Photograph of painting at Chitra Santhe 2016 – Artist Unknown

“Listen…” Shanthi said, wrapping her arm around mine as we crossed the road towards the brightly lit house. “Relax, don’t worry, it’ll be fine, it’s just a couple hours.”

“Yeah, I know”

“So; ready??” she said and without waiting rang the doorbell.

Faint tunes of a familiar melody rang within the house. A few heavy steps and a second later, the door swung open.

“Hello, hello, welcome.”

Shanthi’s father, Pankaj Verma was a striking figure, six-two with a neatly trimmed French beard, square rimmed glasses, a deep baritone and a noticeable limp that he tried to camouflage with a walking stick. He squeezed my hand with a vigour and gave it a couple of firm downward tugs before finally letting it go. I wiped my nervous moist hands on my pants.

“Hello, I’m Anuj” I muttered as I shuffled inwards, back towards the wall.

Shanthi meanwhile already in a warm embrace of her father, barely registered my discomfort.

“Hello, Anuj, come; come inside”, Neelu Verma, a matronly aunty with a sallow thin face and an even thinner smile gestured inward into the depths of this unfamiliar home. The passage from the door led into a lavish living room and taking a seat on the roomy four-seater sofa, I drank in the room; the bookshelf crowded with medical texts, the framed photos of family trips, the neat centre table placed square in the middle, symmetrically dividing the entire room, and finally, finally the painting. The painting hung on the wall opposite the sofa was squarely opposite me and it was formidable. It was a face, except it wasn’t.

It wasn’t one, that is, it was a montage, a jigsaw of assimilated flesh, assembled into a face. The cheeks made of three distinct askew chunks morphed into a cheek-like blob extending down into a square chin split into two alien morsels supporting a slit like mouth framed by incongruous upper and lower lips that drew into a sneer. But it was the eyes that were most troubling. Each gouged from different sockets, they bore down into me just as his had. I could hear it now, the low hum ominous, growing in my ears, rattling within my head. Over the left eye, cracking red lines ran bloodshot, the right, the other extreme, was a dull, unseeing hole drawing me in, swallowing me whole into my past.

Dragging my gaze away from the abomination, I found that snacks and drinks had materialised on the centre table, and Shanthi and her mother were deep in conversation, giggling between bites of chips and kebabs.

“So, how’s work? Shanthi says you quit recently…”

“Uh, yes” I said silently sipping my water, sweaty palms searching for footholds on the smooth glass.

I fidgeted, sinking deeper into the sofa, a pool of sweat growing over my shirt, my nails scratching the cushion, just as they had that day. His eyes bloodshot, his heavy pungent breath as he pushed himself onto me, thrusting towards me.

“He has a start-up papa…”, Shanthi gushed her eyes shining, as I silently sipped my water; “They provide career counselling for college kids.”

“Hmmm… so people without jobs find others’ jobs; is it??” Mr Verma spoke low yet firm, his eyes glaring at me through his glasses, Shuddering I looked away, the eyes on the painting catching mine again and once more, I was back on that sofa, on my back, his grunts as he thrust forwards, the creaking, groaning wooden legs of the sofa; humming through my ears, protesting for me, my only witnesses.

“Uh, where is the bathroom?” I blurted out, pausing Shanthi in her long-winded description of my new job.

“2nd door on the left, beta”, Neelu aunty said, refilling my parched glass; “And they must also have lots of students, right…”, she continued rapt in Shanthi’s description.

My nervous sweaty hands searched in the bathroom, clattering through unfamiliar shampoos, toothbrushes and lotions until finally closing in on the razor. I stared into myself, face blanched, mouth dry, the gushing tap trying to drown out, the now deafening groans, creaks and his grunts.

Just one cut, just one cut, careful, don’t spill, they mustn’t know. I lowered the blade onto my bare upper thigh cutting horizontally, burying old wounds with the new. Trickling down over the scars of the past, I bled onto my present. A minute and two scars later, I emerged, born anew.

“Yeah, uncle, a start-up like Flipkart” I smiled taking over from Shanthi, avoiding the eyes on the wall still searching the room for me.


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