Somedays I like to laze in bed after he's gone. The sheets carry our shame in their telltale stains. The pillows, a trace of Old Spice sliced lazily by the slow blades of the overhead fan. I wonder if he smells of turmeric from my skin and the coconut oil I paint my hair with. I love how his odor taints my skin, burying itself in my forearms, my shoulders, the creases of my eyelids, the folds of my crumpled sari.
If the dabra of coffee is untouched on the kitchen sill, then it would mean a week before he's back. I play these games with myself sometimes, trying to guess when he'll be back. Two or three days, if he leaves without waking me up, a week if he leaves his coffee untouched, and if, like this morning, he loops his arm around my waist, draws me close and presses his morning erection against my back, then I know he'll be back by evening.
The breaks arent always bad. Some mornings I take a long, hot bath after he's left, scrubbing my skin with the hamaam soap I've used since childhood. Even as it eliminates every trace amount of him from my body in cool, efficient strokes, I relive the memories of the last time I saw him. I burn the forbidden pleasures of the night into my brain like an emblem, locking away every detail, every movement, recollecting the taboos of the night in the stark nakedness of morning light with a boldness that surprises me even after all this time.
He is moody most days. But at night, he's a different beast - menacing in his silence. Sometimes i think he knows how much the anticipation kills me and he makes me wait just to kill me a little bit more. For a heavy man, he walks with the grace of a cat, taking slow measured steps, leaving his bag on table, loosening his shirt, resting his whole weight on the side of the bed as he takes off one shoe and then another like he has all the time in the world, as I lie face turned, in my pretend-sleep, sure that I will implode in excitement.
And then when I cannot take it anymore and fear I will give myself away, he loops his arm around my waist and pulls me into him without a word. He always waits for me to make the first move, and I always break my promise to myself and give in to his temptation. Once I have drawn first blood, he moves in like an old jungle cat, pinning me down with the firm muscles of his forearms, lightly nudging my knees when he is ready, and ravishing my mouth while his hands search my body like I was his property. I bet I do things to him his wife would never allow.
In the mornings, like today, I reminisce in the bath and walk in the cloud of my thoughts, as I dab a dot of coconut oil and sink my fingers into my soaked hair, massaging it from the roots to the tips. When I spread a clean white towel over my hair and make a neat bun resting on the nape of my neck, then the night has ended and my day begins.
I scrub the home, change the sheets, wipe the grime from behind the stove, between the bath tiles, sweep the floors and launch a projectile of fresh water outside my front doorstep to signal my cleansed home. Then I light the camphor and release hoops of smoke around the cut-outs of gods from old calendars decorating my kitchen wall.
Sometimes I wonder if the gods are pleased with me. They have kept me happy, and I have never been in want of anything, and i always pray for forgiveness for the sins of the night, and in the morning the crows come to eat their share when I call out to them before sitting down to my own steaming plate of ghee-soaked idlis and coconut chutney. So I think they are pleased with me, for what I do to him and the happiness I bring him.
And in return, he grants me my afternoons - a private luxury that he would never invade. I nap, I read the Tamil tabloids, take a walk outside or sit on the parapet, watching the street kids playing gully cricket. If I feel like it, I walk down to the beach, even in the sizzling heat of the midday sun, and sun myself like a lizard on a rock or maybe indulge in a flavored ice-goli or cut-piece of raw mango dipped in chilli powder and washed down with yeleneer.
I love yeleneer, always have, ever since I was a child and rewarded for a good report card with fresh eleneer from the coconut seller outside our home. I'd save the coconut after I drank my fill so i could ask him to slice them open for me to scrape and eat its delicious, white flesh as I sat on the stone wall flanking his coconut cart and swung my legs out from beneath.
He knows this. Which is why some nights, when he comes back after a long absence, he brings me coconuts, or a sheaf of freshly-strung jasmines, or - once - a new packet of bindis that he opened and put on my forehead with a look of expert precision. His wife doesn't wear them apparently. That's the only time he spoke of her. I didn't ask if he bought them for her and gave it to me instead when she wouldn't wear them. Its mine now, and I keep them carefully folded in my almarah between the creases of my red silk sari, like a guilty pleasure that I can peek at whenever I want, take it out and rub between my palms knowing that this is something in this world he picked out for me - me! - and wonder how he must've imagined them dotting my face in his minds eye as he chose this pack of bindis, over all the bindis that he could have picked.
Thinking of bindis reminds me of the market place, and this afternoon I think I should like to head over there. There is something about the noise and the crowd of pondy bazaar and the sickly sweet smell of wilting jasmine garlands mingled with the stench of rotting city garbage. My madras is this: the din of west mambalam, the crowds of pondy bazaar and t nagar, the life of marina beach and the soul of kapaleeswar temple. Everything else is just walls and roads. I've seen the new mall, I've gone into it once - not with him, he'd never take me to places like that - but on my own, on a whim one afternoon when I convinced karpaiya to take me on a joy ride in his auto in exchange for a small steel dabba filled with fish curry. We walked around the gleaming white building, even though the watchmen shot us dirty unwelcome looks. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. They had a huge market in the basement - who would ever keep vegetables in a basement? - with stacks of fruits and vegetables and soaps piled up high, and carts on wheels that you could take with you to put your things in. What a strange idea. Why would you need these when you bring your own jute shopping bag? And the food. enough to feed all the street children that live in the slums outside our colony for a week. And counters of shampoos and talcum powder and soaps I'd never seen before. A small girl in uniform and a namebadge followed karapaiya and me everywhere we went. When I touched something or picked it up she would loudly tell me how much it cost. I would turn it around and around and look at it like I was considering it but not fully convinced and finally keep it back on the shelf; but I knew she saw right through me.
And why wouldn't she? I bet she shops at her local fancy store too. I would rather shop at the fancy store down the street, where Ramu gives me credit on days I'm short, or sends the boy whenever the bags get too heavy to carry alone, where everything i could ever need is laid out within his small store an arms length wide, and Ramu would see me walking down the street and by the time I've reached the small countertop he stands behind, he's already laid out a fresh bottle of parachute oil and hamaam and anything else I might need with the familiarity of an old friend. Why would I need ten bars of soap to choose from when hamaam has always served me well? No, my Madras starts and ends with the beach and the temple and the bazaar, and everything else is nothing but shiny, gleaming distractions.
Today I yearn for the familiar din of pondy bazaar, its heat and its grime fighting for significance over makeshift stalls and carts filled with jasmine garlands and new slippers and shiny plastic hairclips. Besides, I could tell he was not satiated when he left this morning, when we fucked last night without taking off my sari, when he held me to him a minute longer than usual before he dragged his carcass out into the day. He will be back tonight - and I will wait for him in a neatly pleated sari and a fresh bindi on my forehead and jasmines woven in my hair.
I am so engrossed I almost don't notice his car as karpaiya and I make our way to the bazaar. I fear our auto can't catch up to the car's speed, but a red traffic light saves us as we snake our way close enough to see one slender arm looped over the open drivers-side window, a lit cigarette dangling from her fingers.
'Karupaiya, anda vandhi-a follow pannungo please'
Karpaiya shoots me a disapproving look, but follows at a considerable distance. I have thought about his wife many times, wondered what she looked like, what kind of a person she was, did he touch her in the ways he touched me, did she know I existed? She existed like a distant memory, or an unsolved crossword puzzle in the back of my mind, to be picked up and solved at leisure another time. I never imagined I would meet her. Suddenly I feel I must know everything about her, and urgently.
We dart through the cows and the chaos of t nagar, through the leafy parts of nungambakkam, through the
tree-lined streets of haddows road where every home had a gate and a watchman. She turns into a small Spencer's daily and we turn behind her. Karpaiya is still disapproving but I beg him to stay and wait for me.
Spencer's daily is not as big as the basement market in the mall - but it is still gleaming and white, with rows of multi-colored scented soaps. The smells make me dizzy.
I watch from a distance and start to mimic her actions. She picks up a shopping cart, and I do too. She stops at the soap section looking at a few, turning them around reading the instructions and sniffing them before picking one that she wants. I go up to the shelf, pick the same ones she palmed a few seconds ago, bring my nose to the same pack she sniffed and put into my bag the one similar to what she chose. I continue to follow from a distance.
I do not know what I had imagined she would look like. Maybe a little like me, maybe shorter, maybe not, I dont know. But this woman was more girl than woman. She wore a thin white t shirt and black ankle level pants that showed off her smooth calfs and hairless forearms. I look at my own arms and the dark hair dotting my skin. Did he ever notice? How horrid they look. She reaches on the top shelf for shampoo and puts it into her bag without reading the back. Maybe it is one she uses often. I hurry behind her and reach for the same.
Through the light from the window behind her I could see the smooth outline of her taut stomach. I flush at the thought of my own stomach, and the numerous times his hands have searched my waist to find and play with my little pouch of belly fat that he strokes and tickles when he wants to hear me laugh. Does she have the same deep throaty laugh as me? I grow jealous thinking of him tickling her in bed, in his bed with her in it.
She walks a few steps this way and that, picking up a Cadbury fruit and nut, a small tube of facewash and finally a box of gum at the billing. I pick up the same, in the same order. My hand hovers over the face wash as I look at the fair and lovely face cream innocuously positioned by the side. I feel ashamed of my own skin, the back of my hand tinged with turmeric and still faintly smelling of hamaam. No amount of face creams will ever make me as light as her. I look to where she is, her sunglasses perched on top of her head, her manicured and moisturized fingers tapping some absent- minded tune on the counter top. In the afternoon light, her tumbling locks of oil-free black hair, the sharp nose, her painted lips, that jawline... She looks like a movie star. And here I am with a basket full of soap and shampoo and face wash. A small girl in a uniform comes up behind me and asks if she could take my basket up to billing. What can I do? I give it to her and pray that I have enough money to buy them all. She has left by now, getting in the drivers seat of her car, no cigarette this time, but her fingers still splayed out her driver-side window, strumming a tune on the side of her car.
"madam, 310 rupees"
I take out all of the money I have in my purse. I buy it of course, and I walk away with my bag of treasure but immediately I feel a pang of regret as I think of all the jasmine flowers and coconut water and cut pieces of mango 310 rupees could have bought. The shampoo alone was 100 ruppees. Why, when shikakai has always worked well enough for me all these years. 310 rupees - probably Karapaiya's whole earnings in a day. I burn with shame when I think of it. Anyway, the money's gone now, so that's that. and in its place I have the magic things that will make me like her.
Karpaiya is waiting dutifully where I left him. He shoots me an darkly ominous look.
"Sugunya, nee pannrathu yennaku konjum kuda pidikalai"
I sit wordlessly in the back of his auto clutching my spoils, wrapped in his gloomy disapproval, as he takes me back home. I am like a child with a secret toy.
At once, when I reach home, I empty the contents of my bag on my cot, hurriedly grab the soap and shampoo, and go in for my second bath of the day. I think of his face and his look of surprise and joy and - maybe pride even. I'd tried shampoos before - I'm not some village bumpkin you know - and I always powder myself down with ponds talcum face powder to stay sweat free thru the thick, madras summer days. But this was different; this was hers. Her scent that I would be erasing from his memory and replacing with mine. I think of how I will wear my hair when he comes home to me tonight, loose and unencumbered by the tight, oiled captivity of my usual thick plait that snakes it's way down my back.
And then when I am washed and scented and clean - I wait. My mind wanders and I think of my first time with him, knee-knocked shy Sugunya, too shy to even look at him in the filtered moonlight while he kneaded me with his firm, gentle hands. I blush thinking of me then - what a country bumpkin I was! Come straight from the village, wide-eyed and trusting of everything and everyone in the city. How far I've come! How much I know now. How much I've seen of the world, and done, and know now.
I sit cross-legged on the chair and balance an unlit cigarette between my fingers like I'd seen her do. It's a strange position, but I am eager for him to see the new, bold me. The hours pass.
At ten, I hear the familiar jigglin of the keys in the keyhole. I am a bag of nerves. I arrange myself in the position I adopted before, my newly-washed and scented hair trailing loose down my back. He comes into the darkness, dropping his shoes with the heaviness of the day, and almost turns into the bedroom... And catches himself. I catch his perplexed gaze with a nervous smile, get up from my chair and move into the bedroom. I can feel his eyes follow me, confused with this apparition before him.
I lie back and look at him full in the face. Why did I do that? I've never looked him in the eye before, always bowing my head till he lifts my chin with the tip of his fingers when he's ready for me, always walking two steps behind him in my own home. But tonight... I feel different, alive, defiant somehow - for the first time since the time we've known each other. I grow bold and lift my chin a little.
We wait, and gaze upon each other with the comfort of old foes. Finally, he breaks the tension, taking the first step. He moves in over me, silent as always.... but tonight, even the silence is different. His arms dont search with the firm resolve of a hunter, his knees dont nudge that which he knows will give way without a fight. For the first time there is a hesitation, a temerity as he starts to tugs on my hair and loosens his grip when he sees me lift my head on my own accord. We kiss without feeling, and I am angry and confused and frightened at the same time. When we finish, we both lie back in the emptiness. I spend hours thinking if I should break the silence; what will I say? What happened here tonight? Why are we like strangers? I wait for his familiar deep breathing to fill the room, the sound I wait for each night, the sound that tells me he has spent his last dregs of energy for the day and sleeps now with the deep sleep of a man with the weight of the world lifted of his shoulders. The hours pass, and I don't know when it is that I finally fall asleep out of exhaustion and waiting.
In the morning, I wake for the first time in an empty bed. Confused and bleary-eyed, I stumble into the kitchen and my hands start moving with a purpose of their own, going through the morning routine like they have for all these years. I boil the milk, ground the coffee seeds, strain the dicoction and pour the steaming stream of milk and coffee from one steel tumbler into the dabra and back again, working up a froth. I put it in front of me and stare at it, as the strong smell of filter coffee fills the house and slaps my sleep away.
It sits, like an innocent on the kitchen counter. Alone. I hesitate to pick it up.
But who will drink it now that he's gone? And it is freshly made, perfectly good coffee after all. I gingerly grip the tumbler in my hands and peer into the dark brown pool of milk, coffee and froth. Outside the crows have started their cawing for the morning meal.