“I don’t know what made me do this” said Kavitha sinking onto the sofa in Sudha’s bedroom, “We stole it. I can’t believe this!” The earrings, their knobs encrusted in rainbow haze cascaded into wide turquoise-green teardrops. Who would they belong to now? Would Sudha let her have it or would they have to fight over it?
“How much did you say they cost? Seven thousand?” asked her friend as she lunged to gather strewn laundry from around the bed. No untidiness would do around the glittering pieces of perfection in Kavitha’s hand. “We should keep off from telling the men” said Sudha, fidgeting with a steam iron cord.
Kavitha recalled the first time she had seen them. She later invited her husband, Prem to admire them. He had obliged though disgruntled with glitzy malls and shopping counters because it reminded him of how unaffordable life had gotten. The third time Kavitha went alone to take a look and a week later she told Sudha.
She always met Sudha on their rounds for vegetable shopping at half price when the dark of sundown hid both the wilt of greens and the indignity of their budget constraints, but on that day she had hopped on to her house in the morning after their husbands left for work and they had dropped their children off at school. Kavitha could hardly contain herself, or wait until evening.
She remembered how her friend’s face had changed when she informed her of the new jewelry section at Mayson’s Department Store. It had always been Sudha who knew of bargains and sales and new products adorning the shelves. Shopkeepers knew Sudha by name and she, theirs. She could even recall the discount rates from the previous season’s shopping and only she could manage to get things on credit through fist-clenched, principled shopkeepers where none other could.
Presently, light from the window struck the earrings and smeared ribbons of rainbow on the walls. Sudha’s baby woke up—it took just a second to suspend its cry of awe.
“With a thing that expensive, I feel…guilty...,’ Sudha patted the baby, ‘Should we just return it?”
“What?! Are you joking?”
“…What if the CCTV cameras caught on to us? You know how these things are, na, these days? Cameras that swirl and twirl like unhinged necks of ghouls, keeping track of everything that goes on in the world. What if they caught us on those tapes and it ended up at the police station?”
Sudha dug out a folded newspaper from under the mattress, “…the third page. They talk of an exact case like…this. The woman thought she was safe after picking lingerie off at a shelf, read...until the police knocked on her door two days later, read, read..”
Kavitha imagined police constables digging their indignant, lawful fingers into her arm, dragging her friend and her in the most un-lady-like fashion, shoving them into a waiting van standing right outside their building gate. In the briskness of morning, every passerby worth his curious eyeballs would wait, watch and whisper; neighbors from their own buildings too. The thought of Aakash and Prem, knowing their wives were robbers sent a shudder down her.
“Yea…it would be embarrassing,’ she said, ‘there was a camera on top of us that kept moving. Oh Deva! Why didn’t I imagine it? So mesmerized by these sweet things, I was.” said Kavitha. “But maybe, just maybe the angle of the camera wasn’t directly at us! Maybe it didn’t actually record anything!?”
“You might want to wait and see what the police have to say in a day or two? And till then what? Will you be able to wear them?”
If ever she went to an occasion of importance wearing them, they would seem like dangling swords ready to cut slices out of her neck and cheek. If people inquired about them her tongue would steal into a knot. She wouldn’t be able to say that Prem, who everyone knew was a household appliance mechanic, would have bought them for her. He didn’t even own a spare tyre for his scooter to drive to work. At least Sudha’s husband had a second-hand bike.
“I think we can be more careful next time, but this being our first, it should do us good to just return them...” her friend was saying.
Sudha had accompanied her that day. The fact that she had liked the earrings too, came as no surprise and yet Kavitha could sense a stiffness in her friend’s body and breath. Did she find her too ambitious or greedy? Did she resent her for it?
Standing at the counter Sudha’s eyes kept returning to the two rainbow-frozen lakes poised on the glass pedestal and Kavitha thought her eyes would burn them down into warm gushes of iridescent waterfalls.
When the salesgirl got them to the counter and got busy over the phone, Sudha had opened her bag - just a wee bit and swept them off in one clean stroke into the darkness of that carrier. Kavitha had felt too numb, magnetized to the floor. In that brief instant she knew desire had changed sides. Then all she remembered was being struck by afternoon sun as they swirled outside the store in a tizzy.
She looked at the jewels streaming rainbow light, now. What had come into Sudha? What if the cameras had not caught them? They would be fools to give them up just like that? She wanted to shake Sudha. “If we kept them whose would they be?” she asked finally.
“Yours! As you spotted them first but …henceforth, remember, whatever I like first would be mine. Now let’s just go and return these before anything happens.”
Kavitha looked at the pieces for the last time. The earrings didn’t feel like hers anymore. They had changed behavior: rigid and distanced. She could feel the shift. They belonged back to the store. Even though she could hear them begging for a touch, the graze of fine fingertip over itchy stone and a hitch through ear lobe, bolting them shut with a clasp of plug. In all her life she had only the small gold studs her mother had given her for her wedding and lots of artificial junk that were all but visible beyond her large face and the thick ring of fat accumulating around her neck.
“How would we do it?, asked Kavitha, “What would we say?” She could sense her energy to talk had drained.
“We would say we found it in our shopping bags when we returned home. Someone had put them there by mistake. Maybe the shop assistant…”
“And would they believe us?”
“When we are returning it to them, what do you think, would they care?”
Who would have made these dream-like pieces with such intricate hue and design? Such luxury. Why did beautiful things always have to come at a price? Why couldn’t they just be free like the sun, the moon, the stars over night sand?
The clock chimed six marking the end of their talk time and Sudha’s husband’s arrival. “Let’s meet outside the building gate first thing in the morning… and come well-dressed. We will hand them over in front of all. Let them also know that we are honest people. But for tonight can I keep them with me? One last time?” asked Sudha.
Kavitha left the glinting pieces in Sudha’s hands as she dragged herself out of the door.
“Next time we shall be more careful, Kavi. Play it out in your head, okay?” said Sudha escorting her into the dilapidated building elevator. Between the creak of the folding gates she added, “Remember all the plays you enacted in school? Make it seem real now. Visualize. Think of all possible endings in tomorrow’s situation. I will surely be revising all my acting too. I don’t want them to say we stole it and are now returning it out of fear. They should believe us, if possible also reward us for honesty.”
They retraced into their dutiful lives, getting down steaming hot pressure cookers with boiled rice and lentils from fire grids, spicing and cooking vegetables, bailing out rotis for dinner, but all the while rehearsing, lip-syncing the arguments streaming inside their heads.
Kavitha and Sudha played out every scene, running through their reactions by animating their faces in the mirror. Some modesty here, a lowering of eye there. With repeated rehearsals, their faces glowed with a pride that could only come out of self-righteousness.
They could now spot the tiniest of inanities on the face of the imagined store manager. Kavitha saw a tiny mole on his left cheek closer to his chin as she watched television with her family. She felt she could reach out and touch the shelves of the store they would be visiting the following morning. She put her children to sleep and catered to her husband’s need in a state of trance.
The friends mumbled replies to imaginary questions from the store staff, heads on their pillow as their families lay still for night. What would they say to field any accusations? How would they answer if the police were already in wait? What would they say if they were shown the tapes of their own criminal act to squash their attempt at self-glorification? Tilts of heads, expressions, eye contact, gait, posture, poise was ironed out over a night of tossed, willful sleep.
The next morning as light cracked open the lid of the sky both were easy, sipping at their cups of coffee after the husbands had left for work and the children were still sleeping. Ten am passed and then eleven. The gate in front of the building remained unvisited.
Instead Kavitha went to Sudha’s house, “I dreamt of the store manager last night.”
“And guess what he said? He was maha-grateful. He looked on at us with pride. That fat, bald man with a mole on his cheek.” said Kavitha.
“No, no! He was thin, pimpled, and bespectacled.” said Sudha.
“In my dream, he wasn’t!”
“In mine he was. He also had a limp in his left leg. And not only that, he wore a funny tie with a naked woman pouting on it… My dreams are rarely out of line with fact... I can assure you that.”
Until noon, they argued over the details of the store manager, the store, its assistants’ behavior and the population of morning customers … But one thing was clear: the store manager’s gratitude.
“He was happy with us, nahi kya?” said Sudha getting the earrings down from her hiding place atop the steel grey iron cupboard and tightly screwing them into her earlobes. “It’s amazing how much he thanked us and how pleased he was.”
Nothing felt more light than being forgiven. And the earrings looked beautiful on Sudha. “Quin Alizaabith”, Kavitha smiled and called her.