By Ananya Mukherjee
“Here, your turn,” said the man in the black cloak, pushing a file across the table. His voice was as cold and dispassionate as it could be. Maybe his livelihood had made him that way, Rhea thought. She looked into the purse for a pen and her fingers touched the hair of an old paintbrush. The sensation left a numb spell on her fingers as she desperately tried to look poised and in control.
“Take this one.” Aadi slid a pen at her. An ordinary black pen with a golden nib, but she knew it was his favourite.
Rhea held on to the pen, nervously reading through the checklist their lawyers had meticulously drafted. But words were getting jumbled as she skipped paragraph after paragraph, unable to concentrate or comprehend the legal jargons and their implications. She was losing focus on the words. Actually, Rhea was losing much more. Her world was falling apart.
Aadi was looking away, his eyes were on the phone; he was impatient and was hoping to pack up the ordeal as fast as he could, or perhaps, he was simply awaiting an important call. His eyes caught Rhea looking dazedly at him or maybe beyond....and he raised an eyebrow as if to ask..”What?”
Rhea managed a smile, a very fake one and nodded her head. It meant “Nothing” and signed on the papers. Unintentional as it was, the nib broke with her signature. A strange metaphorical semblance.... .yes, it was as good as signing on her death sentence.
Divorced. Signed, sealed and delivered. The verdict was over.
“Thank you,” the man in the black cloak took the papers back handing out copies of relevant documents to either of them.
“How long will it take for the banks and all other institutions to recognise this and get the records straight?” Aadi asked picking up the documents.
“As soon as you hand over a copy of this paper, sir,” the man replied, and with a gesture as businesslike as only he could manage, Aadi shook hands with the lawyers, thanking them for expediting a long and painful process of legal separation. Rhea didn’t have the heart to hear anymore of the conversation. She dialled a number.
“Rhea, is that you? Are you okay?” She heard her mom’s anxious voice at the other end of the line.
“Yes, Mamma. I am fine. Mamma, can I come home?”
“Of course you can, my baby. What do you mean? What happened?” Rhea’s mother’s voice was restless. Then she sensed the discomfort in her daughter’s voice and immediately asked, “Is it over?”
“Yes, Mamma. It’s all over.”
“Come home immediately. Take the first flight you can get out of that wretched country.”
“Yes, Mamma. I have booked tomorrow’s flight.”
Okay. Good. Wait wait, let me take down the flight number.”
“It’s Air India IX 812.”
“Fine then. Your papa and I will be waiting at the airport.”
That night Rhea decided not to go back to her temporary new home. It would feel terribly dark and lonely, knowing that she was alone again in a foreign land. Her three years long marriage had ended bitterly. She had caught Aadi cheating on her and she had caught him red-handed. Yet, as an expatriate it was difficult to know where to turn for advice and reassurance. Laws in Dubai were not the same as elsewhere. In addition, Rhea spent days and nights delving into bouts of conflicting emotions such as betrayal, guilt, anger, sorrow and above all vulnerability.
“No, I am not going to give up on life, not yet” she told herself. “I am going to make my last night memorable in Dubai.”
Rhea checked into a small hotel at the outskirts of the bustling metropolis, overlooking the desert. She reclined on the low majlis in her room with a mug of khawa, a traditional Arabic coffee, and looked at the miles of endlessly pristine desert and red gold dunes in the distance. “So empty, yet so beautiful,” she thought packing her essentials in a trolley suitcase. Her flight was at 1.35 pm. Rhea checked her ticket and passport and ran through a quick list of necessary items on her mind. The exercise left her feeling very incomplete. What was the use of carrying anything from Dubai when she was leaving the most beautiful part of her life behind?
The flight was on time. As unemotional as she could get, she went through the immigration formalities and boarded the aircraft. Generally a quiet person, Rhea didn’t want to interact with anyone. She had specifically requested for a window seat and as the flight took off leaving behind the trails of a past she couldn’t carry, she thought of her parents. Mamma and Papa, who were so against Rhea marrying Aadi. They never liked him. Her father, a retired Colonel in the Indian Army was a strict honest man. In contrast, the bohemian ad film maker Aadi, who artistic acumen was too vague for the Colonel was a misfit in the Coorgi family tree. After his service to the nation, the Colonel had chosen to settle down in a beautiful seaside cottage along the port town of Mangalore. She would be home by evening and if all went well, would start another life from tomorrow. Bound by the Arabian Sea and Western Ghat Mountain ranges, her parental home was like a painting that perfectly blended with the city’s landscape of rolling hills and freshwater streams, coconut palms and red clay tiled roof buildings.
The first few hours like always were full of food and entertainment, regular in-flight shopping and tempting duty free offers. Rhea’s mind was too cluttered to enjoy these services today. She kept looking at the watch, hoping she would be landing soon. There were clouds floating by, lightweight released cotton balls that looked so carefree but could hold such tears within, such that when they broke down they could flood a whole city. She could see the red tiled roofs dotting the green swaying palms along the coastline.
”Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. Please turn off all electronic devices until we are safely parked at the gate. Thank you,” a mechanical voice announced.
Rhea sat upright on her seat and missed Aadi for the first time since she left Dubai. She hated flight landings. The pit of her stomach roared and made strange noises as the aircraft descended. In other times, she would cling to Aadi’s shirt sleeves, and say her prayers. Today, she dug into her purse and clutched Aadi’s paintbrush...his first gift to her and closed her eyes tight.
Then there was a deafening noise like a tyre burst and a complete curtain of enveloping darkness.
With jet speed, the Boeing 737-800 Air India Express IX 812 flying from Dubai to Mangalore on a normal summer evening landed beyond the touchdown zone, overshot the table top runway and crashed into a ravine, killing 158 passengers on board.
From the debris, they found the charred remains of a body thrown on the tarmac tightly clutching on to the only meaningful possession she had. It was a worn out artist’s paintbrush.