Jun 8, 2007
“So you’ll stay with me?” she asked me with a drowsy look, her kohl smeared eyes half open and speech slightly slurred, I could smell the wine in her breath. “Yeah if it suits my budget I shall.” I gave a non-committal reply and took a sip of my drink. That was the first evening I met Isabelle and within a few hours of meeting me she suggested we go for a drink. Isabelle looked like one of those women who had a lot of friends and acquaintances and her social diary over flowing with events. I was taken aback because she didn’t look the sort who needed the company of a stranger she had just met. The prospect of spending one more evening all alone at the hotel room disturbed me and I was only too glad to comply with her wishes.
I had recently shifted into the city, a result of an impulsive decision to take a new job and start afresh. There I was in Delhi spending the first few days within the confines of the four walls in the hotel room. Having precious little to do it seemed as if the walls were closing in on me when I got a message from an old friend, who was settled abroad, asking me to give Isabelle a call. “You’ll like her. She is friendly. You could meet her for a cup of coffee. Besides she is looking for someone to shift in with. So she could help you out with accommodation too. I told her about you and she is waiting for your call. Just call her up.” said Ayesha on the phone. She was feeling rather guilty that she wasn’t there to show me around. Ayesha had been begging me for years to come down to Delhi permanently and when I finally got a chance to it wasn’t Ayesha’s home anymore.
It was rather hesitantly that I called up Isabelle that winter afternoon, my mind full of apprehensions. I almost decided not to but when I saw the sniggering glances of the manager of the hotel I realized that I couldn’t stand to sit in that room one more day flicking through the channels on tv. Isabelle sounded quite friendly as Ayesha had said and she quickly gave me the directions to a coffee shop where we planned to meet. I reached first not knowing whom to expect because I didn’t know what she looked like. In walked a young girl dressed casually in jeans and a full sleeve white cardigan. She was small, not even 5 feet and her hair was tied up rather untidily in a bun giving her the “just out of bed” look. But she was pretty, looked like one of those dolls we played houses with when we were children, the kind, which had pink chubby cheeks, and eyes, which would open and shut.
“Parineeta?”, “Isabelle?” we said almost in unison and nodded our heads simultaneously. She giggled and I couldn’t help but do so too myself. The ice was broken that very first instance. That’s how I landed up with her at her favorite pub that night, 4 drinks down and quite happy with life cause suddenly Delhi did not feel that alien under the effect of alcohol. It was then when she mentioned she was looking for someone to shift in with. I was in two minds initially as I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford paying really high rent and Isabelle did not seem to be the type who would stay in a place, which is less than posh. But surprisingly she agreed to my budget and said we’d find a place in a nice locality.
It suited me fine and yeah I had been right about the locality being posh. She found this beautiful little house in an up market area and insisted paying three fourth the rent while I paid a quarter of it. Those were hard days and I was getting a meager salary. Isabelle turned out to be my woodwork angel. She wouldn’t let me pay for any of the expenses at home accept the rent and life was much easier all thanks to her. She was so generous that sometimes I wondered “Hell why is she so nice to me?”
Isabella baffled me in more ways than one. I knew she had a past which she wasn’t too comfortable talking about because every time I back from work in the evening I’d see her sitting with a glass of wine starring wistfully at the sky. I’d join her once in a while but mostly I avoided alcohol on weekdays. One day out of curiosity I asked her
“ Why were you named Isabella?”
She smiled “ Didn’t I tell you?”
“No you didn’t.”
“ Hmmmm! My father was a professor of History and was particularly fascinated with the history of Spain. I was named after the Spanish Queen Isabella. The one who granted Ferdinand Magellan the permission to sail around the world.”
Her friends called her Isobel and they would be out every night at some pub, lounge or a bar drinking. I couldn’t afford to lead such a lifestyle and I wasn’t too much of a night animal. So I’d be off to sleep early and many a day she’d wake me up to talk to me. One such night in a very matter of fact tone she said “ Oh and did I tell you that I am going through a divorce.”
“Oh! Ok!” was all I could say. Nothing I said would sound apt at that moment so I chose to keep quiet.
That’s why she’d spend hours and hours just sitting quietly and looking out of the window or go for long drives in her car with a bottle of wine as company in the middle of the night .Those times I would have no clue where she was and when she would return. There were men too who’d come in at the dead of the night and leave at wee hours of the morning. I never saw them but heard fragments of voices sometimes.
She had a million whims. She bought fresh flowers for our house each week. The first time she came home with flowers she wanted to surprise me and when I opened the door all I saw were flowers cause Isabelle being so tiny looked like a fairy hidden behind the bunches of flowers she was carrying. She cooked like a dream and made the most delectable Thai curry and till date in spite of it being more than a decade the smell of the Thai Red Curry reminds me of her.
She liked the smell of incense sticks and so we always lit incense sticks after she smoked a cigarette in the living room. In the morning the faint traces of the strong smell would still be in the air. With her around there wasn’t a single fleeting moment of boredom in my life. This one time she forced me to come for a drive with her at 12 at night with a bottle of Pepsi mixed with vodka and that entire journey as she drove all around the city we sang “ last Christmas” slightly inebriated maybe at the top of our voices.
Isabelle had a fetish for shoes and must have owned at least five hundred pairs. Each night when she got ready she’d ask me which pair would go the best with the outfit she was wearing and she’d strut in front of me with her six inch heels gleefully and ever so confidently that I’d be amazed how could she survive wearing them day after day. She had innumerable earrings and beads kept in these lovely traditional Indian jewelry boxes. I would have a fascinating time just fiddling around with them, as she got dressed. She ‘d say “ Parineeta they are just earrings sweetheart. What is so fascinating about them?”
Starved of such feminine vanities and trying very hard to make ends meeet, I replied saying , “ You won’t understand. “
Isabella drank too much. She drank each evening and sometimes I almost felt like asking her to stop but you can’t ask a 25 year old to stop living a life she wants to. It was a path of self-destruction. Living on the edge. Going out night after night, drinking binges night after night. Sometimes I wouldn’t meet her for days altogether cause our routines were so different. One day late at night I had gotten up for a glass of water when I heard the sound of sobbing coming from her room. I walked tiptoe wondering what could have possibly happened when I saw the door half open and Isabelle lying down on her bed with her long hair all-open .
“ He left me. He doesn’t want to be with me. Said I was a whore. Sleeping with different men each night. He doesn’t’ understand. I am breaking from inside. How long am I supposed to put on this façade of all is fine. How long? They make me happy. They make me feel beautiful. All these men. At least for that night I fulfill every fantasy of theirs and I feel wanted, needed. Unlike the way he belittles me time after time.”
I saw the envelope containing the signed divorce papers from her husband. Isabella had hoped that he would change his mind but he hadn’t. Somebody had told him about the colorful life his now separated wife was leading and that was the final nail on the coffin. The result lay in my hands. I didn’t know how to console her. What could one say? A part of me wanted to be all blunt and tell her that she got it upon herself but I couldn’t be that heartless. I just held her while she cried herself to sleep.
Next morning she looked perfectly fine, as if that incident at night time had never happened and she was back to leading the bohemian life she did without a hint or trace of regret. I never said a word about that again. She continued living in deliberate oblivion of the reality. After a little while I shifted out and except the occasional phone call heard very little from her before we altogether lost touch. It has been a long long time now and sometimes I wonder where Isabelle is? What is she doing? Is she happy? Does she still have that glass of wine sharp at 6 in the evening? Does she drive aimlessly in the middle of the night as she use to? Does she still cook a delicious Thai curry? Does she still look at the sky for hours altogether with a wistful look on her face?
Wherever you are, I hope you are happy Isobel. Hope you finally laid the ghosts of your past to rest. Hope you found your Bohemia.