Sunday, March 11, 2007

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.

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