As Maggie reached for her nonfat mocha, her blouse peeked open, revealing the edge of a blue lace bra. She leaned over the counter so that the Starbucks barista had a better view.
“Well, at least you think I’m tasty,” she smiled. The barista dropped the spoon he was using to foam a cappuccino.
In a secluded corner, Maya Kapoor threw her reading glasses on the table.
“Look at that! She has NO shame! That expat bitch!”
Sanjay turned his head and leered at Maggie as she left the coffee shop. Maggie’s Manolos clicked across the tile. Her black pencil skirt accentuated her best asset. Sanjay’s eyes came to rest on the nape of Maggie’s neck, exposed by a messy up-do.
“Her hair looks like she just rolled out of bed,” Maya chided. “Do you mind placing your tongue back in your mouth so you can talk to me?”
“Huh?” stuttered Sanjay.
Maya slammed her coffee cup on the table. Sanjay turned his head back toward her.
“Healthy flirting is a term introduced by perverted men who want to lend legitimacy to their extramarital dalliances. Flirting invariably has a sexual connotation to it.” She got up from her seat and walked around the room gesticulating and muttering something to herself. Suddenly, she stopped, turned back, looked at Sanjay, and asked, “Did my husband sleep with her? You are his friend. Did he ever tell you anything about it?”
“Please sit down and lower your voice, Maya. This is a public place. People are staring. She’s just helping him with his book.” Sanjay dodged the sex question.
“Is that what they’re calling it now? He flashes those adorable dimples at women, asks them to ‘tell me a story,’ and they swoon. They buy his books so they can imagine he’s ‘the world’s best boyfriend’.” Maya paused. “But, he’s the world’s worst husband.”
Sanjay sighed. “You’re being unfair to Aditya—and to Maggie. She takes an interest in his writing. That’s all. She’s a fan—and a friend. Nothing more. When’s the last time you took an interest?”
“I take plenty of interest! I was the one who negotiated an exclusive deal with Flipkart! And convinced Karan Johar to direct that obscenely expensive book trailer! My interest has yielded high returns!”
Sanjay waved his hand to dismiss her retort. “That’s all brand building. He doesn’t care about any of that, and you know it. When’s the last time you talked to him about his writing? Did you even read his latest book before publication?”
“Well, no,” Maya sulked, “but I’ve been busy. ‘Brand building,’ as you call it.”
Sanjay stirred his iced Americano with his straw, trying to get the cinnamon to settle. “Exactly. And while you’ve been busy brand building, Maggie’s gotten busy building his ego.” Sanjay finished stirring and turned the straw upside down. “That’s a powerful tool in every man’s erector set,” he said as he licked the cinnamon off the straw and sucked hard.
“You’re a pig.” Maya rolled her eyes and suppressed a giggle.
Sanjay was about to retort when Maya’s phone rang.
The display read: Shreya.
Maya sighed. “Great. Here’s groupie number 2. What does she want?” She slid her finger across the screen to answer the call.
”Hello, Shreya. How are you?” Maya’s tone was flat.
“Ma’am, come quick…Lilavati Hospital…It’s sir,” shrieked Shreya.
“Shreya. Slow down. What happened?” asked Maya.
“I…I…don’t know. He just collapsed. One minute we were…and the next…” she trailed off. “Just come to Lilavati now. Critical Cardiac Unit.” The phone went dead. Maya went pale and quiet.
“Maya?” asked Sanjay. He reached out to take her hand. “You OK?”
Maya stuttered. “I…Aditya…He’s at Lilavati…I have to go.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” he offered.
Maya nodded. Her hands shook as she entered the passcode on her phone. She called her driver and ran out to meet the car—and then waited. In the rain. Staring at her phone. She dialed her mother.
“Maa, has Shreya called you?”
“No. Why?” Maya’s mother didn’t need to see her daughter to know something was wrong.
“Something’s happened to Aditya,” responded Maya. “I don’t know the details yet. I’m headed to Lilavati Hospital. Meet me there.”
“Should I bring Isha?” asked her mother.
“No. She has an exam today. Let’s not worry her until we know something. Love you, maa. The car’s here. Gotta go.” she said as the silver Mercedes attempted to edge its way toward the sidewalk. Maya and Sanjay ran to the car and jumped in.
“Lilavati Hospital, Jason! Now!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he responded with perfect calm—a calm tone Maya needed to hear. She hated that he still called her ‘ma’am.” She and Aditya had been trying to convince him to drop the formality, but he wouldn’t. At that moment, though, his simple answer calmed Maya’s frazzled nerves.
During monsoon, the drive from Powai to Bandra could stretch to two solid hours. The rains had come early—and hard—this year. Some streets were still flooded from last week’s downpour. The drive from Starbucks to JVLR, normally a 20-minute ride, was stretching toward 40 minutes. Maya tried calling Shreya back, but the phone was busy. As they made their way onto the onramp, she finally texted:
In the car. Will let you know when we are in Bandra.
She called again.
Maya stared at the phone as if Siri would have the answer to the only question she had: how is my husband?
Sanjay patted Maya’s hand. “It’s going to be OK. He’s going to be OK.”
“Sanjay…What I said at Starbucks…” Maya trailed off into thought.
“You didn’t mean it,” he replied.
“I didn’t. Really…” The water sloshed beneath the car’s wheels, and Maya patted her eyelashes with her fingertips. Then, a notification came over her phone:
Ravi Subramanian and Times of India are tweeting about #DeadAdityaKapoor.
Panic set in as Maya opened her Twitter app.
“#DeadAdityaKapoor is trending on Twitter! Number 1 in India! Number 25 worldwide!” Maya screamed. She tried to call Shreya again.
“Where the hell is she? Why isn’t she answering my calls?” Maya asked, half to herself, half to Sanjay.
Maya tried her mom.
“What’s the use of having mobile phones if no one answers the damn things!” Maya growled.
She tapped the #DeadAdityaKapoor hashtag to read the latest tweets.
@TOIMumbai: Reports say @AdityaKapoor is dead. #DeadAdityaKapoor
@ravisubramanian: My prayers are with Aditya’s family tonight. #DeadAdityaKapoor
Bile rose in Maya’s throat. She tried Shreya and her mother again. Still no answer. Maya’s phone started beeping and buzzing, practically vibrating out of her hand. She read the latest tweet.
@Trolliciousness: @AdityaKapoor, ur a douchebag, rot in hell! #DeadAdityaKapoor
Maya threw her phone on the floor as if she’d been electrocuted.
“Damn trolls!” she screamed.
The car inched along.
“Jason, can’t the car go any faster?” begged Maya.
Jason pointed out the window. Rickshaws, cars, and motorcycles created a sea of vehicles. The Mercedes was like a ship without a sail, drifting along at the mercy of the next wave.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. The traffic is slow today.” Jason honked the horn. The cars came to a standstill.
“Maya, calm down. I am sure he’s fine,” offered Sanjay. “You know these Internet rumors.”
Maya breathed. She had grown used to the white heat of the spotlight, the constant glare into her personal life, the blinding pain that accompanied it. Over the last 5 years, she had started to wear a mask to the outside world that protected her. She took the mask off only in private, and, sometimes, not even then.
But, she wasn’t ready for this. This heat. This glare. This pain. A private pain that she must live publicly. Her mask began to crack. If she couldn’t protect herself, how could she protect Isha?
As if some psychic connection triggered at Maya’s thought, her phone rang.
The display read: Isha.
Maya picked up the phone and breathed deeply, slowly. The car inched along.
“Hi jaan. How are you? How was your exam?” She tried to maintain a neutral tone. She had to hope the tweets were wrong, but she didn’t want Isha to worry. Not yet.
“How am I?!” screamed Isha. “How was my exam?! Maa, it’s all over school! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram! My friends are WhatsApping jokes. They’re saying dad’s…” Isha’s unspoken word throbbed like blood in Maya’s ears.
“Sweetie, calm down. Shreya called and said he’s in the hospital. That’s it. You know better than to believe anything on social media.” Maya’s response to Isha belied her own doubts.
“Maybe if I say that enough times, I will believe it,” thought Maya.
“Yes, maa, it’s fiction, I know.” Isha’s tone changed. Maybe Isha was coming to her senses. Maya wished she could come to her own as well.
“That’s my girl,” interrupted Maya.
Isha continued, “But, maa…the latest is that Shreya has confirmed he’s dead.”
Maya nearly dropped the phone. Maya’s scream startled Jason; the wheels of the car scraped the divider.
“The kids are saying the hashtag originated with her handle. Here’s the tweet:”
@ShreyaKaushik_1: Am heartbroken #DeadAdityaKapoor
“What the hell? I haven’t been able to reach her, yet she’s tweeting?” thought Maya.
“Don’t worry,” reassured Maya. “I will let you know when I hear anything. I promise. Jason will take you to the hospital after school. I love you.”
Maya hung up the phone and dialed Shreya. Again.
No answer. Again.
Maya dialed her mother.
No answer. Again.
The car inched along. The windshield wipers slapped water off the glass.
The phone rang. The display read: Rajesh.
Maya stiffened and answered. “Hello Rajesh.”
“Nice of you to call and tell me my brother is DEAD!” he yelled.
The blood drained from Maya’s face. Her body shook. She couldn’t even think that word—dead—as if a thought could kill Aditya.
“Raj, please calm down. I didn’t call because I don’t know anything either. What time is it in LA anyway?” She looked at her watch and tried to calculate the time difference between Mumbai and Manhattan Beach.
“Don’t deflect, Maya.” Raj’s patience with his sister-in-law was always thin, but at 3 a.m., an onion had a thicker skin than he did. “A reporter called asking for a statement!” Raj yelled.
“What did you say?” asked Maya. Her brain shifted to crisis management mode.
“Nothing! What could I say? How about: ‘I’m halfway around the world, and my sister-in-law is a heartless bitch who doesn’t tell me shit!’ Imagine that headline!”
In the Kapoor family, words were weapons. Raj’s perfect thrust was a killing blow to Maya. Raj’s response was loud enough for Sanjay to hear. He patted Maya’s hand.
“Raj, I am sorry,” she pleaded. “I don’t know anything. I will call you the minute I do. I promise. Get some sleep,” suggested Maya as she hung up.
Maya’s mask cracked wide open under the weight of Raj’s words. Sanjay placed his arm around her, but she found no consolation in his embrace. Jason’s eyes reflected in the rear view mirror.
“Ma’am, are you OK?” he asked.
Maya nodded and buried her head in Sanjay’s shoulder.
They were on the outskirts of Bandra now. Jason’s eyes moved back toward the road. He slammed on the accelerator. The car lurched forward and started to weave through the traffic. Jason employed the full range of the car’s horn. He tapped it so frequently, it took on an almost rhythmic, telegraphic sound:
Beep, beep, beep…HONK! HONK! HONK!…beep, beep, beep.
As the car pulled up to Lilavati Hospital, Maya wiped her tears, checked her make-up, and put on her sunglasses—the only remaining mask in her arsenal. She stepped out of the car. Flashbulbs burst in her face.
The reporters surged. “Any comment?…How does it feel to be a widow?…Who is Shreya Kaushik?”
Sanjay protected Maya from the press until security came forward.
“Ma’am. We’ll take you straight to the cardiac wing,” offered the security guard.
“Thank you.” Every ounce of energy in her body told her to run. Yet, she maintained a dignified walking pace.
A nurse met Maya at the wing entrance and guided her to Aditya’s room.
“My daughter reads all Aditya sir’s books. She loves them.”
“Thank you,” managed Maya.
As they reached the room, Maya stopped just before the door and breathed. “Sanjay, wait here please.”
“Are you sure you’re OK to do this alone?” he asked.
“Yes,” came her simple response.
Maya pushed the door open and froze.
Aditya was alone. His eyes were closed. His hands were at his side. Millions of followers, yet left to die alone.
“I’m too late.” The words escaped her lips. The room began to spin. Her legs collapsed under her. Maya sat and sobbed. She picked up Aditya’s glasses from the bedside table and peered through them to see how Aditya had seen the world. A tear touched the lens.
“What’s that sound?” Maya said almost to herself.
“Where’s it coming from?” She searched the room. She thought it might be Aditya’s phone.
She moved closer to Aditya’s bed.
It was Aditya’s heart monitor.
The beeping sound was his digitized heartbeat.
Maya gasped. She bent down and kissed his forehead. She reveled in its warmth.
“Mera jaan,” she whispered.
Aditya stirred. His eyes opened. “Mmm. Maya. Hi.”
“Hi to you, too.” Maya beamed as she held back tears. She brushed Aditya’s curls off his face. She caressed his shoulder and arm.“ You gave us quite a scare.” Her hand came to rest on top of his. She squeezed hard.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Like I’ve been run over by a rickshaw,” he joked.
Maya handed Aditya a glass of water. “Drink this. It’ll help.” Their fingers touched. Aditya smiled, but his eyes betrayed his exhaustion. He gulped the water down.
“Do you want more, sweetie?”
Aditya shook his head no.
“Get some rest, jaan.” Maya turned to put the glass on the table. When she turned back to say, “I love you,” Aditya had fallen asleep.
Maya opened the door. The emotional toll of the last few hours shone through her mask.
“You can come in. He’s alive.”
She fainted as Sanjay entered the room; he steadied her. Shreya and Maya’s mother entered the room just after him. Maya recovered her senses, advanced on Shreya, and slapped her. “I have been trying to reach you for hours. No calls. No texts. No nothing.”
“Phones don’t work in CCU,” offered Shreya, casting her glance to the floor. “The coverage is spotty. I haven’t been able to receive or make any calls,”
“I am sorry, Maya,” offered her mother. “We’ve been so focused on Aditya…” She said as she turned toward Aditya’s bed.
“Is that why you left him here…alone?” accused Maya.
Aditya’s eyes fluttered open. He squinted against the harsh fluorescents.
“Hi, everyone. What’s all the fuss?” he asked.
“No fuss really,” teased Sanjay. “We’re just glad to see you’re still among the living, yaar. I guess the twitterati were wrong.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Aditya.
“Twitter says you’re dead, mate. Maybe you should tweet a selfie to prove you’re alive,” laughed Sanjay.
“What! Give me my phone now!” yelled Aditya, raising his head. The effort from this small exertion exhausted him, and he lay back against his pillow. He held his hand out to Shreya.
“But, sir, you need rest,” protested Shreya.
“My phone! Shreya! Now!” bellowed Aditya.
Shreya produced the phone from her coat pocket and handed it to him. He scanned the notifications. Among the thousands of RTs, replies, and mentions, Aditya recognized Shreya’s handle.
@ShreyaKaushik_1: Am heartbroken #DeadAdityaKapoor
She’d been retweeted 5,000 times.
“Oh my God, Shreya! What have you done?” Aditya stared at his phone. His forefinger scrolled through the notifications, emails, missed calls, and texts. At that moment, Isha burst into the room.
“Daaa-ddy!” She ran to his bedside and winded Aditya in her embrace.
“Sweetie, I’m fine. Really. See?” He held her close and smiled. “But, I can’t breathe. Could you let go now?” Isha giggled, but released her grip.
Aditya turned toward Shreya. His smile was gone, his face red. “Did you tweet this?”
He pointed to Shreya’s tweet from hours earlier.
“Look at the agony you’ve put my family through! Your viral tweet has spread worldwide.” He turned to Maya and tipped his phone toward her. “Did Rajesh see this?”
Maya nodded as she dialed Rajesh’s number.
Aditya returned his gaze toward Shreya. “Shreya, did you even think how this would affect my family before you tweeted this? I expect this from trolls. Not from you.”
Aditya’s phone continued to vibrate with notifications, while his voice shook. Rage mixed with frustration—and pain. India’s most prolific writer, famous for publishing two books a year, could barely put two words together.
Finally, he said, “I trusted you, Shreya.”
Shreya was silent.
“Why didn’t you correct this once you found out I was OK?”
Shreya gaped. She didn’t even squeak a single syllable under Aditya’s intense glare.
“To you, social media is just a game, isn’t it? The one with the most likes wins. Is that it?” asked Aditya. He rubbed his temples. “Please leave, Shreya. I want to be with my family.”
Shreya left the room without breathing another word.
Aditya picked up his phone again and tweeted:
@Aditya_Kapoor: Video killed the radio star. Twitter killed the writer. Had your fun, back to your caves, trolls. #AdityaKapoorAlive https://goo.gl/bq4rOx
His tweet was retweeted 10,000 times—and counting.
Maya leaned over the bed and gave Aditya an eyeful.
“If you don’t button your blouse, you are going to set off my heart monitor,” he teased.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that would we?” she purred as she slid the phone from his hand. “No more phones today.” She kissed him. “Get some rest, Aditya. We’ll be back tomorrow morning.” She motioned everyone out of the room.
“Good night, mera jaan,” smiled Aditya.
“Night,” beamed Maya.
The next morning, the newspaper headlines were all about Aditya Kapoor.
The Times of India read:
INDIA’S ROMANCE KING ALIVE AND WELL—AND TWEETING!
The Bombay Times headline read:
ADITYA KAPOOR’S MYSTERY WOMAN REVEALED!
Beneath the headline was a blurry photo of Shreya Kaushik leaving the hospital in tears.
This story is inspired by the Write India contest from the Times of India. The highlighted passage in the story links to the Write India page for Ravi Subramanian. The passage is an excerpt from Subramanian’s best-selling novel, The Bestseller She Wrote. You can read Subramanian’s impassioned plea for young writers to participate in Write India here. His winners included the youngest winner so far: 14 year old Prapti Panda. You can participate in the contest here.