A short story by Vikram Karve – The Right Choice


(a fiction short story) 





          No matter how many times I begin a train journey; there is always an intriguing interest in seeing who one’s fellow-passengers area. I scanned the reservation chart pasted on the air conditioned chair-car of the Indrayani Express. I was on seat number 30. A window seat. The neighbouring seat was reserved in the name of a Master Avinash Bhide – age 10. A disappointment! There was better luck on seat number 28. Mrs. Manisha Bhide – age 35. In my mind’s eye I tried to imagine and visualise what Mrs. Manisha Bhide would be like. 


          Surprisingly, she did not board the train as it left Mumbai CST. I felt a pang of disappointment. Maybe she would come at Dadar. The seats were three abreast, 28 near the aisle, 30 near the window and 29 in-between. I sat down on number 28. In 10 minutes the train reached Dadar and a beautiful woman with vivacious dancing eyes with a young boy in tow entered the coach. As she walked towards me I instinctively knew that she was Manisha Bhide.         


 “Mrs. Manisha Bhide?” I asked, as I stood up and gave her a smile of forced geniality. Our eyes met. She looked into my eyes for that moment longer than may be considered polite greeting. I felt a sense of elation. I quickly moved out on the aisle and helped her with her luggage. Meanwhile Master Avinash Bhide had occupied the window-seat. Before Mrs. Manisha Bhide could say anything I quickly interjected, “It’s okay. Let him sit in the window-seat”. 


          She smiled in resignation at the fait accompli and sat down on seat number 29. My opening gambit having succeeded I closed my eyes to savour the sense of delight I was experiencing. After a long time I felt young and happy once again. This was one journey I was going to enjoy. 


          Suddenly she spoke, “Excuse me, but aren’t you Pratap Joshi?” 


          Flabbergasted, I opened my eyes in surprise wondering whether they put up reservation charts at Dadar too since the one on the coach was on the right-hand side and the platform at Dadar was on the left.  


          Before I could recover my wits, she said, “You are in the Merchant Navy, aren’t you?” 


          I was dumbstruck and stared vacuously at her. The silence was grotesque. Manisha Bhide broke the silence. “You don’t remember me, do you? But I have recognized you Mr. Joshi; or is it Captain Joshi? Why are you hiding behind that ghastly beard? It doesn’t suit you. You looked so handsome clean-shaven.” 


          “No ma’am,” I said meekly, “I don’t think we have met.” 


          That was true. Hers wasn’t a face one could forget easily. 


          I looked at her totally astounded. She seemed to give the impression as if we had known each other very well. “You are right,” I said, “I am indeed Captain Pratap Joshi, Master Mariner. But I don’t remember ever meeting you.” 


            “But then how do you know my new name?” she snapped. 


            “New name?” 


            “Yes. My new name. Manisha Bhide.” 


            “I saw it on the reservation chart,” I said sheepishly. 


          “I was Swati Gokhale before marriage,” she said. “After marriage my surname changed and my in-laws have changed my maiden name from Swati to Manisha.” 


          “Manisha Bhide nee Swati Gokhale!” I joked. “I don’t think we’ve met before.” 


          People are always little disconcerted when you do not recognize them. They are so important to themselves that it is disheartening indeed to discover of what negligible importance they are to others. I racked my brains but just could not remember meeting any Swati Gokhale. 


            “Are you from Pune?” I asked. 


            “No. I’m from Mumbai,” she answered. “But now I live in Pune. My husband works there.” She paused for a moment, looked directly into my eyes, and asked, “Do you still live in


          “No. No.” I said, trying to hide my surprise. “I’ve got a flat in Mumbai. In Colaba. And I have also bought a bungalow in Lonavala. That’s where I am going right now.” 


          “Oh!” she said raising her eyebrows appreciatively. But I did sense that slight tinge of regret in her voice, just a trace mind you, but the nuance did not escape me. She looked at me, genuine admiration in her eyes, and said, “You must be a rich man?” 


            I smiled. “It’s a paying job. And then one gets paid in dollars.” 


            “I wish I had married you,” she said matter-of-factly. 


            “What?” I asked stunned and totally taken aback. 


          “One day my parents showed me two photographs. One was yours and the other was my husband’s – my present husband that is!” she wistfully. “I had to choose one and I think I made the wrong choice. A big mistake! I really wish I had married you, Captain Joshi!” 


          It took a while for her words to sink in, and as comprehension dawned on me I understood the reasons for her interest in me. 


           People have many reasons for snooping into others people’s lives and affairs. Everyone has a natural curiosity to know what lies beyond the closed door – especially if they have closed that door themselves. 


           In my mind’s eye I tried to imagine what life would have been like had she married me. I was tempted to probe a bit.” Why did you reject me?” I asked. 


          “Please don’t say that,” she said. “It all happened so fast, you were away sailing and I had only your photograph to go by – it was going to be six months before you would return from sea. And the Bhide’s were in a terrible hurry. Vishwas Bhide was in India for precisely one month – to find a bride, get married and go back to
America. Actually he was flooded with proposals, but he had liked me and I too wanted to go abroad, enjoy the luxury, the high standard of living.”


“When was this?” I asked. 


“In May 1991. I was exactly 20 years old.”  


“I wonder why my mother didn’t tell me about you?” I said to her quite confused. My mother was the one busy finding a girl for me then. 


          “It’s understandable,” Manisha Bhide said nonchalantly. “If a boy rejects a girl, it doesn’t matter; but if the girl rejects the boy, he becomes a laughing stock, an object of ridicule. 


          I smiled to myself at the truth of her statement. “So you live in the States do you? On a holiday here?” I asked. 


          “No,” she said. “We came back in 1995. My husband took up a professorship in the University. He is so qualified that he could earn millions, but is an idealist sort of chap who lacks ambition. It’s so sad. His idea of happiness is to wallow in mediocrity in every aspect of life.” 


          “How can you say that?” I interjected. “Teaching is an honourable profession. And surely the pay must be okay.” 


          “It’s no standard of living, Mr. Joshi,” he said with bitterness in her voice. “We stay in a dilapidated house in the university campus. And I am ashamed to drive in our small rickety car. All my dreams have been dashed. I too wish I could have a bungalow in Lonavala like you and live in style. I really envy your wife, Captain Joshi!” 


          “I don’t have a wife,” I said. 


           “Good God! You never got married?” she asked, confusion writ large on her face. She paused for a moment, then said tenderly, “Or is it?… Oh! I am so sorry.” 


          “No. No!” I said. “It’s not what you think. I am not a widower. Nor am I a bachelor. I am a divorcee. One day my wife just left me and moved in with some college-lecturer in Mumbai. Three years ago.” 


          “She left you for ridiculous lecturer! How silly?” 


          “It’s ironic isn’t it?” I said, “You wanted a standard of living, she wanted a quality of life.” 


          “Quality of life?” Manisha Bhide interrogated. 


          “That’s what she used to say. She couldn’t stand the separations, the loneliness, She wanted me to give up merchant navy and take up some job ashore, But I’d got too used to the sea and didn’t want to give up the ‘standard of living’ as you put it,” I paused and then said wistfully, “I wish I had understood! On the whole, I think an imperfect marriage is better than no marriage at all.” 


“I think your wife was very unfair,” Manisha said. 


“On the contrary I too haven’t been an angel. You see, life at sea is not all fun and frolic. One docks at exotic ports and one does get lonely at times.” I instantly regretted those words the moment they left my lips. 


          There was a sudden metamorphosis in Manisha Bhide. She was looking at me now as if I were a predator on the prowl. I excused myself and went to the toilet. When I returned I found Master Avinash Bhide in the centre-seat, with a scowl on his face, and Manisha Bhide in the window seat studiously reading a magazine. I sat down next to the young boy and the rest of the journey passed in interesting conversation with Master Avinash Bhide. He wanted to know all about ships! 


          As the train approached Lonavala I pulled down my bag and said, “Goodbye Mrs. Bhide. It was nice meeting you and, of course, your son is a delightful chap!” 


          Manisha Bhide turned her face and looked at me. She looked so beautiful and attractive that I stood mesmerized, unable to take my eyes off her. Then she smiled and said, “It was good I met you Captain Joshi. All these years I was always tormented by the thought that I had made the wrong choice. Now I know I made the right choice!” 


          As I walked away I had a canny feeling that I had probably saved her marriage. I can never forget Manisha Bhide, and sometimes when I feel lonely and melancholic, I wish Manisha Bhide nee Swati Gokhale had made a different choice. Maybe that would have been the right choice! And maybe my life would have been different. Who knows?  




Copyright 2006 Vikram Karve 








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