Forgiving and Forgetting
By Anisha Ralhan
Pri314 has invited you for a rematch. Click to play.
Rishi finds it slightly odd that the stranger he just defeated, by a solid margin of 17 victory points, has volunteered to be thrashed again. He glances at his Elo rating, stroking the scuff on his chin. One more win is all he needs to join the esteemed league of 'Expert Players.' However, off chance, if he loses to Pri314, an 'Average' player with a measly 190 points, he will incur a heavy cost of 25 Elo points, requiring days or even weeks to crawl back up to his current spot. Fuck you, Mr Arpad Elo, for siding with the underdogs!
Having binged the final season of Breaking Bad yesterday in his stuffy quarantine hotel room, which is marginally bigger than the bathroom in his sea-facing two-bedroom apartment in the idyllic Marine Parade, it's not like Rishi has much to do. The mini-bar was emptied by staff before he even arrived. Antibacterial wipes and surface cleaners have replaced Pringles and peanuts in the snack cabinet. Somewhere in this sterile, stale room lies a thick dossier explaining the stringent quarantine rules in Singapore. Rishi has glossed over them twice already.
He could pry and poke around on social media, but he no longer finds it therapeutic. Not when every other person he knows back home, in India, is on Facebook looking for oxygen cylinders, a bed with a ventilator, an ambulance, drugs – #SOS #Urgent. The posts that aren't survival pleas are angry rants against the prime minister, who cares about fixing his image more than fixing the state of the Indian healthcare (#murderer #powerhungry). Rishi's feed has started to read a lot like the obituary section of the Times of India.
Seeing his countrymen whimper for breath earlier today, Rishi couldn't help but recall the words of T.S. Eliot, the only poet he's read outside of school. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper. All because of a bloody bat virus! Determined to avoid more doomscrolling followed by more apocalyptic thoughts, he accepts Pri314's invite, hoping their recent history repeats itself.
While the game loads, Rishi, who goes by the name of GforGandalf, visits Pri314's profile page. The tiny pink glyph next to the name, which looks like a stick figure, with a head on top of a cross, confirms Pri is a she. His eyes light up looking at the tricolour flag in the 'Lives in' section. He was not expecting to face an Indian player in the game of Puerto Rico, much less a woman from India. Despite being a fan of strategy games, he had never heard of Puerto Rico. Not until Keith, the dork from the Design department, introduced him to the German board game that's been raging in Europe.
"It's like Settlers of Catan, with the whole build-to-earn-victory points-mechanism but with a bunch of clever variation, lah. You earn resources instead of just being handed them to you. There are many ways to win if you strategise well," Keith had said to Rishi during one of their shared cab rides to work.
A stream of questions floods Rishi's mind. How did Pri314 discover the game? How long has she been playing? How old is she?
Rishi opens the chat window and begins typing.
Hey, I just noticed you're from India. Me too. I mean, I live in Singapore currently but originally from India.
Rishi's wife, Tara, has stated on numerous occasions that one of these days she'll design a special course for conversationally-crippled men, like Rishi: How To Talk to Women 101. If Tara was here right now, she would have admonished Rishi for sounding too enthusiastic. At least, it was better than being rude, like the time Rishi buried his face in the menu because he didn't know how to respond to the "nice shirt" compliment that Tara's friend, Chandra, gave.
Rishi, aka GforGandalf, is glad Pri314 doesn't think like Tara. She replies, Oh nice, how's it there?
Pretty safe. The government has been very strict with masks, mandatory quarantine, and social distancing.
Good for you, she writes and throws in a complimentary smiley-face emoji, like an over-friendly saleswoman.
What's not good is the timing. As a lead developer at Microsoft, he was sent to Hong Kong 15 days ago to fix bugs ahead of a very important software launch. Despite the 14-day quarantine upon his return, he looked forward to the trip as a temporary break from Tara's constant yacking. Tara is the kind of woman who feels compelled to share the most useless information about people they have nothing to do with. Like the hair colour of Mrs Lim's daughter. Fun fact: Rishi has spoken to the condo caretaker, Mrs Lim, only once in his life. That too, because Rishi was asked to pick up the parcel Tara had requested Mrs Lim to collect, while Tara was "held up" finding the perfect pair of shoes for an upcoming gala.
Rishi had made peace with the hotel quarantine as a form of a paid Vipassana retreat he'd been meaning to attend for years. He didn't mind the long stretch of solitude, the quiet comfort of his own company, including, of course, some award-winning television, but today, the third day of his enforced isolation, is turning out to be anything but comforting. His heart quivers each time his phone lights up. What if his mum falls sick? Worse still, what if both his parents contract the virus? Who's going to fetch the hard-to-find oxygen cylinders? How would he procure drugs or an ambulance sitting across the Indian Ocean in a matchbox-sized room? Marooned in a subpar hotel, which smells like a hospital hallway, where the faint sunlight spills through the ash-coloured blinds but barely grazes him, he thinks of himself as Tom Hanks in Cast Away, except he's not worrying about his own survival. Then again, telling all this to a stranger, whom he just met, seems pointless. So, he takes a long whiff of the disinfectant-infused air and types, Ready to lose again?
Don't get cocky, GforGandalf!
He smiles for the first time in three days. His strategy to win this game is by focusing on earning doubloons early on via small market – a perfect opening for his corn plantation. Wait a minute! Pri314 plays craftsmen before he could activate his plantation, thereby pointing a metaphorical middle finger to his well-chalked-out plan. What an aggressive move.
Twenty minutes later, with all confidence drained out of his body, Mr Hanks is helplessly buying quarry after quarry to be able to afford the Guildhall, which would pave his way to a total of 58 victory points. Too late, though. Pri314 plays the colonist. The game ends. Pri314 scores a narrow win with a four-point lead. Her Elo ranking takes a staggering leap, while Rishi is demoted to the ranks of 'Good' players. He was a 'Strong' player before, but now Good will have to do.
Pri314 is typing…
Ouch, that should hurt.
Ha ha, you played well. I should have counter-attacked you with a quarry at the start, but I got complacent. Congratulations, Priyanka!
How do you know my name? I mean, I could be a dude named Priyansh or Priyank?
Wouldn't it be embarrassing to admit, he checked out her profile earlier? Creepy – Tara would say, if one of their mutual married friends was to do this.
Rishi winces slightly and types, True. Are you?
Why's he still chatting with her? This is the first time he's chatted with anyone barring the customary, terse, 'good game' comment. Normally, he'd be quick to close the chat window after a humiliating defeat like this.
No. I am Priyanka. And does GforGandalf have a muggle name?
Rishi, he replies. His ears have turned pink and warm.
How long have you been playing? He types next.
For a year now. On and off. Ever since the first lockdown in Delhi.
I'm from Delhi too! Heard things are terrible there.
Don't get me started. I play to escape the sh*tstorm.
You play well. It was a daring move to play craftsman in the beginning.
I haven't lost in a long time. Had to avenge myself.
Rishi's long, brown, fingers practically waltz on the keyboard.
I know what you mean. Last month, I was so desperate to cross the 300 mark, I kept playing all night. Came to 310 and then lost brutally in the next game. Should have stopped at 300.
You sound like a gambler. Lol, Pri314 replies.
It's one thing to lose to a female player, but what if she's super young, like straight out of school or something? So, he writes, If you don't mind me asking, how old are you? Just making sure I didn't lose to a teenager.
I'm not a teenager. If I waz, I wd hv been typng lik dis.
I'm 28. How about you?
I turn 35 next month.
Really? Thirty-five isn't old.
You're old, Gandalf. Accept it.
Rishi's face turns the colour of cherry tomato. Strangely, though, he's not uncomfortable or awkward with the attention. Not like on his wedding day, when he wanted to punch the photographer for making him enact the Titanic pose, with his arms stretched behind Tara's, in a ridiculously tight silk sherwani, on the tall wooden stage, in front of 600 guests. He didn't know which would make him pass out first: hunger, the harsh beam of light assaulting his eyes or the embarrassment of it all.
The marriage itself had been arranged by their parents seven years ago. Rishi's friends had all been married by then. Shorter than most of his male friends, with zero skills in the flirting department, he wasn't exactly the type women fell for. When his father asked if he was okay marrying Tara, he could not think of a single reason not to. She was pretty, drew a decent salary, was kind to his family. So, he said yes. Little did he know then, he and Tara couldn't have been more different. Like sugar and spice, to quote Tara.
How did you know about this game? he asks Pri314.
I played a board game version at a friend's house. Love the fact that there is no dice involved. Winning through luck is easy.
Good point? Can't he see she is reeling him into a conversation? He, on the other hand, is acting like a dumb, ignorant goldfish.
Anyway, when you have time, tell me more about Singapore. I've been thinking of applying for an animation course there.
Before he can gather his thoughts about a subject he has no expertise in, she writes, I gotta run now. Have to do dishes. Sigh. See you around?
Rishi's lips slide into a smile when he notices a friend request from Pri314. They're friends now! He sends her an offline message, Looking forward to playing again. And telling you more about Singapore.
The rest of the afternoon passes by in a blur. Rishi ends up losing five out of seven games because he keeps going back to Pri314's profile to see if she's online or responded to his note. Her profile picture (a beagle wearing a beanie) doesn't say much other than she's a dog person? He never quite understood the BoardGame Arena policy to not allow players to put up personal photos but choose only from a pre-approved catalogue of anime characters and animal photos. Up until today, he didn't care about such arbitrary things.
At six in the evening, Tara calls to say that she misses Rishi and complains about the kitchen drain. It has clogged yet again. Rishi doesn't ask what happened. He knows Tara doesn't empty her plate before dumping it in the sink. Or bothers to rinse dirty pots and pans. On the rare days she attempts to cook a proper meal, the kitchen looks like a murder scene, with her oily fingerprints smudged on marble cabinets and countertop, drops of dried tomato puree stuck all over the stove like stubborn bloodstains, vegetable peels decaying on the slab like unattended corpses – which ultimately Rishi has to clean and wipe and bin.
"I have to call my parents," he says and ends the call. Because he's incapable of lying, he then dials his mother in Delhi. She tells him his cousin, Monica, is down with Covid-19. The whole family, including Monica's husband, her in-laws and her infant, are infected. Rishi feigns concern but is secretly relieved that his parents are doing fine. At night, he checks his inbox to see if Pri314 has replied. She hasn't. He goes to bed grudgingly and has trouble sleeping. The hotel pillows are too thick for his stiff neck. The air-conditioning is too strong. You're old, Gandalf. Accept it!
He spends most of the next morning testing software, blissfully unaware of the crisis Tara is going through. When he finally opens his WhatsApp, he's mauled by a bunch of panicky texts from Tara.
The Wi-Fi is not working. What do I do?
I switched the router on and off already.
Never mind, the Wi-Fi is back on.
Babe, lavender or space grey?
Can you please reply? The contractor has been messaging me.
Rishi sighs. They had argued about the colour of the bedroom wall the day before his trip to Hong Kong. He thought he had made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to sleep in a room that looks like a nail salon. No, royal pink is not a good alternative. "Why can't we just go with space grey?" he had said. Since Tara is a professional interior designer, Rishi had made peace with the fact that Tara would have the final say on furniture, decor and furnishing for their newly bought home. However, after encountering a new garish multi-colored cushion, the 12th no less, in the living room and that ginormous dream catcher hanging over his study (they aren't Indigenous people, for God's sake!), he drew the line at the colour of their bedroom walls. It was supposed to be a consensual decision. And yet, here he is, back to square one, having to defend his colour choices. He can't tell if Tara has genuinely forgotten about the argument or is tactfully restarting the negotiation. Knowing her, it's probably the former. Far too often, she has said, "Babe, we work as a couple because you forgive, and I forget."
Will he be able to forgive himself for not standing up for himself this time?
You know my answer. Please don't disturb me, I'm working, he writes.
He then opens the BoardGame Arena, where a message from Pri314 awaits him.
Let's play at 11.30 am (your time)?
He looks at his watch. It's half past two. Frustration lingers in his throat, like the chemical aftertaste of truffle mushrooms. He's not prepared for more bad news, but because he simply can't brush off today's headlines from his mind (400,000 Patients Tested Positive in India. Healthcare System Has Collapsed), he taps his mother's number with clammy fingers.
"We're okay, Beta. Monica's husband and father-in-law have been admitted to ICU. Pray for them, Son."
When Rishi was 11, his cousin Monica, five years older than him, with blonde highlights and a secret back tattoo, was his key to unlocking new adult experiences. She had introduced him to forbidden shows like Baywatch. Like most middle-class Indian families, theirs too regarded the American show, with a semi-clad cast, indecent and entirely inappropriate. Mon served him his first drink – whiskey on the rocks. It was she who taught him how to play the guitar. She was the cool cousin he idolised all the way through his early 20s. A year later, when he found out that she had cheated on his best friend from college, that too with an older guy, a random photographer, he became curt towards her. After her failed marriage with the photographer and a son, in a phrase Rishi's international colleagues would mock if they overheard, "born out of wedlock," like everyone else in their extended family, he too began to see Monica as a frivolous, selfish, vile woman – a bad apple in their morally upright gene pool. He refused to attend her second wedding, even though his parents reasoned that Monica had changed. That she had finally found love and stability. "The marriage won't last a year; I can give you that in writing," Rishi insisted.
He has been proven wrong several times in the last two and half years. Wrong, when he found out Monica turned down a job from a PR agency in Dubai to be with her new family in Delhi. Wrong, when she posted a heartfelt note about her completing one year of sobriety. Wrong, when Monica told him the second time is the charm. "Real love," she had said, "requires years of self-awareness." Her words had pricked him then but stab him now. He wants to reach out to Monica, but he doesn't. Like plaque, resentment has built up deep within his arteries over the years.
Ship the sugar barrels now! He's not produced any goods.
Rishi can't believe Pri314 is helping him win the game against a strong competitor. This level of interception (in his private chat window) makes him feel like a CIA agent.
Oh, hey, thanks. How long have you been here? he types.
Since the beginning of the game, I thought seeing your gameplay might make it easier to defeat you next time. Turns out I have nothing to fear. (Tongue-out emoji).
Sorry, been out of sorts today.
The clock is ticking. Rishi must play a move now. He can't afford to be disqualified after being so close to victory.
Never mind, focus on the game. We'll talk later, Pri314 writes.
Rishi wins the game. His opponent congratulates him. He doesn't reply. He hurriedly exits the chat window to talk to Pri314. A red dot next to her name indicates Pri314 has gone offline. Rishi shuts the laptop angrily. He can feel himself sinking further into the foam mattress. He's too tired to switch off the lights, too jaded to increase the aircon temperature. At three in the night, he jolts awake to the sound of an ambulance horn. Sweat seeps through his cotton T-shirt, making the sheet below him damp. It takes him a few minutes to realise he's in Singapore and not in Delhi, where another 30,000 have tested positive. He blames the nightmare on the BBC documentary he had watched earlier, in which the family members of the deceased were howling on camera as they struggled to find a bed in the over-crowded Delhi hospitals. He should have taken the trigger warning seriously.
By the 10th day of the quarantine, he no longer has the appetite for cold spring rolls that the hotel staff left outside the door or the will to shower and change clothes. What's the point? Where is he going? Who is he seeing? He visits Pri314's profile. She hasn't been online in four days. She hasn't replied to his text messages:
Long time, no see.
Hope you're keeping well.
I'm worried, are you okay?
Despite winning two back-to-back games of Puerto Rico against random strangers, he can't shake off ennui that's settled deep inside him, like dust inside the bottom of a vase. His phone conversations with Tara have become shorter, stranger, wordless almost. Who cares if the ang moh neighbour next door is pregnant again. No, he's not craving butter chicken. If he does, he will order it on Food Panda. Yes, he knows the electricity bill is due.
Babe, guess what! Tara says in her champagne voice. I have a little surprise for you when you're back.
Rishi groans silently as he remembers the surprise party Tara had thrown for his 34th birthday. What was supposed to be a quiet evening of wine and Korean barbeque (because Rishi believes birthdays cease to be a milestone after you cross the age of 30) turned into a lavish soiree of 17 people, with sake flown in from Japan, a two-tiered tiramisu cheesecake from Henri Charpentier, and French cuisine prepared by a five-star chef – leading Rishi to wonder if Tara even knew him. The extravagant affair had eaten up their quarterly savings, not to mention his jaw hurt for days from smiling for all the "candid shots."
Please don't throw a party. You know I'm not in the mood to socialise.
I'm not throwing you a party, relax….
Hang on, Tara. Mum is calling. I'll talk to you later.
Overcome with urgent panic, Rishi gets up from the bed and starts to prance around.
Hello, Ma? Are you guys okay?
We're fine, Ma says feebly and goes silent.
Monica's husband, Madhav, died last night.
Her words hit Rishi in the gut.
He passed away from cardiac arrest. The doctors didn't know he had a weak heart. They were treating him for Covid. He was recovering so well in the ICU.
Rishi feels like the ground beneath him has been pulled away, fast, like a rug. His head starts to spin.
Poor Monica didn't even get to say goodbye. Because he was infected, they got rid of his body instantly.
Scenes from the nightmare-inducing BBC pandemic documentary recur in Rishi's head. He pictures an unattended body, wrapped in a blue plastic cover and white sheet, lying in a corner, like a crumpled, stained tissue at one of those under-staffed, over-inundated crematoriums.
Three hours later, Rishi still looks like a fish freshly pulled out of a pond. Buried under the weight of sorrow, he doesn't know what to do now. He's not a superstitious man, but somehow he thinks it's all his fault. That he's personally responsible for Monica's tragic loss. Why couldn't he bury the past and wish well for his cousin? Why did he not attend the wedding? Why couldn't he see Monica happily married?
Because he is unable to concentrate on work, he signs into his BoardGame Arena account. Pri314 is offline yet again. If only she were here today to distract him with her playful teasing, her reassuring emojis. Funny, how just 12 days ago, his world seemed so compact, so uncomplicated, with very little room for grief or for longing. He was a good son, a good husband, a good coder – not necessarily great in performing those roles, but at least he was whole and functional. And now, he was pulled apart, drilled open, disassembled by the unskilled hands of the Universe; a hollow machine, a piece of junk. He was useful once but now he's rusting.
The only person who can potentially repair him is a stranger on the other side of the shore, shrouded in mystery. He types her name in the Facebook search bar, an endless list of profiles greets him. Even after narrowing the search criteria by changing the location to Delhi, he is to sift through over a hundred profiles and even then, how is he to find the one he's looking for when he has no idea what she looks like. Heck, what if she isn't on Facebook. Feeling completely helpless, he then decides to visit Monica's profile. Her last post is from two months ago, a photo of her leaning against muscular Madhav at a rocky beach in Goa. He stares hard at Madhav's face, marked by fine lines of wisdom, gregarious and kind in a way he himself will never be. She, too, looks like an ebullient 40-year-old teenager. He is tormented by this picture-perfect portrait of love. His own honeymoon album, comprising photos in which he's too self-conscious to even put an arm around Tara, pales in comparison.
After reading condolence messages posted by people he doesn't know he types, So sorry, on Monica's Facebook wall but then deletes it immediately. Can he be any more callous?
Idiot, he mumbles and reaches for his cellphone.
Rishi is far from the sprightly, bouncy ball he thought he would be at the end of his hotel quarantine. This morning he's slow to pack his luggage, slow to get into a cab, slow to respond to the driver. Monica's words haunt him like the lyrics of a popular song.
He was genuinely bowled over by her resilience when he called her the other day to offer condolences, to redeem himself of his guilt, to mend the broken bridge between them. At the end of their 20-minute conversation, he had asked her, If you knew back then what was to happen, would you have still married Madhav?
Her voice grew soft. Yes, she said. It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, she replied meditatively, cliches be damned.
The rain-soaked trees have turned emerald on Singapore's Tuas Highway. Perched on the back seat of the cab, he rolls down the window to invite the humid air in but regrets it instantly. The sight of cars whooshing past him manically induces a slight headache. A giant, menacing billboard outside is asking him to buy the new and improved Dyson vacuum. Can he buy a new life instead?
Excuse me, do you mind reducing the volume, he says to the driver. The driver scoffs but obliges. What kind of passenger dislikes 'Bohemian Rhapsody'?
Rishi's house, on the 70th-floor, smells of fennel and cardamom. Tara must have been cooking or committing a culinary mass murder. The framed print of Van Gogh's Almond Blossoms on the wall next to the main door looks like it's not been wiped in days. He looks at his pasty reflection in the glass and is saddened by it. He takes off his shoes. Then his socks. He's doesn't have the patience to stack them on top of the shoe rack.
Honey, you're home!
Rishi can't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of Tara's greeting. Who is she? An actress playing the role of a wife in a Hollywood movie?
Two seconds later, Tara emerges from the bedroom in a floral sundress, which shows only a hint of her shaven thighs. Her hair is pulled back in a messy bun.
Ouch, she says, hugging him. His untrimmed beard grates her cheek. Have you forgotten how to shave?
She doesn't wait for his response. What would you like first? Breakfast? Tea? The souffle I finally mastered?
I'm not hungry. Think I'll go shower.
Tara gives him a mean glance, looking like a cat who's been denied a petting session by its loyal human slave.
Sick of showering at the hotel, Rishi says, averting her accusatory eyes.
He then drags his luggage trolley to the bedroom. She trails behind him excitedly.
Rishi can't believe how spacious their master bedroom is. But something is different, and he can't quite tell what. It's only when Tara screams, Surprise! he looks up and notices the dark grey walls. He forces himself to smile.
Babe, are you okay? she says, rubbing his shoulders.
He pulls away and sits down on the bed. Tara joins him.
Is this about Monica? Your mum called. I was at NTUC, holding a jar of pickle when Mum broke the news. I swear, the jar slipped from hands and crashed on the ground. I was so shocked….
Rishi has stopped listening. His eyes are fixed on the wall in front of him – a blank, booming mass of grey, dark and blemished, swallowing all the light.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022