I took in the morning air, crisp and fresh, unlike any other. Mingled with the musk of his skin, it hit me like a toke, vertiginous. Giddy and lightheaded, I leaned over the ornate balcony, stilling myself. Eyes closed, the warm glow of the sun washed across my face and brought a smile to my lips. I languidly turned around and watched him sleep a dreamless sleep. The silk covers awry, hugging his slender body as the sunlight poured in and lit the contours of his face. His skin vaguely damp, giving off a sort of shimmer that comes from arduous labour. His lips only slightly parted. I could still feel his breath. What I wouldn’t do for the touch of his skin, a taste of those lips. Finally, he is mine forever, I thought.
The sun-kissed morning dawned softly across the horizon, tiptoeing its way over the river and meandering through the mountains, in ripples of brilliance that lit the landscape from east to west. How far we travel in search of peace and tranquility, I thought. The mind seeks respite from the drudgeries of life, it seeks transcendence…to stimulate grey cells, to elevate one’s existence and delve into the mysteries of the mind and the heart. And at the same time, it yearns to be able to return to the primal innocence of being, where the signified doesn’t necessarily correlate with the signifier, and perhaps we can deign to reconstruct, reassign and regenerate a world that defies binaries (not by denying them, but assimilating them), in a world that merges vice and virtue, good and evil, black and white, as one entity that is inseparable. A world where love prevails, but its evil twin unobtrusively nests beside it.
I stretched out my hands in an attempt to catch the rising sun in my palm, as if it were a soap bubble floating carefree across the sky. The blushing fields below were in stark contrast to the snow-covered mountains. If there was heaven on earth, that must have been it.
I could not stop smiling. It was less of a smile, but more of a smirk. Yes, he is mine, I thought. Whoever said that false modesty could be worse than arrogance, was right. I certainly didn’t intend to be modest at that point. A pinch of Machiavellian deceit and a hint of unhealthy obsession would always do the trick.
I knew I had to have him the moment I set eyes on him that fateful summer night. The music was loud, the bonfire was raging and among the drunken figures that danced in a daze, he stood out from the crowd. It wasn’t his self-obsessed, egocentric, over-confident air that caught my eye, but the quiet passionate gaze that looked back at me. There was something in his eyes that was hard to define, even later when I got to know him better. Call it wisdom or an illusion of wisdom, it was a penetrating gaze that could overwhelm anyone if they stared long enough into those big, dark eyes. It reminded me of a black hole…unknown, yet alluring, so much so that no force of nature could hold you back if you got close enough. I knew right then he had to be mine.
“Why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage.”
– Ayn Rand
I was never the sort to beat around the bush. If I wanted something, I got it. If I didn’t like something, I made it loud and clear. If life gave me lemons, I made lemonade. Clearly, it was the kind of attitude that came with its ups and downs. Especially when you’re a journalist, speaking your mind can get you into hot water more often than not. Over the years the editorial board spent the better half of their time putting out fires and publishing retractions, and the other half slapping my wrist, until it got to the point where I was formally reprimanded.
I always believed Ayn Rand when he said that “There is no such thing as a lousy job—only lousy men who don’t care to do it.” I knew my way around a pen and a paper, and these days a keyboard and a salient monitor, but never failed to back up my files and keep hard copies of every document I typed, reviewed or received. Having a minor in Law and Justice gave me an edge over my often oblivious and pompous gatekeepers to keep my work handy so they couldn’t get rid of me. Knowing me, I would drag the proof to court and drag them down with me if necessary. Consequently, they thought of a better solution with the least likelihood of any liability and assigned me to the travel section, where it was less likeley to incite controversy and more likely to get me out of the office, and better still, out of the country.
Honestly, I wasn’t too thrilled about it, but I needed a break from all the hype and in-house politics. I loved travelling, and what could be more stimulating than some cross-cultural exposure, and well-deserved reprieve from all the domestic drama. So I blithely packed my bags and was off to Nepal.
The weather was pleasantly welcoming, unlike the scorching sun and dowsing humidity back home. I got right to it and began my excursion in the ancient city of Kathmandu, with its austere temples, regal public squares and quaint shops. Although the city was still recovering from the ravages of the recent earthquake, people were resilient and positively charming. It really gave me a sense of belonging—something I had been craving for. To me the glass is always half full, and I steered clear of people who divested all their time and energy analysing the half-empty glass.
Nightlife in Nepal was just as titillating with free-flowing booze, live music and dancing. The streets teemed with tourists, yet it didn’t feel like a crowd but rather a multitude of people going with the flow…together but apart. Like a symphony, each person dancing to his own tune and blending in step with others, while an invisible conductor waved his baton guiding them unbeknownst.
I followed the music like a mesmerised child and made my way from the streets of colourful Thamel, traversing the breathtaking valleys and zigzagging through Prithvi highway en route to Pokhara’s lakeside, the place where my life would take an unexpected turn.
Pokhara was just as colourful and vibrant, yet it had a pervading sense of quietude. People were unusually amiable, probably because their tourism industry had boomed over the years, with the country hosting around three quarters of a million tourists per annum. Trekking the Annapurna range and yoga retreats being its top sellers, not to mention the countless other activities from rafting to bungee jumping to paragliding. It had managed to seamlessly blend the majesty of nature with people’s human urge for an adrenaline rush, and the natural inclination towards gaining nirvana to make it as naturally Nepal as you could imagine.
There was nothing like sipping a hot cup of coffee and watching the sunrise from the terrace overlooking Phewa lake as you took in distant views of the austere Annapurna range. The next few days I spent there involved exploring the ascetic temples and vibrant markets to venturing into daredevil activities. Then, of course, there was trekking the range, finishing off with a blast at the bonfire party in the Seti valley—one that I got myself graciously invited to.
Nothing was more intoxicating than the ambience around the bonfire mingled with the salient warmth of the fire, live rock music, and of course, the raksi in a Bhatti glass, that I felt pulsating through my veins. In the heat of the moment, hoping to lose myself in the lush caress of the valley, I found my eyes lock with Cass’ steady, beguiling gaze. As the flames danced to the beat, so did my heart, as I watched him walk over to me. I relished his every step. He was like a falcon swooping down in slow motion, ready for his kill.
“Kaseem, but you can call me Cass. And you are?”
“Sasha,” I said, sounding equally confident and determined not to break his gaze. He smiled resplendently as if in quiet admiration and said, “Maybe I should call you Alex? I mean what’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” In any other context, it would seem trite, but somehow he managed to make the hackneyed phrase seem less unimaginative and more ad rem than I thought. I couldn’t help but laugh. Humour really is the most effective icebreaker, I thought. And a man with a great sense of humour as well as ready wit, was a man after my heart. I found it intriguing that he knew that both names had the same meaning, and in fact his suggestion sounded rather fascinating, since “Alex” was a unisex name and it had never really occurred to me in that sense. Needless to say we spent the better half of the night talking about life, philosophy, art, music, politics, and of course, names and their etymology. How Kaseem became Cass and how Samiksha became Sasha. It was the most stimulating conversation I had had in years, and I had my fair share of interviews with a few great minds of our time. What started out as a pseudo work retreat turned into something out of the pages of one of Nicholas Sparks’ novels, or a scene from Karan Johar’s silver screen blockbuster renditions of absurd fatalism and chance meetings of star-crossed lovers in the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Timing is, by far, the most efficacious element of life. It profoundly weighs down, measures up and directs events in a certain unforeseen, unimaginable and often times unexpected direction. The context, too, is just as crucial—the where, the how, the why and the who. Recognising the chaotic, fractal nature of our world is what can give us new insight, power, and a better perception of ourselves. Professionally, expecting the unexpected was second nature to me, but until then I hadn’t encountered such a situation on a personal front. Maybe a butterfly had fluttered its wings in Hampstead Heath and a hurricane had come over my heart. Who can say for certain?
No matter how hard I tried, I could not get enough of Cass. His exuberance and passion for life was exhilarating. Even the heart-wrenching fact that he was otherwise married to some sanctimonious prude back home was not enough to deter me from having, nay, possessing him…even for an hour, a day or perhaps a week. I spent every waking moment with him, and was glad to see he didn’t deny me the pleasure of his company. It did, however, give me a sparkling glimpse of mischief on his part, but what did I care. It wasn’t me he was deceiving, it was me he would obviously be fantasising about when he went back to his wife.
One never knows what one’s husband is like until one marries him. It’s one of the problems of marriage. Not that it was something I was remotely contemplating or vaguely interested in. It was not an institution I believed in. Without exception, as Iris Murdoch so aptly put it, “In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way,” and eventually if you prevail you realise “every persisting marriage is based on fear.” An overpowering, self-consuming fear. Of what, I did not want to find out, but could sense in almost every married couple I knew.
Cass wasn’t leading me on. I’d like to believe I was the one doing the leading and he was the one succumbing to my every whim, because that is how it felt. We were equally fascinated by each other’s company…quoting verses from Rumi, humming the tunes of Rabindranath, speculating the rise of populism, debating Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalysis of King Lear, and dowsing in the unadulterated beams of the rising sun auspiciously painting every nook and cranny of the Annapurna mountain range.
The view from Poon Hill looked like an elongated, double-square canvas, which drew out the vastness of the range. I wondered how Van Gogh would have captured the magnificence of this view, projecting spiritual longing through images that are merged with the natural landscape. Bold broken brush strokes of white and yellow creating a spiral effect around the sun and drawing attention to the turbulent sky, representing the artist’s battered mental state. Intriguingly enough, Van Gogh perceived storms as a vital and positive part of nature, the driving force of life. In letters to his brother Theo he said, “The pilot sometimes succeeds in using a storm to make headway, instead of being wrecked by it.” As I stood there at the edge of the hill, my hand lightly brushed against Cass’. A storm was certainly brewing in me and I was apprehensive, yet elated, all at once.
If I were to philosophise what was simmering between us, no doubt the hardest thing to decide was which bridge to cross and which one to burn. I could feel the cauldron of tension and confusion, brimming until it reached a critical point. Yes, mercury was definitely rising. If the critical point of oxygen is −118.6 °C/ 49.8 atm, what is the critical point of love? And what happens when you reach that point and all the boundaries dissipate? Do our minds and bodies fuse into a state where they coexist on a spiritual level? Is that when we discern our souls and designate a person to be our soulmate?
Cass seemed undoubtedly torn by whatever it was that was going on. He was in denial, and it was pretty obvious he refused to label it, as if naming it would make it come to life and it would surreptitiously morph into Justitia, blindly condemning his actions as morally repugnant. However, the Jungian mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not right and wrong. Discursive reasoning and the ability to research and compare alternatives were sorely losing ground. Pleasure without conscience seemed to have cracked Prudentia’s mirror, while the serpent of wisdom metamorphosed into the serpent in the Book of Genesis.
In a way the twin sisters had failed to sway him with neither fear nor circumspection, as I devoutly poured my mind, body and soul in seducing him into taking a bite from the poisoned apple, one that might either strip him of his innocence and morality, or even put him to a death-like sleep, or perhaps, both!
My behaviour, although surprisingly uncharacteristic for someone who made a living scrutinising and exposing other people’s lies and hypocrisies, began to unravel a side of me that I never knew existed. It began to dawn on me that Oscar Wilde was right in saying that morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike. With all my soul searching, I cajoled myself into finding method in my madness. I wanted to have what I should not, and to destroy what I could not have. Love does make you do crazy things…things you never dreamed you were capable of. But this wasn’t just love…it was obsession of the most harrowing kind.
Rand’s objectivism defined my conundrum to a tee…“Tell me what a person finds sexually attractive and I will tell you their entire philosophy of life. It is an act that forces them to stand naked in spirit, as well as in body, and accept their real ego as their standard of value.”
Just as the seven integral parts of virtue had eluded us, we gradually spiraled towards the seven deadly sins. Our final days, lascivious to say the least, were spent in the pristine solitude of Nagarkot. It was like we were living in a world of our own making, exploring the depths and breadths of life, love and lust, still side-stepping and refusing to name it. To define it would be to limit it, to accept it and to admit it as problematic, as playing with fire. Knowledge without character is a dangerous thing. One need not read Anna Karenina or Lady Chatterley’s Lover to realise whether adultery is right or wrong, good or bad. Literary works are meant to elevate our sensibilities and arouse our understanding of the machinations of life, complexities of human nature and infinite dimensions of the soul. Actions should not be adjudicated as black and white, but scrutinised in shades of grey, perhaps even hues of yellow, red and blue.
Being the other woman was never something I ever anticipated, but I enjoyed having power and control over someone who was clearly drawn to me like a moth to a flame because I “represented all the sins he never had the courage to commit,” as Oscar Wilde once said. I felt like Dorian Gray, immortal and immutable. Nothing seemed to touch me, not even my own conscience. Hubris had gotten the better of me, and I was so cocksure of myself and his devotion that we returned back home to face the music.
I had read somewhere that for complete freedom, chaotic life is recommended. We parted ways at the airport and went back to our old lives, which needless to say, became chaotic in a matter of weeks. With the promise of making things permanent, Cass told me he would work up the courage to confess to his infidelity and ask for a divorce, but his prominent family and even more influential father-in-law had too much at stake, not to mention his impending election, his daughter’s reputation, and the future of his grandchild. All hell had broken loose. And in an amoral political arena like ours, politics without principle was not unexpected. At least that’s how I believed things were playing out, until the tables turned so drastically and so unexpectedly, I didn’t even know what hit me.
My life as I knew it was put under a microscope…magnified, dissected and tainted. My character was hung out to dry, for the world to see and judge. It all happened in a flash; I barely had the time to register how my whole world had come crashing down with such efficacy in a matter of days. In between the lewd photoshopped pictures that were plastered on numerous shady websites, to catcalls and stalkers coming my way, to being evicted without notice, to my newspaper receiving several anonymous phone calls asking for my services as an escort, to losing my job, to someone posting a sex tape of me with a man whose face is never visible…I felt like “a toxic waste byproduct of God.”
My vanity had been crushed, stamped and put in the grinder. “To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal,” Malcolm X had once said. I felt like Icarus free falling, not to the sea, but to some bottomless pit, maybe to the second circle of Dante’s Inferno to join the likes of Dido, Cleopatra, Helen, Francesca…and abandon all hope!
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
– Soren Kierkegaard
I calmly tried to look back and recollect the events of those last couple of months of my life in vain, as an overpowering sense of panic took over and choked all the hope out of me. No amount of anxiety medications, anti-depressants or therapy could make me overcome it. A kind of void gradually filled the space in my heart that was broken into pieces and blistered with fear, which in time gave way to hatred, anger, resentment and a thirst for revenge.
They say karma is a bitch, and I was a glaring example of the old time saying. I had to change cities, take on a false identity, and even switch professions. I was now a humble school teacher at some obscure run-down place, where the most exciting thing that ever happened was cable TV. My family had disowned me; my friends treated me like a leper, and the measly few that empathised tiptoed around every conversation pertaining to life, love and marriage, as if I would spontaneously combust at the mention of any one of the above. So it would suffice to say, I cut myself off from all of humanity…no phone, no Internet, no snail mail and certainly no way to trace me, whatsoever. And yet, I still felt the vicious sting of my past.
The past has a way of creeping up on you even when you live in obscurity. The smell of coffee, the taste of a certain spice, a faded picture of the Himalayas on a calendar, or something as insignificant as the touch of bare skin was enough to trigger some haunting memory that I thought I had buried somewhere in some far away land I once called home. And no matter how much I longed to resurface in the real world, point a finger back and take away his life, as he had mine, injury had made me prudent, or maybe just emotionally moribund. I was living in my own psychological hell, fighting my own demons, replaying every conversation in my head, and all I could conclude was that it was all my fault. The anger and hate melted into guilt and shame, then the guilt and shame tapered down to pity and fear. It felt like the makings of a Greek tragedy except I was no tragic hero and there was no hope of catharsis to look forward to.
In the end, I had become one of the women I resented and pitied throughout my life. I could never understand why they gave up so easily, why they felt shame and guilt and became recluses, why they didn’t fight for their right to live their lives as they saw fit without being prejudiced against, while the man inevitably carried on with his head held up high, as if nothing out of the ordinary had transpired. I had thought I was an exception to the rule, but perhaps exceptions are just what you read about in books and magazines, and see in movies. I began to doubt if they even existed. I have never met a woman who was an exception, but always heard that someone who knew someone, or was related to someone who knew this rebellious woman talking about how she didn’t care about what anyone thought. Or how she punched some guy or brought an arrogant man down a notch or two, or got justice for being sexually harassed and so on and so forth. Maybe Suffragettes were a myth, maybe women were actually biologically weak and psychologically inclined to be submissive, maybe one becomes a woman because one is born a woman, maybe gender is not performative but innate, maybe, “God is dead: for his pity of man God has died” because “even God has his hell: it is his love for man,” as Friedrich Nietzsche once said. Yes, if love of man can be fatal to God, what of me… an insignificant creation of His?
Whatever it was that I believed brought us together – magic, fate, karma – I was wrong. Obsession, possession, love, lust…call it what you may, I did love him. But apparently he had his own agenda. Something I hadn’t anticipated or could not have even foreseen. And I racked my brains to answer just one question—why?
Cass…Kaseem Rashid was now a prominent MP of his local town, an aspiring politician and likely candidate to be the next minister of Social Welfare, or maybe even Justice. His mentor was none other than the corrupt, promiscuous, money-laundering politician I did a cover story on a couple of years ago. The investigative piece was one of the greatest achievements of my career, and would be my last. I had worked on it for two years before I uncovered enough hard evidence to get it published. It was the report that gave the paper all the heat and got me reassigned.
“Revenge may be wicked, but it is natural,” William Makepeace Thackeray had once said. What was unnatural, however, was the lengths to which a person would go in order to get it. “How does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” (Mathew 16:26). I was as sure of Cass having sold his soul to the devil as I was of mine being dead. I was an empty shell, the walking dead, going through life like a ghost, invisible, inaudible and jaded. Even after so many years, I did not recognise the woman that stared back at me in the mirror; she looked repulsive, so I smashed the glass. I did not recognise the voice that came out of my mouth; she sounded absurd, so I stopped talking. Any kind of physical contact, an unintentional brush against the shoulder by a passerby, the accidental touch of the fingers when buying groceries, would jolt me as if being seared by an imperceptible branding iron. Even walking down the street among strangers giving me a passing glance gave me the shivers. It felt like their gaze burned into my soul, like they could see into me without knowing me, like the eye of providence passing a verdict, “Guilty as charged.” I felt agoraphobic, like if there was too much open space and fresh air, the oxygen would suffocate me and my body would disintegrate into a million pieces. So I shut myself indoors, fearing the sun, the moon and the stars. I could not acknowledge the heavens just as it would not admit me. Perhaps it was poetic justice, or perhaps it was social injustice, whichever it was it didn’t really matter anymore.
Afsana Afroz, a recluse and schoolteacher was found dead in her home from an overdose of Diazepam. She had no known family or friends and was buried in the local graveyard. The reason for her suicide is unknown. All that was found on her bedstand was a handwritten note:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”