This one’s for you, daktarbabu @SudiptoDoc - remember the story I promised you earlier this week? Well, here it is! 1/n
The year was perhaps 2005. Those were my days of exile in a quaint desert city in the Middle East (by the Persian Gulf).
The city, in those days, had only a handful of high rises, & we used to live in the “tallest” building of the city, on the 10th floor, overlooking a wadi 2/n
a highway that ran past the “tall” building to meet the horizon beyond some dusty hillocks, a bridge over that highway that shone like a stream of silver at noon during the hottest days of summer and an institute across the road where I later go (three times a week) to learn 3/n
to read, write and speak Arabic. Life was sedate, Gulf life is sedate, and I had reconciled with the pace, had found my own rhythm to live the “gulfie” life till we’d set course for elsewhere.
The girl was then a tyke, had just stepped out of her nursery school & had started 4/n
going to a “bigger” school with tall windows and high ceilings. Her school hours had become longer and my hours emptier. So I took to spending my emptier hours catching up on reading.
The thing that strikes me first about centrally air conditioned buildings is the silence 5/n
that hangs everywhere - it’s so silent that one can hear ones heartbeat drumming away. Or that’s what
this otherwise busy “tall” building, the lifts, the corridor outside my door - awash with a warm incandescent light - felt like - cold and silent.
The corridor outside my 6/n
door was pretty long, had about six apartments lined up on both sides before it turned the corner and stretched beyond two lift banks and three stairwells.
Most of these apartments were fully occupied on the lower floors. But occupancy on the 10th and the 11th floor sparse. 7/n
So I had neighbours to my left and right and diagonally opposite our door. But the door that faced ours rarely had tenants move in. The corridors, like I said before, were cold, lifeless and silent. Except at noon.
That year my neighbour for the past 3 years, a beautiful girl 8/n
from Pakistan and her husband had moved back to Lahore.
The apartment had filled up soon after, that’s what I had come to hear later. We shared a common wall. The stray sound of music or some television programme in a foreign language would at times permeate through the wall 9/n
that separated us. At times, while I passed by their door, I’d smell the heavy fragrance of Bukhoor hanging in the stale air of the cold corridor that had seeped out from under their door - but I had never seen anyone going in or out of that apartment yet. And I was not too 10/n
keen to ring the doorbell next to the cold door.
The only other thing that felt like a sign of life was the sound of a pair of high heels making her way from the lift bank that lay at the far end of our corridor, past our door and stopping at the door of the new neighbours 11/n
everyday at noon. Five working days of the week the high heels would arrive exactly at noon & on most days she’d leave by 3. That rhythmic sound of her heels broke the frozen cold eerie silence of the corridor for exactly half a minute before vanishing behind the closed 12/n
doors of 1005.
I had almost fallen into the habit of putting away the book I was reading that day and starting on my midday chores the moment I’d hear the sound of her heels crossing my door and stopping in front of 1005. Every day.
And then one day I was lost between 13/n
the pages some noir. Something struck me and looked up at the wall clock. The hands of the clock had gone past noon an hour ago. My alarm hasn’t gone off. I hadn’t heard Ms Heels outside my door today.
It had felt odd. But I didn’t give it a second thought. I was late and 14/n
a sea of chores turned their frustrated gaze upon me, each trying to topple the rest to be attended first.
The next day her heels were back with her.
The thing is, so far I had only heard her footsteps. And a whiff of her thick sweet perfume that clung to the air long 15/n
after she had walked past my door. But somehow I wasn’t much curious about her. She was just the sound of footsteps outside my door, I had perhaps spent a few moments and imagined her as a tall beautiful woman, in her long flowing black abaya, with kohl lined eyes, a 16/n
Gucci or a Louise Vutton clutch, a few diamonds in the right places and a pair of very carefully chosen pair of expensive heels.
But no, somehow I had never rushed to my door to see what she looked like in reality. It really hadn’t occurred to me that I should. 17/n
As weeks passed, her high heels made erratic visits, some weeks she’d be there everyday and then on others when she’d visit only once.
I realised that I had grown fond of the sound of her heels. It made a tiny tear in the the cold silence that lay like a blanket outside my 17/n
door at noon, her perfume that hung in the air felt line a soft caress.
It was a Tuesday, I suppose, or maybe a Wednesday.
A dear friend from the 6th floor (our children took the same pool car to school and back everyday) rang my doorbell around 8:30 am.
Morning at our 18/n
apartment, on weekdays, started at 7 with a bundle of cacophonous kids leaving for school in pool cars and school buses. Silence would then settle right back where it belonged in the cold corridors till it was 7:30/7:45 when the husbands would start leaving fir work. 19/n
The doorbell outside my door rarely rang before evening (unless friends dropped by in the afternoon or a stray visit around mid morning).
The doorbell at 8:30 was almost a never before affair.
She was still pale and out of breath when I opened the door.
committed suicide! Down the stairwell by the third lift bank! She’s dead, Soma!”
Two other friends were with her. All of them shaken to their bones, pale, scared and yet eager to stare down the stairwell to see what lay at the foot of those stairs, nine floors down. They 21/n
had come to gather me up from my book, walk down the long corridor, push that heavy stairwell door open, walk into the stairwell and look down into the abyss, where she lay, her face turned to her side, her body funnily contorted, her limbs flayed around her, her long hair 22/n
hugging her face before cascading onto the cold marble beneath her. From the 10th floor it looked like she had dozed off while sitting and reading and had leaned onto her side till her body had found the ground to lay herself down. She still looked alive, her skin soft, 23/n
and probably still warm. She didn’t have the abaya I had imagined she wore - a white sheet had been hurriedly thrown over her torso to barely cover her nakedness.
“Did you ever speak to her? She used to come quite often, no?” G was the most curious. “I’ve seen her car from my balcony so many times! She used to park in the same spot where it’s standing today!”
I was holding the scalding cup of coffee between both my palms. It 25/n
was the only source of comfort right now. I raised it to my chest and held it against my chest. The scalding warmth somehow helped steady the tremor I was still feeling. It was almost noon.
We had all gathered, most of the residents, had crowded the stairwell before men in 26/n
suits, serious looking men, some in uniforms politely but sternly asked us to return to our own apartments and stay away from the lift bank and that stairwell till further notice.
They were scanning each step of the stairwell, swabbing the banister, picking up remnants of 27/n
what looked like paper and fabric. There may have been bubble gum wrappers, toys Etc that kids had left behind from other days - everything were being zip locked and taken away.
Some of us, close friends, we huddled and arrived on the 6th floor. M’s house was our safe haven 28/n
on every other day. It was where we’d sit down, let our down, put our feet up on her plush sofa and spend hours just being ourselves, catching up on others’ lives, on new scandals, clandestine affairs, new recipes, some books, you know, mundane stuff.
And today, we were 29/n
again back here. M had made strong cups of coffee and we just sat there frozen.
From fear? Maybe.
What else could it be? Shock and disbelief? Seeing death so fresh, so close, so naked, so beautiful - right next to the lift that all of took to arrive at the inner courtyard? 30/n
G had broken the dead silence with that question at me. She also lived on the 10th floor, diagonally across from me, on the left end of my corridor, by another stairwell.
But the high heels always crossed my door, at noon, to reach her destination to the apartment to my 31/n
To all of them I was the closest to her, her arrival, her perfume - as if I was her best friend because of my proximity to her visits. I could see their imagination was starting to grow roots, branching out, growing hungry.
“Yaar, I’ve only heard her come and go. 32/n
I’ve never seen her. There are days when she doesn’t come. I don’t even know who lives in 1005.”
M “He’s a pilot. He moved in early this year.”
P “and why about his family? Wife, bachchhay? Is he from around here?”
G “My husband has met him a few times in the lift. He’s 33/n
from here. I’ve seen him a few times. He’s so handsome! He’s a pilot with the national carrier. Looks quite posh, ha!”
We meandered in and out of her life, like strangers meandering among the exhibits in a museum. Curious. Dismissive. Hungry for details.
That afternoon I took the lift closer to my door. I wanted to go up with G. I needed someone there when I stepped out into that cold, silent, eerie corridor.
My fingers still trembled while I fussed over my keys. The door opposite my door still had no residents. Today I 35/n
craved the presence of at least another human being behind that door facing mine. Someone who would have been privy to her arrivals and departures like I was. Someone else who would have felt her perfume’s caress even after she had gone past long ago. Someone other than me. 36/n
Have you ever felt it? That discomfort? A slow uneasiness creeping up spine, a chill slowly setting in, a tremor in your sternum that slowly flows down the ribs and the chest tightening under the ribs like a screw being tightened?
I was sitting in my own drawing room and 37/n