Read all the six stories below or separately by clicking on each link.
1- No Tears Lost by Natasha Gayari
It had been raining until today. Had this been another day, you’d have noticed the crowd, the traffic, the sinking sun and lack of rain. The narrow winding street is taking you both to the cafe where you had ordered protein smoothies after a few games of badminton, two weekends ago.
He is his usual self, his mind, perhaps rushing through mundane office-related issues, unperturbed. You don’t notice the right turn that you have to take to reach the cafe. You’re lost in the turn your relationship with him has taken.
There is no tremor inside your throat rising up to your jaws, no throb under your eyes. Your face betrays a calm that you don’t understand. You are practical and collected. For a moment, you want to be your younger self, who, on similar occasions had wept, pleaded and relished the affectionate attention being showered. Completely consumed by the reasons laid out on the table like colourful exotic dishes- Reasons why you and he could never part. You had taken it all in, the way you chomp down plastic-packed supermarket junk, every month before and during your periods.
He and you are talking like normal, mature couples. Like those who’ve been in love and friendship for more than twenty years. Who’ve never had to end anything. Ever yet.
Pain and numbness do not alternate inside your mind. There are no thoughts about having no one to turn to on a bad day. You know that there is going to be no agreement that he and you will never meet or spend days or nights together again, watch movies or make out on the couch on weekends. You’re not going to have to face any of these, unlike love-addict teenagers or frivolous, insecure young things. You have never uttered the word break-up. Neither of you are interested in raw emotional drama but discuss a certain bond that you both feel and share. He reiterates about how much care there is left in his heart for you and will always remain so. How he will support you in everything that you do or gladly meet anyone you decide to meet and mate with. He doesn’t make anything look dark. There is no dead end.
You don’t accuse him of sleeping with your much younger housemate, of keeping you in the dark about the goings on between them for the past five months. You don’t accuse him of anything. You only chide him that he should’ve at least alerted you – it would’ve helped you deal with the confused amusement you experienced when you found out about their affair last week. When the girl blurted out her insecurities to you under extreme distress because she suspected her man, your man, of leading multiple private lives.
Because physical relationships don’t matter in deep connections. And you both have got it way too deep. You can’t see anything. You feel a bond that is, according to him, supposed to be above all physical connections. You could even invite yourself to his house, right now. A ‘let’s go,’ with a tilted smile can make him drive you both back to the same physical intimacy you’ve been sharing since the night you met and made out at a common friend’s wedding. An intimacy that still feels warm and fresh, after seven years, with a life of its own. A physical being that’s disconnected with the rest of you both, so much that it isn’t supposed to matter if he had sex in secret with the girl you shared your house with.
You don’t feel disgust towards the other woman, the twenty something who you don’t share anything in common with except a house and a certain cordiality born out of the necessity of day-to-day living. In the past five months, since she moved in with you, she and you have made enough efforts to sort out your daily friction. You have bought vegetables, paid rents and bills, took turns to do the dishes, split expenses on mobile apps and, on occasions, went out for dinner at a nearby restaurant to chit-chat about the insignificant local lives you both lead.
You don’t hold any grudges against him. He and you have spent too much time together to not understand one another. You have time and again advised him to improve his sleeping habits and warned him of his tea-induced bad breath before a sales presentation. You have together cooked countless Sunday breakfasts and lazed around in the bed way too long in pyjamas and worn out tees. He has teased you a number of times calling you spendthrift and dumb and what not. You have made too much love in one another’s houses late in the night and early in the morning, followed by non-stop conversations about technology, G-spots, and karma.
He was right. How do you end connections? How could a liking of his, his longing for a younger woman, end this thing that’s been going on between him and you for so many years? His appetite for the girl is real. This thing between him and you is real too. How can one make the other unreal? He doesn’t think there is anything there to end. There are only connections. You cannot deny them by giving them conventional names.
You are almost convinced of his beautiful life logic. It’s so inclusive, you even find it endearing, a sucker for philosophy that you are.
You gather your breath. “Treat her well.”
His gaze drops, then comes up on you again.
“I will.” You notice a smirk.
The sweet logic of deep connection has left you intoxicated for too long. The younger you is crying like a silly girl desperate to possess another being. A being so open-hearted and welcoming towards one and all that it makes her feel small, immature and incapable of accommodating free spirits in her life. Silly her. He is right, you silly.Now, you notice that it hasn’t rained, yet. It is a good evening. The dogs are barking. No tears are lost. Seven long years have not gone missing.
* * *
2- The Wedding Guest of Always by Ajay Patri
Hari collected wedding invitations.
It was a private collection. But the world got wind of it after an old neighbour walked into his knee-deep collection. She had arrived at Hari’s doorstep for sugar and was invited in by the absent-minded Hari. She promptly told her son about what she had seen after returning home.
The ancient wedding invitations, yellow and crumbling, with lettering the colour of faded coffee stains. The names on these invitations belonged to people who had celebrated dozens of anniversaries or been divorced for a long time. Some of them were long dead.
She also told him about the newer invitations, some of them printouts of emails and WhatsApp messages full of playfulness that hinted at self-consciousness over sending an invitation itself. Caricatures replaced the bride and groom names. Cheeky footnotes said the newlyweds preferred cash as a gift.
When she talked about some of the famous ones in the collection, her eyes went wide. Invitations for a royal wedding in the United Kingdom, a pop star’s wine drenched affair in Australia, a Hollywood actor’s big day in a Venetian villa, the traditional wedding of an Indian tycoon’s daughter in a Jaipur palace…
Her son, a journalist with a nose for human-interest stories, wrote a short piece about Hari. For reasons that could not be determined, the article went viral. Hari was hailed as a bard, a chronicler of wedding invitations for the ages.
Teary-eyed people began to throng his home, begging for a glimpse of the wedding invitation of a beloved grandfather or a distant aunt. He helped them at first, even giving away the invitations in his collection if they meant a lot to the people who approached him. But when the crowds became unmanageable, he apologised and refused to let them in.
This did not deter a different crowd who took it upon themselves to invite Hari to their weddings. They crammed his mail box, left their invitations on the doorstep, even slid them under doors and windows if they found a crack. When asked why they did this, they smiled for the cameras and said why not.
Talk show hosts saw all this and invited Hari. When he declined, they sent researchers on expeditions to the neighbourhood to find out more about him. The journalist’s mother, delighted with the events she had set in motion, told everyone that Hari was unmarried. When the talk show hosts heard this, they knew they had their angle; being unmarried surely explained Hari’s pathological need to collect wedding invitations. With a shake of the head and a wry smile, they wondered aloud on their shows if there was a lover in his past who had sparked this need. Over the next few weeks, radio hosts reported a barrage of callers. They said they were responsible for the collection of the man whom the press now called the Wedding Guest of Always.
The goodwill did not last long, though. It started with an accusation, made in passing, that Hari was invading people’s privacy. People who had celebrated Hari’s work before were now riled up. It was downright immoral, they said, for Hari to keep mementoes of weddings he was not a part of. He was a pilferer, a common thief. A reality TV star even threatened to sue Hari for having an invitation to the wedding of his second failed marriage.
Before mobs of angry people could picket and storm Hari’s home, someone stepped up in the middle of all the outrage and asked what this story meant for the institution of marriage. People wrote commentaries about this and then appeared on news channels to participate in angry debates with those who had disagreed with them in other commentaries. Between them, they decried the lavishness of wedding invitations adorned with gold dust and peacock feathers, the brevity of modern-day wedding invitations, the hubris of the people who sent their invitations to Hari, the fickle nature of talk show hosts, the childishness of a society that deemed this whole charade to be newsworthy.
Hari shifted out of his house in the middle of this furore. He did not inform anyone before leaving, certainly not the neighbour who had been responsible for his brief moment in the spotlight. Some said he moved to a different city to continue his hobby in peace. Others said he left his collection behind when he made the move and was now happily married.
* * *
3- The Summer Dream by Poornima Laxmeshwar
The ice cream vendor screamed his lungs out, “haal ice…haal ice.” A combination of milk and ice, it cost 50 paisa each, the most expensive of all the goodies the vendor had to offer us. The children emerged like rats from all corners of the chawl having anxiously anticipated his arrival. They had pestered the adults to lend them coins. Parents, annoyed at the interruption of their afternoon siesta, lent a coin or two without delay.
I held my cousin Bhajji’s hand and watched the vendor give away the haal ice. He was dressed in oversized pants that were folded until his knees, a beedi in his mouth, and a white skull cap that had acquired the dust of our small, laid- back town. He uncapped the water bottle and gulped down noisily. Houseflies competed with us for the ice sticks.
“What are you ogling at, eh?” the vendor asked me. I kept looking at the firm lines on his forehead, ignoring his question. Amma had told me that a person who worried a lot had lines on their forehead. What were his worries? I wondered. Maybe, like Dodappa, he too had four daughters. Day and night Dodappa worried about his daughters’ education and marriage expenses. Ajji kept pestering him by asking, “Why don’t you give it another chance? A boy is a must and I am sure Lord Shiva will not fail our prayers, this time.” Quietly, Dodappa would pick up his lunch bag and go to work at the family planning department.
Bhajji and I walked back to Khadi Gram, finishing our haal ice on the way. Kaka had warned us not to enter the abandoned premises which was full of weeds and mango trees. But then we always ignored Kaka’s instructions. We climbed the tree and sat on its branches where we had carved our initials. Coming from a joint family and living with 12 other cousins during important festivals had taught us several things. If you wanted something, your name must be on it as a mark of ownership. The chairs, pencils, chappals, and even kerchiefs had initials.
Su (Dhasu for us, Sudha for the world) came to where Bhajji and I sat. She was a little older to us but when she spoke, she sounded like one ajji. She declared with great authority, “We have a situation here. Kaka, Atya, and Kaku are going to watch a movie. They are leaving us behind. How cruel!”
Bhajji replied, “But why should they tell us?”, swinging her legs.
Su mocked Bhajji, “But why should they tell us?” and then in a sterner tone, “They could have taken us. It is holiday time and we are free. Now what are we to do? I am very angry. I am not going to talk to any of them. Kaka always makes us work. Appa is always worried about money. Atya is always shooing us away and reading the letters from her secret lover. I will declare war!”
Bhajji said, rolling her eyes, “Such a drama queen, you are! Relax.”
I was quiet, trying to decide whom to side with. I felt Su was right. The adults were forever worried. Unable to bear the heat any longer, we decided to head back home after plucking mangoes. Pammu and Dattu joined us. They were rolling tyres with sticks and their heads looked like freshly shaved coconuts. The boys had overtly enjoyed the attention they received until last week when their Munjvi was done. But they were still struggling to learn the Sandhyavandana mantra strictly taught by Ajja.
Tangy and unripe, our mouths watered just at the thought of mangoes in Su’s bag. Dharwad was known for three things: mangoes, guavas, and pedhas. The walk from Khadi Gram to our house was slow and uneventful. The pigs’ squeals reached our ears. Looking at them made me sick. I always wished I could barter pigs for some more rajnigandha trees. I pacified myself thinking God was busy. Perhaps he was in a dilemma, wondering whether he should grant a son to Dodappa or a gold nose ring for Amma. I wished God has his priorities right and thought of us kids for once.
Dakshayani Mami opened the door and yelled at Pammu, “How loud you children are! Let me nap a bit. Go somewhere else and play.” We giggled at the irony for she was partially deaf.
Our house was tall. It had two windows, two doors, a room, a kitchen, and only one toilet. The toilet was reserved for the elders. The children had to relieve themselves outdoors, but the pigs would never let us do so in peace. At times, I would pile stones to threaten the pigs if they got any close. Sometimes we even asked Kaka to be on the lookout. We took advantage of his joblessness.
We headed straight to the kitchen and started arguing about who would get to cut the mangoes and who would get to add salt and other masalas to it. Kaku entered the kitchen. She was upset that we were late. We ignored her and continued arguing. We were only copying Su who was confident enough to ignore an elder.
Together, we made pulu, a pickle like dish. Next, we wanted to make Chigali. The tamarind, salt, jaggery, and cumin seeds stared back at us from the grinding stone. Pammu said, “I am good at beating. I will make chigali. If you don’t believe me, ask Dattu.”
Dattu’s ego was not as tiny as he was. He replied, “I can do it, too. Remember how I hit you with the bat that day?”
Su dismissed the others as if they were only houseflies and said, “Let me do this.”
Rice, beans huli, mango chutney, and pulu was arranged for dinner. Atya usually gave us chivda or churmuri along with tea.
In the evening, Ajji swept the house as a part of welcoming goddess Lakshmi. She washed her fair wrinkled face, wore a sunset shaped kumkumand lit the lamps. She sang her favourite bhajan- Deva bandanamma, swamybandano.
After that, Doddappa asked us to gather around him. He liked narrating stories to us. We thought him to be the kindest of all elders as he also bought us cream biscuits once a week. We retired for the day soon after dinner. Bhajji and I shared a pillow and blanket like we casually shared everything else. While we slept quietly through the night, the adults’ minds worked full-time. Atya thought about her approaching marriage. Dodappa wondered if he should give God another chance. Ajji was thinking of Kaka and his idleness. Kaka worried about his poor result in the BA exam.
In my dream, the ice cream walla spread a mile wide smile for me, handed the haal ice to me and hummed, “Row row row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily life’s but a dream.”
The next morning as the restless bulbuls started their busy day, the house was filled with the smoke of heavy incense and prayers. Rukmini Bai, our neighbour, was loudly chanting Vishnu Sahasranama. The entire street reverberated because of her chanting.
We were sent to Krishna Bai’s house to play and began to wonder why. We didn’t want to miss out on anything.
“Don’t come unless you are called. I will tell you when lunch is ready.” said Kaku.
As we gathered in the living room of Krishna Bai’s house, we started listing out our assumptions.
“Is Kitty Kaka drinking again?”
“Is he back to hitting Radha Kaku?”
“Is there a problem in Atya’s marriage preparation?”
As kids, we could only speculate so much. Su probed Krishna Bai for clues, saying she knew it was something else entirely. After some resistance, Krishna Bai spilled the beans.
“You are an adhikprasangi in the lot. It’s your father only who wants to part away from the house. The adults are discussing that now. Though your Ajja and Ajji are sad, he is adamant.”
We looked at each other without saying anything. As much as I hated Su, I equally loved her and the entire gang. I couldn’t imagine a holiday without them. Dodappa wanted to move away. Exactly like how Krishna Bai’s husband had fought and broken ties with the family because of money. But they still stayed close by. What if Su went far away? We waited patiently hoping whatever Krishna Bai said was untrue.
Appa approached us at lunch time, his eyes looking red and his voice unusually low.
“Come, all of you, let’s go out for lunch.”
A lunch in a hotel was a luxury that our tiny middle class eyes couldn’t contain. It simply translated to the word ‘disaster’.
We stuffed our tiny bodies in two autos and headed to Bombay restaurant for dosas and ice creams. We didn’t quarrel with each other like we usually did. We ate quietly and returned. The disturbed look on all our faces was evident. Appa must have guessed that we already knew. By evening, we learnt from Amma that Doddappa had decided to go separate ways, though all were welcome to the new house he had planned to buy. It was also discovered that he had used the funds that had come after selling the ancestral lands in the village and bought a plot with the same amount. He was the kindest, how could he do this to us?
Ajja and Ajji had taken a vow not to talk to him ever again, Appa had declined the money, and Kaka was furious.
I closed my eyes, recollecting my dream from the previous night, hoping to go back to that dream world.
* * *
4- Corpse Pose by Jyothi Vinod
You’d expect a famed yoga instructor’s wife to be proficient with the asanas. I’m not. I’ve only improvised and perfected Shavasana—the Corpse Pose, for the past five years. I can lie down for hours, send every organ into repose, and set my mind free. More often, I use the treacherous map of the past to lose myself in old crevices. With this vicarious love for excavation and analysis, I’d have made a good archaeologist. But last October something happened to change all these aimless excursions of my mind. I became a mother.
Four months ago when I’d called a number I hadn’t in fifteen years, I swallowed hard before I began on a forced cheerful note: “It’s me. Yes, it really is me! I’m at a stage in life where I need you both here more than anything in the world. Promise me you won’t ask questions. I’ll explain when I feel the time is right. I’ll send you the air tickets for one-two- three.”
My father, at the other end of the line, obviously hard of hearing, asked, “Can you repeat what you just said?”
“Both of you come here to Delhi on 1st February 2003 at 4 pm,” I replied, and waited while my father explained it to my mother.
“What do we do about… about Tina?” My father asked, prompted no doubt by my mother.
“She’s welcome too. Don’t worry. I’ll arrange to have her come by train. Is there anything else?”
“No. Your mother and I will come.”
My tension had transformed into a joy of release at those words. I felt like that tiny rock poised on a snowy peak, ready to roll down, fully aware of the avalanche it would set in motion. My parents took ages to replace the handset after we said our goodbyes. So I’d eavesdropped, amused by their post-mortem of my call. At least they weren’t crying.
The day has finally arrived. My guests will be here soon. The breeze through the clean airy rooms hints of a pine-scented cleaning liquid. Through the window I can see the freshly mown lawn and trimmed hedges. I look up at the ceiling and for only a fraction of a second miss the cobwebs that had trapped my thoughts along with dead flies, moths and dust for the past five years. Yet, it never ceases to astound me how in less than a week I gave away to the nearby slum, all the accumulated possessions of a fifteen year old marriage.
Tina is the first to arrive at noon. I settle her in the veranda. She huddles in the corner of her cage and ignores my hospitable offer of two red chillies. She finally overcomes her suspicion and sips water from a bowl. I decide that once she’s comfortable I will release her in the garden. Winged creatures ought to fly.
Nearing 4 pm a taxi stops outside the gate. My parents alight with a little assistance from the driver. I’m surprised to see their scarce luggage—two suitcases apiece and a cloth bag, although I’d told them to get all they wanted. I restrain my impulse to run out and greet them. My father checks his watch while my mother scratches her head. Precious seconds tick.
At 4 pm sharp—accurate because Baba always sets his watch against the time announced by All India Radio—my parents come into my house and back into my life.
We’re in the hall. They ask me whether I’ve just moved in or I’m planning to move out. They’re uncomfortable. For them, a home bereft of memorabilia is an empty shell. I’m childless, so there’s no safe topic to propel the conversation. Empty photo frames give them no opportunity to ask questions and re-tie the threads of conversation that had snapped when I had eloped at eighteen and married a much older man—my yoga instructor.
I show them the bedroom that could be theirs till they die, if they decide to stay on. After they freshen up I serve them cardamom spiced tea and Marie biscuits. They’re happy with the familiar routine of tea time. Then they size me up.
“He isn’t much of a yoga instructor, is he? You’re still… heavy,” my mother says at last.
She made a brave leap over the chasm of time to say the most ridiculous but friendly thing I’d heard in a long while. Well, she’s right. I do tip the scale at ninety kilos. Although, I’ve begun to feel lighter after I cleared the house of memories; it was as if the kilos were piled thick in my head.
I laugh. “You two are so thin. All okay with your health?”
My father’s chin quivers and I brace myself for an outburst, but he sighs. The breeze rustles the newspaper. The distant traffic sounds are all that I hear. A scream rips the evening. “Nirooo, come back!”
My mother looks embarrassed and close to tears. My father hobbles in the direction of the sound and hushes Tina with, “Nirmala has come back. Hush now. Say, ‘Good evening.’ Come on, say, ‘Good evening.’” But Tina’s nasal cries continue to fill the house calling for me with the same yearning that my mother must have all those fifteen years.
Tears streak my mother’s cheeks. I want to hug her but my father turns to her. He takes her hands in his and pats them. He looks at me. “I’m sorry, Niru. I’m sorry your life turned out like this…we should have reached out earlier…”
I stand up and stretch. I cannot let anybody thrust me back into those dank corners where I teased old scabs open. Moreover, this attempt to renew my life is a well-chalked out plan; there’s no place in it for regret.
Sometimes, we conquer our insecurities to shuffle an inconsequential step forward. Or so we think. Later in life, we look back in amazement to see that that tiny step was indeed a giant leap over a ridge between two worlds.
“Baba, don’t feel sorry for me. It took me too long to wake up. I am now going to…” I stop myself in time. I cannot reveal more than what is necessary. This tongue… this three- inch piece of boneless cartilage has a way of lengthening in its quest to lasso the world. Everything in good time, I remind myself.
Baba and Ayi move around the house without knocking into furniture; it delights them. Baba is seventy–two and Ayi, a good five years younger. They don’t talk much; they’re keeping their promise of not asking questions.
My mother wants to cook and I let her. My father asks me to carry the armchair to the garden where he sits with his eyes closed. The rays of the evening sun caress his lined face. Tina broods in her cage beside him.
I glance at the clock. I’m satisfied. It’s 5 pm and we’re well settled. I take my handbag. “I have an urgent task to complete. I’ll be back by 6 pm.”
My parents look worried as if I were deserting them once again. I climb into the taxi I had ordered in the morning. We speed through the traffic. I make a phone call. Everything is in order. If Vishnu hadn’t followed his blue-eyed, blonde-haired Catrina—his devoted student—to Stockholm, would he have been here in the taxi with me now? I rein in my thoughts in a hurry, roll the window down, and close my eyes. A blast of icy winter air smacks the thought away as if it were a fluff of cobweb. I breathe in deeply.
The taxi stops outside the hospital. I walk towards the receptionist. She smiles. She’s seen me every day for the past four months. I meet my friend, Dr. Chitra, who hands me the bundle like it’s a Swarovski crystal; I stagger under the weightlessness of it. I don’t talk to anybody today. That’s how I planned it. After all, I’d waded through innumerable objections and formalities from the hospital management to earn the privilege of this moment. I have no intention of ruining it. I walk back to the taxi and the driver retraces the path home. I sneak a look at the bundle and turn away. I rub my nose and wet eyes against the sleeve of my kurta. When the taxi stops at the gate outside my house, I check my watch. I’ve a few minutes left. I pay the driver and wait. My parents have been watching the gate. They hobble down the path, eager to see what I have in my arms. And I smile till my jaws hurt.
Tina left alone under the porch is crying, “Niroo…come back, Niroo…come back.”
“Meet your granddaughter,” I say proudly. I extend the little bundle swathed in light green towards them. Two tiny eyes open and shut instantly, and the bundle squirms. My parents look too shocked to say anything, to even touch her. I worry for a moment if they won’t accept her.
At 6 pm, I stride in through the gates, my head held high.
At the main door, I’m suddenly tired. I want to sit down. I desperately want another cup of tea. But my daughter lets out a thin wail of protest. I carry her to the bedroom I’ve converted into a nursery. There’s a small crib cot for her beside a single cot for me. My mother takes her from me and I’m relieved. I rush to the kitchen to make a bottle of milk. My father shakes a yellow rattle for all its worth. They haven’t forgotten the baby language they’d probably used with me thirty-three years ago.
My mother sits on my cot with the baby. I hand her the bottle. She hesitates. “You should do this, Niru,” she says.
I struggle to sit in the Lotus Pose and arrange the baby on my lap. I’m nervous as I push the bottle’s rubber nipple gently against the pink rosebud mouth. She grimaces but latches on. I can’t believe it. I’m feeding my baby. I can never fully describe this feeling: the joy, the elation and the complete fulfilment. The level of milk goes down. She spits some milk and sighs. I clean and change her into the blue baby clothes I’d bought for her. She falls asleep after Ayi remembers to burp her. I place her in the crib and arrange soft pillows all around. We look down at her small sweet face. Her hands are held in tiny fists and her legs are still bent from her nine-month stay in the womb of a mother who had never wanted her. My father spreads the tiny blue blanket on the baby and fixes the mosquito net. Seen through the fine mesh, she resembles a little doll. All at once she smiles, and while I gasp at the beauty of the moment, she wrinkles her forehead and pulls a sad face.
“Memories from her past life,” Ayi explains. I disagree, though I know nothing of babies. I don’t want any kind of stupid past life marring the joy of my baby.
We’re busy all of a sudden. My father feels the need to check every ten minutes if a mosquito snuck in to bite the baby. My mother and I potter around in the kitchen. I re-read the book of instructions I’ve propped open on the kitchen shelf. The nurse was kind enough to write them down for me.
“Niru, did they first promise you a boy?” My mother asks.
“You’ve bought all blue baby clothes.”
I’m angry, though I know it’s an innocent query. I think of that cold October night last year when a pair of college kids had the good sense to turn in a squalling naked infant—blue with cold—they’d found near a garbage heap, to the hospital. A pack of stray dogs had to be pelted with stones before the two could reach the child. Chitra, worked all night to keep the baby alive. When I called her to have my usual good cry, she ordered me to come over to the hospital right away to see that there were more unfortunate people in the world than obese, ‘abandoned’ women who marinate in self-pity. I went. And that signalled the end of the Corpse Pose for me.
My familiar connotations of blue: cruel winter, colour of Catrina’s eyes, colour of manhood, colour of sapphire, and sad music, suddenly grew colourless. The only blue in my universe was the colour of a precious gem I coveted in the incubator. Suddenly I’d wanted to shatter rules, break boundaries and never look back, except maybe with gratitude. I’d wanted to unlearn the meanings and associations that burdened my world. I’d wanted to embark on a journey with my baby and see the world through her curious eyes.
My father comes into the kitchen without his walking stick. He’s excited. “The baby… what have you named her? She’s so smart. She held my thumb in her fist. She has an excellent grip.”
I look at him and don’t regret the fifteen years we didn’t talk to each other. The river of love had gone underground, but had never stopped flowing.
“Baba, I’ll call her Neelima…Neelu for short.” I smile at my mother. “And don’t all babies do that? Clasp a finger?”
This is my baby’s home. Her grandparents love her. Tina will learn to call out from the tree tops: “Neelu is home. Neelu is home.”
My mother looks at me. She’s too transparent. I read anxiety in her eyes, yet I wait for her to voice her fears.
“Will Vishnu return?”
“No.” I meet her eyes.
“Yes. It came through last year.”
“You’ll marry again then?” Her voice sounds hopeful.
“I don’t want to.”
I read more questions in her eyes, and continue, “I re-opened the plant nursery and flower shop in my garage last November. It’s doing decent business. And Vishnu left me this house, so I guess we’re all set.”
She turns to my father. “We’ll stay as long as she wants us to. Okay?” He nods.
“I want you to stay forever. I’m sorry for everything.” I make a move towards them, but we hear a plaintive cry.
“Neelu is awake.” My father rushes back. He looks grateful for the interruption.
The night is peaceful. I sleep on the narrow cot. This is no Corpse Pose. It’s a position of well-deserved rest. It’s an interval between caring. I’ve slashed the thoughts that snared me to the past and will not cast my lines into the future. I levitate, fully in the present, on the strength of Neelu’s breath.
My father knocks at the door. “Niru, are you awake? Err… what was all that about one two three four?”
“At 6 pm on 1st Feb 1998, Vishnu walked out of my life, and I embarked on a five-year descent into mourning. I reversed that journey today, with a sort of countdown for a new future.”
He remains standing, as if unsure of my meaning. He adjusts the mosquito net over Neelu’s crib, and tucks a blanket under my chin.
I hold his hand. “Baba, it should take six months before the paperwork is complete and Neelu comes home.” My voice shakes. “All this was only for today. I have to take her back to the hospital tomorrow.”
He smiles and pats my forehead. “We’ll wait here with you.”
* * *
5- Yellow Blossoms and Ulysses by Priya Narayanan
Bunches of yellow blossoms hang overhead like delicate chandeliers. I can almost hear the clinking of the crystals as they sway to the tunes of the gentle summer breeze. But death lurks in the shadows that dance on the parched earth below.
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying . . .
. . . Robert Herrick whispers his prophetic verse into my ears. Yes, the blossoms would be history in the days to come. The delicate petals will detach themselves from the stalk and float down in a spiral. The koel, whose melody reverberates in my ears today, will sing a dirge then. But I, oblivious, would trample the fallen petals under my heel even as I tried to imitate his enviable call. I seek him amongst the leaves of the jamun tree – in vain. He is an expert in covert operations, it seems.
A dog lies flat in a far corner. He’s not dead; but could well be. Summer is slowly building up the heat and I wonder what she’ll put up for the final show. Last year, the heat had held hundreds in her passionate embrace, unmindful that they’d drop dead the moment he loosened his grip. Even as I get comfortable on the concrete bench as one gets comfortable in a theatre seat before the beginning of a long play, the sun -a stubborn child- continues to hurl down searing darts, refusing to acknowledge the evening that has stepped out from behind the wings.
Scene 1: A middle-aged couple plays badminton, barefoot, on the dried grass. Just for fun. It doesn’t take long for the fun to turn competitive though. The shuttlecock is each one’s own inner monster. Each tries to push it away, far away, but it boomerangs just the same. The chalice formed by its neatly threaded feathers does well at shrouding the angst that fills it, much like the book I hold in my hands. Ulysses. I decide to christen the shuttlecock ‘Fidelity’.
Even as the duo play out their lives on the emaciated stage, I imagine playing the game with myself. I stand at both ends of the court, racquet in hand, and smash the monster towards my other self, who smashes it back to me with greater fervour. As I play on like a maniac, determined to thwart my opponent, a part of me knows that there will be no winner in this game. In a clash of egos, victory belongs to the devil.
The husband goes for a big shot. The wife misses. Fidelity lands on the cracked earth next to my feet, without announcement. But I can sense its ghostly presence without lifting my eyes off the words sashaying along the pages of my book. I stoop down from the bench, pick it up and examine it. Tattered with scars that run deeper than the Devil’s gaze. I smirk. Why am I not surprised? As I make a move to return it to the couple, the husband dismisses it with a wave of his hand. “No, no . . . we’re good,” he chirps as they move into a new game with a brand new shuttlecock.
I toss wasted Fidelity away and coax my eyes back to the book – a book that is at once my solace and my nemesis. But the gradually rising pitch of a toddler’s cackles heralds an interruption.
Scene 2: There he is! The little boy totters to the middle and takes centre-stage with his cricket bat and ball. He sways his bat back and forth, a swashbuckling sportsman. He places the ball on the ground with great ceremony and swings his bat, but all he manages to whip is the air. He tries again, with a stronger swing. The bat slips off his tiny palms, flies through the air and lands next to the dog who, after an initial startled whimper goes back to his near comatose state. The mother tiptoes to the bat, picks it up with caution and hands it back to her son.
After a hurried sip from his bottle, the tot is back at the ball with renewed vigour. Many more unsuccessful attempts later, he finally connects the bat to the ball. The blue orb rolls slowly at first, picking up speed as the mother’s claps fill the air. It spins to a halt next to my feet. I pick it up intending to throw it back to the toddler but a young man making his way around the jogging track for the umpteenth time has caught my attention.
The sweat has dampened his shirt, but not his spirit. A chuckle tries to nudge its way through my parted lips but what escapes instead is a sigh. By now, the little boy is at my side, eyes glowering. I look at the ball in my hands. It feels much lighter than Fidelity did. It feels like a bubble, in fact; it might burst if I hold it longer. I fumble as I hand him the ball. I feel like a thief. Did I just steal a bit of his happiness?
Scene 3: As the toddler runs back to his mother, my eyes seek out the jogger once again. I try to time my reading with the laps he runs around the park -one lap should equal two pages, I decide. But whilst he completes several laps, I haven’t reached halfway down the page that has been dog-eared and un-dog-eared so many times that it is no longer a page but a dog’s ear.
My eyes are glued to his strapping frame, except for when he turns the curve behind me. Too self-conscious to turn around to continue staring at him, I wait until the corner of my eye catches a glimpse of his silhouette again. A man looks good when he’s jogging. That doesn’t mean he’s a good man. I chide myself for being a sceptic; but in my heart, I know I can never again surrender to that charlatan called trust. But then, what is love without betrayal?
Scene 4: After a while, the jogger steps into the lawn and starts to skip on his rope. My interest in him peters out as I wander down the pages that draw me into the heart of a Dublin brothel where mortality is being parodied in the same breath as morality. But just as I begin to contemplate the meaning of that extra ‘T’, I’m dragged back to the here and now by a voice that could well have risen from the grave of disparaging memories.
“K! To see you here!” Mr. Lingam’s voice pierces the stillness around me. I wince. Mr. Lingam dusts the bench with his bare hands and wipes his palms on his trousers before plonking himself next to me. He sits too close for comfort, sending me shuffling farther to the edge of the bench.
“How are you K? How’re you holding up? What Chari did to you is unpardonable! My son’s best friend, and such unacceptable behaviour? I’ve told him to stay away from Chari. It doesn’t take much for one rotten fruit to corrupt the others, you see.” Even as his mouth spouts sage rubbish, his eyes wander all over me.
I want to laugh at his face, maybe even spit at it. ‘Of course, Mr. Lingam, you must know much about rotten fruits . . .’ The caustic remark itches to slip off my tongue, but my rational half intervenes. Grudgingly, I purse my lips. Mr. Lingam interprets my silence differently. He lurches ahead in an attempt to hold my hands, but I pull away just in time. The Ulysses slips off my lap and falls to the ground with a soft thud.
“What’s this book about ma?” he asks, picking it up before I can, surprising me with his reflexes.
“Uh. . . just the same old . . . infidelity, dysfunctional relationships and such,” I reply.
“What ma . . . these aren’t the kind of books you should be reading. Not after all that has happened to you,” Mr. Lingam says, his head shaking animatedly like a Thanjavur doll. He rises from the bench and walks around to the back. Before I can gauge his intentions, he gives my shoulders a tight squeeze and runs his palm down the back of my neck.
Anger rolls up my belly. I grab his wrist and give it a violent twist, holding on until the stubby fingers turn pale. Mr. Lingam backs off, blood draining off his plump cheeks. But the intensity of his stare multiplies through the lens of his glasses -like reflections multiplying in the mirrors of a trial room. I cannot fathom whether the look is of contempt, anger or shame but he helps me decipher it rather too soon. “Bitch,” he mutters before striding away, leaving his stare glued to the darkening canvas before me.
A shudder runs through my body. The earth pulls me towards her, wanting to hold me in her comforting embrace, but I refuse her pity. Life is a wretch, I decide, but it must go on. All eyes are on me as I sit trembling on the bench. ‘It didn’t take long for the actors to turn spectators’, I muse, trying to return to my book; but the light is getting dimmer.
The parrots, after a protracted spell of bickering perched on the telephone wire high above, have called truce and returned home. The koel, having packed his precious music box, has left just as stealthily as he arrived. Having bagged their racquets, the couple makes their way out holding each other at the waist, their hips swaying in harmony. The tot, his mother and the jogger– the other unwitting actors of my play- follow them in unhurried succession. The dog rises from its quasi grave and staggers towards me. He sniffs and pokes at Fidelity with his paw before turning away and disappearing into nothingness. As darkness ambles into every crevice it stumbles upon, there is only me left lingering on the bench.
As if on cue, a family of crickets starts its veneration of the Dark Lord, their nagging chirps piercing through the blanket of warm air that has settled upon us. A black cricket portends death. Are these black crickets I’m surrounded by? Or have they merely consumed the darkness of the night and become one with it, much like the blossoms overhead? Yes, the yellow blossoms that had earlier teased my senses are no longer yellow, but a deep black. Exhorted by the chants of the crickets, they have morphed into their own shadows and melded into the fabric of the sky.
My wandering gaze falls upon the moon. It has been sliced into a perfect half – the work of a master swordsman, I’m sure. I look for its fallen half around me, but it is nowhere to be found. Clearly, I’m looking in all the wrong places. I would have found it had I looked into the half-dried puddle left behind by the gardener’s leaking hose. Yes, I’d have found it there and in a thousand other thirsty puddles, trying to save themselves from obliteration.
I do not fret about the moon though. Lizard-like, he’ll grow back his amputated half. But can the same be said of my heart that has been sliced into a million pieces? Can the thread of darkness sew it back into place before the world awakens, so I could get along with my life of a thousand pretences? Can the ghost of Mr. Joyce convince me that I, an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life with an ordinary spouse who cheats on me with his ordinary mistress, can morph into this epic character that ambles and rambles across the fabric of a society (that sneers and jeers at its battle-weary citizens even as it masquerades as being laissez-faire) hoping that she wouldn’t be sentenced too harshly for questioning the legitimacy of love, the veracity of marriage?
No. The darkness will not adopt a wretch. Why should it? And why should Mr. Joyce do anything for anyone who’s not a tried and tested Dubliner? As a solitary tear snakes down my cheek, I clutch the Ulysses ever more tightly.
The darkness is not happy with my presence. Wishing me away, he urges the ring of trees to bend into a conspiring huddle. A wisp of wind enters the huddle and is mercilessly tossed from one hand to the other until it manages to writhe its way out. As it beats retreat, it kisses the blossoms overhead, coaxing a lone flower head to waft down onto my lap. As it beats retreat, it nudges Fidelity just enough to move it back to my feet, still silent.
Dismounting from my stool in that Dublin brothel, I embalm the blossom for posterity between the pages of my book and head homewards, lest the malicious darkness seeps into my soul. But it has already done the job it set out to do. A shadow waits for me outside the wicket gate.
It is the jogger. He stands there with his legs crossed, leaning against the side of his sedan. He wears a half smile and waves a hesitant hand towards me. He asks to see the book in my hands. Before long, we’re deep in conversation, dissecting relationships with the sharp point of our tongues. “Coffee?” he asks. I nod and take the seat by him in the car. He turns the key and is about to step on the pedal when I stop him.
“There’s one last thing I must do,” I say to him and step out of the car. I walk back to the bench, pick up Fidelity and drop it into the bin.
* * *
6- A Very Uncomfortable Place by Varsha Tiwary
6.30 am. Cup of coffee in hand, I try to assemble my thoughts to write something, anything. Morning practice, I’ve heard, will turn my scribbles into a novel. Weave luminous sub-text into my laboured self-conscious prose.
I look up from the meagre black letters on my word doc to see my 83 year-old father coming down the stairs. His hair sparse, his chest thin, legs like thin pipes. He is clad only in a henna green towel. He holds on to the banister with one hand and gingerly climbs down. In the other, he carries his to be washed clothes.
Till a decade ago, he was bouncing down the steps in white shorts, head full of hair, ready to walk his five miles. Smiling that big happy smile. Everything became right because he could smile like that. Not depending on anyone, putting us all to shame with his energy level, was his joy and pride. Then came the angioplasty—it tried hard to wear him down, but he stayed a fighter.
“Why don’t you put them in the laundry bin?” I ask the futile question.
It is very important to him to feel that he does all his work himself.
So instead of the bin next to the bathroom he must climb down to the ground floor, put a random incorrect cycle on the washer and huff his diminutive, stooped way up the stairs. Sans sweater, cap or socks.
“Wear something. It’s cold,” I say testily. He is courting illness by parading like this, the silly old man.
“I am not that old to feel the cold,” he says, in a too jaunty voice that belies his shrivelled frame.
“You will be down with flu.”
“Is that what you want?”
“No, it’s what you want- going about like this. Why are you up so early?”
“Ha! early for you people, for me it’s late,” he says smugly.
6:30 a.m. on a weekend, how can it be early, I think. Bloody self-righteous Gandhian.
In the silence, only the vicious tap-tap of the keys is audible.
He looks at me and says he is hungry.
Sighing, I get up to make a banana shake for him.
When I come back, glass in hand, his bare torso is bent over the dining table. He is stooping to pick up, one by one, from the forest of bottles that live on the dining table— jams, pickles, biscuits, dry fruits, namkeen, sauces, gajak—dusting each bottle with enormous effort— then transferring them to a low side table, so he can change the tablecloth.
“Papa,” my voice is both wheedling and warning. “Why can’t you believe me? I told you I washed the tablecloth two days back; dusted everything too, so that everything is the way you like it?”
“Two days is enough time for things to get dirty. All greasy fingerprints over everything. I cannot let you live shabbily like this. And yesterday at dinner, Ana also spilled water on it.”
“Yes, but it dried, and the tablecloth is clean,” I say defiantly.
He ignores me and continues caressing the bottles. I thunk down the banana shake and say, “Well, who can convince you of anything, but it will be nice if you have the shake first.”
“No, I must put this in order first.” He moves aside my laptop.
“But I was trying to work,” I wail, looking helplessly at the Notebook sitting on the sofa as the bottles preen and glow.
“I am also doing work,” he says, whisking the tablecloth off the emptied table with a flourish.
“Go on the computer table, more light there. I will have the shake after I am done.”
“I just don’t understand,” I say in an irritated voice, “why must you do things that do not need to be done?”
“Don’t you talk to me like that,” he stops his shuffling, and looks at me, insulted.
I do not apologise, pick up my Notebook with a frown and stomp off.
I go upstairs, start yanking the kids’ bedroom curtains and noisily setting their study tables, all the while ignoring their protests.
“Hitler mom,” they mutter, stomp off, and go down to snuggle up to Grandpa and complain.
At brunch, father grimaces his way through the palak paneer and chapati.
“Too much salt. Too much ghee. Your eating habits are shockingly unhealthy.”
“How can you say that Papa! That too when you are eating potato chips and murukku and Haldiram’s namkeen whenever you feel like! Don’t I know it? They are never too salty for you.”
We are seated at the small square table beside the sliding glass doors. Outside a mellow December sun struggles to light up Delhi’s armour of dust.
My father eats his roti-sabzi in small determined swallows. Like it is medicine.
“Ha!” he says. “Whatever needs to be salty, only, must be salty. Palak paneer should not have more than a smidgen of salt.”
Later, he takes sugary desi ghee halwa and eats it with real pleasure. He has always loved sweets. I don’t even realise before it pops out of my mouth, “take care, you might get acidity.”
The heart medications he takes causes heartburn.
“What for? How much longer do I have to live?”
“Papaa!!” I admonish him. I wonder if his indomitable will-power is wearing down. He gets up dragging the chair on the tiled floor. From a drawer he takes out his vial of homeopathy for acidity.
“Don’t worry. I take this.”. He makes a show of opening it but can’t. I take it and break the seal.
It’s plain, he never has taken it before. But we both ignore this.
Sigh! I wonder why, he must gloss over, and deny his aches and illnesses.
Once the hardened, enlarged spleen; illuminated by the blue dye injected in his veins, is found, equations change. Like a balloon it will keep growing and then blow up, taking him along. Like a landmine, this fact, lies beneath all we say.
I don’t get irritated at his grumblings now.
He, who had, through sheer will kept up the pretence of being OK; feels defeated.
The last of his ego defence was that he takes good care of his health and will never be dependent. The worst crime for him was to be idle- bekkar baithe rehna, pade rehna.
Earlier, no matter, how much the doctors told him that it was wonderful at 83 to just eat sleep and be; he never accepted it. Now he must face the truth.
He finds in himself a new ferocious bitterness these days, to castigate the evil in the world. His face puckers up when he delivers his trenchant opinions—on corruption; on hateful politicians, murderous doctors. All thieves. Playing with our future.
He will not say what he needs, but his frustration comes out in other ways.
If I change the order of a mug or bucket in the bathroom, which is not to his liking he snorts in utter distaste.
I don’t dare to mess with the salt in Palak paneer anymore.
At nights, as grandkids snuggle up to him, he goes into long reveries about his childhood days.
“Baijee my mother was very beautiful. She got married to father at twelve. She was illiterate but very smart. She knew how to deal with maalguzaars and grocers. She knew local medicines. She would always apply some special poultice for a wound, a stomach ache, an insect bite or a boil. She managed the servants with the right proportions of love and strictness. And the sweets she made! Gujiyas, Gulaab jamuns, shakkarparaas, ladoos. Before holi and Diwali, we kids did not have meals, only sweets.”
Adi and Ana massage his tingly, swollen feet. They are quick to point out that if he ate so many sweets as a kid, why does he tell them to eat vegetables?
“Baapjee was an orphan but very intelligent. He cleared the exam, became a policeman but had no money to go to the town to join the service. Then the kindly seth who took great pride in his achievement, gave him money for train fare and to buy smart clothes, so he could be an officer. His first boss was a Mr. Khan, a muslim aristocrat, and he taught him English and ways of dealing with the English. Tell me are such nice people even found today?”
No, the kids say dutifully.
At night one of us sleeps near him to keep watch. When he thinks I am asleep, he sobs silently. Giant sobs wrack his chest every night. He complies when I ask him to turn over to rub ointment on his back. I wish he would scold me for buying stuff that he does not need, or be strong enough, once more, to do unnecessary things, with that air of accomplishment.
Our fights have died.
He hates my doing, and his needing that doing.
* * *