Nothing by Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind

Your husband wants to know what’s wrong. “Nothing,” you say.

“Tell me when you want to talk about nothing,” he says.

He gives you a kind smile. He is a kind man, your husband.  You watch as he walks to your bedroom and shuts the door. You will join him after you wash, wipe and put away dinner plates and utensils in the various racks and shelves of your kitchen. You will join him after you wipe the kitchen platform clean of grime, after you turn off the lights in all the rooms, after you check if the doors have been locked, after you take the children to bed, after you read them a bedtime story. You’re reading Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to them. The book has been recommended by your daughter’s English teacher. “For the vocabulary,” she had said. Charlie Bucket has just won the fifth golden ticket. Yesterday, the children laughed when they heard the name Bucket.

“You mean like the bucket we have in our bathroom?” the younger one had asked.

Yes, you had nodded with a smile and ruffled his hair. The older one, your daughter, is impatient like you once were. She doesn’t like any interruptions when the story is being read. Today, she won’t let her brother ask any questions. You read for twenty minutes. You’ve yawned twice. You look at the clock. It’s late. You tell them that you will read the rest of the story tomorrow. When they protest you tell them that once the story is over you’ll buy them the DVD. They seem happy. You decide you’ll see the movie too and the possibility of experiencing what was once only imagined excites you. You wonder how Willy Wonka will look onscreen. 

After you kiss them goodnight you go to your bedroom. The house is dark but the dim light from the streets cuts an angle across the narrow passageway to your room rendering it in pale light. Your husband is asleep. You change out of your saree into a pale blue nightgown with white lacework around the collar. Just before you join him in bed, you walk to your window and part the curtains. Your eyes dart to the third floor of the building opposite yours. In other houses of that building a few lights flicker here and there, little lights of low wattage in someone’s living room, a string of fairy lights on someone’s window grill, the light of a small night lamp beside someone’s night table. The house you’re looking at however is plunged in darkness. The balcony door is still closed. It has been that way for over three days. Nobody has adequately taught any of us the art of self-consolation, you think. You go to the bathroom and cry. 

*

Nine months ago, a man named Sorabh moved into the house that you’re now looking at through the parted curtains of your bedroom window. He’s not very tall. If you must compare, he is much shorter than your husband. Some people might say that his face is rather unremarkable, the kind of face that one wouldn’t be able to recall immediately when somebody says the name. Something like, Sorabh? Which one is Sorabh?

The day he moved in you watched from your window. You saw Sorabh and another man, no doubt a hired help for the day, go up and down three flights of stairs carrying what seemed to be carelessly packed boxes that were all tearing at the seams.  He must have packed those boxes himself, you thought.  Even from a distance the missing feminine touch was easy to spot. But the relief you felt was new to you, indecipherable at that time.  You tried to make out how those boxes were labelled but you were too far away.

 A day later you were still thinking about him, his strong hands lifting boxes, hauling them over his shoulder, glistening drops of sweat on his forehead, a sweat patch on the back of his shirt. You were thinking of his shoulders, those strong, strong shoulders.  You thought of him as you peeled onions, as you packed lunches for your children, as you oiled and plaited your daughter’s hair just the way the school wanted it, as you washed and ironed your husband’s shirts. You were still thinking about him when you ground cardamom and ginger, cloves and a stick of cinnamon, masala for the evening chai, just the way your husband liked it. You’ve been watching him all these days and now he’s gone somewhere. You don’t know if the separation is permanent or temporary. But, you do know that but both his presence and his absence unsettles you.

*

Three days after he moved in you met him accidently. . The children were at school and your husband was at work. You had gone to the street corner to buy vegetables from a vendor who showed up every noon with a hand cart. Sorabh was there casually tossing sweet potatoes and peas into the vendor’s plastic basket. He handed the basket over to vendor who placed them on the scales all the while making small talk about the neighbourhood.

“Your wife is in a different town babu? Is that why you come alone to buy my vegetables?”

“I am a free man brother, no wife,” Sorabh laughed. In a faux, shrill voice, he imitated the wife he never had, “Did you eat? Did you eat? Where are you? Where are you? When are you coming home? When are you coming home?”

The vendor laughed, “Yes babu, who needs cages?”

You smiled. The man thought marriage was a cage. You asked yourself. Are you in a cage?

In a moment of recognition the vendor took notice of you. When Sorabh looked at you, you wished you’d dressed better. You were wearing a tired saree, your hair all piled up in an awkward top knot, there were sweat patches under your arms. You should have, at the very least, worn your hair loose. Sorabh wore a blue checked shirt over dark blue jeans. You could smell the scent of his cologne, a smell that reminded you of both citrus and spice. 

Bhabhi! All fresh, my vegetables,” said the vendor.

You smiled at the vendor and briefly looked at Sorabh who smiled politely at you. The vendor ignored him and began serving you. Sorabh pulled out two soiled notes to pay the vendor. He stood barely two inches away from you. You seemed to have lost your voice. You feigned many coughs, blurted out the names of a few vegetables, mixed up the quantities, forgot the tapioca that your son liked, forgot the spinach that you wanted to make for dinner that day. Both of you paid the vendor and left together.

“Where are you from?” you asked him surprised that you’d initiate a conversation like that, with a stranger, so easily. It was quite unlike you.

He told you that he was from another part of town. He told you the new flat was closer to work. You told him it’s a nice neighbourhood, the schools were near, the sea was a short rickshaw ride away and that there was a good gymnasium just down the street. Oh, he said and smiled.. You felt colour rushing to your cheeks. He told you he got a good deal on the house. And with a hint of a wink and a sly smile he told you that the landlord seemed modern. He laughed and just as he departed, he told you his name. When you told him your name he repeated it to you, twice.

“Unusual name,” he said.

The wordless feeling that came a minute later made you happy. You went home that day and made curried potatoes instead of tapioca, lentil gravy instead of spinach. You parted your bedroom curtains and saw him standing in the balcony, shirtless and charming.

An hour later your husband came home. He saw your many smiles and wanted to know what the secret was. What was making you so happy? He wanted to know.

“Nothing,” you said.

*

Your husband is a kind man, a nice man who does what good family men are expected to do- works, earns and pays the bills. He takes the children out every Saturday afternoon so that you can get some sleep. Sometimes, he surprises you on the odd Friday evening with tickets for the new Hindi movie. He’s even made arrangements with the family of one of his colleagues to watch the children. There’s dinner and a scooter ride by the sea side. On some days, if there’s time, he takes your hand and the two of you walk down the promenade, past balloon sellers and cotton-candy vendors, past families walking their dogs. From a meal truck parked by the seafront, he buys you dim sums and fried rice, crispy vegetables in soy sauce, corn fritters and something else, something unpronounceable. You have a quiet meal by the beachfront. You watch your husband chewing the corn fritters. You observe his face. The strong jaws, the large nose, the receding hairline, the small wart beside his right ear. You married him to please your father.

*

Sorabh reminds you of something, a wordless feeling, a faint memory of a touch but that’s not all. He reminds you of what you once felt for a man you had kissed in an empty street of rain and darkness, just a quick brush of the lips, and then you had fled. He reminds you of an ache, the kind of ache that is both quiet and restless, a longing. You’ve memorised his image. It’s your secret talisman. It makes you smile.

*

You come back home from the seaside and begin fussing around the kitchen making arrangements for the next day’s meals, chopping vegetables and fermenting rice and lentils. When your husband goes to bring back the children from his colleague’s house, you rush to your room and part the curtains. The lights are on in Sorabh’s house. Through the open balcony door you can see a TV mounted on the wall of his living room. It’s on and from where you’re standing you can see that he’s watching an English movie. The last time you saw an English film was years ago with your friends from college.  You rush to your living room and turn on the TV. You fumble with the remote, changing channels furiously until you think you’ve landed on the same channel he’s watching.  It’s a police drama. One of the characters is holding a gun. The others have their hands up. You go back to your room, look out of your window, squint and look carefully at Sorabh’s TV again. It is the same movie! It excites you that you’re watching what he’s watching. It feels like you’re sharing an experience with him. You wonder what he’s thinking when he sees the guns and the speeding cars, the women in tight police uniform, their hair pulled back in a sleek chignon. In that moment you feel like you’re a part of his world and all that he has to do is turn around and see you there. You return to your living room. The scene has changed. Two characters are kissing, their tongues are entwined and they’re locked in a passionate embrace. You think of Sorabh, less than a hundred feet away. The possibility of experiencing what was once only imagined excites you.

You hear the key turn in the lock. The children come rushing into the house. You scramble for the remote and turn off the TV before they can see what’s on. Your husband comes behind them.

“What were you watching?” he asks.

“Nothing,” you say

*

Soon after your marriage you lived with your in-laws in a two-room apartment. Your mother-in-law was an affable lady, a rare creature who actually asked you if you needed more privacy with her son. You blushed. You shook your head and then when she touched you lightly on the shoulder you said, “No Ma, how can I stay away from you all? What is this privacy business?” You had to say that to show her that your mother had raised you well. Your husband and father-in-law exchanged looks and smiled at each other. Your mother-in-law beamed. You smiled too, happy that saying what is expected of you made them happy. Secretly you wanted the privacy.

            For five years you lived with your in-laws, working quietly in the kitchen beside your mother-in-law. For all her affability, she would never let you cook, for that would be relinquishing too much power.

“Help me, that’s how you will learn,” she’d tell you with a smile. Kitchen Queen, you’d call her in your mind. You were her helper. You had your chores assigned to you. Chop vegetables. Pound and keep the masalas ready for her to use. Make the kitchen top and gas stove shine after she had finished. Wash, dry and return the kitchen utensils to their places assigned by her. Serve the family. Put on a smile and beam when your husband and father-in-law praised her cooking. Later at nights, when everyone slept, you’d tiptoe to the kitchen with a piece of paper in your hands. For hours you’d look longingly at the recipe of puranpoli, the one your mother gave you. Once, your husband found you asleep on the kitchen floor.

“What are you doing here?”

 “Nothing”

*

You’ve been watching Sorabh for a long time now. You know what time he leaves for work and when he returns. On weekends you know that he sleeps late. There was an office party once. One of your neighbours alerted the local police station because the music was too loud. You stood by the window long after your husband had slept. You watched as Sorabh spoke to the cops, gesticulating wildly. Two women and three men stood by his side. The women wore jeans and sleeveless blouses; their hair was open, long and silky, almost like models from some foreign shampoo advertisement. Your hair is limp and dry. One of the women had multiple piercings on her eyebrows, her lips and her nose. The police left after much debate. You sat by the window and waited until his guests left. The lights in his house were on for the longest time. You slept only after you felt sure that he had gone to bed. You’re often confused. You often chide yourself for your behaviour. We feel the loneliest when we don’t understand ourselves, you think. Nobody told you that the right time to receive love is when we’re least worthy of it.

*

You moved to the seaside city when your husband’s company transferred him there. Your in-laws won’t leave their home of forty years. You’ve cajoled them to move with you. You didn’t mean that. Your husband promised he’d visit them once every month. We’re only six hours away, he told them. You must visit us, you told them. They shook their heads. They spoke of old age and frail limbs, god’s ways and destiny and something about privacy. What privacy? You asked. Everyone smiled. Your parents have raised you well.

*

It’s been three days now but the door of Sorabh’s balcony is still closed. You haven’t seen him in all this while. You’ve been staring at the closed door. You’ve submitted its form to memory, the scratches on its surface, the unevenness of its edges, the rust on its hinges, the roundness of the door knob. You’ve given the door a name. Kholo. You want it to open. Objects don’t turn into their names. People don’t turn into their names. Naming objects won’t change their form.

The lights are still out. You’ve thought of all the things that could be wrong with him. He was probably arrested or away on an office trip. Maybe he went to see his parents. Maybe he’s moved out. The thought disturbs you. Another thought enters your mind. Maybe he’s really unwell. Maybe he needs help. 

You tell yourself that he’s in another room, on the other side of the house, the side that does not face your window and that’s why you can’t see him. You tell yourself that he needs your help. You tell yourself that you need to do something. You decide to go to his building the next day and inquire about him. You feel better and you let yourself smile. Your husband who has just returned from work wants to know why you’re smiling.

“Nothing,” you say.

“Alright. I’d like some chai, please,” he says, “make it strong.”

*

You consider the rented house in the sea city as your home. You had children there. For the first time you cooked, you cooked to your heart’s content. You made your mother’s puranpoli and tried out recipes the TV chefs taught you while your husband worked. You found that the sea was a rickshaw ride away. You found the courage to go there alone every now and then, early mornings before your children and husband were up. It was here in this house that you found the courage to ask your husband a question, a question that you had never asked before, an answer that had been important to you. On moving day, after you’d put away boxes and he’d paid burly coolies their wages, after you’d set up the kitchen and had made him a strong chai, after a quiet dinner of rice and curd and pickles, after you’d both gone to bed and he’d turned to face you in the darkness, in one brief moment you’d asked him if he loved you. It seemed necessary, urgent, it was important to you. He said, ‘You watch too many movies’ and laughed, turning away from you. You never asked again.

*

You’ve dressed carefully, a simple but elegant voile saree, kohl smeared eyelids, loose hair, a thin silver chain around your neck. You take quick, brisk strides and enter the opposite building. The guard at the gate stops you. He wants to know where you’re going.

“3rd floor,” you say nervously, “Mrs. Mehta”

“Mrs. Mehta?” he asks and you nod. She’s the lady who sells sarees from home.

You know what to do. If he answers the door you’ll say you rang his doorbell by mistake and that you were actually there to see Mrs. Mehta. You’ll point out his appearance and ask him if he’s feeling alright. You’ll offer to help. If he does not answer… you push that thought out of your mind. You’ll think of that possibility later. You’re convinced that he’s there, that he’s ill and that he needs somebody to help him.

You walk up the stairs excitedly. You’ve never done anything like this before. You reach his door and you’re about to ring the bell when you hear voices from below. You pause. You hear the clatter of footsteps, and giggles.

A male voice is saying, “This is where I live. It’s not a big house but it’s got a nice balcony. Our landlord is modern.” You know that it is him and that there’s someone with him. You know that they’re coming up the stairs towards where you’re standing, outside Sorabh’s door. It’s inevitable. He’ll see you.

“Oh hello,” says Sorabh in surprise when he sees you.  Your eyes turn to the woman by his side, a lithe, petite girl in bridal finery, henna in her hands and flowers in her long, shiny hair. He introduces you to his wife. He pronounces your name incorrectly, twice. You smile and correct him. His wife tells you that you have an unusual name. You smile and welcome his wife to the neighbourhood. You tell her that the sea is a short rickshaw ride away and that there’s a good gymnasium just down the street.

“She doesn’t need a gymnasium,” Sorabh says fondly. The girl blushes and for a moment the newlyweds have eyes only for each other. You fake a light cough. You have their attention. You invite them home. They thank you profusely. You’re about to leave when Sorabh asks you why you came.

“To see your neighbour,” you say, “Mrs. Mehta. She sells sarees. They are beautiful.”

You proceed to the stairs and almost trip on your saree. Sorabh reaches out to steady you. The strap of one of your sandals gives way. His wife clucks her tongue and offers to lend you one of hers.

”Don’t worry,” you say, “it’s nothing.”

*  * *

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