Prerna dipped a bread stick into the carrot and mint soup and watched as Jabeen twirled an ice cube around in her lime juice. “You’re still as skinny as a refugee from Sub-Saharan Africa,” she joked, trying to cheer up her morose friend. “Come on, you can have soup, can’t you?”
Jabeen shook her head. Food was an issue with her. Most of the time she felt she couldn’t swallow, as if her throat was full of leashed emotions and her chest full of fears. Her weight had hovered just above anorexic levels since her teens, ever since her first crush had found her too ‘fat’ for his taste. Three relationships later, and despite having crossed 30 years of age, she still let men make and break her self-image.
Prerna persisted. "You can't give up on life. Yes, so what if you keep attracting all the negative sort of men into your life... you can't give up living, can you?" she implored. But part of her knew it was no use. Jabeen was determined to be depressed.
Prerna could sympathise with her childhood friend. She'd known Jabeen since they were both three years old, and had watched how Jabeen's trusting but foolhardy nature would get her into rotten romances time and again. The first was a four-year relationship when Jabeen was still in her hometown Patna. The guy got a posting in Bangalore, and though Jabeen would make trips down to meet him once a month, he soon tired of her and started seeing other women there. Eventually he stopped taking her calls. The final straw was when Jabeen found out he'd given her an STD. The realisation that he'd been sleeping around broke her spirit. The disease was cured, but the virus of defeat and loss left her listless and dejected for the next few years.
With Prerna's help, Jabeen then moved to Delhi and started a new life with a new job. Eager to find herself in the arms of love again, she soon began dating a man younger than her, a politician's son, a bit of a coward. Despite their compatibility, and friendship, and the flame of desire that lit up their eyes every time they were together, he couldn't stand up to his folks about her. A Muslim girl, and older to him at that? They threatened to have her killed if he carried on with her. So he didn't. It was Prerna again who helped Jabeen pick up the pieces.
Finally, Jabeen's parents decided to take charge of her life, and got her married to a suitable Muslim boy. Like her, he was from Patna, and like her, he worked in Delhi. They started fighting two days after the wedding. They had no honeymoon. He wouldn't give her money for household expenses: "You work, don't you? So why do you need money from me?" He took away her jewellery and expensive personal items. He began going through her phone call list. Finally, he stole from her bank account using her ATM card. That was it, she decided, and left him.
Ten months after her wedding, Jabeen's divorce was now being finalised, and Prerna had taken a day off from work to be there with her on the momentous day. Poor unlucky soul, she kept thinking to herself over lunch. With sad gazes, the friends looked at each other. "When will you become smart about men?" Prerna chided her. "Just don't get into anything now. Give yourself some time, work on yourself a bit."
Jabeen nodded quietly. It was a sunny winter's day, and the hotel's coffee shop was humming with well-heeled activity, the scent of someone's French perfume lingering in the air. She had to go back to court to sign the final documents in an hour. She felt both relieved and distraught. Prerna pushed her plate of risotto towards her friend. "Here, take a bite, na."
Jabeen shook her head, then stopped and looked at the food. Slowly, carefully, she balanced a piece of mushroom on her fork and put it in her mouth. A string of cheese held on to the plate, and she gently twirled her fork around to cut it off.
It was warm and moist. And delicious.