The phone rang, shattering the silence of the bedroom. Rakhee’s eyes sprang open but remained unfocussed for a while. She had gone to bed only at three and had soon fallen into a deep sleep. Snug in bed, she hated the very thought of having to lift herself and pick up the mobile vibrating on her side-table.

She let out a loud and irritated “Oofh”, but stopped short of a curse when she realised that it had to be some urgent call if it was this time of the morning. Sumit’s alarm was usually set at 6.30 am and it was not time for that yet – the morning sun, with its slant rays lightened by the sieve of the curtain, would have been on her face then.

The phone kept ringing. It was an insistent call, to be sure, and as quickly as her sleep-numbed limbs would allow, Rakhee switched on her side lamp, picked up her cell, and managed a groggy “Hello.”

“Rakhee?” responded an eager voice. “Sharmila?” she ventured tentatively. “Hmm...did I wake you up?”

Rakhee’s voice suddenly developed an edge. “Honey, it’s five in the morning. Have you forgotten the time-difference between London and Kolkata?”

“I’m so sorry...I’ll talk to you later...”

“No no no...please, don’t keep down the phone...” Rakhee hurried, and then suppressing a rising yawn with her hand, continued: “It’s simply that I went to sleep at 3...”

There followed the briefest of pauses in which both waited for the other to speak. It was Rakhee who resumed the conversation again by saying, “What is it, Sharmi? You’re calling at this hour... there must be something...”

“Just needed to talk to you,” Sharmila said softly.

Rakhee jumped up, asking, “About John?” and then, without waiting to hear and squealing with joy, with every trace of sleep vanished from her voice, “Did it happen? Say yes...Oh Sharmi, I’m so happy for you. It’s great. Congrats! So, finally you...”

“Wait wait...You’re wrong. It didn’t.”

“Didn’t?”Then unable to control the irritation in her voice, “Well, if it’s the same old story, then why are you calling in the first place...tell me something new, yaar. I’m tired of your ‘I’m not ready, I’m not sure’ stuff. When I feel so frustrated, I don’t know how your lovers put up with it.”

In a little more malleable voice, Rakhee now ventured, “Sharmi? Are you there?”

No answer.

Rakhee almost pleaded now, “I’m sorry, baby. What is it?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“Do I have a choice?”

At that, they both started laughing and only then did the tensed voice at the other end relax.

“So, you wanted it?”

“Ya, and was almost on the verge of saying yes...but...”

“But what?”

With a huge sigh, “I can’t.”

“But W-h-y?”

“Don’t you see...he’ll think me cheap, Rakhee.That’s why. Just like all the other girls who sleep around.” – and then in a rush – “like my ex-flat mates who changed partners like clothes every night. I’ll be just another girl to him, if I say yes. Just ano...”

“Hello...hello...Sharmi...Damn! Why did it have to happen now – just when she was about to tell me...”

“What – whether she was banged?”

It was Sumit, Rakhee’s husband, who asked this question. He was sleeping, she knew, and gave a bit of a start when he spoke to her in a perfectly clear voice.

“You were listening to the conversation all this while?”

Sumit gave a grin, changed his position from being flat on his stomach to lying on his right side facing Rakhee and said, “You weren’t exactly whispering, you know. No – I wasn’t listening to the conversation – just you. You were loud enough to wake me up but I couldn’t get the words. Could just make out that it was Sharmi you were talking to and kind of guessed the subject. So now...” – with a widening grin – “the million-dollar question: was she banged?”

“You see, it’s just this kind of lingo that she so detests – ‘banged’, ‘fucked’...”

“Oh, you want synonyms? Fine. ‘Sex’, ‘intercourse’, ‘copulation’...”

“No, can’t you ask your questions differently – like ‘did she make love?’...”

“Oho – so I’m supposed to (caricaturing Rakhee’s voice) ‘make sentences with make love’. Okay. Here I go – ‘Can I make love to you?’”

“Definitely not!”

There was now a flurry of movement on the bed. Sumit had pulled Rakhee down toward him and buried his face in her neck. She felt tickled as he kissed her on her earlobes, but he held her so tight that she could not push him away. She struggled for a while, wriggling in his arms, and then slowly yielded to his caresses. And it was not long before they settled into their most favourite sleeping position – lying on their side with Sumit encircling Rakhee from the back, his cheek resting on her temple, his soft palms cupping her breasts, and his feet entwined with hers.

Lying thus, they would invariably fall into a deep sleep together – but today, sleep would not come to Rakhee. She lay pliant in the warmth of Sumit’s embrace, but kept thinking of her friend. “I’m worried about Sharmi,” she said softly to Sumit. From a little above her came his muffled voice: “That is exactly what you’d said the last time...”

True, a few weeks back, she had said the same thing when they had called up Sharmila on her birthday – only to get desultory, reluctant, one-line replies. With the speaker on (a ritual reserved only for birthdays and festivities, when intimacies were, by silent consent, kept out of their talk), Rakhee had determinedly pressed on, asking her about the progress of her work, about John, till Sumit made signs to let Sharmila be.

She had put the phone down then and told her husband, “I’m worried about Sharmi. She turned thirty-three today, Sumit! – Thirty-three! And still a virgin! Can you believe that?! It’s so awful...and...and...” at a loss for the right word, then triumphantly, “So unhealthy! Yes, that’s the word for it, ‘unhealthy’. And doubly so, I tell you, for as passionate a woman as Sharmila.”

As she lay in bed, waiting for the phone to ring again, Rakhee thought back to that last phone-call, and as if by natural progression, to their college days a decade ago. There were certain images that inevitably sprang up whenever she thought of that time, images of what they had proudly termed their “perfect twosome”. But for some reason, it was different this time. Reminiscing, her mind got stuck to one particular day.

It was a beautiful day in early February and they had planned to go to the Book Fair in the Maidan, one of the highlights of the winter season in Calcutta. They had both grown up with it, and looked forward to their annual book-shopping spree together as much as to their pandal-hopping during the Durga-puja in autumn.

As kids, they would tag along with their parents to the Fair maybe just once; but as college students, they now went there at least a couple of times on their own. That year too, they had already gone twice and had decided to go again on the penultimate day of the Fair.

When they met at Rakhee’s house, Sharmila announced that there was some change in plan and added, with a mischievous smile, that she would not talk about it. It was meant to be a surprise for Rakhee.

Now, if there was anything in which Rakhee still retained a childish delight, it was her love for surprises. She was forever planning surprises for her loved ones, but was famous for not being able to carry them out. Something or the other would invariably go wrong to upset her plans, she would sulk over it for a few days, and then get back to planning another such surprise!

But much as she loved planning surprises, she loved getting them even more. Apart from Sharmila, however, nobody bothered much to give her that joy.

Rakhee would not have tolerated any change when it came to a visit to the Book Fair but for this promise of a surprise by Sharmila. In the course of the next one hour, she gradually discovered what surprise she was in for. When they boarded a Salt Lake minibus, it became clear that they were headed for Gayatri’s place, a former neighbour and friend of Sharmi’s who studied at the Government Art College. She wondered whether they were going to give a surprise birthday party to Gayatri or something... but these kind of get-togethers always happened late in the evenings.

Unable to take the suspense any more, she finally asked Sharmila why they were going to Gayatri’s in the afternoon. Was it something special? Sharmila replied that there was a student exhibition at the Art College some three weeks away and – giving Rakhee the same mischievous smile – said that Gayatri needed a model for an “oil on canvas” portrait that she would be doing.

Rakhee now understood it all. Gayatri would paint Sharmi, and she would be there to give them company. She felt flattered – as if in painting Sharmi, she were being complimented. She also felt proud – for here was her beloved friend about to be immortalised in paint. She was full of Shakespeare’s sonnets these days and murmured to Sharmi: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

“What was that?”Sharmi asked.

“The Bard, my dear, Sonnet No. 18,” Rakhee replied.

“O please, Rakhee, spare me your poetry in the bus at least,” Sharmi said in mock-irritation. But, of course, she was pleased!

Sharmila had a Nikon since she was fifteen. She loved clicking pictures with it and never tired of singing its praises – how one photograph could say a hundred words; how it froze the moment, which could then be preserved for life; and how endless copies could be made of the same.

But the advantages of portability and replication mattered little to Rakhee – she was all for being immortalised in paint and in verse. And today, she would actually see an artist at work. She could barely suppress her excitement. Squeezing Sharmila’s hands in hers, she said, “I always told you, you underestimate your beauty.”

They reached Gayatri’s place around 1 pm. They chatted for a while about their respective colleges and then Gayatri started preparing for her preliminary sketch. The canvas was mounted in the drawing room itself and an assortment of paints and brushes lay on a table nearby. Rakhee had asked for tea, and while it came, she browsed through Gayatri’s small collection of books on a shelf beside the TV at the opposite wall of the canvas for a while.

Her back turned to them, she did not pay much attention to what Gayatri said to Sharmila then, nor to the fact that the windows were being closed and the tube light switched on. Only when she had settled down with a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea that she realised what was happening – Sharmi had come to pose nude for her friend!

She had all but spilled the cup when she first saw Sharmi naked – half reclining on the sofa. When did she disrobe? Why had she not told her before? Rakhee could not have her tea beyond the first few sips and sat in one corner, speechless, for quite a long time – while painter and model carried on with their first “sitting” chatting all the while. Rakhee remembered the scene vividly – the scene only, nothing of the conversation or even that first outline on canvas. She just remembered how taken aback she was by her friend and her attitude.

Sharmila had always been the bolder of them two – with much more knowledge about and frank interest in sex than Rakhee. She also had much lesser mental inhibitions. But she was pretty reserved when it came to clothes. The necklines of her kurtis and kameez never went too low, her baggy tops invariably covered her belly-button, her skirts always fell below her knees, and even when it came to jeans, she managed not to have a single tight-fitting pair. The only apparel where her figure, despite all contrivances, showed through, was the sari.

To see that Sharmila having no qualms posing nude for a friend was nothing less than shocking for Rakhee. Even more unbelievable was the way she went about it – did it like a pro, as if she had been a model for years when the truth was that she was baring herself before anyone for the first time ever. She had never changed her clothes even before her own sister, she had once told Rakhee.

That one hour (or was it two?) was an ordeal for Rakhee. She was highly uncomfortable in the presence of such exposed flesh. It kind of hit her in the face – both Sharmi’s nakedness, and the fact that she was so very beautiful. Sharmila had always been pretty for as long as Rakhee could remember. But without her clothes, she was absolutely stunning!

Rakhee could deal with the bare human body as long as there was a safe distance. She admired its representation in art – though she was drawn rather more to the beauty of the female form. And of late, she was obsessed with the idea of love-making. A sad obsession, as she had no lover. Totally inexperienced about sex, but dying to know all about it, she now fell back on books and especially films to illuminate her on the subject. It was thus that she came to enjoy the love scenes in English films with guilty pleasure.

When her mother railed about them, against them, “How could people do it?”, “Why show it on prime-time television?”, etc, she could not bring herself to say that she found nothing strange in those scenes and actually enjoyed them. Quite a few, in fact, she went to see with her friends at Esplanade just for those scenes! But this was her first confrontation with a nude body at such proximity. And she was squirming while the other two went on quite professionally with the sitting when the reality was that they were both amateurs.

She had felt excluded that day in their company (a thing unimaginable with Sharmi around), and in some peculiar way betrayed – as if Sharmi had wilfully kept away a part of herself from her. So much for their “perfect twosome”, she had thought bitterly.

Gariahat Junction

Excerpted with permission from the story “A Phone-Call” from Gariahat Junction: A Collection of Short Stories, Rituparna Roy, Kitaab Singapore.