Trying to Escape
“C’mon Sandy, hurry up. We are getting late,” said Meera standing outside the door.
“Just a minute, give me a minute,” replied Sandhya from inside the bedroom. She emerged punctually one minute later and yelled in the direction of the kitchen.
“Mamma, we are going.”
“OK, you will be back for dinner, no?”
“Of course, this is just the matinee show.”
“Bye, then. Have fun, both of you.”
Outside, the sun smote them harshly. Sandhya smarted under the prickly heat. “It’s sure hot,” she cried. Meera grinned and looking straight ahead, said, “I thought at least you would feel more comfortable in those clothes.”
Sandhya was wearing tight slacks and a sleeveless white top. Her arms, that now seemed a continuation of the stretch of the fair, blemishless skin starting from her shoulders, looked rather long and bare. She resented the half-mocking note in Meera’s voice. “What do you mean?” she said thickly.
Meera only laughed, which infuriated Sandhya all the more. “There’s nothing wrong with my clothes,” she said hotly. “They are decent enough. Even my mother found nothing to object.”
“I didn’t say anything. Besides, she never saw you like this. She was in the kitchen.”
“Oh, she has often seen me like this,” snapped Sandhya. “Like this? My God! I am talking as if I were going around nude. Stop giggling and call that auto, will you? Auto!”
She sat fuming inside the autorickshaw, staring pointedly out at the bustling traffic. Friends? That was what everyone assumed they were, best friends. Always together, sharing things. And here they were, unable to agree on a minor point; she, herself, getting so angry when she perfectly well knew that Meera was only pulling her leg. She had ceased giggling aloud, but every now and then, she would look at Sandhya’s frowning face and relapse into quiet chuckles.
No, it wasn’t right to gloss over everything by giggling and joking, Sandhya thought. That way you are trying to escape reality all the time. No, you cannot always joke about everything.
Sandhya counted slowly upto ten and decided that a better strategy to ebb her anger would be to talk about something else.
“We will get down at the next junction and walk. The road is one-way and the auto will go in a roundabout way.”
The sidewalk was crowded and they had to plough their way through the dense throng. Sandhya had the feeling she was in a video game moving like an automaton and avoiding collisions with other automatons. People whizzed by on her left, on her right; she overtook the stragglers cutting ahead shoulder-wise, straight through or circuitously around them.
She felt the thud against her leg in mid-stride, just below the shin and almost went sprawling. It didn’t feel hard and unyielding like stone, but soft and alive. She looked down in horror at the live, breathing mass clutching her leg. A little girl clung to her feet and moaned.
Sandhya bent down and tried in vain to detach the tiny arms that encircled her leg with the frailty and tenacity of a tendril. She looked around desperately and saw Meera looking on with a bemused smile.
“Don’t just stand there,” she burst out. “Get her off me. What does she want? It’s horrible.”
“Give her a rupee,” advised Meera.
Sandhya fumbled in her purse, extracted a coin and dangled it at knee-level. The coin and the grip around her leg vanished.
“That was horrible, horrible,” she exclaimed, surging ahead with relief. “How can anyone behave like that, I don’t understand. Does she really know what she is doing, at that age, throwing herself at the feet of strangers and begging? She couldn’t be more than five.”
“Oh, probably her mother taught her to do that,” reasoned Meera.
“How perfectly horrible! Let’s move from here.”
Five minutes later they arrived out of breath at the cinema-hall.
“So where’s your crowd?” demanded Sandhya. “No one seems to be in a hurry except us.”
“I don’t know. The paper said-oh look at that! The show starts half an hour later.”
“And you kept hurrying me all the time for nothing.”
“I can’t help it if they keep changing the timings. Anyway, now that we are here, we might as well stand in the queue and get our tickets.”
They sauntered over and joined the queue.
“I don’t know why we decided to see this one,” remarked Sandhya. “I don’t think it will be any good.”
“We couldn’t get tickets for anything else, remember? What do you mean by ‘good’, anyway?”
“A good movie is a real movie. I mean, it should portray reality.”
“Really, do you think so? For me, a good picture should make me feel good, that’s all.”
A pang of irritation passed through Sandhya. Is that all she cares about? she wondered. That whatever makes her feel good is good? No, it was wrong, it was lies. It wasn’t real.
“Hi sweetie! Taking the seat next to us?” The voice burst on her like a bombshell. Sandhya and Meera whirled around.
Two boys with leering faces stood behind them. Both were dressed entirely in black-jeans, chest hugging T-shirts and goggles. Their T-shirts prominently displayed the faces of Leonardo and Kate in Titanic. Sandhya felt sickened more by their clothes than by their comments. What had romance and love got to do with these apes? What did they know?
“Just ignore them,” she told Meera.
“What do you mean, ignore us? We are standing before you, alive, how can you ignore us?” one of them said, and the other guffawed.
“Behave yourself or I’ll call the policeman over there,” threatened Sandhya. They fell silent and moved back when they saw she was in earnest and the policeman was actually there.
“Got the tickets? Right. We’ll go to the Baskin Robbins shop at the corner and have an ice cream,” Meera suggested. “If we stay here, these Romeos might get ideas again.”
When they returned, the movie had just begun. At first, Sandhya tried her best to follow and appreciate the film. Soon, however, she was fidgeting in her seat. The cliched scenes began getting on her nerves. She guessed and spoke the dialogues for Meera’s benefit until Meera hushed her. Sandhya soon got tired of it and relapsed into silence. She tried to fall asleep but the music and the dialogues got louder and louder till they reached a fulminating climax and the lights flickered on.
Meera was humming one of the songs softly.
“All right, Meera, we have seen enough. Let’s go back,” announced Sandhya.
Meera looked at her amazed. “But this is just the interval!”
“Don’t tell me you want to see the rest. Please, come on. I can’t stay here. I’ll get a headache.”
“We paid a hundred bucks for these balcony seats. At least stay for the whole movie and get your money’s worth.”
“I’ll get my money’s worth if I come out sane. All right, you enjoy it, I’m going.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Meera but watched with dismay that Sandhya had picked her purse up and was flouncing through the aisle toward the exit.
“I don’t know what’s got into you,” said Meera, as they stood on the pavement waiting for an auto again. Sandhya noted with satisfaction that Meera had lost her look of perpetual good humour.
“No one forced you to come out too. You could have stayed and enjoyed to your heart’s content.”
“What was so bad about the movie? I didn’t find anything so objectionable. It was like hundreds of other movies.”
“My point exactly. Exactly like hundreds of others and all of them nothing but lies.”
“Lies? What lies?”
“They show nothing real. Now our hero is supposed to be so poor that his father is always in debt, but when he has to sing a duet with the heroine, he skis in the Alps!”
“Oh God, you take everything so seriously! Of course everyone knows that’s not real.”
“And yet they enjoy it? How can you see something that you know never happens in actual life and still find it interesting?”
“I think people face enough reality in their lives. The reason why they come here is to be entertained. Precisely, to get away from reality for a few hours. What’s wrong with that?”
Their voices grew higher, insistent. They were in earnest now, both of them knew.
“And so,” carried on Sandhya, “people feel they are in the Alps skiing with the hero and are happy. Happy to escape to a world they know can never be true for them, right?”
“Right!” snapped Meera. “No one wants to live in a real world, even you.”
“Oh really? Why didn’t some hero turn up and bash those Romeos who were trying to get fresh with us? Because there is no hero really. There was only the policeman.”
“If you want to acknowledge reality,” Meera could not contain herself, “you should also acknowledge why they teased you in the first place.”
“Because of your clothes, of course. Don’t act as if you don’t know.”
Sandhya’s face flushed red. “Ridiculous!” she spat out.
Both were too angry to talk any further. They looked out at their respective sides of the road until they reached Meera’s house. Meera alighted with a barely audible good-bye, while Sandhya returned alone to her house.
“Back so early!” her mother exclaimed.
“We came back mid-way. It was rubbish.”
Sandhya looked around the room, trying to find something to do. She saw the bookmarked copy of Les Miserables she was reading on the table. She sat on the sofa, propped her feet on the table and began to read.
Soon, she was engrossed in the novel, turning page after page quickly. The steady smooth-flowing prose soothed her ruffled nerves. She felt a mellow contentment diffuse in her. Yes, this was what she should have been doing in the first place, instead of watching that rubbish in the name of entertainment.
This was real. These, Victor Hugo’s words were real. They could happen. But Meera couldn’t appreciate it. She wanted to escape. She wouldn’t understand the misery of people portrayed by Hugo, as she, Sandhya, understood it.
She stood up, excited and walked around. A glow of satisfaction burnt her heart. Only she comprehended the terror and loneliness of the little girl in the book, struggling to carry the pail of water in the ghoulish darkness. She imagined the unutterable happiness in the girl’s heart as Jean Valjean appeared and relieved her of her burden. Yes, she could identify with the feelings because they were real. The girl’s misery was real. She-
The thud hit her again at the same spot, below the shin. Again, she felt the live, breathing bundle against her leg and she recoiled with horror. Not the girl again! the thought seared her mind. She looked down and saw her dog thumping its tail at her feet. She breathed easy again.
Her eyes fell upon the open book on the table. She took it up and began to read when, without a warning, the irony struck her with full force. She sat frozen for a while, but her mind was in turmoil. Then she was laughing. Laughing long and loud, laughing as if her heart would break.