The Stairway

If I tell you a story, you will not believe it. Not on my face at least. You will believe it in your heart. You know why? Because you know human emotion is absurd. It can feel unconventional things. You have felt them too, haven’t you? You were just too tied up in the mess of the so called society to ever express those feelings. 

That is why you publicly shame the stories which you do understand in your heart. You call them wrong and sinful but deep down, you know you were drawn to sin too. At least once. And that pull was so desperate you still remember it like the back of your hand. 

So, I will tell you the story. You will relate. But maybe you’ll pretend that you can’t relate. 

This story is about a man and a woman. It is about love too. But not their love, no. The man in this story is your next door neighbour. Short, middle aged, average. You can call him whoever comes to your mind when you read his description. I will call him Balu. 

The woman in this story is everything but average – at least in looks. She is your well kept, hair dyed, nails done, high heels, perfect figure woman. I will call her Piya. You can name her whoever you want. I am sure you have such a lady in mind. 

As I told you, this is not a love story. But our characters are connected. Of course. 

They are literally the two sides of the same coin. They are the antithesis of each other. He’s living from paycheck to paycheck. Making ends meet everyday to tend for his family. She is spending her husband’s money lavishly. Grooming herself. She doesn’t even need to do chores. He has no time for himself. He has needed pants for a while now, but every time either there is a new expense lined up or he just cannot make it to the shop before it closes. He’s too tired to shop on a Sunday so his pants stay faded. She spends her Sundays only shopping. It is therapeutic for her. 

He looks at his wife and his heart melts. She looks much older than she is. She has sacrificed her youth for him and their children. So he never cribs if she doesn’t cook things he likes or if there is extra salt in his food. He always eats with a smile. 

When she looks at her rich husband. He is never looking at her. Despite being so well groomed, he has eyes only for his work. It isn’t like he is cheating – she has found that out. He just doesn’t find her that interesting anymore. He hardly ever found her interesting, maybe in their courtship. After their child was born, she doesn’t even remember being intimate with him. 

Obviously, our antithesis have a common link. Balu works in the office Piya’s husband has business relations with. Their paths cross in a business meet and greet function. All the employees of Balu’s office have eyes for Piya and a few other trophy wives. But Piya has spotted Balu because he is the only one who is barely looking at anyone else but his wrinkled wife. 

Of course he cannot afford a five star experience for his wife at his own expense. Hence he is making the most of this office party to make his wife live the life of a queen for a day. Carrying even food trays on his own if the waiters discriminate based on their status and prefer serving the big shots first.

That whole evening, Piya could not peel her eyes off that couple. She saw how awed they were in that five star hotel. How they enjoyed things that were everyday occurrences for her. And even though she saw hints of envy in their eyes, she felt the same way towards them.

Envy. It was an alien emotion for Piya. She was almost always the prettiest woman in any room she entered. She had all the money in the world hence all the things she could even think of were on her beck and call. None of the women in her circle were getting anything more than she was from their homes. And today she was feeling envy towards a woman who didn’t even come close to her in looks and/or money. 

You may think what’s the big deal?! Envy is such a basic emotion. But for Piya, it was an insult. How could she be envious of another woman!? Especially someone like Balu’s wife. How could she want what another woman had?

Don’t get me wrong. She didn’t want Balu. 

She wanted love.

I told you, this is a story about a man and a woman and love; not their love. And it is not a love story.

In that moment of vulnerability, Balu’s boss – lets call him Amit – veered into the frame. He is your typical rich brat. Too full of himself. Always looking for having some fun. He always had an eye for Piya. Many of her husband’s colleagues and competitors did. Wasn’t that the whole point of a trophy wife? It won you things no work could win. 

However, Piya never really let another man get close to her. Of course she enjoyed the chase. But that was it. She always led them on till they became lovesick puppies in her feet and then drew the line so gracefully that they never even realised what happened. 

But today, she was not even in her element nor did she remember her game. Amit knocked when the door was open and he slithered inside with a hiss and the intention of biting. Only his venom felt like nectar to Piya in that moment. 

He smoothly talked her into opening up to him. She of course was too vain and proud to admit to her loneliness. But she talked about the mundane environment of that very party and he picked up on the cues around him. A bored wife, an absent husband. And then he extended his arm and took the liberty of touching the small of her back in the pretext of saving her from a waiter who would’ve spilled something on her. The goose bumps on her waxed skin were tell-tale signs of the lack of intimacy between her and her spouse. She was the haughty damsel in distress, and he was figuring out the key to her treasure. Innuendo intended.

I know what you’re thinking right now. Yes, when I ask for feedback – you all are going to barge upon Piya. But I know deep down, you blame her husband. You root for her happiness. You will not say. Because this story is unconventional (or not). Its characters are not perfect.

This story isn’t just about Piya. It is about Balu too. He doesn’t give a damn about the corporate culture. Or should I say cult? He wants a peaceful life. He wants to pay off his mortgage and sponsor his children’s education and marriage. But he is also tired. He is filled upto his brim. Not once has he opened up. Not even to his wife. 

You see, Balu didn’t grow up in an era when men could have feelings. He is a father who would sleep in a local train with his YouTube flashing from his pocket while the sound in his earphone is so loud it could wake up a country. An old Titan watch stays in his hands which constantly reminds him that his time won’t change. He doesn’t remember what it is to live for himself and he feels that this is what he is supposed to do. 

These parties may make him stop and stare in awe but they don’t ignite a desperate need in him. The way it was ignited within Piya. What really ticks Balu off is a lack of morality. Because that’s all he has. His morals. The middle class pride. The judgemental, traditional, typical mentality that refuses to grow up and change.

So when, hard to miss, Mrs Piya kept frequenting Amit’s office as his “friend” – Balu finally noticed her. He saw her with those judgemental – full of blame – eyes. The same blame you all have blatantly put on many women and/or men without knowing anything about them. Don’t you blur the lines of right and wrong – somewhere? Anywhere? But you still judge. 

You will not judge a bunch of people huddling to gossip and backbite about the very same people they call their brothers and sisters. You will not judge mental, emotional and physical abuse. You will not judge the sin of gluttony. You will not bat an eye when you fluently lie all the time. But with adultery – shame is bestowed! 

No no, don’t get me wrong. I am not justifying adultery. I am just highlighting the hypocrisy of the society. Sorry for side tracking – or maybe not. 

Coming back to the judgemental eyes of Balu. Piya had noticed Balu in the office premises. And though she didn’t care about what anyone thought of her, she hated the look of judgement in his eyes. Every time she looked at him she thought, “He will never understand because he already has what I want.” And her eyes flashed resentment. 

Her resentment was evident to Balu hence he started to avoid her gaze. He didn’t want to get into trouble with the Boss’ mistress and lose his job. What rich people did was not his business. But Piya kept on looking at him with resentment every time she walked past him.

They never spoke with words but Balu felt like he knew her. He started noticing her even when she was around Amit. She looked at him with longing. She fed his lust consoling herself that passion is a prerequisite to love. She hadn’t been touched in a while anyway. She hoped that it would fill the void in her life. She already lived like a queen but she wanted to live like someone’s queen. 

Sadly, she was banging a wall thinking it was a door. It was never going to open. She knew that deep down. Maybe? Balu picked up on these things. She picked up on things too. She saw how saturated he always seemed. Always on the edge. How did he not have a nervous breakdown already?! And then she envied his wife even more because she was his queen despite everything! 

It is true when people say that eyes speak. Not everyone is fluent in their language – or maybe is. But Balu and Piya knew a lot about each other without ever speaking a word to one another. So when they did speak for the first time – it wasn’t possible to have a less than intense conversation.

It also happened in an intense moment. 

Balu was working late at the office. The lights of most desks had been turned off. Hardly anyone else was waiting back. The silence of the night was getting overwhelming. He had been on edge for a while. All the frustration bottled up within was just waiting for the lid to pop. He walked up to the stairwell which his co-workers only used to smoke. On occasions he used them to shed a tear or two. As he looked over the unending stairs beneath him, exhaustion surfaced and started to flow out of the corners of his eyes. 

Just as he was giving in to the moment and relaxing, his secret was threatened by muffled sobs coming from the maintenance closet nearby. He didn’t know what made him look there, but he had not expected to find Piya there. Her waterproof makeup had given up and she had bit her knuckles trying to muffle her sobs and she probably had never looked like a mess before at least not in front of another man. 

Balu didn’t know what to do. He averted his gaze from her and took a step back. He was awkward. He didn’t know how to handle the situation. 

“So you can’t even look at my face?” she half screamed and half gnashed her teeth.

“Why?”  She continued. “Because I am not the epitome of purity? Like your wife who looks like she could become a senior citizen in two years?” 

Balu was confused. How did she even know about his wife?

“You are the reason why I am in this mess. You both!!! And what do you have? Nothing!!!! Yet she gets to be pampered?! She? Who looks NOTHING in comparison to me? Who’s husband earns NOTHING in comparison to mine? What do I get? Tit bits? From all the men I dare to expect love from! I get a loveless commitment and a lot of love making without commitment!? And your wife gets all the special treatment! Even though you yourself are always on the brink of bursting with all the pressure that is on you!” 

Balu was astounded. He had never in his wildest dreams believed that someone could be envious of him. But here, a woman of such high social standings was jealous of what he and his wife had. A wave of new felt gratitude rushed through him. He didn’t even judge Piya anymore. He understood her. He understood why she cheated on her husband. 

Afterall, who doesn’t want love? 

He walked towards the office and got some water from the water cooler for her. She had calmed herself by now. She accepted the water. He took the liberty of seating himself next to her. 

“Did you notice us at that office party?” he asked. 

She nodded. 

“You know, what makes a marriage successful? It is not money or comfort. It is not even adversity. I’ve seen marriages fall apart over abundance of money and the lack of it. I’ve seen them fail due to children or due to not having them. I’ve seen them fall or flourish in adversity. But marriages work only on interdependence. They work by sharing every single detail of your life with each other and including each other in all those things. 

Man and woman can embrace each other like second skin. But they can stay that way if they keep a string attached all the time. The string can be long enough for each of them to take their own space. But it should be so strong that if one of them pulls on it, the other comes towards their partner like a moth drawn to flame. 

The string shouldn’t be loose or in control of someone else. It should be impossible to cut – at the most you get to untie it. For middle class people like us, it is easier to keep the string strong. Our houses are small so we compensate with our hearts. We adjust, we share. We think about the needs of the other so we make sacrifices. And sacrifices go a long way in love. 

I don’t share my frustrations with her because she has not once in her life cribbed about the situations that have arrived at home. Something too rare in a woman in her shoes. So I don’t load her with my baggage. She has sacrificed her entire self for me and my family so I automatically feel the need to return her love with love. To pamper her with little things she likes. 

You saw me one day. One day I could show her the grandeur of the upper class. But on other days – it is things like getting her favourite sweet dish, buying the jhumkas she loves, entering the house with a smile and leaving with a smile – hugging her and kissing the top of her head at both times. That’s all I can do!” 

“That is enough!” she said, “That’s all a woman needs. Not passion. Not things. If she is loved and taken care of – she will forget everything else.” 

“And a man needs peace. That is the only thing for which he comes to a woman. Even the men lusting after women are looking for peace no matter how temporary. Maybe that’s what lacks in your relationship.” 

“Everything lacks in our relationship. Peace? I don’t think I was anything to him. Ever. I had no value. It is like I am just … there. Like other pretty things in the house he doesn’t take a second glance at.” 

Balu smiled.

“Did you try to be noticed?” 

She was silent. She always thought that the effort that she put into her appearance was for him. She never realised it camouflaged her in the background of all the pretty things. She never took a real step either. Not even when she felt so deprived of love. She went ahead and cheated on him. 

She sighed. 

“Love without effort has no meaning. It is like saying you love clouds or cars or circuses. It holds no meaning. Yeah so you love clouds? Are you going to figure out a way to settle in them? Or to bring them down to your backyard? But with love, real, actual love, you can literally move mountains just to be with that person. You’re blaming him but were you not to blame?” 

“For someone who knows so much about love, you aren’t doing a great job shutting your wife out from your tears. When you love someone, when you share your deepest emotions with someone – you cannot do it without vulnerability. It makes your partner, especially your woman, feel left out. It is unfair when you choose to cry alone. I bet you don’t smile alone.”

She made her point and exited the stairwell leaving him behind to ponder upon the little things in the otherwise perfect relationship between him and his wife.

Piya and Balu. Antithesis personified. Their paths crossed. For love. Sometimes the person you don’t love teaches you a lot about love. I would leave their stories here with a belief in my heart that they both fixed the big and small parts of their lives to find the best of love. Now that they both know what they lacked and what they had to be grateful for, I have hopes that they will figure it out ahead. Who knows, right?

I am sappy. They are flawed. And you are probably not being too judgemental about this story – maybe you’ll accept that this was, in fact, a very real story. A story of a man, a woman and love – but not their love. 

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