“The aqua blue dress or the cherry red jumpsuit?” I say, holding up the two dresses in front of the mirror.
The table lamp on the dresser continues to light up the room with its steady beam of light.
“Sorry, still getting used to it,” I say, shaking my head. “Which of these two dresses will look more flattering on me tonight — the aqua blue dress or the cherry red jumpsuit?” I say, enunciating each word.
The table lamp immediately starts flickering.
A short burst of light, followed by four longer bursts. One dot followed by four dashes.
The Morse Code for number one.
“Thank you,” I say, replacing the cherry red jumpsuit in my wardrobe.
For the next couple of hours, I waltz through the rooms of my two-bedroom apartment, tidying them up, replacing the everyday cushion covers and table cloths with the fancy ones reserved for special occasions like this one. The expensive china is laid out on the dining table, at the centre of which, I’ve placed a flower vase containing fresh white tulips, his favourite. Motivated by his love for seafood, I’ve cooked slow-roasted tomato, garlic and prawn spaghetti — a new recipe that I practised and perfected yesterday, thanks to YouTube. He said he’ll bring the wine and the dessert. A playlist of soft rock songs containing his and my favourites is saved and ready to be played, on a loop if needed. My stomach is in knots thinking of the evening ahead! Our first dinner date at my house. If things go well, this could be the beginning of something beautiful — and lasting, I hope.
A voice in my head — I call it the Prophet of Doom — is clamouring for attention, reminding me about the past when a relationship that seemed perfect at the beginning quickly transformed into an ugly, tangled mess of a heartbreak that took me nearly a year to recover from. This is different. He is different. I am different now. Besides, I have the lamp.
Three months ago, when I was attending a charity event organized by the company where I worked at that time, I was obligated to purchase something to prove that I wasn’t a heartless robot but a compassionate human who cared about the underprivileged. Given that my company wasn’t the best paymaster, I naturally chose what looked like the least expensive item and purchased the table lamp for Rupees 1200. Honestly, I could have bought a new lamp for this amount — one that I could have decorated my living room with — but it was all for charity, so I closed my eyes, sighed and parted with my hard-earned money.
I brought the table lamp home that evening and placed it in my bedroom, vacillating between locking it away in the storage room and donating it to my domestic helper. As I was video-calling with my Mom that night, I noticed the table lamp flickering from time to time even though none of the other lights in the house was flickering. Attributing it to faulty wiring in the lamp — it did look like a century-old, traditional lamp with a rusty stem and a faded, ragged shade — I ignored the flickering at first. After finishing my call with Mom, I brushed my teeth, turned off the lamp and lay on the bed to sleep only to jump out of my skin two minutes later with a world-shifting realization — the flickering light of the lamp was made up of short bursts and long bursts of light. Could these represent the dots and dashes of Morse Code? The lamp — or someone through the lamp — was communicating with me through Morse Code!
Unplugging the lamp from my bedroom, I carried it to the living room and plugged it in. I sat there for a long time, staring at the steady gleam of light emanating from the lamp. Haltingly, I asked the first question. “Who... what are you?”
The light remained stubbornly steady.
“Can you hear me?”
A long burst of light, followed by a short burst of light and then, two long bursts of light. A dash, dot, dash, dash. Morse Code for Y — for yes.
After a lot of trial and error, I asked the table lamp and got the correct answers to a multitude of factual questions, like was it Monday or Tuesday, was it April or October, were we in Mumbai or Bangalore, was I 25 or 27 or 29, was my favourite colour blue or red, did I like pasta or noodles, was it night or day, was I a man or a woman. Every time I asked the table lamp a question containing multiple options, it gave me a number which represented the option number. To a yes or no question, it simply answered as Y or N. The lamp didn’t answer any other kind of question. Sadly, I found that the lamp’s superpowers did not extend to predicting the future — a wonderful skill that would have made me a billionaire. But the lamp did help, especially when I was torn between two equally good or bad options, or I didn’t know my own mind.
There was another special way the lamp could help. The next night when I video-called my Mom, with the lamp placed on the bedside table, I asked her a series of questions about her preferences starting with simple questions like whether she liked the earrings I gifted her on her birthday, whether she was happy with the way I was performing at work, would she and Dad prefer to spend a week during summer visiting me and whether she was satisfied with her new teaching job. Each time she answered a question the table lamp either corroborated her answer or let me know she wasn’t being honest with me. After testing the lamp, I turned it off and finished my conversation with Mom, promising myself I would never use it again with her.
Excited about the ways the lamp could help me, I decided to use it during a video interview for a new job. At the end of the interview, I asked the interviewer a series of questions that helped me determine whether the job was right for me, whether the company’s culture was healthy or toxic and whether the remuneration offered to me was competitive or not. Before we ended the interview, I knew whether I would be offered a job or not. A month and a half later, I had landed a sought-after job in a prestigious company offering me an 80% raise over my current salary.
I found the most prolific use for my lamp when one evening, I invited all my friends to a party at home and we played a game of truth and dare. By the end of that evening, I knew the innermost, dirty secrets of nearly everyone in the room — who had cheated on her boyfriend, who had stolen from a supermarket, who had kissed a friend’s boyfriend. And that’s how I identified my real friends who cared about me — turned out there were just three of them — from the chaff of pretentious, double-faced women who weren’t my friends and didn’t wish me well.
Fast-forward to today — I have an incredible job, a great apartment, a loving family, supportive friends and a wonderful man I met two weeks ago. As I position the lamp on the corner table in the living room and turn it on, I realize by the end of our date tonight, I will have the answers to all my questions.
When the doorbell rings at 7 o’clock as I knew it would — he’s been punctual on all our dates — I still feel fluttery as I answer the door. The whiff of his perfume hits me first and I feel his strong arms around me, embracing me, before he releases me and I see him standing at my doorstep dressed in a crisp white shirt and blue jeans, holding a bunch of red roses, a bottle of wine and a box of pastries, a charming smile on his handsome face.
“Hey, baby! You look amazing,” he whispers in my ear, his warm breath sending a tingle down my body.
“I’m so happy to see you. Come in,” I say, welcoming him into my apartment.
He steps into my apartment, his gaze sweeping the living room, taking in the decorative wallpaper, the mementoes from the places I’ve visited, the tasteful showpieces I’ve chosen to adorn the corner table, the calendar from a five-star hotel I visited last year, and photos of my family and friends. Maybe because I’m so pumped about tonight and hyperaware that the decrepit table lamp looks out of place in my modern living room, I imagine that his gaze rivets to the table lamp and stays there longer than necessary before moving on to the next object.
Dinner is sprinkled with praise for my cooking and my apartment, anecdotes from his day at work today, interesting facts from a couple of TED talks I watched in the afternoon and our plans for the weekend. By the time we wrap up dinner with chocolate pastries and move to the living room with the wine bottle and two glasses, I’m really pleased with the way the evening is unfolding. I’m enjoying my time with him so much that I almost forget about the questions I need to ask him until I accidentally ask him a question about his favourite actor, which he answers honestly, and the table lamp on the corner table flickers in response to let me know that it was a truthful answer.
I set up the music while he pours two glasses of red wine and brings them to the couch where we’re seated.
“This is so wonderful,” he says, holding my hand. “I feel lucky to have met you.”
“I feel the same way. Cheers to new beginnings,” I say, taking a sip of the flavourful red wine. “So, I was wondering — are you more of an indoors person or an outdoors person?” I ask casually.
“Definitely outdoors. I spend most of my free time outdoors, hiking or just being in nature, visiting places, meeting people,” he says.
The lamp, positioned on the corner table behind him, flickers the Morse Code for number two, the second option. He’s telling the truth.
“I love the outdoors too, especially during winters. I love the winter sun on my face,” I say. “What about your family — are you close with them or not?”
“My family,” he says, shifting his position on the couch. “Um, let’s see. My father passed away when I was very little, so I don’t remember him. It’s just been my Mom and my elder brother and yes, I’m close with both of them.”
The lamp’s flickering once again indicates that he’s telling the truth. I sigh in relief, mentally checking off questions from my list. I’m sure he’ll find the abrupt jumps from topic to topic odd, but I’ll justify it somehow if he asks. The way this evening is progressing and with the wine already going to my head, I don’t think we’ll be talking for very long now and I want to cover the important questions before that.
“I’m so glad to hear that. I’m close with my family too,” I say, giving him an encouraging smile.
“So, tell me about your hobbies, apart from dancing? What do you do in your free time?” he asks, sinking back into the couch.
“Yeah, we’ll talk about that in a minute. I just need to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind. It’s important for me to make sure we’re aligned on these important topics before this relationship progresses further. Do you mind?” I say, biting my lip.
“Of course not. Please go ahead.” He crosses his hands behind his head in a relaxing posture.
“Are you looking for a serious relationship or a casual one?” I say, flinching because I’ve already asked him that question in a different form on our second date.
“Like I said before, I’m looking for the real deal, you know, a serious relationship. I’m done with my share of casual relationships.”
I crane my neck to glance at the lamp behind him. To my surprise, the lamp doesn’t flicker at all. That’s never happened before. It always gives an answer when a yes/no or a multiple-choice question is asked.
“So you’re saying that you’re looking for a serious relationship and not a casual one,” I say.
He raises an eyebrow. “Yes, that’s what I said.”
Again, the lamp doesn’t respond. What’s happening?
I decide to ask him something else.
“So, how long have you been single — has it been a short time, like a few weeks or months, or a long time like a year or more?”
He swirls the wine in the glass and sips it, taking his time before answering the question. “My last serious relationship ended a year and a half ago. I’ve gone on a few dates since then but nothing worked out beyond one or two dates.”
Again, the lamp doesn’t flicker.
Frustrated, I excuse myself and unplug the lamp to examine the wiring. Everything looks okay and it was working until a few moments ago. I plug it in another socket and return to my seat on the couch.
“Are you feeling hot or is the AC temperature okay?” I ask.
“Actually, I am feeling a little hot. Could you please turn it down a couple of degrees? Thanks.”
Now the lamp flickers — Morse Code for number one. Relieved that the lamp is working fine again, I go back to my list and ask him a few inconsequential questions about his likes and dislikes, his favourite books and movies, his favourite food and the places he loves to visit. Each time, the lamp flickers in response, indicating that he’s being truthful in all his answers.
I decide to move back to the real questions.
“So Manav, about us, do you think things are going well or not?” I ask.
He laughs at this, and I laugh with him even though I don’t understand why he’s laughing.
“Oh, things are going exceedingly well,” he says.
The lamp flickers number one — the first option, yes things are going well. Truth.
I’m starting to have trouble remembering all my forty-two relationship questions because the wine is making me feel tipsy.
“Manav, do you like me or not?” I blurt out the question, although I don’t think it was on my original list.
“I like you,” he says, touching my hair playfully.
The lamp flickers yes.
“And what do you like the most about me — is it my looks, my intelligence or my personality?”
He cups my chin with his hand affectionately. “All of the above,” he says.
This time, the lamp remains stubbornly unresponsive. Maybe it’s because he answered with all of the above instead of choosing one option. Or maybe — and then it strikes me like lightning — maybe the correct answer is not on the list. The lamp is working fine and yet, it didn’t answer some of the questions. I assumed I’d presented all the possible answers when I framed the questions, but what if the lamp remained unresponsive because the true answer wasn’t on the list?
Recalling the first question that went unanswered is like navigating through a thick fog. And then, I remember. “Manav, are you looking for a romantic relationship of any kind — yes or no?”
He smiles knowingly. “Of course, I am.”
The lamp flickers this time — option two. No! He’s not looking for a romantic relationship of any kind? Then what is he doing here with me in my house? Why is he here?
Even with my dulling mental faculties, I’m aware of a cramping numbness spreading across my body, invading my extremities. “Were you... were you single when we met — yes or no?” I manage to ask.
He scoffs, rising from the couch and standing in front of me. “You’ve figured it out, haven’t you? I’m married,” he says, extracting a gold ring from his pocket and putting it on his ring finger.
Through the corner of my eye, I notice the flickering lamp indicating that he’s now telling the truth. With every ounce of my strength, I try to stand up from the couch, but I’m not even able to move my fingers. What has he done to me!
He follows my gaze to the lamp and looks back at me. “The lamp. I know you’ve been glancing at it all evening, each time I answered your annoying questions. And — surprise, surprise! — I also know why.”
I’m now staring at my empty wine glass, realizing he added something to it while I was setting up the music. Panic bubbles up inside me and I wonder what he’s going to do to me.
“You’re going to be fine, don’t worry. The effect will wear off by morning,” he says as though reading my mind. “As for the lamp, I’ve kind of figured out how it works. You see — that’s why I came here today. I knew you were using it somehow; I wasn’t sure how. But now I have a fair idea.”
I lie on the couch, unable to move or speak, silently seething.
With a sudden yank, he unplugs the lamp and holds it under his arm. “How did I know about the lamp? Let’s just say one of the persons whose secrets you exposed using this lamp is dear to me.”
My mind is working feverishly, trying to work out who he’s talking about and how I can find him once I’m okay. Because I’m pretty sure he’s about to leave with the lamp.
“Don’t even think about it,” he hisses, his face darkening. “If you come after me, I will hurt you. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the lamp.”