The sun filters into the room through the heavily draped windows. A harsh beam of light strikes her closed eyelids and Maya pulls the covers over her head and turns over. Nature, not one to be deterred so easily, perseveres. A strong, sudden draft of wind swings the windows open and Maya sits up straight on her bed, face to face with that bane of human existence…. Monday.
The sound of human progress outside taints her bedroom with its presence. Suddenly she is irritated at this rude intrusion into her only sanctuary. With a swift movement, the covers lie on the floor and Maya slams the windows shut. The mundane ordeal of everyday existence begins.
Minutes later, seated at the breakfast table, she looks in disgust at her breakfast lying motionless on the table. The vulgar half-cooked watery mass of eggs stares up at her defiantly. Maya couldn’t bear to look at it. The radio blares in the corner, as though from another world altogether.
“I like this song, turn it up.”
Her father had looked up momentarily from his paper to utter that remark to no one in particular. Her mother, ever the dutiful wife, emerges from the kitchen and turns up the volume. Catching her husband’s eye on the way back, she smiles and adjusts her hair. Has there ever been a truer snapshot of contemporary Indian life?
Maya looks at her parents. Here is Mr.Suresh Viswanathan, the man who fathered our protagonist; he is seated at the head of the table, an inconsequential man having his inconsequential morning coffee. Slightly overweight and slightly balding, at 45 he is not yet over the hill but rapidly approaching senility with none of the verve and vitality of our 40-ish Hollywood male stars gallantry going to the devil kicking and shouting.
Mrs. Kalyani Viswanathan is interesting for her blatantly uninteresting self. A typical south Indian wife, she is not the meek, submissive type that plagues all Tamil serials, nor is she the lipstick-wielding, kitten-heeled scheming mastermind depicted by the Dollys and Ritas of the black and white 1940s Tamil movies. She is just another missus in the swamps of suburbia. She heads back into the kitchen.
Maya looks at the man sitting in front of her. He is no longer in the room; no doubt the song has transported him back many years. Maya pities him for relying upon a grainy, low-quality song blaring out of this broken-down radio to instill in him a nostalgic longing for a time and a place that he only knows from the pictures in the magazines.
“Aren’t you going to have your breakfast?” Her mother’s voice rings out from the kitchen.
“Not hungry, ma.”
Her father belts out his customary advice with the stoic conviction that all the murders, rapes and other evils plaguing our society would miraculously be cured if only parents would take the effort to educate their kids with such morsels of good advice as he dropped to his daughter. Why people don’t take the time to be a good role model for their children he would never understand.
Shutting the door to her dreary home, Maya steps out into the light.
“Monday…” She sighs as she swings her bag on her shoulders and waits for the bus to arrive.
“A discrete time Markov chain is a discrete-time stochastic process with the Markov property. In such a process, the distant past is irrelevant given knowledge of the recent past… You! Stop dreaming and pay attention!”
The scene that unfolds before us is in Maya’s classroom. Let us pause now and take a closer look at this professor, a Mr.Ranganathan. Who is he? How old is he? Is he happily married? Is he having an affair? Is he a good fuck? Does he have any hobbies? Maya ponders on these and other mysteries of life as our oblivious friend, flushed with the indignant rage only a professor can command, rambles on to a class of disinterested students about the decaying moral fiber of the general public.
Red in the face, Mr.Ranganathan is positively shaking with fury. He looks at this very instant like a giant beetroot about to explode, spewing its insides in every direction. In her infinite wisdom, Maya realizes that somewhere in the city, there is a wife who is sick and tired of putting up with his bullshit. She will decide to leave him, and she will take out her suitcase and write a letter, only to tear it up again and break down in tears. And today, Maya prophesies, Mr.Ranganathan will go home oblivious and he will sit down with his wife and they will enjoy a quiet meal, in the bleak solitude of their one-bedroom apartment. And the sun will still rise tomorrow.
Her thoughts are interrupted by the large commotion. The class is over. Maya looks around at the dismal room. It looms large and overbearing with the weight of a thousand generations of bored students. It hangs about the air like a disease. She has to get out. Anywhere but here.
Maya runs. The city stops. There are people inside cars, and people riding bikes and old men pushing fish carts. They all stand still, suspended in motion as the world stops spinning on its axis and waits for this girl on her epic journey.
The door of a café swings open and our young heroine walks in. There is a man waiting for her. The walls are painted a seductive red and standing out in harsh contrast are large, life-size photographs in black and white. Marilyn Monroe tilts her head back and laughs, showing her perfectly arranged teeth in one.
Nobody pays a hundred bucks for a cup of coffee. People walk through that door to be flanked by Elizabeth Taylor with her smoking, smoldering looks and Marilyn with her naughty wink. People walk through that door to be greeted by plush carpeting and lavish, ornate furniture. The little people of all the big corporations walk through that door, their ties loosened and their shirts unbuttoned so they can listen to Pink Floyd and talk their big talk and fantasize about overthrowing the government or freeing Tibet till the check arrives. And then they will pay and walk out, briefcase in hand and nametag around their necks. This is not just coffee.
But today, Maya doesn’t notice all that. Today, she walks slowly and steadily towards the darkest corner and sits down at a table of no particular importance and looks up. She leans forward; her expression softens.
“What are you reading?”
“It was just lying here”
“I don’t understand him”
“Neither do I”
There is a pregnant pause. They are both nervous, searching desperately for something to fill the gaps in the conversation. He avoids eye contact. She makes the first move.
“I love you”
“I love you too”
The ice is broken; he is relaxed. He looks up and smiles. We do not eavesdrop on these two young lovers. They talk of love and of virtue. They talk of marriage and of life. They make plans for the future. They hold hands and they whisper. He promises her the moon when she would be content with a smile. The hours pass.
“It’s getting late. I should get going” Maya reluctantly tears away from this tiny alcove which has heard much of their secrets and much of the secrets of many others before them. They walk to the door, his arm gingerly finding its way around her waist, her head trying desperately to rest nonchalantly on his shoulders. A hundred-rupee note flutters to the ground. Maya picks it up.
“Excuse me, sir, you dropped thi-“, Maya stops mid-sentence. And if one was attentive, one might have noticed the color draining out of her face. The man she is staring at has not heard and is walking casually out the door. On his arm is a young woman. He is dressed with the meticulous nonchalance that only the truly rich can afford to wear. The young woman is slim and well dressed. Her face is not seen, but Maya has noticed enough to know that this Prada and Louis-Vuitton totting woman is more than just a casual acquaintance.
“Maya, what happened?”
“I… I have to go… I can’t talk now”
“Ok, Can I see you tomorrow?”
“I don’t think… I can see you again”
“Maya, what’s wrong? What are you saying?”
“Please don’t ask me these questions… Oh God, I don’t know…. I need… time. We cannot... I have to go”
A confused and broken-hearted young man stands in the doorway as she runs out into the street. Marilyn noiselessly laughs in the background.
Maya steps into her house. Her mother is busy in the kitchen, but she finds the time to stick her head out and smile at her daughter. Maya is upset, angry and shocked. She turns on the television. In the kitchen, her mother hums a tune from some old movie as she prepares the dinner for the three of them. Suddenly, Maya is angry with her mother with her infernal singing and her stupid dinner.
“Ma!”, Maya yells. It pierces the stillness of the air. The singing has stopped. After what seems like an eternity, the ever dutiful wife and mother walks out, smiling and wiping her hands on her sari.
“Yes Maya, you want something?”
Maya looks at this woman. Her jet-black hair pulled back into a little bun at the nape of her neck, embraced by a circle of jasmine flowers. With her presence, the room is filled with the faint sickly sweet smell of jasmine. Her soft eyes look at Maya from under the harsh red dot on her forehead. Her bangles jingle as she wipes her hands and asks her question again.
“Maya, is there anything you want?”
“Sit down, ma”
Mrs.Kalyani sits down on the sofa next to her daughter.
“Ma, I saw… something today” Maya’s voice breaks. She looks down. “I saw dad…. He was… I saw… He… she….” She cannot go on.
A large wet tear falls on the sofa. It stains the clean white cloth and spreads quickly.
Mrs.Kalyani is no longer smiling. The television blares; someone has just scored a sixer.
Mrs.Kalyani’s hand finds its way to her daughter’s and she holds it in her palm. Mother and daughter look at each other. The smile reappears on Mrs.Kalyani’s face but this time Maya notices the eyes no longer laugh. No words are said. She looks at her mother’s serene and calm face. There is a strength in this soft-spoken and mild-mannered woman that Maya has not noticed before.
“I have to go now or dinner will be spoiled”, Mrs.Kalyani rises and goes to the kitchen.
Outside, a man is wiping his shoes clean on the doormat. He enters and looks at his daughter.
“Had a nice day?” He smiles at her. She does not answer.
“Kalyani, is dinner ready?”
“I am just putting it out on the table”
Maya gets up and goes into the kitchen. At last, the three of them sit down to enjoy a quiet meal in the bleak solitude of their one-bedroom apartment.
“Kalyani, turn the volume up”
The missus does as she is told.
Outside, in this great city of ours, a mournful young man is suffering a broken heart. He has in his shirt pocket, a much-kissed and tenderly folded photograph of a young girl. Something tells him Maya will never return. It was all just an illusion.