Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lunch.


He’s late again. Third time this month. Why am I not surprised? So here I am once more, strumming my fingers and sitting by the window at yet another expensive restaurant. All around me people are enjoying a quiet meal. There’s a table of businessmen in the corner. My god, they look serious, all dressed in suits. Probably arguing over splitting the bill. Lots of couples too. One Two Three… Four. That is a lot! You can always tell which ones are married. They’re the ones not talking to each other. No eye contact, no unnecessary talk, no wasted energy, just single-minded focus on their food. Look at them, blankly staring at each other with those dead eyes, like cattle chewing cud.

Hello hello, what’s this? A rather interesting pair I see. Footsie? Ah, she giggles even! Newlyweds perhaps? No no, he’s far too old and too accomplished by the looks of it, to go and create a scandal marrying a nubile young thing like her. What’s that on his finger, a wedding band? Ah. They’re having an affair. Well, good luck darling. Laugh and make merry while you can, enjoy this moment. Because it doesn’t matter that you spent all morning at the parlour primping yourself for this; when the meal’s done, he’s going to go back home to his wife. Oh no, there’s that waiter again. Damn.

‘Urhm’

Right. The clearing of the throat. Doesn’t matter. I’ll just pretend I didn’t hear it and continue looking out the window.

‘Harumphurhm’

Dammit. The cough. Already? Its not even been twenty minutes. I can’t possibly ignore The Cough. Besides, he’s hovering over me like a vulture. And me, already hiding behind the biggest eyeshades in my collection, face covered by hair. Go away dammit, just walk away walk away…

‘Erhm… Miss?’

‘Yes?’

It’s ok, it’s ok. That’s right, give him the snooty look. Look him straight in the eye with that one raised eyebrow and hint of a sneer. The prick. I’ll show him who’s boss.

‘Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable at a smaller table?’

‘I said, my friend would be here shortly.’

I give him my frostiest tight-lipped smile.

‘Of course, madam.’

Bastard.

God, I hate this infernal waiting. The menu lies untouched on the table. What is it now forty minutes? Is he going to cancel again like last time? I look at my cell phone. No. No messages, no calls, nothing. It just lies there. Useless piece of metal and plastic.

The last time was at the Olive. When was that, a week ago? Thirty five minutes I wait at the table, and then he calls. Something’s come up. Emergency. He can’t make it. Raincheck? Of course, darling. I understand.

I hate the clandestine meetings, the hurried lunch dates, the stolen moments, the secrecy, the sneaking around. Like criminals. Why doesn’t he just ask me? Why can’t he just come out in the open and say it. It’s been four years already. Seems like a bloody eternity. We even picked out the color together for the living room. A nice ocean green. Brings the outside in, he said. That was nearly two years ago, when I moved into my new apartment. I always wanted a penthouse. Finally got one. On the 9th floor. With a balcony overlooking the sea.

Man, what wonderful times we shared, just him and me, sitting on the balcony. I’d cook him dinner, and then we’d sit out and talk. Just talk. Plans, hopes, dreams, music, films, books, current affairs, nothing and everything. And then I’d fall asleep in his arms. Oh the things we said to each other. The promises he made.

Bastard. Two years ago, that was. And he’s still living with her. Mother was right. Don’t fall for the married ones; they never leave their wives. And me? Left my husband, packed my bags, bought a new apartment. One suitcase, that was all I walked in with. I don’t need the extra baggage I said. Maybe I thought this was just a temporary set-up. Maybe I thought I’d be living out of a suitcase for just a short while. Till I finally move into his home. With my one suitcase, no extra baggage. Instead, here I am, still waiting. And waiting. And waiting. For those three little letters and a name that I may never share.

Rohan’s moved on. Well, of course he has. My mother-in-law always thought he married beneath him. And told him every chance she got. Rohan, you’re looking so gaunt these days, trouble at home? Rohan, how thin you’ve become, aching for some home food? Shweta, look at your nails, mummy doesn’t cut them? Shyam! My, your hair’s grown long, how do they let you in school, looking like some unwashed tramp?

The bitch. Thank god I moved out of there the first year of marriage. Imagine raising the children in that household. Ah but then, Rohan was very supportive back then. We clung to each other. Yes, we had some good times together, Rohan and me. Seven years. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, we had some wonderful times. Just got too ugly in the end. I couldn’t stay. Even if Amar hadn’t come along, I couldn’t have stayed. It had to happen eventually. Everything. Amar, the divorce, my children, the arrangement. Well, it was for the best I suppose. Amar would provide well for them. That old witch will look after them well; one must give the devil her due. She hated me from the start, but she always doted on her grandkids. You both look just like your father, you’re both all Rohan aren’t you, that’s what she always used to say to them.

Bitch.

Oh how she enjoyed it, when I finally told him I was leaving him. She knew it, she said. Right from the start, something was up with that girl, something not quite right. Receptionist. She used to spit out the word like I was a prostitute. They all sleep around too much, everyone in the entire hotel industry. There were rumours about her from day one. Not a very good reputation you know. It was a mistake marrying her. Rohan, the way she has been carrying on behind your back, oh the shame…

I was the one carrying on? Me? I, the one with the reputation? The problem is, Rohan, she used to say, she doesn’t understand you, understand our ways or our background. The problem is, Rohan, you just couldn’t keep your cock in your pants. It had to happen. Amar just made it clearer for me that’s all. Just put it all in perspective. I’d had enough. Of the hoping, the waiting, the utter humiliation. I’d had it. Goodbye Rohan, I’m leaving you. I’ve found someone else.
Funny. Never thought I’d be the one saying those words. Always expected to hear them instead I suppose. Who would have thought, that I’d end up having an extra-marital affair? When do you realize that you’re having an affair? When is it, that exact moment in time, when it hits you, my god, I’m a married woman, with a husband and two kids, and I’m leading a double life.

Is it at that first evasive reply?

Or the first outright lie?

Or the first time you pick up the phone and realize with disappointment it’s only your husband.

Or the first time the tip of another man’s swollen penis pushes itself into what you have pledged in undying loyalty to your husband. And what god hath joined together, let no man put asunder.
A men.

When did I start having a sordid affair? Ah but, love isn’t borne out of sex. It’s the little things that add up. Running in from the rain, both of you huddled under his jacket. Helping him pick out a birthday present for his eight-year old daughter. Sobbing into his shoulders. Sharing the same bottle of coke, taking a swig, without wiping the mouth on your sleeve first. That’s how it started. And then one night I woke up and looked at my husband and realized, I’m lying next to the wrong man.

Oh god, how long has it been, an hour? What’s keeping him? He’s never been this late before. I hope he’s alright. Useless phone, ring, godammit.

But then. Of late, he has been canceling quite frequently. Turning up late. Not even an apology anymore. Just a look. As if to say, you know how it is. And then he’d pick up the menu and order, like this was perfectly acceptable behaviour. The chicken for me, and the fish for the lady, he would tell the waitor. He always ordered for me. Amar, where are you? Well, it doesn’t matter. After today, it won’t. I’m calling it off. The whole thing, the whole sordid affair. So long and thanks for all the fish. Bastard.

It was always something. Never the right time. She’s been through a lot just now, with the miscarriage, I can’t walk out on her now. Father’s suffered a stroke, it’s been quite mad at the office, I can’t really rattle things up at such a time. It’s tough on the children, they’ve just lost their grandfather, I can’t abandon them now when they need me the most.

And what about my children then? What about that day we took them to the beach? The day you bought Swetha that pink cap, and she insisted you buy one just like it, and you did, and you both wore it and walked on the beach with her sitting on your shoulders. Or that day with Shyam when you helped him with his math homework, because he was in tears and he came to me, and I just couldn’t make sense of all those cryptic symbols, and you saw and you understood, and you took the book from his hands and you gently explained it to him. What about that then? It’s not hard on them I suppose?

Well, it doesn’t matter. They’re older now. They’ll get over it. I’ll get over it. Amar hasn’t seen them in over six months. God, it’s been a long time since he’s come home. He seems reluctant these days. Well, screw him. Screw him. Who needs this? Not them. Not me. I’m tired of waiting. Tired of it. Dammit, there’s that waiter again. It’s been over an hour. He’s walking this way. Think fast, think fast.

‘Erhm… Perhaps madam would care to…’

‘Excuse me.’

The waiter is visibly shaken. There is a woman sitting in front of me. I hadn’t noticed while she walked up to the table. I was busy looking outside, hiding behind my menu, trying very hard to avoid making eye-contact with those uniformed vultures.

She had pulled up the chair and sat down. She gives him a look, and the waiter disappears. One look, it is enough to tell him… you are dismissed. Now she turns her gaze on me. I am taken aback by how stunning she is. My god, she’s beautiful. A little tired around the eyes, but undeniably beautiful. A modern day goddess with thick black hair, loose, cascading down the back of the chair. She’s in a sari. At a place like this. But she doesn’t look out of place, funnily enough. She looks quite elegant, like she belongs here. More than belongs here, in fact, like she’s far better than everything and everyone else here.

‘Erhm, Hi… I’m sorry, do I know you?’

‘No.’

She sits there looking at me. Everything around us seems to have suddenly become quiet. How deafening this silence is. Why doesn’t she say something? I wait.

‘I know you.’

‘Oh?’

She waits.

‘You’re fucking my husband.’

‘Ah.’

Right. The wife. The shadowy third figure in our relationship whom we never allude to. The ghostly apparition always hovering in the background, tainting everything with her non-presence. The voice on the other end of the line. Amar’s voice always went three notches higher whenever it was her. He’d immediately straighten up, and run his free hand thru his hair. Then he’d walk into the other room to finish the call. And then come back irritated, or preoccupied. That’s how I knew. Her. The voice was finally here, in flesh and blood, sitting before me and boring holes into my skin with her unblinking gaze.

‘He’s not coming.’

‘I see.’

What does one say at a time like this? I shift uneasily in my seat.

‘In fact. He’s never coming back. Not to you.’

She smiles. How hard her face looks. Hatred crystallized, into a hard smile. She’s enjoying this! Enjoying hating me. Looking at me, savoring every visual detail, and hating me, here and now, tangibly.
‘I know what he’s told you. It’s what he tells all his girlfriends. My wife and I are not compatible. It was a mistake from the start. I was too young when I married. She’s all wrong for me. Country girl. Villager.’

She spat out the word. Spat it out like my mother-in-law used to every time she said Receptionist.

She folds her hands, and rests them on her crossed legs. She closes her eyes, a second to compose herself. Just for a second. Then she opens them and looks me straight in the eye.
‘Well, it’s all true. Everything. I can’t say it isn’t. We’re not compatible. It was a mistake.’

She waits for my reaction.

‘Ah.’

I wait for hers.

She sits there, looking. Clearly, she had expected me to say more. We both watch each other, waiting. She takes a deep breath.

‘So’, she begins again, ‘When he realized, that this wasn’t what he wanted, he decided to find out what it was that he wanted, and go get it. Affairs, one-night stands, women. Lots of them. I know them all. People used to come tell me all the time. Some, well-wishers, with concern and pity in their eyes. Others, just gossip-mongerers, morbid curiosity mingled with ill-suppressed joy in their voices. Sometimes, they’d come tell me themselves, the women fucking my husband.’

She leans forward till her face is inches from mine.

‘He always went for the same sort. They all looked alike. Like you. Fair skin, artificially-colored hair. Make up and painted nails. He thought they were cultured, because of the way they dressed and spoke English with an accent. They’re not cultured. Just a different kind of ugly.’
She sits back in her chair and looks out the window. She seems lost in her own thoughts. I open my mouth to speak.

‘He always grows tired of them’, she continues, still looking out the window, ‘It’s not the women he’s after. It’s the thrill of the chase. It’s the attention. Of being wanted. And wanting. And getting what he wants. Once he gets it, he doesn’t want it anymore. He never does, that’s just the way he is. He bores easily. And then he comes back to me and asks me to make him a cup of coffee, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.’

She abruptly turns her head and looks pointedly at me.

‘That’s why you can never have him. He’s never going to leave me, you see. Too much has happened; too much that we have both endured together. He’s old and he’s tired. He can’t start all over again. And the children aren’t so young anymore. They know, they watch, they observe. They can think, and they can judge, and he knows that. So will the entire family. Judge him, and condemn him. It doesn’t matter that they all depend on him, financially. He depends on them, in a different way, for acceptance, for recognition, for the things that he can never get with you. That’s the one part of him that you can never satisfy. None of you can. He always comes back to me for the one thing he wants, the one thing he craves, the one thing he can’t do without.’

She sits back in her chair. She hasn’t stopped smiling. Hatred distilled. It drips from her in large, black, sticky drops. She can’t stop the edge from creeping into her voice. She doesn’t even try.

‘Leave my husband. He is not yours, he never was, he never will be. I won’t give him up. Not after all this time, not after everything we have gone through. Tomorrow you will be gone, and he’ll find someone new. It doesn’t matter. It’s me he comes home to every night. And that’s something you will never have. So take my advice. Make it easy on yourself. Leave.’

I look at her. She seems eerily calm. She has finished saying what she came to say. Is she now waiting for me to say something? I open my mouth to speak.

‘D..’

‘Goodbye. Enjoy your lunch.’

She gets up and leaves the table. I watch her walking out of the restaurant. She gets into her car and drives away. She never once looks this way.

The cellphone rings. It’s Amar. I pick up.

‘Veda, listen, there’s been a crisis of sorts, I really can’t…’

‘Amar..’

‘Sort of an emergency, you understand…’

‘Amar…’

‘Nothing really that I can do, damned inconvenient, how about next week at…’

‘Amar!’

‘What?’

‘I just met your wife.’

Dead silence.

‘My wife?’

‘Yes.’

‘At the restaurant?’

‘Yes.’

‘Just now?’

‘Yes. Listen, that doesn’t matter. She came to me. The point is..’

‘How?! What did she say..’

‘Amar…’

‘She must have gone through my appointments book! That conniving, sneaky… she always…’

‘Amar!’

‘What?’

‘It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving you.’

‘Veda, don’t be stupid. I’m leaving her. She’s gone too far this time, I don’t care about anything else. It’s about time, I’m going to…’

‘Amar!’

‘What?!’

‘Goodbye.’

I hang up. The silence seems to have lifted. The couple at the other table are having an argument. He’s just received a phonecall. He has to leave. She’s pleading with him now. No, it can’t wait. He’s up already, and taken out his wallet. He lays a bundle of notes next to his unfinished meal. She places her hand on his sleeve; she tries once more. Pathetic. How women throw themselves at men who won’t have them. She sits at the table and watches his receding figure. He doesn’t turn back. She looks dejected.

Stupid bitch.

I look at the cellphone lying on the table. It’s ringing. Amar calling, the display reads. Useless piece of plastic and metal. I turn it off. I take off my eyeshades and raise one hand. The waiter catches my eye.

‘I think, I’ll have the chicken.’

Light. With two spoons of sugar


It had been three years now. Kaveri still wore black. Traditionally, widows in India wore white. But white had always been Hemant’s favorite color. When he first cast his eyes on her, she was clad in a white cotton saree. She was sweeping the front porch, bending and swooping, carefully clearing away the little clouds of dust that flew up as she moved her hand, back and forth, back and forth in that hypnotic motion. Every now and then, a stray lock of jet-black hair would fall across her eyes and she, without stopping the graceful sweeping movement of her arm, would bring the other arm out from behind her back and tuck the strand of hair behind her ear. She never once stopped sweeping. She hadn’t noticed he was there.

He was new to the city. Newly appointed headmaster of the school. The school was at the very end of the narrow lane; the taxi would not be able to go down it. So luggage in hand, Hemant stood on the front step and watched as Kaveri swept the porch clean. He meant to ask her where the school was. He ended up asking her to marry him instead. She was seventeen. He was thirty one.

Her parents were vehemently against it. She was still a child and he was far too old for her. They refused to discuss the matter. What a scandal! What a joke! But he was patient and he was sincere. He waited. They married within a year’s time.

They soon moved into their own house. The house was white; the walls were white, the curtains were white, even the bedspread was white. Her parents could not understand how they could live this way, without any color in their lives. But to Hemant, white wasn’t the absence of color, it was the only color, it was every color, it was pure and brilliant and intense. White. Kaveri wore black.

It was on her mother’s insistence in the end that Kaveri finally gave in. Kerala would be beautiful this time of the year. It would be raining and everything would be fresh and new and green. Her son would be going there in a week’s time and Kaveri could join him. It will be good for her. They will make all the arrangements, she needn’t worry that. For the first time in thirty years, Kaveri set off on a trip without her husband. She wore black.

Kerala was all that they said it would be. It was raining and everything was fresh and new and green. The resort was on a hill. Her rustic, thatched-roof villa was nestled within the thick woods. Room Number 43. Ajit would be staying in the new business hotel just a few minutes away. It was best this way. As much as she loved her son, Kaveri really just wanted to be alone for a while. She enjoyed her moments of solitude.

She was there for a month. At first, Ajit would either visit or call her every night. But he found it more and more difficult to get away from work and after the first week, she found herself eating her dinner in quiet solitude. She enjoyed these moments. She would head down to the hotel restaurant and sit in the table at the corner and watch the people rushing by. They were mostly tourists who stayed at the resort. There were lots of families, lots of young couples, even the odd group of businessmen. Nobody sat in the table in the corner. So that became her place and she would sit here and let it all seep in.

‘Could I join you?’

Kaveri was startled out of her reverie. He must have been in his twenties, probably a little older than her son. Or perhaps younger. He had a charming face; there was something very familiar about that smile. It reassured her. She smiled back. Yes, he could sit down.

‘I noticed you only wear black’

‘Have I? I’m so used to it I suppose. I don’t even notice anymore.’

‘But why the depressing color?’

‘It isn’t depressing. It is merely the absence of all color.’

He leaned back in his chair. There was that smile again. It crept into his eyes and made him look like a child. She pulled the pallu of her saree over her shoulders. They both sat back and enjoyed the comfortable silence. The diners were slowly beginning to leave, the restaurant was becoming sparse. The waiter hovered around their table, hoping to catch her eye. She raised her hand and motioned for the cheque.

‘Do you normally dine this late?’ she asked him.

‘Oh no, I come here quite early. But I like to linger for a while, watch the crowd rush by.’

‘That’s something we have in common then.’

The cheque had just arrived. She took out her purse and laid out the crisp notes side by side. She carefully calculated the tip and set that on top of the little pile of notes, neatly arranged like soldiers standing to attention.

‘I’ll walk you to your room’ he said.

She took his arm and they left together.

Room number 43. They were here. How short the walk was, she thought. She didn’t want to go in just yet. Her hand was still resting on his arm. She could feel the warmth of his skin through the thin white shirt.

‘Would you like to come inside? We could sit on the balcony’ she said.

He nodded. She opened the door and motioned for him to follow, switching on the balcony light as she walked past the door. It was raining outside; they would not be able to sit on the balcony after all. He sat on the edge of the bed.

‘Do you take sugar in your tea?’ she asked him

‘Yes. Light, with lots of milk’

She never drank tea. It was Hemant’s nightly ritual to have a cup just before he went to bed. She had been making it for him every night for thirty years. Light. With lots of milk and two spoons of sugar.

Kaveri handed the cup to him. She was holding it with both her hands, covering it completely with her palm. Not an inch showed through her tightly clasped fingers. He softly cupped his hands over hers. He let them linger, feeling the coolness of her skin press against his palm. And beneath that, the warmth of the liquid radiated through the porcelain cup.

Kaveri undraped her black saree.

They were lying in bed afterwards. He was looking at the fan overhead rotating slowly, his one arm gently stroking her waist, the other resting below her neck. She was curled onto her side, her face nestled against his chest. For the first time in three years, she allowed herself to cry. He stroked her hair and pulled her close as she buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed.

They met again the next evening. They shared a quiet dinner together and then he walked her to her room. He was always gone before she awoke.

It was on the third night. It was late. They were in bed together, her sleeping figure curled up beside him as usual, resting her head on his arm, him gently caressing her shoulder, when it started to rain outside. A light fine mist began to spray and then quickly turned into huge, wet drops that splashed the greenery outside. She was just stirring from her sleep. He covered her eyes and took her outside. What did she hear? It sounded like... Like pearls falling down marble steps. No, not pearls. These were different. Like fine grains of sand. She opened her eyes. It was the rain falling on a small metal lamp outside. There was a spout above where the water from the roof collected and fell in a steady stream upon the lamp. Ting ting ting. It sounded like bells.

She didn’t know who he was, whether he was married, what his name was, how old he was, what he was doing here. Those things seemed trivial. They spoke instead about the perfection of raindrops.

There was only one time when they referred to it. It was nearly the end of her month’s stay and Ajit was coming to see her. It could get very late, he warned, she was not to wait up for him. It was already past midnight and he would be arriving any moment now. Kaveri got up from the bed and went to the mirror. She started to paint her face. Her son was coming, she began. No, he softly replied, don’t spoil the illusion. He gathered his things and left the room.

The night before she left she wondered if she should say something. No, she thought, it was better this way. They lay there in each others arms that night and spoke of colors. White, he said, was every color that could ever be. But black was not merely the absence of color, it was the very negation of colors. It drained and sucked the life out of everything around it. He was still talking of colors when she drifted to sleep. The next morning he was gone before she awoke.

It was her last day and Ajit would be here soon. Kaveri got up and went to her suitcase. She took out the only white saree lying inside the sea of black. White, she thought, was every color that could ever be. She began to drape herself.

Her mourning was complete.

I can I will I should I must!


I have neglected my blog for far too long. Well, lots of reasons. Basically, no time. So whatever rare snatches of time I get, I write or read (well, try to anyway... dont even get me started on the backlog of movies and books and... sigh) I hope, to fix some day, maybe Sunday mornings, something, when I can set aside time just for blogging. And keep at it diligently.

Work has been good. Play, even better. But more on that later. I thought I'd rant about... er myself. And not posting anything here for a while but haven't really the time to rant. Heh.
Long story short, for now, shalt put up two stories that I'd written recent-ish. Still raw and need a LOT of edits, so shall be doing that in future. Editing the post as I get along. Anyway, without further ado.

Read em and weep. Or comment, if you cant weep.