Pankaj was 39. Exactly. Today was his birthday, and he did not have any idea till Prajakta called, first thing in the morning. Pankaj was still asleep; he had come home very late last night. Since he was out for a week at least, he needed to wind up a number of things. To top that there was a murder suspect in the station. It was an open and shut case, and he was just a poor labourer, still it’s a murder case. Gaikwad said he’ll handle it, no problem, but Pankaj wanted to make sure. He did not trust anybody. It was an old habit.
Prajakta, like always, was matter-of-fact. “Happy birthday,” she said after Pankaj had picked up the phone and said hello, still half asleep. What? He asked. “Happy birthday,” his wife repeated. Today’s your birthday, didn’t you know?” Pankaj did not. If Firoze was here, he’d have reminded him, one week in advance. But, he was not here and Pankaj couldn’t be excited about the day. What’s the plan? Prajakta asked. Pankaj was sure she really did not want to know. She moved on to the next question before he could muster a reply: “When do you reach here?”
Pankaj was awake now. Today, he was supposed to go home, and then to his wife’s home, on his routine tri-monthly trip. Now, hearing his wife’s voice, his enthusiasm evaporated. In the last two years, it has become increasingly difficult for him to be with his wife, even for three days, even after every three months. And after what happened in January, he had to be with her, in this very house, for more than a month. It was a torture. But, what hurt him most was the end result, him losing Firoze. Pankaj wished if Firoze would call him instead of Prajakta. It’s seven and a half month now, and Firoze had disappeared. Pankaj was left with the shards of a broken mobile phone, and nothing else.
Firoze. Pankaj blinked. He needed to find Firoze. It was more important than visiting his useless wife, or his mother. “Prajakta,” he said. “Here’s the thing. I wanted to call you last night. I’m not coming this time. There’s a murder case. Important.” Prajakta did not ask for details. It was the thing he liked about her. She did not care about his job. She was far too busy with her own work. Being the head of the village council wasn’t easy. “Okay,” she said, “Give Rutuja a call later. She’d want to wish you.”
Rutuja was their daughter. Prajakta’s daughter, actually. Even after 11 years, Pankaj could not figure out who may be the father. He certainly was not. She was born seven months to their marriage, and in these seven months they did not have proper intercourse. Pankaj was really grateful that Prajakta had a problem with sex. She was the opposite of what he was; he wanted sex, all the time, till he met Firoze, but not from the people he knew, not from the same person twice. It helped Pankaj from going though the charade that he had prepared himself for when he agreed to this wedding. That was the reason why he never bothered to ask her about Rutuja. If he had his secrets, so did she. Pankaj was in fact more than happy for this marriage of convenience; he couldn’t thank Shinde sir more. Not only his wife did not expect him to do his husbandly duties, she also refused to set up a home with him. Her father was the head of Pimple Budruk village and she was the only offspring. All her three brothers died young. It was just matter of time that she became the sarpanch, and it was what she wanted. So, she stayed put at the paternal home even after marriage. Pankaj’s mother had a grumbled about the arrangement, saying that the whole village was laughing at her, that her son had become a ghar-jamai. But, for Pankaj, it was the best solution his could find to his problem.
And, the problem was Pankaj himself.
After Prajakta hung up the phone, Pankaj climbed down from the bed. If Firoze were here, sleeping next to him, he’d have turned and caress his slender body, his smooth skin and go back to sleep again. But, Firoze was not here, and this bed reminded him of Firoze more than everything else. In fact, everything in this house, every object, the mirror, fuchsia towels in the bathroom, the huge TV set, the indoor plants on the drawing room, everything, reminded him of Firoze. Firoze was gone, yet his spirit haunted the house.
Pankaj had brought the house for Firoze. Prajakta had been asking him to invest in real estate for years, but he was not interested. Instead he helped Bhau, his brother, acquire properties in Koregaon-Akhed, his village. Prajakta wasn’t too pleased. She said they should have a house in Pune; so that she could visit him sometimes. But, Pankaj knew, she had no plans to visit him, Pune or elsewhere. In the last 11 years, he had travelled to five different districts, nine different police station and not once Prajakta had come to visit him, until in January, and that too, to destroy the life he had finally decided to build for himself, after years of guilt and desperation, shame and hiding. He was finally ready to claim a glimmer of happiness for himself, and his wife appeared out of nowhere and trampled all over it.
Pankaj sat on the corner of the bed and dialled Firoze’s number on his touchscreen phone. Firoze had insisted that he get this fancy model, even though Pankaj wasn’t really a gadget-friendly person. A picture popped up on the screen, a smiling face, bright eyes, chocolate-coloured skin and a hint of mustache above his ripen lips. Firoze. Then a mechanized female voice announced: The number you have dialled is switched off. Of course. His phone, same as this one, was broken into pieces, and Pankaj still had the pieces on the drawer of his cupboard, the last of Firoze.
He did not know what to do with the memories. It was more difficult to miss somebody then to live in denial. It was easier when he decided that he did not belong in his father’s house anymore. It was easier when he decided that he wouldn’t remember Balasaheb anymore. It was easier when he decided that he’d find his release in the embrace of an unknown person, in a seedy hotel room, for an hour or so. It was easier when he decided that was alone, and would always remain so. It was easier when he was in hiding.
Pankaj had been in hiding all his life – from his family, his friends, the few of them he had, his wife, daughter, his colleagues, even the criminals he dealt with, everybody, lest they find out his secret.
He had a terrible secret.
It took him years, but slowly and meticulously he had invented an image for himself – that of a ruthless police office. It was the easier façade to hide behind. Everything changed when he met Firoze, and though he tried his best to avoid it, nothing was same anymore. That image of himself, that mask that he wore so perfectly all these years started to disintegrate. He did not mind it as long as Firoze was with him. Now, Firoze was gone, and he, the person behind the mask, wasn’t the same person anymore. The accumulate fear and guilt of all these years had turned into something else, a sense of hopelessness and resignation. He had given up.
Yet, the memories lingered. The memories wouldn’t let him be in peace. And at 39, Pankaj knew, he was in love. And, he did not believe it. He did not believe anyone other than himself, especially since Balasaheb died, and today, he found it difficult to even believe in himself.
He walked up to the bathroom. Now that he cancelled his trip, he needed to plan his day. He knew what he must do, and he dreaded it. The last thing he wanted to do was to visit Firoze’s mother.
As he walked towards the bathroom, he caught his reflection on the life-size mirror in the corner. This was another thing Firoze insisted that he should buy. Here he was. 39 years old. Inspector Pankaj Sonawane. He stood there, transfixed. Was it really him? In his mind he was still the 15-year-old village boy, mortified with his desires that engulfed his imagination. That kid on the run.
Pankaj removed the banyan he was wearing, then the underwear, and stared at his naked body. Is it really him? This body.
The body. This body. He murmured. It all started with this body, when he was 15 year old.
(Part of a short story I am working on, tentatively titled 'Hide & Seek')