Sunday, August 3, 2008


Kamala was wiping the edge of the wooden shelf with her white cloth. She loved the serenity of housework. There was something soothing about wiping away dirt, in long graceful movements, from the surfaces and edges of all these things that she possessed. She stepped back and looked at the shelf, the sunlight softly dancing on the glass panes. She was pleased.

All the rooms were swept, the beds made, the clothes washed and folded. She hummed to herself as she wiped the glass doors of the cabinet. After this she was going to curl up on the sofa and finish her book. She felt happy thinking of it, curled up on her comfy sofa, feet tucked in beneath her, in the sunlit warmth of her cozy orange apartment. She caught her own reflection in the glass, intently absorbed in cleaning the glass. She smiled and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.

Kamala had been married a little over a year now. It was a surprise to everyone. Her parents had all but given up hope on her. Kamala’s mother had tried to coax her daughter down the matrimonial path many times with no success. She ultimately resigned herself to the belief that her self-sufficient daughter will be too busy finding happiness within herself and her immediate environment to ever seek the deep contentment of a blissful union. Whenever she was depressed, Kamala’s mother would take her jute bag of coconuts and flowers and head to the small temple nearby. There, underneath the clanging of the bells, surrounded by the dreams, and hopes, and wishes of the city-dwellers, she would tightly shut her eyes, clasp her hands and quietly entreat Lord Ganesha: please... please make my daughter happy.

Kamala’s mother was a small-town woman. She’d moved to the city when she married Kamala’s father and had lived there ever since. She was happy, and enjoyed the sort of wholesome contentment that only a happy small-town upbringing could support. She had seen her parents, happy and in love, and she had seen herself with her husband, happy and in love. When Kamala was five, she saw her mother smile at her father as she brought him his morning coffee. He took the steel tumbler from her hand, the tip of his finger lightly grazing hers, and over the strong sharp smell of Madras filter coffee, Kamala watched her father’s gaze linger for a second longer and she knew that her mother found reassurance and bliss in her father’s stolen glances.

It was not difficult to understand why Kamala should grow up feeling trapped and claustrophobic in her sheltered cocoon of a childhood. Happy as her parents were, Kamala knew from a very young age that it was a kind of happiness she will never know. Her face pressed tightly against the grill bars of her window – a pastime she found immensely pleasurable – she looked at the blur of colors as the cars whizzed past her window, and wondered how it would feel to fly.

Kamala’s parents were simple creatures. They feared the gods, washed their hands before eating, worked hard, complained little and were grateful for the small happiness and peace they had found within their little unit. Kamala was a product of that love and gratitude, and when she was born, pink and wrinkled with tiny arms and legs open and searching for the world around her, her mother looked at the tiny bundle of life in her hands and knew instantly what to name her.

Kamala grew up like any product of a bustling city, and Madras – glorified village that is was – was still a city in terms of size and industry. She was denied the simple, free joys her mother enjoyed: growing up amidst neighborhood cricket matches, Saturday morning cycling races, and lazy summer afternoons dozing off on the branches of her neighbor’s mango tree. But Kamala found happiness at the edges of freedom in a cloistered city. A sense of liberation and heady pleasure in asking for – and getting – cut raw mango pieces dipped in red chilli powder. She knew her parents wouldn’t approve; they’d told her time and again how unhygienic street food was. But Kamala loved nothing more than to spend an entire day by herself at the beach, watching the waves lap at her feet as she felt the delicate sharp taste of chilli and mango as it hit her tongue.

This wasn’t to say that she was a loner. Kamala was a bright active child, social and gregarious and she easily made friends. But her moments of the purest and most intense joy came when she was alone, away from family and friends, and surrounded by the noise and bustle of the city and its throng of strangers. This is why she loved the beach, and the roads, and the tall buildings; Kamala had always seen herself as of the city, rather than in it.

When she was seventeen Kamala discovered her own desirability. She was an attractive woman, tall and bronzed, with sharp features framing her quick intelligent eyes. She had been told many times that she resembled a cat, with a calculated languidness as if she would spring at any moment and dart out of the room in a flash. Even her movements were fluid and graceful, with always the suggestion of hidden agility. There were no dearth of men, and Kamala entertained them all and their small demands, with the effortless grace of a good hostess. It wasn’t much, a shy clasped hand here, a fumbled kiss there.

As she grew older, she had lovers. And as fumbled kisses turned into furtive gropes which turned into something else, Kamala watched the drama of her life played out to her, like a benevolent lord ruling over his kingdom from his golden throne. She never held them too close, so as to inspire hurt, or had too many, so as to invite talk. And she always stayed in touch and shared a real friendship that lasted across and beyond the conventional confines of the endpoints of a relationship. She flitted from one to the other as gracefully as a cat leaping from wall to ledge to windowsill, always poised, always calm, and good-humoredly. She was never cold or detached while with them, and never bitter when she moved on. She took it as the natural course of things, as casually as one takes day following the night.

It was a testament to her skill that she was always introduced to the wives of her ex’s as their best friend and closest confidant. It was a testament to her intelligence that she knew enough to smile and make conversation with the women while their husbands were away, rummaging through their den for something or the other to show her. Kamala knew these women needed their private moments of sizing her up to keep their inner peace. She always bore a tired expression of polite interest to greet her ex’s when they finally emerged from the den with their wildly interesting object. As lovers became ex’s and ex’s became good friends, Kamala drifted through relationships, unscathed and unscarred.

Brilliant in academics and in career, success sat on her like a light cardigan. She wore it with ease, and the casual grace with which she held everything in life. She never wished too hard or hungered after the things she desired. To her amused mind, it seemed she desired a thing and it would fall in her lap of its accord. She gripped so lightly, and pursued a thing so casually – if diligently – that the effort was never visible to her or others around her. It was in this manner that she lived her entire adult life.

The day she met Raj was a normal day. It was an uneventful day; a cog in the wheel of a city’s busy machinery. He was a friend of an ex, and they were all sitting around having dinner, fighting over the chicken pieces in the gravy and reliving embarrassing tales from their college days. Raj was funny and smart, a good friend of a friend who had just moved to the city. She learnt he was a successful consultant at a successful firm. He was easy on the eye as well, and Kamala could tell from his soft voice and good humor, his neat combed hair, his well-groomed nails and his impeccable table manners that he was a product of a happy and respectable household. Raj was in fact that perfect boy to bring home to her parents.

She realized this fact as strongly and suddenly as she realized the absolute unsuitability of all her ex-lovers. The tortured geniuses, the misunderstood outcasts, the troubled writers, the arrogant yuppie, the talented, volatile artists… the realization struck her like an anvil fallen out of the sky and she stared dumb-founded wondering how she could have failed to have noticed it till now. She caught herself, a stupefied expression blunting her fine features for a moment, and quickly composed herself with a sharp intake of breath that only Raj noticed out of the periphery of his perception.

That night her mother, weary but persistent, asked her the question it is every mother’s duty to ask: Kamala, it is time you got married… do you want us to look out for you? And in the shock of her daughter’s reply, her knees gave way and she nearly dropped to the floor as she heard Kamala’s voice from the bathroom: No ma, I think I found someone.

The marriage was quick, the families were pleased. In India a marriage is a coming together of families more than it is the coming together of individuals, and in this mingling of communities and peoples, this blending of families, each with its own strange customs and quirks, Kamala and Raj found laughter and happiness in the drama of their marriage played out to them. Kamala’s mother found a small shady clearing in the garden outside the marriage hall, and under the mango tree of her childhood, she tightly shut her eyes, clasped her hands, and whispered softly to Lord Ganesha: Thank you, for making my daughter happy.

It was soon after Kamala and Raj moved into a place of their own that she gave up working and flitted into the role of a housewife as effortlessly as a cat jumping from wall to windowsill. This soft warm morning, Kamala was wiping the glass pane of the wooden cabinet, humming to herself, thinking of the delicious pleasure that awaited her on the sofa; her blanket and her book. As she opened the glass door to wipe on the inside, her glance fell upon a small white cup, hidden behind the expensive chinaware.

Rajeev, she thought as she reached inside the cabinet and took out the lone porcelain cup. Rajeev was a painter, an artist and a writer. One of those madly talented geniuses whose minds worked beyond all constraints of discipline and convention. She had met him at a concert, a friend of a friend, they went out for dinner together and he dissected her spinach, sprinkled pepper on it and turned it into a work of art. She had to go home hungry because he wouldn’t let her eat it. The next day she turned up at his apartment with a loaf of bread and nothing else. They made love and feasted on desire alone for three days. The loaf of bread he turned into an objet d’art that was pecked and destroyed by the crows. Kamala turned the cup over in her hands as she remembered Rajeev. It was white on the outside and a bright red inside. How Rajeev loved painting.

The single most joyous thing for him was to take an empty canvas and convert it into a riot of bright colors. He once told her as she lay on his chest, her breathing in time with the rise and fall of his chest, that the only true expressions of ourselves are our colors. And Kamala, he said, was an orange, just as true as he was a red. She turned the cup over in her hands. She realized with dismay that she had not kept in touch with Rajeev. He vanished with his delicate beautiful things, leaving behind his love for color, this chipped white porcelain cup and the crows.

She sat down and looked around, noticing the orange walls, the sun gliding in through the sheer curtains and enveloping the room in a fiery glow. Something seemed to unsettle her and she tried to think. Did she really grip them all as lightly as she thought she did? She noticed small things in her apartment that she hadn’t before. The books stacked in the corner of the room, a makeshift table that held on it a photo of her and Raj holidaying in Goa. The books were a touch she picked up from Akil.

She met Akil at a conference years earlier; him the arrogant know-it-all yuppie, she the bored bohemian. He had never had a beautiful woman pull the rug out from under his feet. And do so in such a subtle and charmingly disarming way. They had a one-night-stand that lasted for thirty nights before she jumped from wall to windowsill again. Books, Akil said, could furnish a room; and he did. She had made love to him many times in the middle of his room, on his low cot bed surrounded by walls and walls of books; a fortress he created for him and her in his imaginary world many years ago.

Kamala went into the bedroom and looked at the photographs. A collage of pictures of her and Raj, happy together, laughing and smiling, arm-in-arm, sometimes with family, sometimes just them… it made a mosaic on one wall of their bedroom, asymmetric and overlapping. She had told Raj there was beauty in its asymmetry. She remembered Murali, the photographer, with his curtain of photographs. They had spent the better half of a hot summer weekend in bed feasting on mangoes. He had shot 117 pictures of her in the nude, clasping a mango in her hand there, bringing the fruit to her lips here, sinking her white teeth into its soft flesh, the juices running down the sides of her mouth. By the time the sun rose on Monday, he had taken those pictures of her and sewn them together in long vertical blinds that caressed the light as it filtered through. Kamala wondered if the mosaic was not her own original idea.

She looked around her home and discovered the little touches she gave it; and the horrifying truth of the stories behind them. She went into the kitchen to make herself a glass of water. As she reached for the glass, her hand faltered, paused for a moment, suspended above the steel tumbler and container she served Raj his morning coffee in. It was here, all of them, all of it, all around her invading the home she created for herself and her new husband. She was grieving for leaving them all.

And what of Raj, she thought. What of him? She tried so very hard to think but she couldn’t recollect a moment they shared. A year, a whole year, and every moment of it filled with memories… and yet she strained – unsuccessfully – to come up with a moment they shared together, just him and her, all of their own.

Kamala sat down on the sofa, gripping the cup tightly between her fingers, her heart racing and her mind a screen of static and noise. Why was this minor detail shaking her to the very bone? Surely the marriage of Kamala and Raj was based on a mature love, a grown-up love, a love of understanding and compassion. Raj was never her lover. He lacked the mad impulsive urges of one; the intense bouts of passion and madness bordering on obsession. He came into her life as a friend and a companion, offering her a life of stability and steady contentment with none of the intensity of emotion or volatile spikes of mood that mark torrid affairs. She knew this the moment she first looked into his quiet enquiring eyes. She said yes, and he took her hands in his. She saw her future then, a life of contentment and peace after a decade of running away from demons she could not articulate or understand. He took her hands and clasped them in his. She noticed in his hold the promise of loyalty and undying faithfulness; he noticed in hers the slipping-away of resistance. She said yes, louder this time, and returned the gentle squeeze of his hand.

Kamala remained on the sofa, unmoving, playing absentmindedly with the handle of the cup in her hands. She thought of Raj and their lives as husband and wife. She thought about the dinners, and the dancing and the holidays. She remembered the times they shared with family, his and hers. She thought of the times they walked, hand-in-hand, late at night through empty lanes. Surely they were memories worth keeping, memories of Raj that must have manifested themselves somehow in this space they created. Raj, with his functional gifts on birthdays and anniversaries – a washing machine for the home, a microwave for the kitchen. Raj, with his striped shirts and white socks. Raj, with his side-parting, who always parted it that way, who smiled good-humoredly and combed it whenever she ruffled his hair. Dependable, reliable Raj… never swerving, never faltering even for a second, solid as a rock, and as trustworthy as the blue sky. Kamala realized, shocked and numb, that she had not a thing to remember him by in this home that they created together.

Kamala sat still on the sofa. She became aware of the object she clasped tightly in her hands. In the warm afternoon sun she looked like a giant cat poised on her sofa, her fine features picking up the orange glow of the room. Kamala looked at the cup, moving her head slowly and gracefully to gaze at it. Please… she thought to herself as she gazed intently into the red insides of the cup… Please… let me be happy.