I rushed through the stairs, taking a quick peek at my watch. It was almost nine. “Damn, I am running late”, I almost said to myself. I was usually a stickler for punctuality and reached everywhere on time. But, today was one of those days when I was late for work and I was indignant. Yesterday, one of my old friends happened to be in the city and so we had to catch up. He had come over at my apartment and we chatted way past midnight. It was good reminiscing the good old college days when we were young and naïve. He talked about his family, his children and I told him about my son Ishaan.
Ishaan was the apple of my eye. Other than my mom, I only had him for a loved one. Of course, I had lots of friends too and some of them really stood by me in thick and thin. I had an amicable relationship with my ex husband Vishal and we shared a joint custody of our son when we parted ways, some ten years ago. Ishaan was a teenager then. Vishal was not a bad guy, but over a period of time, our priorities changed. Everyday scuffles heightened and so we made a conscious decision to separate. I worked in the hotel industry and was fiercely ambitious. Initially, Vishal supported me in my professional endeavors, but gradually we began to quarrel over my work schedule. He wouldn’t hear of it, when I had to go for conferences abroad or when at times I had to stay up late at work. Eventually, there came a time when we couldn’t stand each other. As time elapsed, the sourness of our relationship dwindled and we became friends again.
So, here I was ten years later, a fifty year old single woman, staying alone in a high rise building in Delhi. I still worked in the hotel industry and was at a top position at the Taj Group of hotels and earned a good six figure salary. Ishaan, was now an engineer, working in Bangalore in a reputed MNC.
As I fidgeted with the car keys, I saw her. She was standing in the balcony staring at me. By now, I had grown accustomed to seeing her whenever I left for work. We never spoke to each other, though she stayed in a flat next to mine. But, I could see her, her eyes steering through me whenever I left for work and came back home. I usually worked late at the hotel, as I was at a pivotal position there and did not take my work casually. Infact, I loved my work to the brim. It was what I was good at and it kept me going. But, on weekends, I partied hard. I went to pubs and called my friends over. I wore whatever I felt good in without an iota of doubt. And that is what bothered my next door aunty to wits end it seemed. I felt her presence everywhere. When I waved goodbye to my friends at wee hours, I saw her window curtain move, when on weekends I dressed to please myself and tiptoed down the stairs wearing my fanciest stilettos, I met her with her steadfast look directed at me. It unnerved me immensely. I used to be extremely comfortable in my skin, but as soon as I saw that look, I became conscious. The look seemed to deride me, judge me. And no matter how hard I tried I could not ignore her.
While I lead a promiscuous life (as per her, I was sure), the aunty next door led a simple, uneventful life. She stayed alone as her husband had passed away a couple of years ago after a prolonged illness. Her daughter, who lived in another town, visited her at times. But, other than that, there were hardly any visitors that I knew of.
It was a crazy day at work that day. We had two groups of foreign delegates coming over, who meant to stay at our hotel for a week. I hardly had time to grab lunch and just like that it was eleven in the night. I hurriedly got up with an intention to rush home as exhaustion loomed large over me. Just then, my colleague Akash, who himself was gearing up to go home, saw the fatigued look on my face and offered to drop me home. On some other day, I wouldn’t have conceded but today I was extremely tired and my entire body ached. I did not feel well.
Akash dropped me home and as I thanked him profusely and turned around wearily, with slumber overpowering me, I saw her. I could not possibly miss her silhouette near the balcony. I wondered as to why she lingered in the balcony so late at night. Oh, she must be standing there to see as to how long it would be before I return from work and who would accompany me. I was furious. With laborious strides, I reached inside my flat, plunged on the bed and instantly was sound asleep.
Next day, it was a Sunday and so I woke up late and languidly went about doing the usual chores. My mom called and told me she would visit me in the afternoon. She came to meet me every fifteen days or so and I looked forward to meeting her. We were best of friends and I felt like a little girl when I was with her, quite unlike the feisty boss who you could not fool.
At around two in the afternoon, I heard the door bell ring. There she was standing, smiling at me. I hugged her and we perched on the couch and chatted for hours. Then, I told her about the next door aunty, how she was getting on to me and how I had come to despise her stalking behavior. To this my mom smirked. I knew instantly that she was keeping something from me. I cajoled her and finally she told me. What she vented out made me enraged and I stood up. So, while my mom was coming towards my flat, the next door aunty saw her and told her, “Mandira comes late from work. At times, strange men come to drop her home at random hours. Also, she has late night parties and many a times her male friend goes back in the morning. You should tell her to mend her ways. This is not how women her age ought to behave.” To this my mom said that she could not possibly ask her fifty year old daughter to not live life the way she wants.
While I was mighty proud of my mom, I barged out of my flat on a whim and rung the doorbell of the adjacent flat. The familiar figure came out and the barrage of emotions which I had kept in check hitherto, were let loose. I questioned her as to why it should bother her as to how I live my life. I was a grown woman and she had no rights whatsoever to meddle in my life. She knew nothing about me. As I stopped blabbering, I was overcome with emotion. Aunty held my hand and took me inside. She made me sit on a chair and got me a glass of water. As I sat there, she spoke, “Mandira, I am sorry I spoke to your mom. Yes, you are right I did not have any right to tell you what is right and what is wrong. I lived a fulfilled life when my husband was alive. After he passed away, I was always melancholic. His memories were etched too deep in my heart to forget. I wanted to move on, but I just could not muster up the courage to do so. And then, you moved in. I saw as to how as a single woman, you lived a carefree and happy life. You did not bother as to what people thought of you. Age seemed like a number to you. I got envious. I wished to be like you. I wished to start over. But, I could not. Instead I started keeping an eye on you. I reckon, as I am from a different generation, it is difficult for me to break the stereotypical image of how elderly widowed women ought to live. But, please forgive me, if you can”.
As I listened to aunty with listless eyes, I was stunned. I did not see this coming. But, I knew what I had to do. I rose, and hugged her. We stood like that for a few minutes. None of us uttered a syllable. But, both knew that we had carved an unusual camaraderie and we were now not alone in our journey called life.