Gaurav had stopped pacing and sat on the little love seat at the foot of the bed his back towards her. She knew he was struggling with a lot… the entanglement of miseries making it difficult for him to surface from the nightmarish quicksand. But Ria was in no hurry… she had waited for this moment for a long time now and was more than sure about her decision to stand by him being the right one and for once in her life she didn’t bother about any worldly opinionated balance not tilting in her favour. This man loved her and she loved him back and their bond was based on mutual respect and trust…not to be broken by the waves of his past lashing on them. She hugged her legs close to her body. Gaurav was staring at nothing and after a poignant pause he started to talk.
“…I was a new surgeon…just finished my MS a year ago. I had always wanted to be one. I literally grew up in that hospital….” He turned around to see her. “… You remember we spent the rainy night in July …?” She nodded slightly as he continued looking away again. “…I had interned there… as well after studies… It was blissful after what I had started off with… I… I had taken to the bottle hard as a rebellious teen and had to…well… clean up my act and I did… I hoped my parents would be proud…. Nana- Nani would be proud…” He stood and started to pace slowly. “…Well within a year I had to join the Dubai unit of the Chopra group because they wanted someone to do both admin as well as clinical work. My parents couldn’t trust anyone but me and I was thrilled… though it broke me to leave nani alone behind now that nanu was no more… I was getting a chance to get back to horse riding as well… And then my stint in Dubai began… I did it for four years. Our hospital was at its pinnacle point….” He spoke with his voice filled with pride. “… My surgical unit was the best in the country. I was young and full of energy. We had patients from all over the world. Work was my life and I enjoyed every moment. My aim was to return back to India someday and start my charitable surgical unit on the same land where Parijath now stands. When Dhiraj…. my maternal uncle’s son finished his MBA in hospital admin, I handed over the Admin reins to him and plunged into clinical work … full time….” He stopped pacing and stared at the blank wall lost in thought. “…. It was the best phase of my life. My parents were proud and they had retired. The Dubai Unit was founded by them and they were glad I had taken over completely. Everything was great…Ria, I … I had a wild life too…a small part but my own… I got back to equestrian sports and soon had my Derby team. The money we made was channeled back to sponsor students who wanted to study medicine but couldn’t because of the fees… they in turn had to work for a few years at the hospital outreach programs to pay off the debt….it was a win-win situation for all of us…”
“… all was going great till the day Shilpi walked into the hospital as the newly appointed nurse for the trauma unit. I was attracted to her like every other virile male in her radius. I rarely had time to party or socialise except when our team won any derby event. One day we hosted a party for becoming the runner ups, at the hospital premises… right in the lobby. We kept an auction for certain paraphernalia, souvenirs acquired over a period of time and the proceeds were to fund our new exclusive paediatric surgical unit… it was to be attended by the big-wigs of the Dubai social circles and we were expecting a huge collection…” He stopped and turned towards her. “…Ria…it was that day of the party that I actually saw Shilpi. She was like an… angel walking down the Heaven’s stairs. Those beautiful eyes lit up a chiseled face and genuine smile… she was a doll… a well-made porcelain figure with all correct sensuous proportions… her hair… it crowned her beautifully…” He rubbed his face and in his downcast eyes Ria almost read the ashen regret filling him along with his deep trembling sighs recalling a horrible memory.
“… I loved the attention she was giving me as we danced…. We had earlier worked together on few cases. She was a quick learner and in the past fortnight, she had assisted me on almost all my surgeries. We didn’t have the time to date or something…it was just…some sort of carnal attraction. We had just met up twice before that party day, nothing great…. just catching up on case together… in the cafeteria…. Just spending time… talking about the surgeries. So I didn’t suspect anything that party night… One moment the auction was on and after that I have no memory… she…Shilpi…she lost her virginity to me as she claimed later when I came to beside her on some bed in one of the hospital closets. I…I was apparently drunk that night at the hospital party…and I never get drunk. Just a peg here and there…. Even that night I had just one drink I remember but it was spiked… Shilpi had admitted to that later after we were married… I didn’t remember the night at all. But the morning after… things had changed between us. She started to look at me with accusing eyes. ….”
He started pacing again. “…. I decided to let things settle and avoided her. I wanted to keep our relationship strictly professional. But Shilpi started stalking me… She was everywhere… in the hospital wards, in the locker room, Cafeteria….every-fucking-where. That started drawing attention on us as a couple from all areas. A month later, my parents had come to visit the hospital. Shilpi met them in private and showed them a video that she had recorded of our… night together…I wasn’t aware of any such…I always wondered why she didn’t threaten me with the video… She told them, I had ruined her life and had taken advantage of her and then threatened to make the video viral….”
Ria hoped to hell, his parents would have spoken of a police complaint or something of the sorts but what she heard next …shocked was a tiny word for what she felt. He spoke his voice cracking “… A lot of money rode on the hospital’s success and already there was unwanted gossip doing the rounds… So, my parents decided to do damage control in an old-fashioned way…and asked me to marry her. They didn’t see anything beyond the hospital reputation…. I had grown up with my grandparents and my parents weren’t involved with me emotionally at all… So, this decision didn’t surprise me. Shilpi was thrilled but I was suffering in silence. I didn’t feel anything for her anymore. The bitch… she had conned me. She actually admitted that to me once …can you beat that…? I didn’t know what she wanted at that time. We got married with all the pomp and splendour my parents planned to demonstrate to the world how very charitable they were to get a poor girl for a daughter-in-law… the event was covered by media and everyone saw the beautiful couple but no one… not a soul could hear the shattering of my heart and dreams…and I do not know what she had told her folks but they despised me from day one….” He started to pace again.
“…After marriage she decided to stay at home and I was more than happy to get away from her. I immersed myself completely into my work. Slowly the derby slipped away from our hands as I was in no position to pay attention… I was kind of depressed and angry… A couple of months passed where I totally avoided her. But she…she didn’t care. She splurged on clothes, make-up, shoes, and gadgets…. whatever she liked. I didn’t object because she would pick up huge screaming fights if I did. I…I just wanted some peace of mind. And….” He stopped looking at Ria and said, “…. I never ever slept with her after that party night as she claimed. We had our separate bedrooms…” Ria nodded to encourage him to go on.
He was pacing… again…this time a little agitated. “….one day, about five months into the marriage I finished my work early and was coming down with a flu. I decided to take a break and reached home early. I… caught her in her bedroom with another man…I later came to know he was Saquib, her physical trainer. I wasn’t angry at her cheating on me as such but was upset about her not honouring the sanctity of the marriage. I was happy to get the breakthrough I was looking for to get out of the marriage. I prepared the divorce papers and gave a generous one-time settlement. She was not in agreement. She wanted a share in the hospital. It was as doing very well… and it would have been a perpetual source of income for her…I would have been paying more alimony than taxes… the bitch knew it… But I didn’t agree since it was my parents’ dream project and had to remain in the family only. We started quarreling daily after I got back from the hospital. It was a living hell for me. She wasn’t agreeing to any kind of monetary settlement. I told her in clear terms… she was welcome to stay married but refused to give her a penny… I blocked my credit card that I had given her. She became… physically abusive. One day Saquib was home when she threw a night lamp at me, but I dodged it and it broke. She cut herself with the glass on purpose. Saquib became the witness of domestic abuse. She threatened to press charges, if I didn’t agree to give her what she wanted in a particular time frame. Saquib was hand in gloves with her… so… I got hidden cameras installed at home….”
Gaurav stared into space for a while his face going through various motions of reactions to whatever thoughts were going on in his head. He spoke with his voice quivering. “…One day all of a sudden, she announced in the media that she was two months pregnant. I was shocked to receive congratulatory messages… My parents told me to work out things with her for the sake of their grandchild…. Another feather in their cap…” He ran a hand through his hair and Ria shook her head. Her parents were angels in front of his. “…Ria,… I didn’t have the heart to tell them right then it wasn’t mine…. not that they would believe me anyway… no one did anyway…I was the proverbial black sheep in the family after all… On the professional front my work was getting affected. I couldn’t concentrate and would always remain stressed. Her sister Sujata, kept calling and accusing me of being a monster…of torturing her sister…. I eventually blocked her number. I wanted to escape from the situation. I started applying for visitation to different hospitals across the country. They were more than happy to accommodate me. Luckily, my younger cousin just finished specializing in paediatric surgery and I could transfer the new department work under his supervision. My parents were not happy but relented. This was smooth. I was always away and Shilpi was enjoying herself with Saquib. I caught all of it on camera for a period of two months and was happy to use it against them later. The DNA test would prove the child wasn’t mine. I had it all planned out…”
“…One day when Shilpi was six months pregnant, she called me. I was in a conference in Geneva. She was crying uncontrollably on the phone. She was constantly apologizing and said she was all alone… apparently Saquib had left her. She threatened to kill herself. I had decided to end things then and there after reaching home. It was show time…” He sighed and she saw his hands were shaking and he clasped them to keep them steady. Ria’s heart went out for him but she didn’t want to break his flow. “…But… but when I reached home, she was standing with Saquib in the living room. Both were drunk… imagine Ria… she was a nurse and pregnant yet drunk… She smiled that vicious smile of hers and got some papers out of a file. She told me to sign the papers or get exposed in the media for domestic violence. She said she had proof… can you believe that? I then told her about the hidden cameras and that I had proof too that she was a lying bitch. She lost it…. Saquib was furious too. He broke the liquor bottle and raised his hand to take a swipe at me. But he was drunk and missed it. Shilpi had lit candles in the house… something about aroma therapy she had said. The bottle dropped the candles all over. One fell near a silk table cloth which caught fire. I ran to extinguish it but Shilpi held my hand tightly and asked me to sign the papers first…. I was … scared Ria… she was pregnant… and using all her might… one wrong move from me and she would get hurt… but Saquib promptly joined her. They both made me sit on a chair and…. coerced me …as I watched the furniture burn. The fire was spreading and they were laughing like drunken idiots. I tried my best to move but Saquib was a body builder and even though he was drunk… I was no match for him…” Gaurav was now trembling all over and Ria was finding it difficult to hold herself back.
“…Soon more than half the room was on fire and Shilpi started to cough badly. She let go off me. But being drunk she lost her balance and fell…right into the raging fire… My cameras along with the hard disk were damaged by the fire already so the recording was lost… and those days I didn’t know much about getting any backup…. Saquib and I watched with horror as she was engulfed in flames. I turned towards Saquib to tell him to do something but he was wailing. He suddenly recovered and pushed me into the flames. I fell on my back… I tried to pull her out but it was over by then and I …I …got …burnt too….”
Gaurav was shaking and his tears flew like a melted glacier now as he recounted the horror. Ria wanted nothing more than to hug him but controlled herself. She knew it was important for him to vent out. He continued with a strained voice. “…. I lost conscious. The next thing I knew, I was in my hospital surrounded by my parents and the police. I had received about thirty percent burns to my body mainly my back and limbs and needed a few surgeries. These took about two months after which I was immediately arrested for murdering my pregnant wife… Saquib was the main witness who claimed he had seen me hit her many times and I had pushed her into the fire…. The body was charred beyond recognition and the fetal remains couldn’t be used for DNA analysis. I spent the next six months in jail. …. If I thought I was living an awful married life this was even worse. Ahmed Ansari the chief investigating officer was sure I was the culprit. He had some kind of a crusade on for tortured women. He was… thirsting for my blood. He wanted me away for a lifetime. I was kept in a lock up which I had to share with dreaded criminals…one of them…was…a… ra…ra…rapist. He ….”
Gaurav held the bedpost tightly and closed his eyes. He said softly, “…. He… He raped me….at least once every day… My surgical scars were infected due to frequent fights in the prison. My parents paid a bomb to my lawyers to try to pay the authorities to keep me in a separate cell…. They didn’t know about… r..r…rape…I haven’t told a soul… Eventually after about two months, they kept me in solitary confinement till my hearing started and also during the trial. It was a tiny room with just a 6 by 6-inch window which was grilled. I had shackles on my hands and legs as if I was a dreaded criminal. But I preferred that to being violated….” He paused and paced again. “…. Saquib was the main witness… Shilpi had already made arrangements to press domestic abuse charges if things hadn’t worked out with her threats. So, everyone from the local grocer to the laundry man to the maid testified against me. My mistake was I had never observed what she did behind my back. The CCTV recordings that were salvaged were held against me saying I was a suspicious husband. I couldn’t place a camera in her room because she had kept it locked all the time… So, I needed a miracle. My wounds were bad and medication provided in jail wasn’t working. I thought…. I wouldn’t make it out alive. Then Manek arrived and he did the trick… he did what no one else my parents hired could do… He broke Saquib…. He got his account hacked by one of our start-ups…Naren, who was then a student…He proved that Saquib was a repeated womanizer and a drug addict. Saquib would have lost his career and face and the punishment for continuous lying in the court of law… so he agreed to speak the truth. I even got it made clear to him to withhold information of him banging my wife since it would be scandalous for my parents and family. He was happy to oblige as he was with Shilpi only for the money milking cow that she was for him… and the case turned in my favor….I was out of jail but not free. I was asked to resign from the hospital board. My parents and rest of the family shunned me because of the scandal I had caused… My career was ruined and, in few months, I came back to India where my career had begun. But I couldn’t get myself to practice anymore….”
Gaurav straightened again and walked towards the window. “…I spent years in therapy to get my muscles moving….I had developed contractures after the burns. I was scarred for life in many ways. I… I couldn’t get it up…” He stopped pacing and looked at her. “…I couldn’t for the life of me get a boner. For months… I tried meds, I tried BDSM… a little to arouse me and though I enjoyed it for a while …it couldn’t do what I set out for… Ria… nothing worked…. My mind was scarred beyond repair…. Then to get strong both physically and psychologically I started working out. I slogged it out daily. It helped me tide over the day along with admin work in the hospital. But nights were…BAD. I had nightmares of the prison…of what they did to me also of the fire… Therapy didn’t help there so I stopped seeing my psychiatrist. I became a total recluse and avoided public. My parents used their influence to block out all online information linking me to the murder. For that I was grateful.” He stared out of the window, watching the black night probably finding similarities between his life painted in the same shade… would he have the daybreak?
Ria wondered what kind of cold parents Gaurav had, who believed in a video shown by a con-woman over their own flesh and blood… who preferred their stupid reputation over their son…? He was doomed not because of anyone but because of his own parents. Ria’s eyes filled as she thought, irrespective of the uncommunicative apathetic parenting, and in spite of life throwing him such curve-balls Gaurav had turned out not a hard rock but a gem of a person… an invaluable gem… her gem. She waited with bated breath for the rest of what was to come…
He sighed looking down at the floor. “…For…over five long years…. FIVE… I have been living in a lifeless body. I was just breathing, eating and sleeping…that too whenever nightmares permitted… Ria, I suffer from PTSD…Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I tried BDSM too because though it didn’t arouse me it helped me dominate a willing woman. Yes Ria… there were women initially when I got back to India… I had to be man enough…you know… at least I thought… so I took them to the bungalow… but… Ria… they were just bodies…I …. I… don’t even remember their faces…. Nothing but just my struggle to get going and failed miserably…I was a total failure on all counts…I was totally broken…i gave up after a month of trying and then started going alone… solitude became my new friend…”
“… I thought I had to resort to my state for life. All that changed when I saw you…. when you came to the hospital as an intern for the first time. I was attracted to you instantly and the day I handed the certificate…I got …I got a semi hard-on for the first time in three fucking years. You became the medicine I needed…. It wasn’t just physical. There was more to it… I had started to mend… for the first time. Every time I saw you in your campus… when I got you f…followed in college, I felt alive. Ria… but trust me… I didn’t want to stalk or something… I was desperate to get well… I never intended to cause any harm… I didn’t want to get involved… because I was too scarred in every way for you…You were this innocent and I was ….well… I tried not to seek attention… I even tried to drive you away when you joined our hospital. It was so terrible… the way I behaved. I wanted you to hate me… But your thoughts kept me going …morning to night and then night to morning. I started sleeping better…. Nightmares came but their intensity had reduced….you did to me what medicines and therapy had failed…” He looked down as he held the bed post.
Ria spoke softly for the first time since he began talking, “…Did you… did you get a nightmare …. That night…. on the couch?”
Gaurav nodded…He looked at her and said, “…I… my nightmares… in the Chimera state… I scream and lash out… something I couldn’t do in prison… its dangerous for anyone sleeping next to me… so I didn’t want you here and sorry I… I …in the bungalow that day I raised my voice… But I was stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea…I couldn’t tell you everything and I didn’t want you to witness that dark part of me Ria… I would have scared you off… but then you did…That’s my story Ria…. All out in front of you. I am scarred….and I am still broken in many ways as you have seen… I have my mood swings…probably not what you may have wished for in your husband… so… If you wish to le…leave me….”
“…I want to see you…”. Ria quickly said trying her best to prevent her tears from flooding out.
“What…?” Gaurav appeared aghast. He rubbed his face and looked away… “…Ria… Its not good…I …”.
“…Gaurav….I just…I want to see you…please” Ria softly said not moving.
Gaurav moved towards the night lamp. He switched it on as well as the other night lamps in the room. He switched off the main lights and the room was filled with a soft glow. He stood with his back to her and slowly removed his t shirt. He then took off his full sleeved inner vest. He opened his fly and pulled his pants down and he was only in his boxers. Ria could only make out his silhouette. He then suddenly switched on the light right above him. He stood with his head bent.
Ria gasped as she took in the sight before her. His back…if one could call it a back…had welts all over. Mostly scars and ridges, hardened or fried skin…some red-like, some pinkish and some purple or was that black? It was like someone had carved a world map on his back and done a poor job of it. The same was seen throughout on his triceps…arms on either side. His hamstrings and calf muscles too had burn marks where the skin had probably melted. Ria was crying softly holding her mouth as she looked at the broken agonized man in front of her standing with his head bowed. He was shaking…was he crying?
That’s it… Ria rushed to him and hugged him from behind burying her face in his back. He collapsed down in front of her. She went in front of him and kneeled before him holding him tightly to her. He initially resisted but gave in and hugged her back. He put his forehead on her shoulder and sobbed. Ria just held him and rubbed his back her tears blurring her vision as well…. He was crying hard now as she rocked him. Her heart was in tatters to see him like that. Gaurav had endured so much. Everyone despised him and he just bore it all. But she… she had no more doubts about his innocence.
It was a promise she intended to keep. As her doubts melted away, and the waves of anguish caused her tears to flow uncontrollably, she promised she was going to give up everything and do everything she could and beyond, to stand beside him and clear his name.
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