Brave – A warrior among us…
Aditi smiled as she read the notice board. The contest would run for a month and she had more than enough time to submit the essay. Besides, she knew what exactly she was going to write.
It had been a little over eight months since Aditi joined AKA.
Standing in the hallway of this pristine office, she couldn’t forget what she saw the first day.
Everything was white, including the attending table with a milky white phone and a bright white desktop. The sofa, the chandelier – not crystal but white, and even the entire wall was polished in silky white. It seemed that even the silence looming in the hallway of Adam and Keels Advertising Agency, so fondly known as AKA, was painted in white.
Aditi got up and turned around to see who it was.
A girl, probably in her mid twenties, wearing a knee length black dress, stood behind her. She looked refreshingly pretty. To say she was just pretty was an understatement. She had the perfect hour glass figure that models starved for, and the kind of nose rich women operated to get, eyes, big deep brown, and long black hair. She could have very well been a super model.
Aditi’s sleeveless pink floral salwar kameez, her mother commented was over the top for her first day, looked dull and mediocre in front of her little black dress.
Well, what did she know after all?
“So excited to finally see you. We’ve been talking for so long, it’s almost as is we know each other already, huh?”
Kavya. This was her. The one who seemed too personal, too jolly, and over excited on the calls.
Aditi started to pull out her hand for a shake when Kavya gave her a quick but tight hug.
“How are you feeling? Excited to be here? It’s going to be so so good. I promise.”
All her life, Aditi had known very few emotions. Rage, most often expressed by her father, fear and worry, expressed by her mother, and few occasional moments of laughter exchanged between her and her uncle when he visited them. What she felt right now was indescribable. Warm fuzzy happy feeling that was very new to her.
“Thanks,” she replied and hoped this woman didn’t think she was as boring as her dress.
After a long and detailed tour of the office and staff, Kavya led her to her cubicle.
“This, my darling, is your home now.”
Aditi smiled back at her, wondering what she meant by that.
“Go on, ask me?” Kavya stood by the cubicle, her palms placed on top of each other, and her chin rested on it.
“Ask me why this is your home?”
“Why?” Aditi smiled awkwardly.
“Because, believe it or not, you wouldn’t wanna go home. James says we are all workaholics.”
Who was James? Her curious mind sent across the message maybe, for Kavya stopped and frowned.
“James, the MD of AKA.”
“Yeah, he says we all work a little too much. But to be honest, we just love it. Going back home seems like a chore. If they put up beds in these cubics, I’m sure most of us would give up our apartments and move in here.”
“My father thinks Ad industry is bad for women. If I tell him this is my home, he might lock me up in my room and never let me out.”
Kavya pulled herself back and started to look here and there, as if not listening to what Aditi was saying.
There was a long stretched moment, one that went too far with that daunting awkward silence. Kavya looked around and then smiled back at her.
“Why don’t you get settled down and then we’ll get together for lunch.” She walked away and moved to another cubicle.
A guy, about twenty-something, wearing a nice crisp shirt and trousers got up as he saw her walking towards him. Kavya patted him on his back and hung by his shoulders as if they were the best buds.
Too much touching. This was the kind of atmosphere her father warned her about.
“Girls from our family don’t go for such professions,” he had said.
“What profession, dad? It’s not even the films. Even that’s not condemned anymore.”
He threw his hands up in the air and walked away.
Was he right after all?
Between that day and today, not a day passed when Aditi didn’t witness something unique, something that made Kavya stand out of the herd.
It seemed that she was made up of something different. Something that wasn’t of this world, something of her own. Her own miseries, her own joy, her apathies, hidden goals and her own desires.
She never spoke of her family, her childhood, her past. As if she came out of nothing. An air of thin smoke.
Aditi herself was different than what she had been the day she stepped into this vanilla office. But she had to agree, she witnessed more colours than in her twenty five years of being. She understood more about herself, her real potential. She realized that there was more than salwaar kameez and a little more than sambar rice in life. She took chances more often and realized there was nothing wrong in having a hearty laugh.
Her first day at lunch with Kavya…
Aditi laughed as she went back into that day.
“Lunch?” Kavya was at her cubicle, looking all cheery and the same bubbly self.
“Sure,” Aditi took out her dabba packed by Amma from the drawer and got up.
“Oh, that’s so sweet.” Kavya smiled and said, “We’re going out sweetie. Put that back in.”
“But…” Aditi started to say. Kavya already left her desk with her buddies who were heading out. It would be rude to stay back after being invited. Besides, this was her first day. She could eat the dabba on her way back home.
They headed to a nearby restaurant which served amazing grilled stuff, apparently, and they already had a table booked for twelve people.
As soon as they were seated, following the chilled water, they were served with grilled pork ribs, steak, rabbit, fish, chicken, and what not.
Aditi silently prayed to her Siva and asked forgiveness for being a witness to all this.
“Vegetarian, please,” she whispered to the waiter who stared at her as if some lunatic was inside his restaurant. What would a vegetarian do inside a grill? Exactly.
She silently nibbled on the corn on the cob and dal fry and rice while other merrily gorged on their chicken and rabbit apparently.
Her first day couldn’t have been worse than this.
The day she had her first fight with Kavya.
Aditi was assigned to write a quick brief for an upcoming marketing project. Her mind was preoccupied with the content she was supposed to write, the perfect words to be chosen. A cup of hot coffee was what she needed to get the buzz inside her head going. She walked to the coffee machine and pressed a button and waited.
She heard some loud laughing noise coming from east corner of the office. One where the balcony was.
Kavya was moving to the balcony with four guys, mostly copywriters. Nikhil she knew, Tom from US, and two more guys she had just seen in the office, wasn’t acquainted to them.
The coffee machine beeped and suddenly, Kavya turned around and looked right at her. Damn. Aditi didn’t want to be seen gawking at them. She looked down and pretended to be busy ignoring them.
“Hey, Aditi,” Kavya yelled from way back there and moved her hand around, asking her to join them. She even showed her hand up in the air, flashing the coffee mug.
Well, she didn’t have any option but to join “the gang”.
Aditi tried to pull out a smile and moved towards the balcony with the coffee mug in her hands. She should be heading back to her desk, damn it.
Aditi scooted back into the corner of the balcony, where she could enjoy the coffee and pretend to be a part of their group while also be elsewhere.
This American, Tom, pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and took one for a smoke. He lit it and then offered it to Kavya. She took it and pulled in a deep breath.
It was astonishing how easily she was inhaling the smoke as if she’d been smoking for years. He offered another one to Aditi, his hand stretched out to reach her, Kavya stopped him halfway. “She doesn’t smoke.”
“She doesn’t eat, she doesn’t smoke, next you’ll tell me she doesn’t drink either.”
“She doesn’t.” She spoke in a firm tone, ridding off that smile away.
“Does she breathe?”
“Not on you, she won’t.” She then walked to Aditi and put her arms around her shoulder and whispered. “The guy doesn’t understand Indians. Don’t worry about him.”
“And you?” Aditi asked.
She instantly pulled herself away and looked at her.
“I am sorry, Kavya, I have some work.” Aditi walked out of that place without looking back.
This was the kind of environment her father had warned her about. Boys and girls, smoking together, drinking together, no respect for family values, even living shamelessly together. Next thing you know, you are one of them.
Well, she didn’t want to be one of them.
Aditi put her head down and walked swiftly towards the ladies room. She didn’t want anyone to see her like this.
“Hey, I am sorry about that.” It was Kavya. She paced her steps fast to catch Aditi before she could step inside the washroom.
Aditi pulled in a deep breath and looked at Kavya.
“I am sorry, too. I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just that…” words choked inside her and her heart filled up with emotions. She couldn’t utter anything more.
“I understand,” Kavya quickly added to her unfinished words.
“Yeah. You are scared. I understand. This is new, being open, fearless. It doesn’t seem right to you.”
“What are you talking about Kavya?”
“I know. Believe me, I’ve been there. Hiding, living under my own shadow, terrified to come out in the open and live freely.”
“Then what happened?”
“To me?” Kavya asked.
Kavya looked out of the window for a whole long minute. In that single moment, her face reflected a series of emotions, loss, grief, anger, and then hope, followed finally by a smile.”
She looked at Aditi and said, “I stopped hiding. I stopped chasing the clouds and came out. I realized life wasn’t going to be very generous to me. So I decided to be happy with what I had. That’s what I do. I try to be happy. I find a friend in between these plain walls. I try to find my successes out of a meeting. I find joy when I meet someone new.” She pointed her hand at Aditi and smiled. “For me, life begins here and ends here. In this place I call work, I have found my family. Not saying that you should do the same, but you know something, this is one hell of a place to begin.”
The days she met with the real Kavya…
Working in AKA, working with Kavya, this job had given her so much. It added more personality to her. She knew there was a real person inside her and that person reached out to her when she was lost in the qualms and worries of her father.
“Hey, there’s a cool pub about half a mile from here. Let’s check it out.”
Aditi looked at her. “You know…”
“I know you don’t drink darling but there’s a first to everything. Come, I’ll show you what tequila does and how margaritas taste.”
Aditi didn’t want to argue. Besides, it was not like she had to go back home in the morning. It was a fun trip, their office was treating them, and the city was beautiful.
What the hell?
She picked the prettiest skirt she had, one that fell just above her knee, and teamed it up with the metallic shirt Kavya had bought for her from Bangkok.
They headed to the pub Kavya was talking about started with a round of margaritas. Kavya dragged Aditi to the dance floor and while on the way up, Aditi felt something.
“What happened?” Kavya asked.
“I think that guy just slapped my butt.”
“What?” Kavya’s eyes were stretched out, her head up straight.
“Yes, he just slapped my right butt as we walked past him.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? He just did it.”
“Let’s go.” Kavya pulled Aditi with her hands and moved towards the guy who was sitting by the bar, with a company of his own men.
This guy, wearing khaki trousers and a beige semi silk shirt with the top unbuttoned, sat by the bar, his one leg spread out while the other tucked up on the chair, laughed vehemently as they walked towards him.
“What did you just do?” Kavya asked with her tone a bit high pitched now. His friends sitting around him had stopped laughing like a teenage bunch by now.
“Do you want me to show you or her?” he asked and then turned around to look at his buddies, who gave out an energetic laughter after looking at him.
He must have looked funny, for his words definitely didn’t sound so. As he turned back to look at Kavya, she slightly leaned on Aditi and whispered, “Screw this bastard.”
She splashed her drink all over his face and smiled.
“You,” he pulled his hands back and with a twisted face he ran a tight slap across her face.
Aditi gasped. But Kavya didn’t seem to back down. She lifted her leg and thrust it over his foot. He shrieked in pain.
Apparently, stilettos had its benefits.
“You…” he jumped down from his seat but was pulled back by the huge bouncers all over him. He and his gang had to leave cursing and yelling to the point that they threatened the pub owner to trash and finish his pub in minutes.
Kavya’s face looked red and a bit swollen but there was a sense of pride in her. She seemed relaxed and happy after s fuming few seconds. They weren’t going to dance anymore and the fun night was over, but it seemed okay. Just the two of them, sipping their margaritas, was enough fun for one night. Add the episode with the lunatics, it was more fun for one month.
Both of them didn’t speak for quite some time.
“My father would never let me out.”
Kavya banged her drink on the table and looked at her.
Damn. She was pissed, not little, not angry, but pissed.
Did she hear her say why? Well, wasn’t it enough? After all that happened, didn’t it just prove what her father had been saying all along? Going to pubs wasn’t safe. Wearing miniskirts wasn’t decent. Drinking, definitely not good, because she felt she was on a spin, and her head was on a buzz.
“Why would your father not let you out?”
“He told me that drinking, pubbing, wearing short dresses was all bad culture and I just saw what happens. I should have listened to him.”
“You are wrong.”
“If we stayed back at the hotel, none of this would have happened.”
“You think not enjoying yourself is the answer to eve teasing?”
“Going out in the open is?”
“Staying in locked doors is?”
“I don’t know.”
“It didn’t happen because you work in the advertising industry or because you had one margarita or even because you wore this little skirt. He didn’t slap your butt because you came out in the night to this pub. Wake up Aditi, he did that because he decided that he’d enjoy doing it and get away with it. Rapes are not caused by women wearing tight clothes. In many tribes across the globe, women are naked. They don’t get raped. You know why? Because they have free sex. No fear of society. You know why men rape here? Because they are frustrated and the only way they can find pleasure is in hurting someone else. Not sexual pleasure, but pleasure by command. A frustrated society equal to hell lot of rapes.”
“We weren’t raped Kavya.”
“How was this any different?”
“Because he didn’t drop his pants. And besides, you hit him, splashed drink on his face and I don’t think he appreciated the watermelon flavour.”
Kavya seemed to be lost in some thought for a moment and then burst out in laughter. Aditi couldn’t hold herself either. His look did seem precious. She wondered if there’d be a camera in the pub they could have watched it all over again.
“Remember how he cried when my stiletto punctured his foot.”
“I wish we could see him cry once more.”
And they burst into laughter.
The moment before she found out…
The shortcut back to their hotel led from the narrow lane that connected the pub to the main street where their hotel was located. Somehow the darkness didn’t frighten Aditi and the cat that ran from the garbage tub to the other side of the street didn’t seem to bother her either. As if she felt free, complete. Something changed within her.
“How do you do it, Kavya?” she asked.
Kavya, who was jumping up and down on her own steps, holding the stilettos in her hand, hopping around, singing, “Aaj main upar…” stopped and looked at Aditi.
She put her hand down and straightened her face. It didn’t seem that she was really high.
“What are you talking about?”
“How do you gather all this courage?”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Me?” she asked and then continued, “Courage? I try, Aditi. I try a lot. You know, there’s anything but courage in here.” She tossed her shoes and stumbled to the steps of the building on the left. She sat on the top stair and looked at Aditi.
“You know what I am, I am a survivor. First, people said I was a victim. I was, but then I survived. I became a survivor. But you know what? Once justice is done, you’ve found peace, and survival becomes an everyday chore, you just don’t want to survive anymore. You want to live. That’s what I do Aditi. I try to live.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t know how much I hate human touch. But I don’t want to stop living, stop feeling love just because something happened in some age. I want to live, Aditi. Have my life back. Feel love again, be a person again. I don’t want to become a hero, I don’t want to stand up to bullies, neither am I trying to make a point. I am just trying to live Aditi. I want to live.”
Aditi felt as if her head was spinning, her stomach churned and her vision blurred. But among all those giggles, that little dress, that fallen stilettos and that red lipstick, she saw the real Kavya come through.
The only one who seemed alive in the land of the dead.
Aditi knew exactly what she was going to write.
Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy on Unsplash