the big city. Mother told her that her warden was one hell of a woman who never spared the rod and that she was not even allowed to meet her brothers sometimes. When they were almost done with packing two hefty suitcases and an A4 sized checklist, mother made her sit down and held her hands in hers. Gauri would never forget the next few words her mother said, mostly because her mother was never a woman of too many words. She said: “My darling, it has not been an easy decision for your father to let go of you, not just because we love you but also because you will always be our baby girl. But I know him, you and your sister’s education will always come first. This is his way of showing how much he truly loves you, by choosing to let go of you, for your betterment. Education is the only thing that will ever empower you, even if your world comes crashing down. So pour out your heart to whatever you choose to study and nail it… but the important thing to remember is that ultimately education gives you knowledge and that is something which does not just comes with the books. Besides that, well,”…she paused as if searching for the right words, “my dear, never bring dishonor to the family, for now we live in a big house but we hail from a small place and your father is a self-made respectable man. Dishonor lingers for longer if it is brought upon by a daughter.” and then her mother just chuckled like she had said nothing at all. Gauri realized that it was up to her discretion how she interpreted this message. She never completely grasped the width of it but she did understand that it meant a lot. She wondered what her mother would think of her if she told her about this incident. Such conduct would definitely not be considered acceptable even in a modern society. She suddenly felt even farther from home. She realized that she had even forgotten to call back her parents in between this mayhem and debauchery.
She checked her phone for messages and there was one from Naman that read, “Drinks lot of water, you’ll be fine. Shit happens.” Gauri had a feeling that Naman knew what happened and was trying to respect her privacy. This is the thing she liked about boys that unlike most girls, they did not like to dissect every single detail.
As she looked on to the coordinated traffic, a part of her couldn’t help but feel a bit thespian as she could relate herself to the prima donna in one of Hozier’s songs where the protagonist seemed to be undergoing a kind of deep agony caused by some sort of irreversible love loss that caused her to resort to meaningless intimacy. “How could this have made her feel any better and what possibly is my suffering?” She pondered for a while without much of a comeback.
Gauri went back inside her room and decided to take a hot shower. She examined her svelte figure in the mirror as she tardily undressed. She stepped under the shower and turned the lever on high allowing the water to wash down her body as steam fogged the glass walled cuboid. She closed her eyes as her skin soaked in the heat and her thoughts jaded. She stood until her legs got tired after which she finally stepped out and patted herself dry. ‘What next?’ she thought as she slouched on her bed. Her phone lit up as it flashed Varsha, who had been her best friend since college first year.
“Happy Birthday girl!” came a cheerful voice from across the phone.
“Thank you!” replied Gauri trying to match the excitement.
“What’s happening? You have been conveniently ignoring my calls.”
“Yea, I have been busy celebrating my birthday.”
“So…what did my big girl do?”
“Well, you know, the usual, whored around and stuff,” replied Gauri in a condescending tone.
“Huh? What? Tell me everything!” demanded Varsha.
Gauri knew that she couldn’t escape this one. Girls are not best friends until they say everything out loud.
“OK. So I went to a club yesterday with Naman and…. I kind of got drunk and I may have made out or…more with a guy at the slightest opportunity that presented itself…God! I don’t want to talk about it. I feel so guilty as such.”
“Guilty? What? Why?”
“I don’t know. I am just not that kind of person.”
“What kind of person?” Gauri could suddenly sense seriousness in Varsha’s tone.
“A person who… you know… does all this and its okay for them” replied Gauri.
“Them? What’s them? Nobody is born like them, they become them and who we become is none of anybody’s business until it is at their physical, mental or emotional expense. Come ‘on! Does this mean you have been judging me all this time?”
“No! Of course not! I don’t judge you or anyone but it’s just that I don’t want to become that person.”
“Then don’t. A single instance never defined a person, for both good and bad. I think you are being too hard on yourself.”
“Really? I am not being hard at all. I just didn’t expect this from myself. I am quitting alcohol. I wouldn’t even recognize that guy in the broad daylight. I am not even sure if…you know…if I liked it.”
“Oh.. too bad if you don’t even remember. Calm down though. I have an idea. How about you gift yesterday to yourself on your birthday for the fact that this could very much be classified as a new experience.”
“Hmmm, I am listening…”
“You know, you have aged an year older and learned about a completely new side of yourself and this at least, presents an insight for the future” Continued Varsha.
“And you know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you don’t repeat them. Take it as a lesson although this is not a mistake. I repeat – not a mistake. An experience perhaps. We are strong, independent women, man!”
“Wow, look at you talking all grown up. Can we talk about something else now?”
“No. Give me at least some details. Your stinginess is killing me here.” Varsha teased.
“Okay. I have to hang up. Mom’s calling. Byee.”
“I know, I know. Happy Birthday. Bye and come back soon!”
As Gauri hung up the phone, she thought about what Varsha had said about a single instance not defining a person. It would be like going for a run for a day and then presuming results. If this happened then there would be no persistent efforts to prove oneself, no grit to chase one’s goals and probably no joy in life, for joy comes when a possibility becomes an actuality once the former ingredients are tactfully executed. Maybe building a character was something like building a body. She thought that the surfacing mixed sentiments are probably a manifestation that she hasn’t completely lost her way. She could still embrace a path she thinks fit because if she would have already chosen one then there would have been no disorientation, no mixed feelings and this in itself presented a hope. It also meant that knowing is always better than wondering and the fact that she had gained a new experience without any irredeemable smirch on her consciousness, was perhaps even worthwhile. Maybe she will laugh about it someday when the layers will be old and dusted but until then, maybe it’s just better to keep on going like the never halting traffic because time never really stopped ticking for anyone, then why should you?