The Attraction by Lahari Mahalanabish
As Priti stood in front of the full-length mirror, combing her hair that rippled down to her waist, the glass showed her what men gaped at whenever she stepped out on the streets. Lustrous locks. An hourglass figure. Glowing complexion. Bee-stung lips. She was contemplating on whether the sea-shell earrings would match her pineapple yellow top, when her phone came alive with the chime of bells. The chiselled face of a young man appeared on the screen. After a brief chat with her boyfriend, she clutched her purse and bade goodbye to her parents. Then striding out of the house, she mounted on her bike. Her hours were long, but her work was lauded and the pay enabled her to both splurge and save. What more could she want at twenty-three? Yet something nibbled at her happiness.
If she compared the human mind to a churning sea, some aspects of it would be analogous to icebergs - made of it, a part often unnoticed, but steady even in the swirl. In her world a tiny piece of ice was melting, adding to her already brimming life and inducing little spills here and there—ever since she found herself attracted to one of her colleagues.
Not that Priti was two-timing her boyfriend. Or harboured any intention of replacing him with this alluring colleague who probably had no inkling of her feelings. If she imagined courtship as two minds fitted into each other like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, due to their affinity towards forces of change the matching projections often underwent alteration in shape. Small spaces crept in at places where they had once perfectly interlocked. In Priti's relationship with her boyfriend, the differences becoming visible over the years were not of such magnitude that they would drift them apart. They remained attached to each other and had matured together to treat the small gaps as peeks into the future. Her relationship status being what it was and also because her crush was not single either, she refrained from pondering on ways to take the attraction to the next level. In case of any overtures from him, she was clear she would not succumb to the lure of a casual fling as she believed the consequences of such liaisons to be unpleasant. She did not even want him to feel a similar attraction for her, but she just could not stop thinking about him. The insignificant conversations they shared, the silly jokes they laughed over, and the few nuggets of office gossip they exchanged to amuse themselves and relax between work played on and on in her mind in a loop.
Priti's crush was not handsome in the conventional sense, but unknown to him, his piercing eyes followed her around-on her way home, in her bath, during her hasty meals and along the crumpled edges of her disrupted sleep. Whenever their eyes met while discussing work-related issues, she felt numbed for a few moments. As if the earth had paused its rotation to give time a break in its journey towards the night. As if all the things unrelated to the regular flow of life could happen during this brief repose. His eyes burned her, the heat baking her consciousness like a cake in the oven and spinning a distinct aroma amidst the dreary and often difficult office work. Long periods of embarrassment followed these few moments of ecstasy. At one point of time, it so happened that she could not look him in the eye lest he suspected something. She had never imagined herself in a situation where she would fail to make eye contact with someone. She forced herself to meet his gaze while speaking and in doing so sometimes she forgot to blink causing her eyes to water. Again, she prayed that he noticed nothing.
The sight of him caused Priti's memory to play tricks. If she was walking towards a teammates workstation and her crush was in the way, she forgot about the destination and returned to her own cubicle. If she was discussing a delivery challenge with another colleague and he came forward to offer his suggestions, she found herself stupidly stopping in the middle of her sentence. She had the habit of retreating to the restroom and staring at herself in the mirror whenever she felt awkward. Assuming she was reeling under stomach-related ailments, her amiable supervisor would often enquire about her health.
Priti often asked herself why she was so mortified, especially since she had not crossed the boundary of propriety, she had set for herself. How did the initial rush of elation throw her into a trajectory of embarrassment? Did she always see herself as the centre of attraction and a subconscious sense of vanity prevented her from accepting her entirely one-sided feelings for someone elses boyfriend, leading her to experience a kind of discomfiture with herself?
Like the humiliation of a child, scolded by her teacher in a class of fifty, overshadows the shame of a reprimand at home, the incident that would pale all the others came along one Friday evening. It was 6 PM when team lead Suman ushered Priti and her co-workers to the canteen. Ravi laid down a big cardboard box at the centre of a table. Deepa scratched out the Sellotape and pulled back the cover to reveal a cherry studded cake, layered with cream and chocolate. It was brought to celebrate a milestone. Priti fixed her gaze on the icing that spelled out the company moniker, aware that her crush was ambling behind them, with his hands tucked in his pockets. In another ten minutes, their supervisor arrived and asked Priti, the youngest team member, to cut the cake and distribute the slices. After offering a cherry topped slice to her boss, she turned to the person on her right who was none other than her crush. She picked up another piece of cake and raised her hand towards his. Her fingers trembled. He touched the cake and was about to grip it, when it slipped from her hands. A prominent glob of cream stuck to his brand-new formals as the cake brushed against his shirt before dropping on the floor.
That moment of abashment refused to spare her during the client calls, the report making, the traffic jams she encountered on her way home, the after dinner conversation with her parents, and the nightly call to her boyfriend before bedtime, till such a point came she realised, with an urgency more palpable than ever before, the need to defeat her own demons. In the battle against her ongoing discomposure, the first step was to overcome the fear of making a fool of herself. Fear caused the mishap to happen many times—several instances in the mind before the actual one in reality. In her case, fear was a kind of wet clay that preserved the footprints of the apprehension running amok in her mind, leading her to follow them to their materialization. Priti asked herself whether there was anything to fear. If her crush had not yet noticed her unblinking eyes, halting sentences or shaky hands, he never would. In either way, it did not matter what he thought of her as she expected nothing from him.
In the weekend Priti jaunted to a scenic spot by the river with her boyfriend. She pressed her eyes to a pair of binoculars to observe the birds perched upon the trees that grew along the banks, the river breeze loosening her from the grip of her routines. Her gaze followed a yellow-tailed bird as it disembarked from a swinging branch, flapped its way up and glided past the pearly white specks of cloud. A flock of birds with blue-green bellies burst into her view and she glimpsed many more as she scanned the sky, their wing tips gilded by the sun. Her boyfriend poured into the pages of The Book of Indian Birds by Salim Ali to look for the winged creatures they had sighted so far. At the designated hour, they queued up at separate counters, the young man being a vegetarian. Priti polished off her plate in a matter of minutes and licked her fingers, certain she would never forget the scrumptiousness of the tiger prawns. And the Mushroom Manchurian she had picked up from her companions plate.
On the way back, watching the increasingly distant islands thinning into lines like the slits of sleepy eyes, she found it easy to stop worrying about things peripheral to the natural course of her love life. It also helped that her crush took a weeks leave towards the end of the month to enjoy the serenity of Munnar. His absence was a change for Priti and she found herself in a better position to interact with him normally when he returned the following week.
A year had passed. Priti was in the mall to buy a parting gift for her crush on behalf of her team. There were only three days to go before he would collect his last salary from their firm and join the organization of his dreams.
Priti let her fingers rest for a moment on the door handle of a gift shop as she contemplated the items on display beyond the glass walls. Then she stepped back and continued to stroll along the corridor. A group of youngsters strode out of an ethnic wear shop, carrying large, beige paper bags imprinted with the logo that also flashed above the store entrance. Couples stopped by the furniture shop to eye the cushioned sofas and double beds for their future homes. Bouncy children, accompanying their parents, slackened their pace near the chocolate kiosk.
Despite having a boyfriend, Priti found it difficult to buy a present for a man as many items in the world were out of bounds for the heterosexual male. Selecting a gift for a woman was comparatively easy with options in the form of jewellery, cosmetics, purses and soft toys. She could not gift him chocolates: he was on a diet following a drastic weight gain after marriage. Although the present was from the entire team, she wanted it wrapped in her own personal choice: so, she ruled out the usual gifts for colleagues like wallets, ties, mugs and pen stands.
What would be the perfect present? The clues about his likes and dislikes were obviously lying among the words they had exchanged in their cubicles and the elevators, during the group lunches and the brief tea breaks, on the way to the bus stop and while switching off their computers. But Priti felt the need to rummage through her mind and reach beneath the piling memories to recall them.
An earlier version of this story was published in Ashmavegh, 2015