There hangs a small painting, silent and unnoticed by most, on a wall of my house. It is a lonely work of art, facing a quiet space in the narrow passage leading to the door. It was a present from Zenia who was as reticent and prim as the stalk of flowers in that rectangular carapace. Zenia, who may never pass through that door again and see how solitary it has become.
Some days when I sit on a chair knocking the shoes off my tired feet, my eyes stop at it for a fleeting moment, triggering memories of the moments spent in her company.
Back in those days, our workplace was a veritable flea market having all male members but one. Nina, the exception, had hit disaster early in her life and it had made her moody and desperate. In and out of marriages, her previous conjugal fixture was lying in shards while the jigsaw of a new one was to still fall in place.
Nina and phones were inseparable like conjoined triplets. She was one of the early birds who soared on wings of dual mobile handsets. We were accustomed to noises of all tenors emanating from her workspace. From honeyed soft clucking to blood-curdling growls, whimpering sobs to husky whispering: exposure to her tonal range was a humbling experience. She was unravelling the marital equations of her life with real-time precision, ignoring the social cravings of her colleagues in the process.
Nina had her share of work too which she attacked with the fierceness of a Genghis Khan. Loath to pause and ponder on trivial matters, she would slosh her way out of the tasks mercilessly. It was normal for us to inspect the battlefield post-skirmish, and salvage whatever survived her fury and phone calls, once she left for the day.
It was in such climes that Zenia arrived like a surprise lash of rains in the wasteland.
Zenia had the aura of someone used to acknowledgement and respect. Though not straight out of the pages of a glamour glossy, the fullness of features and the elegance with which she carried herself, compensated for the lack of textbook magnificence. She had beautiful full length Japanese hair that went well with her dusky complexion.
Having spent a few years in the Land of the Rising Sun, she had deeply imbibed that oriental obsession for perfection. She had that determined look about her which is not easily shaken. She met everyone at work the first day and had nice, small things to say to all. Afterwards, she could see through people at times as if they didn’t exist and glide past the hall like wind. Yet, she managed to instil a sense of dignity about herself somehow, and all those she interacted with.
The encounter between the two women was nothing short of hate at first sight. The distrust between them was instant and mutual and it multiplied like fungi on a petri dish. In time, we witnessed many pantomime battles as their paths crossed and converged. Since Zenia held a senior position, Nina mostly squirmed in silence, unable to fall back on her amazing repertoire of sounds. While Zenia would let her eyes do the talking, Nina would knock around box files mercilessly. And the moment Zenia was gone, Nina would crib about her loud and fast, even to the execrable husband she was running away from but was a phone call away.
Gradually, we started noticing changes of both evident and subtle kind in Nina. Her unkempt hair quietly acquired a new lustre and a chick wavy pattern. The bushy eyebrows turned into slim arcs one day as if by magic, accentuating her eyes. Her waif-like face developed an unmistakeable glow as if a mask were ripped off. It dawned on many how beautiful she actually was and she was discovered anew and reassessed. However, no one was sure whether it was the new beau resurrecting her life, or she was just resolving the Darwinian dilemma.
Suddenly the monotonous workplace, the land without poles, transformed into a severely bipolar world. Slowly but surely, lines of allegiance began to take shape and harden. Those seeking perfection, sobriety and commitment gravitated towards Zenia. The haberdashers, the laggards and the time-killers started camping with the natural leader, Nina. There were no vacancies of the non-aligned kind making it tough for derelicts like me. But, in a kind move, Zenia stepped out and put her mark on my hump, confirming my creed. It helped greatly that she was allotted a flat in the same building as mine. It would change my commuting life for those few days from painful grinds to memorable evenings.
Zenia and I travelled separately in the mornings due to different reporting times at the office. However, I would finish work early and wait for her in the evenings. This did upset my old schedule and I started missing the usual 06:15 local train often. I preferred that train because of the group of fellow-commuters who had become travel-mates to me. They would take the same train from the origin point and manage to occupy the same door frame in the same first class compartment, always reserving a foothold for me. Getting into locals other than that was Lumberjack wrestling of sorts. For one, I was always boarding at midpoint and that too, during peak traffic hours. Add to that, my fondness of stuffing my bag with a DSLR camera and a couple of hardbound books, and my misery was compounded by factors.
One such evening amidst the incessant drizzles of Mumbai, I was kicking my luck for missing the preferred local because of Zenia. She was acutely aware of my predicament and the fact that she had it easier in the lady’s compartment. Suddenly she struck upon a ‘Zen solution’. Smiling sweetly at me, she hailed an auto-rickshaw and pushed me in, declaring we were going all the way to Borivali, 30 kilometers in all, in that puny black box on three wheels.
The rains started pattering the roof of the boxy auto as it sputtered its way to our homes. The driver was an astute man and he quickly pulled down the tarpaulin to both our left and right. Suddenly, we were sitting close together in a dark, cramped space, separated from the rain and a sea of traffic.