From the short story collection Shedding the Metaphors, Black Eagle Books, 2023.Cover artwork by Giovanni Berton.
‘Octopuses have three hearts; a systemic heart that circulates blood around the body and two bronchial hearts that pump it through each of the two gills. Octopus blood contains the copper-rich protein hemocyanin to transport oxygen.’
What a thing to say about her! My Octopus. She too had three hearts—one to love me, the second one to love me more, and the third one to love me even more.
Her name was Neelotpala. I called her Neelu.
I had a faint smile on my lips though I was teary when I read this about the Octopus. And I remembered her saying, “Varun, who says that men don’t cry? They of course do! In fact, they should cry sometimes.” Then she quickly added, “Not always though! Else you too will become a Drama Queen like me! Hehe.”
She didn’t have any of the etiquettes, mannerisms that someone from a dating app should have. Apparently, she never logged into a dating site before she came across me. She had been a single mother for the past nineteen years, busy parenting and making a worthwhile career for herself. She was dedicated to whatever she did. By the time her son was nineteen, she was already in her forties, though she was far from looking her age. Her behavioural pattern was childlike and had the heart of a child — transparent, liquid. She was liquid like an Octopus. That metaphor suited her well. So did that character representation.
She was the Director of a Post Graduate Department and a celebrity writer. Her public life was flooded with people, but her private life was as lonesome as she was. She was a private person. A time came when her son, who was her best buddy, and her close friends pestered her to find a partner before she died old and lonesome.
Neelu went to many meetings and conferences; people were awe-inspired with the super stylish Director Madame in her high heels, speaking with an accent that she used selectively. And as much as the disciplinarian Boss that she was, she was kind and compassionate by the same token. On such occasions, many a man tried to personally associate themselves to her; but she had built a cocoon around her. Her defence mechanism was a hard shell of blunt behaviour, economy of words and stern looks. But inside, she was molten like the Octopus. Who knew that better than me?
Last year during the Covid lockdown, her son Monu and best friend Esha downloaded a dating app on her mobile phone without her consent that gave her access to chatting with prospective partners. At first, she was quite annoyed and straightaway deleted the app from her phone.
That day, Esha gave her a piece of her mind and explained, it’s no good, no fun, no great sacrifice to only work and work and die single. She said, “Look at me! My husband and I got a divorce last year, I gave myself one year to cry and brood. Now I came out of it, got registered on this site and talked with at least fifty people and then I met five, finally I zeroed upon one. Today I have a partner with whom I am going steady. We meet over the weekends; we both have busy careers. We talk, roam, watch movies, and have great sex.”
“Why, what is wrong with that? Of course, I did not jump into bed with all the fifty men I chatted with. I took one month to meet this doctor who I am dating, and now we are emotionally, physically and socially compatible.”
“Don’t just see, do something, you silly woman! Else very soon you will be a crazy, grumpy, shitting, pitying, fretting, crying, brooding, ailing old woman. Your son will not be able to start his life happily unless he sees you happy. He will never become a man, he will just remain your son. Serving you will be his only business. Do you want that? Come on, please move on. Give it a try.”
Neelu thought about it the whole night. Esha had a point. What was the harm in talking to some people? I have nothing to lose. How will they harm me over the phone? And I am of course not going to meet any one of them. Let me just talk to some gentlemen.
That was that.
The next day, the dating app was reloaded in her phone. The moment she logged into it with her charming photograph and without much of a description of herself, many people waved at her, sent her pleasantries. Esha responded to them, while Neelu was shuddering with apprehension and nervousness.
After an hour, swiping the mobile screen left, looking at the well-groomed, up-to-the-minute men’s photographs on the site, Neelu saw my photograph. Mine was the only photograph that caught her attention, and she swiped right and wrote, “hi!”
Within no time, I responded, “hello beautiful lady! May I know your name please? It says, your name is ‘N’.”
It took her a while to confide in me how judgemental she was in the beginning. My audacious appearance, witty sparkling eyes, charming smile, gentle mien made me stand out, she said.
I asked her where did she live.
To my utter amazement, she wrote her name, designation and address in the chatbox.
I was bewildered. What a profile! Why would she sign herself up on a dating site!!
Maybe Esha hadn’t guided her about dating app manners, or maybe Neelu was naïve, vulnerable. I felt pity for her, and couldn’t help myself from telling her that in these kinds of sites, people need not reveal their identity.
She didn’t get it. Then, after giving some thought, she wrote, there is no harm in knowing more people at this age. After all, we are not teenagers. We are mature people who know how to maintain their decorum.
She sincerely believed that. And her sincerity bewildered me.
I still couldn’t cut through the virtuousness of her intentions. Was she trying to meet me immediately? Why was she giving me her address? Was she imprudent? An imposter? But a second look at her profile picture reversed my apprehensions,she looked sincere, honest, unassuming and decidedly competent.
Yes, no harm.
I was informally formal in my response; in fact, I cracked a joke to make her feel at ease. That worked. The uptight academic sent a laughing emoji. Gradually, we chatted about her work, her life, her past, her family; it was all about her, nothing about me. I discreetly circumvented whenever she asked me a question about my life. After all, she was a stranger. Unlike her, I knew dating app manners. With a polite good night, we used to depart, after chatting for an hour every evening. There was never ever any intimate chat, I didn’t want to ruin her innocence or spoil her trust in me. The gentle lady was too genteel. After a few days, once she told me with great enthusiasm that men on dating apps were great! “Men? Who all are you talking about?” “Arre! Look at you!”
“I am a man, not men. Hehe.”
By the way, Esha had told her that when you were dating one man, you should concentrate, focus, and you must not divert your attention to another man. That is not ethical. She followed Esha’s advice to letter and spirit and confessed to me that I was her only ‘great man’. She had decided that she was already dating me, without meeting me even once!
Gosh! That put me in a spot! I immediately wanted to run away from her, in fact, block her. I even tried. But by then I had Googled her, I had many of her writings and photographs on my computer—she had become the object of my interest, passion, dreams (?).
I couldn’t bring myself to block her. So I decided to continue to be accessible to her, of course within my limits. That evening I told her that my real name was Varun, not Ram, which I had used in the dating app. Ram was a pseudonym to conceal my identity. She was quiet for awhile, she sounded hurt. I felt guilty. That was when I told her that I got into this app to handle my loneliness, but I wasn’t divorced,though I was living separately, and my seventeen-year-old daughter Nisha was the thread between me and my wife. I made it a point to tell her that me and my wife used separate bedrooms. I used a pseudonym on the app to avoid complications in the life of Nisha.
She just said, hmm.
With time, we became relaxed in each other’s company, or rather inevitable for each other. I made her laugh with my wit. She too had a crooked sense of humour. She had a friend in Chennai who sent her intelligent jokes that she shared with me. Every morning I woke up to her jokes, anecdotes. The binary between me and her was, she was mostly politically correct with her words, even when she was in one of her humorous moods, and here I was, always putting my foot in my mouth, telling her most unwarranted stuff, and regretting later. For example, once I told her that I am not able to call her as frequently as I would have wished because my ‘cohabitates’ were alert, they might get wind that something was going on in my life. I used that term for my daughter and also for her mother who was living with us at that point of time because my daughter’s exams were ongoing. Neelu was amused, “Cohabitates Varun? Like three people living in a zoo? Where everyone is watching everyone in a panoptical style? Are they your owners? You cannot even close your door and make a phone call? Wow!”
I said, “Baby, don’t be silly. Let’s talk about ourselves.”
“Varun, now I already know that you have ‘cohabitates’ living with you, how can I un-know that? Haha.”
I regretted having said that to the witty, sharp woman.
I remember the dark humour Neelu used sometimes; she had this subtle sense of satire that was also a kind of humour. “Varun, you are an e-commerce person, so are you thinking about the ‘profit and loss’ of meeting me? Like, the ‘profit’ part is — if you meet me once a week or fortnight, there will be some physical closeness and then you’ll feel confident about your sexuality, which lately has not been of any use to your ex-wife. And the ‘loss’ is the loss of your so-called ‘equilibrium’ at home. Haha.” I just said, “shut up jaan!”
She had this typical habit of switching off her mobile at ten and studying till late at night. If she lacked anything in her life, that was ‘time’. But she willingly gave it to me, whenever I asked for her attention.
I had a great deal of respect for her. Within a month of our meeting, I opened up, I became candid with her. I found her unmatched. My days seemed meaningless when we did not talk. The days we talked, I felt a strange contentment. She was my happiness quotient. She understood my moods in a way that nobody did. She took care of my emotions, she waited patiently when I was busy with my meetings, selection of candidates for my company. She never complained, and never claimed that she had a busier schedule than mine. She was always there for me. She had mastered the art of patience which was the strength of her character.
“Neelu, I am laughing now”, I said once during an intense conversation.
“Of all the people in the world, I met you! A poet who could melt me just with words. And then, I fell for you.”
“It was a celestial schema, Varun. Because I deserve you!”
She wore poetry. She knew word juggling; she had mastered the art of words too, she was the word wizard. She said, “Language is our behaviour.” That day I said I wanted to merge with her, and she said, “You be the ocean, I’ll be the rivulet.”
There was a stinging pain of joy to see her merging with me, bit by bit. She thought, I was ‘heatbreakingly breathtakingly handsome’. I chuckled every time she said that. “Ahh…one will never die if he falls in love with a writer Neelu!”
Neelu was an incorrigible romantic, she was all for love. She had decided, love is the panacea for human maladies, love is the answer to humanoid pursuits.
Neelu had written a book titled ‘Vaidehi’, which is the other name for the character Sita from the Ramayan. She teased me, “See Varun! Your pseudonym was Ram which was why Sita Mata was impressed with you!”
Then she added immediately, “But don’t think that I am falling in love with you, hehe.”
Followed by a few laughing emojis. And giggles from both sides.
She always sent that particular, repetitive message to me, whenever she talked about something flirtatious. Ahh yes, she had this delightful sense of decent, witty flirting. Attired dalliance.
Those were the days of my utter contentment, intense delight. The lady was pure heaven.
We shared movies and music. We would watch a particular movie together, from 25 Kilometre distance in the same city, and discuss the dynamics. We always thought and said the same things at the same time; she claimed that I not just completed her sentences, but even her thoughts. I was her ‘Stream of Consciousness’, her ‘Objective Correlative’. There was some sort of soul connection between us. I felt a vacuum if she was not on my mobile screen for long. She was becoming my extreme passion, foremost engagement, my only source of pure bliss. I was the Halley’s Comet in her life, she was my Earth.
We were compatible in parenting as well. Whatever I did for Nisha, I shared with her, and she too responded in kind. I was her friend, philosopher and guide. She enthusiastically gave me that status. I felt flattered, but she intended no flattery. She seemed to have convinced herself that I was the world’s most gifted man.
I downloaded some software and painted beautiful pictures of her, which she thought were real. She liked even the WhatsApp GIFs I sent her, to make her laugh. Once she asked me to meet her, I assured her that someday I would visit her with white flowers, and she was excited like a girl. She waited for that day. After days, I asked her, when were we going to actually meet? She jokingly said, “On my deathbed? Or funeral?” I spent the evening reprimanding her, and she laughed all the while. “Buddha uncle, I am very young, don’t you know? I am not dying so soon. If at all I die, I will follow you, becoming a Bhootni, a ghost.” She knew how to camouflage her pain and wear a smile.
But then, sometimes she was becoming a burden on my conscience, which, I was not able to carry. Her honesty, simplicity, transparency, uncomplicatedness were killing me; her lonesomeness was killing her. We both were tormenting each other, wordlessly. I was craving to meet her, but something stopped me. I did not want to hurt her by giving her hopes of companionship. She was craving to meet me, but she had tremendous patience. She knew how to wait, without complaint. She said, “Varun, I can wait for you till the end of the world. You cannot fathom my patience.”
I was wondering, what was stopping a single, beautiful, successful woman like Neelu from meeting other men of her match? Why was she so focused on me? What was there in me that was so compelling for her? She knew the answer. I could never know, she never told me what she saw in me, but she always said, I was her ultimate man. She said she was a sapiosexual, so much so that she considered intelligence the most important trait in a partner. Once she proudly claimed that about herself, and then I told her that scientists consider sapiosexuality as less of sexual orientation and more of an identity. I was taken aback when she didn’t consider that as offensive. Sometimes Neelu was simplistically naïve, believing in easy binaries.
And then of course she added, “But don’t think that I am falling in love with you, ok?” That jag was enough to make us both laugh. That invariably worked. We always laughed in each other’s company, we were overjoyed, she was my lifeblood those days.
Once I read one of her old stories on the Internet where she had written about her long-distance relationship with someone named Jaydeep. I was petrified, was she trying to see Jaydeep in me? I asked her openly; she was dismayed. “I am not trying to replace you with anyone, and Jaydeep is irreplaceable”.
“I am sorry.”
“Varun, you hurt me to no extent. You should know that I recede very well in relationships if I feel that I am not doing any good to the other person. I am like the backwaters of Kerala, to retrocede as much as I proceed. Two more hurts from Varun, and Neelu disappears from his life, ok?” She added.
She had this strange connection with Kerala, by the way.
It was alarming. I was irritated. I too made it a point that I was the last person to take any kind of threats.
“Threats? How can I threaten someone as important to me as living and breathing Varun? I am only giving you space.”
She sounded emotional. We both were upset, but only to get back to each other the next morning with all sincerity, earnestness.
There was a distinctive genuineness, solemnity between us that worked. Any day, that worked. The only woman I was ‘dating’ in the virtual world, was my only reality those days.
I had my private business, so my timing was flexible. But she had a nine to six job; I waited for her to reach home and message me after bathing. “Bathed, pujaed, teaing.” Ahh…that was pure ecstasy. Pure joy. I was rejuvenated. I learnt to live life again.
Neelu asked me to watch a documentary on the OTT platform. She was an amusing character, her choice of movies was inimitable.
She said it was an incredibly beautiful and touching documentary, based upon a legend. Neelu was a hopeless, die-hard romantic—she discovered love and trust in anything and everything. The movie had made her cry. The author allied with a female Octopus and became experimental with her way of life and all her rituals for almost a year, free diving in the cold waters. It was painful to watch how the Octopus strained to protect herself from the sharks. That night, I too watched the movie. I felt, one of the most amazing things about a human being in the movie was the ability to connect with nature. The story showed me a new-fangled world of possibilities. The man found a novel meaning and direction for his life by learning the lessons of humanity and trust from an animal. A man who was detached from the people around him learnt the lessons of life from the Octopus.
One day the Octopus met a male Octopus and mated. The life cycle of an Octopus is such that most of her body is used by her eggs to sustain and then hatch. Her life is literally sacrificed to further the lifespan of the young. Over a week or so it lay quietly in her den, hatching the eggs and her life slowly dissipating out of her. Once she is gone, her body is consumed by scavengers from the sea, and ultimately a Pajama shark comes and takes her body away. That was when I called to tell her that I was teary-eyed, and she said, “Varun, who says that men don’t cry?”
The underlying allegory of the movie was, how the measure of trust in a relationship can impact one’s life in any form, from anyone for that matter. And the other lesson was that one’s belief that someone else has got his back covered can disappear from your life any given day— so learn to preserve it as long as it exists, however short- lived it may be.
I felt an instant connection between the man-Octopus and Varun-Neelu relationships. The man was under the impression that he was experimenting with the Octopus. But in reality, the Octopus premeditated his life. Like Neelu measured my life in coffee spoons.
My life had been carefully measured by ‘my Octopus teacher’, Neelu.
Early this year, Neelu bought some property, and she was looking for furnishings, fittings and fixtures in the new house. She had no idea about real estate, being a University teacher and a writer. That is why I offered that I shall do the research on her behalf and send her the best possible quotations on almirahs and bookshelves. I sent her many, she understood nothing. Her mind was preoccupied with research, teaching, creative writing and, of course, love. Love for Varun was becoming her occupation, preoccupation, obsession.
The silly girlie (I liked to think of her as a girl, her demeanour was such!) talked to me endlessly for 51 days and wrote 51 soul-searching, heartrending, tear-jerking, poignant, simple yet complex poems, and one day she came up with a surprise for me, a complete book of poems, dedicated to me, her Muse. I was overwhelmed; never in my life had I imagined that a poet, a woman, would ever write a book in my name, for me. I had forgotten that I too am a human being, with emotions, needs, desires. She taught me the higher values of humanity; yes, she was the ‘humanity side’ of my character, as she used to say. She ignited me with the ideas of human rights to the true sense of the term. But alas! I couldn’t learn those lessons from her, because I had been a very stubborn pupil, I learnt in her humanity classes what I wanted to learn—precisely, things that were convenient to me. I never listened to her open-mindedly. But she had this weird sort of blind faith in me – I was the ultimate source of all arts and sciences for her.
Neelu was in one of her dark moods and modes one evening when I called her. She was angry with herself for being worldly imprudent. For being impractical. She was crying, actually shedding tears, that she was not able to understand the graphs, diagrams, designs, quotations and the documents that the Builder and the company people had sent her. She was penetratingly trying to comprehend those when I called up.
I consoled her, I promised that I would be there to help her with those. “Don’t worry Neelu, we will do it together, ok?”
She came to the point, without mincing words. To.The.Point.
“In what capacity are you going to help me Varun?” “Calm down Neelu.” I consoled, “Just as a friend.”
“But I never considered you just as a friend. You were always more than that.”
She was flooded with tears, all boundaries broken. Her voice choked, she was inconsolable, desolate.
She was sulking, she did that so well. We talked, nay, rather I talked and talked. She sobbed and sobbed. Her bottled-up emotions were melting. I was helpless at the other end of the phone. It was getting despondent.
That is when I happened to say, “See, I am not a free man; my marriage still lingers, though I am not living with my wife or ex-wife. Did I ever commit anything to you Neelu? Did I promise anything? Why are you crying? I cannot give you anything. I have nothing to offer you.”
She calmed down and said, “No. Never. You never promised anything, Varun. Never committed anything. I understand.” And then she hung up.
We both had a sleepless night.
The next hour, there was a message. “You shouldn’t have told me that you were never committed to me. At least for the sake of some respect for the time we spent together, you should have avoided this offensive proclamation. I need no explanations from you. Varun, who cares about commitments when one desires someone like living and breathing?”
And then, she made it a point to tell me, “Varun, from day one you have told me that you are alone, and your loneliness brought you to me. You wanted me as your platonic love. Now when you talk about all sorts of worldly engagements and then you are inaccessible for hours, you sound suspicious. But then, I do not want to suspect you for my sake, for my mental peace.”
And the next morning, she sent an awful picture of her swollen eyes, inflamed due to continuous crying, nightlong self-abuse. She had this characteristic habit of sending me all her pictures, good or bad.
Yes, she was getting self-destructive. Her eyes were lifeless.
I was restless. Guilty.
I reasoned with myself, I should make peace with her, I cannot afford to lose her at any cost. At any cost. After all, I had no plans of going back to my wife though we were not divorced. After Nisha’s settlement, I would be free. There will be no family pressure on me to live with my wife and daughter then. In the meantime, I must meet Neelu; we had enough reticence and penitence. She is mature, she won’t ask me to commit. On weekdays, we both are anyway busy with work, so on weekends, we can meet. Life would be beautiful with Neelu. We both are meant to be together. I had a commitment phobia, and Neelu wanted no commitments.
But Neelu’s approach to me changed after that night. After her swollen eyes-night, that is.
Her replies to my long messages became monosyllabic. There were no more witty or romantic messages. There were no long conversations. No debates over literature or movies. No political or social issues were animatedly discussed anymore. I was pushed back to my vacuum once again, I felt bottomless again. No heartbreakingly breathtakingly beautiful pictures from her in my inbox anymore. No sharing. No caring. No love. No, nothing.
To anything and everything I asked.
This time I decided to be patient. Let her take her time. I should wait. After all, I had hurt her. Let her take a ‘break’. I always thought a break is the best solution when one cannot take hard questions.
Months passed. Almost a year passed. There always was a response from her mobile though, to my messages. Yes. Or No.
I was running out of patience.
I had her address, which she had shared with me when we were close—she had hoped I would meet her someday with white flowers. Poor girl, she took things at the face value. Took ideas and people at face value.
On her birthday, I bought a bouquet of white roses, and one red rose, just in case! Who knows, she might accept this!
I called her before reaching her house, she had told me that she didn’t like surprises. My hands were trembling while I dialled her mobile number after one year. I wanted to tell her, there was not a day,not an hour, not a moment, when I did not think of her. I wanted to remind her, in fact reiterate, about our ‘three minutes’ theory—that I missed her every three minutes throughout my wakeful hours round the day and night.
Anyway, the domestic help received the call.
Neelu must be studying, padhaku ladki.
“Hello!Who is there? Monu bhaiya is in the class, he cannot take the call now.”
“Give the phone to Madam please.”
“Madam? But she left last year, since then Monu bhaiya has been using her number. If there is anything important, you can message him. He will respond later.”
“Do you have any idea where she is? Can you ask Monu bhaiya and tell me?”
“No. I am instructed not to talk to anybody about Madam. She left India last year.”
I remembered the shark sweeping the Octopus away in her vulnerable moment.
I cried. Sobbed. Wept.
Yes, men too cry. Men do cry.
My Medusa, my Octopus, had her last laugh, the
Laugh of the Medusa. Neither she herself had learnt the dating app manners, when she dated me, Varun,the expert of dating apps. Nor had she taught telephone manners and demeanours to her son.
On a second thought–actually, she had taught him that, precisely that.
Nandini Sahu, Professor of English and Former Director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi, India, is an established Indian English poet, creative writer and folklorist. She is the author/editor of fifteen books. She is the recipient of the Literary Award/Gold Medal from the hon’ble Vice President of India for her contribution to English Studies. Her areas of research interest cover New Literatures, Critical Theory, Folklore and Culture Studies, Children’s Literature and American Literature.