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Book: CIGARETTES SEX LOVE
Anyone can relate to the protagonist in this story even if the situations that she finds herself in are uncommon. I can easily see Radhika Apte playing the lead in this drama that is quite similar to the many dark, offbeat movies that are trending these days.

   PREFACE

 

Often, matters of love are confusing, and we tend to complicate them further. And this happens to everyone at some point during their lifetime. This has happened to me, is happening and will continue to happen. And one fine day, I woke up thinking - why not write a book on love and the idea of love itself? And thus, came the idea of Cigarettes. Sex. Love. We battle for about three quarters of our life with addictions and obsessions, trying to understand love and satisfying our lust. To some, all three are challenges, while to some, maybe only one of these three elements is a challenge. But at the end, it is as much a puzzle to me, as it is to you all. 


Another reason why I wanted to write this was to put my perspective out there. Whether a man, or a woman, you may have faced a fair share of challenges in your relationships. It could have been a one-sided love affair, maybe you couldn’t move on, maybe you longed for physical intimacy or could have been any other aspect of a relationship. As a writer, I wanted to put forward and share my perspectives and use my writing to give a shape to the issues I have encountered in life. This is my medium to talk out aloud and find relief, and perhaps, help another reader identify with my story, even if in a tiny way. The story is fictional, but the perspectives, the experiences, and the journeys of the characters are not. They are not necessarily mine but weaved together from the stories and perspectives of people that I meet in my everyday life. This is a story of every one of us.


If even one reader can connect with any of the characters, and feels like it speaks to them, my job here is done. I only hope that, for those who feel unable to express their thoughts completely, this book allows them to realize that you are not being crazy just because you can’t forget a past love, or feel unable to invest fully in a relationship or do not perceive love like everyone else. You are independent and unique. You are You.


               Pain has a face



Is the morning foggy, or is it the smoke from my cigarette, or is it all in my head? I puff out some more smoke, holding the cigarette between my two fingers, as I tap out some ash on the tar road. It is our daily routine - stopping by a tea shop on the way home from work for a chai and a cigarette at this early hour of the morning. The sky is turning orange with the rising sun. There is no breeze. The rains have ceased, but winter has not yet set in. 

He looks into my eyes and smiles. His jawline looks even more sensuous when he smiles that way, sending a wave of current through my body. I smile back, saying nothing. I wonder if he knows how I feel when he gives me his candid smile. I don’t think he knows. A romance novelist will describe this phenomenon as the melting of the heart, fluttering of butterflies in the stomach.  But nothing of that sort happens. A spark originates in between my legs, traverses up to my navel, then my chest, my throat, and my lips. I wet my lips in raw desire, imagining how his lips might feel on mine. 

He snatches the cigarette clutched in between my fingers, takes a puff, and gives it back to me. More smoke. I’m still trying to ascertain if the smoke is from his puff or from the foggy weather or if it’s just my mind.

“How was it?” I ask him, raising my eyebrows with a naughty twinkle in my eyes. He knows that I did not mean the cigarette. His jawline tightens. He says, “I did not go.” 

I nod my head, taking the last puff from the dying cigarette. I throw the butt on the edge of the road and grind on it to put it out. I say, “Good decision,” without looking at him.

“Yeah! It is better not to get into trouble at the workplace.” He says lazily, looking at both sides of the road for traffic, as he tries to cross the road over to where his car is parked. I try to keep up with him. 

“And that is the reason you stay away from me, too?” I ask as we get into the car. 

He shakes his head, “No. You know the reason.” I nod my head as he starts the car. 

The sun is still rising, the sky looks golden now, and there is less fog. But the fog inside my head stays. We don't speak today in the car. There is no music either and the radio is off. I don't know what he is thinking, but I am definitely happy that he did not go on a date with Raina in his team. I work in a different team, but we had always been in the same night shifts.

Rohan is the most attractive man I have ever met. And the most sensitive, too. I like him. Actually, I think I love him but since I do not understand ‘love’ completely, I will stick to my first statement: I like him a lot. It is confusing. But one thing is true - I want to be in a relationship with him. But he does not. He doesn't want a casual one either. Nor a one-night stand. It hurt then, when I did not know the reason. It hurts now, when I know the reason. 

Apparently, I am too precious to even have sex with. When I heard it for the first time, I laughed. But slowly, it started to make sense to me. He loves me, and according to him, physical intimacy will only spoil our relationship. He is okay to not take that step with me. Because he says I am more than just the act. He doesn't feel the same about other girls. For him, it is important to see a girl he is dating as just a physical entity, with no emotional connection. Sleeping with them has to be like any other activity. In his words, ‘Emotional involvement ruins the pleasure of a good fuck’. Oh well.

I don't know how I feel about it. Am I happy, seeing as to how important I am to him? Or am I defeated, that he doesn’t take that step with me? A conundrum that occupies most of my mind-space. Not going out with Raina was not because he was not attracted to her, but because she works in the same team, and he did not want any unnecessary problems at work. I feel sad again, that he does not feel the same way about me as he does about Raina. I also realize that I am special to him. He cares for me. That stupid conundrum again, slightly modified - to be sad or to be glad. 

I shut off my mind and slide the windowpane down to let in some air. I look for a cigarette in my bag, but he holds my hand, stopping me from having another one. "You just had one." He says. 

"You are my dad or what?" I snap back. He smiles, but continues to hold my hand, his other hand on the steering wheel. I sit put, and he releases his hold. 

I continue to stare out of the window into the morning. "Take a turn here, please," I tell him. 

"You are not going home?" 

"End of this lane, there is a small place, sort of a graveyard. Amma will be there. Not very far from my house. Just a five-minute walk." He drops me at the end of the lane, outside the small graveyard, plants a kiss on my cheek, and says "You know that I love you. Don't you?" He smiles at me, as he slowly walks back, "Happy birthday, once again." I smile, nodding my head and watch the car  disappear into the horizon. 

Standing at the gate of the graveyard, I pop a peppermint into my mouth. It is 6 a.m. Pulling my long hair to one side, I walk inside towards the corner of the graveyard, where my sister rests in peace. This has been our ritual since I was five. Today, I am twenty-three. On every birthday, we have visited this spot to pay homage to my dead sister, whom I have never met.

I find my mother in deep meditation, sitting at the foot of my sister's tomb. This is an emotional moment for both of us. Some guilt, some pain, some grief, and some identity issues. I sit with my mother, next to the grey stone with the inscription - 'to The Baby That Was Never Born, Mama Loves You And Will Keep Loving You'. I place my hand on my mother's shoulder, who is silently weeping. 

“Are you okay?” I ask with concern. She nods her head, wiping tears off her cheeks. With a faint smile, she hugs me, wishing me a happy birthday, "We must hurry home and celebrate your birthday." It is always like this, a conundrum again - to celebrate life or to mourn the dead? But through whatever it was going to be, I will always be on my mother's side, loving her and supporting her.

“Sarju, I think I will die of guilt, more than pain.” My mother babbles in between her sniffles. I tell her again that it was not her fault. 

“It is. I killed my baby. I aborted her.” She tells me, still crying. And I don’t know what to say. “Had she been alive, she would be twenty-four today. You would have had an elder sister.” She continues her garbled speech, which I tune out. We are now walking out of the graveyard, and towards our apartment. The morning fog has cleared up around us, but not yet in my head. Because in my head, I have a conclusion for what my mom said. “If your own daughter was alive, why would you have even adopted me?”

*****

I was dumped by my biological mother, and my foster mother aborted her illegitimate child. Who is the bigger criminal here? I could never decide. Maybe we are all imperfect in our own ways. Maybe we commit sins and then we repent for a lifetime carrying the burden of retribution forever. How much punishment is necessary to an already suffering soul? I see my mother's soul crushed under her guilt. And I wonder if the woman who threw me away was buried too under the debris of guilt? Or is she happy she got rid of me? I might likely never know. I’m not trying to judge. But opinions, thoughts and questions come to a woman as free as water and air. 

I have seen my mother worry about me & love me unconditionally, doing things that I like and sacrificing her life for me. She may have killed her unborn child, but she regrets that action till this day. She has been a wonderful mother to me all this time. She had no need to adopt. It wasn’t a necessity. Even if she still weeps for her unborn child, adopting me was not an act of penance for her. She always made sure I knew that. She has repeatedly assured me that I am her life support. I am the reason for her to live. 

I am enjoying the massage on my head, her fingers skilfully spreading oil into my hair and scalp. She had always liked doing this to me, since I was a child. And on my birthday, I get extra love from her. I tell her that I don't want breakfast. I will go straight to sleep after the massage and wake up for lunch. I know she has made a list of my favourite dishes today, and all of them will be served hot, when I wake up. A faint smile appears on my lips, as she twitches her fingers on my scalp, rotating them in a circular motion on my scalp. 

I look up at her, as I hear a sniffle. She is not crying, but her eyes are moist. She smiles at me and adjusts my head in an angle comfortable to her and continues the massage. 

I have no idea how much more she cried, but as I start to fall asleep on my bed, I think to myself, 'No matter how hard we try to iron out the creases of our soul, a few remain. These are not scars but folds that carry our deepest fears and darkest thoughts. How many creases will I carry to my grave?' 

Sleep overtakes me, until I hear my name called out after a few hours.

I blink my eyes angrily, as he comes into focus. I jump up to hug him, and he hugs me back tightly. “Ew! Why is my birthday girl dripping in oil?” He asks sweetly, pulling my cheek. “Because Amma decided to give me a head massage, and since today is my birthday, she rubbed in more oil than usual, I guess,” I reply, tilting my head a little as if I am his sweet puppy. “Hmm. We need to do something about your mother.” He says rebelliously, as we march out of my bedroom to the kitchen, where Amma is busy frying vadas. 

My rebel partner forgets everything else and stuffs his mouth with the delicious vadas. I cross my hands and glare at him. Amma smiles, knowing that her brother has once again changed his side for the delicious vadas. I hear him talk, as I lumber back to my bedroom to wash my hair and take a bath, “No one can make such delicious vadas. I am telling you - these are the best!” And Amma says, “Radha makes delicious vadas too. I am not falling for your fake praise.” 

I love the touch of the hot shower on my skin and hair. It was exactly like this the first time I had felt a spark of love, a twitch on the insides, a flutter of butterflies, the weird shyness to face him - my first crush, my Mavayya (Maternal Uncle, in Telugu), Sivaramachandra Alluri, called Siva by friends and family and also by me. I had never addressed him as Uncle. He is my sweetheart, my friend, my original crush, my confidante, my support, and my best route to approach Amma for permission, whether it was for a night stay at a friend’s house, camping or trekking with friends or for partying. Usually, Amma never says no to me, but then sometimes, she can get extra cautious and protective. Siva is my saviour, in such times.

In our part of the world, we can marry our Maternal Uncles, but my Siva did not wait for me. He married Radha when I was sixteen. As soon as I became a woman, he broke my heart. Siva and Radha? Even mythology doesn’t agree. And they are exactly like that. A complete mismatch. He lives with a modern outlook, a flexible approach and a learn-as-we-go attitude. In a total contrast, she is pragmatic, religious, stubborn, and may I say, dumb, if that is not rude? I hate her. And I hate my grandma, who was responsible for a marriage between two completely misfit people. The only thing that worked for them together was how they were both physically beautiful and attractive - the picture-perfect couple.

Grandma died two years back and Grandpa died when I was ten years old. They had never accepted me. And that is why Amma chose to live separately after I was adopted. While they gave in to the decision of their daughter, who was adamant on adopting without marriage, they never really accepted me. My Grandpa treated me as an untouchable and grandma treated me worse. After he died, she treated me even more harshly. I was always the outsider that stole their daughter. She kept pushing her only son to bear her grandchildren. But Radha Aunty never got there. They tried all available methods, yet it had not happened. 

Siva wanted to adopt a girl like me but did not find support from Radha Aunty. She disliked me for being ‘outside blood’. She was okay to be childless, but never was she going to entertain another bloodline. Sometimes, I see grandma still alive and thriving in Radha Aunty. She is very formal with me, following protocol where needed, but never displaying anything else. At least, no affection that I can remember. She resents me for calling her Aunty, while I address my uncle as Siva. Which, of course, I now do it on purpose, adding ‘Aunty’ to the start or finish of every statement, to annoy her. I enjoy it. As does Siva. One mode of sweet revenge on his wife. 

As I scurry to the dining table, I listen to her talking to Amma, and I frown. I wish she hadn’t come, even as I walk in with a happy face and hug her like my best friend, “Thanks for coming, Aunty!” I can see the anger flicker in her face, as she settles down, not liking my hug. She doesn’t respond, knowing she can’t say anything in front of Siva or my mother. She knows how precious I am to them. 

This has been my birthday routine for years now. Nothing has changed. A family lunch followed by a temple visit and a family dinner at a restaurant. No cakes, no candles. Grandpa was against that ‘culture’. Everyone’s birthday was celebrated pretty much the same way. Homemade sweets and savouries, temple visits with special poojas on that day. No party and no outsiders. Strictly a family day. Specifically, with Amma, a visit to the graveyard. 

Now, whether it is because of my birthday, or if it is just my hormones racing – I don’t know. But I do know that I need to see Rohan immediately, even if it is midnight. It is supposed to be my off day at work, so I end up weaving a story to Amma about some urgent work that needed me. It is not a lie, you see? These are called true-lies - a lie, where the premise is a truth. There is always urgent work at the office, so I didn’t lie about that. But I didn’t really have to go at that time. On days when there is actual urgent work, people fall sick mysteriously. I have diarrhoea sometimes. Most girls say menstrual cramps, but I prefer diarrhoea. I have taken leave because of menstrual pain in the past but that was truly a painful day and not a lie. I do not use an excuse to escape a chore or an activity. 

I was still dressed in a pink half-saree from afternoon, with jewellery that complimented my traditional attire, and I did not bother to change. Of course, I like to show-off. And I like to hope that, where modern outfits fail, the humble, navel-revealing half-saree will succeed. I know exactly where Rohan will be at this time of the night - loitering around with Lucky at our regular hang-out paan shop, smoking a cigarette and chatting about their day. I park my car at the bend, so that I can have a view of the paan shop. I wait for a few minutes to surprise him. The late hour saw few people on the road. 

I am the one to get a surprise. After ten minutes of waiting in the car, Rohan came by with Raina, his hand tight on her waist. They walk past the paan shop, entering a narrow alley beside the deserted building at the back of the shop. There is a small, unlocked gate on the side of the building. As soon as they enter inside, Rohan cups Raina's face and starts kissing her. I see it all through my car's windowpane. They continue to kiss, as his hands explore her intimate places. After five minutes of being frozen, I realize that it is now unbearable. I start the engine and drive away slowly, tears flowing. 

I drive, trying not to think about anything. The image of them kissing was too much to handle. I don’t know why I waited to watch them go at it. I should have left the moment I saw them together. Maybe hope? A faint aspiration that it may not end the way it did? 

She got to touch him. She got to receive that side of him. What do I get? An ‘I love you’. At this point, I don’t know if I even understand what he means by that. Friendship-love? Platonic love? What does he really think of me?

All the hormones that rose an hour back, the slow fire that had started, are now out. The cinders smoulder under the smoke of pain. I stop the car as I break out into a sob, melting my kohl and mascara. I light up a cigarette, trying to calm down. But my mind just cannot get rid of the scene. 

Second cigarette. I should have been the one in his hands. He says he loves me, but then he kisses other girls. 

Third cigarette. Why wasn’t it me? Why doesn't he desire me? Am I ugly? 

Fourth cigarette. Fuck you, Raina! 

Fifth cigarette. I can't even get the man I like so much to sleep with me! I am not asking for his love or his loyalty. Just a night together, to start with. What's the big deal in it? 

Sixth cigarette. Am I not good enough for him? What should I do? Where am I lacking? 

Seventh cigarette. How do I attract him? How do I win him back? Should I talk to him? Should I ask him to explain his ‘I Love You’? What the fuck? 

Eighth cigarette. And another. And another. Until the box is empty. I find myself glaring angrily at the empty box, before throwing it out. Even cigarettes have abandoned me today. 

I drive back with an insanely occupied mind. My motor skills put me on an autopilot, navigating my way home safely. I take a cold shower immediately, allowing myself to calm my mind. As I settle down, I realize that I am more angry than hurt. Of course, Rohan had made it very clear about his feelings for me. I am the one that has held onto expectations that he will reciprocate my thoughts in actions. Maybe I have been friend-zoned. This is probably how it felt to be rejected. 

I remember a poem by Sylvia Plath, "I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my lids, and all is born again.” I wish I could slip into oblivion, never again having to feel rejection, especially from a man I desired so much, and to not be desired back. Maybe it was best for me to avoid him. To put distance between us, so I don't have to experience this continuous pain and self-deprecation. I fall asleep, trying to not think about Rohan.

*****

I am asleep for probably three hours, when Amma jolts me awake, screaming, "Sarju! Get up! We must go. Hurry!" 

I sit up, blinking. "What happened, Amma?" 

She doesn't give me an answer. Just another "Freshen up! We must go." 

I don't budge. She then comes close to me and whispers, as if even the walls should not hear it. "Radha left." 

I feel blank. What? Amma looks like she is having a panic attack. I ask, "Where?" 

She is still whispering, "I don't know. She left Siva. Last night, they fought and this morning when Siva woke up, she was gone. Siva asked me to call her and check. I tried calling her, but she is not answering. So, I called Ratna Aunty (Radha's mother), who confirmed that Radha is with her. Ratna Aunty says Radha is crying, and she doesn't want to go back to Siva. My poor brother! He must be feeling terrible. Get up. Let's go!" 

The last bit comes loud enough to hurt my ears. I get up, responding sarcastically, "Good for Siva. Are they getting divorced? Maybe I’ll have a chance?" 

My mother's furious stare shuts my mouth even if, inside, I am happy for him. He deserves better. I know I have no chances, but that is not important. I think it is good for him and we should celebrate. But Amma is crying, and she is running here and there, packing dosas in a box, pouring coffee in a flask. I try comforting her, knowing that when she’s emotional, no one can console her. It is best to keep quiet and stay by her side. She always needs her cooling period. 

I also realize that my head feels worse this morning. I drive the car, as Amma keeps crying through the drive. I am not sure if she is lamenting over her brother’s separation from his wife or if she is grieving her own past separation with her lover. I want to cry, too. I want to tell her how being rejected feels. How it is probably far more intense than separation. At least, they have a few good moments to cherish. At least, they made memories. But I do not have any of that. The only memory I have is enough to rip my heart every time I think of it - him kissing someone that was not me. Him kissing her hungrily, as if it was his first kiss ever. Him cupping her face. Him grabbing her butt, as if they were a piece of art. Him running his hands all over her breasts. 

Also, how did he seem to touch so many things, at the same time, with just two hands? Irrelevant question, but still.

I wait at the red signal, at the Cyber Towers Junction, realizing that nothing is permanent. Even the strongest of relationships crumble. As I speed past the Cyber Towers, I think of how maybe every person faces rejection in their life at some point in time. Did Raina face it, too? Radha Aunty? Siva? Amma? 


As the buildings fly by, I understand how usually insignificant places, like a location, a seat, a corner or a tree become significant to us because of the memories made at that place. And one such place, for me now, is the paan shop near the DLF Cyber City in Gachibowli, where the man I love kissed another girl. That place will probably never fade. The tiny details, the small, yellow-coloured gate, the shirt Rohan was wearing, the colour of the watch on his wrist, the earrings that Raina wore, everything, every minute detail will permanently stay with me. 

We reach Siva’s home soon and I hug him, who is shocked to see me along with Amma. "Why are you here? Shouldn't you be sleeping?" His voice is full of warmth and concern. "Don't worry about me. Enjoy your freedom for a few days until she comes back." I wink at him. I get a gentle but disciplinary slap on my back by Amma, which I ignore. Both brother and sister hug, and my Amma, who sometimes becomes a mother to her younger brother too, opens the bag and offers dosas to her brother. He quickly bites into one with the peanut chutney. He offers me one, and I eat along with him from the same tiffin box. If Radha, Aunty to me and wife to Siva, was here, she would have easily objected to this, even if wordlessly, by bringing two different plates for us to eat from. 

"Sarju, we forgot the coffee flask." Amma informs, slapping her forehead lightly. I tell her not to worry and scurry into the kitchen to make coffee and leave the siblings to discuss in private. 

The kitchen is so orderly and neatly arranged that I already feel like a misfit there. Instead of disturbing the order and mixing them up accidentally, I go back to the living room to ask for the exact location of the coffee powder. I slow down near the door to eavesdrop, as I hear low voices. I am curious to know why Aunty left.

In my mind, I have already formed a picture of Radha Aunty being adamant, stubborn and picking up a fight with Siva for trivial reasons. I have already judged that she is the culprit that caused the split. How can a normal woman even maintain a kitchen that is so crazily in order? I would go mad if my room or my house, or even my life was this clear!  

Siva starts to speak in a heavy voice, and I become all ears, keenly focusing on what he is saying, "We always shared a cigarette after a night together, watching each other breathe out smoke and teased each other at the way we childishly tried to make smoke rings in the air or trying to blow smoky hearts. It was our little ritual. With cigarettes, she would share her world, and I mine. At times, when she continued to speak after the cigarette, resting her head on my shoulder, I nod and laugh at her talk. And she would always kiss the mole on my shoulder, and I would…”  Siva slows suddenly, realizing how that intimate detail was completely unnecessary. I can hear his heavy breathing. He continues, “We have been together like this for the last five years. We were each other’s respite from our respective married partners and unhappy marriages. I was happy with her; she gave me something that I had never found in Radha. I can't say it is love, but I don’t have a name for it too. Whatever it is, we both enjoy cigarettes, sex, and love - something that we both missed from our marriages. I kept this from Radha. I wanted to keep it a secret, one that belonged to me and her, away from our spouses. Radha found out yesterday, and when she asked, I could not lie. I told her the complete truth. I had to lay bare my affair of five years in front of her." 

Tears flow down my cheeks for Radha. She, who kept her kitchen neat and is devoted to her husband, and who had always tried to keep her house and her life in order. An uncontrollable rage starts to possess me, as I try to imagine how she must have felt, hearing her husband explain his affair in detail - chaos in her simple, neatly arranged life that she probably could not fathom. The illusion of order around me begins to crumble, revealing the hidden chaos and disorder.

All her life, Radha Aunty had thought that she had everything sorted out and everything in place. While the reality was anything but in order. He had loved smoking with another woman after having sex with her. And all this while, Radha Aunty had been caring for her ‘perfect’ life, unaware that she had been replaced. In his mind, at least.

I need air. I open the door to get myself out of there. Amma and Siva lookup, startled. They had not planned to let me know about what had happened. Before I rush out from there, I go to Siva and say, "I hate you." I, too, leave him. 

Twice my heart has been broken, in the last twenty-four hours.  I badly need a cigarette.

*****


It has almost been a month now and the cigarettes have reduced. Thanks to Amma, who keeps a strict vigil on me and rations my cigarettes. She has me registered with an anti-smoking therapy group.

I have also resigned from my job, so that I don’t have to bump into Rohan. He keeps attempting to talk to me, but I don’t talk much. I am learning to ignore him. He has tried to confront me in the office, but I got away with an excuse. Just another week of notice period, and I will be far away from him. He does not understand why my behaviour towards him has changed so suddenly. I find myself not caring enough to explain either. I can’t see that he will understand. But I also can’t be seeing him every day, talking to him as if everything is all good, and listening to his chronicles with other women. I wasn’t ready to bear that cross. I am still bothered by the scene from that night. And it will take me some time to flush it out of my system. Memories fade over time, don't they? And maybe, then, I will talk to Rohan. But right now, I need space from him. 

I haven’t talked to Siva either. He has tried to text me here and there, which I read, but do not respond to. I make it a point to not be home when he comes over. I am out, either walking and exercising or sleeping. I am angry. And, when the anger recedes, I may talk to him. Thankfully, Amma understands this and does not try to persuade me to speak to him. 

I sit on my bed, trying to read a book, but not processing anything that I am reading. The words and sentences form paragraphs, as my fingers turn pages. 

Even in that mindless situation, a small verse catches my attention:

Salt rain on

red speckled petals,

a flower withers

even before it blooms…

Pain has a face -

You.


I feel a sob catching in my throat as I imagine Rohan’s face. My pain, indeed, has a very handsome face. 

Momentarily, I look for cigarettes, to find respite from this pain. Addiction to cigarettes was easy. Maybe I will get addicted to pain as well. Amma’s face flashes in front of me, and I pick up the pamphlet lying on my study table, resolving to attend the Anti-Smoking Group Therapy sessions. I book a slot for a week after, after I am out of the job for good. 

A small hope takes shape in a corner of my mind - fighting cigarettes will teach me to fight pain. Perhaps! Perhaps not! But I will try. For Amma’s sake, at least. 





       Eww, Ewwer, Ewwest



At the therapy centre, I am the first one to arrive. There are yellow chairs arranged in a circle, with one in green, which is probably the facilitator's seat. I slump on one of the yellow chairs, feeling anxious about the session. 

My mind questions me - Is this really about cigarette addiction? Or am I actually addicted to the need to be loved? Or am I grappling with stinging rejection? I have been burning away days physically with cigarettes, but in reality, I was also now addicted to pain, I suppose. 

Cigarettes are just a mask I put on. If only I could clean up my mind, I could greatly reduce these cigarettes. 

People start to walk in slowly, looking as normal as anyone. But obviously, if they are here, they are struggling with an addiction too. I take in their faces, pondering over what they were probably masking with a cigarette.

"Sarjana?" My thoughts are interrupted...the facilitator calls out my name and is looking at me inquisitively, her eyebrows raised. She had already spoken for a couple of minutes and had let a few members give their stories about how their addiction had started. It is my turn to speak.

"It was my first boyfriend who introduced cigarettes to me. He left, but the cigarettes stayed." I speak, as I am thinking about how it all started. The raised eyebrows are now back in their position. Is my answer okay? I wonder, looking at the facilitator’s face. A faint smile on her old, make-up dabbed face appears. More than satisfactory, I think. She starts to say something, but it all stops making sense to me, as I notice the chair opposite to me being occupied by a lady in red. 

And all of a sudden, the dull room is splashed red with her presence. She is in a red trench coat style dress, ending just below her knees. Her lips are a bright red, her hair is in a short do, and her ears are adorned by small red studs, setting her apart in a group of otherwise average looking people. She is the prettiest woman that I have ever seen. Our eyes meet, but we quickly get drawn away, pulled into the proceedings around us. 

I can’t stop looking at her throughout the session. I also can’t help but wonder about what this pretty woman is masking?

Not considering her, the session is uneventful. As I walk to the bus-stop to head home, a red car slows down to a stop beside me with a honk. It is the red woman from the session, smiling at me. "Lift?"

I smile and accept the offer.

"Samyuktha Reddy," she introduces herself, "You can call me Sammy." 

"Sarjana Alluri. You can call me Sarju." I smile.

"Where can I drop you?"

"I would like to not be ‘dropped’", I say, making air-quotes. My lame attempt at humour. Ha-ha.

She laughs, somehow making me feel like she understands the hidden meaning in my words. We fall silent for some time. 

“Would you like to go for a drive and a tea?”, she asks.

“Sure.”

It is cloudy today, as I look out of the window. Very soon, she is on the Outer Ring Road, just as it starts to drizzle. I open the windowpane, wishing that the rain could wash away my memories of Rohan and what I felt for him. 

I am lost in my thoughts, oblivious to my company. I wonder with sadness - once something has been felt, can it be un-felt?


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