It was a surprisingly cold November morning. A thick layer of fog had settled down on the streets of Delhi, mellowing down every colour and cloaking the grime and bustle of the city. He had stood purposefully outside the bungalow, puffing mist into his woolen gloves and checking repeatedly for his dictaphone for a whole minute, but he still felt anxious when his finger finally touched the doorbell. He stepped back and waited for the door to open.
A middle-aged woman opened the door. She was draped in a faded blue saree. Her hair was disheveled and her hands were wet. She wore no jewellery at all. Her big brown eyes looked at him enquiringly. “Are you the reporter?” she asked him.
“Yes…, I am the reporter,” he replied.
“Come in,” she said stepping aside for him to enter. “Sit down. I’ll call Vilochana,” she said directing him to a black leather sofa and locking the door. She swiftly walked inside with the efficiency of a marathoner.
He looked around the spacious living room as he sat down on the sofa. The marble flooring looked like it had been recently scrubbed. The beige walls were all covered in decorations. On one end was a huge showcase adorned with little clay dolls and bob heads. A section of the showcase had been devoted to trophies and photos of celebrities. The other walls were covered in paintings — a few of which he recognised.
He walked over to one of them and stood, peering at it, appreciating it, drinking in the texture with his eyes.
“She’ll be here in one minute,” the woman said, walking back into the room.
“Oh… Alright.” He looked at her fleetingly and nodded, but he was still immersed in appreciating the subtlety of the painting.
“You like that painting, mister?”
“I love it,” he said. “It isn’t an original Paulo, is it?”
“Oh no, it isn’t.”
“Hmmm… I drew a replica when I was in journalism school. But this one is far better. Where did you buy it from?”
“We didn’t buy it. Vilochana drew it,” said the woman proudly. “She drew all of these.”
He cast one more look at all the paintings—artistic masterpieces each one of them—before looking back at her. “All of them?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes,” she said. He could see her face light up and her chest puff up as she placed the cups on the teapoy. “Come… Sit. We had run out of tea, so I made you some coffee. I hope it’s alright.”
“It’s alright. Thank you,” he said sitting down on the sofa.
She poured some coffee in his cup. He picked up a spoonful of sugar cubes and dunked them into his cup. He then steadily stirred the coffee, still gazing at the paintings while she poured another cup for Vilochana. He had felt an instant connection with the paintings in the room. Her style reminded him so much of his own.
He had just drawn his first sip of coffee when Vilochana made her entrance into the living room. He kept the cup away and stood up.
“Oh, please sit down,” she said with the flick of a wrist as she elegantly sat down on the sofa opposite to him.
He reverently watched her as she picked up a sugar cube from the box and dunked it in the coffee. Her saree — dark blue and embroidered with golden patterns — moved around like a zephyr but yet more gracefully.
She looked at him. “Thanks for coming to interview me, Vickyji.”
“My pleasure. It’s a great opportunity for me too.”
“Vikram is it?” she asked him.
“No… Vikartana.” He smiled. “My father was going through a Mahabharata phase when he named me. He is a Sanskrit teacher,” he added.
“Karna, isn’t it?”
“I know that name. Many years ago I did a play inspired by Mahabharata. It was a good play. Sadly we did only one show.”
“That’s a shame. I wonder why that never came up in the research.”
“It was only an experiment anyway. A few of the major actors got roles in feature films and they never looked back. The director ran out of money so he couldn’t restart the play. It really broke Jiteshbhai—the director. So has the interview started?”
“Okay.” She draped her knees with the pallu in one swift motion. “What do you want to know?”
“So how old are you?” he asked her.
“Young man! You do not ask a lady her age!” she frowned.
“I’m sorry. You look really beautiful. I was just curious. You don’t look as old as I had thought you would.”
She leaned in, coyly resting her face in her palm. “Is it?” she asked. “I’m almost as old as Sudha. Doesn’t look that way, does it? Oh… I didn’t introduce Sudha, did I? This is Sudha.” She pointed to the woman who had let him in. “She works here.”
Sudha joined her hands in a namaste, as if they had just met, as if this was the first interaction they were having. He just nodded in acknowledgement.
Sudha and Vilochana did not look similar. Vilochana was short, fair, petite. Her hands were thin but soft. Her nose was small and straight. Her eyes were dark and moist. Her hair was long and shiny. Her cheekbones and her jaw were a study in fine lines. Sudha, on the other hand, was tall, dark and hefty. There wasn’t anything remarkable about her. Her face lacked definition. Her nose was pudgy and her chin extended to her neck. Inspite of it all, Sudha and Vilochana seemed to be connected by a cosmic force, as if they had been born as a single entity and then divided into two persons — the mistress and her maid. They looked as if they were the same age, born at the same day, hour, minute and the exact moment.
“Isn’t it, Vickyji?” Vilochana asked again.
“You’re right,” he said, “you look younger”, unable to say otherwise. He picked up the cup and sipped some more coffee.
Vilochana smiled. “Everyone tells me that I look young. I think it has always been the case. Even when I was filming my first movie, Rajeevji used to tell me that I was the most beautiful actress he had ever worked with. And believe me, he had worked with a lot of actresses. He just had a knack for appreciating beauty. He always told me that I had the star-quality in me. He saw the talent in me. Wait. I’ll show you our photos together,” she said and rushed inside to get the album.
Sudha and Vikartana shared amused smiles.
“So how old are you?” he asked her.
“Thanks,” he said, quietly calculating how old they would have been when he was born.
Vilochana returned from her room with a big album in her hand and squeezed next to him on the couch. She began showing him the photos with the enthusiasm of a school kid. The album was well maintained save for what appeared to be water droplets on a few photos.
“See? Look here. Me with Rajeevji. We took this during Dariya ke Paar in Kashmir.” A teenage Vilochana was standing next to a middle-aged Rajeev Khanna on a snowy cliff. She was unrecognisable except for the eyes. The eyes had remained the same.
He sat quietly, staring vacantly at the album, lost in thoughts, as she continued to show him photos after photos of her with movie stars of the yesteryears. The last photo in the album was of four people standing in the veranda: Vilochana and Sudha in salwar-kameezs, Rajeev in his trademark rainbow coloured tee and one other man, wearing a cream-coloured kurta-paijama. They were all laughing. They looked genuinely happy.
“This was our last photo together. Rajeevji died the same evening in a car crash. Sai died too.” She pointed at the photo of the man in the kurta-paijama. “We took this photo right after Sai had asked Sudha’s hand in marriage.”
Vikartana looked at Sudha. She was sitting across Vilochana, at the edge of her sofa, looking away, her eyes glazed.
“I was devastated. Rajeevji had promised to cast me in his next movie,” she continued talking like nothing had happened. “I kept away from the industry for some time after that. When I tried to return, no one wanted to work with me. I did not have any friends in the industry. I was offered roles in B-grade movies, Vickyji. I could never have done that. I come from a good family.”
He nodded. “So what did you do then?”
“I waited. I waited for a good role to come my way. Eventually people forgot that I even existed. I was no longer even considered for roles. People assumed that I had retired. Some people were even surprised to see me alive.”
He could hear the pain in her voice.
“It all happened so quickly, Vickyji. Reality came crashing down on me. I lost everything I cared about in the world. I suddenly had no future. Oh… I’m sorry, Vickyji. I got a little carried away. How silly of me.” She quickly wiped away a tear.
“It’s alright. We need the interview to be personal. Any more information you could give us? Tell us about your family.”
“Okay. I’m an only child. My parents are no more.”
“How did they…”
“My father committed suicide. It was not his fault. He was suffering from depression. I was in high school. My mother died of a cardiac arrest a week after Rajeevji’s death. That’s all. My family.”
“Don’t you have anyone else?”
“Sudha. She is like my family now. We’re practically like sisters. Her mother used to work for us, so we pretty much grew up together. She took care of me when my parents died.”
“I can no longer pay her as much as I should. Her husband also works hard—jolly good fellow he is—, but the money is never enough. I keep telling her to find an employ somewhere else, but she doesn’t want to leave me.” Vilochana held Sudha’s hand in hers. “She’s all I have left now for family.” Her eyes were tearing up again.
“Don’t you have any family other than her?”
“No,” she shook her head. “Well… I did have a cousin. He died last year trying to fake an accident. The idiot was trying to claim insurance money. May God rest his soul. He was my last relative.”
“So…,” he paused to consider the enormity of what he was going to mention. “Didn’t you have a child many years ago?”
Vilochana sunk back into the sofa. Sudha, who had been quiet till then, exchanged looks with her and got up. Both of them looked alarmed at him. “How do you even know that?!” Vilochana asked.
“I did a little research.”
“I think this is highly inappropriate, Mr. Murthy. I am not comfortable talking about this subject.”
“I’m sorry… I should not have been so direct.”
“No you shouldn’t have.” She shook her head disapprovingly.
“I’m really sorry. The editor said that he needed something to….” He stopped. He couldn’t drum up the courage to utter the last word — sell.
“It’s just… I don’t…,” she paused to think and firmly replied, “No. It’s too private.”
“It’s just that people nowadays are more interested in knowing about the personal lives of stars. People would connect to you more if you…”
“You think people would actually buy the magazine to know more about my personal life?”
“I believe so”
She looked behind at Sudha and back at him. Sudha walked back into the kitchen.
“I guess I could give you a little information for the interview if you promise me that you will show me the draft before publishing this interview.”
“And I don’t want to mention the name of the father.”
“I’ve not talked about this in years. I don’t even know what you’d want to talk about.”
“Anything you can remember about that time.”
“It was in the late 80s, a few months after Rajeevji’s death when I gave birth. I was young and immature. My parents had just passed away and Sudha was all I had. We were both orphans in this big city. Luckily for me, my parents had left me enough wealth to survive without work.”
“Do you know how difficult it is to be a single mother, Vickyji?”
“I… wouldn’t know.”
“Very difficult, Vickyji. Very difficult. In India, being an unmarried mother is considered an immorality in itself. The society imprisons you in a web of contempt. You would expect it to ease up with time, but the web tightens around you. It rots and it stinks, but it doesn’t disappear. You either surrender to it or you disappear.”
“I was lucky that I wasn’t dependent on anyone financially. I tried a lot to find the baby, but the adoption agency refused to give me the whereabouts. They said it was against their policy to reveal this information to anyone other than the child itself. I was devastated. You cannot even imagine the pain I went through. They say that every great actor has some great pain in their life, isn’t it? I believe that it is this pain that I project onto the screen every time I face the camera.”
He leaned forward and asked, “What if your son comes to find you?”
There was a loud din of falling dishes in the kitchen.
“It’s alright!” Sudha shouted from the kitchen over the noise of the bouncing saucers. “I’m alright!” she added.
Vilochana looked back at Vikartana. Her face was concerned. “You think he will?” she asked.
“We do have a very good readership. Who knows?”
“Oh… I don’t… Well…, Maybe you should leave out the piece about searching for him,” she said, looking back at Sudha for support, who was now standing behind the curtains. “You can keep the part about my pain of loss”
“I think this is enough material for the interview,” he said getting up.
“Oh… okay. But…But you didn’t even… didn’t you say it was a full page interview?”
“Yes. I’ll fill in an intro of about half a page about your past work.”
“Oh…,“—she looked downcast—“People might not remember my work, isn’t it?” she said in an attempt to console herself. “You’re right. This should be enough.”
“I’ll take your leave now,” he said.
“I’ll wait for the article,” she said, but he didn’t hear it as he crossed the door.
She was the woman he had expected to meet, but not the mother he had hoped to find. He walked away disappointed. Emotions he had held back were finally rushing in. He felt a throbbing pain in his head.
He would still publish the news story. He would feel that it was the least he could have done for her. Meeting her gave him her side of the story, but didn’t make it easier for him to forgive her.
As he took out his car, he caught Sudha staring at him from the kitchen window. She hid when she noticed it. He found it very odd. The image of her standing at the window haunted him for weeks, but then he forgot about it too.
As he rushed out of the bungalow, unable to quell his rebellious emotions, Sudha stood at the window for one last look. She wondered why she had not realised it the moment she saw him. After all, he had Sai’s eyes and her pudgy nose.
Shilpa Halwe accused me a few days back of stealing her story idea for a story of mine (which is complete nonsense), so I decided to hijack her story for real. The story that inspired this one is here.
(It’s all for fun. I did tell her before writing this one)
Written by Pawan Hegde who loves tinkering with code. If you want to know more about him, maybe you should visit his website