It is true! Man changes according to the circumstances in which he finds himself. This happens automatically, as a matter of course! This thought flashed through my mind as soon as I woke up. How else would I have woken up at six after going to bed so late?

I thought of how agitated I had been last night and heaved a deep sigh. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone to Sharma’s place for dinner...this sense of unease and regret wouldn’t have befallen me. Sharma must have gone to bed late, too. He too must have risen early...but filled with fresh energy in anticipation of the nights ahead. And I? What use have I for such nights that stretch so emptily?

Sharma takes me home sometimes so that I can have the pleasure of eating home-cooked food. I accept the invitation at once because I enjoy their company. Mrs Sharma takes great care to see that I eat well and they treat me like a member of their family. Yet...

Take last night, for instance. Sharma and his wife are remarkably free in the way they behave with each other. They don’t consider me an outsider, so they display their affection for each other without a trace of self-consciousness even when I am around. They’ve been married for three years now, but they act like newly-weds, slapping and nudging and tapping each other playfully.

“If you say that again I’ll eat you up, right here, in front of Desai saheb,” he warned, pinching his wife on the cheek and lunging forward with his mouth wide open as she ran from the room.

Mrs Sharma was a good-looking woman, slim and fair and blessed with a good figure. What made her more attractive were her coquettish ways. Her sensual movements, her coy smiles and the manner in which she bent her head as she glanced up at someone were enough to hold them in her thrall.

“It must be way past Desai saheb’s bedtime. Why are you holding him up?” she demanded of her husband as we continued to chat after dinner.

“So what? He is lucky to go to sleep as soon as he gets home. But that’s not the case with us!” Sharma had retorted.

“You shameless...,” his wife had blushed and gestured at him in mock anger.

I had tossed and turned in bed for a long time. Sharma’s wife seemed to float before my eyes, keeping sleep at bay. And then, when I did fall asleep, she visited me in my dreams.

I was ready by half past seven. This had become a routine since I got to Dubai. Back home in Goa I could barely open my eyes at seven thirty or eight, but out here I am awake at six. I brew a cup of tea as I brush my teeth and fry some eggs while I am getting dressed. My chores are all done and I am in office by eight every morning.

Enmeshed as I am in this routine, my whole life has become mechanical, like a robotic machine. My body moves, I can walk...but that’s not the point. I have a mind, so I know I am alive. It is this mind that causes problems. It makes me think too much. People who are very sensitive shouldn’t choose to stay in the Gulf.

My eyes strayed towards Sharma’s flat in the next building as I walked towards my car. Mrs Sharma may have been at the window, but I avoided looking in that direction as I got into my Mazda and drove away.

The sun was high up in the sky as my car left the Karama Housing Society behind and sped towards Jumbo Electronics. It was very cold and people were swaddled in sweaters, jackets and warm clothes. The traffic had become quite heavy. One could see more cars than pedestrians in these parts. The people out on the road were mostly Asians but the really posh cars belonged to the Arabs. Each car seemed to be a brand new acquisition. Perhaps the Sheikhs employed people to keep a tab on the number of cars they owned!

I had just driven into the parking lot of Jumbo Electronics when Sharma’s car came up behind mine.

“Good morning, Desai saheb,” he greeted me. Must have had a good time last night, seems quite chirpy today, I thought.

“Good morning, Sharma ji.”

“We have to go to Deira today, don’t we? When should we start?”

Ah, yes. We had to go to the site at Deira but the thought of going there in this cold was quite unnerving. I would have bunked office if I were in Goa, but I couldn’t do that now. Besides, what would I do all day? The thought of being idle for so long itself seemed like punishment! At least I’d have Sharma for company during the drive to the site.

“We’ll leave after lunch. Let’s finish work at the office first.”

I was quite content in Dubai, surrounded by every material luxury. I took home a hefty monthly salary. I had a car and lived in a flat equipped with a TV, a music system, a washing machine and other appliances, all of which were provided by the company. In Goa, acquiring all these gadgets and maintaining them in good condition would have drained me of all my resources.

Yet, despite being surrounded by all these material comforts, I felt there was something missing deep inside. Time seemed to pass well enough when I was busy with work, but one didn’t have work all day. There was a lot of free time especially when one was on site, and it was this free time that was scary. There was a dark edge that cast a shadow on one’s work all day and at night sleep was tinged by wakefulness.

What did I gain by coming here? Ah yes, plenty of money. Just work and more work and get paid plenty of money. There was nothing else here. Even though there were so many comforts all around.

Sharma joined me as I was going for lunch. “Have you heard what’s making news, Desai saheb?”

“What is it?”

“A thirty six year-old man has raped a twelve year-old girl.”

I remained silent. Poor wretch! This was inevitable in these places. How long could the miserable fellow have kept his desire under check?

“I hear he’s a married man,” Sharma added.

This was bound to happen. A man accustomed to a fulfilled sexual life for years would realise on coming here that he couldn’t even draw comfort from gazing at the female form. So he must have found a soft target for his lust.

Sharma offered to take his car, so I joined him and we set off at half past one.

“What’s the matter, Desai saheb? Something wrong?” he asked.

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed in a bid to shut him up, but how could I fool myself?

When we got to the Trade Centre, one of the tallest towers in Dubai, I suddenly remembered that Borkar, a driver in an American company, was going home on leave. His company had an office in this building. I must phone him and check if he can take a mixer for Mummy, I thought.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Sharma.

“Nothing. An acquaintance is going to Goa. I want to send a mixer back with him. Just thought of him when we got to the Trade Centre,” I said.

“Are you sure you’re thinking of him? Not of anyone else?” Sharma teased.

“There is no one else I can think of,” I said bitterly.

“You don’t seem very happy in Dubai,” he continued.

I smiled, not bothering to reply.

The car was passing through the Shindagha tunnel and we would soon be in Deira.

Sharma stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray of the dashboard. “I am very happy here,” he exclaimed.

I felt that familiar bitter taste in my mouth. “Your story is different, Sharma ji. You have your wife for company.” I blurted out the words and at once I realised what was causing me all this anxiety.

So this was what was plaguing me. I didn’t want to return home after working hard all day. So this was the dark edge to my day. An empty tinkling bangles, no rustling sari, no whispered conversations...just an expanse of empty nights.

Mirage and Other Stories

Excerpted with permission from the story ‘Illusion’, from Mirage and Other Stories, Damodar Mauzo, translated from the Konkani by Vidya Pai, Under The Peepal Tree.