Ab Initio

Anukrti Upadhyay

2022

Introduction

In legal or regulatory matters, scrutiny of original intents and contents is par for the course, and contracts can sometimes be argued to be void ab initio, ie., from the beginning. In her story Ab Initio, Anukrti Upadhyay brings to us events in the early days of a relationship (is it even that?) between two lawyers. The original conditions seem inconducive to the development of anything lasting: the man is a senior lawyer, the woman is many years his junior; the man isn’t up for a showy romance, the woman perhaps is; the man is a bit of a glum loner, the woman is the opposite of that. But attraction is a strange thing—and the hurdle of sex can often be the first occasion of negotiation with the self. This is what happens: the man and the woman find themselves in a room. Only that there is one more character who’s entered the picture by now. The evening grows tense and messy, and a shadow of risk begins to fill in the environment of the story. But without risk, there is no connection, no contract—right?

— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Ab Initio

‘Hey,’ she called out, ‘stop a sec, don’t start the car!’ She ducked and disappeared from view. He pressed his lips together and let out a long, exasperated sigh. The evening had been a complete waste so far. He hadn’t cared for the show, a neither-this-nor-that fusion dance-drama based on the story of Damayanti, the mythological princess of Vidharbha with the mandatory contemporary twist – instead of being abandoned by her husband, Nala, in a mythical forest somewhere in central India, Damayanti is left on a broken footpath in cosmopolitan Bombay where she meets the usual golden-hearted slum-dwellers who show her the wonderful world of picturesque poverty, all the while dancing to some hiccupping, stuttering self-consciously fusion music. It had given him a headache.

The evening had been her idea all along, her plan that she had made without consulting him. ‘Surprise!’ she had waved the tickets at him, almost grazing his nose with the sharp-edged cardboard, ‘Tickets for Sunday! This dance-troop is just amazing, you’ll love them. They have been performing around the world and the reviews have just been fantastic!’ He knew it was a bad idea as soon as they had arrived at the crowded theatre filled with ancient Parsi couples, artsy women wearing raw silk sarees and bindis the size of saucers, bored business magnates trailing their thin, painted wives, everyone looking around, more interested in watching the people than the show. ‘Watching the watchers — it is part of the theatre experience!’ She had playfully squeezed his arm as they negotiated several pairs of frankly appraising eyes and saree-and-trouser-clad legs to reach their seats in the middle of a row close to the stage, way too conspicuous for his taste. ‘The best seats in the whole theatre,’ she had said when he had pointed out the inconvenience and had sunk contentedly into the red, faux-leather chairs with awkwardly low arm-rests, ‘the tickets cost a bomb but don’t worry, I can afford them!’

As the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, he had slipped his hand under the hem of her dress. She had darted a quick look at him, her eyes glittering. Taking his hand into her own, she had run her fingers over the back of his hand in a deliberate, sensual way. He had felt the rush in his blood and had leaned closer into the warm aura of her body when with a sudden, deft movement, she had slipped the ice-cold bottle of her soft drink into his hand. He had recoiled at the sudden contact with the cold bottle after her warm, perfumed hand and she had laughed loudly, drawing every eye in the row towards them. He had angled his body away from her and sat back into his seat. With the work schedule he kept, free time was scarce, most evenings he was at his chambers, dictating pleadings or going through case briefs or with clients. To spend a rare free Sunday evening watching a pretentious show while she kept him at arm’s length… His disappointment had mounted into ill-humour.

‘I’ve got it!’ She jumped up, a small white and yellow bundle in her hands. ‘Open the door, will you?’ His nostrils flared and he breathed out noisily. Leaning across the passenger seat, he opened the door. She slipped in. ‘Look at it,’ she turned in the seat and held the bundle towards him, ‘looks so innocent and all now but see, how it scratched me when I pulled it out from under the car!’ The kitten extended four reed-like legs and clawed at the air. She stroked the small, downy forehead between the pricked-up ears and gently lowered it into her lap where it scrambled around and hooked its tiny claws into her dress. ‘She’s a girl! Hello, beautiful,’ she cooed. ‘No wonder she knows how to scratch,’ he wanted to say but didn’t. He knew the raised-eyebrows, mouth-curled face she’d make in response, ‘What, yaar, such a tired, misogynistic joke.’ ‘Careful,’ he said instead, ‘it will tear your dress.’
She threw him a mischievous glance. ‘Not the only one here who wants to!’

Early on in his career, he had made some rules for himself to avoid complications and needless gossip – never get involved with younger, unmarried women and steer clear of women lawyers he worked with. Although both his rules had been broken in her case – she was a junior associate at one of the larger law firms in the city that regularly briefed him on matters – he believed his conscience was clear in the matter. He firmly believed that she had initiated the whole thing. When he saw her in the deserted office lobby late one night after a long, drawn-out client conference, unsuccessfully trying to summon a cab on her phone, he had offered to drop her home simply out of concern for her safety. It wasn’t anything special, he would have done the same for anyone else in that situation. He did not mind driving a few extra kilometers on the deserted, night-time roads of the city, it was the only time he could truly enjoy the lightning pick-up and powerful engine of his convertible. He was aware that the self-driven, bright- red convertible did not go with the image of a senior lawyer; a dull sedan with a discreet driver would have been much more suitable, but he was unwilling to give it up. It was his sole, secret vanity. Much to his surprise, she had kissed him before stepping out of the car. A kiss on the cheek admittedly, but not an airy peck, a firm kiss with rounded lips pressed upon the skin just beneath his cheek-bone. He had felt the familiar stirring inside of him after a long while. Looking around to make sure the building guards were not watching them, he had placed an arm around her and drawing closer, had smelt the subtle scent of her skin, surprisingly fresh after the long day. They had remained in a half-embrace for a moment, her right breast pressing against his chest, her left hand resting lightly on his knee, before she had disentangled herself and said goodnight.

The next time they had come across each other was in the quad of the High Court and it was she who had hailed him. He had an important hearing that day – a three-judge bench, senior counsels flown in from the capital to argue for the respondent, the whole nine yards. He had appeared for the petitioner. It had gone well and a favourable order was more than likely. The court had risen for lunch and his co-counsels were congratulating him on arguing so well when she had called out to him. He had watched her cross the palm-fringed quadrangle with rapid strides, noticing how she stood out among the dark-suited corporate lawyers with the bright-coloured scarf knotted at her waist and her red-soled pumps, how smoothly she moved, her feet skimming the sun-burnt grass rather than treading on it. ‘Hey,’ she had said coming up to him, faintly breathless, ‘do you have a few minutes to grab coffee? There’s something I wanted to get your thoughts on.’ His co-counsels had moved away, discreetly turning their faces away to hide their smirks. He had been annoyed and flattered at the same time. To be accosted by young, striking-looking, junior lawyers in the venerable corridors of the High Court was bound to get talked about and held against him when his name came up for important cases. ‘He is a young man still, plays the field a bit…’ the senior counsels would say to each other shaking their heads. Though he did not consider himself young — he was forty-five after all and a veteran of twenty years and a thousand court battles — he knew litigation-time was different from chronological time. ‘Anything less than fifty years in litigation-time is young and callow, ’ his mentor, the first partner he had worked for, had told him, ‘This is one profession where being old is better than being young, you need to make up for your youth by acquiring discretion and gravitas.’

They had found a small table in a corner of the crowded café. ‘I haven’t been here in five years!’ She had said taking off her suit-jacket. He could smell the sweetness of her coffee from across the table as he sipped his sugarless double- espresso and his eyes had strayed on to the firm, clean lines of her body. ‘I used to come here a lot when I was doing my bachelor’s before I went to London for my masters. The white-collar sweat shop I work for doesn’t allow time for coffee breaks , this will go as ‘mentoring by senior counsel’ on my time-sheet!’
‘How long have you been in practice?’ h e had asked.

‘Two years.’ She was twenty years younger than him. ‘It was damn sweet of you to drop me home the other night.’ She had licked the wooden stirrer before resting it in the saucer, ‘I totally didn’t expect you to. My cousin’s a doctor married to a lawyer. She always says if there is any profession worse than medicine to be a junior in, it is law. Most senior counsels don’t even know that junior associates exist.’ She had looked at him with her frank, clear eyes unmarked by kohl. Or bitterness, he had thought, that would come later and felt a flash of something like warmth, something he couldn’t remember experiencing for a long time. ‘The very senior advocates pretend the senior advocates do not exist,’ he had consoled, ‘that’s just how the hierarchy works in our profession. You mustn’t take it personally,’

‘But I do take it personally. This one’s son and that one’s daughter-in-law and the other’s fricking nephew who barely passed the bar are given better cases than those of us who don’t have families in the profession. I topped my university and earned an LLM from Imperial. That should count for something. But no, I am given the shitty defaulters’ cases or small frauds most of the time and the meaty ones go to the managing partner’s daughter’s fiancé.’ Her face had flushed, voice rising a few decibels, as she spoke.

He had shifted uncomfortably in his seat and scanned the café. It was popular with corporate lawyers. ‘You just need to play along for a few years. I didn’t have connections in the profession either when I started out, I just kept my head down and worked hard.’

‘I have no intention of playing along or keeping my head down. A bunch of us are going to run for the Bar Association this year. We have made a junior lawyers’ group and we’ve got a substack going for a newsletter. We’ll take back some space.’ He knew this kind of talk was meaningless at best and career-damaging at worst and had signalled to the waiter for the bill. ‘Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.’ She had said quickly ‘Would you come and address us one evening?’.

He had raised an eyebrow. ‘I am flattered, but why me?’

‘Because you are the youngest senior advocate and you aren’t someone’s someone, plus you’ve done some amazing pro bono work, I have read your habeas corpus writ petition against the wrongful custody of trafficked girls and heard you argue the Fire Temple case. You were just brilliant.’ She had reddened slightly. ‘All of us think you are awesome. If you’d come to our meeting, it would help convince a lot more juniors to join.’

He had glanced at the bill and handed his card to the waiter. ‘Let’s see. I have a mad schedule right now.’ He had to be cautious. He knew he was at the cusp of breaking into the next level, to be one of the handful of counsels who got called directly by chairmen of boards and heads of business families . He was on a journey, he must keep his eyes on the goal. ‘Let’s be in touch,’ he had paused outside the café for the traffic signal to change.
‘Sure.’ She had extracted her phone from her handbag. ‘What’s your number?’ He had dipped his hand in his pocket for a business card. ‘I have your business card. Just give me your personal number.’

‘That’s the only number I have.’

Her eyes had widened. ‘You mean you don’t have a separate number for, like, personal use?’
He had been perplexed. Why would anyone need a personal number? ‘Having another number would just be cumbersome.’
‘But a million people must have your number. Anyone could call you, any Joe on the street…’ She had seemed absurdly shocked.

‘But I am not obliged to answer any-Joe-on-the-street’s call. ’

She had called him a few days later. He was at the airport, about to board a flight, his fourth in as many days. ‘Hey,’ she had said, ‘I was just checking if you’d answer my call. ’ Her full, clear voice had gone through him like a wave. He knew he needed to be extra careful, he couldn’t afford any distraction. The last mess he had gotten into with a woman hadn’t been worth the time it had taken. But he had been unable to resist. ‘Of course I’d answer your call, you could be calling to brief me on a big case!’ Settling into his front-row seat, he had glanced at his neighbour, a man in a sharp suit, his armrest piled with business newspapers, ‘Listen, I have just boarded a flight. How about we catch up next week? I will text you.’ He had learnt from experience to discourage long phone conversations. Drawn out phone conversations created expectations and ate into his time and energy. But she had refused to take the hint. ‘You have time till the announcements begin. Where are you flying from?’

The phone situation had worsened after they began meeting. She called him in the evenings as he drove home from his chambers or finished a client conference, times when he just wanted to be silent and listen to old film songs. Unruffled by his brief answers, she asked questions about his day, shared gossip, described inane incidents. He had to repeat a few times that he was busy and needed to run before she would hang up. ‘You are not a phone person,’ she’d declared. They had met at a small restaurant she had found in the old part of the town not too far from his chambers, ‘but you’ll get used to me. My bestie and I talk through the night sometimes!’ He should have taken the warning then and stepped away but she looked so fresh in her knee-length summer dress, her short hair swaying around her ears, her bare arms and legs glowing with a silken sheen that he ignored the red flags. All he remembered was that he had never made love to a woman with short hair.

He had made every effort to lay down the boundaries of their involvement but she had proven to be strangely obtuse. It was almost as if she suffered from a deficiency of some sort, a tone-deafness. He was startled when she had asked if he was dating anyone else. ‘No,’ he had said in his driest manner, ‘as far as I know, I am not dating anyone at all.’ She had looked at him, her eyes glittering like raindrops and he hadn’t been able to add, ‘not even you.’ Instead, he had said, ‘I have no idea what dating means and I don’t believe in romantic love and all the baggage that comes attached to it. I believe in something less complex, more basic…’ She had laughed at him. ‘How can you assert no knowledge of something and no belief in it in the same sentence? That’s a logical fallacy right there! And for your information, we are definitely dating. We have asked each other out, we’ve had dinner, watched movies, hung out together. That’s dating!’ He had looked at her glowing face, the corners of her delicious mouth quivering with mirth, and had felt at a loss.

It had been a frustrating involvement so far. She lived in the spare room of her married cousin’s apartment and he had a rule of never bringing women home. He didn’t like to mix spaces, his home was not to be shared in that way with anyone. Besides, he had to be careful. He had bought the flat not too long ago, in the right part of the town, among the right kind of people. They were his neighbours, perhaps for life, and he didn’t want to make a false start. So they met in coffee shops around his chambers or near the sea-front. The first time he had kissed her was in a darkened cinema hall, something he had never done before. A pair of lovers had held each other passionately on the screen and she had turned towards him, eyebrows arched, mouth curved in a smile. Forgetting that there might be people in the cinema hall who knew him, who might have seen his interviews on popular TV channels or heard him lecture at a city college – he was conscious of the fact that he was a recognized face in the city – he had reached for her, kissing her deeply, parting her lips with his tongue, allowing his hand to slide down her shoulder to her breast. She had moved back slightly. ‘That escalated fast!’ she had laughed and had held his hand in hers all through the movie. After the movie, he had been in a haze, unable to recall the scenes or actors as she talked on. He had broken yet another of his rules and had asked her to come over to his place. She had fixed her wide eyes on him, her mouth curling in distaste, ‘Please, yaar, don’t be a pig like the rest. We had such a lovely evening and now you have spoilt it all…’ She had walked away, waved down a cab cruising by, and without a glance at him, had gotten in, slamming the door behind her. He had stood for a moment watching the receding, half- broken backlights of the cab till their weak, naked, yellow beams were lost.

She had showed up at his chambers a couple of weeks after this incident. He was surprised when his secretary had told him she was there. He had thought that their involvement had ended and he wasn’t appearing for any matter for her firm just then. Still, he had asked her to be shown into one of the conference rooms. As soon as he had entered the room, even before the auto-closing door had fully closed, she had rushed towards him and thrown her arms around him, clinging to him, crying large, copious tears. Tears had never affected him, he knew they came from anger and frustration. He had dealt with women’s tears before. Not happily, but nonetheless he had dealt with them, stoically, competently, as efficiently as possible. All he felt when a woman cried before him was a slight distaste that someone could try to coerce him in this way. Her tears fell on his shirt, staining it; he gently pulled away. He had offered her a chair, poured her a glassful of water from the carafe on the table. She had looked at him, her eyes puffy, her nose and mouth a tender red. Her chin quivered, the corners of her mouth drooped. ‘You didn’t call, not even a text or anything…’ she had faltered, tears sliding down her cheeks all the while, ‘I missed you…oh, I missed you…’ He knew he didn’t have time for this, he had a busy schedule and his next appointment was waiting for him, still he had put an arm around her and waited for her to calm down. She had gulped some water and pulled tissues out of the box on the table, had wiped her eyes and nose. ‘I feel so much better.’ She had snuggled closer to him, still holding the wet tissues bunched up in her hand. ‘Y ou’ve no idea how miserable I have been. I was absolutely in the dumps. I told my friend that I couldn’t go on for another day like this, without seeing you, I just couldn’t.’

He was aghast. ‘You’ve been talking about me to your friends?’

‘Just the one. My bestie from school. I told you about her, the one who lives in Amsterdam with her fiancé. She quit her job last year and is a certified yoga trainer now. You won’t believe the things that girl has done!’
He frowned. ‘I must say I am dismayed that you talked about me at all. I didn’t expect you to. In fact, there isn’t anything to talk about. We are not…’

‘Yes, yes, I know – you don’t believe in romantic love, you are a solitary person, you value your sovereignty and all that jazz. You keep saying it, without seeing what’s happening between us.’ She rose. ‘I need to run. I have a ton of research sitting on my desk. I need to read all the six hundred pages of it and make a 3-page summary for senior counsel which he wouldn’t spend three minutes glancing through. Let’s hang over the weekend.’

‘I have conferences right through the weekend.’

‘Come on, not even senior counsel work on Sunday evenings. I’ll plan something.’ She had leaned closer and held his face between her two hands, her eyes and cheeks still glistening with tears. Dipping her head, she had kissed him on the mouth with her swollen, tear-cold lips. After she had left, he had thrown the crushed tissues into the bin and carefully brushed down his shirt. He had returned to his office, fervently hoping that none of his juniors or office staff had noticed anything.

The kitten, ensconced in her lap, was making a sound like a small dynamo under her stroking fingers. ‘Poor baby, poor beauty,’ she repeated in a low sing-song. He waited but she continued murmuring to the kitten. ‘Let it go now. I have a matter listed tomorrow morning and a brief to go through before I get to bed tonight.’
She stared. ‘Let her go? No way. Where will she go? She is too small to survive on her own. I think she has been abandoned by the mother or perhaps someone just dumped her here.’

He drew a breath slowly. ‘What exactly do you intend to do with it then? Do you plan to take it home?’
‘I would if I could in a heartbeat but my cousin will have a fit. Her hormones are all over the place with the baby. She’ll freak about germs and fur and what not. One of my batchmates volunteers at a stray shelter. I’ll take her there tomorrow.’

‘And tonight?’

She looked at him, her eyes shining in the gloom of the car. ‘You keep her at your place tonight na.’
He shook his head. This had all been one big mistake from the beginning. ‘No, that’s out of question. I can’t keep a cat.’

‘But why? Cats are no trouble and it is just for the one night. What reason could you have to not allow her a night’s shelter?’ She adjusted the seatbelt pressing between her breasts and tried ineffectually to pull the hem of her short dress over her thighs.

This was absurd. He didn’t need to explain. ‘This isn’t an argument. Firstly, I don’t need a reason to not keep it. Secondly, I have no idea what to do with a cat. Presumably, it would need to eat and sleep even if just for the one night.’

‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll not leave your place till she is settled.’ She darted a smile at him trying to disentangle the kitten’s tiny claws from her dress.

‘I thought going over to my place spoilt the evening.’

‘I don’t know what you mean!’ She shrugged, still smiling. He looked at her for a moment and then, reaching out, traced a line from her shoulder down to her arm. ‘Just don’t get any ideas!’ She said but did not stop his fingers from straying to her neckline, stroking where the cloth swelled. ‘Didn’t you say you had work to do tonight?’
‘Now I don’t know what you mean.’ He bent his head and kissed her bare shoulder, sliding his hand into her lap. The kitten scrambled and swiped at his hand with its tiny, sharp-clawed paw. She laughed as he hastily drew back his hand.

He unlocked the front door and ushered her into the flat. ‘Welcome.’ He said hoarsely and, holding her by the shoulders, drew her to him. She let out a gasp as his mouth descended on hers with force. He moved closer, his thighs pressing against hers. The kitten held in her two hands meowed shrilly. She wriggled her shoulders free, ‘Slow down, hero!’ She laughed, ‘let’s settle the baby in first! Do you have a cardboard box? Any box would do – a shoe box or a grocery-carton, anything that is clean.’ He glanced around. The apartment was large, two bedrooms, a living-cum-dining, kitchen and utility area, a small parquet-floored balcony with a view of the pewter sea. But he had chosen not to be ostentatious. ‘Let me check.’ He walked down the neat foyer to the kitchen, past the large distressed mirror mounted on the wall and the heavy planter with a sturdy rubber tree, both installed by the architect who had done the interiors for him. He switched on the lights in the kitchen and looked around. The cooking range and work surfaces shone, the insulated containers with his dinner stood next to the microwave. ‘There, that box would do.’ She had followed him and was pointing to the box in a corner with old newspapers piled in it. ‘Don’t bring the animal into the kitchen.’ He said sharply.

‘We are all animals, hon.’ She retorted but stepped back into the passage. He bent and retrieved the box, dumping the newspapers on the floor. She examined the box carefully. ‘This will do for tonight. I just hope no detergent or washing powder was kept in it. She is so tiny, that could harm her. Do you have any old clothes? Anything soft would do, clean dusting clothes or old t-shirts. I need something to line the box with.’
This was complicated. He wasn’t sure what a dusting cloth was and he did not like the idea of donating his old t-shirts, soft with comfort and familiarity, to the kitten. ‘I’ll see if I can find anything but I am not sure.’ He said.

‘I can’t put her inside a bare cardboard box. That would be too rough for her. Won’t it be, cutie?’ She lifted the kitten and brought its face close to her own.

He frowned. ‘I don’t believe it’s safe to do what you are doing.’

‘I know,’ she answered, her eyebrows arched and mouth rounded in a kiss, ‘it is very unsafe here!’ She ducked away from his outstretched arm.

In the bedroom, standing before the open cupboard he had difficulty in deciding which t-shirt to sacrifice. He knew he’d never be able to wear it again however many times it was washed.
‘What took you so long?’ she asked when he finally emerged. ‘Just one t-shirt? Never mind, we’ll manage.’ She crouched beside the box, the kitten clinging to the front of her dress and mewling. She folded the t-shirt and placed it inside the box. ‘I just hope this is comfortable for her.’ She patted down and smoothed the cloth, fussing over the little folds and creases.

‘Compared to the concrete floor of the car park , I am sure it is.’ He remarked.

‘Poor baby,’ she gently plucked the tiny paws one by one from her dress, ‘it must have been traumatizing to be abandoned in a cold, hard place…’ She lowered the kitten into the box. It immediately tried to scramble out, scrunching its slanting, yellow eyes and meowing loudly. She caressed it, tucking it back into the folds of the cloth, making soft sounds in her throat. The kitten’s meows subsided slowly into eerie, low-pitched cries. ‘I think she is hungry. God knows when she ate last.’ She ran a finger along its yellow-white belly, ‘her tummy is sticking to her ribs.’ He felt a stab of annoyance. He wished he could get both her and the kitten out of his house immediately and change into a pair of shorts, eat his dinner standing up in the kitchen and carry tomorrow’s brief to bed with him. ‘Is there any cooked rice?’ Her eyes were on the insulated containers. He stepped into the kitchen and opened the tiffin. One compartment was filled with rice ‘Fantastic!’ She said brightly, ‘just a spoonful mashed in water would be sufficient.’ She rose. ‘I’ll mix it.’

‘You’ve been holding that cat…’

‘So what?’ she laughed, ‘I am not tainted for life!’ She soaped and washed her hands at the kitchen sink and after rinsing them, playfully drew her damp palms across his back as he rooted about in a drawer for a disposable container. His body tingled at the touch of her moist hands. He turned and grabbed her wrists. ‘My turn.’ He trailed his palm down her chest cupping her breast. She stood still, her eyes raised to his like a challenge. He pulled her close till she was pressed against him. His breath came fast, his hands dug into her back.
‘Ouch.’ She said.

‘Sorry,’ he murmured into her hair, his fingers on the zipper of her dress.

‘Hey, listen,’ she said.

‘In a moment,’ he found the zip at the back of her dress, ‘I am doing something rather important right now.’ He unzipped her dress. Her laughter caught in her throat as he slid his hand inside her dress and caressed her buttocks. ‘You are heavenly…’ he muttered, ‘let’s go inside.’

‘Hey. Wait. She is meowling, let’s give her something to eat first.’

The kitten was mewling loudly. The neighbours might complain about the noise. He let her go reluctantly. With one deft pull she zipped up her dress and quickly mashed the rice in a plastic container, adding water till it was runny. She placed the plastic container on the floor and lifted the kitten out. It clung to her and meowed even louder. ‘Hush, hush baby,’ she said. Balancing the container on her knee, she dipped a finger in the rice gruel, brought it near the kitten’s nose and lowered it back into the container. Sniffing, the kitten bobbed its tiny triangular head towards the container. He could hear the liquid, gurgling sound it made as it lapped up the liquid. She stroked it, ‘poor, hungry critter.’

He crouched beside her and nuzzled her neck. ‘The cat isn’t the only one hungry around here.’

She arched her eyebrows. ‘I am not worried about you, you’ll survive!’

‘The question is not whether I will survive but whether I will thrive.’ He caressed her face, tracing its lines with his mouth, breathing in the warm scent that rose from her. ‘Leave the damn cat, let’s go inside.’ He drew his finger across her lips. She puckered her mouth and kissed his finger. ‘In a minute, she is almost done.’
‘Can’t wait…’ He put his arm around her. The kitten hiccupped. Its tiny head jerked. A thin stream of vomit flew out of its mouth and fell into her lap, quickly soaking through the thin fabric to her skin. ‘What the fuck…’ He moved away hastily.

‘Poor thing,’ she caressed the kitten’s furry cheeks and held it in her palms till the hiccupping subsided, ‘she doesn’t know when to stop eating.’ She softly laid the now quiet kitten back into the box and rose. The patch of vomit on her lap had spread and her dress stuck to her thighs. ‘She’ll sleep now. Where’s the bathroom? I’ll clean up.’ He pointed a silent finger.

By the time she emerged from the bathroom, he had moved the cardboard box with the sleeping kitten closer to the door and had opened all windows. ‘Hey,’ she said softly. He looked up from the phone, his eyes were involuntarily drawn to the damp patch on her dress. She came up to him, smiling, ‘how about we discuss the question of your thriving now?’ She touched his face lightly. He flinched. ‘It is quite late and I have an early morning start tomorrow,’ he swallowed, ‘I have booked you a cab. It is waiting downstairs. Please get the cat collected tomorrow morning without fail. Someone will be here to hand it over.’

Contributor

Anukrti Upadhyay

Anukrti has post-graduate degrees in Management and Literature, and a graduate degree in Law. She writes fiction and poetry in both English and Hindi. Her English works, twin novellas Daura and Bhaunri and novel Kintsugi have been published by 4th Estate imprint of Harpercollins in India and have been nominated for awards. She has been awarded the Sushila Devi Award for the best work of fiction written by a woman author in 2020 for Kintsugi. Her Hindi works, a short story collection, Japani Sarai, and novel Neena Aunty, have been published by Rajpal and Sons. Her writings have appeared in Scroll.in, Kitaab.sg, The Bombay Review, The Bangalore Review, The Bilingual Window and several Hindi publications.

She has worked for global investment banks, Goldman Sachs and UBS, in senior positions and now works with Wildlife Conservation Trust. She divides her time between Mumbai and the rest of the world and when not counting trees and birds, she can be found ingratiating herself with every cat and dog in the vicinity.

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