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Aarushi’s tear drenched and kohl-lined eyes haunted her day and night. Riya’s heart tightened in dread. Would she find a way to free herself of the ever-tightening noose of guilt and self-flagellation?

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She was standing on the balcony of her fifteenth-floor apartment looking downwards in the dark. There was no moon. She wondered whether she saw the moon earlier. She couldn’t remember. Even though the world slept in the darkness, she could see the ground below in the post light. The clock chimed twice. It was 2 am. As always, sleep eluded her. What was she doing in the balcony looking downwards? She couldn’t remember. She felt like jumping. She felt tempted. All her problems would be gone forever. But she was scared. She felt the darkness surrounding her whispering to her to jump. The intensity of the whisperings increased. She couldn’t bear it. She covered her ears tightly. The whisperings died off. The night was silent again. She removed her hands with apprehension. Nothing untoward happened. She edged over to the balcony and once again looked down. It was all in her head, she told herself. Then she heard a voice whisper in her ears, ‘Jump’.

Riya woke up with a start. The word was still ringing in her ears. It was as if someone whispered it in her ears while she was asleep. It was still dark, but moonlight streamed into her room through the windows. She looked around her. There was no one there, apart from her. She was breathing hard. She was scared. It was the same as the previous nights when she had woken up in the middle of the night. How long was it since she had had a good sleep? She didn’t remember. It was like she never had a good sleep. Never. She switched on the light and looked at her phone. It was 3 am. She drank water from the jug. She took a deep breath. Aarushi’s face swam into her memories. Now she would not be able to sleep. She cursed herself for falling for Rajiv. But was it really her fault? She tried to remember.

Rajiv was her colleague from another department. She had just divorced when they first met, still recovering from the horrors of her first marriage. Her parents were angry. They didn’t get back even half the dowry they had given to her ex-husband’s family; not to mention the expenses incurred during her lavish wedding, the gifts which were given during festivities etc. All were lost, forfeited...forever. Not that she cared. But her father was beyond furious. He did not want to see her face ever again. Her mother lamented that her life was lost. Her brother felt that she had brought shame to the family. Her neighbours and family began whispering that it was all her fault; that she should have adjusted; that it was because she was arrogant. No one cared that her ex-husband was a monster or that he was a sadist. It was after her divorce that whisperings started really bothering her. They began following her everywhere she went.

That was why she applied for a transfer to the big city after the divorce was settled. But the whisperings followed her to her new office also. Everyone knew that she was a divorcee. She was disgusted. She concentrated on her work and did not talk to anyone. Her boss appreciated that. That was how she landed in the new project, where she met Rajiv. He had heard about the rumours about her divorce. But he did not pretend to be sorry for her or whisper behind her back. He did not pester her for details of her past. He was very professional, and she appreciated it. They quickly became friends and began sharing their lunch. His wife was a good cook. And she was a terrible cook herself. She felt that he was lucky to have a wife like Aarushi. But he complained that she was not the wife he wanted. He complained every day. How plain she was! How useless and clingy she was! How uneducated she was! How unfashionable she was! How he was forced to marry her, and so on. And she, Riya, was sympathetic to him. She felt that both Rajiv and she were victims of a similar fate. Both were forced into a marriage to partners someone else chose for them and their opinions remained unheard. When did their friendship turn into an affair? She didn’t remember. But she did remember when the whisperings about her changed.

She was unaware of it at first, but she began noticing the change in the whisperings soon. It was accompanied by unsavoury comments and snickering. She was initially upset. No, angry. The whisperings were that she had an affair with him. She complained to him. "Ignore it," he said. "We know us, don’t we?" he asked. "They are jealous of our friendship," he commented. She was not convinced. But she was afraid. Afraid to lose her only friend. A friend who did not judge her. A friend who helped her. So, she ignored the whisperings. When did the dynamics of their friendship change? She couldn’t remember. Was it when he helped in finding her a new apartment on rent? Was it when he helped her move from her hostel? Was it when he helped her to settle down? Was it when he cared for her when she fell sick? Was it when he began picking her up in the morning and dropping her in the evening? She didn’t know. But she soon realized the new whisperings at her new place of residence too. Her neighbours, the servants and even the security were whispering about her. By that time, she had become an expert in ignoring the whisperings, even though they still annoyed her.

But as she ignored the whisperings, she also ignored how the whisperings were growing stronger around her. After that office party in which he didn’t bring his wife and that official tour in which they went together, the tone of the whisperings also changed. They were angrier and louder than before. She was now hearing snippets here and there. ‘Home wrecker,’ they called her. ‘Vamp,’ they sneered at her. ‘Witch,’ they growled at her. She could no longer ignore them. Even he could no longer ignore them. For the yarns of the whisperings had grown longer. They had reached his house and his wife, Aarushi. The touch of whisperings made the otherwise docile Aarushi mad. She created ruckus at his home. She created ruckus at their office. She created ruckus at her apartment.

The whisperings had developed eyes by then--eyes that stared at her everywhere. She began fearing the eyes. She said so to him. But as usual he asked her to ignore them. This time he didn’t say that they were friends. Instead, he said, "Yes. We love each other. So what? Don’t worry about them. I am with you. I am always with you," he assured her. And she found solace in his assurance. He was unabashed by Aarushi’s rants and her pleadings By the whisperings around him. By the fears that surrounded her.

Then it happened. The unexpected. Or did he expect it? Riya wondered. Aarushi jumped to her death from his apartment balcony. She was shocked. She thought Aarushi would go away. Go back to her village. Go back to her unexciting life. But Aarushi chose death. She chose not to live without him. Riya was pained. She was scared. But he remained unabashed. Unaffected. Unapologetic. His brazenness scared her even more. She felt perturbed by his nonchalant attitude. He still had the audacity to call her. To visit her. But she ignored his calls. Ignored him when he knocked at her door. He grew angrier with her and sent angry messages each time she ignored him. And she listened to those messages passively each time.

The whisperings grew stronger meanwhile and began to suffocate her. She stopped going to office. How long was she on leave? Did she tell them she was on leave? She couldn’t remember. But she did go to the office after Aarushi’s death. She didn’t remember those days, though. All she remembered were the whisperings. ‘Murderer.’ ‘The nerve of her.’ ‘How could she?’ ‘She killed her.’ It was her. All her fault. Not his. They ignored the fact that he was as culpable as she was. Or more culpable. Didn’t he promise her that he was leaving Aarushi? Didn’t he assure her that Aarushi would understand and leave them? Didn’t he convince her that they were right, and they should be together? But then why were the whisperings affecting her more than him? Why were the whisperings filling her heart with heavy guilt and trying to drown her? Why were the whisperings strangling her and not him?

Her phone beeped. It was him. Another angry outburst. It was 5 am. Didn’t he sleep? Or did he wake up after a nightmare? Was it Aarushi’s death that was bothering him or her silence? She didn’t reply. She threw the phone on the bed and stared at the ceiling. She again felt the cold fingers of whisperings. She shivered. Even the moonlight looked sinister. She covered herself with the quilt. The quilt he bought her. The quilt which warmed her. The quilt which smelled like him. Suddenly she burst out crying. She couldn’t take it anymore. She listened to the whisperings. They were like a soft murmur. Like Aarushi’s voice. Tears flowed out of her eyes uncontrollably. She curled up and cried herself to sleep.

She woke up hearing the whisperings again. They were  louder. But still, she couldn’t hear the words. Many voices were whispering together. She didn’t open her eyes. Suddenly fear gripped her heart. She felt someone standing near her bed. Was it him? Maybe it was him. How did he get in? He had a key. She reminded herself. She opened her eyes and looked at the figure standing at the foot of her bed. A chill passed through her bones. She froze. It was Aarushi. She was standing there, watching her. Black tears flowed from her kohl rimmed eyes. Some of her long flowy hair had fallen over her face. She was just staring at her. She wasn’t speaking. Her lips didn’t move. But Riya could hear her whispering. ‘Home wrecker.’ ‘Murderer.’ ‘You did this.’ ‘You destroyed me.’ Riya wanted to run away.  But she couldn’t move. Panic gripped her heart. She was paralysed. She tried to scream. But no voice came out of her. The whisperings became louder. Too loud for her to bear. She wanted to close her ears. But her hands didn’t move. She screamed silently in her mind. All this time, Aarushi just stood and watched her, tears flowing from her eyes. Black tears. Riya wanted to look away. But she couldn’t. She wanted to scream. Yell. Beg. To stop. To stop the whisperings. But she couldn’t. She was paralysed. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t run. She had become a prisoner. A prisoner in her own body. In her own mind. She wished that he would come and rescue her from this nightmare. But he didn’t.

The mobile chimed. Riya woke up with a start. She looked at her phone. It was 9 am. She had 36 messages. From him. From her boss. From her colleagues. From her mother. From her brother. She ignored them as she had in the past. The phone chimed again. She threw the phone. It hit a wall and fell into pieces. The whisperings had become louder. They had become unbearable. She closed her eyes and ears and tried to shut the whisperings out. But she couldn’t. She curled up in her bed and cried softly. She felt that Aarushi was standing in the room. Watching her. Judging her. Whispering to her. She could hear Aarushi’s voice now. Above all the whisperings. ‘End it. End it now.’ She didn’t understand it at first. But then she did. There was only one thing to do to end the whisperings, to end her sufferings. Only one thing.

Days later…

The whisperings took a new form. They had become mild. Sympathetic. Sad. Benign. They lingered among her colleagues. Her neighbours. Her family. Did they affect him? No one knew. For no one saw him afterwards, either.

(Listen to the podcast)

~Nisha Nair

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